The Left Cannot Make Use of the Gaza War


Ethnic cleansing reifies ethnicity and inflicts devastation on real human beings in the name of a bogus right-wing conceptual scheme.

The American left has been drifting aimlessly since Bernie Sanders’ defeat in 2020. All the major issues of the 10s have dropped off the political agenda. There is no longer any serious talk of Medicare-For-All or Tuition-Free-College. Healthcare and higher education remain prohibitively expensive. And meanwhile, the housing market has become an absolute nightmare. The price of a typical home has increased more than twice as fast as inflation since the 1960s, and higher interest rates during the Biden years have pushed mortgages beyond the reach of millions. We are quickly approaching a breaking point, where a home will no longer be a plausible part of the American dream, even for many college-educated professionals. But the left has very little to say about any of this. Instead, it has a great deal to say about Gaza.

Why Gaza? We’re told it’s what the kids care about. How do we know that? Young people are going to protests on college campuses and in blue cities. On TikTok, Gaza seems to get a lot of attention. Okay, so what?

For more than two decades, Gallup has asked Americans, “What do you think is the most important problem facing the country today?” In December of 2005, 22% of Americans pointed to the Iraq War. The Iraq War was obviously important to people from all walks of life, and when the left made the Iraq War its signature issue in the 00s, there was an argument that the left was responding to something real.

Today, in the same poll, only 2% of Americans point to war in the Middle East. 30% point to an explicitly economic issue, while a further 28% raise immigration.

Now, we shouldn’t just let the polls tell us what to do. After all, part of the work of politics involves changing what’s on the agenda and what people care about. But this is a pretty big discrepancy between what the left is talking about and what people say they care about. And what makes it weirder is that this gap has opened up in just the last few years. In 2017, healthcare was the second most important issue. Even in the late 10s, when the focus shifted toward race relations, the left was talking about an issue that consistently ranked 3rd.

Now, maybe the theory here is that even though Gaza isn’t a high priority issue for most Americans, it matters to a specific constituency that President Biden needs in November. After all, abortion only gets 3% in the issue poll, but many Democratic strategists still believe that issue will drive voters to the polls in November. Maybe the young people can threaten to stay home or vote third party, and Biden will have to meet their demands?

The trouble is that so many people on the left have said that they believe Donald Trump is a fascist or an authoritarian who poses an existential threat to democracy. If you say that, you can’t then credibly threaten to stay home or vote third party. Early in 2020, many people on the left suggested they might not support Biden, but as the general election approached, they ultimately felt an obligation to save democracy and do “harm reduction.” Many of these same people have publicly said that they consider January 6th to be an insurrection. If you have these views, how can you credibly threaten to withhold your support from Biden in 2024?

The left’s acceptance of the Democratic Party’s narrative that the right poses an existential threat to the system has made it impossible for the left to offer credible opposition to the Biden administration. The Biden administration has every reason to believe the left will ultimately support it in November, no matter what particular leftists say or do over the course of summer. 

In 2020, the left wrote the Biden administration a blank check. So why would anyone who is frustrated with the economic performance of the Biden administration look to the left for relief? Immigration is a central issue in large part because the left has ceded the terrain of economic critique to the right. Since only the right seems to offer credible opposition to Biden, only the right gains from economic grievances. So now, right-wing narratives about the economy are proliferating unchecked. When the right is given free reign to define economic problems however it likes, what does it do? It blames outgroups for economic problems, transforming possible socialists into ethnonationalists and even antisemites.

The American left is not in position to help the Gazans, and it is not in position to help the Gazans precisely because of the litany of strategic mistakes it has made over the past decade.

But even supposing the American left could help the Gazans, what would this help look like, concretely? Too much of the American left has accepted the ethnonationalist ontology of “Palestinians” and “Israelis.” If there are two national “peoples,” each of which believes it is entitled to a state of its own on the same territory, what are these peoples to do but fight until one overcomes the other? How does it help to champion one ethnonationalism against the other?

Many former colonies are only nominally independent. In these contexts, nominal independence papers over the fact of dependence, concealing the degree to which for the poor and the weak around the world, real statehood is a chimera.

Even the two-state solution is well beyond the bounds of possibility. A viable state must be able to defend itself. A state that can’t defend itself is dependent on other states for its security. It is not, in an important sense, truly independent, even if it is recognized by other states as such. Many former colonies are only nominally independent. In these contexts, nominal independence papers over the fact of dependence, concealing the degree to which for the poor and the weak around the world, real statehood is a chimera.

There is not enough Palestinian territory for a viable state to exist. Even thirty years ago, before roughly half a million settlers migrated to the West Bank, there was not enough territory for a Palestinian state to effectively defend itself. A Palestinian state that cannot defend itself would be dependent on Israel for its security. It would be nominally, legally independent, but not independent in fact. Economically and militarily, it would remain dependent on Israel and on the United States.

To redeem the Palestinians from statelessness, the distinction between Israeli and Palestinian would need to be overcome. All the people living in what is now Israel and Palestine would need to recognize one another as citizens of a single state. Those citizens would need to enjoy the same political rights – including a right of free movement within the territory now comprising Israel and Palestine.

When westerners validate the ethnonationalist ontology and pick sides in the conflict, they encourage the parties to continue conceptualizing themselves in a way that can only lead to more violence. They give the parties hope that western states will one day facilitate either the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians or the ethnic cleansing of the settlers in the West Bank. But no solution that involves ethnic cleansing is acceptable. Ethnic cleansing reifies ethnicity and inflicts devastation on real human beings in the name of a bogus right-wing conceptual scheme. It is despicable for anyone claiming the mantle of socialism to support ethnic cleansing. And what good would it do? The most that can be achieved by ethnonationalist activism for the Palestinians is a façade of independence that masks continuing neocolonialism. 

Instead, it should be argued that the Palestinians are entitled to the same rights the Israelis now enjoy – they should have the same political and economic rights as Israelis who live in the territory of Israel. They should enjoy the same standard of living and political status.

The ontology of “settler” versus “indigenous” just replaces one form of ethnonationalism with another, creating hope within the so-called indigenous population that it will one day succeed in ethnically cleansing the settlers. It in no way helps the ostensibly indigenous population demand political and economic rights. It invites both sides to regard one another as enemies and to persevere in trying to murder one another. And it naturalizes and reifies ethnic and racist distinctions among human population groups. All human beings are indigenous to planet earth. 

The nation-state system is a contingent feature of a particular historical moment in capitalism. Increasingly, nation-states are unable to solve irreducibly global problems. They cannot manage flows of capital and people. They cannot sustain robust public services or strong consumer bases, because they constantly compete with one another on tax rates and wages. These problems will not be solved by returning to 20th century notions of national liberation. They will intensify and deepen, with grim consequences for people all around the world.

Yet we are told that by embracing very right-wing ways of thinking about Gaza we will somehow breathe new life into the left. All we are doing is illustrating our inability to articulate and defend any alternative to ethnonationalism. We are saying, in so many words, that there is no alternative to ethnonationalism, and therefore there is no alternative to the right.

It should not surprise us when voters hear what we are already implying and take it seriously. We are digging our own political graves.