The Blanket

"Criticism of Authority is a Moral Duty"
The End of the Peace Process, by Edward Said;
reviewed by Deaglán Ó Donghaile

 

In an important essay, entitled "The Pitfalls of National Consciousness", the Algerian writer and revolutionary, Frantz Fanon, warned his readers that, after the struggle against imperialism, there is a danger that the revolutionary party will transform itself into a conservative elite:

After independence, the party sinks into an extraordinary lethargy. The militants are only called upon when so-called popular manifestations are afoot, or international conferences, or independence celebrations. The local party leaders are given administrative posts, the party becomes an administration, and the militants disappear into the crowd and take the empty title of citizen. Now that they have fulfilled the historical mission of leading the bourgeoisie may carry out its mission in peace and quiet. But we have seen that the national bourgeoisie of underdeveloped countries is incapable of carrying out any mission whatever. After a few years, the break-up of the party becomes obvious, and any observer, even the most superficial, can notice that the party, today the skeleton of its former self, only serves to immobilize the people… The party is becoming a means of private advancement.

This essay, expressing Fanon's deep anxiety about the political direction that the Algerian struggle was taking is perhaps his most significant piece of work. Yet it is also a single piece in a corpus that is dedicated to explaining the dynamic of struggle, standing alone as a warning to anybody engaging in revolutionary struggle. But it is for this piece that Fanon should be most remembered because in it he explicitly elevates independent political thought over "the party" and criticises emerging elite for its dishonourable pursuit of political office as "a means of personal advancement". Fanon died shortly before the liberation of Algeria from French colonialism, so he did not witness the country's descent into post-colonial authoritarianism but his most pessimistic projections, outlined in "The Pitfalls of National Consciousness" were fulfilled by the very party that promised freedom there.

More recently, Edward Said has committed the greater portion of his political writing to a critique of the Palestinian authority and its failure to provide any kind of strategic or moral vision. Edward Said has consistently spoken against and written about the Israeli occupation of Palestine and, since the signing of the Oslo Accords he has opposed the fraudulent "peace process" in the Middle East. When the deal was done, and another formerly revolutionary elite was rewarded for its surrender with a stake in power, Arafat, Rabin and Clinton shook hands on the Whitehouse lawn on September 14, 1993. Edward Said stayed away from the event and instead warned Christopher Hitchens: "This is a sell-out; a shabby and abortive thing. Stay clear of it." In response to these criticisms, Arafat's junta confiscated every one of his books from all of the bookshops in West Bank and Gaza in August 1996. This is the kind of freedom that the Middle East peace process has guaranteed for Palestine. His most recent book, "The End of the Peace Process", is a collection of brilliant essays and articles that are focussed on the sell-out of the Palestinian people by the Palestinian authority, and their oppression by this elite. Most importantly, Edward Said offers a means of resisting the new repression. "These essays have been written as testimony to an alternative view," he writes in the introduction, "another way of looking not just at the present and the past, but at the future as well." There has to be an alternative, Said argues, because "no paper arrangement, such as the one being projected now, can be transformed into peace." In response to these criticisms, Arafat's junta confiscated every one of his books from all of the bookshops in West Bank and Gaza in August 1996. This is the kind of freedom that the Middle East peace process promotes in Palestine.

What makes Edward Said such an interesting and important writer for any Irish republican who wants to help formulate an alternative strategy to the Stormont sell-out is the absolute relevance of his writing to our situation. The primary goal of Oslo, Said maintains, has been the depoliticization of Palestinian society and its integration "within the main current of American-style globalization". One has only to replace "Palestine" with "Ireland", "Oslo" with "Good Friday", "Palestinian authority" with Sinn Féin", or "Arafat" with "Adams" or "McGuinness" while reading this book to see how striking the analogy is. And because of this, Edward Said's writing is a powerful tool and an immense source of hope for anybody who stands up to power anywhere. The sense of empowerment that he offers jumps out at the reader in the very first essay entitled "The First Step". There are always alternatives to tyranny and authoritarianism, Said writes, because the first step towards defining an alternative is a shift of consciousness. The road to an alternative begins with the individual's refusal to swallow official doctrine and lies: "The first step in liberating the occupied territories is to determine that they are to be liberated. Just because Israel and the United States have decided that annexation and the peace process are irreversible is no reason to accept injustice. The first step therefore is to admit that such a process is indeed reversible and that in order to achieve it there has to be real mobilization and preparation." This book opens with the theme of free and independent thought and throughout, Said argues that this is the real alternative to Oslo. In the face of establishment propaganda that declares that there can be no other way than the one that the state forces upon people, the individual can think, can criticise, and can make a difference.

In another article, "Where Do We Go From Here", Said explains that the critical role of the individual who disagrees with authority is vital:

There are alternatives… as there always are to incompetence and dictatorship… criticism does in fact make a contribution. When a situation occurs in which one person rules according to his own ideas, there is always room for someone to say out loud that that is dictatorship… There can be no such thing as solidarity before, or without, criticism; everyone is fallible… The point is that criticism heightens awareness and recalls leaders to their constituency. Above all, I believe, criticism of authority is a moral duty. Silence or indifference, or compliance, in such a situation is immoral.

He then goes on to provide an alternative to Oslo, calling firstly for action by diaspora Palestinians, and, then secondly, for the revival of the Palestine National Council (which Arafat ignores) as an alternative to the neutered Legislative Council. This, Said suggests, should be organised through adherence to ideals that cannot be bargained away by secret councils - "a set of unbendable and unnegotiable principles should be articulated to which negotiators must be held." In other words, a negotiating team should not have the power to represent national interests without reporting to the people of Palestine who appoint it. He also calls for reparations for Israel's crimes against the Palestinian people.

Echoing Fanon's premonitions in "The Pitfalls of National Consciousness", Said criticises the use of nationalism to conceal social inequalities, economic injustices and to disguise a generally inadequate quality of life in Palestine. In the essay "On Visiting Wadie", in which he describes his son's work in Ramallah with the Democracy and Workers' Rights Center, he notes how nationalism is used to block discourse on social justice for Palestinians. This, he explains, is the result "of a poverty, of reason and responsibility… critical thought is much more useful now than flag-waving, a rhetorical ploy which I have always thought is one of the cheapest political tactics ever invented." Irish republicans don't need to watch images of Palestine on television to relate to this criticism; sterile images on murals, along with the meaningless, stencilled, slogans reflect a similar paucity of thought in our own country. Sinn Féin-sponsored paintings on gable ends in Derry, Belfast and now even in Dublin, project vague nationalist icons instead of transmitting ideas. Just as in Palestine, ideas might threaten party hegemony and instead people are subjected to an Orwellian attempt to focus attention away from Stormont, decommissioning and Sinn Féin's wholesale abuse of the human rights.

Said consistently points to the necessity of deconstructing the Oslo sell-out through the refusal of individuals to conform: "we cannot fight for our rights and our history as well as for the future until we are armed with weapons of criticism and dedicated consciousness." The act of criticism, the assertion of individual consciousness against the party machine and its propaganda, is the first alternative to the Oslo accords. It is also the first step toward replacing the farce of Stormont politics with a real alternative that values people and not prestige. For republicans, Edward Said shows that there can be an alternative to the squalid, partitionist, authoritarian, little Sinn Féin junta that enforces its will through murder and the use of nail-studded baseball bats. This is the reason why Edward Said's books are so important, and it is the reason why every serious republican should own a copy of this one. Although we don't have a national government in the six counties, it is worth considering the closing words of Frantz Fanon's essay because they tell us what a government should be:

The national government, if it wants to be national, ought to govern by the people and for the people, for the outcasts and by the outcasts. No leader, however valuable he may be, can substitute himself for the popular will; and the national government, before concerning itself about international prestige, ought first to give back their dignity to all citizens, fill their minds and feast their eyes with human things, and create a prospect that is human because conscious and sovereign men dwell therein.

The End of the Peace Process by Edward Said, Published by Granta, £15.99 Sterling

 

 

 

 

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