Beyond Terrorism and Militarism: An Alternative to Surplus Political Violence
People who act as if terrorists aren’t responsible for their actions are de facto apologists for terrorists. The same for militarists. Those who simply blame Israel for all of Hamas’s actions eliminate free will. Those who simply blame Hamas for all of Israel’s actions similarly eliminate free will. Terrorism is triggered by grievances and the mobilizing capacity and free will or agency of terrorists. Militarism is triggered by grievances and the mobilizing capacity and free will or agency of militarists. The necessary call for a cease fire rightly assumes that Israel has agency to stop slaughter. Similarly that logic of agency suggests that Hamas was not compelled to act out of a sense of grievance. This argument derives from Jean-Paul Sartre’s analysis of responsibility in the face of grievances which he makes in the book Anti-Semite and Jew. Claims that Hamas militants used drugs to dull their sense of responsibility before committing mass murder further underlines the logic here. It should be noted, however, that some grievances are more valid than others.
Militaries can use “terror” (think about the US bombing of Iraq or Russia’s bombing of Ukraine) and terrorists can use military power (think about the recent Hamas border incursion or ISIS’s use of military power to enhance terror). Yet, there are key distinctions between the warring parties in the cycle of violence between state and non-state actors directing violence and these can be readily identified, e.g. we know that ISIS and the US military were on opposing sides. State and non-state actors can combine military power and terror, but the larger point here is that they both engage in the surplus use of political violence. It is precisely the aspects of their similarity and not difference which is being emphasized here, although the differences can be important.
The Limits of Right and Left
The war in Ukraine exposed the limits of part of the electoral left to oppose militarism. The Israel-Gaza crisis now exposes part of the social movement left’s inability to oppose terrorism. In the former (“solidarity” with Ukraine), the left supported the very forces that part of the left now opposes, i.e. the U.S. militarist system now aligned with Israel. In the latter (“solidarity” with Hamas), the part of the left supporting Hamas now supports the very Iran-Russian alliance engaged in violence against Ukraine. Of course, some support weapons for Ukraine but not Hamas or vice versa. This hardly reverses the geopolitical labyrinth in which significant or visible segments of the left are trapped in. Politicians in the Republican Party and others blindly championing military aid for Israel and opposing aid for Ukraine merely reveal their “coherence” in supporting transnational militarism at the expense of more equitable and efficient diplomatic solutions. Part of the Democratic Party has hoped to gain domestically by supporting militarism without diplomacy in Ukraine. Part of the Republican Party has hoped to gain domestically by supporting militarism without diplomacy in Israel. Various parties believe political violence is the only solution when it is the epitome of a systemic failure. Even when some coherence in the Democratic Party emerges (condemning Israel, anti-Semitism, and oppression of Palestinians), it is not usually linked to any coherent program of demilitarization per se, e.g. as opposed to specific votes on military aid packages and “even handed” discourse.
This essay is a response to the painful and superficial analysis often found in parts of both the right and the left, where superficiality and avoidance of reality sometimes mirror each other. It is clear that terrorism and militarism are inter-related and twin evils, but moving beyond them requires more than flag waving platitudes and “solidarity.” The war on Ukraine has clearly illustrated how quickly “solidarity” morphs into militarism, which I define as the surplus use of violence to achieve aims over and above legitimate, possible or worth fighting for security aims. I am not talking about pacificism, in which violence is always deemed immoral. I am talking about cycles of violence, which often render the use of military violence counter-productive to achieve basic security needs. As the Parisian School of International Relations states: “security can lead to (in)security” (with an unfortunate deployment of parentheses). This essay argues that we need to establish a movement beyond terrorism and militarism, an analysis that builds on my earlier observations about the 9-11 crisis. It is also worth noting Seymour Melman’s observation: “It is appreciated that guerilla forces cannot be overcome by superior equipment and numbers if the guerillas are ready to die, if they have popular support, and if the enemy cannot differentiate them from ordinary people. Hence the U.S. defeat in Vietnam.” So we see the constraints placed on militarism. Yet, there are similar constraints on terrorism to achieve its aims as terrorist attacks trigger military counter-attacks and so on. Of course, if you use Orwellian logic to deny that terrorists even exist, you can turn a blind eye on terrorism and even militarism for that matter.
Terrorism and militarism are twin evils, but parts of the left and right are unable to accept this basic reality because they engage in moral relativism and knowledge resistance. Even if one party has more power and responsibility in historical sequencing and choice, the cycle of violence illustrates how certain actors with less power can have more responsibility or a great deal of responsibility for perpetuating the cycle of violence. This cycle occurs when someone in group or party X kills someone in group or party Y, and then group Y attacks X, and so on. Even if party X is far more powerful than party Y, they can be triggered by party Y to do things that they would not necessarily do, or do at a scale greater than they would. Let us assume that party X is the paragon of evil. If that were the case, protesting against X would do nothing. Change in X requires doing things like finding splits within X's constituency base, and working with the more enlightened parts of X. The same goes for Y. The creation of such splits is rendered difficult to impossible by staking out partisan positions which simply reflect the existential reality of X or Y. The structural power advantages of X don’t mitigate the choices of Y in the use of tactics, in how power deficits are transcended, in the use or more or less legitimate or authentic opposition.
In addition, many will resist this logic by simply defending the moral claims of their side. Each side has moral claims which create limits found in moral absolutism. But moral balance represents a way beyond moral relativism and absolutism. Various authoritarian, hyper-critical, post-modern, and opportunist approaches make moral balance impossible. Universities, social movements, transnational corporations, the military-industrial complex, and other actors are often agents against moral balance. Left and right movements often take the form of public relations and advertising agencies, perhaps because social movements, fundamentalists, NGOs, mass media and other such actors are subject to corporate and foundation patronage or gain support from governments which flatten reality and nuance. Even when corporate patronage is lacking, movements can easily create self-confirming bubbles that oppose nuance.
The following figure (Figure 1) reveals Google Trends data as of October 20, 2023. The blue reflects points assigned to Google searches for “Israeli genocide” and “Palestinian genocide.”
Figure 1: Google Trends Search for “Palestinian Genocide” (Red) and “Israeli Genocide“ (Blue)
Source: Google Trends search by author, October 20, 2023 (10:45, Stockholm time).
End Colonialism and Varieties of Post-Colonialism
Etan Nechin writes that “numerous scholars and writers cited post-colonial thinkers like Frantz Fanon and CLR James to justify violence as an act of ‘decolonization.'” But Nechin explains that “bludgeoning a Filipino migrant worker to death with a shovel isn’t an act of liberation; gunning down a fleeing Bedouin woman in a hijab isn’t resistance; murdering and defiling a body of a young German citizen isn’t about liberation.” Identitarian and so-called “post-colonial” approaches are insufficient for explaining the cycle of violence. In this cycle, militarism helps beget terrorism and terrorism helps beget militarism (not counting other variables in the mix). The core problem is how such approaches often involve the deployment of reductionistic dualisms. Within the Israeli/Jewish vector, there are vast differences. The same goes for the Arab/Palestinian/Muslim/Christian vector. In addition, we have forces on both sides who are acting against the best interests of their population, despite the tendency by some to claim that there are homogeneous identity blocs. Edward Said noted these internal problems on the Palestinian side and various commentators like Noam Chomsky and Seymour Melman pointed out the splits within the Israeli side. One argument could be that these divisions within Israel are irrelevant because the Israeli left and peace movement are marginalized and/or insignificant. Yet, one could say the same of the peace movements in the United States, Sweden, the United Kingdom and other countries given the post-Ukraine-invasion military build-up. So the clarity or coherence rather than the size of the minority oppositional forces becomes important in this context. I elaborate why this is so in the last section of this essay.
An ironic development is that while part of the left seeks open and flexible borders for migration purposes (borders that change), they recycle maps of Israel/Palestine where they want closed and inflexible borders (borders that don’t change). The facts of certain changed borders, and the encroachment therein, are beyond doubt, but the other side is that the terms for the weaker party to make peace deals with greater land concessions has deteriorated over time because of rebuffing of peace deals. The counter-factual argument is that these deals were bad deals. For example, the argument that the Oslo process was basically designed to fail, but obviously the power to redesign that process was also designed to fail. The incompetence of the elites was matched by the lack of power or competence of those opposing the elites. There are still better deals in two-state solutions, but these are opposed by extremists and short-termism as well as fatalism. The two-state solution is also opposed by those arguing that the settlements preclude a viable Palestinian state. Yet, one might argue that it is easier to remove these settlements or radically reduce them than to dismantle the Israeli state (through a one state solution) as Noam Chomsky himself argues or implies.
It is also worth noting that certain varieties of “post-colonialism” have little to do with the ideas of Frantz Fanon and Edward Said. Fanon did not simply valorize the right of victims to engage in violence. He also advocated the creation of non-violent counter institutions (although these may have abetted violent revolution in the case of Algerian liberation). Fanon also noted that oppressed peoples could generate their own hierarchies and be oppressors. Similarly, Said did not simply argue that Israelis were colonizers and Palestinians victims. He also argued that Palestinians could be internally colonized by their administrators (although he saw Israeli responsibility for expropriation and violence as paramount). The Netanyahu government has involved a form of Israeli internal colonization by extremists.
A final point worth considering is the argument made by Zachary Foster, an historian of Palestine. He refers to a petition by Yuval Noah Harari which criticized “leftist ‘indifference’ to Hamas atrocities,” as an article in The Guardian explained. In a tweet on X, Foster writes: “To place 100% of the blame on Israel and 0% of the blame on Hamas for the atrocities committed by Hamas members is obviously ridiculous. But to spend precious time & energy right now to gather these signatures for something other than an immediate call for a ceasefire and an immediate opening of Gaza to aid is committing the same moral failure of the global left that you are criticizing in this petition. Namely, look at what is happening before your eyes right now — an impending genocide — and focus on that.”
Foster is correct that we should focus energy on promoting a ceasefire. As far as I am concerned, that’s not a point worth debating. But Foster fails to understand how part of the left’s repressive tolerance of Hamas weakens the case against militarists and gives ammunition to right-wing media outlets like Fox News and their political allies. All one has to do is to scrawl through a few Youtube videos on Fox News or from The New York Post to see that left stupidity is an essential part of the front line propaganda campaign to support Israel’s bombing of Gaza and planned invasion. While the right often lies, the most effective propaganda often contains a grain of truth which can be very powerful as Jacques Ellul argued. Those on the left defending Hamas are also subverting truth. Therefore, cleaning up the left’s act is part and parcel of an effort to stop the bombing. As just one example, Swedish Television explained that at a recent (October 22, 2023) pro-Palestinian demonstration in Stockholm, “Sulaiman Abualfita compared the kidnapping of Israeli children by the terrorist organization Hamas with the Swedish social services’ application of the LVU (law on the care of young people).” Abualfita said that Sweden’s prime minister, Ulf Kristersson, shouldn’t “accuse Palestinians of having kidnapped 20 Israeli children, while thousands of children are being kidnapped by your authority called the social services.” Ahmad al-Mughrabi, a key organizer of this demonstration, was himself is a critic of LVU. The false claim about Swedish social services kidnapping children has undermined Sweden’s security, which has weakened as part of a backlash against Koran burnings in the country. This incident illustrates how even mainstream television can use mis-steps by the “solidarity” movement to help undermine its legitimacy. Elsewhere the leading Swedish newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, has exposed the problematic aspects of elements in the Swedish Left Party in opposing Hamas, although the critique itself was confused.
Foster’s way of thinking that there are simply if not only clear lines here with privileged victims and victimizers of the moment, fails to underline how victims themselves are undermined by their alleged allies’ way of speaking and acting. He legitimates the petition but undermines it in the same breath. Rather, a division of labor is needed to overcome the problems generated by both parts of the left and the dominant right-wing (and Democratic/Republican) drum beat for war and massacres from the air. But, Foster represents a kind of cousin of cancel culture with its neat moral hierarchies, absence of nuance and falling into line mentality. A moral smugness is linked to a kind of tone deaf narcissism about Israelis’ sense of grief and existential realities that he has decided for them. This mirrors the counterparts among Israelis who lack empathy for those Palestinians under assault who might not prioritize Israeli victims in their thinking and acting. There are of course many who have empathy for all of the relevant victims.
The Geo-Political Alignments of Left and Right Fractions: Recycling Terrorism and Militarism
As in the Russia-Ukraine war, we have the selection of favored victims (what Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman called “worthy victims“) to create narratives. In contrast our favored victims (or parties claiming affiliation with them) can also be victimizers and vice versa. A discourse of demilitarization, social and economic reconstruction, through economic democracy and expanded political democracy, together with Perestroika and Glasnost is necessary to address corruption, surplus violence, atrocities, democracy constraints and knowledge resistance among all parties. Yet, transformative change in Perestroika and Glasnost is opposed by the alliance with (and capture of parts of the left and right by) larger geo-political forces.
In the case of the left, we can start with this statement which was analyzed by The New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg, “The Massacre in Israel and the Need for a Decent Left,” October 12, 2003: “Students for Justice in Palestine, a network of pro-Palestinian campus groups, is holding Day of Resistance demonstrations across the United States and Canada. A planning document the group posted online refers to all of Israel as a ‘settler colony’ and says, ‘Settlers are not “civilians” in the sense of international law, because they are military assets used to ensure continued control over stolen Palestinian land.’” Other news or social media accounts have made reference to student posters celebrating Hamas terrorist hand gliders or other defenses of Hamas. Here part of the left identifies with Hamas, an entity aligned with an Iranian regime which has slaughtered countless persons including dozens of children, albeit mostly within their own (Iran’s) borders. Each side of this conflict has murdered systemic reformers and peace activists or engaged in actions which led to that. So we see a linkage between part of the left, Hamas, and the Iranian regime. This linkage system involves a weapons flow from Iran to Gaza and elsewhere, as well as the nurturing of local weapons production. Legitimating violence against civilians creates a slippery slope that can be used to justify unjustified militarism. Reports of more direct Iranian engagement are already on the agenda. The part of the left which is aligned with Hamas or involved in repressive tolerance of terrorism has led to a growing fracture with part of the Jewish liberal to left spectrum.
The Eisenhower Administration’s coup against democracy in Iran, involving the CIA in 1953, shows how even the right is involved in this nexus of power. Israel’s enabling of Hamas has been documented The Times of Israel and in Ha’aretz. Despite the right-wing responsibility for Hamas (and its exterior parent, Iran), the right does not endorse or support Hamas explicitly now, nor do they condone them. This represents a significant difference.
In the case of the right, it is very clear that there is a linkage among the United States, Israel and far-right forces within both countries. The linkage between the U.S. and Israel has been outlined in books like The Iron Triangle. This pattern involves billions of dollars of U.S. military aid to Israel and an absence of linkage of arms transfers to requirements that actually limited settler expansion. During Russia’s militarist attack on Ukraine, the European left itself became more drawn into either supporting NATO or supporting the militarist expansion that represents a de facto embrace of NATO. So, there are severe limits to the idea that the left and right are always divided over alignment with the U.S. and its militarist network.
Despite left-wing embrace of militarism in Europe and elsewhere, this development (at least based on the Swedish case) was triggered by a series of moves initiated by the bourgeois or right-wing parties. The moves began by those in the right-wing party camp, followed by collapse of Social Democrats and their intellectuals, then followed by those within the left parties. These fell like dominoes, although the order of the dominoes was sometimes random. Part of the problem is that left-to-Social Democratic political credibility is often based on endorsing militarism, such that sociological legitimacy (popularity) is leveraged to decompose moral legitimacy (which is right as opposed to wrong). Legitimating violence against civilians creates a slippery slope that can be used to justify unjustified terrorism.
The left and right will often rally behind claims of “self-defense” and the claim that every nation/people has the right to defend itself. That idea might make sense in the short-to-medium term but in the end often becomes the route to pathological self-destruction. NATO’s expansion eastward and Russian endogenous factors promoted war in Ukraine. Hamas and the Israeli elites have encouraged each other’s dystopian, path-dependency of the short-to-medium term. A possible emerging set of geopolitical divides will lead parts of the right and left to block reconstruction and reinforce mutually-assured-implosion.
The Way Out
We have seen immoral and dysfunctional violence and expansionism. There are many Israelis and Palestinians engaged in promoting an equitable settlement of the conflict, but they have been hindered by established parties in various governments and extremists on both sides. Even sympathetic European governments trying to advance equitable solutions have often carried on with sloppy, superficial and self-serving symbolic interventions that are largely beside the point. In contrast, the basic principles of economic and social reconstruction involve a system that links demilitarization and justice and the promotion of economic integration (and mutual support) when advisable and economic decoupling (and autonomous development) when advisable. This is a tall order which will be necessary in the political cycle that opens up in periods of post-war reconstruction. Yet, I have tried here to show that parts of the left and right are off the pathway to advance necessary reconstruction. The legitimate security needs of Palestinians and Israelis cannot be denied. Yet, the entanglement of these needs with militarist expansionism and geopolitical alignments is a dangerous, dystopian and a deadly dead-end.
By force of logic, contingency always supersedes path-dependency. As Simone Weil explained in “A Note on Social Democracy”: “Anyone who invented a method of assembly which could avoid the extinction of thought in each of the participants would make a revolution in human history comparable to the discovery of fire, or of the wheel, or of the use of implements.” Therefore, “that state of men’s imagination at a given moment dictates the limits within which power can be effectively used, at that moment, so as to produce real results.” A given state of imagination may lead “a government to take a certain measure three months before it becomes necessary, while at the moment when it is necessary the imagination cannot be persuaded to accept it.” Yet, such necessary foresight (made evident in various security crises), might require a break with consensus culture. This culture infects significant parts of both right and left.
This essay is not a defense of any action by the belligerent parties. Acts of desperation have led to irrational, immoral and horrible consequences. My main goal has been to examine the limits to surplus political violence with greater analytical clarity. On the Ralph Nader Radio Hour, broadcast originally on October 14, 2023, Bruce Fine discusses the concept of “co-belligerence” in war. Fine labeled the U.S. as a co-belligerent with respect to Israel, not saying much about Iran’s role as a co-belligerent with respect to Hamas. Nader said both sides have “the right to defend themselves.” What does this right mean when the defenders in both cases are highly problematic, linked to systematic human rights abuses? When Hamas terror is termed “resistance,” we have an Orwellian devaluation of language. When Israel’s disproportionate actions are deployed, they similarly devalue the idea of self-defense. The Radio Hour discussed this idea of disproportionate actions. The problem, however, is that there will be short-term calculations of self-defense on either side of the conflict which may have a moral sanction (depending on the audience/constituency) but in practical if not ethical terms lead nowhere in the long-run.
Some argue that non-violence has failed to help the Palestinian cause. At least that is what some scholars appear to be saying. In a Tweet on X (October 20, 2022), Yanis Varoufakis writes: “Here is a mental experiment for all of us who crave Peace: Suppose Hamas & IJ were to surrender immediately and unconditionally. Suppose that every Palestinian renounced violence along the lines of the Palestinian Authority. Then what? What should happen next? What says you?” Elsewhere he writes: “There is nothing that can justify deliberate violence against non-combatants.” While noting the failures of the Oslo peace process, as identified by Edward Said, his position is somewhat confusing or ambiguous. Just because badly designed peace processes fail, does not mean that terrorism is justified or will work in achieving goals. Varoufakis says in one place that terrorism is not justified, but he suggests (or appears to suggest) that just stopping terrorism is not necessarily going to lead to peace. Is he correct? He is half correct, but not sufficiently or completely correct, or begs the question. Take your pick.
If terrorists were to stop being terrorists that would end the violence of terrorists. It would not end the violence of militarists. If Varoufakis means that, he is on to something. But that something raises more questions than answers. One reason why the latter (militarist) violence does not end is because the left is itself badly designed and fails to marshal its resources properly. The left suffers from what Michael Lerner calls “surplus powerlessness.” In my terms this expression means that the left does not use its resources properly because it is badly designed and reproduces the scarcity condition it faces vis–à-vis the military industrial complex, warfare state, militarism generally and its complex of power rooted in not just military capital, but also economic, political and media capital. Surplus powerlessness relates to failed designs of social movements, including peace movements. The ability of a social movement to grow and systematically accumulate power begins with its designs, hence its clarity and coherence alluded to earlier.
The failure to generate an alternative to militarized capital is underscored by various critiques of the design of social movements made by Paul Goodman, Seymour Melman, Bob Overy and Alexander Cockburn. These failures create a power vacuum with respect to militarism. The Hamas-supporting parts of the left believe that they are going to fill that vacuum by aligning with terrorists. Instead, this kind of alignment has simply provided political capital for the right to de-legitimize the left, enhance the cycle of violence triggered by militarists and provoke a right-wing backlash if not also old-fashioned repression. The alternatives to identitarian and reductionistic “post-colonial” arguments comes by fashioning a system based on alternative mechanisms to accumulate power in a democratic fashion, i.e. economic and social reconstruction. Varoufakis apparently understands this idea, but his choice of language does not always leave me convinced that he does so. While articulate on requirements for demoratic economies, I don’t see how he relates this understanding to the failed design of peace movements.
Support for terrorism arises in part from the scarcity in capital to oppose militarists, occupiers and entrenched elites (as well as dystopian ideologies of demagogues). Yet, militarism itself is sustained by this same scarcity condition. While the history of the New Left in supporting counter institutions was a step towards reconstruction that surpasses various levels of scarcity, the current Left reproduces the earlier New Left’s resort to protest, “resistance,” petitioning the system and overvaluing of foreign opposition movements to compensate for its failure to extend relevant counter institutions. We must learn from Paul Goodman and Seymour Melman that transcending political scarcity requires a critique of existing social movement approaches and the promotion of the counter institutions. The weakness or failures of the left in opposing both militarism and terrorism, as seen in the Ukraine War and Israeli-Hamas conflict, simply highlights the limits to part of the New Left trajectory which is now found in certain contemporary left factions.