The Archimedean Lever:

Right in the Face of Might



The Max Perutz Memorial Lecture, International Human Rights Network of Academies and Scholarly Societies, London, May 2005.


The human propensity to use violence as force or to threaten its use (whether explicitly or implicitly) for the achievement of ends is quite common. This propensity in the political sphere is so common that it has led many to believe, especially in the context of international relations theories, that force is necessary, in the sense of its being irreducible or inevitable. Typically force has been viewed, in Machiavellian fashion, as the midwife in the birth of political institutions or systems. More generally Power, as a second-generation and a generic notion encompassing all of the State’s negotiating cards or assets, including, typically, that State’s military capacity (whether independent or indirect, through alliances and agreements), has been regarded, alongside self-interest, as the main determinant of relations between States. The political world-map, it has been argued, is determined by power and interest. In short, States on this view, whether at birth or in the course of their existence, are not regarded as moral agents, but as power-brokers. This can be observed at many levels, including, even in peace-time, typically, at the level of negotiating international trade or border treaties or agreements between them. Typically and in the first instance, States do not seek justice or fairness in the process of formulating such treaties or agreements, but the fulfillment of interest, the achievement of which is viewed as being a function of the power they possess (Albin,). 


Let us assume that this so-called “Realist” view in international relations theories is correct, and that the building-mortar with which States and political systems are constructed is power and interest. It would then only be logical to extrapolate from this that legal as well as moral norms associated with those systems –or constructed and adhered to by those systems- must in some basic manner be secondary to, if not wholly derivable from the mortar with which these systems have been constructed. This observation is so simple, but fundamental, that a fuller explanation of it is in order: if one were to view, in a unilateralist manner, human action, and human forms of association brought about and reinforced by such action, as being informed in the first instance by such considerations as power and self-interest, then one would be forced to concede that moral principles, as well as the legal norms which come to express them, are but secondary outgrowths or constructs or appendages whose origins are rooted in that power and self-interest. Furthermore, such principles and norms, unless specifically conceived to undermine the primary principle of self-interest –a matter which the Realist view does not entertain as being consistent with its understanding of human nature- will by definition play the role of reinforcing that self-interest, and the political order or system which is built upon it. Indeed, even any formal action undertaken by such systems, whether an act of war or of charity, must necessarily come to be defined in its bare bones as being simply an act which reinforces an exclusively self-interest- and power-based human order.  


Understandably, such an explicit formulation of policy would not sit well with unilateralist World-Powers, which would like both to have their cake as well as eat it. For example, if they wished to carry out a War, they may like to present this as a just war, meaning both that it is a war which is aimed at achieving justice as an end, and which is being carried out justly. If they wished to carry out a trade agreement, or an international act of charity, or an act of political intervention, they may also like to present these as being morally-inspired or morally-informed acts. But on a Realist view, such interpretations or representations of intention would not make any sense (except, perhaps, as delusory devices): unless such acts are conceived in the first instance to be fundamentally at odds with the underlying mortar of power and self-interest, they can only be understood as being acts which serve and reinforce that power and self-interest, and the political order on which it is founded.


There is no escaping this logical trap laid by the Realist view. This is why, hard as it may try by using the right language on the values of freedom and democracy, the United States (and Britain of course behind it) finds it hard to convince the Iraqi people, and the Arab World more generally, of its “good” intentions in Iraq or the Middle-East. Indeed this is why the insurgency in Iraq, however ugly and brutal, finds sympathy across the Arab and Moslem worlds. Because, offensive and extreme as it may appear, a Realist view in fact provides justification for the beheading or kidnapping of innocent civilians just as it does for a formal- even a so-called surgically-clean armed intervention. Terrorism, as defined in the annals of the United Nations, or in Congress, can perforce only be seen from the perspective of the “other side” but as part of a legal and moral framework or package which is conceived to protect the unilateralist, self-interest based intentions and real aims of the aggressor.  Also acting unilaterally against such an aggressor, and informed by its perception of its own self-interest, the aggressed party is and feels fully entitled to the use of whatever force is at its disposal as it fights back. Indeed, on a Realist view, that party would be acting perfectly legitimately as it goes about constructing its moral norms to fit its circumstances and its own interests. 


Fortunately, a Realist view –though upheld by some for whom our conclusions should come as no surprise- is not a realistic view of human nature. It accounts for only a part of this nature, as well as for only a frozen or only a temporal slice of it. A Realist view, in other words, fails to provide a comprehensive or a historic and full account of human nature, and it fails equally to provide a unified theory of human behavior. 


A Realistic view, on the other hand, would provide both a unified as well as a comprehensive account. On this different view, egotistic impulses as well as calculative skills, simultaneously or over time, interact or compete, on the same plane, for informing human behavior. Calculative skills in particular address the individual’s contextual placement, and consequently the social or associative requirements, even on egotistic grounds, for defining that behavior. Such skills are just as inherent to human nature as that nature’s egotistic impulses, but as they come to be applied to the latter the resultant products, as principles for action, in proving to be a more effective means for the achievement even of egotistic ends, therefore come to occupy a higher logical order, so to speak, than the objects defined exclusively by the egotistic impulse. Starting off as being calculatively associative rather than blindly egotistic or unilateralist in their nature these principles can be shown eventually to develop into basic and universal values, such as the primary human concerns for freedom and equality, and these, in turn, can thus gradually come to be seen as assuming a leading role in informing human behavior. 


A behavioral theory that takes account only of the crude egotistic impulse in human nature is thus incomplete, while one which totally sets out a generic separation between this egotistic dimension as a natural human quality and the calculative faculty as a divorced and Platonically objective “Reason” or set of moral values, will perforce yield two separate and often contradictory accounts of human behavior, or two irreconcilable dimensions, often described as an unbridgeable chasm between is and ought- a natural as opposed to a moral account of behavior. A unified theory, on the other hand, would provide us with an understanding of how the two primary and natural components of human nature, egotism and the calculative skill, combine to yield principles for action- those of freedom and equality-  which are best suited to the robust evolution of that nature. The calculative propensity towards these principles can only be further reinforced by that other, equally natural sentiment in human nature of compassion, a sentiment which makes the adoption of these principles fulfill the psychologically inherent disposition in an individual to care for others.  Care and compassion can thus come to be viewed, not as sentiments which typically conflict with Reason, but as ones which naturally complement and reinforce those principles of action which are formulated by the calculative faculty in its interaction with the egotistic impulse. 


However, the objection may now be raised that while a unified account such as the one just described makes ideal sense, in fact human beings as well as States do not behave in accordance with that sense, but are rather observed as acting primarily out of interest. This objection can be countered on the grounds that it is once again incomplete, in that it takes account only of a temporal slice of human nature. Indeed, human beings or States, at certain periods of their evolutionary histories, can be observed to act purely on the basis of blind egotistic interest. More often than not, however, as a child grows older and becomes more familiar with her calculative skills and her contextual human surroundings, she learns to temper that instinct by those skills in cognizance of the requirements of being part of a context, if not also by natural sympathy or instinctive compassion towards others, or by what can come to be described using these terms as a moral sense. Similarly, even States conceived by an act of force tend towards adjusting that force by a tempered view of their place among nations. Basic values such as freedom and equality, being claimed in the first instance as the associative cornerstone of their own citizenry, eventually have to come to be recognized as the associative cornerstone of inter-national association. Often, indeed, the citizenry in those States are quicker to reach that recognition than their respective Governments. Where this is the case, history shows that those Governments come themselves to be replaced, or their foreign policies are cumulatively if gradually made to become different through the mounting pressure of their citizenry.   


The realistic view, then, is one which accounts for the gradually and historically transformative character of human behavior, as one which, through conscious will,  constantly seeks and reaches out for a well-formed balance or higher logical order of primary motivation, defined by what we described as the principles or core concerns for action, namely, freedom and equality. One may speculate a gradual historical process of convergence towards those principles, as well as a process of gradual refinement and universalisation of their application- i.e. a process of both qualitative as well as quantitative development. Viewed in light of this perspective, one may then regard the evolution of Law and law practices of political systems which are grounded historically in force and self-interest, not as acts which necessarily reinforce that order, but as acts which seek slowly to emancipate that order from its purely or exclusively egotistic foundations. A recurrent historical theme, and a sine qua non, associated with this emancipation is the emancipation, and increasing participation of the individual herself in the political order, or her transformation from object (passive) to subject (active), or from subject (passive) to citizen (active). Such transformative processes even in one order tend to trigger parallel processes in other orders, and tend eventually to impact how one order allows itself to treat another. One could view these historical processes as a general pattern, rather than as descriptions which are true of specific instances of political orders. To deny this process of evolution in the identities of individuals and political orders is to be blind, for example, to the way in which the concept of “citizen” evolved from Athenian or Roman times, or to the way in which the attitude to “slavery” has also changed –indeed, even to the way marriage as a relationship between two individuals has evolved. On the other hand, to be cognizant of these transformational processes is to be cognizant of identities, whether of individuals or of political orders, not as being temporally or qualitatively static objects or selves –i.e., frozen in temporal slices of time- but as being dynamically transforming identities, or as self-organized systems which are constantly being shaped by an internal emancipatory agency or will.  History, in other words, constantly evolves, however painfully slowly it might seem (to the point, sometimes, of creating the illusion that it cyclically repeats itself) reflecting the active agency of the human will. 


A paradigm or prototype of such an agency or will is what we might call “an Archimedean moral lever”:  Archimedes, it is said, claimed that if he had a lever which was long enough, he could then cause the world itself to move, however heavy it might be. One might ask oneself if one could conceive of a moral lever and a specific point in human relationships where it might be placed, such that the world’s moral order can be caused to change, or such that the emancipatory process of transformation referred to can be reinforced. Let us pose this question in another, down-to-earth way: assuming that Israel, informed by a Realist perspective, unjustly and by force deprives Palestinians of the basic values of freedom and equality, would Palestinians then have no choice, or be better off, responding in the same way, or could we conceive of a situation where, cognizant of a higher logical order of principles for action, Palestinians stand to gain from remaining steadfastly committed to that higher order, while refusing to respond with violence or force, and insisting on acting as a paradigm of the moral will?


Before answering this question, let us address and answer another question behind it: assuming that in the face of unjust situations as the one described Archimedean moral levers instead of guns are brought to bear as tools of change, wouldn’t the transformative process towards universal freedom and equality be enhanced? One “scientifically respectable” way of answering this question would be to refer to a success-function: to the extent that non-violent movements for emancipation prove to be a cost-effective and successful means of change, and their use therefore more widespread, the transformation process towards a better world-order will clearly be enhanced.  For positive returns in this context to be regarded as effective or successful they will clearly have to relate specifically to the conflict or predicament under review, and not only (nor even at all in the first instance) to general world-order. Indeed, such examples are in abundance, whether in the area of labor disputes or political conflicts (Gene Sharp, ’05). To return to the Palestinian case, therefore, it would seem that our question is not inappropriate, since the choice of a cost-effective and successful non-violent response at least in theory exists.   


At this point, I wish to introduce another feature, underlying non-violence, to our moral lever: conflict situations are typically situations where the protagonists or players posit themselves as being enemies of one another. In conceiving of non-violent as opposed to violent responses between enemies, emphasis is often placed- the pressure tactic associated with violent means still being uppermost in one’s mind- on resistance as a form of pressure, or on a “power greater than force” (…).  Such responses have indeed proved to be highly effective, even within the Palestinian context, and they may indeed become a requirement in some possible future context. But it is a mistake to assume that all non-violent responses need by definition to be instances of resistance (or the application of pressure) for them to be effective, regardless, that is, of context. What we might call an “attraction” tactic, as another form of non-violent response, conceived not to apply pressure but contrariwise to create what one might call “a gravitational pull” is also appropriate in certain contexts. A pressure tactic presupposes resigning oneself to the identity (and position) of one’s protagonist, while a gravitational tactic presupposes the ability to positively transform the identity (and position) of that protagonist. Arguably, it is (at least) sometimes more profitable to address the situation “from outside the box”- i.e. by not resigning oneself in the first place to a prefixed notion of protagonists having static identities. Viewed from inside the box, the protagonists are typically assumed as fixed variables, or as having fixed identities (and positions), and the question raised becomes one of whether it is best to employ violent or non-violent forms of pressure by one protagonist against another as a means to extracting a desired objective from them. Viewed from outside of the box, protagonists need not be regarded as being prefixed or preset in their political identities, and the question that could be raised is one of whether one protagonist can so act as to help shape or define the identity of the other protagonist to one’s advantage. An identity or substantive attitudinal change can then provide the basis for reaching that objective. Coincidentally, while this observation can inform the foreign policies of such world Powers as the United States, instead of being informed by what we earlier called “the unilateralist or Realist view”, nowhere does this observation seem to be as valid or applicable as in the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 


Two elements, besides context, are presupposed in this view from outside the box: one is the element of agency, or will, as a means of affecting or shaping one’s own identity or that of others; and the second is the notion of the de-ideologized or de-constructed human being, or citizen –admittedly a clumsy expression, but one which I hope will do the job of conveying the idea meant.  The first element draws on the notion of human identities being constantly shaped or formed by conscious acts of will rather than as being a priori and static. The second element draws on the related notion that ideologies are second- or third-order constructs relative to basic human concerns. Let us take as an example of the first element two cases from the Israeli-Palestinian context, one being that of Israel’s Labor Party loss of the elections in the aftermath of the Camp David talks, which resulted in the replacement of Barak by Sharon as a negotiation partner; the other being that of Israeli polls which show a dissonance between electoral behavior and political desires. The argument has been cogently made that Sharon’s election was partly made possible by an apparent or perceived Palestinian rejection of peace with Israel; and that, likewise, a persistent popular support for the draconian measures by Sharon are partly a result of Palestinian acts of violence. In both cases, therefore, a pressure-based “repellant” dynamic is argued to have been set in motion, in that Palestinians, though the weaker of the two parties, have actually contributed negatively through their actions to the formation of the identity of their protagonist in the relationship, whether in the form of producing a different protagonist altogether, or in the form of producing a negative electoral or public attitude. It is easy to surmise the effect of such a repellant dynamic on the negotiating posture of the Israeli protagonist, and the negative outcome of such negotiation as it affects the Palestinian side itself.  One can likewise surmise the effect of a gravitational pull or an attraction-dynamic, or of causing contrary changes to occur on a negotiation outcome.  In short, one major variable in a negotiation or contestation model, besides how two protagonists view the exchange values of the items being contested or which are under negotiation, is the identity or posture of one protagonist in the relationship as this is affected by the other. The main principle in this argument is that a positive negotiating partner is often made, not found –and can indeed be lost after having been made or found (one need hardly point out that this principle is just as valid in ordinary human relationships such as marriage or friendships as in political contexts). Unless therefore one views one’s own acts as being fatalistically predetermined or statically preset (as one might indeed view the acts of one’s protagonist), there is clearly a political and psychological space in which the activation of the human will can be so articulated as to help shape the best form or posture of one’s opposite in the negotiation. This is an incredible source of power. But it is a power which can be used either way: one of the protagonists, wishing that negotiations never succeed, may well help through certain actions to so demonize or indeed provoke the second protagonist such that the latter can no longer pose, or indeed even wish to consider himself as a potential peace partner.  


The second element of an Archimedean moral lever is the recognition, and employment of the distinction between the ideological and the more mundane or basic clusters or layers making up the identity of the individual human being: opinion polls both in Israel and among Palestinians show an overwhelming support for a workable two-state solution. But the same polls also show an overwhelming support for those political parties or movements which do not aim at (or work towards) such a solution. Expressed political behavior does not correspond with latent dispositions –even as these are translatable into deep political convictions. Primarily, both Israelis and Palestinians overwhelmingly believe that the employment of force is necessary, though they sadly also see eye to eye on what they believe “deep down” is an inevitable solution, and a better alternative to continued conflict, or the continued use of force. Cognizant of this distinction, an Archimedean lever in this context would therefore be one which, in addition to its non-violent feature, will also and through a gravitational dynamic be so manipulated as to succeed in “lifting up” or “drawing out” these latent dispositions to the political surface, making those dispositions, rather than surface and immediate concerns, inform expressed political behavior and attitudes.   


Non-violence as a moral means of effecting political change therefore consists of both pressure, as well as of gravitational dynamics. Pressure and gravitational dynamic forms of non-violence methods need not be seen as mutually exclusive tools. They need only be recognized, and valued, as different types or forms of political tools, one or the other or both being appropriate in terms of the political context in which they are to be employed. Indeed, in a given political system, the employment of a gravitational dynamic at the public level can be the best means of generating a pressure dynamic at the upper political level, in that a public which comes to be disaffected through a gravitational dynamic with the unilateralist policies of its leadership can apply pressure to change that policy or leadership –to the advantage of the other protagonist.  


Combining the two main elements (i.e., non-violence and gravitation) of an Archimedean lever, it becomes obvious that the most effective manner in which it can be used, at least in some contexts where a latent positive disposition at the public level exists, is when one party to the conflict, using attraction or gravitational- rather than pressure-dynamics, so organizes its behavior as to bring about (or draw out) the desired attitudinal change in the other. This can, of course, in principle work both ways, or be employed by either one of the two parties. Paradoxically, however, given what one normally assumes to be the strategic imbalance between the two parties, or the fact that one party is under the forceful occupation of the other, the option of using this lever is realistically –strangely as this may sound- available only to (and is in the immediate interest of) the party being held down by force: while the perceived strategic advantage of the party “on top” stands to be lost if it decides to replace force by a moral lever, the perceived absence of this advantage to the other party allows it to draw on this lever as an option without the risk of losing that advantage. Once set in motion by the second party, however, it immediately comes to be viewed as being in the interest of the first party to embrace this approach, as doing so would be perceived as preempting a potential future threat to itself arising from the existing imbalance. While logically therefore the option of embarking on such a reconciliatory approach is available to the two sides, realistically it is amenable for use by the “grounded” side. This leads to the following unexpected, and rather astounding conclusion: that if one were to define power (even in Machiavellian language) in terms of the ability to cause political change to one’s advantage, it is paradoxically the Palestinians who hold this power even though (or precisely because) they are held down by a mighty military force!   


A political context in which a predominantly pressure dynamic is used is of course also conceivable and sometimes preferable- but only, exactly as one assumes in the case of a military operation, in the context of an overall strategy. For it to be successful, however, a gravitational dynamic is sometimes needed to accompany it. For example, having finally become wise to Sharon’s plans in which they unwittingly played the role of an obliging accessory, Palestinians can abruptly decide on and implement a policy of wholesale suspension or boycott of formal, i.e. governmental relations (including negotiations) with Israel. Indeed, the pressure-effectiveness of such a policy can only be enhanced if it were to be backed by some form or another of international reinforcement. However, for such a policy to bring about the desired change, and not simply to succeed in creating a hardened opposite force, such a policy must first be selectively aimed at government institutions, and it must even more importantly be accompanied by a gravitational force aimed towards the Israeli public, with a view to mobilizing this public in support of the Palestinian political objective. This can be achieved, again at the formal level, through the announcement, as the clear objective of Palestinian policy, of an unambiguous commitment to that peace which the Israeli public can at once view as constituting a “fair” or “acceptable” deal, and as being one which serves their own basic interests. Ambiguity here, with due respect to the Kissinger doctrine, is destructive rather than constructive. An unambiguous declaration of those principles which could mobilize the Israeli public would constitute the required gravitational force. It would identify a particular government policy rather than the people or civil society as “an enemy”. The declaration could be made conditionally-i.e. not as a negotiating position but as a final package, and not as a permanent offer but as a last offer for two states. The Israeli public can be won over to the Palestinian side, or to a rational solution, or be made into a peace partner, and can thus be mobilized to exert its own pressure dynamic to change Israeli Government policy. 


In conclusion, then, it would seem that Palestinians are best positioned to embody the role of an Archimedean moral lever. This not only consists in replacing force by non-violence as they set about to achieve their human political objectives. It also consists in identifying what form of non-violent response to be employed would be best suited to the attainment of those objectives. While resistance tactics would seem best suited in some contexts, attraction tactics may prove more effective in other contexts. The latter draw upon two principles: that a protagonist can be transformed (that a peace partner can be made), and that the most suited agent for such transformation is none other but the second protagonist. 


Needless to say, a success achieved in the explicit employment by Palestinians of an Archimedean moral lever in their conflict with Israel should prove to be a lesson to the world. It would serve as a model in the universal effort at refining human conduct in international affairs. The Super-Powers could perhaps draw a useful lesson from such an experiment. Rather than being informed by narrowly defined notions of force and self-interest, such Powers could see how they would be better served through a peaceful and proactive intervention in international affairs that is informed by the principle of enhancing those economic and humanitarian conditions, which would bring about freedom and equality, and therefore peace and stability.