Gaza & the Long History of Liberal Brutality

By Richard Pithouse · 15 Jul 2014

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Picture: Boys in Gaza fenced in behind a barricade courtesy Dale Spencer/flickr
Picture: Boys in Gaza fenced in behind a barricade courtesy Dale Spencer/flickr

As the Israeli state rains its murder on the people of Gaza we are confronted with a stark demonstration of the ways in which there is, in so many quarters, official sanction for according radically different values to human lives. Some of us are taken as sacrosanct, others as disposable. It has often been suggested that in the case of Israel and Palestine the inequality in the value ascribed to human life can be rendered as a mathematical ratio. In this calculus there is no such thing as a life for a life, or a prisoner for a prisoner, or a set amount invested in the education of each child.

The Israeli state is in the hands of a brutish nationalism that, in many respects, is certainly illiberal even within its own borders and with regard to its own citizens. Yet it seeks to legitimate itself via, among other strategies, a claim to be an encircled outpost of liberal enlightenment on matters pertaining to gender, sexuality and democracy. The similarities with arguments mobilised in support of apartheid are striking. There is, as there was with apartheid, often an implicit claim to civilizational superiority in the assertion that a plainly and grossly oppressive state is, in fact, an island of enlightenment in an ocean of darkness. It is this claim to civilizational superiority that has often made Israel a proxy for other battles in South Africa, battles that are not, not in polite society anyway, able to freely speak their names. Discourses like feminism, human rights, the rule of law and civil society are all used to the same effect on occasion.

When the BBC, or the American state speak or act in a manner that implies that the life of a Palestinian is not equal to that of an Israeli it is sometimes assumed that the liberalism to which these organisations aspire is not genuine. It is sometimes assumed that all that is required to correct this oversight is to point out that the ratio in the value accorded to human life has deviated from the liberal ideal of 1:1.

Last year Pallo Jordan, always the most historically informed of our public intellectuals, argued that given the distance between liberal principles, grounded in a respect for the rights of each individual, and the way in which the practices of liberals have been consistently inflected with racism, there simply is no genuine liberal tradition in South Africa. The implication here is that a genuine liberalism would respect the equality and autonomy of every person without regard to race or other considerations. Similarly Steve Biko, in a 1970 essay that provides a devastating critique of liberal paternalism, concluded that the ‘true liberal’ would act without this paternalism, ultimately grounded in an assumption of civilizational superiority.

But if we go back to the writings of the liberal philosophers it is immediately apparent that liberalism never intended to include all human beings in its golden circle. John Locke’s Two Treatise of Government, written in 1689, is a foundational liberal text. In this text Locke, who was directly involved in slavery and colonialism, offered explicit legitimation for the repression of the Irish and the dispossession of Native Americans who he described as “not….joined with the rest of mankind”. For Locke liberal equality could apply only to “creatures of the same species and rank”.

John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, published in 1859, is, arguably, the second great text of the liberal tradition. Here Mill, who spent most of his adult life, working for British colonialism, wrote that “Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians.” The fact that this text continues to be taught uncritically in some of our universities as if it were a universal defence of freedom is a striking indication of just how colonial some of our institutions still are.

The racism inherent to liberalism is not just a matter of oversights in its founding texts. Liberalism as a set of practices has always been intimately entwined with racism. As the Italian philosopher Domenico Losurdo shows “Slavery is not something that persisted despite the success of the three liberal revolutions [in Holland, England and the United States]. On the contrary, it experienced its maximum development following that success.” He also notes, in passing, that in South Africa, liberal forms of government emerged precisely as racial exclusion and subordination were entrenched. Losurdo concludes that liberalism only ever sought to apply its commitment to equality within the limits of “a restricted sacred space” and not in the realm of “profane space”, space that constituted most of the world. He shows that as this sacred space expanded from Western Europe into the rest of the world via colonialism it increasingly came to be marked out by race rather solely by geography. Whereas England was once the sacred space of freedom and, say, the Caribbean, a profane space where a different set of social arrangements applied, white bodies came to be sacred and therefore sacrosanct, and black bodies profane, and therefore disposable, where ever they were.

When liberal ideas have been taken up by elites in the formerly colonised world they have been shorn of the crude racism with which they have so long been associated. But, as Partha Chatterjee has shown with regard to India, liberal elites have continued to treat the bulk of their citizens as outside of the domain of civil society, the domain that liberalism assumes to constitute the only sphere of authorised democratic politics. Civil society, Chatterjee, shows, assumes a moneyed subject, one who can afford to live within the law. The reality, he notes, is that in what he calls most of the world most people can’t afford to access land, housing and services, as well as livelihoods, lawfully. The result is that they have to make their lives in what Losurdo calls the profane space outside of the realm where liberal values hold sway. This space, the space of popular politics in most of the world, is routinely read as a priori irrational, violent and criminal by orthodox liberal opinion.

Here in South Africa Lindiwe Sisulu can write in defence of the right of ‘strong and confident black women’ to full equality in civil society, our elite public sphere. Yet as Minister of Housing she presided over a systemically unlawful and frequently violent attempt to remove people, many of them strong and confident black women, from their precarious place in our cities. In India or South Africa liberalism wielded in the hands of national elites is no longer racism in the way that it once was but it certainly functions to reinscribe central aspects of the acutely racialised social relations inherited from colonialism.

This is equally true on the global stage. When a life in Tel Aviv counts vastly more than a life in Gaza, when a rocket, made from a road sign and powered by fertiliser, is taken as a more urgent threat than one of the most sophisticated and well-funded military apparatuses in the world, we remain locked into a moral paradigm that is plainly colonial.

Many of the ideas and practices that aspire to replace liberalism are, profoundly problematic. They are often explicitly authoritarian. We need to take full measure of this. But this does not mean that we should accept the idea, promoted with increasing stridency in some quarters, such as, at home, the South African Institute of Race Relations, that liberalism carries with it some sort of innate moral superiority. Anyone who remains subject to that delusion need only look at how the states, and many of the institutions that, like the BBC, seek to root themselves in liberal values, continue to produce an unspeakably racist calculus to weigh the relative value of life in Israel and Palestine.

In a recent statement Jewish Voice for Peace declared that “Valuing Jewish lives at the expense of others must end….Only by embracing equality for all peoples can this terrible bloodshed end." An adequate alternative to the liberalism that, largely via the waning dominance of the North Atlantic world, retains a real global power must begin from an immediate assertion of the universal value of human life.

Dr. Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

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Michael Henning
15 Jul


Dear Richard,

Have you been to Israel? Have you been to Gaza ? Are you even aware that the Palestinians refused the partition solution proposed by the UN in the late forties ? But instead chose the path war. Are you aware that there are a few million Arab Israelis even as members of the Knesset ?Are you aware that Palestinians generally deny Israels right to existence...I feel that the ready made until apartheid industry has simply had to find another wouldn't be allowed the freedom to even write what you have. Written in an Arab state and would most likely have locked up in jail by now. It has nothing to do with liberalism, a tub you seem keen to thump...

Respond to this comment

27 Jul


Are you aware that it was Zionists who decided to displace the native Palestinians from day one? Are you aware their militias forcefully evacuated Arab villages and massacred many on Israel's founding?

Are you aware that Palestinians in the West bank are routinely harassed, humiliated by Israeli troops who control their every move? That Israel is building a barrier that steals Palestinian land and destroys their lives? That they slaughter Palestinians by the hundreds and yet believe they are victims? That they regularly demolish homes, uproot trees? that they drive Palestinians out of East Jerusalem under ridiculous pretexts?

Most Arab secular dictatorships survive precisely because of their liberal elites, who thinly veil the dictatorship, and because of the Western support afforded to such regimes, precisely because they act in Israeli interest. After all they are "civilized" and "enlightened", and therefore not an issue if they oppress the ignorant backward masses.

At the end of the day it is the same colonial psychology that these are ignorant uncivilized barbarians who don't deserve rights.