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Do the Oppressed Have Obligations to ‘You and Me’?

22 January 2024


In the early weeks following Israel’s retaliation in Gaza, Michael Walzer wrote a think piece in the Atlantic asserting that the oppressed have obligations “to you and me.” This is a provocative position that carries more than mere rhetorical flourish. These obligations to “you and me” are paternalist dictates, established by a global order, to which governance actors are beholden, as putatively co-equal members, in the liberal activity of resisting authoritarianism and dogma. The claim is backed up by a decades-long campaign wherein Walzer has sought to demarcate the lines between just and unjust aggression.


Conveniently, one such line has recently been placed between Israel-good and Palestine-bad. That is, the Israeli response to 7 October is justified (even if civilian casualties are lamentable), whereas the very form of Palestinian aggression on 7 October is not. He makes this demarcation based on the supposition that Israel’s military activities are justifiably serving the democratic ends of a legitimate government, whereas the Hamas-led incursion demonstrates that Hamas does not care about Gazans’ well-being, and, therefore, is not living up to the obligations of a rights-based institution. 


It is worth parsing some of his language from the article, while rummaging through the Walzer vault a bit to see if we can gain a clearer idea of what grounds his position and how we might better contextualize it within today’s socio-political milieu. 


Walzer’s Revolutionary Socialist v. Trade Union Consciousness Analogy


In the article, Walzer asserts that there are times when resistance is warranted. He frames this around a (tortured) analogy that sets the present crisis alongside Lenin’s socialist revolution versus social democratic reformism. In Walzer’s view, for the socialist revolutionary consciousness, there was a utopian desire that justified all manner of horrors to reach the goal; whereas, for the trade union consciousness of workers, there was a pragmatism and a measured awareness of what the people really wanted. His assumption is that there was a causal connection between revolutionary socialism and “dictatorship and terror.” On the other hand, it was trade union consciousness that gave us “the successes of social democracy.” What Walzer takes from this is that the revolutionary approach maps onto the course that Hamas governance has taken to achieve its liberatory ends. And, like Leninism, for Walzer, this too has led to dictatorship and terror. 


Opposed to this is the ‘trade union approach’ defined by those who work for a just division of the land in, for example, a two-state solution. This is something, he claims, Hamas has never been interested in pursuing. He feigns at acknowledging that Israel, too, makes the two-state solution a tad difficult at times, but he treats Israeli settlement initiatives and right-wing extremists within the current government as exceptions to the more general rule of what is putatively a more legitimate governance strategy rooted in the cause of social democracy. It is Hamas’ zealotry, by contrast, that proves that one side of the would-be negotiation table is constitutively marred by bad faith. If only Hamas, and Palestinian resistance movements more broadly, would live up to the ideals of liberal democracy, then social democratic compromises could be negotiated to the benefit of all.


Walzer’s blind spot is in presuming that Israel is, in fact, the good faith actor in this dynamic. However, it is clear, not only historically, but especially in recent months that Israeli governance is not geared towards a two-state solution. Thus, the paradigm set up between, in crude terms, Israel v. Palestine, is not between one mature governance organization asking for political commensuration from an immature and irrational non-state other. Rather, it is a theatre furnished by a dominant power that has clear intentions towards ethnic cleansing and preventing any two-state solution from viability on the one hand, and, on the other, a politically exiled minority that is grasping for a voice so that it might gain legitimacy in the eyes of the global decision-makers who are intent to obfuscate the reality of the dynamic between the two. 


This framework must be established, in the first instance, if we are to engage in any perspicuous critique of the events in Gaza and the response to it around the world. 


The Supposed Elitism of Palestinian Resistance


This is where the article takes a turn, and I wonder if it doesn’t reveal something a bit more insidious about Walzer’s position. While Walzer frames his piece around either the legitimacy or illegitimacy of resistance, his primary concern is actually addressing those who either support or criticize certain forms of resistance. Namely, you and me. Of course, his critique of the direct military activities and those in the wider community witnessing them are integrally related. However, he refracts his critique of direct resistance through a conceptual grid established by, what we might call, the master signifier of liberal discourse. 

This master signifier is what sets the parameters for how any possible critique might be taken up in the first place. It sets the rules for how to interpret the events playing out in Gaza. And, importantly, it carries with it barriers that if crossed allow for censure to be cast upon those who misstep beyond the appropriate bounds of the correct forms of thinking. 


Walzer’s primary target is, therefore, those who ignorantly and naively support the illegitimate regime of Hamas and its putatively unjustified utopian zealotry. Therefore, because they betray the rules of the boundaries of legitimacy, their support is deemed irrational. They support terror because, he believes, they have a misguided moral compass rooted in a blind support for the weaker. Therefore, not only does he castigate such supporters for their irrationalism, he sideswipes such support as de facto emotionally immature. His claim is that these supporters have forgotten “their obligations to you and me.” And this is due to the fact that they are infantile subjects who need a protector to remind them of their social responsibilities – namely, him. 


It’s no surprise that Walzer positions himself in this way. In his book The Struggle for a Decent Politics: On “Liberal” as an Adjective, he reflects on his career advocating for democracy, socialism, nationalism, communitarianism, feminism, academia, and Judaism by abstracting his orientation in moral terms as “open-minded, generous, and tolerant.” This is his ethical antidote to zealotry, as the adjective “liberal” is characterized by a perpetual refining of any ideological commitments. Thus, the ethical political orientation Walzer advocates is one where the signifier “liberal” floats across political concepts (such as nationalism, communitarianism, etc), transversing them and refining them according to a spirit of a “decent politics.” If this truly is his last book, as he hints in the preface, we can see this sentiment as a sort of quilting point binding together and situating his entire conceptual career. In other words, his concerns regarding the obligations of the oppressed must be understood in the context of the establishment of a “decent politics.” In the adjectival sense, these obligations are liberal obligations. 


The Atlantic article is not the first time he has addressed the obligations of the oppressed. In 1970, Walzer wrote an essay in Commentary entitled “The Obligations of Oppressed Minorities.” A much more detailed exposition, this early essay spends considerable time working through the boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable forms of resistance among oppressed minority groups. He centers his analysis on black rights struggles in the US and ultimately purports that those movements that center the needs of the people they are claiming to fight for act in ways that are accordingly responsible to the desires of that community. Yet, those who act for themselves, or for the furtherance of their institutional priority, on the other hand, prove that they are not representatives of a democratic ethos, but are a counter-elite unconcerned with “the general struggle for freedom and equality” in favor of campaigning “their own struggle for recognition and power.” 


The example he gives is structured across a sample debate between Robert Williams and Harold Cruse. Williams advocated for guerrilla warfare so that black retribution would reverberate through the weight of their deaths. Not only would the fight be brought to the dominant power, but, because of the nature of asymmetric warfare, this fight guarantees significant losses for the guerrilla fighters, which signals a dignified form of death in the universal struggle for liberation that would pierce through society. Cruse, on the other hand, argued that their people didn’t want revolution but equal rights. Thus, as Walzer comments, the system could not be flouted because “equal rights cannot be won by a revolutionary attack upon the social and political structures within which equality is being sought.” Cruse avers that the revolutionary struggle and its attendant deaths are ultimately in vain because the struggle is driven by “illusory objectives.” It is the product of directionless “young warrior adventurism,” which precludes the possibility for the larger institutional and cultural work needed for the oppressed minority to gain its real goal: equal rights within a transformed system. The distinction Walzer draws from this is between the one who is purportedly a victim of “total violence” and one who experiences some benefits of democratic society. 


The revolutionary sentiment of Williams positions itself as though it experienced total violence. Thus, the spontaneous violence that bursts from under such conditions “may well be justified.” In a statement reminiscent of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Preface to Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, Walzer claims that we cannot easily judge the actions of those under total violence because we (those experiencing democratic inclusion) are implicated in their condition and thus “we must face up to the causes of their rage.” However, Walzer appeals to Cruse to question if black oppression is truly an experience of total violence. And his answer is that it is not because they are, in fact, oppressed citizens. That is, they are “formally free and equal.” Thus, their discontent does not emerge, as in, say, the abused slave under the master’s whip, but through formal political contestation. Which means that, for Walzer, there is a formalism that creates a possible site of contestation where the political action ought to be carried out. And this formalism is within the bounds of the obligations of the democratic state. Therefore, the rules must be respected by the activist to the degree that the rules can be bent towards the inclusion of the oppressed minority. However, “if [the activist] acts to undermine the rules themselves, he benefits no one; he makes future action more difficult. Then he breaks faith both with the oppressed and with his fellow citizens.” That is, the activist betrays those they represent, and also you and me


This betrayal runs deep, for Walzer, because it is rooted in political double speak. The language of liberation and appeals to glory and heaven are invoked but, in reality, these appeals are cover by “the man who uses the open arena of political life to express his terrible anger, to talk loosely of violence and revolution.” Shrouded in mystifications that demand “dispassionate, tireless, utterly honest” criticism, the revolutionary consciousness is an esoteric counter-elitist orientation blinded by its mere opposition. The more mature intellectual activity is to not only align with the cause of the oppressed but to also imagine from the perspective of the formal system that sets the conditions. This establishes “the right of criticism,” for Walzer, and gives insight into the “situation, ideology, arguments, and choices, that must be imaginatively entered into and intellectually joined.” 


This is a similar bifurcation between the revolutionary socialist consciousness and the trade union one in his Atlantic article. However, in this earlier formulation, the emphasis on counter-elitism reveals much about his current complaints towards those who support Palestinian resistance. His concern is that support for Palestine issues from an out of touch, mystifying counter-elitism incapable of ascertaining facts that would enable a more astute analysis and therefore orientation to the situation in Gaza. This is how he creates the parallel between the illegitimate governance of Hamas and those who support Palestinian resistance beyond platitudes to a fanciful two-state solution. Hamas are no democratic institution. And they have no regard for the formalism that makes up the global democratic order that putatively situates Palestinians as formally free and equal. They are only concerned with furthering their power, despite the people they are meant to represent. Similarly, global supporters around the world of Palestinian resistance are mystified because they, too, are trapped within an elitist framework that blinds their would-be fidelity to the real needs of Gazans. It is a putative elitist ideology that entraps a collective consciousness, in the first instance, for Walzer; an elitism that is ultimately unconcerned for the suffering of those it purports to care for. 


The assumption here is that these misguided minds are selfishly inclined in their interests, incapable of serving the oppressed minority in any robust sense because their very orientation precludes any duty of care, whereas Walzer’s “decent politics” centers the oppressed minority within the formalist structure and is thereby able to attend to what they really want: equal rights. 


Obligations Require Total Inclusion


The great twist in all of this is that Walzer appears to be separating himself from a certain irrational political maelstrom of a misguided left (is he not engaging in a type of boomer critique of the woke youth?), when in reality he is engaging in the very culture war that his position appears to decry. His critique of counter-elitism is itself an elitist formalist position proposing a “decent politics” by wielding the signifier of “liberal,” which is meant to bring the kiddos back in line so they can appropriately take part in the “you and me.” But by establishing the bounds of the ‘us' to which appropriate expression must remain faithful, he is, ironically, establishing a dogma that creates the very type of inclusion/exclusion that he has built a career in criticizing. Perhaps this is because he has a blind spot for Israel. Or, perhaps, the more insidious inner workings find root in the very liberal framework that grounds his orientation. After all, this ‘us’ is precisely what is being contested by sentiments that support Palestinian resistance. 


The myth that Walzer has erected by establishing the bounds between the rational state agents of Israel vis-a-vis the irrational counter-elites of Hamas and its global deputies, is a fetish concealing an order of injustice per se – or perhaps we might speak in his own terms of an order of total violence. This order is what is being contested by those who give support to Palestinian justice in light of Israel’s siege on Gaza, and in those positions that attest to the righteous anger of the oppressed minority. This is where the beginnings of anti-colonial sentiment find their voice. As Fanon details in Wretched of the Earth, it is the unconscious rage of the colonized that bursts forth in a creative activity creating new forms of what being human might even mean. A humanism more human than what’s on offer.


Thus, their resistance is to the injustice constituent within the framework that situates them in their position as less-than-human. Walzer’s failure to admit of this fundamental exclusion of oppressed Gazans, who Israeli representatives have explicitly dehumanized in rhetoric and action, prevents him from criticizing the formal structure itself. Because it is not just the structure itself, but the structuring of the structure that is under dispute by the resistance. This means that inclusion into the structure, via acceptable means, that respect the rules of the system, will always-already formally enclose its members into a political order that is itself the source of suspicion for those who aren’t currently experiencing the full benefits of its offers. To turn Walzer’s own argument against him, if the offer of inclusion in, say, a two-state solution is to convert Palestinians who are currently experiencing total violence into “oppressed citizens,” how is that an offer worthy of consideration? Of course, Walzer’s position denies that they are experiencing total violence in the terms he’s elaborated. But how can anyone, in good faith, look at Gaza and honestly claim that they are formally free and equal members of a democratic order that merely needs a little fine-tuning among its citizenry and democratic structures?


And this is where Walzer’s blind spot reveals the deeper issue. Because he is so concerned with the liberal order and its preservation in the name of a decent politics, he can only engage at the level of a paternalist seeking to police the boundaries of acceptable discourse. What’s worse is that this prevents him from being able to understand how it is possible to support revolutionary resistance without necessarily justifying their actions. This is because, for him, support for Palestine has tipped into a selfish, immature and irrational esoteric elitism. Therefore, there is no rational agency afforded to those he is censuring.


Yet, we can look to Fanon for an alternative, as Fanon himself is known for despising violence, but also seeing it as necessary. This is because it is clearly possible to critique violence from a principled perspective, while also comprehending the source of violent resistance that emerges in the peripheries of a system built upon exclusion. This does not mean the violent sentiment is irrational. Rather, it means it emerges from a position beyond the bounds established by an order that self-legitimates in order to police its established boundaries. It is a form of rationality that contests injustice by refusing to accept the boundaries of the rational established by the order that lays claim to the totality of that which is rational versus that which is not. And in this rejection of the established order, there is also a rejection of the obligations foisted onto possible acts of resistance, because only if one is a full member of the community can there be any expected sense in which its members might serve one another. And this membership cannot be merely formal – it must be total


 


 


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