Jean Genet’s work in the 1970s, inspired by his experiences in Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon, has long been recognized for its effects on the French cultural climate as well as its visceral exploration of the intersection of a variety of forms of oppression and identity. This essay revisits Prisoner of Love in a Marxist context, in particular with regard to the understanding of primitive accumulation, and with some remarks on contemporary queer theory. We might see Genet’s attention to the experience of violence, resistance and displacement in the Levant as an expression of a dynamic transformation in relations of production and popular resistance. Karl Marx revealed the reproduction of capital as imposing a modern discipline that polices bodies as well as land. Drawing on analyses by Ghassan Kanafani, Silvia Federici, Jasbir K. Puar, and Jason Read, I suggest that Genet provides a poetic illustration of the biopolitical necessities of Palestinian national liberation.
Genet in the 1970s
By the 1970s, Jean Genet was already a widely known author, playwright, and cultural figure. A vagabond and delinquent from a very young age, Genet wrote his transgressive classic, Our Lady of the Flowers, while imprisoned in 1943. In 1949, Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, and Jean-Paul Sartre had him released from prison (he was threatened with a life-sentence) in recognition of his accomplishments. For most of his life, Genet was apolitical – his work revolved around themes of evil, betrayal, fantasy, crime, and eroticism. However, he developed a fascination with and close personal connection to the Arab world as early as 1929 when he journeyed to Syria with the French Foreign Legion. He began an explicit concern with themes of racism and oppressed nationalities with his play, The Blacks, published in 1958, and subsequently his epic theater devoted to the Algerian War, The Screens, published in 1961.
The events of 1968 led Genet to embrace a more direct political engagement. Largely giving up literature, Genet instead traveled throughout the United States in support of the Black Panther Party, speaking alongside their representative at various engagements, as well as working with Michel Foucault’s Prison Information Group. At this time he also became a fellow traveler of the French Communist Party, although he never officially joined in order to avoid embarrassing them by his membership. Most significantly, he lived in Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan between autumn of 1970 and May 1971, returning through 1972. He also visited the Lebanese refugee camps in Sabra and Shatila immediately following the massacre of 1982. His posthumously published memoir, Prisoner of Love, is dedicated to these experiences.
I am interested in relating Genet’s very particular experience of the Palestinian movement to more contemporary developments of the Marxist concept of primitive accumulation. While Genet was not directly aware of this conceptual framework, I argue that Genet’s Palestinian writings can be re-read as records of primitive accumulation as it affected the Palestinian people during the period of the early 1970s, that is, following the June 1967 War, sometimes referred to by Palestinians as the Naksa, and the end of the Jordanian Civil War known as Black September.
Primitive Accumulation in Palestine
Marx develops the concept of primitive accumulation in the final chapters of the first volume of Capital,and the notebooks entitled “Precapitalist Economic Formations” in the Grundrisse (Read 20). The idea develops from a basic problem; as Jason Read summarizes it,
"To accumulate capital it is necessary to possess capital. There must then be an original or previous accumulation, one that is not the result of the capitalist mode of production but rather its point of departure and that constitutes the originary differentiation between capital and workers." (21)
Marx argues that there is a conventional moral explanation—some people save while others squander—but this is an ahistorical myth. In his description, capitalism requires
"contact between two very different kinds of commodity owners; on the one hand, the owners of money, means of production means of subsistence, who are eager to valorize the sum of values they have appropriated by buying the labor-power of others; on the other hand, free workers, the sellers of ‘their’ own labor-power, and therefore the sellers of labor."
Rather than human nature, the development of capitalism rests on an artificial construction of social relations. In order to produce this new relation of production, Marx argues that capitalism must enact the “extinction of a whole series of older formations of social production” (qtd. in Read 24). So capitalism begins in violence rather than free association. Further, in the Grundrisse Marx says that “The propertyless are more inclined to become vagabonds and robbers and beggars than workers.” For this reason dispossession must be followed by penalization; a whole set of coercive measures must continually be exerted so that the population will form a pliable working class. While Marx sometimes presents primitive accumulation as relegated to the distant past, he also links it to ongoing processes of colonization. For this reason, some contemporary Marxists argue that primitive accumulation is an ongoing feature of capitalist modernity; as Jason Read defines it, “the manner in which a mode of production is constitutive and constituted by desires, forms of living, and intentions: subjectivity” (26). In this sense, where primitive accumulation describes all of the processes of disciplining human potential and action for the most efficient exploitation by capital, it begins to communicate with the theory of biopolitics developed by Foucault.
Silvia Federici has developed a feminist approach to primitive accumulation that draws on Foucault’s descriptions as well as criticizing them. According to Federici, primitive accumulation does not create the proletariat as a homogeneous whole; rather, it also introduces various racialized and gendered hierarchies (63-64). These instrumentalized identities rests on procedures of disciplining the body; she says that “the human body and not the steam engine, and not even the clock, was the first machine developed by capitalism” (146). In her description, primitive accumulation includes “the mechanization of the proletarian body and its transformation, in the case of women, into a machine for the production of new workers” (12). Federici also argues that a fundamental violence remains an ongoing part of the process, according to which force, pain and death are necessary in order to eliminate non-productive elements of the populace. While Foucault argued that bloodshed decreased as a characteristic of modern power, Federici argues that he can only make this argument by ignoring the brutal violence meted out to women and racialized groups.
I would like to bring this contemporary understanding of primitive accumulation and its biopolitical corollaries to bear on the ongoing process of ethnic cleansing in Palestine. The Strategy for the Liberation of Palestine, produced by the Second Congress of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in 1969, is a particularly helpful Marxist analysis of this situation. The primary author of this document, Ghassan Kanafani, was also a great novelist and playwright who, like Genet, was strongly influenced by Sartre. While I do not think that Genet was aware of Kanafani’s literary writings, he certainly read the political analyses developed by the PFLP.
Kanafani’s analyses are distinguished by their emphasis on the Palestinian predicament as essentially bound to capitalist expansion. For this reason, he avoids the ideological mystifications in which many other commentators indulge (for example, notions of religious war, simple pan-Arab nationalism, or abstract human rights). Kanafani does not use the language of primitive accumulation, but his analysis of imperialism in the region implies an awareness of this basic process. For example, Kanafani describes the Palestinian masses as “reduced to a state of misery and poverty which they experience daily and which deprives them of their human character and life value.” This reduction occurs not as the result of simple religious passions or culturalized racism but because it serves an economic purpose.
The determining factor of capitalist expansion explains the lack of unity among Arab peoples and within the Palestinian nation itself. It is worth quoting Kanafani’s description at length:
"It is true that large numbers of the Palestinian people were driven outside their country in 1948 and found themselves in almost identical conditions of homelessness. It is also true that the remainder of the Palestinian people who stayed on were at all times threatened with the same fate. However, during the last twenty years, the Palestinian people have settled down into certain well-marked class conditions so that it would be wrong to say that the entire Palestinian people are without a territory, or that they are entirely revolutionary. In the course of the last twenty years, certain well-defined class interests have arisen and have become the basis for defining positions. The bourgeoisie has come to have its own interests and is consequently concerned with stability and the continuation of its preferential class conditions."
For this reason, class-consciousness is a basic pragmatic necessity for any Palestinian national liberation. Kanafani complicates any simple antagonistic relationship between Palestinians and Israelis; rather, the Palestinian masses are first in conflict with their own bourgeoisie, who can profit from the occupation, as well as Arab capitalism at large, which collaborates with imperialism. Kanafani also argued the Palestinian question could not be considered outside the struggle of the Arab masses as a whole. This interest led to their attempts to overthrow the Hashemite monarchy during the period that Genet resided in refugee camps located in Jordan, which led to their bloody repression. Alongside this internationalism, the PFLP described means of overcoming the “weak and meager political, economic, social and military structure” that had hindered Palestinians in their attempts to resist occupation. To do this Kanafani advocated a means of guerrilla warfare. However, this military outlook coincided with a whole proposed transformation of the Palestinian people, which Genet witnessed and championed. As Kanafani puts it,
"The habits of underdevelopment represented by submission, dependence, individualism, tribalism, laziness, anarchy and impulsiveness will change through the struggle into recognition of the value of time, order, accuracy, objective thought, collective action, planning, comprehensive mobilization, the pursuit of learning and the acquisition of all its weapons, the value of man, the emancipation of woman – which constitute half of our society – from the servitude of outworn customs and traditions, the fundamental importance of the national bond in facing danger and the supremacy of this bond over clan, tribal and regional bonds."
In other words, Kanafani saw the goal as the creation of a new form of life that would be both unified and cosmopolitan, opposed to reactionary atavisms of the past. We should first draw attention to the way that this seems to mimic apparently Eurocentric or productivist conceptions of modernity—while the Arab past is characterized as lazy, irrational, and repressive, the future promises to be advanced, scientific, and liberated. Orientalizing Arab society and traditions, presenting them as fundamentally backwards, is often propagated by Israel as a means of delegitimizing Palestinian popular demands. However, in this manifesto Kanafani employs the control of time and discipline to the democratic needs of the people themselves—this type of biopolitics flows from the emancipation of a new national autonomy, rather than imposed from without by the expansion of capital.
We can also describe this biopolitics as linked to contemporary notions of the cosmopolitan, modern form of life, imagined to be implicitly or potentially queer, as opposed to its restrictive other. Contemporary capitalism not only disciplines the body but prescribes new freedoms of movement, association, and erotic possibility. Jasbir K. Puar has described an ideological construction of LGBT communities in the U.S. and Israel as serving a new norm of “homonationalism,” where a societal image of sexually liberated individuals is applied to better enforce patriotic commitments and denigrate enemy nations as in the grips of repressive superstition. This functions alongside instrumentalized feminism, according to which the United States and Israel are imagined to have liberated their female population, in contrast to an allegedly highly patriarchal and chauvinist Muslim other.
Genet’s description of the Palestinians in the camps, who formed the base of the fedayeen guerrilla movement, complicates these notions in a manner that complements Kanafani’s vision. In his essay of 1971, “The Palestinians,” Genet writes: “The Palestinian women, the ordinary women of the people, are beautiful; their beauty is a sovereign beauty. They are very independent in relation to the men. They know how to cook, sew, fire a rifle, read Mao. After the massacres at Amman, they are the ones who first came out of the ruins and out of the trauma.”
He opposes the women of the Palestinian masses to those of the Arab bourgeoisie who are only apparently liberated, with vain voluble voice and fingers heavy with rings. Consider for example the female presidents of this or that organization, in Amman or in Beirut, lingering in their sitting rooms over a deck of cards they no longer even have the strength to cut. But in the ruins, squatting or standing, the women of the people, prophetic or sibylline, say how things will be–or already are–with Amman, with Hussein and his palace, with the Hashemite family. The women of the people are terrible in the sense that they speak the truth.
I think that Genet should be read together with Kanafani, because Kanafani provides the description of a strategic countermovement against the violent dispossession attendant to primitive accumulation, whereas Genet supplements with this with the poetic fullness and carnal realism that undergirds this strategic moment. Hadrien Laroche has pointed out that Genet’s notion of beauty in the 1968-1971 period becomes increasingly disciplined—from North American white hippies to Black Panthers to Palestinian guerrillas. Genet constantly emphasizes the “physical elegance” and “courtesy” of Palestinians; rather than a schematic political argument, he fleshes out the new practices of life that support the movement that Kanafani advocates (introduction to Prisoner of Love). This movement is fundamentally the resistance to social death. In his essay of 1982, “Four Hours in Shatila,” inspired by his witness to the immediate aftermath of the camp massacres in Lebanon, Genet speaks of “affection” for the “rotting corpses” of the soldiers who had been his friends (they had been driven into Lebanon from Jordan). Fundamentally this affection isn’t born of morbidity but rather of Genet’s appreciation for the will to live in the face of enormous and implacable opposition that confronts the Palestinian resistance. Genet submits:
"I believe it was Hannah Arendt who distinguished between revolutions that aspire to freedom and those that aspire to virtue--and therefore to work. Perhaps we ought to recognize that the end pursued--obscurely--by revolutions or liberations is the discovery or rediscovery of beauty, that is, something that is impalpable and unnamable except by this word. Or rather, no: by beauty we should understand a laughing insolence spurred by past misery, by the systems and men responsible for misery and shame, but a laughing insolence which realizes that, when shame has been left behind, the bursting forth of new life is easy." (Declared Enemy, 225)
Federici, Silvia. Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation. Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 2004.
Genet, Jean. The Declared Enemy: Texts and Interviews, Stanford: Stanford UP, 2004.
Genet, Jean. Prisoner of Love. New York: NYRB Classics, 2003.
Laroche, Hadrien. The Last Genet: A Writer in Revolt. Trans. David Homel. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2010.
Puar, Jasbir K. Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Durham: Duke UP, 2007.
Read, Jason. The Micro-Politics of Capital: Marx and the Prehistory of the Present. Chapter 1. “The Use and Disadvantage of Prehistory for Life.” Albany: SUNY Press, 2003.
Second Congress of the PFLP [Ghassan Kanafani, George Habash, et. al.] Strategy for the Liberation of Palestine. Trans. PFLP Information Department. 1969. <http://pflp.ps/english/strategy-for-the-liberation-of-palestine/>