On Gaza: “Now Is Not the Time,” “Moral Equivalency,” and “Liberalism”

“Moral Equivalency” is the Only Alternative to Nihilism.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog said, in the aftermath of the October 7 terror attack, that 

as far as the military is concerned, there is little difference between Gaza’s civilian population and Hamas, which has governed the besieged territory since 2007. “It’s not true this rhetoric about civilians [being] not aware, not involved,” Herzog said in the middle of an unprecedented Israeli bombing campaign in retaliation for Hamas’s massacre of Israeli civilians last week. “They could have risen up, they could have fought against that evil regime which took over Gaza in a coup d’etat.”

Just as an aside, Herzog’s comment was especially cynical given not only the role of the Israeli government in supporting Hamas in its early days, but the fact that Netanyahu and Likud cynically welcomed Hamas coming to power in Gaza

Herzog’s argument for the moral culpability of civilian populations for the actions of their leaders, and for approaches to total warfare that treat entire populations as combatants, echoes arguments used to justify the American firebombings of Dresden and Tokyo, as well as the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In fact another Israeli, Professor Yaron Zelicha, leader of the fringe New Economic Party, explicitly said “Gaza must look at the end of this war like Dresden did at the end of World War 2. They are Nazis.”

It also mirrors Hamas’s own justification for murdering and kidnapping Israeli civilians — even children — for the crimes of the Israeli state.

In the days since the Hamas terror attack and the beginning of Israel’s reckless assault on Gaza, the familiar Western refrain regarding “moral equivalence” is once again heard. It’s a talking point going back at least to neoconservative UN Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick, who — in response to moral condemnation of the US for its endless invasions, carpet bombings, and support for coups, military juntas, and death squads, from Guatemala to Indonesia to Chile — accused America’s critics of “moral equivalency” in comparing the American “fireman” to the Soviet “arsonist.” It is similarly despicable, according to apologists for the Israeli Apartheid state, to compare the regrettable “collateral damage” committed by “the world’s most moral army” and “the only democracy in the Middle East” to the deliberate terror inflicted by an enemy — in the words of Orwell’s Two-Minute Hate — “dark barbarians… whose only honour is atrocity.”

As for any discussion of whether the accumulated 75 years of frustration and rage from having had a foreign settler state built on their homeland, having been evicted from towns and villages all over Palestine, having been forced into refugee camps, seeing their villages bulldozed by settlers even in the remnant of Palestinian habitation in the West Bank, and living in the world’s largest open-air prison in Gaza, might have in some way contributed to irrational violence… well, “now is not the time” to raise such questions. It is likewise “not the time” to raise the question of Netanyahu’s incompetence in the recent past (just as it was not the time to raise similar questions about Bush after 9/11).

It is never the time to raise the question of the root causes of a war, or how a state’s own policies directly contributed to it, when the war is being fought. Now is the time to unite behind the leadership, support The Troops, put up your flag, and be a good German (or American or Israeli). We can put off discussion of root causes, of how the leadership never reconsiders its course no matter how many times blowback from the state’s policies leads to bloody wars, for ten or twenty years — until it’s a purely academic issue that only a few radicals on the Left fringe care about. But of course even then, we must stop talking about it again for the duration, the next time blowback from the state’s policy results in another war. 

Meanwhile, among some Marxist-Leninists, anarchists, and others on the Left, any condemnation of Hamas terror against children and other civilians is labeled “both-sidesism,” with the patronizing reminder that “settlers can never be civilians.” And appeals to a universal moral standard by which murdering any children might be wrong, simply because they are children, meets with contemptuous dismissal as “liberal” or “bourgeois.”

But in fact, Now is always the time. Now, when the state is stampeding us into another war that will unleash another long cycle of blowback, is the only time it ever does any good to examine how the state’s own policy might have brought us to this pass, and what we should do differently to avoid a perpetuity of self-inflicted war — endless because, unlike Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, we never let ourselves learn from the consequences of what the state does in our name.

And the only alternative to “moral equivalency” is moral nihilism. Either we judge the actions of “both sides” by the same universal standard, or we have no basis for any moral standard at all. 

As for the refusal to condemn the murder of children — settlers or not — simply because murdering children is evil… well, if that’s “bourgeois” or “liberal,” then there are worse things to be called. And if such universal moral standards don’t exist, it’s hard to see how any objective standard can exist by which economic exploitation or colonialism can be condemned either. A person whose moral and emotional reaction to the death of a toddler can be turned on or off, depending on whether that child happened to be born in Gaza or on a kibbutz, strikes me as — well, the only applicable word I can think of is “inhuman.”

Liberal Values and the Left.

I confess I’ve never understood the mentality of the sort of Leftist for whom “liberalism” is the worst swear word at their disposal. 

As an anarchist and a socialist, I’ve never had much use for “classical liberalism,” in the sense of an ideology that simply takes a collection of human rights — free speech, criminal due process, and “private property” and “freedom of contract” — at face value, and considers us all equally “free” so long as these rights nominally apply to all, without regard to actual class differences, background violence, or structural power inequalities. This form of “liberalism” has always been a legitimizing ideology, aimed at hiding real inequality behind a false veneer of “universal rights.”

But there are many ways of critiquing this kind of liberalism, with the differences hinging on where we put ourselves in relation to it in the process of criticizing it. 

The wrong way to criticize it is simply to repudiate liberalism, or any form of humanism at all, as “bourgeois.” This is disproportionately seen among college-age activists still in the process of learning to recognize nuance, and among social media “tankies” and campists of the most vulgar Stalinist sort. For the most egregious of this group, I suspect that any display of humanity, any joy in life, or any moral or aesthetic sensibilities at all beyond those of the trudging formations of workers in the Metropolis elevator scene, are “bourgeois.”

The correct approach is to recognize the common origins of socialism and liberalism in the humanistic culture of the Enlightenment. This approach, rather than repudiating the stated values of liberalism, sees socialism as transcending or fulfilling them — i.e., as genuinely realizing the claims of liberalism on a higher level, and making good its pretensions to universality.

Marx himself would be dismissed as “liberal” by today’s vulgar Marxists, based on quotes from his writing, if they read them without attribution. Time and again, Marx pointed to the ways in which actual conditions of life under capitalism gave the lie to the promises of bourgeois liberalism, for the great majority of the population — and the ways in which socialist and communist society would make those promises real for everyone. For example capitalism, with its sanctity of “private property rights,” was in fact created by dispossessing the vast majority of their communal tenure rights in the land, and robbing them of the economic security and independence resulting from those rights. For the vast majority of the people, rights of “private property” were entirely theoretical — the homes they lived in were the property of landlords, and the conditions of their livelihood were owned by their employers. And for the minority of capitalists who had expropriated them, the means of production were in a very real sense being collectivized under the control of an ever-shrinking number of large managerial business firms. But once the working class had achieved its own self-emancipation and established a society of the associated producers — two phrases that no doubt sound rather “bourgeois” to modern tankie ears — the secure possessory rights of workers in their livelihoods and living conditions only promised by bourgeois liberalism would be achieved in reality. 

Ralph Miliband, himself a Marxist, had little use for Marxists of the sort who dismissed “bourgeois” civil liberties in principle, or for Stalinist types who saw economic rights as a replacement for civil liberties rather than a completion of them. For Miliband the political and due process rights achieved under the bourgeois parliamentary democracies were something to be built upon and expanded, and supplemented by forms of economic empowerment that would make true freedom and human agency real for everyone — not something to be discarded in contempt. From The State in Capitalist Society:

Yet, when all this and more has been said about the limits and contingent character of civic and political liberties under ‘bourgeois democracy’, and when the fact has been duly noted that some of these liberties are a mere cloak for class domination, it remains the case that many others have constituted an important and valuable element of life in advanced capitalist societies; and that they have materially affected the encounter between the state and the citizen, and between the dominant classes and the subordinate ones. It is a dangerous confusion to believe and claim that, because ‘bourgeois freedoms’ are inadequate and constantly threatened by erosion, they are therefore of no consequence. For all its immense limitations and hypocrisies, there is a wide gulf between ‘bourgeois democracy’ and the various forms of conservative authoritarianism, most notably Fascism, which have provided the alternative type of political regime for advanced capitalism. The point of the socialist critique of ‘bourgeois freedoms’ is not (or should not be) that they are of no consequence, but that they are profoundly inadequate, and need to be extended by the radical transformation of the context, economic, social and political, which condemns them to inadequacy and erosion. 

In a real sense Miliband saw the socialist movement not as the grave-digger, but as the savior and preserver of bourgeois freedom. The growing intensity of class struggle and economic crisis under capitalist society meant that, from the capitalist standpoint, the ruling classes themselves were forced to repudiate bourgeois liberalism and turn toward authoritarianism in the interests of survival.

So I come neither to praise liberalism nor to bury it. Rather, I call on anarchism, and on the socialist movement more broadly, to embrace and celebrate all of the best in liberalism, and to make ourselves the new bearers of all that is worth preserving in its legacy. In that spirit, I say now is always the time to criticize abuses of power, regardless of which side commits them. And the actions of everyone, regardless of side, are to be judged by the same moral standard.

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The Anatomy of Escape
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