Foundations of Solidarity: A Conversation with Anat Matar

By Helen MackreathFebruary 27, 2023

Foundations of Solidarity: A Conversation with Anat Matar

The Poverty of Ethics by Anat Matar

IN THE WAKE of the intensifying resistance to the occupation of Palestine, the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States (and beyond), and such movements as #StandWithStandingRock, appeals for solidarity with the plight of migrants, occupied populations, racialized minorities, and Indigenous peoples have become culturally pervasive. This Los Angeles Review of Books series on the Foundations of Solidarity draws together thinkers from the loosely defined region of the Middle East to discuss these topics from creative, historical, and political perspectives.

“It’s in hell where solidarity is important, not in heaven,” said John Berger. But is solidarity, indebted to the shared conditions of catastrophe, as much as we can hope for, without an imagination of something better? On the other hand, solidarity based on a notion of global sameness invokes an ambiguous “we” that disguises social and material injustices. From the settler colonialism in Gaza and the West Bank and in the occupied territories of Rojava and Kashmir to the structural racism and police violence in the streets of Ferguson and Baltimore, the messy work of envisioning and building coalitions of solidarity is underway. These are revolutionary solidarities anchored in the intersectionality of freedom struggles, the collective product of movement and contradiction, rather than abstract notions of what it means to be human.

Our fourth interview is with Anat Matar, a senior lecturer at the department of philosophy at Tel Aviv University and a political activist. She is the author of Modernism and the Language of Philosophy (2005) and co-editor of Threat: Palestinian Political Prisoners in Israel (2011). This interview was inspired by the English translation of her latest book, The Poverty of Ethics, translated by Matan Kaminer and published by Verso Books in July 2022. The Poverty of Ethics is a philosophical examination of the system of concepts and attitudes informing our view of the relationship between the moral and the political, exploring such subjects as the nature of language, aesthetics, solidarity, and persuasion. Our interview traces the main arc of the arguments presented in the volume, especially its claim that traditional conceptions of morality are too narrow to form a basis for political thought.


HELEN MACKREATH: In your new book, you put forward two critical propositions: the first is that common conceptions of morality are too narrow to form the basis for political thought and action; the second is that the vacuum of moral discourse is destined to be filled with bad politics. Perhaps we could begin by outlining your understanding of the “political” and the “moral.”

ANAT MATAR: I usually try to refrain from definitions. But let me briefly say this: a politically aware outlook acknowledges the relevance of concrete historical and economic facts to conceptual analyses of social phenomena. It always takes into consideration manners in which power relations; sensitivities related to class, gender, and race; and historical, social, and personal factors mold our emotional and conceptual frameworks. I therefore disagree with Chantal Mouffe, when she wishes to separate sharply the empirical field of “politics” from the purely theoretical “political.” Yet I also reject straw men caricatures of “the political” as allegiance to a particular political party or dogmatic faction.

As for “moral” and “ethical,” I think there is no substantial discrepancy between the ordinary and the philosophical uses of these terms. Suffice it to say, in our context, that these notions operate within a discourse that judges actions and character traits as commendable or lamentable, independently of any direct instrumental context. Coming back to my first proposition, then, my claim is that such a general discourse, which is of necessity abstract and devoid of concrete content, is too weak to serve as a foundation for political discourse. With some skill, almost anything can be derived from it — especially the political content that is consensual anyway, reflecting the ideology of the ruling classes.

You contend that in order to argue convincingly that the moral is left-wing, the very method of reasoning must first be shaken up, including the essence of language. How are concepts of language relevant to moral thought, and what guidelines do you develop for a linguistic approach to questions about the “moral subject,” its motivations and its capacity to distinguish justice from injustice?

I adopt the principle that is broadly referred to in the philosophical literature of the 20th century as “the linguistic turn,” according to which a prior understanding of the essence and workings of language is needed for any philosophical inquiry. Our conceptual framework requires clarity about such notions as “meaning,” “concept,” “argument,” “logos,” and “persuasion.” Our attitude to philosophical method itself rests on these explorations.

My own conception of these issues draws from Wittgenstein’s fluid and playful idea of language as action rather than representation; from Voloshinov’s Marxist analysis of the way language, consciousness, and ideology are intertwined; and from Derrida’s différance, which constantly destabilizes language from within. My objection to rigid definitions (e.g., of such terms as “moral,” “political,” and indeed “the Left”) is influenced by these philosophical approaches. Thus, instead of talking in the abstract about moral subjectivity, I’d anchor the discussion in particular historical epochs and socioeconomic structures. Class becomes very relevant to our thinking about a moral subject’s motivations and understanding of what is just and unjust. The same is true of colonized versus colonizer notions, and so on. In my book, I argue that the struggle for liberation and justice is necessarily universal and forms a communal self-interest. As Nelson Mandela said, “I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.”

You argue that abstract moral discussion aspiring to universality is a weapon in the hands of the powerful and that it is necessary to commit not only to concreteness but also to real involvement caught up in praxis. You take the example of the Palestinian call to boycott Israeli academic institutions and the different philosophical positions advanced by Judith Butler, and, conversely, by philosophers following a judgmental moral philosophy, as a case for this argument. How does this debate indicate the limits of a philosophy grounded in principles of abstraction?

In this context, I analyze an article written by David Rodin and Michael Yudkin, both from Oxford. The article appeals to several generally agreed-upon moral super-principles, from which other principles follow. The latter include, for instance, the claim that advances in science are fundamental human goods and that they require the free exchange of ideas, without distinctions between colleagues on bases that are irrelevant to their academic merit. In light of these principles, the authors suggest three basic tests of the morality of specific calls for boycott, and, unsurprisingly, it turns out that the call to boycott Israeli academia doesn’t pass their tests. The imagined call that they meticulously discuss, however, has nothing to do with the content of the real Palestinian call for boycott, which motivated their essay in the first place.

An even more severe problem is that Rodin and Yudkin’s article is laden with undisclosed political presuppositions and value judgments. Thus, for example, they gladly approve of a violation of the universal principle regarding free exchange of knowledge in research conducted in collaboration with the military and private commercial industry. The staggering justification they offer is that this research is useful for all, in the long run. Not a shred of skepticism accompanies this sweeping assessment.

On the other hand, the idea that a functioning Palestinian academic community could also be useful for all, and the fact that it is not functioning as a direct result of the Israeli occupation, is not even discussed. Judith Butler, in her article about the same topic, does not merely bring the discussion down to earth, supplying relevant empirical facts, but, moreover, she rereads the universal principle of academic freedom as implying the need to actively and nonviolently resist the forces that are ranged against it. Her descriptions and conceptual interpretations are not abstract but consciously “political” in the sense explained above.

In your turn towards a discussion of aesthetic ethics, you recount the events of 1968, which had immense importance to both politics and philosophy, not least in their overcoming of the traditional dogmatic distinction between rationality and emotion. As you outline, the turn towards aesthetic ethics offered a different sort of philosophy, one grounded in reality and praxis, which combined understanding with being and experience. But you argue that this school of thought “end[s] up sterilizing this potentially radical methodological move in advance.” How is this the case?

In this context, I discuss in detail what I take to be the most convincing examples of aesthetic ethics, focusing mainly on the rich philosophy of Cora Diamond (with Stanley Cavell in the background). Diamond’s Wittgensteinian approach to philosophy eschews rigid principles and emphasizes a methodological openness. I concur with most of her criticism of judgmental morality, and also with her and Cavell’s emphasis on the importance of art and literature for gaining philosophical insights. However, Diamond sees this emphasis as intrinsically ethical, a purity that should not be contaminated by political considerations. I uncover several consequences of this avoidance. For example, Diamond believes that notions such as “evil” open up for us dimensions that resist calculation and economy, and as such teach us something important about the world and our approach to it. They should not be compressed into the empirical world but remain inexplicable, even magical.

While concurring with Diamond’s dismissal of simplistic reductions, I think that her insistence on a rigid distinction between ethical and factual amounts eventually to a simplistic reduction itself. As opposed to her, I think that the Wittgensteinian picture of language as rich, fluid, and unstable enables us to find the strange and the beautiful within the theoretical activity of explanation. Bracketing the political, therefore, acts against Diamond’s own open and rich notion of understanding and leads us to a position that is not far removed from the moralism she criticizes. A conception of language that is all-pervasive, rather than restricted to moments of sublime good and unpresentable evil, demonstrates that the logic of center and periphery collapses when the marginal sheds new light on the ordinary.

In your book, you write:

The significance of literature for philosophy […] inheres in its ability to open for us a window through which we can look at this manner and this language — both our own and others’. The very possibility of looking out at the world, seeing it clearly, understanding it, is the concern of ethics. […] Think of what happens to us when we read Virginia Woolf, W. G. Sebald, Bertolt Brecht, Toni Morrison […] As we read, our political understanding deepens, and our understanding of the human condition is enriched; how impoverished, by contrast, is an ethical focus which refuses to recognize the political dimension in which the literary work is embedded.

How does this understanding of the political potential of literature inspire a different reading of the relationship between literature, aesthetics, and politics from that offered by the aesthetic ethical position?

One of Diamond’s examples of how moral philosophers should approach literature is Martha Nussbaum’s reading of Henry James’s The Golden Bowl. Instead of reducing the literary text to arid moralistic arguments about right and wrong, Nussbaum teaches us a way of looking out at the world and seeing it clearly. The ethical is brought into the literary work in the manner in which these values are considered. Thus, James depicts his American characters and their way of life as moralistic and superficial, and through this portrayal, we should learn something important about our own way of life.

But again, sticking to the purity of the ethical and refusing to embed anything political in this portrayal, Diamond herself ends up reducing the power of literature in teaching us new ways of seeing. James’s novel is politically laden. He writes about a particular class, within a specific socioeconomic reality. Refusing to read him with a full-blooded political emphasis, as a critique of a concrete ideology, is refusing his literary offer altogether. Woolf, Sebald, Brecht, and Morrison are good examples of the way that the ethical and the political are closely knit together, hence of how futile it should be to read their works as “ethical” without acknowledging that this notion draws from an understanding of repressed ideological structures and strictures and a will to expose and criticize them.

In your discussion of aesthetic ethics, you raise the question of abolition politics and repeat Cora Diamond’s observation that both sides of the slavery debate had recourse to the concept of justice. You write:

[W]hen opposition to slavery, as a cornerstone of the reigning liberal ideology, is juxtaposed to the fact of ongoing practices of bondage that are not commonly recognized as slavery, the ethical-linguistic-conceptual analysis falls apart. What we need is a description which does not attempt to segregate the ethical into a dimension where economy is neutralized, but rather the opposite: to decipher it within a concrete political framework. Only such a context can acknowledge the contradictions inherent to Western liberal ideologies of slavery and to link these to the everyday real.

Could you expand on this?

Diamond discusses this topic in relation to a meta-ethical debate about the proposition “there is nothing else to think but that p,” where “p” isn’t simply a tautology but rather an ethical platitude — for instance, “slavery is unjust and insupportable” or “property in human beings is an abomination.” Such claims function as super-imperatives, formed through a cumulative process that gradually creates a shared notion of rationality. They channel our thought in the right direction and show us what correct thinking is. Yet, despite the historical nature of this formation process, Diamond refuses to contaminate its description with messy political facts. In the case of slavery and its abolition, she excludes from the account the character of the transatlantic trade, the rise of capitalism, the insurgencies and revolts that brought about the European change of attitude towards slavery, and so on. It is crucial for her meta-ethical analysis that it focuses on the hardest cores reflected in the Western system of liberal values, without such particularities. Yet, without a politically laden historical framework, which qualifies the necessary achievement of these “meta-rules” for rational thought, it is hard to reread the cumulative process that resulted from the debate on slavery, in a way that exposes its internal tensions. The result — or, indeed, the primary requirement — is that not only the articulation of these rules but also their implementation must remain faithful to liberal common sense.

A radical left reading, on the other hand, insists on the political bias of the “ethical” interpretation of those “platitudes.” First, we should remember that the abolition of slavery in the United States in 1865 paved the way for and sustained Jim Crow laws until 1965, and when these had finally been abolished, slavery reappeared in the shape of the mass incarceration of African Americans. American liberals rightly celebrate the great achievement in Barack Obama’s election to the presidency, yet they leave out of the picture, as allegedly irrelevant, Obama’s endorsement of neoliberal economic policies. And so on.

You critique the relationship between emotions and political being, as espoused by Nussbaum, particularly her focus on the supposed virtues of political heroes (Mandela, for example), because they neglect concrete political particulars. How does your critique contribute towards understanding the complex positioning of “the politics of the other”?

A resistance to the political and an aversion to politics are inherent in aesthetic ethics — and in this respect, Nussbaum, who is thoroughly involved in political matters, in theory and practice, cannot be regarded as belonging to this group. However, her ethical ideas, as well as her approach to the relation between philosophical and literary writing, are very close to those of Cavell and Diamond. I argue that Nussbaum makes explicit the suppressed politics of the other members of this philosophical family. Thus, I point to her aversion to radical left ideas and her wholehearted adoption of ethical platitudes of the kind mentioned in my previous answer. Both in her theoretical musings and in her discussion of particular political figures, her liberal values are at work, reflecting a position of immense privilege. Despite her empathy for the poor and underprivileged, her perspective yields a patronizing political attitude towards the other.

We see this, for example, when she advises us to keep anger outside of political action, as it includes an element of vindictiveness. I read this advice in the context of the constant recourse by liberal philosophers, among them Nussbaum herself, to the same heroes, whose virtues are carefully chosen: compassion, moderation, prudence, and reason. Yet the parts of these heroes’ biographies that are less convenient to liberals are often suppressed: memberships in or relationships with the communist party, with trade unions, and with less favorable political leaders, for example. From my own political perspective, it is particularly painful to witness the omission — by Nussbaum and her ilk — of important facts about the full support offered by such idolized figures like Mandela to the Palestinians, in their just struggle against the Israeli military dictatorship that has been running their lives for decades, with no end in sight.

You argue that “a political discourse cannot be derived from a starting point which limits itself to reducing evils, rejects the self in favour of the other’s appeal and discriminates sharply between my own interest and that of the other.” How is the logic of victimhood distorted and distorting?

This position is expressed in my book in the course of a discussion of the philosophical approaches adopted by Simon Critchley, Adi Ophir, and Judith Butler. The three regard their radical left-wing positions and activities as intrinsically linked to their philosophical views. However, they find ethics — in particular, Levinas’s emphasis on the primacy of the other — indispensable for their politicophilosophical edifices. Although they give different reasons for this decision, they share the assumption that at the basis of political action lies an infinite ethical demand emanating from an other and forcing on us an obligation, a responsibility.

I believe there are several problems with this approach. One has to do with the difficulty in identifying the specific other who is worthy of our attention: what are the criteria for choosing the particular “orphan, widow, and stranger,” in Levinas’s terms, and on what assumptions are they based? I argue that our choices disclose prior political commitments, either conscious or unconscious, and thus the alleged primacy of the ethical over the political is exposed as illusory.

An even more severe problem is the somewhat narcissistic ethical notion of sacrifice, which shoves to the margins such genuine political notions as “mutual interest” and “joint action.” Instead of thinking of leftist politics as uniting us, we get an artificial division between deprived victims (who, ironically, are eo ipso deprived also of the capacity to be moral) and privileged moral agents. The latter, according to this distorted and distorting logic, are required to suspend their own interests in order to act in good faith. Thus, the essential livelihood of communal political action for the general good is replaced by self-victimization: the idea that pure and genuine ethical actors must victimize themselves on behalf of the victims of wrong.

This brings us to your thesis that morality is left-wing. You’ve discussed this in the service of critiquing various other positions, but could you advance a brief summary of this argument on its own terms?

Having shown that the various moral or ethical discourses do not help us in substantiating the position of the global left, my aim in the last chapter of the book is to delineate the opposite position — i.e., to explain what it actually means to suggest that morality is left-wing. As I noted above, my position involves a shift in philosophical method. This means that I don’t simply propose to reverse the conventional order of derivation, deriving a set of moral values from some political foundation. Rather, I call for a dissolution of the strict distinction between these two spheres, one pure, universal, and usually also primary, the other interest-laden, contingent, and secondary. Such a division reflects a distorted picture of language, consciousness, human action, and social life. Instead, I suggest that our contemporary, post-theological notion of the moral is a result of a dialectical process, through which left-wing practice, experience, and theories are gradually consolidated and turned into principles, ethical sensibilities, and an ability to identify just causes that are worth struggling for.

This leftist ethos is comprised of innumerable instances of concrete experiences, political activism and revolts, films, literature, culture in general, and of left-wing reflection, theory, philosophy, and internal debate. From Marx, we learn that “the class which is the ruling material force of society […] is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.” That is why Howard Zinn asks us to always question “the telling of history from the standpoint of the conquerors and leaders of Western civilization.” The Western bourgeois-liberal consensus portrays its moral values and ethical sensibilities as pure, absolute, and definitive. I propose that we constantly challenge this picture by reinterpreting the left inheritance and apply it to contemporary political situations, as in the example mentioned earlier of reading mass incarceration as a form of slavery. Angela Davis, who does precisely that, talks about freedom as a constant struggle. And this struggle in shaping ethics cannot remain at the ideological, symbolic, and academic level but must involve genuine attempts to revolutionize the material base.

What implications does your argument that morality is left-wing have for thinking about the possibilities and limits of “solidarity,” in all its many different iterations?

Solidarity is often a much needed and worthy political act, yet it is just as often an empty, self-gratifying symbolic gesture. My understanding of this notion and its political implications follows roughly that of Hannah Arendt in On Revolution (1963). When it arises from a thorough political understanding and a wish to establish a community of interests that “comprehends the strong and the rich no less than the weak and the poor,” it is of utmost importance and a favorable way to push forward the vision of the left. But when, on the other hand, it arises from pity and falls into the trap of the logic of suffering victims, it cannot serve as a foundation for a healthy politics. Unlike Arendt, however, I refuse to separate sharply reason and emotion; in fact, I believe that valuable solidarity — indeed, any valuable action within the left ranks — essentially involves strong emotions.

We can see this in two fine examples of solidarity. The 2014 film Pride captures the historical events surrounding a group of lesbians and gay men who supported striking mineworkers in England during the mid-1980s, and the evolving emotions felt by people on both sides. The other example is of activists from all over the world who have been responding to Palestinian calls for protective presence, have joined the International Solidarity Movement, and have arrived in Palestine to stand together against the Israeli occupying forces. The story of the late Rachel Corrie, who was murdered by an Israeli soldier in the course of her peaceful intervention, reminds us of the strong connection between political understanding and feeling.


Helen Mackreath is the Middle East correspondent for the Los Angeles Review of Books, based in Istanbul.

LARB Contributor

Helen Mackreath is the Middle East Correspondent for the Los Angeles Review of Books based in Istanbul, previously in Beirut and the West Bank. She is currently researching issues relating to Syrian refugee governance in Turkey.


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