The Wretched of Political Science and the Fanonian Shift

Alexei Abrahams, Canadian Media Ecosystem Observatory, McGill University 

For those of us who research the Palestinian struggle, the violence of the past months has been uniquely devastating. It has delivered a verdict, legible only to us, that says our collective research agenda is a failure. That for all our articles and books and lectures and painstakingly acquired knowledge, we were unable to divert history from this trajectory, doomed like Cassandra to watch helplessly as the horror unfolds. We have managed to save no-one: not the men, women, or children of Gaza; not our colleagues who lived and taught there, nor even their libraries or ancient artifacts. What could possibly have been the purpose of all our years studying Palestine if not to avert a scenario such as this? And since we could not, then what frankly is the point of us, except to line the neglected shelves of yet another library, until it too is razed?

But in this moment of existential doubt there is the opportunity for rebirth. What has transpired in Gaza should awaken us to renew our commitment to Palestinians, to reassess the intended audiences of our work, and to refocus our intellectual energies on those questions which are most practical and morally urgent. Because what has happened in Gaza must not happen to Palestinians ever again. And together we can write the science of that. This future is already in the making, and I will draw positive attention to a few examples of which I am aware.

Ignored Experts

The moral bankruptcy of Western policy on Gaza over the past six months is surpassed only by its non-instrumentality. No-one I have read since October, from specialists on Israel-Palestine, to Middle East experts, to conflict scholars, to IR theorists, can figure out what the Biden administration possibly imagines to be the value of Israel’s campaign – neither for Israel, nor certainly for the United States and its allies. Its own civil servants within the State Department appear equally dumbfounded and aghast; one with a doctorate in political science even resigned in protest. Many of the most respected scholars of this conflict are employed at universities and research institutions across the United States. Despite being readily at hand, the White House has refused to solicit their advice. Thus, those who have considered this context the longest and most carefully of anyone, are left out in the cold, forced to compete alongside everyone else for attention in op-eds or on Twitter threads.

The ignoring of experts on the Palestinian issue, and indeed on Middle Eastern political questions more generally, is of course hardly a new pattern, and it has seemingly engendered a complementary fatalism among scholars. At a reception a few years ago at an AALIMS conference (Association for Analytic Learning about Islam and Muslim Societies), after I had described my research agenda to some fellow attendees, a senior scholar of Middle East political science took me aside and told me with a paternalistic smile that we scholars cannot really change anything about the world. Perhaps, he said, we can read a book and better ourselves. But as for achieving real political change? Forget it! Had I been feeling satirical I might have intoned “…ya waladii” as an appropriately lugubrious coda. But the verse that I kept to myself was William Blake’s: expect poison from standing water. I took my leave of him as quickly as I could. Of course, his sentiments were directly at odds with POMEPS’ mission to “[increase] the public and policy impact of MENA scholarship”. Nevertheless, I have heard many scholars in the community share the same sentiment in not so many words.

As a convert to political science from economics, I have never quite habituated to this defeatism. Economists, perhaps more than any other social scientists, tend to have the ear of policymakers (think of the CEA, Federal Reserve, or the recent wave of nudge units). With that kind of access and influence comes a culture of optimism, in which it is assumed that what scholars discover today has every possibility of becoming policy tomorrow. Say what you will, such a culture imbues research with energy, excitement, urgency, even a sense of responsibility – that what a scholar does is not merely for their edification or career advancement, but may well affect the trajectory of people’s lives.

Political scientists, by contrast, are generally far more pessimistic than their counterparts in the so-called dismal science. They see policy makers as self-interested actors and motivated reasoners, for whom programmatic policy is a secondary concern. These two differing views collided in my dissertation research on Palestine, where I set out to measure the impacts on Palestinian unemployment of Israeli checkpoints and barriers deployed in the West Bank. My job market paper on this subject was thorough and careful, and recently won paper of the year at PSRM. But when it came to advising policymakers, I found no audience. The Palestinian Authority (PA) has no power to dismantle Israeli checkpoints or barriers. The Israeli government, meanwhile, is at best indifferent, at worst pleased, to know that their security measures have deleterious impacts on the Palestinian economy. By the end of economics grad school, I was a sad convert to political science.

Insofar as this pessimism about policymakers holds true, it breaks the linkage from scholarship to policy making. It is also incredibly demoralizing for junior scholars. Over a month into the recent carnage, I witnessed a depressing exchange on Twitter between two seasoned researchers describing how they had left off studying the Israel-Palestine Conflict and Middle East politics after becoming frustrated that their work seemed to make no impact on American foreign policy. Based on what I have learned from interacting with scholars in the POMEPS community, I believe this is merely the tip of the iceberg of attrition as scholars either leave the field, hedge their research agenda to include areas where there is greater hope of influencing policy, or generally limit their ambitions to the boundaries of the academy. Those who persist with trying to influence policy on Palestine often face harassment and doxxing, or even disciplinary action within their institutions.

But the world can and does change, sometimes quite dramatically, thanks to the efforts of small groups of determined activists. Like others over the past months, I have found myself thinking of Frantz Fanon, who not only fought a liberation struggle, but narrated and analyzed it in real time. What is to stop scholars of the Palestinian struggle from finding and linking up with activists, and designing their research agenda around the science of liberation? Perhaps that senior scholar at AALIMS meant to say that we cannot change the world if we restrict ourselves to polite repertoires of resistance, and if we limit our ambition to influencing Western policymakers and their clients. The world, however, is so much wider than all that now.

Policy-relevant Research in a Multipolar World: the Fanonian Shift

In the foreword to Wretched of the Earth, Jean-Paul Sartre identifies in Frantz Fanon’s writing a profound shift in audience. Until Fanon, the colonized had written to decry the crimes of empire, to beseech the metropole, to appeal to its conscience. Even today, much scholarship and advocacy on Palestine runs along these same pre-Fanonian lines. Scholars document the horror of apartheid and occupation, hoping to move Western policymakers to intercede. Activists implore the West to impose a ceasefire in Gaza. Such behavior is characteristic of a unipolar mindset, in which we suppose that power is monopolized by a single global hegemon. Accordingly, positive change happens only if the hegemon favors it, and so we must make our case politely and appeal to their conscience or self-interest.

But in Fanon, Sartre detected a new current. Fanon inhabited a multipolar world and understood that power was not monopolized by Europeans alone. Although the old powers still featured in his writing, they appeared as objects. He was talking past them, to Algerians and his comrades across Africa fighting for decolonization. “The Third World finds itselfand speaks to itself”, as Sartre lucidly summarized it. Fanon chose as his audience the “wretched” and dignified them with agency. Instead of addressing the colonial administrators, he treated activists across the Third World as the policymakers, and within his expertise as a psychiatrist and revolutionary, he offered a diagnosis of their predicament, and prescribed treatments.

Now, as we transition into a multipolar world, Fanon’s audience shift carries renewed relevance. Writing exclusively for Western policymakers no longer makes sense. Their hegemony has brought death to Palestinians – fast these days in Gaza, slow in the West Bank. But now the wretched will not wait for peace and justice to be bestowed from above, the overflow of imperial munificence. Now they will vote with their feet. They will shrug off Western hegemony, forming alliances with each other and with other nodes of power. In a multipolar world, Israel’s security will be the outcome, not the precondition, of peace with the Palestinians.

What will this Fanonian shift look like for POMEPS scholars, or specifically for those of us who study Palestine? In a few months, POMEPS will release an issue on Fanon, reflecting a widening recognition of the liberatory potential of his thought. In a related spirit of inquiry, I was invited a few years back to participate in a special issue of Middle East Law and Governance, organized by Diana Greenwald and edited by Wendy Pearlman, consisting of essays on Palestine centering Palestinian society. The issue, published in late 2022, drew upon original data to reflect on what Palestinians themselves say and think and want, and how through civil society they are seizing agency to advance their interests without waiting for permission from above.

As the special issue suggests, this Fanonian shift does not necessarily imply a shift in representation. Dana El Kurd and Yara Asi, both of whom are Palestinian, contributed to the special issue; but the majority of the authors were non-Palestinian. This is okay! Fanon himself was not Algerian, nor even African. Unlike Fanon, however, most of the contributing scholars were not embedded in the region, nor were they activists themselves. This is also fine, so long as scholars continue interfacing with activists to keep their science grounded. Along with my coauthor, Etienne Maynier, I contributed an essay that aimed to shed light on Palestinian civil society’s vulnerability to cyber espionage, and to encourage greater vigilance. In the wake of publication, we made a deliberate effort to connect with Palestinian civil society, and ultimately a number of organizations were alerted and advised to update their security. We consciously framed the paper as speaking to Palestinian civil society as the policymakers, affirming their agency to take steps to improve their own security without needing to wait for the permission or intercession of an outside power. All of which is to say, the essence of Fanon’s maneuver has nothing per se to do with your identity or what you represent, and everything to do with your target audience. Ask yourself, “whom does my science empower?”

For scholars looking to write research on the Palestinian struggle directly relevant to activists, there are at least two urgent research agendas to consider. Firstly, the atrocities of 10/7 have exposed a rift among proponents of the Palestinian struggle over what should or should not be countenanced within the tactical repertoires of resistance. Of course, international law allows for certain kinds of resistance while disallowing others; but international law itself is a figment of unipolarity, and in any case was only ever selectively enforced. In a multipolar world, the relevant concern is efficacy, not legality, and this plays directly into the skill set of political scientists. The relevant efficacy of different tactics, from protests to civil disobedience to sabotage, and all along the continuum of violence, can and should be evaluated empirically, as part of supporting evidence-based activism. And relevant to 10/7: tactics also ought to be evaluatedaccording to the kind of future reconciliations upon which they may foreclose.

Secondly, social movements are known to collapse from infighting and betrayal, and the Palestinian movement is no different. A research agenda addressing the causal channels of internecine conflict is badly needed. Why do movements devolve into internecine fighting? How can activists detect when that is happening, and mitigate it? For example, towards this, Dana El Kurd and I are scraping the social media posts of Palestinian activists and using an LLM to detect incidents of ‘cancellation’ and ideological outbidding known to fragment and demobilize, and then testing whether such divisive acts of speech correlate with movement structure. Indeed, in such a data-rich era, it makes no sense that activists should remain in the dark as to the patterns and trends of their movement, and scholars can make themselves useful in this regard.

Though the past months weigh heavily on our hearts, they also prompt us to revisit our assumptions about the role we play as political scientists of the Palestinian struggle and the Middle East more generally. The rules-based order has been dealt a terrible blow, and if we truly wish to prevent Palestinians from falling victims to such violence again, we need to look beyond the eroding unipolar order. Science is never apolitical, but as the balance of power continues to shift regionally and globally, scholars have an opportunity to correct the asymmetries with which political science of the Middle East and Palestine has tended to be written. Western policymakers now constitute just one category among many. Courting their favor now constitutes just one option among many. Ignored in the metropoles of a faltering order, we scholars can look further afield, to affirm and be affirmed by the agency of those heretofore treated as objects of history.