Mandy Turner and Omar Shweiki, editors, Decolonizing Palestinian Political Economy: De-Development and Beyond. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.
Anyone who visited Ramallah in 2013 would have heard a lot of talk about seatbelts. Everyone there—everyone—was talking about them, and how consistent and prevalent they had become after just a little bit of police enforcement. In 2010 it was the multi-space parking meters the Ramallah municipality had recently installed. Both events and practices were commonly described as the neoliberalization of Palestine, dark indicators of what was to come. Before that it was coffee shops. Next year it will be something else.
Since 2008 or so, Palestinians and scholars working there have been talking a lot about neoliberalism specifically, and about political economy more generally. It is as widespread as it has ever been, probably since the erosion of third wordlist anti-imperialist or Marxist-Leninist factions in the national movement, and certainly more than in the last few decades. Just in the last year or so there have been high profile talks on the subject; a large research project on the Political Economy of the Middle East based out of the Arab Studies Institute formed; books on the history of Palestinian capitalists, on Marxist thought in the Levant, on the history of money in Palestine, and on the phenomenon of neoliberalism in Palestine are all in the pipeline. Both the Palestinian Authority and the Center for Development Studies at Birzeit are funding research on economic resistance, and it has purchase in places like the Palestinian Policy Network Al-Shabaka, and the Palestinian Center for the Study of Democracy, Muwatin. Yet there is an ambient shapelessness about it, and shared definitions are rare.
In 2010, Mandy Turner and Omar Shweiki organized a conference on “De-development under Prolonged Occupation: The Millennium Development Goals and the Palestinian People,” and have published many of those papers as Decolonizing Palestinian Political Economy: De-development and Beyond, a new contribution to this growing field.
Sara Roy’s concept of de-development guides this volume. Roy defines the term as part of occupation, a process that limits economic growth and development for Palestinians. Critically, the de-development process occurs “when normal economic relations are impaired or abandoned, preventing any logical or rational arrangement of the economy or its constituent parts, diminishing productive capacity and precluding sustainable growth.” It is an economic condition where self-correction is prevented or impossible, and it is explicitly political: “Over time, de-development represents nothing less than the denial of economy potential.”
Turner and Shweiki begin by writing specifically against a seemingly objective form of academic political economy and its assumptions. According to them, the discipline implies and exacerbates the fragmentation of Palestinian geography and body politic and the “invisible colonial grammar that takes these divisions for granted and reifies them.” The result is to render divisions, it seems, merely as an academic problem, “a narrative that needs to be unpacked and critiqued.” They propose we take the text as a set of interventions against that dominant mode in the discipline. They seek to “decolonize” the discourse by explicitly politicizing analysis, and by “analyzing the shared experience of dispossession and marginalization together in one volume [in order to] contribute to clarifying the wider picture of the political economy of the Palestinian people.”
That wider picture is one of
A people experiencing a colonial matrix of dispossession, disenfranchisement, and destruction in a world-historical period regarded to be post-colonial. This experience and process has been variously labeled as constituting “spatiocide” (Hanafi), “politicide” (Kimmerling), and/or “sociocide” (Abdel Jawad). This book, however, takes as its starting point the concept of “de-development” in order to focus more specifically on the political economy dimension.
Taken together, the chapters suggest to Turner and Shweiki that there is a way forward in “adopting Foucault’s assertion that ‘where there is power, there is resistance.’”
Through a powerful collection of authors working mostly in political science, international relations, and as practitioners in NGOs and IOs, the volume successfully politicizes ideas about the economy in Palestine. It shows how economics are tied to occupation, are political, and are one of the mechanisms for the continued dispossession of Palestinians. The book catalogs, in great detail, numerous ways that the occupation seeps into everyday life and economic practice, and is an excellent resource for people new to the conflict. Although the contributions are all brief, the level of the detail is intense. The occupation is everywhere you look, simply everywhere. And by placing all of these pieces side-by-side, the editors have done important work towards bringing down the analytical geographical separation that inflects both scholarship and practice.
In the foreword, Sara Roy lays out how in the mid-1980s, she came to the idea of de-development, and how de-development has been imposed in Gaza and has “delimited people’s lives.” Roy criticizes current international and Palestinian plans for state building, arguing they are not viable and will not correct the de-development process or lead to liberation. In the first two sections “De-development Explored” and “De-development Applied,” we see how the occupation stifles Palestinians in terms of planning, social and biological reproductive capacity, aid, water and ideological practices around water, whether they are refugees, Jerusalemites, or citizens of Israel. That is why a book like this is crucial for practitioners, aid workers, and people new to the conflict—it actively and correctly disables countless liberal assumptions, practices, and forms of development and political work in Palestine today.
In “De-development Explored,” Sahar Taghdisi-Rad argues against the neoliberal policy frameworks that restrict and prevent economic development in Palestine and coopt political elites. She argues for a radical break in PA policy. Mandy Turner continues this theme and shows how Western aid has transformed the PA and strengthened the geographic fragmentation in the Oslo framework “through the ‘partners for peace’ discursive framework which has been used to manipulate Palestinian elites.” Clemens Messerschmid shows how the water issue is not simply a natural issue, but a political one. Finally, Nadera Shalhoub-Kerkovian and Rachel Busbridge demonstrate some of the micro-dimensions of power, social, and colonial violence through a small-scale ethnographic study of how women in Jerusalem have been impacted by these phenomena.
The next part, “De-development Applied,” contains case studies of de-development: economic segregation and difficulties faced by Palestinians inside Israel by Raja Khalidi and Mtanes Shehadeh, Ismael Abu-Saad on the systematic dispossession of Palestinian Beduoins, and Ingrid Jaradat Gassner on the ways that Palestinian refugees have been ignored and disempowered. It ends with Nasrallah’s description of how Israel is master planning Jerusalem against Palestinians.
The third section on “De-development Resisted” is the most far-reaching in the book, and in addition to analyzing some of the current conditions and the histories that led up to this juncture, it points to some potential ways to work towards economic justice for Palestinians. Omar Shweiki describes the histories of revolutionary “social work” in Palestine and conceptions of development tied explicitly to the national struggle. He suggests that a recent movement to reinvigorate a representative PLO is a cause for hope, and that ideas of economic welfare and self-sufficiency should reenter debate. Nicholas Pelham’s piece on the tunnel economy is a meticulous and fascinating description of the scale of this economy, and how illegal and legal come together in part through government regulations of grey trade. Sobhi Samour and Raja Khalidi’s piece on the state building project is perhaps the most explicitly radical in the volume—and, for what it’s worth, the only one to favorably mention Marx or reference the Marxist tradition of political economy. The book concludes with Mushtaq Khan’s ideas for moving forward in the current environment. He suggests that “peacemaking and state-building discourses initiated by Oslo have failed to achieve Palestinian national goals,” making an important intervention to practitioners, and advocates a rights-based approach to solving the problems of the present.
The editors have put together a sturdy account of the continuous nature and overlapping forms of Palestinian disenfranchisement and fragmentation. But is it enough to say that the fact of shared experience of occupation constitutes political economy? There is a certain looseness in the category of political economy that these pieces demonstrate when they are placed side-by-side, and this framework implies that political economy overlaps a great deal with arguments for economic development. Clearly politics and economics are inseparable, in Palestine as elsewhere. But I somewhat disagree with the way the editors attach political economy to the various -cides here, and suggest that those –cides are not simply labels for the same experience; they are analytical tools to describe and understand the situation.
If, as the editors suggest, they are different labels for the same phenomena, what does it mean that we are telling ourselves the same story, repeatedly, but in different ways? And what does this mean for the category of political economy? Perhaps rather than defining political economy against the way it is practiced, a positive definition of political economy as the study of capitalism and its social, political, economic, and other forms, could be a qualitatively different, robust, and unifying framework. It goes beyond description. It allows us to ask: If the occupation is killing Palestinian space, politics, and society, how is it doing so? What are the logics and histories? What does it mean to kill a space if it is socially produced? Do politics and society stop existing? And what does it imply if these –cides the same as de-development? A Marxist economist complained to me about “the proliferation of –cides,” and asked, “Is it because they don’t want to speak of genocide?” I don’t have the answer to that question, but I agree with the implication that there may be bigger structures and logics that we can attempt to understand, of which the forms and contours of dispossession are effects or epiphenomena.
Moreover, I wonder if the concept of de-development implies a kind of normative developmental progression, and whether a view from a different scale might help to clarify the picture or raise questions about ideal types of development. Taghdisi-Rad is correct in her analysis, but where do the policies she describes come from? Who do they represent? Shalhoub-Kerkovian and Busbridge’s ethnography of women in Jerusalem exposes terrible truths about gendered violence and the ways that women are disproportionately de-developed through the occupation. But what are the differences and similarities between how women are disproportionately subject in patriarchal capitalist society everywhere, and what might be unique, different, or exacerbated under occupation? Turner is convincing in her analysis of how aid dependence is shaping the broader political economy, but I wonder about the ways that a global discourse can be imposed on Palestinians embedded within it; there are Palestinians who benefit from these forms of development, privatization, and state building, and who have class interests and alternate conceptions of national politics.
As a group, these articles demonstrate the utter pervasiveness of the de-development process on Palestine and Palestinians. In nearly every way, they demonstrate how the political economic rationales of occupation have disempowered or excluded various subsets of Palestinians. Abu-Saad and Nasrallah show how many Israeli policies towards Palestinians are top-down, purposeful, and designed to de-develop them and their future capacities for economic, educational, geographic, and other kinds of growth. Gassner seems to speak for many in the section when she “approaches development as a human right and as a process of social, political, and economic transformation that can empower the excluded and exploited.” It is a right that Israelis have taken from Palestinians. This is undeniably the case. However, there is an open question: the assumption is that Palestinians as a racialized minority, nation, and as populations, are the objects of economic policy. While that is true, how do different peoples and populations fit into a wider system that has both political and economic imperatives? How do those groups get defined in the first place? Khalidi and Shehadeh allude to it as they describe the position that the indigenous Palestinians within Israel have with respect to the Israeli economy, and how various factions and territories are balanced in order maintain the status quo of Israeli settler colonization.
The last two pieces demonstrate the strengths and weaknesses in the volume. Khalidi and Samour are critical of the economic interests and practices they believe are damaging Palestine, and how general class stratification and elite economic interests are increasingly diverging from national and nationalist political interests that are based in shared Palestinian experiences of dispossession and occupation. On the other hand, Khan seems to emphasize coping under the present conditions. His critique of Oslo is devastating. He writes “the freedom to live in dignity is probably the most important freedom for a population under occupation, as well as for Palestinian refugees since the failure to recognize their right of return results in gradually delegitimizing all other initiatives over time.” Yet the narrow focus on combining political and economic analysis in support of rights and dignity makes it difficult to see structural issues; I would suggest that the structure of colonialism itself denies the possibility of dignity, and of politics. The most important freedom for Palestinians is the freedom from colonial occupation, without which dignity as Palestinians will be impossible.
Politics and economies are linked and inseparable, and it is difficult to identify phenomena like state building or development as either one or the other. The editors correctly describe the situation as bleak and their intervention as a radical one. But when they say their intervention is limited to the discipline, they limit its reach. An argument at a different scale, and with a more cumulative understanding of history, might include discussion of capital, practice, and ideology in a way that would not see capitalism as a new imposition—as though Palestine had been at some stage insulated from capitalism. We would instead see Palestine as a place and society that has long been dispossessed by and through settler colonial phenomena that are at once racist, geographic, economic, regional, and global—where the mechanisms for control are as much about labor within Israel, or development aid that allows the occupation to be outsourced to Palestinian elites, or actual class aspiration among Palestinians, or the problems that Palestinian and Israeli capitalists have in extracting ground rent in an unstable political situation. Even prior to colonization, Palestine is a place that has long been an unequal, unevenly developed part of the capitalist global political economy
Ultimately, Turner and Shweiki have made important contributions to the debate, and have done a great deal to demonstrate the ways that economics are punitive and how economic development is being denied to many Palestinians under occupation. Their volume can successfully work toward its goal of decolonizing many of the liberal, colonial assumptions that inflect development and political practice in Palestine. They have done a great deal to dismantle the implicit colonial notions that have segregated not only the Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, the 1948 territories, and the diaspora, but the academic work on Palestine. Their book is an important node in ongoing debates that travel between the scales of affects of political economy and the structural questions of capitalism, capitalist society, modes of production, and geographies of capital. Together, these approaches will help to illuminate why the occupation looks like it does, and help us work towards ways out of this bleak situation.