Key Concept: Elimination in Settler Colonialism

by | 1 Jul 2024


Since October, the world has watched in real time the transformation of Gaza from a concentration camp into a killing field. Besieged by land, air, and sea, Palestinian men, women, and children are now subject to a historically unprecedented program of mass extermination. Never before have the horrors of ethnic cleansing been so openly and unconditionally supported by the full military and technological might of the most powerful nations on earth, nor have the nightmarish scenes of extirpation ever been so boldly and brazenly aired by their perpetrators for the world to see. Whatever may be considered its historic outcome, Israel’s genocide of the Palestinians has plunged the world into an abyss from which our collective humanity will never recover. 

In this context, it is difficult not to think of the idea of elimination, and not just because of its centrality to understanding Israel’s modus operandi: settler colonialism. What the nightmare in Gaza does share with other historical cases of genocide, including those not formally recognised as such, is the fact that it has laid bare the political and historical limits of the legal convention itself. The concept of elimination, therefore, is also worth recalling since it acquired its most well recognised form as a provocation and as a critique of the idea of genocide. The latter’s meaning, after all, is historically delimited, as are the decision-making processes which determine its political and institutional value. In contexts, such as Israel, where the wholesale liquidation of a people is an organising principle and constitutive condition of the state, the idea of elimination sought to re-evaluate the terms of settler colonialism’s critique and its political stakes. 

I will discuss the concept’s development and usage in the critique of settler colonialism, with the intent of highlighting its salience as a critical framework within Western theory. Indeed, while elimination has provenance in Palestinian thought and early critiques of Zionism, it has since found a home in Western scholarship, and more specifically in settler colonial studies. In large part, this is due to the work of historian Patrick Wolfe, the usually superficial reading of which has more often obfuscated rather than clarified the idea. There are numerous reasons for these misreadings, but foremost among these is the treatment of elimination as a sociological category rather than a methodological tool. To better understand its critical potential, as well as its limits, it’s therefore important to highlight its heuristic character and strategic place within a critical practice. Ultimately, it is praxis which determines the analytic and political value of the concept.

As early as 1965, Fayez Sayegh had formulated his critique of Zionism by specifying it as a form of settler colonialism premised on the dispossession of Palestinians, and contrasting its mode of ‘racial elimination’ to the kinds of ‘racial discrimination’ obtaining to other colonial settings. Preceding the Naksa of 1967, Sayegh’s essay was a forerunner of other important interventions by Palestinian thinkers. Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, an intellectual giant of the Palestinian diaspora and mentor to Edward Said, compiled with Baha Abu-Laban a volume of essays which to this day remains an essential reading in studies of imperialism. Appearing at a time when national liberation was still fresh in the memory of the Third World, Settler Regimes in Africa and the Arab World sought to diagnose the tenacity of surviving colonial governments, but also the inevitability of their downfall. From this perspective, Israel was one among many imperial outposts in the global south, characterised by a policy of exceptionalism and racial supremacy towards both neighbors and natives. 

As Rana Barakat observed more recently, the notion of elimination appeared sporadically in this earlier literature, and has continued to do so in different iterations since. However, it was never really theorised as a specific concept until its appearance, in an entirely different context, in Wolfe’s ‘Nation and Miscegenation’. The well-known essay situated the 1992 Mabo decision, celebrated at the time as a turning point in Australia’s national history, in a longue durée of the country’s evolving roster of ‘Native policy’, from frontier violence, to assimilation, ethnocide, as well as limited recognition of Native Title. Elimination was used therein to denote a ‘cultural logic’ and deeper historical structure that underpinned these seemingly disparate policies, and which highlighted the consistency of the formal recognition with a history of racist violence and land theft. The essay would later appear in Wolfe’s Settler Colonialism and the Transformation of Anthropologya dense and surgical investigation of the discipline’s crisis at the turn of the century and its relationship to settler state policy.

The contrast between these different ways of examining settler colonialism, as well as their related contexts, is telling, and goes some way to illuminating the historical conditions within which elimination gained traction as a concept. Between 1965 and 1994, much had taken place, and between Palestine and Australia lay a vast gulf traversing the world-system. American imperialism and the capitalist broadside known as neoliberal globalisation had put paid to internationalism and national liberation. Communism was pronounced dead and history, including the colonial kind, had ended. Race and racism, meanwhile, had melted in the stodgy soup of multiculturalism. In this context, envisaging historical watersheds and the demise of colonial policies and governments was as politically dubious as it was empirically unfounded. Instead, the critic’s task was to demonstrate (colonial) history’s stubborn persistence, particularly in the West. Wolfe understood this, as he explicitly intimated on many occasions in his work, and was at pains to historicise race and racism accordingly.

The concept of elimination is the direct if contradictory result of this effort. It is contradictory because its seemingly amorphous character, varying in expression and definition from text to text, lends it to wildly different readings. As noted, the most prominent of these has cast it as a sociological category referring to a specific social relation of land dispossession pertaining to distinct groups of people, often glossed as settlers and natives, and often juxtaposed to a social relation of labor exploitation. Of course, one can point to a dozen examples where Wolfe himself makes or implies such a distinction, and in the end one chooses one’s targets. But if the idea is to be pinned down with any precision and specificity, this kind of reading needs to be dispensed with here. Taken as a whole, from Settler Colonialism to Traces of HistoryWolfe’s oeuvre clearly suggests that elimination is to be understood as a ‘logic’ which must be historicised retroactively. In this sense, it belongs to a historiographic procedure whereby successive state policies and practices are ‘articulated’, in inter-relation and over a long-term, to evince an underlying strategic consistency where Indigenous territorial sovereignty is concerned. The more ideologically disparate these policies and practices may appear on the surface, the more effectively can this articulation demonstrate the invariable factor of settler colonialism. It is this historical and necessarily historicised invariance, rather than any particular policy, to which elimination refers.

This is why, I suggest, elimination is best understood heuristically: as a conceptual placeholder, and one which is closer to being the means rather than object of historical analysis. In this regard, my reference to ‘articulation’ is a pointed one, as it often was in Wolfe’s earlier works. Many have casually noted the ‘structuralism’ which seemingly characterises his work, and this is accurate insofar as it refers specifically to Althusser. Marx, Foucault, and Durkheim all make their appearance in Wolfe, but it’s actually Althusser who provides the main inspiration in the critique of settler colonialism. A theorist preoccupied with the science of history and the immanence of causality, in itself to be approached only through a certain level of analytic abstraction, Althusser rightly appealed to Wolfe. The appeal is compounded by the emphasis on the specificity and historical determinacy of a social totality. Which brings us to back the problem of genocide. 

The essay most often cited in discussions of Wolfe’s idea of elimination was equally albeit negatively concerned with genocide. Specifically, it sought to distinguish between the two concepts, and to explore their political efficacy and discursive meaning respectively. But it also had a rather pragmatic concern in mind. This appears in the conclusion where, after a lengthy discussion of both concepts and their potential uses, Wolfe asks: ‘How might any of this help to predict and prevent genocide?’ It’s a rather blunt question, seemingly naive even. A few passages later, however, and its impetus becomes clear: ‘as Palestinians become more and more dispensable, Gaza and the West Bank become less and less like Bantustans and more and more like reservations (or, for that matter, like the Warsaw Ghetto)’. Settler colonialism is, as Wolfe notes repeatedly, an indicator of the possibility of genocide, precisely because while it is not invariably genocidal it is inherently eliminatory. Unlike the category of genocide, elimination is intended to invite a wider set of considerations for assessing the underlying logic and potential, even likely, outcomes of state practice targeting a racialised group, not all of these necessarily involving force or pursuing direct violence. It interrogates not only what International legal scholars refer to as ‘slow-motion genocide’, but also the discursive and political limitations of the idea of genocide itself. Whether it is the qualifications attending various categories (e.g. cultural genocide), or the paradigmatic force of the Holocaust and other formally recognised genocides, or institutional architecture of International Law itself, these limitations have never been as apparent as they are today. 

There is no doubt that, with the emergence and consolidation of settler colonial studies, the idea of elimination has acquired a character far removed from that which we find in Palestinian and Third World radical thought. In fact, this departure was not entirely a coincidence. An earlier text by Wolfe had suggested that the analytic specification of settler colonialism depended for its very efficacy on the abandonment of imperialism as a theoretical framework, as found in world systems and dependency theories for instance. For some critics like Max Ajl, this kind of departure compromises settler colonial studies, including the framework of elimination, in both epistemic and political terms, making it antithetical to third world national liberation struggles. This may very well be true, though one could be forgiven for asking, on those very terms, which critical framework in Western academia has ever, or could ever, truly advance such struggles. Regardless, it’s undeniable that Wolfe’s work has effectively placed settler colonialism on the onto-epistemic map of western thought, as a specific mode of domination worthy of attentive historiography and theoretical rigor. More importantly, it has been shown to require an expressly political framework with demonstrably political stakes. No less than Palestinian thinkers, Palestine itself was never far from Wolfe’s mind, and Palestine solidarity was a crucial part of his life, even and especially in its final years. The idea of elimination was part of an ongoing process of translation, transforming commitment into concept and back. 

What does this idea have to say to the contemporary moment, which is surely the greatest, and gravest, turning point in the Palestinian struggle in recent decades? Short of being reconciled with the aspirations of national liberation and the traditions of anti-imperialism, its significance may very well remain muted in the context of outright, genocidal bloodletting. All the same, at least two insights can be gleaned from the discursive debris of the past few months. If genocide and elimination exist in a rather contradictory relationship, then  there may be an opportunity to exploit this contradiction at this time. As critical legal scholar Ntina Tzouvala has recently and persuasively argued, for instance, South Africa’s genocide case against Israel has strategically sought to make legible the political economy of settler colonialism in and through the genocide convention itself. This is a promising expression of legal work couched in a critical and internationalist ethos, and which seeks to upend and appropriate historically reactionary and politically debilitating institutional and legal architecture.

The second insight which this moment calls to mind is equally important, especially when the very invocation of genocide threatens to eclipse the specificity, as well as historical and abyssal depth, of each act of unspeakable evil. At a time when the very word conjures a litany of historic crimes against entire populations, as if they belong together by dint of regular occurrence, this must be recalled: that decades of systemic brutalisation, degradation, and dehumanisation, bolstered by a succession of imperial and regional despots, have gone into the making of this catastrophe, and it is the full weight of this history that Palestinians and their allies now face at a momentous historical juncture which will reverberate for generations to come. 

1 Comment

  1. Since October, the world has watched in real time the transformation of Gaza from a concentration camp into a killing field. Besieged by land, air, and sea, Palestinian men, women, and children are now subject to a ***historically unprecedented program of mass extermination***. and that’s at a “cRiTiCaL lEgAl tHiNkInG” site. fucking retards


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