The unbearable lightness of the bi-national state


Roma, Friday, April 12, 2002

Secretary of State Colin Powell said it finally all --and in all clarity-- prior to moving to the Middle East this past week: there should be a "state" for the Palestinians called Palestine, and another state for the Jews called Israel. They should both coexist side by side peacefully and as long as that peace lasts. There should be nothing spectacularly exciting about such statements favoring a bi-national political ethos, except that since ex-President Jimmy Carter's notion of a "Palestinian entity" back in the late 1970s, American diplomacy and foreign policy have excessively swindled around that dubious notion of "entity": it could be either a "state" or a quasi-"state" (federally) associated either with Jordan or Israel, or simply a "territory" where its citizens would benefit from full "political rights" and above all the right of self-determination. On the Israeli side, however, more options were and are still available since the possibility of fully annexing "Judea and Samaria" and "expelling" the Palestinians to Jordan --their "original homeland," according to this doctrine-- remains a viable alternative, one that would keep the sovereignty of the Jewish state almost intact. The Palestinians, for their part, have recently branded the notion of "the right to return" --at least in principle, we're told, meaning that it should be openly declared as "an individual right" option even if it would not materialize in practice for the majority of Palestinians. In short, with the plethora of options regarding that venerable Palestinian state we're in a similar situation to the 1917 Balfour declaration of a "Jewish homeland" and all the notorious British White Papers of the Mandate attempting one after another to lock that "homeland" notion into an endless "hermeneutic circle." But at least in that case, there was, indeed, a happy ending and the Jewish state finally materialized on May 14, 1948. Not even optimists would dare asserting that the Palestinian state, however defined, remains a viable alternative to all the current bloodshed. In effect, the possibility of a Palestinian nation-state remains as remote as ever. However, the difficulty of such a nation-state to materialize fully and successfully should not be solely linked to present conjunctures in the confused and confusing world of Middle Eastern affairs. It is perfectly true, for example, that the Bush administration is neither genuinely interested in the fate of Palestinians, nor has it any proposals for the current bloodshed. As it remains busy in toppling regimes and replacing them with more viable ones, and as it prepares its campaign against the Iraqi ancien régime, the Bush administration looks at the Palestinian bloodshed as a diplomatic nuisance, one that could be only internally handled by Israelis alone, while for its part it has nothing to propose. Thus, when Colin Powell began his tour this past week in Morocco, he was deliberately insulted by the king Muhammad VI (known as M6 to his entourage), who had let him wait for several hours prior to receiving him, only to let the Secretary of State know that he should have begun his tour in Israel and the occupied territories --and not in Morocco. Colin Powell, who came precisely to "absorb" "Arab anger" --and the so-called "street anger of the masses"-- "absorbed" the king's condescending attitude --as one of his predecessors, Warren Christopher, repeatedly did with the late Syrian president Asad-- and went on with his tour as planned. The impossibility of a viable Palestinian nation-state, however, goes much deeper than the present moribund state of American diplomacy, in particular when looked upon within the context of the political and economic decline that the Near/Middle East is currently going through.

To begin, and in the plethora of fragmentation and over-specialization that academic literature has stepped into since the interwar period, the notion of the nation-state and its socio-historical and intellectual origins in western civilization have become all too obscured and subject to such a common sense that there is a general failure to even discern the burdensome requirements that the nation-state entails. Hence the repeated association of the nation-state --not to mention "movements" and "regimes" such as fascism and totalitarianism-- with "states," "nations" and "societies" which do not share the same (or similar) becomings as the western countries. It is generally assumed by historians that the roots of the modern western state, in its post-feudal and aristocratic representations, are to be associated with the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century and the resurgence of the Holy Roman Empire in the ninth/tenth century as a protector of Latin Christendom from the Islamic domination of the Mediterranean. By that time, with the "empire" as the sole political and legal framework, the notion of nation-state had not emerged yet --at least not as we cherish it today. In effect, and as Fernand Braudel reminds us in his Civilization and Capitalism, early capitalism began to emerge in the Italian city-states by the eleventh/twelfth century, then matured in the long sixteenth century (1450-1650), and declined by the seventeenth. By that time, the Dutch United Provinces, with Amsterdam as the new center of capitalism, had already taken over. In the eighteenth century that center was soon to become London, which acted as a city that managed the affairs of a colonial empire. The genius of the Italian city-states was therefore to avoid the heavy burdens that a territorial state would have placed on taxation and the transfer of commodities, not to mention all kinds of bureaucratic and military impositions. And while the Dutch managed with a combination of fragmented city-states and a quasi-state in Amsterdam, it was only with the British that the evolution of capitalism had to be anchored within a modern state, complete with a monarchy, parliament, and army. In the fifteenth/sixteenth century only the French had a viable modern state, but their contribution to capitalism remained constrained: they simply learned how to adapt creatively to its growing demands. The point here is that the modern state --and later the nineteenth-century nation-state-- would have probably overburdened the growing capitalist practices, amid the fact that their existence came into being only when various European societies found it beneficial to protect themselves from an excessive competition and moving territories.

The framing of the political, juridical and legal representations of those states had to be worked out accordingly. There is no need to get here into the debates regarding the possible links and infatuations between Roman law, and the Justinian codex in particular, and modern legal systems, but suffice it to say that the concept of the nation-state had to be framed around such notions as the private/public, the individual and society (or the collective), civil and political societies, the rule of law (or what the French call l'État de droit), and individual rights. In effect, western political philosophy, beginning with the Italian quattrocento and Machiavelli, and then Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant and Hegel, up to Hannah Arendt and Jürgen Habermas, would be incomprehensible without the notions that made the nation-state possible. Correlatively, modern political philosophy would have been incomprehensible, pace Karl Marx, without the successes of laissez-faire capitalism and liberalism, and their concomitant periods of crises and various attempts to bypass them. Hence, the fascist, pro-fascist, and the communist totalitarian movements and regimes, all of which flourished in Europe and its eastern borderlines in the interwar period, were looked upon as third-way alternatives --on the margins of capitalism and socialism-- to bypass the "failures" of liberalism. Their connotations cannot be therefore properly grasped without rooting them within that longue durée movement that anchored western civilization --that of feudalism and Latin Christendom-- into capitalism, on the one hand, and the rule of law on the other.

Modern Middle Eastern states and societies are the direct outcome of four centuries of implacable Ottoman rule, on the one hand, and their colonization in the aftermath of the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, on the other. The political philosophies of the various Islamic empires and their socio-economic and historical underpinnings need badly to be conceptualized and written. What we know for certain, however, is that they did not parallel the evolution of western political philosophy which centered around the actualization of the nation-state and laissez-faire capitalism. That led French and British colonialists to conceptualize those "fragmented societies," as Hannah Arendt argued, around the notion of "race and bureaucracy." Those "societies" were thus to be seen in terms of their various "race" components, and accordingly, since the État de droit would be inapplicable in their case, to dominate them bureaucratically. (Lord Cromer's bureaucratic machinery in Egypt was probably a quintessential aspect of such an approach.) By contrast, the Ottoman state, which had adopted the Hanafi code as the basis for its legal system, kept quasi-administrative units in its provinces for the collection of taxes (or ground-rent), while leaving its various "subjects" at the mercy of their local familial and neighborhood associations, and their religious courts. The system that has been inherited in the contemporary Middle East is therefore a combination of both practices --the Ottoman and colonial-- while the plethora of states and bureaucracies which have flourished since the colonial period have hardly any resemblance in form and spirit to the western nation-states. Should we therefore call them nation-states at all cost?

To simplify, two types of states have emerged since the end of the colonial period. On the one hand, the bureaucratic and administrative state, which besides enforcing a mandatory conscription for all adult males, and monopolizing free speech, left "society" struggling with its own networks. Those networks, based for the most part on family and neighborhood associations, neither provide individuals with a "national" nor a "nationalistic" outlook nor enables them to transcend for good their kin background. Being essential for the economic and social survival of communities, networks characteristically survive in societies with weak and dysfunctional states, and for that very reason it would be erroneous at best to describe such societies as "totalitarian." As Hannah Arendt has repeatedly argued, totalitarianism is a twentieth-century phenomenon that attempted a total restructuring of societies that "lagged behind" due to a poor class stratification and the presence a massive peasantry and agrarian production. That was the case of the ex-USSR, which with its New Economic Plans (NEP) and uprooting of the peasantry, had created large-scale civil and military bureaucracies for that purpose. In effect, pace Arendt, even Nazism lacked such total resources and hence does not merit the totalitarian label. Needless to say, describing Syria, Iraq or Egypt as totalitarian only confuses the issue, primarily because of the existence of large-scale societal networks with which the bureaucratic state hardly interferes. For the same reasons the fascist label does not help either, considering that Italian fascism, among others, found its roots in an already advanced society which by the 1960s became the world's sixth industrial power. Indeed, Italy's hyphenated fascism of the 1920s and 1930s found its middle class roots within large-scale institutions such as the Church, the military, and the industrial groups, all of which with substantial "national" underpinnings, and to which the umbrella of fascism only served as a mass coordinator.

On the other hand, oil wealth has produced another kind of state, one that distributes its oil-rent to its citizens, and thus gains their subservience to its policies by considerably reducing taxation and allowing free trade, and permitting a quasi-laissez-faire economy. More importantly, however, oil wealth translates into income for all the immigrant workers of the neighboring countries. In effect, the bureaucratic states and societies of the first kind, and which not only lack oil wealth but also substantial industry and technology, can only export labor-as-capital, and the income of their immigrant workers become the major source for capital transfers in the Middle East. Those workers, however, and whatever the length of their stay in the wealthy host country, never integrate there, and never receive the full vestiges of a citizenship for that matter; and in the Arabian Peninsula they would need a local "guarantor" (kafil) to open a business, thus de facto placing them at the mercy of local contractors and government bureaucrats. Their allegiance remains to their native country, and more specifically to their kin networks at home. Thus, the oil-producing countries of the Arabian Peninsula, with the notable exception of Yemen, have received since the 1960s millions of workers and professionals from the Middle East and Asia, but those have been subject to considerable political bargaining, in particular in the aftermath of the Gulf war in 1990/1 when over a million Palestinians, Lebanese, Syrians and Egyptians had to be repatriated simply because their work permits had not been renewed. They either went back to their home countries (the West Bank and Gaza for the Palestinians), or else sought immigration to Australia, Europe and North America.

Iraq and Libya are examples of states which are both heavily bureaucratic and militarized, and with ruthless regimes, but also with considerable oil wealth, and thus, until recently, have served in transforming oil-rent into salaries for the needy popular and middle classes of neighboring countries. Labor as such constitutes therefore the major economic flow among countries and regions, in particular that none of the Arab societies had its economy restructured around industrial production in such a way that it would have provided it with a competitive edge. For their part, and with the notable exception of Lebanon, the banking sectors remain archaic, thus severely limiting the free flow of capital and its circulation. The whole process of labor exchange remains, however, heavily politicized, and in the aftermath of the Gulf war the Palestinians were the hardest to suffer.

The whole region has therefore lived in an economic decline for at least three decades. Such a "decline" could be measured not simply by a deterioration of living standards, which translate in a lowering in real wages and a high unemployment, but also by the fact that industrial production and technological innovation have never found a solid ground (with the exception of Israel and Turkey). Since it is hard to find viable historical examples of societies that developed democracy and free speech, and the right for individual representation and participation, without having also developed an economy based on free exchange and contractual freedom, it would be very optimistic to expect any changes in the political sphere either. In effect, one could argue that since the decline of the Italian city-states in the seventeenth century, the eastern Mediterranean has been managed through a très longue durée pax turcica, one that permitted a stabilization of production and social relations at the expense of innovation and a true market economy. The various colonial quasi-nation-states that emerged in the interwar period ought therefore to be looked upon as more of a curse than an advantage. Having been artificially created on the top of declining economies and societies, they have only served to block the flow of capitals and goods, not to mention the damage that they've created to human resources and the like.

Which brings us back, after this long détour, to our original concern: Is it possible, amid the general economic decline and the political deterioration of the nation-state throughout the Middle East, to create, between Jordan and Israel, another nation-state that would serve as a "homeland" for the two million or so Palestinians out of the five million worldwide (the totality of the diaspora)? At present, the Palestinian population maintains one of the highest birth rates in the world, and safe for the orthodox Jews, that rate remains much higher than Israeli society at large. However, even though the Palestinian youth receive more education than their Arab counterparts, they have to opt for meager incomes and a reliance on family networks and the like, and since the Gulf war the wealthier Arab markets have remained closed to them. More importantly, they constitute the bread and butter of all the jihadic movements, whether they share their religious zeal or not. In effect, what the latest wave of suicide-bombers has clearly shown is the ubiquitousness of the whole enterprise, so that even young women had no trouble joining in (the latest was this past Saturday, in celebration to Powell's first-day visit to Israel). Not only is it absurd to request from Yasir Arafat to stop that deadly suicidal wave and limit the responsibility to one person and his entourage, but, more importantly, there is a failure to understand the generational shift that has marked Palestinian society since the 1980s. In fact, Arafat and his men belong to the post-Mandate generation, who for the most part grew outside the West Bank and Gaza, and learned their pan-Arab political language in colleges in Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. The new generation, which was born and raised in the claustrophobic atmosphere of Israeli occupation, is less prone to the ideological language of pan-Arabism. Needless to say, that new generation would like to keep Arafat as an old patriarch, a padre della patria, one that symbolically assembles together the various factions of Palestinian society without, however, any invested power to control them. One only needs to listen to some of the tapes left by the suicide bombers to realize how much the values of individualism and kinship are concealed in favor of a utopian "Islam," or "homeland," or a never-ending struggle against Zionism and colonialism, not to mention American imperialism. In other words, the suicide-bomber is at last "one" with that utopian body of the "nation" (umma) through his (and increasingly her) final act. Jihadism in its present modus operandi cannot therefore be equated to either fascism or totalitarianism since it only succeeds at projecting a unified representation of the body of the Islamic and/or Palestinian and/or Arab umma, but besides that it has no real socio-economic program --even though it effectively contributes at financing and maintaining societal networks. Hence contrary to either fascism or totalitarianism, both of which aimed at an internal "integration" of individuals and their groups through a hyper-nationalism, jihadism flourishes through representations of a common external enemy, and keeps shopping around in the long history of Islamic societies for that kind of imagery. Jihadism therefore acts and behaves like an internal civil war machinery, one that constantly blurs the borderlines between political power and civil society, democratic institutions and various para-military groups, and internal conflicts and negotiated settlements (e.g. the latest Camp David negotiations supervised by ex-President Clinton).

Needless to say, the commonly propagated argument that had the Palestinians received their "full rights" in the first place, the current violence and successive waves of suicide-bombers would have been reduced to their bare minimum, is purely tautological. Primo, Palestinian "society" in its present condition --meaning in the absence of a genuinely democratic "civil society"-- would be unable to create a consensus as to what those "full rights" are and what "borders" to accept. Any "agreement" via a third-party (the UN, or the US, or the EU) would de facto trigger an extended civil war. Secundo, Israeli society has structured itself since the failure of the first Aliyah (1882-1904) around different labor practices than the ones that were common in Greater Syria and the Ottoman markets in general. In fact, and by the time the second Aliyah had been completed (1904-1914) and when the British had established themselves as the sole mandatory power, "Jewish labor" had adopted the basic values of laissez-faire capitalism and liberalism. Those values have since then been consolidated since the independence from the Mandate in 1948, and Israeli society, thanks partly to outside capital, has been much more efficient and productive than its neighbors. The imbalance that a dynamic capitalism has created established a major imbalance not only with a struggling Palestinian society, but also with the Syrians and Egyptians and all the Arabs. It is therefore dubious to seek solutions outside the implications of an economic imbalance of such a magnitude.

Why not then a single secular state? That's a tough alternative, considering all the identity problems that it would engender. But I find it more realistic, and if it has any chance of survival it would at least provide some thoughts to the declining neighboring "nation-states."