BDS and Utopia
The details of the boycott
The recent upheaval around U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar's criticism of AIPAC (The American Israel Public Affairs Committee) is a sharp demonstration of the dissolution of leftist doxa in the United States. We simply seem quite unable to contain the contradictions floated in Omar's seemingly standard cynical take on how lobbies work in American politics. The same difficulty exists in relation to the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, which drew strong responses from both left and right, and which is the object of this short essay. It is as if no response is satisfying: no matter how much one thinks about it, it is as if it is not possible to decide if it's right or wrong, good or bad (and for what?) once and for all. Does boycotting hurt the actual villains? Does it apply to Israeli people or just to Israeli products? Or maybe to just those of the settlements? You can repeat your position to oneself in your head with great conviction in order to grow confident that it's right. But we all know that these repetitions are simply a Freudian kind of negation, disclosing its opposite: exactly how much one is not satisfied with one's position.
A little background on BDS is in order for those who are not familiar with it. Officially, the BDS movement was established in 2005. It promotes a global campaign to boycott Israeli products and cooperation with Israelis. What exactly is to be boycotted is constantly under negotiation. Some are in favor of boycotting Israeli products tout court, while others prefer to limit boycotts to the products of Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories occupied in 1967. Another common debate within BDS has to do with the academic boycott of Israel. Diverse approaches exist over the extent to which cooperation with Israeli universities should be stopped. The aims of BDS include both an immediate end to such aspects of Israeli oppression as the siege on the Gaza Strip and the notorious Separation Wall, and also long-term goals, such as the end of the Israeli occupation and Israeli recognition of Palestinian refugees' right of return to the homes from which they were more or less forcibly exiled in 1948.
So BDS is hard to come to terms with, taking us very quickly into the realm of contradictions and their reconciliation. Reconciling contradictions—in imagination—is a tricky business. If cultural critics, ever since late Modernism, are always on the side of contradictions that remain open, that doesn't mean that they actually remain so. Or, less cryptically: one is completely lost in our postmodern times if one doesn't take into account that a symbolic leaving-open of contradictions is a very efficient way of performing precisely the opposite—reconciling them. A simple example from the realm of horror films illustrates this point: there is nothing subversive these days about a monster that isn't contained at the end of the movie. The opposite is true: the final, improbable escape of the monster from a bitter end signals to us that the fun is not over just yet (but will be continued in the next installment). So the staging of a symbolic leaving-open of contradiction on the surface should not be confused with actual ideological reconciliation that takes place in the works' internal structure. In many of the same horror films, it is easy to locate this hidden, "deeper" reconciliation; the work actually makes it possible for us to inhabit peacefully a world that can suddenly fall apart in any moment (reconciling us to precarity under neoliberal capitalism).
One should not underestimate how strongly BDS is charged with imaginative energies. What articulates itself consciously as an ethical imperative (either for or against BDS) hides behind it some kind of completely non-ethical investment. It is this politically-unconscious dimension that is so interesting, rather than the ethical aspect—the ethics, arguably, were always bourgeois anyway (following either Nietzsche or Jameson). And in things like BDS, I think, one comes across a contradiction that is open or active like a volcano, a symbolic opposition that is charged with all matter of imaginary potentialities for change. The unease around BDS—that it seems that you always miss something when thinking about it—means that there is no way of thinking about it from a distance. Whatever you say about it, you are bound not to be completely satisfied with it, as if one always needs to think a bit more before finally deciding what is right. In other words, what we have here is a failure to reconcile an imaginary opposition easily. As Slavoj iek would put it, committing to BDS could be what he calls a genuine political Act. This kind of Act, for iek, cannot be reduced to what exists. It is outside of the reproductive order of reality as we know it. But at the same time one doesn't have a clear picture of a new social order to which it leads, as the arguments about it demonstrate, and as I will show below. In other words, we are barred from knowing what it will lead to before it takes place.1
It should be added that this kind of contradictory engagement (when we cannot decide what is the right thing to do from our historical vantage point) is closely related to utopian thinking. I'm here not invoking utopia negatively, but rather as a mode of thinking that is sorely needed today. It was useful for Marx to dismiss utopians at a time when there was an actual movement aiming to abolish the present to establish communism; but it is foolish to dismiss utopian thinking when people can't imagine anything different than the way things are today, except when it comes to ice cream flavors. So, about 40 years after Fred Jameson first argued that we have lost our ability to think historically, and by extension about a radically different future, one can finally see the beginnings of a change.2 The dominance of the anti-utopian left is finally waning and utopian programs of all kinds are rearing their heads, from that of "Make America Great Again," Peter Frase's Four Futures, Rutger Bregman's Utopia for Realists, and the less- and more-pernicious versions of accelerationism, all the way to the better kept secret of communization—all of these are signs of a great revival of utopian thought.3
Utopia designates precisely a space of thinking in which nothing can be finally settled, as is so obvious in the case of BDS. Think, for example, about the idea of a Universal Basic Income (UBI), the idea of giving people money regardless of employment. This issue is being fought over interminably in leftist circles lately.4 Is it a leftist project at all? Or is it simply a trick of the political right designed to do away with welfare programs? Would it only work in an (impossible?) post-work world? Does it replace demands like full employment? And what about efficiency and robots taking over jobs? And is UBI's implementation possible at all? The point here is not that we haven't yet come across a convincing argument about UBI, but rather that our thinking can only take us so far in relation to it. In other words, a "convincing argument" about UBI will only exist after we have tried it, not because we will then come up with a better argument, but because the historical playing-out of the attempt will prove to have succeeded or failed, making the implementation of UBI a first step into a historical period that we cannot yet imagine (drawing again on the Hegelian dialectical notions of the way history is made, as in the iek's idea of the political Act discussed above).
The contradictions that arise when one thinks about UBI must be resolved through other means. Here begins the utopian thought-experiment in earnest. It quickly reveals itself to be a totalizing one: what begins as a simple economic postulate quickly demands of us that we adjust other realm of life in accordance with it. For example, if instituting UBI is too big a financial burden on the state, one can imagine socializing housing and food so that it is no longer the capitalist market that determines their cost life. Would that be enough? Surely not—how can anyone undertake this massive construction enterprise! Thus, dialectical negations and sublations proliferate in this constructive process.
The "refusal of non-contradiction" is the term used by Louis Marin to designate this movement of thought, a triple negation in which a contradiction cannot, for the moment, be resolved.5 BDS, I argue, occupies precisely such a space of utopian thinking, one in which certain contradictions cannot be resolved before one tries to act on them. The point is precisely to develop the project of BDS as a utopian project—which many on the left do, to a degree, unconsciously when they discuss it. All one can do in such cases is trace the limit of what is politically thinkable—since it is impossible to fully exhaust the topic in imagination. Rather, only action can decide what's true in such a historical position.
In the case of BDS, I think an important point of departure for such a mapping of the contradictory terrain would be to think of post-apartheid South Africa and Palestine as designating something like parallel timelines or alternative realities. This is precisely the point of departure of Andy Clarno's book Neoliberal Apartheid. Clarno begins his book by juxtaposing contemporary South Africa to Palestine. A long quote from Clarno's book might help establish why this juxtaposition is interesting:
Two of the most significant social transformations of the late twentieth century began just months apart. In September 1993, Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn, unveiling the "Oslo peace process" between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The following April, Nelson Mandela cast his ballot—along with millions of other Black South Africans—in the first democratic election of the postapartheid era. These moments of hope remain powerful symbols of the simultaneous transitions that have reshaped social relations in Palestine/Israel and South Africa over the last twenty years.
The transitions have had remarkably different impacts on the political freedom of Palestinians and Black South Africans. Dismantling the apartheid state freed Black South Africans from political domination by the white minority . . . Palestinians, on the other hand, won neither freedom nor equality through the formation of the Palestinian Authority (PA). The State of Israel remains a settler colonial state, retains full sovereign control over the entire territory of Palestine/Israel, and continues to colonize Palestinian land and displace Palestinian people. . . .
As Palestinians draw inspiration from South African liberation, it is productive to consider not only the achievements of the liberation movement but also its limitations. Postapartheid South Africa remains one of the most unequal countries in the world. A small Black elite and a growing Black middle class have emerged alongside the old white elite, who still control the vast majority of land and wealth in the country. The Black poor have been relegated to a life of permanent unemployment, informal housing, and high rates of HIV/AIDS in the townships and shack settlements of the urban periphery. . . .
Strikingly similar socioeconomic changes have occurred in Palestine/Israel. While a Jewish Israeli business elite accumulates tremendous wealth, working-class Israelis face cuts to social welfare and attacks on union labor. At the same time, a small Palestinian elite with close ties to the PA has grown rich, but the vast majority of Palestinians confront unemployment, land confiscation, and constant repression.6
Clarno thus begins by asking a simple yet mind-boggling question: how come the success of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and the stalling of the Palestinian struggle led to roughly the same socio-economic result? How can it be that what seem to be opposite historical developments lead to similar modes of suffering?
BDS indeed bears strong similarity to the boycott strategy that helped topple South African apartheid. Clarno's question thematizes effectively a limit of BDS: if successful boycotting produced, in the case of South Africa, roughly the same reality as that faced by Palestinians today, why take up the same strategy in the case of Palestine? In a typical utopian manner, two ways of approaching this befuddling situation suggest themselves. One of these has to do with the absence of any alternative to what is opposed. The biggest problem with boycotts, from this perspective, is that they have no plan for the day after the boycott succeeds. In the case of South Africa, the anti-apartheid movement had the support of Cuba, at least nominally, as Noam Chomsky pointed out, which could have provided an alternative model for development, had the anti-apartheid movement taken a more anti-capitalist route.7 But in the case of Palestine, the evacuation of state power is simply another way of welcoming an invasion by the capitalist market. For it should be stressed again and again that the Israeli settlements in the West Bank are in fact a result of the contradictions of capitalism, as I argued in a previous essay in the Brooklyn Rail, the settlements providing a spatial "solution" to rising real estate prices in Israel and the neoliberalization of its labor market.8 And thus the success of BDS, in the absence of any alternative to the market, would just force those Israelis that fled to the settlements into incredible misery.
As an antidote to such consequences of the success of BDS, one would have to posit a utopian chimera that few on the left would accept: a kind of West Bank communism that would include both Israelis and Palestinians, perhaps based on the military institutional structure that still mediates the relation between the two. That the settlements already function something like a welfare-state enclave within the greater neoliberal logic of the Israeli economy today makes this social arrangement all the more plausible. This kind of West Bank communism would also have the advantage of addressing another debate that BDS can't settle, the debate over whether a two-state or a one-state "solution" is preferable (or even possible). The lone-state option, always the more boldly utopian of the two, has gained in popularity in recent years, with Ali Abunimah as perhaps its most visible spokesperson.9 One should note that West Bank communism, based on military infrastructure, would be a step towards a no-state solution—which is just as well, since all states seem to be failed states when it comes to resisting neoliberal capitalism. But here we are entering the realm of utopian thinking disconnected from the topic of BDS itself.
The second way of approaching the problem of the limits of BDS, outlined earlier, is to deny the reality of the problem itself. According to this approach, that we have no clear plan for the day after BDS is not a problem, but a constitutive moment of the dialectical process in which a revolutionary agent is born. For the argument about having no future plan evokes Eduard Bernstein. Bernstein's argument against Russian revolt in 1905, based on his claim that the conditions for a successful revolution weren't yet in place. Rosa Luxemburg's brilliant retort in "The Mass Strike"10 was that the initial revolt always takes place at the wrong moment; it is only through being wrong first, that the revolutionary subject learns what to do next. Revolting at the wrong time is a precondition for a successful revolution later on.
So BDS, in this approach, becomes something like a tragic first step in a transformation that will unfold in several dialectically-related moments, like Moses banned at first from entering the Holy Land. If one prefers more revolutionary examples, one could think of the relation between the first phase of a revolution (violent takeover), and the second, the cultural revolution, in which a new social order must be created for the revolution to succeed. This difference is highlighted in, for example, Madison Smartt Bell's literary rendition of the Haitian Revolution: Toussaint Louverture did not lead the initial, necessarily violent, stage of the revolution but took over only after it became clear that the generals who led the first stage were ill-fitted to carry out the tasks of the next stage (one cannot continue simply looting and burning if the revolution is to give birth to a new social order). The same transformation is outlined in much clearer dialectical terms in Jeremy Matthew Glick's discussion of theatrical representations of the Haitian revolution, in his Black Radical Tragic.11 Similarly, it does not matter that the South African example teaches us that boycotts are useless, in the absence of an alternative social system. For only through the failure of the boycott can a different strategy come into being.
But if we cannot rush ahead of history, we must still somehow address the uncertainty that necessarily accompanies such a position—in which one knows that one is wrong, but can only hope that one is wrong in the right way. If our minds today are barely capable of thinking historically, it is reasonable to say that such temporal uncertainty must make us deeply anxious (a sense of anxiety strongly felt in the revolutionary-time works of Andrei Platonov, for example).12 We have a perfect name for this anxiety, coined by Lauren Berlant: cruel optimism.13 But in our case we are not talking only about how we respond to temporalities foisted on us by the neoliberal order. Rather, it is the temporality of a state of transformation of our own making. Thus, I suggest that we modify Berlant's term, via Antonio Gramsci: a cruel optimism of the will, one can say, is what we need in such uncertain situations.
From this point of view, BDS's historical role is a tragic one: it must perform its task of negating what exists, and then be itself negated. To knowingly participate in such an effort requires a cruel optimism of the will—which, one must note, has a deeply irrational kernel to it, accepting one's role as tragic, with a certain repurposing of fatalism as an ideology, along the lines suggested by Frank Ruda.14 To be able to act as if the worst has already happened, as Ruda would have us do, (or to act as if one is already dead, to quote the famous Japanese saying)—these are hard to imagine as actual lived ideologies, rather than stances one can only take, with effort, in distant reflection. Instead of leaving the acceptance of such irrationality to individual effort, one can suggest a social way of developing such beneficial irrationality. Institutionalized religion immediately suggests itself as a possible vehicle (no matter how pernicious it might seem). In particular, useful here could be a certain detournement of the Jewish messianism that is so common in West Bank settlements, in which divine plan, and human action intended to promote it, coexist uneasily. Instead of the Greater Israel that these "ideological" settlers aim to establish, one could retool their non-gradualist, anti-empirical, combination of practical practice and ritual in the service of the tragic role of BDS in history. The allergy of the liberal left to the practical utopianism that is at the core of this messianism should not deter us here: one need only remember the collective structuring of enjoyment a la iek or Jameson's brilliant resolving of jealousy—the theft of jouissance—through collective ritual in his utopia, to see that my suggestion here isn't so original after all.15
And, as a side benefit, if BDS adopts a strain of Judaism, no one will be able to blame it for being antisemitic.
A big problem of BDS is what can be called the "But whom does it really hurt?" argument, which has several variants. Thus, for example, some Israeli enterprises located in the occupied territories employ Palestinian laborers. The example of exploiting Palestinian labor to construct settlements is perhaps the most shocking to our ethical sensibilities. But one does not have to focus solely on Palestinians: consider the poor Israeli Jews who relocated to settlements for economic reasons in the first place. Boycotting the products of such enterprises might not hurt capitalists as badly as the workers they exploit.
It is easy to recognize the contours of a different problem hiding here: that of the limits of labor-union activism. The notorious anti-populist Leninist claim that, left to themselves, workers will never transcend the horizon of trade-unionism was of course not articulated against the demands of the exploited masses (or the reserve army of workers).16 Rather, it designated a kind of limit that must be dialectically transcended if the revolutionary effort was to survive—and it is in this spirit that I suggest we take the "whom does it really hurt?" critique of BDS. In both cases, of trade unionism and of BDS, we can think of the problem as one of action at a distance. Particular union demands can never transcend the limits of the particular capitalist enterprise which they challenge; the market as a whole cannot be changed unless action on a much bigger scale is somehow undertaken. In order to overcome this "localizing" limitation, one must turn from making demands from some Big Other (for better wages, shorter days, etc.) to planning how to take control of the social apparatus as a whole. What had been the agency of the union can turn into a negation of agency, insofar as it prevents a less-localized form of agency from developing. For Lenin, famously or infamously, the Party was supposed to tackle this problem.
To return to BDS and the "Whom does it really hurt?" problem: rather than a damning critique of BDS, it is possible to see this now as another problem of "action at a distance," requiring us to develop a way of addressing what the localized agency of consumption cannot control. This opens up BDS to a much broader discussion of the organization of our social system (rather than only focusing on what's happening "over there"). For instance, what kind of productive capacities would we have to control, in order to make sure that the wrong people, Palestinian and Israeli, aren't hurt by BDS? The contours of the whole system of globalized production and distribution become suddenly relevant. In order to control better whom BDS hurts over there, our own situation as agents must radically shift—just as in that leap from trade unionism to revolutionary consciousness. I leave to the reader the important speculative exercise about the kind of transformation that would be needed here in order to neutralize the bad effects of BDS over there: the whole leftist tradition of strikes, revolutions, reform, dual power, and other ways to imagine such transformation is available here to the imagination.
Again, it is not my point here to show the absurdity of BDS, or how impractical it is. Rather, I am trying to think how its limitations can be rethought through utopian elaboration. It should be clear that at this historical moment it is completely tone-deaf (and absolutely conservative) to respond with an "It won't work" to the radically transformative proposals that are finally popping up here and there—such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's "Green New Deal," or the revival of Keynesian economic programs on the left.17 When alternatives are unimaginable, a radically revolutionary position is one of uncompromising negation. But when history is again on the move, these positions become conservative—and any leftist taking them will find themselves on the side of conservative critics.
Thus, a strict distinction should be maintained between such "it won't work" stances in relation to hegemonic positions, and the diametrically opposite case, in which such Keynesian programs constitute anti-hegemonic utopian sparks. To demand a welfare state today is an interesting political exercise: it seems achievable, but in the process of actually trying to institute it, one is bound to discover that it means a much more radical transformation than one imagined in the first place—and precisely in this particular position it's occupation lies in its transformative potential. It should be absolutely clear that there is no dishonesty in pursuing something like the welfare state today, knowing full well how difficult such a return would be. It is not that radicals are somehow riding a wave of reformist naivete, simply waiting for them to fail to make a grand gesture of "I told you so!" Rather, it should be clear that an earnest attempt to bring back the welfare state is precisely what radicals want. As soon as difficulties arise in trying to achieve it, radicals should be ready to go much further in terms of the extent of transformation that achieving this goal required. So, rather than being dishonest, radicals are the most earnestly committed to the final goal.
I am suggesting that we see BDS in the same way. What it is designed to achieve seems easy enough at first sight; but even the most feeble attempt to act on it reveals how enormous and unclear the task that it entails is. But that is a reason not to abandon it, but to embrace it even more intensely, to augment it and enlarge the scope of the transformation it entails (as I've tried to do briefly, only as a thought-experiment, at different moments in this essay). To simply stand by the initial plan is futile; what we need is an expanded plan, in which the initial plan is only one part. Gradualism does not lead to radical transformation. Rather, it is a series of failures—of trying to achieve something and failing—that is the only way forward.
For a thorough discussion of iek's political act, see Todd McGowan, "Subject of the Event, Subject of the Act: The Difference between Badiou's and iek's Systems of Philosophy," Subjectivity 3, no. 1 (2010): 7–30, https://doi.org/doi:10.1057/sub.2009.31.
The appearance of this claim is perhaps most often traced back to Jameson's Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (London; New York: Verso, 1991). But it appears in his work as early as, for example, "World-Reduction in Le Guin: The Emergence of Utopian Narrative," Science Fiction Studies 2, no. 3 (1975): 221–30.
Peter Frase, Four Futures (New York: Verso, 2016); Bregman Rutger, Utopia for Realists (New York: Back Bay Books, 2017); Benjamin Noys, ed., Communization and Its Discontents (New York: Minor Compositions, 2011).
For an example of one critique of UBI, see Daniel Zamora, "The Case Against a Basic Income," Jacobin, December 28, 2017, http://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/12/universal-basic-income-inequality-work.
Louis Marin, Utopics: Spatial Play (London; Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Macmillan; humanities Press, 1984), 66.
Andy Clarno, Neoliberal Apartheid: Palestine/Israel and South Africa After 1994 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2017), 1–2.
Noam Chomsky and Ilan Pappe, On Palestine (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015), 89.
Daniel Gutwein, "Some Comments on the Class Foundations of the Occupation," Monthly Review Online, June 16, 2006, https://mronline.org/2006/06/16/some-comments-on-the-class-foundations-of-the-occupation/.
Ali Abunimah, One Country (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006).
Rosa Luxemburg, "The Mass Strike," in The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions (Detroit: Marxist Educational Society of Detroit, 1925), https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1906/mass-strike/index.htm.
Jeremy Matthew Glick, The Black Radical Tragic Performance, Aesthetics, and the Unfinished Haitian Revolution (New York: NYU Press, 2017).
See for example Platonov, The Foundation Pit (New York: NYRB Classics, 2009).
Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011).
Frank Ruda, Abolishing Freedom: A Plea for a Contemporary Use of Fatalism, 2016.
Fredric Jameson, An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army (London; New York: Verso, 2016), 76–77; Slavoj iek, Tarrying with the Negative: Kant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993), 200–205.
Vladimir Ilich Lenin, "'Left-Wing' Communism: An Infantile Disorder," in Collected Works, vol. 31, 45 vols. (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1964 ), 17–118.
Here's one discussion of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and it's relation to Keynesian thinking, which is alreay a response to critiques of the revival of MMT today: Matias Vernengo, "MMT and Its Discontents: Again (Wonkish and Longish)," Naked Keynesianism, March 9, 2019.