In late February, just about anyone who ever wrote anything about the political economy of Palestine and the Palestinians descended upon Providence, Rhode Island. They were there to attend Brown University’s much-anticipated conference organized by Beshara Doumani, “New Directions in Palestine Studies: Political Economy and the Economy of the Political.” As a person who has just started in the field, the experience was more than a little surreal. Most of the authors who I have spent most of my time as a student reading were quite literally packed into one room.
This is a series of scattered reflections on the conference. But, in another sense, it is something of a confession. Although the event was, by all accounts, a historic gathering of some of the best experts in the field, and on the whole a positive and exciting development, I could not help but come away from it with a sense of sadness. This has almost nothing to do with the scholarly work of the individuals involved, and much more to do with the political moment in which we currently live. If I could summarize the source of my trepidation in one sentence, it would be that the period we are in represents a shift in knowledge-production on Palestine to an age of post-militants.
Let me explain.
During one of the panels on class, Mezna Qato noted the decline of class analysis in the study of the Palestinian shatat from the 1990s onwards. This stood in sharp contrast to the radical political economic scholarship that appeared in the PLO Research Center’s journal, Shu’un Filastiniyya. It was at this point that acclaimed Lebanese writer Elias Khoury made an observation that stuck with me. He started off by thanking Qato for mentioning Shu’un—to which everyone laughed, as they all knew that he used to be its editor at the Center. He then pointed out that at that time there was not much of a distinction between being a researcher and a militant. It was simply taken for granted that academics were, at least in some capacity, also activists.
Khoury’s comment, for me, was perhaps the most enduring observation coming out of the entire conference. This is because I think it speaks volumes to the marked shift that has occurred in the study of Palestine between the 1960s to the present period. The conference featured over twenty papers on political economy, yet only two or three of them directly mentioned Marx, without engaging substantially with Marxist ideas. But what stood out the most for me was the fact that not much was at stake beyond questions of an abstract academic nature. Of course, this does not mean that the authors did not see themselves as engaging in important political work, but the theoretical lenses many of them chose to use did not lend themselves naturally to a normative political project. This is where the left has historically been strongest, in its unrepentant claim that “another world is possible” through collective action. Knowledge-production, in this context, was undertaken for the express purpose of figuring out how to realize this emancipatory project.
Anyway, after Khoury’s comment, I revisited several volumes of Shu’un. Khoury and Qato were right. Almost everything I came across was attached to the revolution. The articles, to varying degrees, explored questions of political strategy, tactics, and practice. You could find topics as varied as studies on “Tenets of the People’s War,” “The Palestinian Camps Under the Revolution,” “The Objectives of Our Current Phase,” “The Palestinian Resistance and Social Organizing,” and so on. The intellectuals and academics who wrote for the journal were also revolutionaries, and their allegiance to academic institutions was secondary to their political commitments.
Certainly, I could be accused of overly romanticizing the era of the revolution in this way. This is not really my intention, since the Palestinian liberation movement had more than its fair share of flaws, too many to enumerate here. But I do think the main point stands: for all of its drawbacks, that political moment produced an intellectual culture that centered on thinking with and for the movement. Almost all intellectuals were affiliated in some way to the revolution, or defined themselves in relation to it. The role of research was expressly political. In this sense, it was quite un-academic by today’s standards.
This brings me back to the New Directions in Palestine Studies conference. I should mention that despite my misgivings, I was immensely impressed by the scope and range of scholars it managed to bring together. On the one hand, you had the well established old guard that basically founded the field. On the other hand, there was also a heavy focus on the new generation of young academics, representing the most cutting-edge scholarship on the political economy of Palestine. The attendees were themselves very aware of the fact that this conference was unlike any they had attended in a long while, as they frequently pointed out during coffee breaks in between panels. Many of them had also spent years reading each other’s work but never gotten the opportunity to meet in person. For some, it was like a lamm shamil (family unification). I could not help but feel a strong affinity to those in attendance. Perhaps it was precisely because of this that I came away from the conference feeling conflicted.
The Shift After Defeat, The Return in the Wake of Revolution
It is clear to me that the death of the liberation movement is the main source of the shift away from politics in the sense that I have described above. The revolution gave everyone a node from which all sorts of creative and intellectual innovations could emerge. Class analysis and Marxism was a primary category, though by no means the exclusive one. The decline of the Palestinian revolution—from the defeat in Beirut, to exile in Tunis, to the first intifada’s failure, and Oslo’s advent—meant that people lost their point of political reference. Academics began to call into question the old utopian dreams of mass revolution. This was part of a world historical moment that came about in conjunction with the rise of neoliberalism, the “fall” of communism, and the retreat of the left into the academy. The defeat of some of the world revolutions of the twentieth century, and the triumph of capitalism, brought in new intellectual trends: Foucauldian biopolitics, postmodern criticism of the “grand narratives” of revolutionary movements, subaltern and postcolonial studies, and so on. These fields differed in any number of ways, but they shared a deep skepticism of any ideology emphasizing conscious collective action, especially Marxism as a normative political project.
The new academic trends thoroughly colonized the field of Middle Eastern studies, in which academics who studied Palestine were deeply embedded. Although it has been noticeably more resistant to this skepticism than academics in other areas such as Egypt, given the enduring brutality of Israel and the political upheaval of the second intifada, Palestinian academia was not an exception to this process.
I should mention, however, that this shift was apparent for many of the conference attendees. During the question and answer section of the panel on class (the same one in which Khoury raised his comment on researchers and militants), Joel Beinin referenced the recent debate between Vivek Chibber and Partha Chatterjee concerning the rejection of Marxist analytical categories by the field of postcolonial studies. Beinin remarked that in studying Palestine we have tended to eschew materialist analyses of political economy—a rejection which he thought we should reconsider. He qualified his statement by saying that we should not follow the “crude materialism” of orthodox Marxists, like ideas concerning “base and superstructure,” but that our retreat from material explanations of class dynamics should be revised. Doumani also alluded to this general issue in his reflection on one of the papers, noting the changing continuum between Marxism and postcolonial studies. This marks the cultural turn in academia that shied away from economic and class explanations of social relations.
The panel’s response to these issues was not to my liking, especially concerning the Chibber-Chatterjee debate—although, notably, there was not as much hostility to Chibber’s Marxist critique as I had expected. No one on the panel completely rejected the Marxist position out of hand, and neither did they condemn it as a totalizing grand narrative guilty of Eurocentric biases. But they were not exactly rushing to its defense, either. However, that in and of itself says something. At more than one point, I saw signs of reflexivity, if not discontent, at the current state of the academic investigation of political economy. More broadly, the very fact that we even had a conference on political economy was a formal expression of this discontent, and a tacit recognition that we have strayed too far into the “discursive” realm.
I think the fact that this issue is being raised now is not incidental. The Arab revolts and the return of social movements have led, if only vaguely, to a return to the leftist political categories of revolution. You could see more signs of this throughout the conference: as an addendum to her talk on Palestinian capitalists and the economy, Leila Farsakh called for a return to Marxist categories of analysis; Samia Botmeh’s study on Palestinian women’s labor supply encouraged a heterodox economic approach to studying labor in Palestine and the MENA region, also alluding to Marxism. Sherene Seikaly called for all of us to reconsider who gets to produce knowledge, that perhaps we should broaden our definition of knowledge-producers to include activists, bloggers, and techies. Kareem Rabie, in his study of the planned Palestinian city of Rawabi, advocated that the new academic interest in neoliberalism should be accompanied by a deeper understanding of what capitalism is. Perhaps most encouragingly, Alaa Tartir’s contribution towards developing a “resistance economy” in Palestine was most in line with proposing research projects that are politically motivated.
In his remarks during the closing session of the conference, Rashid Khalidi offered a few words of advice to the new generation of scholars on Palestine: on the one hand, they should have a rigorous grounding in the academic discipline, but on the other, all of their work is worthless if they cannot convey it to a wider audience. More people echoed this sentiment during the closing session. Seikaly reiterated her opinion on knowledge-producers, Qato stressed open access, broad audiences, and bringing movements back into our work, and Bashir Abu Manneh remarked that the academic study of Palestine is not particularly interesting without the political compulsion, and the hostility towards oppression that comes with being a Palestinian academic, or even an academic who studies Palestine. All of these comments are significant. In response, I would like to offer a few schematic thoughts on how these suggestions could be developed.
Following Khoury’s comment, I want to clarify that I do not advocate returning to a carbon copy of the intellectual climate created by the Palestinian revolution, although many of its elements are certainly inspiring. The main thing I think we can take from it is the marriage of knowledge-production with political action. But this time around, I think we should keep a few things in mind that our predecessors did not. For one thing, one of the main causes of the defeat of the revolution was the way in which it was structured. The unaccountability of the leadership to the people, the hierarchy of organization, and the elitist character of the armed struggle, meant that the PLO could make decisions in the name of the Palestinians without their active participation. Signing Oslo was just one outcome of this. In this context, one of the roles of academics should be to explore questions of organizational structure: that is, questions having to do with revolutionary practice. Obviously this is just my own particular interest, and there is room for much more diversity. I am particularly persuaded by Marxist and generally leftist approaches, but the bottom line need not be limited to it.
In Argentina, a group of activists and intellectuals called Colectivo Situaciones gave this a name: “militant research.” This group draws inspiration, in part, from the piqueteros movement in Argentina, including the December 2001 insurrection. This was when thousands of people took to the streets of major cities and conducted a series of direct actions, giving way to popular assemblies and fleeting worker control over factories and businesses. Militant research was a way to think “from within” and “by” movements. These researchers, I would say, are actually more radical than the generation of researcher-militants that was part of the armed Palestinian groups. The Colectivo Situaciones emphasizes the role of researchers’ faithfulness to their own ignorance. Their role is not to be “advisors to social movements,” or Gramscian organic intellectuals, but to think with people, not about them. Although the group tends to echo some of the inaccessible jargon for which academia has been criticized, the main message that can be distilled from their proposition is quite compelling. Knowledge is to be produced from within movements, with a tendency to emphasize its practical application.
American Anthropologist David Graeber has suggested a similar approach. Graeber’s review of the Art and Immaterial Labor conference in 2008 at London’s Tate Modern museum, The Sadness of Post-Workerism (which was the inspiration for the title and spirit of this review) discusses the decline of revolutionary theory in Italian workerist thought. In it, Graeber traces this shift in the attitudes of artists and academics away from revolutionary politics to the rise of neoliberalism, specifically its logic of fragmentation. Today we live in a world where none of the old revolutionary categories apply. Collective political action is no longer a viable way forward, reality is far more complex, power is diffused, and the only way to subvert it is at the individual level.
More or less, this typically follows the postmodern trend. It is not a coincidence that neoliberal capitalists make variations of the same argument, especially regarding the participation of individuals in the market as the only meaningful way of realizing human freedom. In contrast, Graeber thinks that social scientists are actually quite well-placed to think of revolution. Anthropology, for instance, has often if loosely been related to an ethnographic curiosity in other cultures—that is to say, in alternative ways of organizing society. This is what Graeber means by saying that social science is a theory for utopia: put simply, it can potentially allow us to imagine political alternatives to the current order.
Whether one would like to call it militant research, a theory for utopia, or anything else, the basic theme is fairly consistent. The role of researchers should assume its radical place, outside of the university. Some of this has already started, although gradually, and in piecemeal fashion. Indeed, the very fact that Jadaliyya has become so popular is a product of the Arab revolts, and Jadaliyya’s own stated aim is to bring ideas to a wider audience that does not have access to academic journals. Yet much of what has been written in Jadaliyya, although dealing with politics, has tended to adopt the types of postmodern, post Marxist lenses that are a part of the retreat from political engagement. It is time, I think, to lay them to rest.
Some Concluding Thoughts
What does all this mean in practice to anyone working on Palestine today? Beyond embracing an expressly political approach to research, I can hardly claim to have definitive answers. In any case, that would be against the spirit in which I have written this review. All I can offer are some rudimentary thoughts.
It seems to me that part of our problem has to do with our conceptions of what movements are, and what political action is. The absence of political parties and resistance factions, while important, is not the only metric by which to measure political action or inaction. Dispersed Palestinian communities engage in constant struggles, if partial and fragmented. Tartir referenced the development of resistance economies in Palestine. In my view, part of the advantage of researchers is their access to repositories of information on other movements and revolutionary experiences that were able to take such fragmented acts of resistance and make them into coherent movements, some with defined and formalized political structures, some with more informal ones. We can, for instance, benefit from learning of the experiences of the neighborhood assemblies associated with the piqueteros, the governmental political structures and projects of autonomous economy of the Zapatistas in Chiapas, or the agricultural and labor activism of the Brazilian Landless Workers’ movement—and of course, the myriad political traditions could fill encyclopedias. One place to start would be to narrow down which experiences could be particularly useful for Palestine.
One might accept all I have had to say in principle, but raise one crucial and fairly simple objection: there is currently no noticeable Palestinian movement within which one might engage in the type of intellectual project I have briefly mentioned above. In fact, in sharing some of these ideas with people, I was told that, of course, since there is no movement, the current academic trends are expected. Once political upheavals start up again, the academics will eventually—maybe gradually—snap back into place. For me, this suggestion is more than a little disconcerting. Does it mean that academics, writers, intellectuals, are just always fated to be behind the times, always belatedly catching up to what is happening on the streets?
Maybe that is true. But what if they were to go into the streets as well? Historically, this might be expecting a bit much, and I don’t necessarily mean it literally (though I certainly would not be opposed to it). But I think that the separation between researchers and the objects of their research has contributed to a political distance, not merely an intellectual one. This is the sadness of our post-militant age.
 David Graeber, “The Sadness of Post-Workerism,” Revolutions in Reverse: Essays on Politics, Violence, Art, and the Imagination. New York, NY: Autonomedia, 2012. 89
 David Graeber “Social Theory as Science and Utopia: Or, Does the Prospect of a General Sociological Theory Still Mean Anything in an Age of Globalization?” Possibilities: Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion, and Desire. Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2007.