Fredrik Meiton, Electrical Palestine: Capital and Technology from Empire to Nation (University of California Press, 2019).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Fredrik Meiton (FM): When I received my basic training as a historian in the early 2000s, everyone seemed to be writing about what was in people’s heads. Group identities, like nationality and gender, were particularly important to Middle East historians. I learned a lot from that literature, including how to be a historian. But when it came time to pick a dissertation topic, I wanted to try something different. The idea of writing the history of Palestine’s electric grid came from browsing the Palestinian newspaper, Filastin, the largest Arabic-language publication of the mandate period. An editorial from 1932 asserted that “if Rutenberg electricity lights the city of Nablus and Tulkarm one can say that Rutenberg and his works have conquered that land.” Pinhas Rutenberg was the Russian Zionist and engineer who founded and ran the Palestine Electric Corporation, and this Palestinian observer clearly saw grid expansion as synonymous with Zionist conquest. The fascination his words sparked carried me through the whole project, from prospectus, to dissertation, to book. It also led me to the discovery that modern Palestine was profoundly shaped by its power system: its borders were drawn to include sources of power generation; and it was on the strength of Rutenberg’s vision that capitalists around the world began to envision Palestine as an industrial hub and conduit for East-West trade, the historical antecedent of Israel’s current self-branding as the Start-Up Nation.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
FM: Electrical Palestine is an attempt to explore the importance of the material world. Although I was not conscious of it when I initially designed the project, I now see it as part of a larger wave of matter-minded historians of the Middle East and elsewhere. Most historians, though of course not all, treat the material world as a function of immaterial things. Even when looking at phenomena with a clear material component, like a bureaucracy or army, the causal direction is often narrated as one-way: from idea to material manifestation. My book makes the case that the relationship runs both ways. In Science and Technology Studies (STS), this is often referred to as “coproduction,” and it is an integral part of that field’s conceptual arsenal. STS, however, has been dominated by European and American cases, and a tendency to privilege questions of epistemology over questions of political power. By offering an account of the material mediation of political power in the context of ethnic conflict, you gain a new understanding of both the conceptual tools and the conflict. Instead of colonial officials and local political leaders, you see engineers and capitalists deploying a putatively apolitical expertise for political ends—ends which were reinforced, in turn, as the system achieved technological momentum.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
FM: This is my first book, so the departure consists in now having work from which I hope to depart in the future.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
FM: The book is a product of my unfocused reading habits. I have been deeply inspired by STS and subaltern scholars, political economists, critical geographers, and historians of the Middle East, the environment, empire, as well as the history and philosophy of science and technology. I would be thrilled if my jerry-rigged amalgam could offer some insight in return to scholars in any or all of those fields.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
FM: My most consuming project right now is figuring out how to be a good teacher. I think I have made some progress over the last few years, but the room for improvement remains considerable. I have also been spending time getting a footing in economic theory and the chemical industry.
J: What role does capitalism play in your story?
FM: The book is not framed as a history of capitalism, but “capital” and its derivatives appear often in the text. This was only partially the result of conscious choice. In the writing process, the book grew into what I have come to think of as a case study of how power relations are configured under capitalism. At the planning stage, Rutenberg constructed a conceptual apparatus for his project that rendered it impervious to criticism, because he portrayed it as an extension of nature’s innate logic. To side against his work was equated to a rejection of scientific reason. “Politics are the enemy of industry,” as Louis Bols, Palestine’s chief administrator, told a gathering of Arab dignitaries in 1920. Once construction got underway, that same logic prescribed a division of labor that allocated skilled tasks to Jews and unskilled tasks to Arabs, thus lining up ethnicity with class. By the time of the Great Arab Revolt in the late 1930s, the conceptual apparatus and labor division had been joined by a technological system whose massive physical presence locked in and deepened the power relations inherent in the grid. The workings of capital and technology, then, quashed the rising, neutralized Palestinian opposition, and paved the way for Jewish statehood and Palestinian statelessness. Yet the most important waypoints of this story are not even recognizable as “political” in the traditional sense. They say all history is contemporary history. It is probably no coincidence that I wrote this story in New York City in the years immediately following the 2008 financial crisis.
Excerpt from the book
Chapter 1: Expert Revolutionary
The motive force behind electrical Palestine was Pinhas Rutenberg. To many, he appeared as the Platonic embodiment of the iron-willed builder. Right angles on a squat frame topped by a shock of charcoal hair, gimlet gray eyes set narrowly behind round wire-rimmed glasses. According to his biographer Eli Shaltiel, Rutenberg’s legacy stands as the man who “single-handedly effected a mighty technological revolution that changed Palestine beyond recognition.” Winston Churchill once described him as “a man of exceptional ability and personal force.” Rutenberg was unapologetically authoritarian, and many remarked on it. One American Zionist complained to another that Rutenberg had “so little experience in the democratic world of give and take” that he was “all but unmanageable.” Yet, he confided, “I cannot help admiring his courage, vision and limitless energy.” Chaim Weizmann, the long-standing president of the Zionist Organization and first president of Israel, looked at Rutenberg and saw a “tremendous turbine harnessed to a single great purpose.” In short, so intimately linked was Rutenberg with his power system that to observers he was electric power. In both Hebrew and Arabic, his name was soon used interchangeably with the charged particles of his grand venture. “Electricity has two names in the Holy Land,” Popular Mechanics told its readers in 1930. “One is ‘hashmal,’ mentioned in Ezekiel . . . and the second name is ‘rutenberg.’” In Arabic, rutenberg was a word no less pregnant with meaning. In the mid-1930s, for instance, the Palestinian Arab newspaper al-Difa’ would charge those who wanted “to introduce Rutenberg in Nablus” with having “surrendered to imperialism and Zionism.”
Rutenberg was born in 1879 in the small town of Romani in the Poltava District of the Russian Empire. His family belonged to the town’s large segment of well-heeled Jewish merchants. As a young child, he attended a Jewish primary school for traditional religious learning (heder). His aptitude for math convinced his parents to send him to a secular gymnasium, from which he graduated to the prestigious St. Petersburg Polytechnic Institute in the capital. This set the young Rutenberg apart from the great majority of Eastern European Jews, who were barred from higher education on account of the discriminatory numerus clausus in force on Jewish admissions since 1887.
The curriculum of the St. Petersburg Polytechnic Institute was composed of a mix of theoretical and applied sciences on a model that had begun to dominate technological thinking across the industrialized and industrializing worlds. The institute was founded in 1902 at the prompting of Dmitri Mendeleev—he of the periodic table—and constituted an early attempt to deal with the Russian Empire’s failure to sustain the economic growth of the 1890s. Russia needed a skilled workforce with practical knowledge of economics, statistics, technology, and “scientific” management. The school’s great strength was the curriculum’s innovative blend of various technical and theoretical skills, always with an eye to practical application. Economics and engineering each had a division of its own—a first for economics, which had traditionally been adjuncted to law faculties. The institute soon emerged as the flagship institution in a countrywide network of polytechnical institutes.
The divisions mixed not only with each other but also with the humanities. The institute’s students were trained to think in terms of large integrative systems, seamlessly linking economic, technical, and social issues, steered by small groups of trained experts. The combination of practical economics with mathematical and statistical training ensured that the students graduated to a world of abundant opportunity. They were in high demand in both government and business, and later became the makers of the central planning that would develop into the hallmark of Soviet economic policy, though it clearly had pre-Communist as well as non-Russian precedents. The graduates of the institute moved nimbly across the borders of academic disciplines, as well as those of nations. They spoke foreign languages—the most common being German and English—and read journals from America, Britain, Germany, France, and elsewhere, and worked all over the European continent and beyond.
Whether in Russia or abroad, electricity formed an important part of their work, and the institute’s old-boy network has been characterized as a “kind of electrician’s mafia.” The great importance of electrification can also be gleaned from the popular culture of the time. The cult of “Ilich’s lightbulbs,” referring to Lenin’s given name, soon evolved into a mass movement, so much so that in the 1920s Elektrifikatsiia became a popular girls’ name. But most of all, electricity’s importance shone through in Bolshevik statecraft. In Russia, as elsewhere, electrification was considered the linchpin of industrial advancement after World War I. In February 1920, the Council of People’s Commissars created the State Commission for the Electrification of Russia (GOELRO) plan. It was the first economic plan of Bolshevik rule and became the prototype for the subsequent Five-Year Plans. The GOELRO plan—whose importance was underscored by its informal sobriquet, “the second party program”—was the cornerstone of the project to industrialize the country. Developed at the same time as Rutenberg’s venture in Palestine, the plan envisioned building thirty regional power plants, including ten large hydroelectric stations. Although Rutenberg had fled Russia by then, the training he received at the Polytechnic Institute profoundly influenced his work and taught him the importance of moving fluidly between the worlds of technology, economics, and politics.
This should give us enough background to begin sketching who Rutenberg was to electrical Palestine. First and foremost, he was a highly skilled engineer of heterogeneous systems. He thought holistically, in terms of overall system health and growth, even before all the necessary components were in place. He did not invent or innovate, and he cared little for the cutting edge. Instead, he worked with battle-tested tools and devices, whether technologically, by running the industry-standard, three-phase alternating current through his wires, or by promoting his project by speaking to such colonial hobbyhorses as the profligate native and the white man’s burden, and racial stereotypes, such as Jews’ financial acumen, Ottoman degeneracy, and Arab backwardness. His overall vision was firm but also vague. In this, Rutenberg belonged to an international tribe of entrepreneurial engineers who constructed and managed complex, integrated, centrally controlled technological systems, by applying grease where grease was needed, whether the nature of the friction was technical, social, economic, or political. He was, in a word, a systems entrepreneur. Success depended on situating his system so as to make it viable across the different domains with which it came into contact. As a systems entrepreneur, Rutenberg faced the challenge of transferring and adapting international technologies of proven effectiveness to local conditions, which involved communicating about one’s project so that it seemed not just desirable but indispensable to whoever was listening at the moment, and so that the project appeared as the solution to the most pressing problems of the day, whatever those problems may be. This, as Rutenberg well knew, was crucially about presenting a solution so attractive that it helped define the problem to be solved.