The Middle Ground is Still a Mass Grave
How American Liberalism Enables Palestinian Genocide in Real Time
November 20, 2023
On the night of October 27, 2023, the state of Israel plunged Gaza into literal darkness. The few viral videos to have made it out feature Gazans screaming in anguish amidst carpet bombing and a telecommunications blackout. Blackouts are becoming a fixture of life in Gaza under siege, despite the frenzied pleas of humanitarian aid agencies trying to keep pace with the ongoing mass slaughter.
The bombardment and blackout have provided the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) with cover for a ground invasion of Gaza. Leaked documents, from the Israeli Intelligence Ministry and a think-tank associated with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, advocate for the “relocation and final settlement of the entire Gaza population,” a phrase that should profoundly alarm genocide scholars everywhere. Several Special Rapporteurs for the United Nations have warned of the very real prospects of mass ethnic cleansing and outright genocide, following the Israeli decimation of a hospital and a school in a refugee camp on October 17.
Ethnic Cleansing’s Cheerleaders and Challengers
Gaza, then, is at very real risk of becoming yet another mass grave as most of the world watches on in horror and outrage. In fact, this mass grave is already filled with over eleven thousand Palestinian bodies, including almost five thousand children. However, many have not been content to simply observe as genocide unfolds in real time. On the contrary: over the past three weeks, hundreds of thousands of people around the world, including within the imperial core of the United States itself, have raised the alarm about what’s happening in Palestine and called for a ceasefire. From Los Angeles to New York City, Palestinian solidarity protests have filled streets, parks, and public transportation hubs with the raucous chorus of opposition to war, genocide, and transnational settler-colonialism, on many occasions facing reprisals from Zionist counter-protesters and police forces.
And yet, the Biden administration continues to pledge its support for Israel, almost as if it’s reciting a perverse imperialist mantra. Its “blind support” for Israel was too much to stomach even for a stalwart facilitator of American militarism like Josh Paul, who—after overseeing arms transfers to U.S. allies for eleven years as a director in the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs—tendered his resignation.
Despite the introduction of a congressional ceasefire resolution by a small but widely-known crop of progressive lawmakers, including Rashida Tlaib, Cori Bush, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democratic Party establishment—from Chuck Schumer to Hakeem Jeffries—has backed Biden and, in turn, Israel’s increasingly unapologetic devastation of Palestinian lives, livelihoods, and land. Even putatively dissident progressives such as Bush and Ocasio-Cortez have prefaced whatever sympathies they have expressed towards Palestinians with vociferous condemnations of Hamas that, unintentionally or otherwise, reinforce false equivalencies grounded in duplicitous imperialist narratives about the seventy-five-year-long occupation of Palestine. Mainstream media organizations and commentators, as well as their Hollywood and social media counterparts, have uncritically and aggressively reiterated these falsehoods.
In short, notwithstanding recent moves towards limited “pauses,, the US’s pre-eminent talking heads have performed impressive mental gymnastics to manufacture consent for what could very well be a second Nakba (the “catastrophe” of 1948 that facilitated the state of Israel’s creation through the mass dispossession, displacement, and murder of Palestinians).
An Idea Whose Time Has Long Since Passed
Josh Paul’s acerbic diagnosis of the Biden administration’s “impulsive reaction” to Israel’s actions—which he attributed to “confirmation bias, political convenience, intellectual bankruptcy, and bureaucratic inertia”—arguably extends to liberalism under the conditions of neoliberalism as a whole, particularly within the context of the U.S. settler-colony.
This statement is actually a gross understatement of how much American liberalism has fallen from its lofty humanist perch. Appeals to democracy, equality, and other universal human rights ring rather hollow in the ears of Palestinians buried beneath mounds of rubble. At the same time, many critical political theorists argue that liberalism never had a sound claim to this lofty perch in the first place: on the contrary, it climbed over millions of poor, working-class, and colonized bodies to attain widespread recognition, legitimacy and respectability.
Renowned Martinican anti-colonial poet and author Aimé Césaire famously declared that “fascism is colonialism turned inward.” In his landmark essay, “Discourse on Colonialism,” Césaire emphatically denounced liberal critiques of authoritarianism, fascism, and genocide for failing to reckon with the horrors of imperialism visited upon colonized populations, as perhaps exemplified by the severed limbs of Congolese rubber tappers, the emaciated torsos of famine-stricken Indian peasants, and the scalps of Native Americans essentially hunted for sport. These liberal historical oversights are egregious precisely because classical liberalism underpinned and drove European—and later American—imperial and colonial incursions. American Studies scholar, Lisa Lowe, marshals an impressive body of historical evidence to support this claim, arguing that key liberal precepts such as citizenship, freedom, and private property were indelibly shaped by American settler-colonialism, the transatlantic slave trade, and unequal trade exchanges with the East Indies and China.
In this sense, the British colonial administrators who set the stage for Israel’s construction were driven by a distinctly liberal sense of superiority and the inextricably intertwined desire to bring that superiority to life by any means necessary.
Speaking more directly to the recent, mounting crises of liberal democracy worldwide, Marxist philosopher, Gabriel Rockhill, details how liberalism and fascism are not diametrically opposed political ideologies and tendencies but rather “partners in crime.” For a political ideology that regards liberalism as a symptom of weakness, corruption, and deception, fascism has been able to carve out an alarmingly sizeable and comfortable space within modern liberal democratic institutions, as late Indian Marxist, Aijaz Ahmed, also crucially highlighted in relation to Narendra Modi’s India.
Several key characteristics of liberalism—and especially of American liberalism—account for its compatibility with fascism and authoritarianism. Its hyperfixation on individualism in general and individual liberty in particular can and does prop up charismatic strongmen. Its all-encompassing conceptualization of free speech refuses to deny fascists a platform or actively provides them with one, while consistently failing to extend the same courtesy to antifascists or, for that matter, Palestinians, and those who stand in solidarity with them. The Biden White House, and over seventy Democratic lawmakers from the House of Representatives, have unceremoniously condemned the iconic Palestinian slogan, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free,” on the laughable grounds that it calls for “the genocide of the Jewish people.” After twenty-two Democrats voted with their Republican counterparts to censure Rashida Tlaib for defending the slogan, Illinois Representative Brad Schneider encapsulated the naked hypocrisy of liberal “free” speech when remarking, “Tlaib has the right to say whatever she wants. But it cannot go unanswered.” Meanwhile, Palestinians living on their occupied homeland have to make do with dying in silence.
Liberalism’s dogged insistence on nonviolence and other manifestations of bourgeois respectability further falsely render antifascist self-defense and anticolonial rebellion indistinguishable from fascist and imperialist belligerence, implicitly (or explicitly) condoning the state and para-state violence that typifies the latter. The insidious framing of the current assault as a war between Israel and Hamas (for which Hamas is primarily if not entirely culpable) goes hand-in-hand with the Zionist claim that every obliterated hospital, home, or school must have been a Hamas hideout. Curiously, most prominent Democrats zipped their lips as Israeli forces killed over two hundred protestors during the overwhelmingly nonviolent Great March of Return between 2018 and 2019. Perhaps Palestinian political strategy is less of a sticking point for US liberal power brokers than Palestinian existence as resistance, itself.
These flat understandings of individual agency, public dialogue, and civility are premised upon an even flatter rendering of history as the unstructured byproduct of individual ideas and the actions they inspire—“one damn thing after another,” as noted industrialist and notorious fascist sympathizer, Henry Ford, famously stipulated. As shown above, Western liberalism very much has a vested interest in downplaying, obscuring, and ideally erasing its own history of bloodstained world-making.
The present Israeli Zionist state is arguably a caricature of the US liberal democratic state’s past (and maybe a terrifying omen for its future, given the ever-growing domestic influence of white Christian ethnonationalism). Both polities have mythologized categorical and continuing settler-colonial extermination as the birth of liberty, equality, and fraternity. And, in both cases, these myths and the facades of diversity and tolerance erected around them are crumbling to reveal the historical monstrosities flailing beneath.
As essential as these characteristics might be to understanding the most apparent dynamics of liberal-fascist collusion, they do not, in and of themselves, grasp the underlying motivations or logics at hand. Here, Rockhill provides a concise but resounding clarification: “what fascism and liberalism share is their undying devotion to the capitalist world order.” In the final estimation, liberalism was, is, and will continue to be the ideology of capitalism. Founded by thinkers from the emergent colonial and imperialist bourgeois classes of Europe and North America and continually renewed by their global native bourgeois counterparts, it is at once a premise and a justification for past, present, and future capital accumulation. When Palestinian self-defense disrupts capital accumulation—not just by the Israeli state and its settlers but also by the numerous transnational corporations profiting enormously from the Zionist occupation—Palestinians at large become all the more expendable.
Whatever democratic openings and redistributive benefits liberalism has provided have usually been demanded or forced open by the insubordinate, oppressed masses. What’s more, these openings have largely been conditional upon capitalism’s continued operation to the fullest extent possible, which is to say that they have noticeably narrowed or altogether disappeared whenever the capitalist system has become mired in crisis. Any extension of these democratic openings beyond mere redistribution and towards liberation requires re-centering and solidarizing with the oppressed millions, if not billions, around the world who are increasingly excluded from even the meager gains of liberalism.
Liberalism may well have supplanted feudal institutions that were exceptionally exploitative and abusive in their own right. Nonetheless, its revolutionary trappings have long since been abandoned, as the economic contradictions it fundamentally upholds have overcome whatever capacity it might have had to resolve social and political crises, even temporarily. For these reasons, liberalism is an idea whose time has long since passed.
The current neoliberal era has produced a number of crises that are arguably unprecedented in capitalism’s five-hundred-year trajectory, chief among them the truly existential climate crisis. As these crises have accelerated and intensified, liberalism—which was already on a dubious historical, political, and ethical foundation to begin with—has become a mockery of its self-image, especially in the United States. Invocations of diversity, equity, and justice by liberal ideologues inevitably and almost immediately strike damning contrasts with the prevailing neoliberal landscape of Palestinian marginalization, absurd wealth inequality, naked racialized and gendered oppression, and evermore unrestrained state repression, not to mention increasingly desperate warmongering beyond US borders. Needless to say, the legacies and continuities of settler-colonialism underwrite this landscape both domestically and internationally in major ways, which should go some way towards explaining widespread liberal apathy or even hostility towards the plight of Palestinians.
Palestinian Lifelines at Liberalism’s Limits
As a settler-colony scrambling to hang on to its dominant position within the current international order, the United States recognizes Israel as a kindred spirit and accomplice that is similarly threatening to buckle under the weight of its own irresolvable contradictions. More concretely, permitting Israel’s genocidal assault on Palestinians is integral for the continued US geopolitical domination of West Asia / the “Middle East,” for continued capital accumulation by defense contractors and other major transnational corporate powerbrokers, and—as a result of the IDF’s global reach—for the heightened suppression of a wide range of Stateside progressive social movements. Pull at the thread of Palestine too long and the tattered fabric of the American settler-colony comes apart: Zionists have sardonically asked whether those demanding a free Palestine will subsequently call for decolonization on American soil, when that is arguably just what the US ruling class and its political functionaries fear.
In enabling Israel to dissipate the existential anxieties it shares with the United States through brute force, the Biden administration has unwittingly drawn the light of critical scrutiny not only to its own dire limits, but also to the foundational limits of settler-colonial, capitalist, and imperialist liberal democracy, especially under the conditions of neoliberalism. Biden’s mask arguably slipped months, years, or decades ago, depending on whom you ask. Much more significantly, however, due to the ongoing tragedy in Palestine, the liberal democratic edifice around him—that is, the political façade for the cold dictates of capital—is more and more exposed.
As previously alluded, Palestinian solidarity actions in the United States over the past weeks have been inspiring in terms of scale, breadth, and temper. The call for a ceasefire, not just pauses in bombardment, is undeniably a vital point of solidarity with Palestinians suffering and dying under the ongoing siege: the quickest way to pause their mass extermination and dislocation, if by no means comprehensively end it. The ceasefire is, as such, a vital point of unity among those presently mobilizing for Palestine. However, it should ultimately be just a crucial first step towards full, lasting decolonization, a more audacious and essential rallying cry thankfully echoed by thousands of protestors, as well.
As crucial as the demand for a ceasefire might be, many of the more concrete calls to action based around this demand are shot through with frustration and doubt. The sources of this disillusionment and despair are likely transnational: the Israeli state’s gleeful abandonment of the rules of engagement, international law, and virtually all other liberal democratic ethical standards, on the one hand, and the US liberal democratic state’s overwhelming endorsement and partial reproduction of this blatantly rogue behavior, on the other. The baseless mass arrests of protesters as well as vicious public and private retaliation against academics, journalists, activists, and communities standing with Palestine at this potentially decisive juncture—in many cases, orchestrated or overseen by ostensibly liberal political actors—have shown just how ruthlessly self-serving “the lesser evil” of institutionalized (neo)liberalism truly is, both at home and abroad.
The idealized liberal “middle ground” between Israel and Palestine is still, at the end of the day, a mass grave. Especially under the influence of neoliberalism, this deliberately elusive utopian plane of balance and cohesion is simply a wasteland in reality. It is filled only by the mangled corpses and vengeful ghosts of capitalism, settler-colonialism, and imperialism’s victims. We would do well to put it behind it us and to seek out far more fertile plains for the cultivation of a world in which many worlds—including, at long last, a free Palestine—can fit.