Originally published: https://www.jonathanchadwick.net/symbolic-power-and-the-palestinian-liberation-struggle/

01 May 2024

Symbolic Power and the Palestinian liberation struggle

The struggle for liberation in Palestine is iconically significant.  What is the sway and influence of the symbolic?   I want to ascertain what symbolic power might be and how it plays a part in systems of rule.  I understand it to be integrally linked to physical power, both a ritualisation and sanctification of it, apparently at times separate from it.  It is the power to determine the meaning of signs and symbols, to determine that which is sacred, and to organise spaces in which acts, speech and assignations have particular meanings and force.  This power is institutionalised and enacted in the spaces formed by institutional relations. It is a complement of physical power.  Physical power is the violent constraint of bodies, the power over life and death, the effecting of actual material changes to spaces and the determination of what happens in them.  It is never absolutely clear what the distinction might be between these different aspects of power.  This separation and apparent fusion is crucial. For example, one of the most guarded aspects of symbolic power is secrecy.  This is a determination about what can be known.  To know something that somebody else doesn’t know is a form of power.  How far this particular proscription is at the core of the political systems we currently inhabit is evidenced by the influence of the intelligence communities that lie close to the deepest spaces of the state.  The word itself is derived from secenere which means to hide and to exclude or to withdraw.  Control of space and prohibition are the keynotes of the activity of secrecy. Physical power enforces secrecy but the special kind of knowledge that secrecy gives sanctifies physical power and violence.  In other analyses of political structures the state apparatus has two aspects, the repressive state apparatus (e.g. the Police) and the ideological state apparatus (e.g the media).  These structures are analysed as binary concepts because the structures, as they actually function, are binary.  This characteristic constitutes the double or duplicitous power of the contemporary state.  Although analysis can appear mechanical or structural, the state is not a machine.  It is a set of relations that are enacted in specific spaces and these spaces are made by the agreed relations that take place in them.

It could be misleading to separate symbolic power.  The roots of its processes lie in the alliance between the warrior leader and the high priest/shaman that was forged as patriarchy came into being.  This was the beginning of hierarchy (the dominance of the hierarch, the top priest) and the subsequent organisation of political and social space that excluded, domesticated and oppressed women as a group.  The modern institutions of the Army and the Church are the heirs of these primary functions. The exceptional positions of hierarchical power are protected by being passed on through inheritance or initiation.  These processes are embodied in the institutions of the state.  One aspect of the state hides or occludes another.

Physical power can be resisted through physical means.  However there is, only in limited circumstances, any such thing as physical power separate from symbolic power.  All violence is symbolic as well as actual.  Values and desires are fought out in physical and material terms.  Equally the pattern of enactment works the other way.  Physical force and violence is sanctified through the ritualisation of its use and values are made sacred through enforcement.

Reduction to economics and justice for the other

These relational forms of power which consist of a multitude of practices are the integuments, the basic fibres, that hold together the form of state or regime. What I mean by regime is not the rule of a dictator but of an institutionalised system of rule.  They are the filaments along which the energies and practices of a regime are interconnected and by which those who are ruled are persuaded to submit, participate and obey.  It is very difficult to avoid a language based on material processes to describe a regime or a system of rule.  One perspective is to see that all human beings in one way or another are making human society each day, each minute of each day.  They are making the society in which they live, though it may appear to them that they are submitting to power and are oppressed. This submission takes the form of feelings and practices of simply or barely surviving.  This is often accompanied by feelings of disconnection from the system.  Their disconnection is to some extent what the survival of the regime depends on, the reduction of the articulation of oppression to economics.

There is a fantasy that the people will rise up and throw off their oppression and realise the authentic part they play in making the system they are a part of.  They are unlikely to do so because of a theoretical apprehension of the system.  However it is at moments when people’s immediate material interests are no longer a priority for them that the regime, the system of rule, is in danger.  When more general values of justice, justice not for themselves but for the other, start to animate influential groups of people, the struggle assumes a symbolic dimension.  The paradigm, the typical image or model of the human, that lies at the core of the system, is no longer charismatic nor charged with symbolic power. It is broken. This is to do with credibility, belief and faith.  The old forms of physical power are no longer invested with magical and talismanic force and they appear mechanical and obsolete.

Delusion and Collapse

Nobody can bring this about through simply wanting it to be the case.  Is it possible that the ruling  Western elites’ complicity in the genocide in Palestine can lead to a new stage in the collapse of their regime?

Their belief that they wield overwhelming power may be the source of their weakness.  Their military rhetoric gives the game away.  They conceive of their power as delivering ‘shock and awe’. Shock may be undeniable but awe can become disgust. We are familiar with a ruling elite who during the period of neoliberalism have become mesmerised by their own power to the extent that they have asserted the belief that they can collectively determine what is real and what it not.  They have come to believe that their transformative material power is absolute and this has invested them with magical powers.  This new development of the Western elites’ rule happened after the the US defeat in Vietnam and the decoupling of the dollar from the value of gold.  The era of financialisation and public and private debt gave a temporary and delusional advantage to the West until the crash of 2008/9.  A significant reorganisation of relations between the institutions of the state took place. The sharpest example of this was the requirements placed on the intelligence communities.  These are key parts of the state structure that deal with secrecy and knowledge, crucial in relation to the media. They were asked to provide what their masters wanted to hear.  Public relations dominated; delusion followed.

Now the gap between what is actually taking pace in the world and what the state, through the intelligence communities, are feeding through the media is growing.  This is especially true of the military confrontations in Ukraine and in Israel.  Is it not the case that the intelligence plus media apparatus exerts what is effectively a material force? If people believe their output is this not equivalent to actual fact? Well, no.  The real world is not just simply what we believe it to be.  Ultimately the Western elites will be exposed and their symbolic and physical power will be broken.

What do I know?  About material processes

What I write is based on my experience of living, of being politically engaged, if not at all times active, reading a lot of books, working as a theatre practitioner and picking up a Masters of Science in Ecological Economics on the way.  I know about lots and lots of plays from the inside, from making attempts at staging them in many different situations.  My early passion was literature and philosophy and I was fortunate enough to spend three years as a young adult studying at a university.  The direction of these studies was shaped by the idea of a full emotional and intellectual response to works of literature.  It was a pragmatic training in responding inclusively and holistically to works that had been produced through the culture whose language is my mother tongue.  The technique and methodologies of ‘practical criticism’ that were influential in the teaching of English, as I was taught it, were not theoretically rigorous and the sense of truth was based on lived experience, the active moment of expression and the particularity and specificity of any given experience of any given work.  Later I became more interested in underlying systems and, as I encountered injustice and institutionalised human cruelty, I sought explanations.  As I did so, I understood that people didn’t necessarily see the world the way that I did and this persuaded me to understand more deeply why this might be.

I believe that thought is determined by being and doing.  I believe that knowledge comes from active engagement, an interaction between the knower and the known.  This is for me is to do with practical living and is to do with limits.  I admire the simple statement that Marx made: “Men make their own history but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it in circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.” (1) This statement for me is to do with freedom and limits.  Also it interests me greatly that the great methodological tool that Stanislavsky (2) developed for the production of dramatic performance includes the idea that the creative way forward must involve engaging with and recognising the ‘given circumstances’ of the dramatic character.  In fact the actor makes the character out of this interaction with the given circumstances and this is both the imagined circumstances of the character in the dramatic space as well as those that directly shape the actor’s work, the circumstances in which they are working. This model of humanity as a part of nature, engaged in specific circumstance of which it is a part, in interaction with self and the circumambient world is relational and I admire this.  I would call it dialectical but it might not be clear what I mean by this.

I believe that the great liberation thinker and practitioner, Paulo Freire (3), uses a similar precept when he talks about the need to develop a clarity about the ‘limit situation’ as a procedure that will give rise to the active knowledge of oppression that is the basis of liberation.  Also, I notice in Lucretius’ work a passage that relates to this:

‘Furthermore, I will show by what force piloting nature steers the courses of the sun and the motions of the moon, in order to preclude the possibility of our thinking that these bodies freely and spontaneously pursue their perennial courses between heaven and earth out of kindly consideration for the growth of crops and living creatures, or that they roll on by some divine design.  For even those who have rightly learned that the gods lead lives free from care may wonder how all this is carried on, especially the phenomenon above their heads in the ethereal regions; and then they relapse into the old superstitions and subject themselves to cruel tyrants whom they believe, poor fools, to be omnipotent, in their ignorance of what can be and what cannot, and again by what law each thing has its scope restricted and its deeply implanted boundary stone.’

Lucretius was born about 100 years before Christ.  His work was rooted in the atomist theory of Democritus that he received mainly through the influence of Epicurus.  The link he makes between a kind of anthropocentric, not to say egocentric, idealism and a tendency to submit to authoritarian structures is enlightening.  This tradition of thought flows into the work of particle physicists that has been so lucidly written about by Carlo Rovelli (5).  One insight that he has to which this relates is to do with the nature or structure of the universe and how we know it.  He tells us that there is a lot that is unknown but draws a distinction between this and saying it is unknowable. This assertion is consonant with the idea that knowledge is a material process.

Symbolic significance of the Palestinians’ liberation struggle?

Is it possible, given the alignment of forces in the world today that the movement for Palestinian liberation may become a movement of more general social change.  People all over the world are aligning themselves with this struggle not because it directly affects their own interests but because they recognise the deep dimensions of the struggle.  The struggle for a free Palestine is emblematic of a more general aspiration for justice.

A friend told me that there was a children’s woodwork workshop project in Saudi Arabia that was closed down by the state authorities because the workshop leader set a task for the children to make replicas of the Dome on the Rock, the Al Aqsa Mosque.

In a recent article for Mediapart, Edwy Plenel (6) lists a number of instances in France where support for Palestinians has been judged to be criminal and support for terrorism. This is similar in other European countries. In the the UK it is more or less the same story; because of the size of the Palestinian solidarity movement they have tried to come up with a new definition of ‘extremism’.

In the US a congressperson (7) encourages violence against proPalestinian – or what he calls ‘Pro-Hamas’ – demonstrators.  Different pretexts are used in different countries, here it might be ‘anti-semitism’, there it might be ‘terrorism’ or ‘extremism’.

In the Arab world, in Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular, but also in Jordan and Egypt, the danger is of the loss of popular support for these regimes and more open, active rebellion against the ruling elites.  The spectre of the Arab uprising in 2011 haunts the scene.  Are there similar dangers for the so-called ‘western democracies’?  Would this shift in these regimes amount to a change brought on by a loss of symbolic power by the elites?

Support for the Palestinian struggle for freedom and justice, has a talismanic power.  In THE EMPEROR IS NAKED, Hamid Dabashi (8) frames Palestine as ‘a gushing wound and as an enabling allegory’.  Writers have pointed out that, on the one hand, Israel’s pre-eminence in the production of the technologies of oppression and their export to governments throughout the world may have led to what can be described as the ‘israelisation’ of governance and the ‘Palestinianisation’ of the governed.  This globalisation of the struggle is significant. Much of the world’s response to the Palestinians’ struggle has been shaped by, and has provoked, memories of imperial and colonial oppression. This has led populations world-wide to recognise the Palestinian struggle as their own.

The legal rigours that are applied in the West are exceptional.  Words are forbidden or taken as a sign of conspiracy or a mark of evil. The effort at suppression seems inordinate, inconsistent and almost inoperable.  The prohibition of mentioning the Palestinians’ liberation struggle is like a religious ordinance.  By declaring that something cannot be spoken, that something is like the ‘sign of the devil’, exceptional powers need to be summoned.

Credibility of the West

Will this work for the ruling elites?  Even if they have the assembled powers of the social media corporations and the broadcast ‘media’ on their side, can this form of stricture be effective?  Doesn’t it appear archaic?  Especially because these ‘social control’ strategies are connected to complicity in such shameful practices of mass murder and land theft, won’t this attempt to silence eventually backfire on these factotums of the rich?  How long can they fend off a credibility problem?  Can they use the media with such coherent and total authority that they can convince people that what is happening is not happening?  I have described the consequences of delusion elsewhere. Will they not come to suffer an equivalent of the ‘Ceausescu’ moment?  It was a crowd being addressed by Nicolae Ceausecu starting to laugh and jeer at him that precipitated the fall of his regime in Romania in 1989. Isn’t it the case that the more uptight and ‘ex cathedra’ the injunctions and the fiats are, the more they will lead to a deterioration of general plausibility and integrity for the current regimes?  The recent banning by the German Police of the singing of Irish songs or speaking in Irish near the Reichstag is an instance (9). Doesn’t this seem weird?

The election victory of George Galloway in Rochdale brought on a panic in the UK establishment because people seemed to be voting not according to economic considerations but according to moral values.  This is really not permitted.  People can decide how much pocket money they might receive but are not allowed to question moral values.  This example of people getting ‘above their station’ was turned into a fear that MPs in the Labour Party might be forgetting how to be properly obedient.  Their failure to toe the party line had to be attributed to the fact that they were being intimidated by their pro-Palestinian constituents and were being swayed off course by mob pressure.  A procedural irregularity was committed by the speaker of the House of Commons which saved the Parliamentary Labour Party from having to face a mass defection on the issue of the ceasefire. The large-scale pro-Palestinian marches were referred to as examples of mob rule.  This public relations attempt to suppress these demonstrations have continued.  Why are they so jumpy?  What kind of energies are in danger of being released if the diabolically potent symbol is suddenly manifested?

Limiting politics to economics

I have spoken elsewhere about why politics in these regimes must be restricted to economics, justice reduced to the fair distribution of social resources.  As soon as moral considerations are engaged and people express their feelings about what is right and wrong, about what is just and unjust, about what is true and what is untrue, or about what is human and what is inhuman, the ruling elites start to quake. Their mesmeric practices and their magic wands may well prove ineffective. Unpredictable is the measure of volatility that the ruling elites may face as they summon thaumaturgic powers.  One should not forget that in the period since the mid 1970s the Western world has been dominated by political operators who actually believe that they are determining what is real and what is not. The basic precept of the neoliberal state is that things are the way they are because the ‘masters of the universe’ say so.

As long as the governing party and the opposition party are quarrelling about wealth distribution, things are safe for the elites.  The distribution of privilege, precedence and the underlying system can remain intact, so long as the appearance of justice and equality can hide inherited position and customary habits and procedures.  Taking wealth from the rich would simply mean different people are rich.  Their power must be usurped and dismantled. A key element of this power is symbolic power.

What is the nature of the ritualised violence of the nation-state?  This violence must be accompanied by the wielding of symbolic power, the power to define and enforce what is sacred. This is the determination of what effective ritual order is. This is why I associate what the Palestinian liberation struggle raises with a crisis of the ‘nation-state’ and its authority. The major process of state repression is the power to limit the political space to questions about the distribution of wealth.  This maintains the ruling elites in their position of distributors of wealth. All political entities that enter the political space are drawn into this game.  It is the determining factor in the party political structure.  This redistributive function is a reduction of politics to the logic of the market, all values are subsumed by economic values.  These prohibitive assumptions, structures, relations and processes are in danger.

The origins of state power go back to the appropriation of ritual power by coalitions of men at the advent of patriarchy. This is a protracted and incomplete process that had its beginnings in the Neolithic Revolution. In order for men to take power from women and subjugate them as domestic, reproductive labour they had to take away what they saw as women’s magic.  They had to justify their brutal oppression through the sacralisation of violence.  These justifications took the instruments of ritual power from women and externalised them as a source of social repression.  This was a massive process of social organisation.  The male take-over of society amounted to the subjugation of reproduction to production and this system of dominance was refined into commodity production in Europe from the 14th Century onwards, as the nation-state form burgeoned. This is why the brutal conduct of power is overlaid with sanctifications, justifications, concessions and emoluments.  Democratic forms have been incorporated as a way of disguising the operations of the deep state. These concessional processes are essential to the nation-state. It is this form of social organisation, patriarchy, that is coming apart, disintegrating, in the deep integuments of our lives as human beings.  Our relationship to our biospheric environment makes this clear.

Patriarchy and Neoliberalism

The development of patriarchy through neoliberalism involved an increased internalisation of commodity production process and a deepened disguising of dominance and rule.  What was exacted was the voluntary submission to dependence on the production capability of the system. What has been described as a ‘repressive de-sublimation’ (10). It intensified and sophisticated the defensive camouflage of the state’s authoritarian power. This articulated itself as an minimisation of the state.  There was an attempt to convince people that there was ‘less’ state. This presented itself as liberation. Significant in this was the appropriation of women’s liberation by the ruling patriarchal order.  It appeared as if the system was ‘liberating’ women, giving them liberation. The state became more powerful by seeming to almost disappear.  This was accompanied by a reorganisation of the functions of the academy (the universities), the intelligence services, and the media. In the UK it involved a re-rooting of the deep state, making the archaic institutions of the monarchic court and of the ‘national religion’ appear to be merely decorative thus continuing to conceal their political function. In the Intelligence community there was the beginning of a transformation. From the mid-1970s there was a turn away from the provision of ‘untreated’ intelligence towards information that was more suited to the ideological requirements of the governors. The function of these institutions which in the preceding feudal state had been carried out by the Church became more and more dominated by ‘public relations’.  The enhancement of secrecy and its more thorough use in the protection-through-disguise of the state went alongside increased, new forms of surveillance and the centralising of the accumulation of knowledge and information.  The intelligence community acting in greater co-ordination with the media was tasked to provide ‘treated’ intelligence. The downside of this for the ruling elites of the West was the construction of a kind of bubble that in some respects resembles a bunker into which they may soon retreat.  In order to produce their new reality, they needed to insulate themselves from the real world.

The enormous financial wealth of the US and the West appears all powerful but the circulation of real goods and services is happening more and more outside the West’s financial systems.  The functional relationship between money as a store of value and as circulatory instrument have started to deteriorate.  The initial event in this decline was the decoupling of the value of the dollar from the value of gold at the beginning of the 1970s.  A subsequent event in this drama was the financial crash of 2008/9. The state’s role thereafter was to accumulate debt. The quantitative circulation of money was massively increased. The state became a business tool. A consequence of this has been a further breakdown of the relationship between government and the intelligence services. For example, the US Director of National Intelligence claimed before the Ukrainian counter-offensive in May 2023 that the Russians were facing significant shortfalls of munitions and personnel. Maybe this was a morale-boosting exercise.  It turned out to be ‘treated’ intelligence, what the factotums of the rich – and the rich – wanted to hear. The Ukrainian counter-offensive that was supposed to take place was a failure.  This underestimation of Russian productive capacity has played a significant part in the Ukrainian war project collapsing.  This was based on the illusion that in the opening period of the Russian action in Ukraine the financial sanctions of the West would lead to a collapse of the Russian economy. It is fatal to simply believe what you want to believe.  The examples of this delusional behaviour from the accomplices of the ‘Masters of the Universe’ are endless.  Why do they imagine that this will not sooner or later catch up with them?  Public relations plus vanity plus nuclear power is a heady cocktail.

Interconnections

Masses of people are seeing the danger and beginning to understand the truth because what they are being told and their lived experience are irreconcilable. Nowhere is this more glaring than in peoples’ knowledge about what is happening in Gaza.  Is the pro-Palestinian movement the beginning of a more general social resistance to the rule of the Western Imperialist elites?  Is it true that the Palestinian struggle is emblematic of a deeper and more widespread upheaval? Is it not the case that people’s aspirations for a renewal of society, for a deep reorganisation of social relations have found ‘an issue’ – Palestinian freedom – through which these urgencies are expressed?

Demands for a complete overhaul of the system will become more common.  Democratic public administration and governance will involve the abolition of secrecy and the establishment of unrestricted public information about public affairs. These are all corollaries of the demand for justice and equality.  People might easily brush aside the calls for transparency because they believe that the system can withstand this openness and there is a justified suspicion that the power given to those who would assure this transparency would be corrupted.  Participatory democracy, bottom-up democratisation of all public services and a clearing from the public space of hidden and ostentatious privilege so that it is truly open is a prerequisite for this transformation of public life.  The demand for transparency could never become effective under any other circumstances.  There must be an abolition of secrecy in public matters.  Even the redistribution of wealth and material resources could never be effective unless functioning participatory democracy was involved otherwise this distribution would be only to the advantage of already existing beneficiaries of the corrupt state.  We learnt this when state power was extended during the ‘pandemic’.  The cascade of hand outs led to medical equipment production being given to lingerie manufacturers or in fact anyone who happened to know somebody in high places. Our current Foreign Secretary was energetically lobbying on behalf of Greensill, the supply chain financing company, attempting to take advantage of government cash hand-outs as a part of the emergency ‘pandemic’ provisions.  Nobody seemed to bat an eyelid. But the history is there for all to see. Extension of the already existing forms of state power, increasing state spending, and extending the part that the state plays in social organisation even if it is done in the perceived interests of the ‘poor’ and ‘deprived’ only benefits the political establishment.  A mechanical and over-structural idea of the state leads to the illusion that change can take place through it rather than by overhauling it.

Jittery

This is why the nation-states of the West are so jittery.  The demand for justice, for transparency, against corruption, against inherited privilege, against racism and for an abolition of all those institutions that hold together this toxic system, may be fought out ‘in terms’ of the Palestinian liberation struggle. The immediate obstacle to the struggle for justice and freedom for Palestinians is the Zionist entity.  The allegorical implications of this are emerging. The Israeli state project is a distended and extreme articulation of the European ethno-nation state, enacting itself out on the shores of the Levant.  It is the last fling of a dying idea and system.

 

Notes

(1) The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon is an essay written by Karl Marx between December 1851 and March 1852, and originally published in 1852 in Die Revolution, a German monthly magazine published in New York City by Marxist Joseph Weydemeyer.

(2) Konstantin Sergeyevich Stanislavski was a seminal Soviet Russian theatre practitioner.  As well as being an actor and producer, responsible for the premiere productions of Chekhov’s plays at the Moscow Art Theatre of which he was a co-founder, he wrote a number of books outlining his ‘method’, AN ACTOR PREPARES, BUILDING A CHARACTER et al.

(3) Paulo Freire was a Brazilian educator and philosopher who was a leading advocate of critical pedagogy.  Liberation educator, he wrote a number of books: PEDAGOGY OF THE OPPRESSED, CULTURAL ACTION FOR FREEDOM

(4) Titus Lucretius Carus was a Roman poet and philosopher. His only known work is the philosophical poem De Rerum Natura, ON THE NATURE OF THINGS

(5) Carlo Rovelli is an Italian theoretical physicist and writer.  Books:  REALITY IS NOT WHAT IT SEEMS, THE ORDER OF TIME

(6) Edwy Plenel’s Op Ed for Mediapart about French McCarthyism published 23 April. Viewed online 01/05/2024 https://www.mediapart.fr/en/journal/france/230424/french-mccarthyism-hounding-expressions-solidarity-palestine

(7)  See Congressperson, Tom Cotton’s views here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hntHh-Ng89Y

(8)  Dabashi, Hamid  THE EMPEROR IS NAKED Zed Books 2020

(9) See this report about the German ban on Irish: https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/berlin-police-ban-irish-protesters-from-speaking-or-singing-in-irish-at-pro-palestine-ciorcal-comhra-near-reichstag/a234500393.html

(10) Repressive De-sublimation: this concept was first coined by Frankfurt School philosopher and sociologist Herbert Marcuse in his 1964 work, ONE-DIMENSIONAL MAN