Reviewed by Liam O'Mara IV (University of California, Irvine)
Published on H-Diplo (July, 2012)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach
Decolonizing the West
Author John Collins positions his book Global Palestine at the intersection of globalization and Palestine studies. The book can be read as a political commentary on Palestine's experience of occupation, or taken apart from this formal context as a brief romp through some salient features of neoliberal globalization, but its purpose is to present Palestine "as a prophetic laboratory for many of these global processes." Collins takes these as generally oppressive and negative, and wonders if Palestine can also serve as an example for "a different, more liberating set of social arrangements" (p. 137).
Although Collins is not a historian, it is tempting to read him as a historian of the present, in that the work is intensely political and presentist yet nearly all of its points are rooted in events of the past (sometimes recent, other times across centuries). But this is only part of the story. Collins is not writing yet another history of Palestine or of globalization, nor even one of Palestine's experience of globalization; instead, his is an impassioned plea for an utopian political project of universal equality.
What he seeks is genuine decolonization--not the kind experienced in the later twentieth century, but one that wipes out the long-term structural impact and institutional arrangements of settler colonialism around the world, leaving in place "a politics of real cohabitation and self-sovereignty" (p. 138). This is a forward-looking work, which dispenses with the "realistic" approaches to peace in Israel/Palestine; as he puts it: "Instead of writing timidly from within the prison of this oppressive dynamic, we need to write boldly from the exit" (p. 138). Put another way, the author is, like an inverse archaeologist, "excavating the present for traces of the future"--which sounds at times like a kind of Kantian cosmopolitanism on steroids (p. 2).
Each chapter is oriented around a particular theme, and can be read individually or as a cohesive totality, which is in itself a minor success. The first lays out Collins's justification for approaching Palestine through the lens of globalization while the second is concerned with viewing Israel/Palestine as a settler colony. The third is entitled "Securitization," and its subject would be familiar to anyone who has followed such thinkers as Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben in their explorations of sovereignty and biopower. It examines the way that notions of security and defense have steadily expanded their ambit to enfold previously unconnected social phenomena, transforming ordinary citizens through a "colonization of consciousness" into "civilian soldiers" (p. 51).
Next up is the most original, and possibly least effective, chapter of the book: "Acceleration." It builds primarily on the work of Paul Virilio to apply notions of speed to the study of violence and globalization. Collins follows this with a clever play on the term "Occupation," using it to refer not only to Israel's control of Palestinian territory, but to the physical bonds that indigenous people have with the land. His concluding thoughts describe his bold dream for tackling the legacy of colonialism once and for all. Collins's principal influences are present throughout (and acknowledged on page 23): Karl Marx (capitalism), Frantz Fanon (violence), Edward Said (culture), Foucault (governmentality), and Virilio (acceleration).
Chapter 2 begins by telling us that the problem is not conflict between Israel and Palestine per se, but rather, colonialism itself (p. 20). He sets up some powerful comparisons between settler-colonial societies like the United States, Australia, and Israel, convincingly positioning the latter as a colonial society. Seeing Zionism as settler colonialism ought not to be so controversial a position, in my opinion, and Collins notes that such a controversy points to the close ideological links between the Zionist project and North America (i.e., a kind of settler-colony solidarity). Collins's discussion of the "logic of elimination" is brilliant, and his critique of exceptionalism only slightly less so (pp. 32-33). He argues that in attempting a "solution" to the "Jewish Question" ("normalizing" the Jewish people by creating a nation-state), the Zionists merely displaced it onto the Palestinians--creating a "Palestinian Question"--and thereby perpetuated the logic of antisemitism by creating a stateless "other" that must be eliminated (p. 40).
Perhaps the least original aspects of the book are found in the third chapter, on securitization. Here Collins discusses "the growing dominance of security as the central element in an emerging, transpolitical paradigm of governance, administration and social life"--and an attendant "generalized militarization of identity and social consciousness" (pp. 51, 27). With its starting point the oft-cited warning against the growing power of the "military-industrial complex," given in January 1961 by Dwight Eisenhower, Collins builds an argument founded in Foucaultian biopolitics and the "politics of enclosure" (pp. 54-56). This is traced through everything from the Department of Homeland Security to neoliberal global finance to electronic systems of communication.
The lectures Foucault gave at the Collège de France are a notable influence, as Collins observes that settler colonialism is "almost unthinkable without some notion of biological other against which 'society must be defended'" (p. 57). Here the parallels between Israel and the United States are most obvious, with pick-up truck gun racks and anti-tax, anti-government bumper stickers blurring into M-16s on city buses and the anti-state rhetoric of the "hilltop youth." The discussion of dissident groups in the "long 1960s" is particularly salient, with the massive deployment of weaponry against the symbolic occupation of Wounded Knee by activists from AIM (American Indian Movement) in 1973 being an especially powerful example (p. 66). This moves into the obligatory critique of the discourse of "terrorism," a term Collins says is used merely to "delegitimize forms of asymmetrical political violence carried out by non-state groups against the interests of powerful states" (p. 71).
The chapter on acceleration begins with a rather odd comparison between the historical trajectory of Palestine and the decay of monadic art in the work of Walter Benjamin (p. 79). Its focus is to elucidate Collins's concept of "dromocolonization," defined briefly as "the gradual colonization of humanity by techno-logic acceleration, with attendant forms of confinement spread unevenly across the social field" (p. 81). He attaches "dromo-" to other stems, e.g., "dromocratic," to bring a sense of speed drawn from Virilio's "dromology"--the logic of speed. What Collins appears to be doing is looking at the way rapid developments in technology impact war and the techniques of confinement on the one hand, and human beings on the other. He observes that such technologies can leave one with the sense that "the rhythm of life is steadily changing in a way that leaves one perpetually out of breath and unable to focus" (p. 84). He notes that colonization as a project is inherently dromocratic, as the advantage lies with those who best exploits acceleration and deceleration of violence and change (p. 83). On both of these scores his observations are spot-on, but how recent a phenomenon this is, and how useful on a theoretical level, are subject to debate.
While Collins focuses on the contemporary--from Israeli weapons exports to Google Earth (which he calls the "public face of the postmodern war machine") to American-led neoliberal globalization--it is worth reflecting on the long history of acceleration in the West (p. 87). The use of time in deriving power and control in society has been a feature of civilization for as long as civilization has existed. E. P. Thompson famously explored the impact of time regimentation on the development of capitalism. Systems of ever-faster communication and transportation have been demanded by the logic of capital from the early modern period forward, with wooden ships and horses giving way to planes, trains, and automobiles. And we need hardly mention the way that warfare has developed through centuries of this "techno-logic" régime, each innovation building on the last. While we have reached a very high level of sophistication in such technologies, their application in expressing the power of the state and of capital is hardly new, and the chapter on acceleration reads at times like a dense theorization of the obvious.
And Collins is only partially convincing in his argument that acceleration threatens democracy, by "gradually eliminating the time for reflection on which [it] depends" (pp. 85-86). It is true that the speed of communication allows for easier manipulation of the electorate, but it also presents opportunities for the subversion of state power and for people to reclaim the commons. This can be seen in the (admittedly overstated) impact of technology in the Arab uprisings of 2011, and in the various manifestations of "culture-jamming." To this reviewer, the jury is still out on how acceleration will affect democracy, but I incline to a greater belief in human adaptability.
From here Collins moves into “Occupation,” to which he asserts a dual meaning: the occupation by Israel of Palestinian land, and the occupation of that land by the remaining Palestinians. This sets up a clever examination of the relationship between space/place and a people, and he uses both anecdotes (from hikers in the West Bank hills to Bedouins in the Negev) and interesting analogies to drive home his points about the biopolitics of occupation (pp. 115-116, 121-122). For example, he compares the uprooting of olive groves by Israeli settlers to the hunting of bison by American pioneers. In both cases he sees a "war on the milieu," by which he means that settler-colonial régimes are driven to hostility when confronted by any population which weaves connection with a given locality into their sense of identity and will resort to policies changing the very nature of that environment (pp. 116-117).
This brings Collins to environmental issues, where he looks at how community organizing has created thousands of small-time "heroes" facing the accelerated technology of colonizing settlers with stubborn acts of defiance, court battles, and continuous reconstruction of gardens and homes destroyed by bulldozers. He mentions a community garden in Beit Sahour as a project taken on with the goal of fostering both personal dignity and a deeper connection to the land (p. 125). I have seen a similar project undertaken in Beit Umar, just north of Hebron, and agree with Collins about the sense of purpose that comes from these activities, as futile as they might seem.
I, like Collins, have seen numerous examples of Israeli-Palestinian solidarity and of international involvement in the struggle to save Palestine. The garden in Beit Umar was planted with the help of activists from Europe and the United States. The locals marching in Sheikh Jarrah against the settlers are joined by others from throughout Israel. And beyond the spatially rooted, we can see in the Internet and in demonstrations in cities around the world an association with the Palestinian struggle that belies the lack of physical connection to people in the Territories. Collins echoes Edward Said when he notes that, like South Africa in the apartheid era, Palestine now "forms the hub of a global web that not only connects people of diverse experiences, but also provides an idiom within which to see important commonalities among those experiences" (pp. 127-128). Of course, Collins neglects the fact that these instances of transnational solidarity are made possible by acceleration.
Collins notes that "pro-Israeli propaganda" can be used to turn any international supporter of Palestinian rights, no matter how committed to pacifism and nonviolence, into a material supporter of terrorism (p. 131). This harkens back to his earlier comments on the discursive formation that is terrorism. Decoupling acts such as suicide bombing from their context (asymmetric warfare) and turning perpetrators into pathological psychotics serves a useful function in the discourse of settler-colonial states like Israel and the United States (pp. 71-74). This, to me, demonstrates clearly the double-edged sword of acceleration: technologies that can be used for organized resistance or effective containment, with the balance of power frequently on the side with more. Of course, "the problems created by settler colonialism were never meant to be solved" (p. 139). In order to acknowledge any kind of indigenous sovereignty, settler-colonial societies would need to undermine their own national narratives; after all, how could we celebrate the rugged and courageous pioneers of the American West if we considered them genocidal thieves bent on erasing the native inhabitants from the landscape?
This leads Collins into a brief discussion of the two-state "solution" to the Israel/Palestine question, which I agree is fundamentally flawed. But Collins goes further than most in justifying his opposition, making a broader point about national projects: "With its nineteenth- and twentieth-century approach rooted in the logic of ethnonational separation and partition, the two-state solution emerges not only as unworkable, but also as a political anachronism" (p. 142). Instead, we are enjoined to an idealism of youthful attachment to revolutionary causes, in the hope that such actions ultimately will give birth to a new form of politics that can undo the damage wrought by settler colonialism. It is a bold vision, drawing logical conclusions from the "post-Zionist" ideals of a new generation of Jewish activists to undermine the entire ideological premise of nationalism, and it is difficult to fault. But it is juxtaposed with an alternative vision, in which "everyone is becoming increasingly indigenous in relation to the colonizing machinery of dromocratic violence and surveillance" (p. 140). This contrast calls to mind the political commitments and structural analyses of Foucault, placing Collins in fine company.
. Immanuel Kant, "Idea For a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose" (1784), in Kant: Political Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).
. For particularly competent elucidation of Zionism as a colonial project see, e.g., Gabriel Piterberg,The Returns of Zionism: Myth, Politics and Scholarship in Israel (London: Verso, 2008). Collins makes good use of Piterberg's work, amongst others.
. Michel Foucault, "Society Must Be Defended": Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976, trans. David Macey (New York: Picador, 2003).
. See, e.g., Marc Van De Mieroop, A History of the Ancient Near East ca. 3000-323 BC (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006).
. E. P. Thompson,"'Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism," Past and Present 38, no. 1 (1967): 56-97.
. Throughout his book Collins cites many feature films as examples, and I could hardly resist a playful one: John Hughes's Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987).
. See, e.g., the work of Naomi Klein or Mark LeVine.
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