Genocide is the Election Issue

Hastings Peace Camp – Outside General Dynamics Arms Factory

As prospective candidates for the next UK parliament enter their final week of electioneering, it is hard to believe that Israel’s relentless slaughter of the Palestinian people has got barely a mention. With the singular exception of the Workers Party, headed by George Galloway, and a number of Independents, the political parties fielding candidates in this election appear united in their insistence that the only issues worth discussing are domestic. According to these wannabe MPs, the ongoing Genocide in Gaza is simply not sufficiently ‘local’ to interest the electorate. Not only is this a grotesque insult to the British people, it is also manifestly untrue as evidenced by the millions of protesters turning out, week after week, to demand a ceasefire. Whilst material issues have their place, to suggest that the most horrific political event of our lifetime is electorally irrelevant is not just untrue, it is deceitful. And it is a deceit intended to spread the complicity of the government and the opposition parties throughout society – with each person’s silence being taken as an alibi for somebody else. And the fact that the mainstream parties are shamelessly attempting to distract the electorate from talking about the Genocide tells us much about the intended direction of travel for the next government – towards more violence, brutalisation and war.

Because, of course, this silence is intentional. It is a political tactic aimed at effecting a normalisation of genocidal violence, by rendering what is morally repugnant socially acceptable through its elision from public discourse. Since the genocide can’t be justified, morally or legally, the only way to normalise it is to erase it. The idea being that by ignoring what the Israeli government is doing and never mentioning International law, those genocidal  actions – simply by virtue of not being condemned – achieve de facto acceptance. Given that over a quarter of British MPs are funded by the Israel lobby, the lack of political discussion is hardly surprising. As with AIPAC in the US, both of the main political parties in the UK contain members who identify as ‘Friends of Israel’, making it impossible for either the government or the opposition to pursue a policy critical of the Israeli regime, notwithstanding its numerous and egregious breaches of International Law. And, it is not just the political class, the media too, which is now little more than an adjunct of that class, servilely falls in line, silently watching as massacre follows massacre.

However, it has been the response of the Chattering classes: the political pundits not normally slow in coming forward on current events that has been most disappointing. Many of these self-promoting ‘freedom-lovers’ who earned their stripes during the covid lockdown: justifiably criticising the government’s assault on education and health-care, are now strangely silent when every university, school and hospital in Gaza has been bombed and medical staff and academics singled out for assassination. And as for the legitimate outrage they led concerning the way children were treated during the pandemic, the unquestioning acceptance of the slaughter and maiming of so many Palestinian children has provided a chilling contrast. And what of their attacks on ‘cancel-culture’ and vehement insistence on the right to freedom of speech? Apparently that freedom does not extend to speech concerning Palestine. But what is most ironic in all of this is that those same ‘civil-liberties’ champions who loudly slated the government’s infamous ‘nudge unit’- imploring people not to be swayed by propaganda but to do their own thinking, have themselves been so easily ‘nudged’: unreservedly swallowing the ‘beheaded baby/mass rape’ hoax propagated by the Israeli government. This outrageous piece of propaganda was swiftly debunked by journalists at the Grayzone and the Electronic Intifada, doing the research journalists used to do. Even the New York Times later admitted that its own story on the matter had been inaccurate. Not that any of that matters to Israeli government propagandists here or elsewhere, or indeed to the wider political climate more generally. Because if truth had not already lost its purchase on events, Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian land could not have endured for so long and October 7th would never have happened.

In Hannah Arendt’s last interview she talked about the ‘Gleichschaltung’ – the social ‘Coordination’ she’d witnessed in Germany in the 1930s. This process, which did not take long, involved a ‘widespread giving in to the changed political climate in order to secure one’s position or get employment.’ It was a ‘fitting in’, an ‘accommodation’, a ‘knowing what is good for you.’ And, as Arendt reports, ‘amongst intellectuals, Gleichschaltung was the rule.’ A moral flexibility Arendt put down to the fact that intellectuals found it easy to make up justifications for themselves. She readily admits that in what finally resulted there was an abyss to which one could never be reconciled, but the getting there was not as difficult as people like to imagine.

This was the realisation which informed her infamous phrase ‘the banality of evil’ attributed to Eichmann – the Nazi functionary whose trial she attended in Jerusalem in 1963. Arendt used the word ‘banal’ in order to convey the idea that evil was something a person could casually adapt themselves to. Persisting in the notion that evil was something deep and demonic and wholly ‘other’ Arendt regarded as a comforting illusion which people utilised in order to erect a barrier between themselves and those they imagined to be the real perpetrators. Because, so far as Arendt observed, it was circumstantial differences that played a large part in determining how readily people allowed themselves to be coordinated.  And the primary circumstance she identified in the lives of those ready and willing to be accommodated to the new political reality was a desire to be identified with the ‘We’. For these functionaries, and they are functionaries from whichever rank in the social hierarchy they serve the political class, it is essential to always be aligned with the dominant social power. It being a simple fact, then as now: if you want to climb the ladder, you have to be compliant. But ‘Going along with the rest’ is also pleasurable, Arendt insisted. People simply enjoy the feeling of being close to power. It also saves them from the responsibility of doing their own reasoning which can be burdensome and isolating. The pseudo-religious nature of such fealty to the state seems obvious. And it was through trying to understand how social conformity had achieved such gravitational force over people’s lives that Arendt developed many of her ideas about totalitarianism. Seeing former friends and neighbours turn against her was a transformative experience for Arendt. It is what turned her into a political animal and convinced her that she needed to leave Germany.

What Arendt articulates in one work after another is a form of social existence that is malleable, apolitical and in thrall to the dominant social narrative. And whilst the Gleicshaltung she experienced in Germany led to extreme violence and finally a genocide, she recognised that it was not an isolated phenomenon, insisting that “Jews and German Jewish intellectuals would not have acted any differently had their own circumstances been different.” This newly emergent, easily co-opted being wasn’t specifically German, but was the product of modernity and it came into being because politics had been dethroned. And she concluded that politics had been dethroned because the public space where people used to meet to discuss matters other than themselves no longer existed and as a result “nobody cared any longer what the world looked like.”

Obviously the space Arendt is talking about is a not a physical place but a mentality that people used to share. Yet at the same time, in sharing that public-facing perception of the world, what was created was a far more spacious, less confrontational society than we enjoy today. One in which people could converse with each other in a way that was not seen to be personal or conflictual, because a person’s political views, however passionately held, were not their identity. This meant that those views could always be changed by reasoned argument to which everyone was susceptible. This was the basic political milieu in Britain in the 1970s. Where along with a noisy public culture for politics people still had private worlds to withdraw to and find intimate expression in. Those two separate worlds – the public and the private – had not yet collided and destroyed each other.

The neo-liberal reforms of the Thatcher years demolished the power of the unions and the community associations that had underpinned so much political action and education in the decades before. But the major achievement of depoliticising society and effecting a massive pacification of the electorate was accomplished through the socially engineered Hyper- Individualism that followed. At the same time as the work place became transformed into a faux democratic space, with workers finding themselves on first name terms with the boss just as CEO salaries skyrocketed – many aspects of what was formerly known as private life began to be extruded into what was once the public sphere. As a result, the space which formerly held shared political values became filled with individualised expressions from newly minted ‘selves’ all vying for attention. The political energy of the younger members of society was sublimated into something more manageable whilst that of the older members was cut off and largely withered away, as the division between the two worlds – the public and the private – was collapsed. And what was put in to fill the space has come to resemble a sort of stage, or perhaps series of stages, on which people perform the social identities they have cultivated. To ensure there could be no backwards slippage towards re-politicisation, this theatrical set-up was safeguarded by a regulatory framework of strict social control, particularly regarding speech. Whilst the concept of freedom of speech has been retained in law, it has become culturally difficult to express views which are at odds with the dominant social narrative, particularly because the very idea of contestation or disagreement which is the essence of the political, has come to be regarded as antisocial. And as we have seen in recent months, people now daring to challenge the dominant narrative are being labelled ‘terrorists’, anti-Semites, and even arrested.

It is against this back drop of almost total social control that the challenge of the student protest camps needs to be viewed. The mere presence of these peaceful enclaves has so enraged the establishment that it has reacted with massively disproportionate force. And in so doing, has revealed the violence at the heart of the military-industrial state which is the source of funding for so much of Ivy-league America and beyond. On campuses in the U.S. and the U.K. and many other countries students have bravely risked their education, future jobs, their freedom and even their physical wellbeing in order to take a stand against the genocide. And in so doing, they have inspired others to do likewise. Here in Hastings, on the south coast of the U.K. we have had our own pre-election weekend peace camp, set up, where else than outside our own local arms factory, General Dynamics. According to American Friends Service Committee, “The world’s sixth largest weapons manufacturer, General Dynamics, supplies Israel with artillery ammunition and bombs for attack jets used in Israel’s assault on Gaza.” Which suggests to me that this genocide is very local indeed.

Susan Roberts is a lecturer in moral philosophy and animal rights.