Jerry Z. Muller


On his book Capitalism and the Jews

Cover Interview of June 14, 2010

A close-up

The book’s introduction is titled “Thinking about Jews and Capitalism.”

Capitalism has been the most important force in shaping the fate of the Jews in the modern world. Of course, one could plausibly argue that it has been the most important force in shaping the fate of everyone in the modern world.  But Jews have had a special relationship with capitalism, for they have been particularly good at it.  Not all of them, of course.  But, whenever they have been allowed to compete on an equal legal footing, they have tended to do disproportionately well.  This has been a blessing—and a curse.

Jews have been a conspicuous presence in the history of capitalism, both as symbol and as reality. Yet the relationship of the Jews to capitalism has received less attention than its significance merits.

The encounter of the Jews with capitalism confounds disciplinary boundaries: it is the stuff of economic history as well of social history, of political history as well as cultural history, of the history of business, but also of the family and the nation-state.  But there are other reasons for the relative neglect of the topic as well.  Discussions of Jews and capitalism touch upon neuralgic subjects.

For Jews, Jewish economic success has long been a source of both pride and embarrassment.  For centuries, Jewish economic success led anti-Semites to condemn capitalism as a form of Jewish domination and exploitation, or attributed Jewish success to unsavory qualities of the Jews themselves.  The anti-Semitic context of such discussions led Jews to downplay the reality of their economic achievement—except in internal conversations.  Moreover, for most people, the workings of advanced capitalist economies are opaque and difficult to comprehend.

When economic times are bad and people are hurting, some inevitably search for a more easily grasped, concrete target on which to pin their ill fortunes.  That target has often been the Jews.  Even today, some Jews regard the public discussion of Jews and capitalism as intrinsically impolitic, as if conspiratorial fantasies about Jews and money can be eliminated by prudent silence.

For economists and economic historians, the extent to which modern capitalism has been shaped by premodern cultural conceptions and cultural predispositions is a source of puzzlement at best.  It simply doesn’t fit into the categories in which contemporary economic historians who have adopted the armature of econometrics are predisposed to think.

In recent decades, economists have added the concept of “human capital” to their kitbag, by which they mean the characteristics that make for economic success.  But they prefer to think of it in terms of measurable criteria such as years of schooling.  To the extent that human capital involves character traits and varieties of know-how that are not provided by formal education, it becomes methodologically elusive.

Much of the reality of economic history, and of the Jewish role within it, is bound to elude those who proceed on the tacit premise that “if you can’t count it, it doesn’t count.”  For liberals, the reality of differential group achievement under conditions of legal equality is something of a scandal, an affront to egalitarian assumptions.  For nationalists, the fact that modern nationalism had fateful consequences for the Jews precisely because the Jews were so good at capitalism was itself a source of embarrassment.  For all these reasons, the exploration of Jews and capitalism has tended to be left to apologists, ideologues, and anti-Semites.