Ideological Politics From Nazism and Communism to Settler Colonialism10-28-2023
Simon Critchley begins his 2013 book Infinitely Demanding with the insight that we’re living through a time of massive political disappointment. The political disappointment of the present, he writes, is a response to a conviction about the injustices in the world that demands not a political response—because there’s nothing we can do—but an ethical response. In abandoning the political for the ethical, Critchley argues we must confront what he calls a motivational deficit in secular liberal democracy. We need to ask: Why we should try and engage in politics? If engagement is not going to change anything, what is the point?
If politics doesn’t motivate citizens to work for some common good, he writes, it is in part because of a loss of political faith and a rejection of all grand political narratives. Communism is dead; capitalism is largely a welfare state; democracy is experiencing a loss of support around the world; and progressivism is largely in question. The one ideal left us, as Samuel Moyn incisively argues in his book The Last Utopia, is human rights, the idea that man is like an animal, to be kept alive and well fed; but such a biological politics of life is hardly a vibrant political idea. It is, as Moyn says, the lowest common denominator that has survived the nihilist project, whereby all higher political ideals have been devalued and thus lost.
Given this depoliticizing motivational deficit, Critchley argues we must turn from politics to ethics. “What is lacking at the present time of massive political disappointment is a motivating, empowering conception of ethics that can face and face down the drift of the present, an ethics that is able to respond to and resist the political situation in which we find ourselves.” Critchley then renames his ethics a radical politics and calls it a meta-politics.
Critchley's renaming of ethics as politics should not deflect from the truth that he advocates a retreat from politics into an ethics. We can see this retreat in Critchley's critique of Marx. He argues, against Marxism, that capitalism does not lead to the emergence of a political subject, namely the proletariat; as is known, Marx believed that in the dialectical move from capitalism to communism goes through the politicization of the proletariat. But Critchley writes that “the multiplication of social actors, defined in terms of locality, language, ethnicity, sexuality, or whatever" that characterizes modern politics leads not to a Marxist politics but to identity politics.
The political task for Critchley is the “reactivation of politics through the articulation of new political subjectivities.” We need, he says, to create a "new political subject [that] arises in a situation against the repressive activity of the state through, the articulation of a new universal name, the indigenous.” In short, Marxist politics is over. The proletariat is not going to become a political subject. And the place to resist the capitalist state is through new subject positions that take on the name of the indigenous, new anti-state identities. Capitalism leads not to a politics of class struggle but to identity politics.
In my essay "Protest and Democracy," I wrote about Critchley’s turn from politics to ethics to raise questions about a turn in leftist politics from democracy to protest. I focused on how the turn to indigeneity in left politics focuses on a moral innocence in indigenous subjects that motivates compassion and protest, but is divorced from meaningful political action to build a better world. I worried that the rise of identity politics replaces a politics that tries to build democratic institutions of self-determination with protest that finds freedom not in state institutions but in the act of protesting against them.
Critchley, along with Jacques Ranciere and the late David Graeber, is among the leftist intellectuals who propose an anti-institutional politics that, in his words, "should be conceived at a distance from the state, taking up a distance in a specific situation.” His aim is to develop a non-state-centered politics that exists outside the traditional politics of government: "I claim that the task of radical political articulations is the creation of interstitial distance within the state territory.” And Critchley finds such radical non-state politics has its examples in anti-state protests like the "mobilization against the meeting of the WTO in Seattle in 1999.” His is a politics of anti-state resistance. In the face of massive political disappointment, he argues that politics must abandon the effort to engage in governing institutions. Instead, the new politics emerges as a criticism of the state and sets itself up on the outside as a politics of protest against the unmovable injustice of the state. That is what I mean by a politics of protest.
I thought of Critchley’s work while reading Adam Kirsch’s recent essay on “settler colonialism.” Kirsch rightly points out that many of the left wing defenses of Hamas’ terror attack on Israel justify the attack as a response to settler colonialism. Those on the far left opposing settler colonialism embrace indigenous peoples as the political subject of the future. It seems important, therefore, to look further into the idea of indigeneity and the ideology of settler colonialism.
The term settler colonialism has become a staple of literature used by the Democratic Socialists of America, which opposes “settler-colonial, Zionist apartheid” and has called to “decolonize Palestine—from the river to the sea.” As Kirsch explains, this is “a slogan that, by invoking the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, calls for the elimination of the state of Israel. Mondoweiss, an anti-Israel online publication, has called the Hamas attack “part of the Palestinians’ century-long struggle for liberation” from “Zionist/Israeli settler colonialism.” Kirsch explains:
What reminded me of Critchley’s work— beyond the focus on indigenous peoples as the subject of politics—is how Kirsch describes settler colonialism as a systemic and continuing event, one that therefore leads to a moralized politics. In short, every state in the world is a settler colonial state. There is zero chance that the United States or China or even Brazil or Israel are going to give their land back to indigenous peoples who may have preceded them dozens, hundreds, or thousands of years earlier. That is why settler colonialist politics is fundamentally moral rather than political. It operates on a simple innocent and guilty matrix that sees every existing state as guilty. These states are facts, not going anywhere. More than that, they are the accomplishment of dreams for self-determination and collective action by their people over generations and centuries. There is something overly simplistic about immediately imagining every state to be evil simply because it is not eternal. As a result, calls for decolonization are so radical as to be either meaningless or mere ethical performances rather than political actions. They nurture a politics of protest at the injustices of the world rather than a real politics that addresses the world as it is. We see this in the United States where so much effort is put into incorporating land acknowledgments that yield little of political substance. For Kirsch, the politics of settler colonialism is largely moral and symbolic, not political.
Like all theoretical terms, “settler colonialism” can mean different things to different people. But most who use it would probably agree with the definition offered by Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute: “a system of oppression based on genocide and colonialism, that aims to displace a population of a nation (oftentimes indigenous people) and replace it with a new settler population.” The paradigm case is the European colonization of the Americas, where over centuries many indigenous peoples were displaced or killed as Europeans took their land.
On this view, the Jewish state is only one example of a type of regime that must be combated around the world, including in the U.S. Truthout, another far-left publication, writes that “an understanding of settler colonialism remains essential for anyone seeking to make sense of daily injustices in Palestine and in many other places, including the U.S.” The same analogy underlies the statements issued by several local chapters of Black Lives Matter, identifying the struggle against American racism with the cause of Hamas. “We are also freedom fighters who have been grossly mislabeled and violently targeted for standing up against injustice to our people,” said BLM Phoenix on social media.
What makes settler colonialism a potent political concept is that, as the Cornell definition says, it is “a system rather than a historical event.” In other words, the displacement of the indigenous population is not something that happened centuries ago but something that is still being perpetrated today, by all the non-indigenous inhabitants of the land and by the culture and institutions they have created.
The Southern Poverty Law Center makes this point clearly in its magazine Learning for Justice: “Understanding settler-colonialism means understanding that all non-Indigenous people are settler-colonizers, whether they were born here or not. Understanding settler-colonialism as both a historical position and a present-day practice helps students see how they fit into a settler-colonial system—and how that system shapes the impact of their actions, regardless of their intent.”
This principle makes today’s anticolonial ideology more radical than the anticolonial movements of the post-World War II era. At that time, national liberation struggles in Africa and Asia were directed mainly against European powers that did not settle the territories they ruled. When the Viet Minh fought the French in Vietnam, or the Congolese National Movement fought the Belgians in Congo, they wanted to reclaim national sovereignty from foreign rulers who had no connection to the country other than the right of conquest.
Kirsch also helps us to see that settler colonialism is an ideology that privileges, by nature, all so-called indigenous people over those who are said to be settlers. What makes someone indigenous or a settler is hard to determine. There are actually Jewish settlements today in the West Bank that are a present attempt to take land given to the Palestinian people in 1948. Some of those settlements are nearly 70 years old, some are newer, part of an aggressive attempt to claim land in the wake of the first and second Intifadas. But there are Jews who trace their roots on the land back millennia. Many Jews arrived during the Ottoman control of Palestine in the 1880s. Others continued to arrive after the Dreyfuss affair in France in 1894. These Jews bought land, farmed, and have lived in the region for 150 years. So too did many Israeli Jews arrive after the Holocaust as refugees. A plurality of Israelis are Mizraim, Jews who were expelled from their homes in Arab Countries after 1948 who found a refuge and home in Israel. Are all of these people settlers? What makes Jewish Israelis who have lived in Israel for over 100 years colonials?
What the left gets right is that the Palestinians have suffered grave injustices. The mandate system of the League of Nations that gave the land we call Israel or Palestine to the British after World War I treated the Palestinians unjustly. The United Nations decision to partition British Palestine into two countries, one Jewish, one Arab, was tragic and in hindsight ill-fated. The unwillingness of other Arab countries to embrace Palestinians as Israel embraced Jews expelled from other countries in the region left many Palestinians homeless after their failed attacks on Israel in 1948, 1967, and 1973. And in recent years, Palestinians have been subjected to a brutal occupation in the the West Bank. In Gaza, they have suffered from Israeli and Egyptian isolation and repression from Hamas. It is difficult to not have sympathy with their plight. Especially so now as Palestinians in Gaza are suffering from a war on their territory, one begun with a brutal terrorist attack by Hamas and is now being waged without mercy and to the full extent of the laws of war by the powerful Israeli army.
Of course, Jews have suffered more than their share of injustices going back to the crusades, antisemitism in the diaspora, pogroms, the Holocaust, the expulsion of Jews from Arab lands, wars launched against the Jewish state, hijackings, taking of hostages, terrorism, and more, including the absolutely horrific attacks of October 7th by Hamas that included brutal torturing and killing of teens at a concert and elderly in their homes.
The tragic truth is that both Jews and Palestinian Arabs have been treated unjustly. The two-state solution was not perfect, but it sought to do justice to the legitimate desires for self-determination of both peoples who had been treated unjustly; it sought to honor both of their dreams of building a state and a homeland. While the two-state solution is still the only reasonable solution that would honor the aspirations of both Jews and Palestinians, it is clearly less likely to succeed now than it was in 1948. I don’t claim to have a solution to the continuing tragedy unfolding in the Middle East.
What I can say is that the slogan of settler colonialism seeks to justify terror on pseudo-scientific claims of authentic indigeneity. Hannah Arendt argued that ideologies are pseudo-scientific theories that attempt to explain all that is wrong with the world and that thereby justify violence and terror to set the world right. The two ideologies that Arendt thought had succeeded in inspiring large followings in the 20th century were Nazi racism and Soviet Bolshevism. What is scary today is how many people have come to embrace the ideology of settler colonialism: a moral ideology that imagines one group of people to be innocent and another group to be evil simply because of a question of who came first, a question that is difficult to determine as it is morally senseless. Does that mean all Amercians are bad people and settler colonials because their ancestors 300 and 400 years ago settled land that was in-part used by indigenous tribes? When young college graduates rent and then buy cheap apartments in Brooklyn and Queens, forcing Italian or Jewish or Hispanic families out of neighborhoods they’ve been in for decades or generations, is such gentrification a version of settler colonialism?
What is so unsettling about the ideology of settler colonialism is not simply its anti-political retreat into moral righteousness. More dangerous is the elevation of all so-called indigenous people to be in some way more pure, more deserving, and more innocent than so-called settlers. The ideology of settler colonialism forgoes self-determination in the name of a righteous embrace of whomever is seen to be a displaced indigenous person. And here, again, Kirsch is right to notice the way settler colonialism is linked to fascism. He writes:
Ironically, while anticolonialism conceives of itself as a progressive, left-wing ideology, this understanding of the relationship between people and land is similar to that of fascism, which was also obsessed with the categories of native and alien. The Nazi slogan “blood and soil” conveyed the idea that German land could only truly belong to its primeval inhabitants.
Anticolonialists would of course reject this analogy. But they are proudly indebted to Frantz Fanon, the Martinique-born French writer whose analysis of anticolonial struggle was born from the Algerian rebellion against French rule in the 1950s. For Fanon, a psychologist, anticolonial movements must be violent, not only because they lack other means of achieving their goals but because violence itself is redemptive and therapeutic. “The colonized man finds his freedom in and through violence,” Fanon wrote in his classic 1961 book “The Wretched of the Earth.” “For the colonized people this violence, because it constitutes their only work, invests their characters with positive and creative qualities.”
When Western sympathizers excuse or endorse the actions of Hamas, it is because they see it in these terms, as a liberation movement fighting a settler-colonial regime. And it is true that Hamas frames its struggle in terms of indigenous rights and redemptive violence—though sympathizers usually overlook the fact that it understands these things in religious fundamentalist terms, which are totally incompatible with other left-wing commitments like LGBTQ rights.
The group’s charter, adopted in 1988, declares that only Muslims are indigenous to the land that is now Israel, so Jews can never belong there: “The land of Palestine is an Islamic endowment consecrated for future Muslim generations until Judgment Day.” Likewise, it states that “peaceful solutions…are in contradiction to the principles of the Islamic Resistance Movement” and that “there is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad.”
Hatred of settler colonialism, like hatred of capitalism among communist revolutionaries, believes that it is morally impeccable because it is grounded in genuinely moral instincts: indignation at violence and oppression, hope for freedom and equality. It seems perverse that such instincts should lead to approving the mass murder of children and the elderly.
But like other totalizing ideologies, anticolonialism contains all the elements needed for moral derangement: the permanent division of the world into innocent people and guilty people; the belief that history can be fixed once and for all, if violence is applied in the right way; the idea that the world is a battlefield and everyone is a combatant, whether they realize it or not.