Manuscripts Don’t Burn
Jerusalem and Montreal
Monsieur Fouche and the thought police. They don’t need guillotines to clip brains and scissors to censor pamphlets. They don’t need strategic-studies institutes to manage oppression and navigate conflict. Instead, they prefer to subsidize ‘cultural pluralism’ and ‘critical studies’, support centres for democracy and privatization, and promote civil-society networks and global NGOs. They are no longer afraid of words. Or so we are told. . . .
The Israeli Economy, 1985-1998. From Government Intervention To Market Economics2002
There was also an added explanation: the delay was merely a technical matter of over-congestion (emphasis added):
So we waited a few more months, only to realize that, for some reason – exogenous, no doubt – the supply and demand for articles were again ‘distorted’, and that our review had been postponed once again (emphasis added):
At this point, we started to doubt our newly found belief in neoliberal publishing. The journal insisted it wanted to print our piece, but judging by its inaction it seemed keen on killing it.
The Editor in Chief, Mark Kramer, was flabbergasted. Our insinuations, he insisted, were completely misplaced. There was no censorship in his journal. Full stop. The real culprit wasn’t him. It was MIT Press. The cost-conscious publishing house overcharged for excess pages, and in so doing threw the market off balance and burdened his journal with ridiculous backlogs and undue delays (emphasis added):
To be honest, we have heard smarter excuses from liberal censors. So we pushed a bit further (emphasis added):
And that extra push was enough. The editors lost their composure and pulled out the scissors. As it turned out, they weren’t going to publish our review after all (emphasis added):
We got it. There is a post-critical space of multidimensional uniqueness and interlaced specificities manifested in the cultural-racist consciousness of friendly-hostile human beings, a space created and recreated by an endless collage of scholarly journals and books that publish an ever-growing number of highly creative articles and manuscripts. But it seems that the greater the diversity of this space and the more colourful its deconstructions, the simpler and flatter the reality it seeks to hide.
2. Marxist Encounters
Bulgakov insists that manuscripts don’t burn – but, as Jack London reminds us in The Iron Heel (1907), we have no idea how many get suppressed.
There was, of course, an easy way out. It was succinctly summarized for us in a precious historical moment, when a recently-ordained Doctor of Economic Science, attending the 1997 American Economic Association Meeting in New Orleans, informed his adulating friends: ‘There is no such thing as an unpublished paper: you start with the top journal and then work your way down until your article gets accepted’. We almost envied his insight.
Our own path took us sideways, or rather upward, to the Marxists. We submitted the rejected review to Science & Society, where it got published as ‘The Rockefeller Boys’ (Bichler and Nitzan 2007). We should perhaps note here that, unlike his hands-off Cold War counterpart, Science & Society’s Editor, David Laibman, was well aware that we were critical of Marx’s labour theory of value and its broader implications – yet he remained tolerant and forthcoming. And that wasn’t the first time.
Back in 1993, one of us (Bichler) had been invited by Asher Arian to contribute a chapter to an edited SUNY Press book on the Israeli elections. The invited piece dealt with Israel’s ‘political business cycle’ – particularly the political-business underpinnings of the 1977 rise of the Likud bloc and the radical right and the 1992 attempt to reinstate Rabin’s Labour Party and the ‘ancient regime’. The article was reviewed, accepted, proof-edited and ready for the printer – yet it never got published. One of SUNY’s trustees got a hold of the preprint and presented its editor with an ultimatum: get rid of Bichler’s ‘vulgar Marxian’ chapter or the entire volume would be cancelled. Arian complied in a jiffy. Bichler’s chapter was excised, the trustee withdrew his ultimatum and the bleached volume sailed safely to the printer.
The orphaned paper was sent to Science & Society, accompanied by a simple request: kindly make sure that the referees are neither Israeli nor pro-Zionist. And it worked. The non-aligned reviewers found the article neither vulgar nor Marxist – in fact, they didn’t even think it was particularly radical. But they thought it made an original point and agreed to publish it (Bichler 1994-1995).
During the 1990s and early 2000s, we had pretty good relationships with Marxist writers and editors, particularly those of the older, pre-postist generation. The Review of Radical Political Economics, for example, published our article ‘Military Spending and Differential Accumulation: A New Approach to the Political Economy of Armament – The Case of Israel’ (Bichler and Nitzan 1996). The paper showed the growing bifurcation between the country’s dominant capital groups and the small-business sector that surrounded it. And it further demonstrated – for the first time as far as we know – that the differential profits of dominant capital were positively and tightly correlated with the country’s increasing military bias and rising military spending.
The Review of Radical Political Economics wasn’t our first choice, though. Initially, we submitted our article to mainstream journals such as the American Sociological Review and the Cambridge Journal of Economics, but it was repeatedly rejected, often with open disdain (note that, back then, most observers equated Israel’s high military spending with its ‘heightened security needs’ and thought that connecting these expenditures with the differential profits of dominant capital was bizarre, if not utterly nonsensical). The specific reasons for rejection are too embarrassing to requote here, but one does merit a mention. A learned reader scolded us for ignoring the innovative empirical work of Michael Shalev – failing to realize that Shalev’s main thesis and empirics relied on our own work. . . .
The Review of Radical Political Economics also published our comparative study ‘Going Global: Differential Accumulation and the Great U-turn in South Africa and Israel’ (Nitzan and Bichler 2001). The paper developed our non-Marxist, CasP approach to explain the apparent movement of both countries from closed, militarized regimes to a less confrontational global order. Surprisingly – and in our view to their great credit – the editors did not seek to clip our theoretical ambitions. On the contrary – they encouraged us to develop them further, even at the cost of trimming the paper’s concrete historical argument. For a journal that struggled for years to emphasize and develop Marxist research, this encouragement struck us as a model of scientific integrity. And it wasn’t alone. Other Marxist journals, such as Capital & Class, were also willing to advance our work (Nitzan and Bichler 1996).
3. The Rift
But as the 2000s progressed, our relationship with Marxists cooled off. Many of them started to see our CasP approach as a potential foe to both classical Marxism and its many ‘neo’ extensions. The rift was further deepened by our studies of U.S. involvement in Middle East Energy Conflicts (our term), and of global accumulation more broadly, research that contested conventional Marxist notions of neo-imperialism (for example, Bichler and Nitzan 2003b, 2004a, 2004b, 2012; Nitzan and Bichler 2006).
And so rejections started to mount. Le Monde, for example, agreed to publish our short conference article titled ‘The End of Neoliberalism?’ (Bichler and Nitzan 2003a) – but quickly reneged once its Editor in Chief, Serge Marti, got to read the actual text. Similarly, Alternatives Internationales commissioned a French version of our ‘War Profits, Peace Dividends and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict’ (Bichler and Nitzan 2002) – only to refuse it for being ‘too economistic’. That latter paper, re-submitted in English to the London Review of Books, was politely turned down by its Editor, Mary-Kay Wilmers, with no reason given. Even the ever-tolerant Science & Society rejected an invited article on Imperialism and Financialism – later published by the Journal of Critical Globalization Studies (Bichler and Nitzan 2012) – for being ‘too dismissive’ of Marxism. (To be fair, the editor later admitted that our submission, once again, ‘generated something of a hornet’s nest’ at the editorial board meeting, with supporters arguing that, given the quality of our work, the journal ‘should be able to accept something from these fellows’ and detractors resenting our unsubstantiated attempt to ‘replace the entire Marxist tradition rather than develop it’.)
The growing hostility also spilled over into conferences. The organizers of ‘Marx International IV’ Congress, held in 2004 at the Université de Paris-X Nanterre, placed our CasP presentation in one of the conference’s plenary sessions. But when we arrived to deliver it we learned that the paper had been demoted to a peripheral panel on Iran and assorted Middle East issues. And the organizers were hardly apologetic. One of them informed us that the relocation, although unfortunate, was necessary to appease the meeting’s financial backer, a distinguished Canadian professor who demanded that we be so removed.
A year earlier, in 2003, we presented our CasP approach to a plenary session at the ‘Global Regulation’ conference at the University of Sussex. One of the organizers attacked us, quite openly, not for the things we said, but for those we didn’t. Standing up and waving his hands, he suggested/demanded that we spend less time critiquing Marxism and more on ‘building bridges’. At York University, where one of us (Nitzan) teaches and where we hold our international CasP conferences, the situation is even worse. The conferences, which present new and often path-breaking CasP research and critiques from around the world, are routinely boycotted by the university’s Marxist faculty.
Granted, much of this clash has to do with the scientific substance of CasP. Nobody, Marxists included, likes being systematically critiqued, let alone supplanted by a new approach. But it seems to us that some of the enmity has to do with the shifting nature of Marxist scholarship as such. With the spread of postism, Marxist editors have grown less tolerant than their predecessors and are often openly hostile to scientific research altogether. If true, this process bodes ill for the future of this once-innovative science.
4. A Whiff of Plagiarism
And there is another, darker side to this trajectory. Postists love academic fashion, disdain novelty and dismiss science. And since according to many (post-)Marxists there is nothing new under the eternal sun of Marx, Engels and Lenin, we shouldn’t be surprised to see plagiarism rampant.
The Retort group of Berkeley, California, for example, published a brilliant Verso book on the oil wars of the Middle East (Retort 2005) along with a detailed summary in the prestigious London Review of Books (Boal et al. 2005). Both works marshalled an impressive array of novel theoretical claims and empirical findings – most of which were taken, freely and without attribution, from the works of Bichler and Nitzan.
Our response article, ‘The Scientist and the Church’ (Nitzan and Bichler 2005), exposed Retort’s systemic theft as well as the broader anti-scientific context that made such theft possible to start with. The London Review of Books, of course, refused to publish it, offering instead that we write a 1000-word ‘letter to the editor’. Verso didn’t even bother answering. And Retort? Under pressure from us, the University of California, Berkeley, struck and investigative committee that found Retort guilty of scientific dishonesty. But that was it. The honourable committee didn’t think its conclusion merited publication. Instead, its report was safely locked in the offenders’ personal files for five short years and then permanently purged, to a deep sigh of relief from the offenders and their employer. It’s a telling story because Retort’s was neither our first nor our last brush with plagiarists. There have been many more, from respectable faculty to PhD students – but that’s a subject for another paper.
5. Happy Endings, False Restarts
There have also been happy endings, though. In 2016, we received a Rethinking Marxism invitation to write a paper for a special issue on Marxist approaches to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Given that we haven’t researched the subject for many years, we offered, instead, to contextualize it as part of the global political economy of the Middle East and the differential accumulation of dominant capital groups more broadly. We also proposed that the paper be written as a ‘biography of research’, interlacing our theoretical arguments and empirical findings with the way in which they emerged and evolved. To our surprise, the editors agreed enthusiastically.
Two of the three referees disliked our paper. As usual, the issue was our inappropriate ‘tone’ (read criticism of Marxism), and the offended referees demanded cuts and revisions. One of them even boasted a special Bichler-and-Nitzan expertise, developed and perfected over the years by reading – and disliking – our publications. We almost felt sorry for the Sisyphean scholar. But the issue editors, Oded Nir and Joel Wainwright, didn’t budge. They accepted our rebuttals and published our paper – ‘Arms and Oil in the Middle East: A Biography of Research’ – with only minor modifications (Bichler and Nitzan 2018).
A short while later, in 2019, we receive another Marxist invitation – this time from the bilingual Revue de la régulation. The journal was preparing a special issue on ‘Accumulation and Politics: Approaches and Concepts’ and wanted to interview us on a wide variety of topics. The invite seemed genuine. The special issue’s call for papers cited the CasP approach favourably and at some length, and the editors were more than forthcoming. They allowed us to revise the questions if we wanted to and allowed our text to be significantly longer than usual.
Was this the mark of a new beginning? Were younger Marxists growing more self-critical and open to radical alternatives such as CasP? Maybe not – but the invite was simply too tempting to ignore. The Revue de la régulation is the flagship journal of the ‘regulation school’, a broad attempt to extend Marxist analyses of accumulation beyond the narrow confines of its ‘material base’. An interview with this journal would have allowed us to introduce our work to the next generation of Marxists, as well as to situate it in the context of competing approaches. All in all, it seemed worthy of our effort, and we spent several intense months writing it up.
But it was all for naught. As it turned out, the enthusiastic special-issue editors had only ‘relative autonomy’. In the ‘last instance’ – meaning when Bichler and Nitzan dismissed Althusser and brushed off other Marxist luminaries – the Editorial Board felt it had to intervene. The length of the interview – which was pre-agreed on – was suddenly ‘excessive’ and had to be clipped by two-thirds. The questions and answers had to be made more ‘personal’. And most importantly, our proverbial ‘tone’ had to be made ‘fairer’ and ‘less one-sided’. Even the Journal of Cold War Studies could not have delivered such as decisive knockout.
Luckily, though, manuscripts don’t burn. ‘The Capital As Power Approach: An Invited-then-Rejected Interview with Shimshon Bichler and Jonathan Nitzan’ is available, free of changes and charges, on our CreativeCommons website (Bichler and Nitzan 2020).
 Our title is borrowed from Professor Woland, the Devil in Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita (1995). Shimshon Bichler and Jonathan Nitzan teach political economy at colleges and universities in Israel and Canada, respectively. All of their publications are available for free on The Bichler & Nitzan Archives (http://bnarchives.net). Work on this paper was partly supported by the SSHRC.
Ben-Bassat, Avi, ed. 2002. The Israeli Economy, 1985-1998. From Government Intervention To Market Economics. Cambridge, Mass, London and Jerusalem: The MIT Press and the Maurice Falk Institute for Economic Research.
Bichler, Shimshon. 1994-1995. Political Power Shifts in Israel, 1977 and 1992: Unsuccessful Electoral Economics or Long Range Realignment? Science & Society 58 (4): 415-439.
Bichler, Shimshon, and Jonathan Nitzan. 1996. Military Spending and Differential Accumulation: A New Approach to the Political Economy of Armament -- The Case of Israel. Review of Radical Political Economics 28 (1): 51-95.
Bichler, Shimshon, and Jonathan Nitzan. 2002. War Profits, Peace Dividends and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. News From Within 18 (4, April): 14-19.
Bichler, Shimshon, and Jonathan Nitzan. 2004a. Differential Accumulation and Middle East Wars: Beyond Neo-Liberalism. In Global Regulation. Managing Crises After the Imperial Turn, edited by D. Wigan, L. Assassi and K. van der Pijl. London: Palgrave, pp. 43-60.
Bichler, Shimshon, and Jonathan Nitzan. 2012. Imperialism and Financialism: The Story of a Nexus. Journal of Critical Globalization Studies (5, January): 42-78.
Bichler, Shimshon, and Jonathan Nitzan. 2018. Arms and Oil in the Middle East: A Biography of Research. Rethinking Marxism 30 (3): 418-440.
Bichler, Shimshon, and Jonathan Nitzan. 2020. The Capital as Power Approach. An Invited-then-Rejected Interview with Shimshon Bichler and Jonathan Nitzan. Working Papers on Capital as Power (2020/02, June): 1-58.
Boal, Iain, T. J. Clark, Joseph Matthews, and Michael Watts. 2005. Blood for Oil? London Review of Books, April 21.
Nitzan, Jonathan, and Shimshon Bichler. 2001. Going Global: Differential Accumulation and the Great U-turn in South Africa and Israel. Review of Radical Political Economics 33: 21-55.