RICHARD PITHOUSE: Liberal aporia and the Palestinian question
The freedoms of some, of the West, legitimate the devastation of others
Frans Cronje is a leading voice in the now often strident affirmation of classical liberalism as wholly virtuous, the only ethically legitimate form of politics. His recent article in Business Day breaks ranks with liberal convention and publicly shares its open but nonetheless most guarded secret (“The war in Gaza and the stark test it demands of liberal democrats”, November 14).
Cronje lists what he deems to be eight misrepresentations about Israel. Taken together they may appear to be staggering in their accumulated disregard for established facts. But a closer look shows that the primary logic animating his list of “misrepresentations” is not a denial of empirical realities but rather a denial of the equal humanity of Israelis and Palestinians.
Take, as one example, his opening assertion that it is a “misrepresentation” that “the Palestinians are fighting for land taken from them by Jews in 1948”. The evidence Cronje offers to support this astonishing assertion is that (1) Jews have lived in what is now Israel and Palestine for thousands of years and (2) there has never been a Palestinian nation state. These are both facts, but clearly neither disproves the plain fact that Palestinians were dispossessed of land and homes in 1948, or that this dispossession continues.
Moreover, neither of the two facts cited by Cronje legitimate the dispossession of Palestinians in 1948. After all, Cornish people have lived in England for thousands of years but anyone proposing that this gives Cornish people the right to dispossess others of their land and homes and set up an ethnically exclusive Cornish state would be dismissed as a crank. Anyone arguing that because there was not a precolonial nation state congruent with the borders of what is now SA, colonial dispossession was legitimate, would quite rightly not be taken seriously. The two facts Cronje deploys to justify his conclusion simply have no bearing at all on that conclusion.
He does not dispute the well-documented empirical facts of what happened in 1948, during which a campaign of armed terror resulted in about 700,000 Palestinians fleeing their homes and land, and the destruction of about 500 Palestinian villages. Given that he does not dispute these facts it seems that when he insists it is a “misrepresentation” that Palestinians were dispossessed of land in 1948, what he actually means is that it is a misrepresentation to assert that this was an injustice. In other words, his denialism appears to be about the right of Palestinian people to count as people with the right to have rights, rather than the empirical fact of their violent dispossession in 1948.
The sanctity of property is central to all forms of liberalism, but Cronje is entirely dismissive about the loss of property suffered by Palestinians in 1948. He would surely respond quite differently if, say, white South Africans were dispossessed of their property in this way. There is a clear double standard at play, of liberal rights being extended to some but not to all, and there is a clear racial dimension to that double standard.
Classical liberalism is usually understood by its partisans to rest on three pillars: the defence of private property, individual liberty and a public sphere marked by tolerance and reason. There are a variety of forms of liberalism in theory and in practice, but the record of the dominant forms of actually existing liberalism is one in which these rights are not extended to all. Over its long durée the essence of the liberal project has been the affirmation of rights and freedoms for some at the cost of devastation for others.
Liberalism has two great philosophers, John Locke and John Stuart Mill. Both supported liberal rights for some at the direct expense of others. Locke, often taught as “the father of liberalism” in American universities, proposed rights and participation in a public sphere marked by reason and tolerance for some and the expropriation of the commons, enslavement and child labour (from the age of three) for others. But Mill provides the pithiest one liner on the essential logic of liberalism: “despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians”.
This logic marks the great liberal revolutions and the liberal societies formed by these revolutions. Take the US. After its liberal revolution in 1783 slavery was expanded. The ringing prose of the Declaration of Independence did not apply to all and was not intended to apply for all. Neither enslaved Africans nor indigenous people were deemed to have been created equal, or to have been endowed with unalienable rights. The right to pursue life, liberty and happiness was granted to some at the direct expense of the devastation of others.
The US continues to apply this double standard today, and to do so on a planetary scale. It has invaded, bombed and sanctioned a long list of countries at the cost of millions of lives. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 is widely thought to have resulted in more than 1-million deaths.
The US usually insists that it is killing for freedom and democracy, and on occasion the emancipation of women. But, of course no society has been bombed into liberal democracy. The political outcomes of US or US-backed military interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya are altogether grim. Killing in the name of democracy is not the same thing as killing for democracy. Moreover, the US has often supported dictators and organised or backed coups against elected governments, perhaps most infamously in Chile in 1973 but also more recently, such as in Haiti in 2004 and Bolivia in 2019.
The term “barbarians” has long been out of fashion, but its logic endures. Despotism is taken as a legitimate form of government for Haitians. Vastly more weight is given to the life and freedoms of a Ukrainian or Israeli than to a Haitian, Iraqi or Palestinian. While this is generally denied in the abstract the liberal mask occasionally slips, such as in 1996 when Madeleine Albright, at the time the US ambassador to the UN, was asked about the half-million deaths of Iraqi children as the result of US sanctions. She replied that “the price, we think, the price is worth it”.
The line that liberalism has always drawn between those who have a right to have rights and those who do not, those who can be excluded, oppressed, exploited or even murdered with impunity, is no longer impermeable to people who would have been forced to sit in the back of the bus under Jim Crow. These days cultural incorporation into the West, increasingly identified as a Judeo-Christian civilisation rather than a solely Christian civilisation, can enable entry into liberalism’s sanctified circle. But granting entry to people like Colin Powell in the US and Suella Braverman in Britain does not mean people outside that circle are no longer considered barbarians, as people who can be bombed or deported to Rwanda.
Cronje concludes his piece by saying that “Israel is a Western-style liberal democracy” and clearly implies that its wholesale murder of civilians in Gaza, including children, is “an acceptable price for preserving its democracy”. Here he makes explicit what liberalism, aside from occasional slips like Albright’s comment, usually keeps implicit. The freedoms of some, of the West, legitimate the devastation of others — those who used to be called barbarians.
• Pithouse is director of The Forge, a space for performance and public discussion in Johannesburg, and a research associate in the philosophy department at the University of Connecticut.