The modern history of the Jews is deeply intertwined with the history of capitalism. My book tries, in a brief compass, to show the many facets of this relationship.
The way in which capitalism itself was interpreted by modern Western thinkers and political movements was often influenced by the linkage between Jews and commerce—a linkage going back to the medieval Christian stigmatization of usury and the Jews’ role as lenders of money.
Historically, the way in which Jews were viewed by non-Jews was often linked to the Jews’ economic roles, and to broader ideas about the benefits and evils of commerce. The ways in which Jews understood themselves was also linked to their reactions to modern capitalism. The varieties of modern Jewish politics—liberal, socialist, communist, and Zionist—can only be understood in relationship to capitalist development and its effects on the Jews.
In the space of a short book, I try to give the reader a variety of angles from which to think about the ways in which the history of capitalism and the history of the Jews have been interlinked.
“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.”
My previous book, The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Modern European Thought, examined how modern European intellectuals thought about commerce. Writing it, I recognized that the way modern European thinkers viewed commerce was often linked to the way they thought about Jews.
I wanted to explore that theme in greater depth—and that became my new book’s the first chapter, “The Long Shadow of Usury: Capitalism and the Jews in Modern European Thought.”
This first chapter begins by explaining the significance of the concept of “usury” in western thought, and then examines the ways in which modern European thinkers—including Montesquieu, Voltaire, Marx, Sombart, Weber, Simmel, Hayek and Keynes thought about the linkages between capitalism and the Jews.
The second chapter “The Jewish Response to Capitalism,” takes up a claim by Milton Friedman that Jews were among the major beneficiaries of capitalism, but among its most persistent antagonists. Drawing together a good deal of scattered historical and social scientific research, the chapter examines the historical reasons while Jews tended to do disproportionately well in capitalist societies, when they were granted a modicum of legal equality—a theme that Friedman ignored.
In this chapter, I also show that Jews’ actual intellectual and political allegiances were more varied than Friedman let on. Jews have been among the most articulate defenders of capitalism as well as among its most vociferous critics.
The third chapter, “Radical Anticapitalism: The Jew as Communist,” examines the still underexplored phenomenon of Jewish salience in Communist movements. It shows that while few Jews were in fact communists, Jewish communists rose to positions of great salience in communist movements—often with disastrous effects, not least because the myth of the Jew as Bolshevik contributed to anti-Semitism on the political right.
The last chapter, “The Economics of Nationalism and the Fate of the Jews in Twentieth-Century Europe” examines the ways in which the very success of Jews in emerging capitalist societies could lead to envy, resentment, and the attempt to extrude them from the nation states of modern Europe. This chapter thus explains the role of economic processes in creating Zionism, perhaps the most important expression of modern Jewish politics.
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.
“Jews have been among the most articulate defenders of capitalism as well as among its most vociferous critics.”
Capitalism and the Jews tries to make historical and social scientific sense of patterns in modern history that for a variety of reasons tend to be neglected by social scientists.
I draw upon a range of social sciences, and try to bring together the work of many historians who have dealt with one or another of the history of the economic, social, political and cultural histories of the Jews. Yet I deliberately wrote so that the book would be accessible to a broad educated public.
In a brief book, Capitalism and the Jews covers a great deal of historical ground—ranging from medieval Europe, to contemporary America and Israel.
Jerry Z. Muller is professor of history and chair of the Department of History at the Catholic University of America in Washington DC. He studied at Brandeis University, Hebrew University, and Columbia University. Besides Capitalism and the Jews and The Tyranny of Metrics, featured in his two Rorotoko interviews, his books include Adam Smith in His Time and Ours (Princeton, 1995) and The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in European Thought (Knopf, 2002). Muller’s essays and articles have appeared in Foreign Affairs, The New Republic, The Wall Street Journal, The Times Literary Supplement, and many other publications.