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Sunday, April 18, 2021

Responding to ‘Cynical Theories’ – A Critique of Postmodern Theory

 


Pluckrose, Helen and Lindsay, James, ‘Cynical Theories – How Universities Made Everything about Race, Gender and Identity – and Why This Harms Everybody, Swift Press, London, 2020

Dr Tristan Ewins

“Cynical Theories” - by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay – is a thorough critique of postmodernism as exemplified by Foucault, Derrida and Lyotard from the 1960s onward ; as well as the Applied and ‘Reified’ (in the authors’ words)  postmodernist intellectual movements which have followed.  This is a response that book.

The period of ‘high postmodernity’ saw thinkers like Foucault, Derrida and Lyotard adopt an approach of irony and ‘playfulness’ in response to capitalist domination, the decline of communism as a perceived alternative, and the hopelessness which followed.  The ‘applied’ phase sought to apply postmodernism to concrete issues, and in this sense saw a re-emergence of some kind of hope on the Left after the decline of communism.  Meanwhile what the authors call the ‘reified phase’ saw postmodern Theory increasingly seen as representing ‘The Truth’ about society, which cannot be questioned.  The original postmodernists were sometimes criticised for taking deconstruction too far, or because they could “afford” to be ‘playful” and “ironic”.  (being white, middle class and male)  (p 48) The objective reality of certain oppressed groups was to be accepted ; and not subjected to deconstruction.  ‘Reconstruction’ was seen as being as important as deconstruction.  (not entirely a bad thing!) What has come to be described as “Standpoint Theory’ has seen an abandonment of ‘scientific truth’ and its replacement with group experience.  What some people call ‘Identity Politics’. ‘Standpoint theory’ has it that people are defined by their social location in a landscape of privilege and oppression.

Indeed science, empirical knowledge and notions of ‘progress’  are sometimes seen as part of the “Western Enlightenment’ tradition ; and that is dismissed as an Ideology of Western domination.  As well as being oppressive of ‘other ways of knowing’. (for example mystical spiritual traditions, paganism, witchcraft)   in reality these traditions should also be open to criticism ; but the Enlightenment saw a general scepticism about ‘the spiritual’ ; and an unwillingness to engage.  (though arguably if the Enlightenment should be subjected to criticism, so too should ‘other ways of knowing’)  Science especially is seen as holding great “prestige” ; and that can be a cover for domination.  (as in the past, where racist colonialist discourses were legitimised (falsely) in its name)  Certain racial, sexual, gender and other groups are seen as oppressed by dominant discourses ; and therefore are represented as ‘authentic’.  After Foucault ; ‘Power’ is seen as operating in all discourses and social relationships ; sometimes rendered invisible or obscured by dominant ideologies.  Many also accept Derrida’s critique of ‘binaries’ such as sex (male/female) which are maintained through language ; and believe those binaries need to be ‘blurred’, ‘disrupted’ or ‘turned on their heads’.  Hence there has arisen notions of ‘Intersex’ and ‘Queer’ sexuality which are not ‘heteronormative’.

The authors object to the way in which this ‘postmodern Ideology’ is enforced.  While they identify ‘applied postmodernism’ and ‘reified postmodernism’ as being intolerant of debate ; ostensibly to prevent hostile discourse causing trauma to marginalised groups ; instead they promote liberal notions of free speech.  Here, ideas must be subjected to criticism if they are to develop and evolve. Marxists would argue that the “dialectic” must be enabled to do its work through open class struggle.   And they see dialectical logic at work in other social relationships as well.   

Suppression of debate is counter-productive.  This reminds the reader of the stance taken by communist, Rosa Luxemburg in supporting free speech in Revolutionary Russia ; just as the Bolsheviks were consolidating their control. For the authors the ‘authoritarianism’ of postmodernism runs parallel to that of Communism.  That many communists (Martov, Kautsky, Luxemburg) opposed the suppression of the working class ‘supposedly for its own good’ is not acknowledged ; and it can be assumed that the authors simply haven’t engaged with Marxism in such a way as to be aware of this diversity.   The authors also assume capitalism is ‘self-correcting’ ;  going ‘hand in hand with Liberalism.    But capitalism makes the same old mistakes – overproduction, monopolism, planned obsolescence, gross inequality. There is a self-correcting element in liberalism – interpreted as liberty -but liberty can be applied to socialism as well as capitalism.

In the name of liberalism, the authors also defend universalism, science and secular humanism. They believe “truth” can be arrived at via scientific/empirical method, and that science points towards our common humanity.  Hence ; although a ‘scientific Ideology’ had been distorted in the past to justify colonialist racism ; eventually the rigorous and authentic Scientific Method itself helped break down the very Ideologies of racism which previously tried to use science as a ‘cover’. Here they actually share cause with orthodox Marxism. For many postmodernists, however, oppressed groups have their own “ways of knowing” which only they have access to ; and which need to be empowered for their liberation.  Here the oppressed must speak for themselves ; hence diversity quotas and the like. 

In response it could be argued that highly developed empathy enables some people to identify with and begin to understand the positions of oppressed groups and individuals.  There is the Weberian notion of social-scientific ‘Understanding’. (Verstehen)  Also some arguments deserve to be heard because of the quality of their arguments, and the broader social urgency ; as opposed simply to the Identity of the speaker.  Finally ; ‘white’, ‘male’ and ‘straight’ people have the potential to develop discourses of self-understanding which do not simply reinforce or render invisible previous binaries of domination.  For the authors such perspectives should be rigorously criticised ; but not silenced. For instance: Whereas it might be useful for a white male to subject himself to criticism using Feminist methods ; he should be able to arrive at critical self-understandings of his own as well.  He should not be banned from speaking for himself because in some contexts he is seen as enjoying privilege. But he must listen to Others also.  At the end of the day, however, ‘inclusion’ brings us into relation and dialogue with one another, and that itself can lead to ‘progress’.

“Applied” and “Reified” postmodernism attempt to read racism, sexism and prejudice into all manner of discourses.  Often this simply involves rigorous analysis revealing past prejudices ; which can lead to recognition, and ultimately healing.  A ‘critical’ perspective can simply involve SENSITIIVTY to the perspectives of Others.  But on the other hand it can be taken to extremes ; where any ‘slip’ can lead to ostracism, or even the destruction of careers.  As the authors write:

“At best, this has a chilling effect on the culture of free expression…as good people self-censor to avoid saying the ‘wrong’ things. At worst, it is a malicious form of bullying and – when institutionalised – a kind of authoritarianism in our midst.”   (pp 14-15)

Furthermore:

“We see radical relativism in the form of double standards, such as assertions that only men can be sexists and only white people can be racist, and in the wholesale rejection of consistent principles of non-discrimination.  In the face of this, it grows increasingly difficult and even dangerous to argue that people should be treated as individuals or to urge recognition of our shared humanity in the face of divisive and constraining identity politics.” (pp 17-18)

It is desirable to include marginalised groups.  And efforts must be made to create a welcoming environment. But representative democracy is also about  electing a person who has the belief systems and policies which accord with one’s own beliefs and interests.  Or at least it should.  (there is a ‘tribal’ element to politics also)  Quotas can potentially prioritise representation of groups over representation on the basis of preferred ideology and policy.  Marginalised groups can be included via various bodies ; such as the ‘Voice to Parliament’ suggested for indigenous Australians.  They can also be included via ‘deliberative democracy’ and ‘co-determination’. And affirmative action for women can proceed in the form of reserved seats in parliament ; so there is still a contest of ideas and values during pre-selections.  But where people no longer have the choice to elect the person who best represents their values and interests – on the basis of the quality of their politics and policies -  representative democracy is circumvented.

All that said, there is a history of racism ; expressed through Colonialism, Imperialism, Capitalism, Slavery.  And there is a history of sexism as expressed through a Patriarchy which employed a binary Ideological logic to render women (falsely, but according to its premises) irrational, fragile, unsuited to public life, and so on.  In the West, much of this Patriarchy has been broken down by Second Wave feminism.  But women are still excluded from many professions ; are disadvantaged in the labour market with the devalorisation of professions which are dominated by women (eg: aged care) ; and in many Western countries women are still restricted in their participation in public life, and the relative levels of  prestige of some women’s sport.

Finally, until relatively recently homophobia was entrenched in law and culture ; but is now being broken down in popular culture, with gay marriage, and the permeation of postmodern scepticism of strict binaries through broader society.   The authors argue, however, that it is liberalism which has seen non-hetero-normative sexualities accepted as ‘natural’ and ‘normal’.

Traditionally, postmodern approaches have been critical of ‘metanarratives’. (eg: Western Progress through Liberal Capitalism and Science; or the Marxist critique of Capitalism and of Class Struggle leading to socialism)  The authors acknowledge that metanarratives can be restrictive and exclusive ; but they believe ironically what they call [postmodern] Theory has become a metanarrative of its own.  In reality we need metanarratives to contest economy and society in a globalised world.  If Leftists do not have their own metanarratives, right-wing metanarratives will ‘fill the vacuum’.  But we must be careful not to let metanarratives silence more localised narratives.

As conceived of by Marx, the working class is still the majority class world-wide. Many postmodern approaches tend to downplay the unifying power of class, as opposed to tensions based on race, sexuality, gender and so on.

Class is often problematized as a matter of equalising life-chances through educational equal opportunity and so on.  But class oppression is different. By its very definition it involves exploitation, and is anti-democratic with regards economic life.  Also, by its nature it involves the majority of human beings - who are engaged in capitalist production. Perhaps the working class might no longer be considered the ‘universal historic subject’ as once assumed by Marxists.  The working class needs allies.  And oppressed minorities could do with the solidarity of a conscious, organised working class.  Above everything the working class needs to recover its sense of self.  If that condition is satisfied the working class is still strategically positioned – industrially, culturally, electorally – to exert significant power.   But this involves a metanarrative of socialism.

For Marx Ideology served the interests of the Bourgeois Ruling Class.   It ‘naturalised’ capitalist social relations through nationalism, much of religion, Liberal Ideology ; and it obscured working peoples’ self-interest.  By contrast, the common Theoretical approach is to see discourses of domination which are often ‘invisible’ , but from which white, male, cis-normative people benefit from.  Here, Ideology is seen as benefiting the majority, including working people.  (as opposed to benefiting mainly the ruling class minority)

There is truth in the argument that Power can be subtle, and is not at all limited to class. The Foucauldian approach traditionally neglects class and a broader critique of capitalism.  Certainly it has no sense that capitalism could be ‘negated’, except in localised ‘micronarratives’.  But it has its strengths.  Language is not everything. There is a reality outside of language. But language is still powerful ; it can be a vehicle for Power.  It can be laden with Ideology.  It is a PRACTICE which influences how we see ourselves and the world around us on an everyday basis.  Giddens would have it that we are all interpreters and active participants in the shaping of  language and not just passive recipients. Though Ideological relations of domination and manipulation should not be understated ; even though they are not absolute. Though language and knowledge are not necessarily oppressive in of themselves. In the right hands, and of the right quality, they can be liberating.

But from a Marxist perspective, the working class is still an exploited class ; and a class which widely suffers alienation. (ie: trauma from the menial, physically demanding, meaningless and unfulfilling, repetitive nature of much work)  Inequality has reached alarming levels ; yet somehow the working class is ‘invisible’ in much postmodern discourse.

The authors are at pains to reject Marxism ; and see both Marxism and Postmodern Theory as ‘authoritarian ideologies’.   While they see Marxism as ‘in decline’ from the 1960s, Marxism continued for several decades ; and morphed into the New Left and Eurocommunism for example. Socialism progressed for several decades in Scandinavia ; there were class struggles in Britain and France.  Sometimes Marxism morphed into Postmarxism and the works of radical theorists such as Chantal Mouffe.  Socialism should not be ‘written off’ with liberalism ‘the only contender left standing’.  But neither should liberalism be written off.   Whether we describe it as ‘liberal socialism’ or ‘libertarian socialism’ (a term sometimes applied to Luxemburg) there is a socialism which is possible that is open to criticism, development, and account of new realities.  Though that socialism should nonetheless ground itself in class struggles and other progressive struggles. (P 25)  

According to the authors (effectively by the words of Lyotard) postmodern theory “seeks not to be factually true but to be strategically useful: in order to bring about its own aims, morally virtuous  and politically useful by its own definitions.”  (p 38)  Theory SHOULD be useful.  It shouldn’t exist in a detached sense as if in some kind of ‘ivory tower’.  But just because sometimes “the truth” is hard to ascertain doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive towards it, and apply even our own works to rigorous criticism.  It is potentially dangerous to suggest ‘striving for the truth’ does not matter.

In the Notes section at the back of the book the authors recognise that Critical Theory originated with the Frankfurt School, and included figures such as Jurgen Habermas – who was a defender of ‘the unfinished project of Modernity’ ; and who believed in the power of ‘Communicative Action’ to ‘reach understanding’ even in the context of pluralism.  It’s important to acknowledge this as there are realms of ‘critical theory’ radically at odds with the model put forward by the authors.  Habermas believed a ‘Perfect Speech Situation’ could result in a non-oppressive kind of socialism.  That is achieved by bringing various critical traditions – each with its own legitimacy and lines of empirical enquiry - into relation which each other.  This manifests as ‘liberation by consensus’. Which is possible because there is an ‘objective truth’ on human liberation which people can arrive at through communication.  The later Habermas doubted ethical consensus, but insisted there was a truth which could be ‘got at’ by relating to an objective world. This requires rigorous ‘dialectical’ testing of propositions. But that process is obstructed by the ‘colonisation of lifeworld by system’ ; where (non-linguistic) systems of power based on money, state and bureaucracy  get in the way of Communicative Action.  Arguably these are not merely matters of systemic logic ; but of class agency.  The working class must arrive at class consciousness (and socialist consciousness), and must organise in order to change the world.  The bourgeoisie, while sometimes captive to their own Ideology, are also often not beyond deliberately distorting the truth to preserve their position.  But limiting oneself to language ; as opposed to the objective functioning of capitalist economies ; can create a veritable “prison house” (Jameson) which limits clarity, perception and understanding.  For some however (eg: Mouffe and Laclau) the earlier Habermas is too optimistic. Mouffe proposes a counter-hegemony in the context of robust pluralism.   She doesn’t presume humanity to be capable of a rational consensus on values and socio-economic organisation. But she does presume a majority can accept pluralism on the basis of shared freedoms.

‘Intersectionality’ is seen as stemming from the work of postmodern feminist, Kimberle Crenshaw.  ‘Intersectionality’ is a powerful concept which has come to be deployed by Theorists to explain how people experience ‘intersections’ of multiple oppressions, determined by their social location and Identity. That includes race, gender, sexuality, disability, body type, class and so on. Hence  a black lesbian woman is ‘triply oppressed’.  In a sense this is nuanced ; as it accounts for multiple experiences and social locations.  By comparison, the original Marxism focused on the labour-capital dialectic.

Crenshaw wanted to both keep the Theoretical Understanding of race and gender as social constructs and use deconstructive methods to critique them.  She also wanted to assert a “stable truth claim” : that some people were discriminated against on the grounds of their racial and sexual identities, a discrimination she planned to address legally, using identity politics. She claims that identity categories “have meaning and consequences”, that is, they are objectively real.”  (P 57)    For the original postmodernists “endless examination and deconstruction of categories can enable us to liberate those who do not fit neatly into categories.”  (p 55)  By contrast, from a radical modernist perspective Gloria Watkins is a black feminist who criticises the quest for ‘unstable’ identities ; because this prevents oppressed people (such as black women and the working class) from forming an identity from which they can strive for liberation.  (p 55)   Crenshaw’s position can be seen, also, as a kind of response to those such as Watkins ; advocating social constructivism ; but also arguing those constructions have significant weight.

But the weakness of Intersectionality, and of Identity Politics more broadly is that it does not account for the true uniqueness of individuals’ experiences. For instance ; a white working class man who is part of the working poor could be worse off than a black middle class woman ; on account of poverty, class stigma, educational disadvantage, and a dead end alienating job.  Such nuances are not always considered when people are categorised according to ‘intersections’ which simply establish their Identity with regard various marginalised groups. People also have unique belief systems ; and this will affect their life experience as well.

On the other hand, there is the assumption that ANY relation between a “privileged” and “oppressed” person is one of “power imbalance”.  Because marginalised voices MUST be considered “authentic” their interpretations are accepted without question, and are indisputable.  The authors conclude: this “leaves wide open the door to the unscrupulous.”  (Pp 132-133)   However, Crenshaw writes: 

“social power in delineating difference need not be  the power of domination ; It can instead be the source of social empowerment and reconstruction.”

Hence a break with foundational postmodernism even while continuing it in other ways.      (P 125)   According to this logic, antagonistic identity groups can reconceive of themselves, and in-so-doing resolve their antagonism constructively.  This is important, as it suggests dominant groups can reconceive of themselves in ways which recognise the Other; and when this is acted upon it can end relations of oppression.  On these assumptions there is nothing ‘essentially bad’ about ‘whiteness’, masculinity etc.  

The oppression of the working class, however, will not end under capitalism as the labour-capital relationship has a mechanism of exploitation which is intrinsic to it. Though relations can be reconceived in ways which lead to historic compromises that advance working class interests compared with neo-liberalism.  (eg: Nordic Social Democracy ; though even here Social Democracy is in retreat)

Applied postmodern theory tends to see ‘system’ (via knowledge/language/power) as being the problem more so than willing, dominating agents.  And again, from a Modernist perspective Habermas also saw [capitalist] system as ‘colonising’ ‘lifeworld’. The reality is an interplay of system and agency. Capitalism itself has systemic imperatives ; and those imperatives have achieved a global scale.  At the same time capitalist Ideology is hegemonic and virtually unchallenged. Even Social Democratic parties have accepted the retreat of the welfare state, not only embracing the consequences of capitalist imperatives ; but sometimes even internally embracing aspects of its neo-liberal variant.  But amidst all this there are political actors.   The bourgeoisie understands its interests and is organised.  Those oppressed under capitalism must also collectively perceive their position, and organise for socialism.

There’s nothing wrong with an applied theory which aims to inform historical agents who will change the world.  The problem is an arbitrary hierarchy of perceived identity-based oppression – which does not strictly accord to the real world.  That is, the categories aren’t sufficient to explain things in their complexity ; and some are often arbitrarily prioritised over others.  Reality is more complex . And along the way the objective reality of class has been abandoned ; or treated like ‘just another identity’. This is important because CLASS is a social relationship and potential identity and source of consciousness which can unite the majority rather than just dividing them against each other.  Sensitivity to the problems of various identity groups could be integral to healing the divisions within the working class. But class is the central social relationship of capitalism. Social Justice activism has been so successful that in some cases it has turned oppression on its head.  But ‘turning oppression on its head’ is not the same as abolishing it. The way forward is to roll back all oppression and alienation ; and work towards the kind of society where all can lead happy, free, meaningful lives – without oppression, alienation, exploitation or prejudice.

Bibliography ;

Pluckrose, Helen and Lindsay, James, ‘Cynical Theories – How Universities Made Everything about Race, Gender and Identity – and Why This Harms Everybody, Swift Press, London, 2020

Saturday, March 6, 2021

Funding and Services Crucial for Aged Care in Australia

   

   above: access to sunlight, fresh air and gardens can improve quality of life in aged care


Dr Tristan Ewins

The Aged Care Royal Commission had laid down its findings.  These should be the source of great shame for the Government.  But also for Labor – who failed to prioritise the issue over the decades as well.  It now falls to Labor Federal Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese to drop the ‘small target, ‘no new taxes’ policy and promise to fund comprehensive, needs-based Aged Care with ongoing and significant progressive tax reform.  Labor could plan for incremental reform over a ten year timeframe, peaking at 5 per cent of GDP in new progressive taxation. But aiming for 1% to 1.5% of GDP in a first term.

After scrutiny from the ABC especially in recent years, It should come as little surprise that the Australian Aged Care system has been found to be subject to appalling neglect.  ‘The Guardian’ reports that after over 20 years of ‘efficiency dividends’ 
almost $10 billion a year had effectively been ripped out of the Aged Care budget.  This funding – and more – needs to be restored.

The Royal Commission has found that since its inception – with the 1997 Aged Care Act – the aim of the system has been to cap costs rather than ensure quality.  Australia spends less than half the amount provided for proportionately in the Netherlands for instance. To improve quality, and wind back inequitable user-pays, funding needs to at least double.   

On the understanding that the system has been under-resourced for decades, now, Aged Care has lacked nurse and aged care worker ratios. Many workers lack skills, are under-paid, and are demoralised.   Casualised labour is common, and makes it difficult for staff to form relationships with residents. Workers often need to move between several workplaces.  Experts informing the Royal Commission have concluded that residents require at least 215 minutes of personalised care a day.  (including 44 minutes with a Registered Nurse) 


It is also notable that 
about 25% of elderly Australians (over 70) suffer chronic social isolation ; and this needs to be addressed as much as purely-physical needs.  

Abuse also affects between 13% and 18% of residents, and much greater oversight is necessary to defend their rights and dignity.

Because of inadequate ratios it is not uncommon for aged care workers to try and dress and shower elderly residents in around 6 minutes: which must surely impact on the quality of care.  And involve significant trauma. Food is often cheap and un-nutritious.  Dental care and other Allied health services are not always adequate.  Often ‘life’ consists of being sat down in front of a TV in a common room all day. 

Sometimes people develop bedsores or lay in their own urine or excrement because there is inadequate supervision. There is a desperate need for more facilitated social interaction, and excursions for those capable.  People need sunlight, privacy, pleasant surrounds, gardens, books, things to do and aspire to. Rather than receiving specialist care, those with dementia are often literally ‘tied down’, or ‘knocked out’ by heavy application of anti-psychotic medications. 

A largely privatised system has faced inadequate government scrutiny. With funding already critically low, pressures to provide profits and dividends have driven a culture of ‘cutting corners’ in the industry, to residents’ detriment.

Many who require Aged Care would prefer to stay at home with assistance packages.  (this is also more efficient in terms of necessary funding)  But waiting lists have hovered at around the 100,000 mark. Many thousands die every year waiting for care that is never delivered. This is also unfair for Carers.

Scott Morrison has injected almost half a billion into the system in response to the Commission’s findings. But this is only a small fraction of what is needed. He claims reform will take ‘years’ ; but in fact the government is still focused on containing costs as opposed to fixing the system.  They hope that – with time – people will ‘forget’ – and pressures for tax reform will recede. Their ‘low tax credentials’ are more important to them than our vulnerable elderly. Over the long term, Labor is partly to blame as well. If Aged Care was prioritised as much as Covid, reform could be implemented more rapidly.

 Aged Care ‘for profit’ is part of the problem ; but not-for-profits have a hard time sustaining the necessary staff, infrastructure and services also.  Profiteers should be driven out of the system. Government and not-for-profits should step in to fill the void.

A robust, dedicated and progressively-structured Aged Care Levy could raise at least $16 billion to be redirected into the system ; enhancing health and social services, improving ratios of aged care workers and nurses , ensuring more personal attention for residents and those requiring care-at-home.  Capital should also pay its share, with Company Tax rising by at least one per cent. 

Overall, progressive tax should rise as soon as possible (over the short term) by over one per cent of GDP – maybe even 1.5% of GDP. (ie: somewhere between about $16 billion and $24 billion a year)  The Morrison Government needs to be pressed to implement these reforms immediately ; but otherwise a new Labor Government needs to implement such change in its first term.

Labor needs to ‘break the bipartisan consensus of neglect’ and run hard on tax reform for Aged Care, as well as mental health and supporting the National Disability Insurance Scheme. (NDIS)  Jobseeker needs to rise by at least $100 a week, and maybe more. Other pensions could also be strengthened.  There is widespread public support for tax reform if tied to crucial areas of public need.

More is needed over the long term to achieve a social wage and welfare state of Nordic proportions.  Provision of care needs to be ‘needs based’ rather than ‘capped’ regardless of what that means for cost.  Government oversight needs to consider ‘basics’ like food and staffing ratios ; but also broader ‘quality of life’ issues. In the future one priority should be keeping the elderly ‘connected’ with internet access.

Labor needs to mobilise its resources to campaign for extensive Aged Care reform now ; as well as reform for mental health, NDIS, Jobseeker, and other pensions.  Aged Care and Mental Health especially are ‘in the public eye’ for now.  We need to maintain and increase the momentum for change while we have the chance.  These need to be key issues for the coming election, and also in the development of Labor’s National Platform.  (a Special Conference is being held near the end of March 2021– this month!)  

Labor activists and parliamentarians are placed to make a difference in unions, social movements, government and the broader Party.  We need to attempt to lead debate and apply pressure as best we can while there is a ‘window of opportunity’ for change.

Thursday, February 4, 2021

A Zionism of Mutual Recognition and Hope: Reconsidering Judah Magnes


Dr Tristan Ewins
 
 
In today’s ‘modern Left’ ‘Zionism’ is often taken as a term of abuse.  The oppression and dispossession of the Palestinians is widely seen as negating the very right of the ‘Jewish State’ to exist.  Judah Magnes himself is commonly dismissed in modern Zionism as a ‘destructive and naïve influence’.  (we will discuss these claims at some length)   But Magnes’s legacy ; as well as the legacy of others such as Hannah Arendt and Martin Buber ; show “another kind of Zionism is possible”.  On the other hand, modern anti-Zionism is itself at best naïve in believing that the defeat of the Jewish state would lead to a secular, democratic, pluralistic and inclusive Palestine.  There is  a cycle of revenge and Terror going back from  before Israel’s formation, and to the current day.  Modern right-Zionism (including in the Revisionist legacy of Likud ; which follows after the Irgun Zionist faction) presumes that conciliation is impossible ; that only Israel will stand for its own interests ; and that political and military ruthlessness is the only road to survival.
 
Though his binationalism is often held by dissenters in opposition to modern Zionism, it is forgotten often that Magnes himself was a Zionist.  Raised in the United States, Magnes adopted a pacifist posture during the horrors of World War One.  He also adopted what he saw as American ideals of democracy and pluralism.  But Magnes also came to oppose assimilation in the US amongst Jews most strongly. Though he was later identified as a liberal Reform Rabbi, he was Conservative in the sense of holding strongly to Jewish tradition and a strong Jewish identity.  His compromise position became known as 'cultural Zionism'.  (Kotzin, p 119)  For Magnes a pluralistic US could accommodate Jewish nationalism (Zionism) within a broader national identity.
 
As Daniel P.Kotzin argues:  “His “progressive” “Zionist ideal” reveals “a larger agenda”. Hence: “Magnes was trying to fashion American Jews as an ethnic group wherein diversity  was possible within a construct of Jewish solidarity.”  He “forged” “an ethical-liberal Zionist ideal” based on “his cultural Zionism, Reform Judaism and American progressive ideals that combined ethical universalism with Jewish particularism within a pluralistic framework.”  Magnes wanted Arab “national autonomy in equilibrium with Jewish national autonomy.”  (Kotzin, pp 5-6)   
 
But in his eagerness to preserve Jewish identity, Magnes had sympathy for the Orthodox position as well.  Indeed, Magnes openly embraced Zionism at a time when many Jews in America were not willing to make the same leap.  Importantly, Magnes came to support the ‘Jewish Defence Association’ (JDA) which aimed to arm Jewish communities to defend against pogroms and the like.   (Kotzin, p 66)  He tried to embrace Chanukah as a celebration of Jewish nation-hood.  He also embraced the teaching of Yiddish as part of a “cultural Zionist program”  which actually promoted unity instead of fragmentation. (Kotzin, p 73)
 
Specifically, Magnes supported a Jewish national home in Palestine as opposed to proposals for elsewhere – like Uganda.  But importantly,  he felt it was essential to come to an understanding with Palestine’s Arab residents ; to consult with them and arrive at a kind of co-determination.
 
Rather than pure majoritarianism, Magnes promoted ‘deliberative democracy’ within the broader Jewish community as the road to unity.  His perspective of ‘equal opportunity’ extended to Arabs in Palestine ; and for him a large Arab community there had to be accepted and worked with.   (Kotzin, pp 135-140)
 
During World War One Magnes defended civil liberties and free speech in the context of his pacifism.  He also came to oppose the ‘Red Scare’ following the Bolshevik Revolution.
 
Following World War One, the Balfour declaration – establishing a Jewish national home in Palestine – heightened tensions between Jews and Arabs.   Arabs launched anti-Jewish riots in Palestine.   Some Zionists thought Jewish migration would bring benefits to Arab society and thus would eventually be accepted.   But the Zionist Organisation of America held that “the land, natural resources and public utilities would be owned by Jews, and all schools would be conducted in Hebrew.”  By contrast Magnes interpreted Jewish ethics as “radical pacifism”.  (Kotzin, pp 155-156)   He only reconsidered this uncompromising pacifism in the context of World War Two and the threat posed by Hitler.
 
Again, Magnes’ position on ‘national self-determination’ translated as co-determination between Jews and Arabs in Palestine.  For Magnes:  “[the] very prestige and reputation of the Jewish nation, which presented itself as liberal and ethical, depended on this.”
 
Upon migrating to Palestine, Magnes was appointed as Chancellor of the Hebrew University which was being established there.
 
The Faculty of Humanities opened in 1928.   Magnes also promoted the teaching of Yiddish language and culture ; though conducted in Hebrew. He thought it was important to be inclusive while establishing Hebrew as the national language.   But many protested - finding Yiddish a threat to Hebrew culture.  Magnes wanted the Hebrew University to be inclusive of all Jewish culture – ancient and modern. (Kotzin, p 194-196)
 
The British tried to appease both Jews and Arabs ; and in the 1920s said they had no intention of creating a Jewish State.  Transjordan was established in an appeal to Arabs. Arab resistance was minimal by 1924.
 
BUT critical of the other Zionists’ willingness to compromise  with the British, the controversial Zionist Vladimir Jabotinsky resigned from the World Zionist Executive in January 1923. Jabotinsky recognised the existence of Arab nationalism, but he believed Jews had a moral right to Palestine.  Declaring a maximalist Zionist objective, he demanded a Jewish State that included Transjordan. According to him, Arabs must accept the inevitability of Zionism. Once they did they could live peacefully with Jews in a Jewish State.”  Jabotinsky called his new movement "Revisionist Zionism”.  (Kotzin, p 197)
 
In response, “Arthur Rippon, a member of the World Zionist Executive who was also active in the expansion of Jewish settlement in Palestine, presented a program for a Binational Palestine at the 1925 Zionist Congress. He argued that Jews should work with Arabs to obtain their consent to the Zionist movement rather than engaging in an endless conflict.” (Kotzin, p 197)
 
Hans Kohn and Robert Weltsch, students of Martin Buber – along with their mentor – believed co-operation with Arabs could be achieved by renouncing any exclusive claim to Palestine.  They believed in a Zionism based on ethics and justice that “transcended mere political aims.” An organisation called “Brit Shalom” (Covenant of Peace) was established.  Magnes built relations with the members of Brit Shalom.  Though he did not join. (Kotzin, p 198)
 
With the rise of Nazism in Germany Magnes feared  that Jews were threatened with “Systematic extermination”. He wanted the University to be a refuge for Jewish scholars. (Kotzin, p 213-214)
 
But as a binationalist, Magnes was willing to let go the dream of a Jewish State for a reality of liberal democracy ; where Palestine was ‘the Jewish national home’ ; but where Arabs and Jews lived and governed together as equals.  He believed in the Israeli nation’s “ability to act as a moral and liberal beacon for the world.”  And he believed Arabs and Jews should actually support and assist each other in their national aspirations. Though secretly, Magnes feared Arabs would stop Jewish migration outright if given the chance.   (Kotzin, p 220, pp 226-227)
 
Magnes enunciated “three conditions” as a framework for Zionism in Palestine: “the right for Jews to immigrate to Palestine based on the country’s economic absorptive capacity, the rights for Jews to buy and sell land in Palestine, and the right for Jews to build their own cultural and religious institutions in Palestine.” (Kotzin, p 224)
 
But as Kotzin explains:
 
“such views had little meaning for the Zionist leadership, and in their eyes had no tactical merit.”  “They viewed him as a rogue American Jew, one who could have dangerous influence because of his connections but who acted recklessly, without respect for official bodies like the Jewish Agency and without consideration for the political consequences of his actions.”  (Kotzin, p 221)
 
In 1928/1929 there was an Arab/Jewish dispute over the Western Wall.  This led to Arab attacks on Jews. Over a week 133 Jews and 116 Arabs were killed, and many others wounded.  Labor Zionists made comparisons with pogroms in Russia. Most rejected the need for Jewish/Arab co-operation. (this was seen as unrealistic) As Kotzin explains: “Jews who called for peace and understanding, like the members of Brit Shalom, were condemned on the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in the belief that they demonstrated Jewish weakness, not Jewish strength.”  (Kotzin, p 222)
 
P 233   “[Chaim] Weizmann, while sympathetic to Magnes’s ideas, found his political tactics problematic. Magnes ignored the fragile political situation” and hence could “damage…the Zionist project.”   He believed “Arab intransigence” made it “impossible  to negotiate with them.”   He accused Manges of “breaking our united front”.  Some Arabs tried to play Magnes off against other Zionists, depicting the others as “extremists”.  (Kotzin, p 233)
 
Stephen Wise also feared Magnes was turning liberal opinion against Zionism in the US.  Zionists were worried at the prospect of democratic institutions before there was a Jewish majority.  But moderate Opposition Arabs within ‘the Arab Executive’ had long favoured co-operation with Jews and wanted to defeat the Grand Mufti (of Jerusalem) – who was to go so far as to collaborate with Hitler. (Kotzin, pp 234-235)
 
The rise of Hitler in Germany accelerated Jewish migration into the tens of thousands – over 66,000 in 1935.   By 1936 Jews were more than one fourth of the population in Palestine.   Arabs feared this ; including migration and land purchases ; but turned most of their anger against the British.  Meanwhile Revisionist Zionists promoted a hate campaign against Ben-Gurion and the Labor Zionists for their willingness to negotiate with the Arabs.   David Ben-Gurion now felt the improved Zionist position would force Arabs to the table.  Revisionism began to retreat at this time as well. (Kotzin, P 247-248)
 
But Ben-Gurion still had an end objective of a Jewish State as opposed to Magnes’ ‘Binational’ state. 
 
Magnes was desperate to make a difference.  In negotiations Magnes was interested if Arabs would be willing to compromise on Palestinian Arab national aspirations for the sake of broader Pan Arab aspirations. (pp P 250 -251)
 
Magnes and the Partition Plain
 
During 1935-37 the British developed a partition plan ; to partition Palestine and Transjordan between Jews and Arabs.   Some thought the proposed Jewish State was too small ; but for Ben-Gurion the prospect of sovereignty was appealing.  American Zionists led by Stephen Wise opposed the plan as the proposed Jewish State could not absorb all Jewish migrants – it was too small.   For his part Magnes was partly sympathetic – but feared partition could sow the seeds of future war.   Magnes came around to Felix Warburg’s anti-partition perspective. (Kotzin, Pp 259-260)
 
Instead Magnes proposed “a binational state” to the Jewish Agency – as an alternative to partition.  He “believed that he could make Zionist discussions about democracy and establishing solidarity with the Arabs.” (Kotzin, P 261)
 
He feared if Zionism neglected the importance of “consent” it would become “oppressive”.   Ha-Kibbutz Haartzi shel Hashomer Hatzair (“The Country-wide Kibbutz of the Young Guard”) accepted the principle of binationalism, but under conditions of a Jewish majority.   They believed worker solidarity could overcome Arab-Jewish conflict.  (Kotzin, P 262)
 
While Magnes focused on Jewish-Arab relations he was also strongly concerned in the mid to late 30s with the situation of Jews in Europe and especially Germany.  He came to the view that Jews must free themselves from dependence on Britain because Britain was susceptible to Arab influence for strategic purposes at their time of greatest need.
 
Jews attempted to subvert British immigration restrictions.   Magnes became a mediator between the Haganah (an organisation of Jewish self-defence and illegal immigration) and the British.   Despite his pacifism Magnes supported WWII as ‘a war for humanity’. He said “the incarnation of the Devil sits on the German throne.”   When pressed hard he chose “the preservation of the Jewish people over his pacifist ideals”.
 
In the midst of World War Two Magnes combined with over a hundred other like-minded individuals to form the ‘Ihud’ (‘unity’  or ‘union’) organisation – which favoured a binational solution as opposed to partition.
 
Progressive Zionists wanted to find a solution “that would open up Palestine for European Jewry but would not infringe on Arab rights.”   Many who were already sympathetic to “the notion of a binational Palestine” “became more overt supporters” of Ihud ; though others didn’t want to be linked with Ihud “in the public mind”.   By 1942 most American Zionists believed free migration and a Jewish State in Palestine had become necessary.  (Kotzin, p 294)
 
But after the war Magnes did not endorse the offensive (military and terroristic) strategies against the British.  He opposed “offensive violence”.   Following the Holocaust many Jews demanded control over Jewish migration to Palestine, but Magnes believed a peaceful Palestine was better for Jews in the end.    (Kotzin, pp 274-276)   In short, the Holocaust changed everything ; and linked the creation of a Jewish State with an existential question of Jewish survival.  Magnes’ binational vision was progressively sidelined.
 
Magnes was in the end proven correct that partition and a ‘Jewish State’ would lead to war.  But the Jewish State managed to survive regardless. However, the Yom Kippur war of 1973 demonstrated that Israel’s security was in some ways still precarious ;  and should Israel lose any broader conflict with Arab nations Jews would probably be treated no better than Arabs were treated with the Palestinian ‘Nakba’.  (the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians)
 
Leading up to the creation of modern Israel, Kotzin explains how:
 
“Whereas [Magnes] was previously portrayed as a fool, now he was characterised as an ‘anti-Zionist’, a traitor to the Jewish people and the Zionist cause.”  Hevdah Ben-Israel thought he “was a traitor advocating an insane idea.”  “Zionists increasingly insisted  that the very existence of the Jewish people depended on acting with power and strength, which would be undermined by compromise.” (Kotzin, p 288)
 
Kotzin explains how both Arab and Jewish leaders failed to back binationalism in practice. “Magnes’s Reform Judaism and Buber’s religious socialism both emphasised that religious morality must influence politics.”  “They hoped Ihud would introduce moral and ethical values into the politics of the Arab-Jewish conflict.”  Magnes suggested a universalism based on a “Strong Jewish identity” ; while Buber claimed the Jewish nation had a “supernational task” of becoming “a true people” by submitting to God’s demands of “truth and righteousness”.   “According to Buber, Jews will be a “humanitarian nation” if they say “we will not do more injustice to others than we are forced to do in order to exist. Only by saying this do we begin to be responsible for life.”   (Kotzin, pp 297-299)
 
Magnes was convinced there was an Arab constituency for peace – but that they were cowed by ‘internal Terror’.   Together with others like Martin Buber and Hannah Arendt he attempted to form a ‘loyal opposition’ to the mainstream Zionist position from within Zionism.  Towards the end of his life, Magnes continued to promote federalism as a solution to the conflict.  He was glad to see a national home for the Jews created with Israel’s declaration of Independence ; but was deeply troubled by the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Arab refugees.  Sadly, while he had spent a great deal of time in the old Palestine, he passed away outside of Israel and never set foot in the newly created state.
 
In the 1940s Magnes lost support because “he failed to understand…that the Arab-Jewish conflict was no longer [considered the] primary concern.”  (instead the focus shifted to the Holocaust, Nazism, refugees)   Kotzin concludes that “by not focusing on the best means to help Jewish refugees, he failed to sell the binational plan.”
 
Today, though, a two-state solution seems a long way away. Jerusalem is united ; and Zionist leaders loathe to consider significant compromise. It seems there may be ‘one Jewish state’ ; but without meaningful co-determination or mutual recognition between Jews and Palestinians. But with the Two State Solution retreating, the project of One State based on co-determination deserves serious reconsideration. Today - with the rejection of Zionism on most of the Left – it is easy to forget that those such as Magnes, Arendt and Buber were also Zionists.  Jewish security could be preserved with a monopoly on the apparatus of force ; but with structures of self-governance and identity for both Jews and Palestinians beyond that.  For instance, Arabs have always been at the margins of Israeli democracy.  That needs to change in a binational state which is at the same time a safe haven and Jewish National Home.  ‘Deliberative’ and inclusive democracy as the way forward.
 
And the Israeli Left needs to become a voice for co-existence and co-determination over the long term.
 
Magnes stands as an example which demonstrates for the broad Left that not all Zionism ought be ‘tarred with the same brush’.  Hence “Zionism” ought not be a ‘term of abuse’ on the Left. Though the obstacles are great ; with cautious hope the kind of mutual recognition and coexistence imagined by Magnes may still prevail over the long term.
 
 
 
Bibliography:
 
Kotzin, Daniel.P , ‘Judah L.Magnes – An American Jewish Non-Conformist’,  Syracuse, New York, 2010
 
Loewenstein, Anthony ; ‘My Israel Question’ ; Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2006
 

Warburg, James.P , ‘Crosscurrents in the Middle East’, Gollancz, London, 1969

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