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Capitalism and the Jews, by Jerry Z. Muller. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010. 267 pp. $24.95.
The relationship between capitalism and the Jews does not lend itself to easy discussion. Perhaps because the assumption that Jews were the main beneficiaries of this economic system has long been a stock trope of antisemitic writers, few contemporary scholars, particularly in the realm of Jewish studies, have taken up this important, albeit charged, topic. That is until now, as Jerry Muller, a history professor at Catholic University, presents four provocative essays in a collection which aims “to show the relevance of the experience of the Jews to the larger themes of modern European history: the development of capitalism, Communism, nationalism, and fascism” (pp. 6–7). Muller pursues this goal by delving into aspects of the real and imagined encounter of Jews with capitalism. The essays in this slim but rich volume operate on many levels: they not only tackle such basic questions concerning Jewish economic life, but also offer up interventions in Jewish history, European intellectual history and economic history through their observations on such varied topics as usury, Jewish economic success, and nationalism.
Muller’s work is a welcome addition to the growing body of scholarship in Jewish studies concerning the Jewish economic past. Sparked by the publication of Derek Penslar’s Shylock’s Children: Economics and Jewish Identity in Modern Europe (University of California Press, 2001) a decade ago, scholars of modern Jewish life began shifting economic questions from the periphery to the center of their studies. Some scholars have expanded our knowledge of the economic dimensions of Jewish life by mining new sources, such as Sarah Stein’s innovative Plumes: Ostrich Feathers, Jews, and a Lost World of Global Commerce (Yale, 2008); others have applied new lenses to oft-examined sources, raising new questions such as Jonathan Karp’s The Politics of Jewish Commerce: Economic Thought and Emancipation in Europe, 1638–1848 (Cambridge University Press, 2008) and Eli Lederhendler’s Jewish Immigrants and American Capitalism: From Caste to Class (Cambridge University Press, 2009). Taken together, these new studies offer up a dramatic new vision of both the real and imagined ways in which the economy shaped daily Jewish life and the development of Jewish culture.
Muller’s engagement with questions of Jews and the economy is primarily on the intellectual level. In the first chapter, Muller focuses on “the long shadow of usury,” as he ponders why the “Jew” as a figure has endured in modern Western social and economic thought. Drawing on thinkers as diverse as Montesquieu, Simmel, and Sombart, Muller charts how many writers in Europe came to conflate the negative stereotypes of Jews with those of capitalism’s excesses. Muller’s discussion in this chapter of the real and imagined impact of money lending on European thought and economic life is particularly useful. Money lending as a profession made Jews central to European economic expansion; it also made them despised because of the exorbitant interest rates they charged—sometimes as high as 60 percent. While on the surface, such behavior seems exploitative, as Muller points out, such rates probably made good business sense in a world where capital was scarce, and lenders frequently risked having their debtors’ obligations canceled or their own assets seized by the state. Indeed, this is just one example of the ways in which Muller’s work combines intellectual and economic history to shed new light on the topic at hand.
In the second chapter, Muller turns his attention to Jews’ lived experience of capitalism, in particular the question of Jewish economic success as once raised by the economist Milton Friedman. To be sure, it helped that Judaism, unlike many strains of Christianity, did not consider poverty particularly ennobling, but is that enough to explain Jews’ overall success in the market economy created by capitalism? Adopting a “human (or “cultural”) capital” approach, Muller traces behavioral patterns of generations of Jews who acquired a host of advantages by living in cities, pursuing education and insuring that their progeny were highly literate. Jews’ economic success, he argues, was rooted not only from this group’s ability to detect “where economic possibilities [were] opening up” but also “their willingness to abandon a declining economic sector” (p. 82). So while Muller does not embrace the idea that capitalist “values” were embedded in classical Jewish culture, he does not fully answer the question of Jewish economic success as precisely as this reader would have hoped. Indeed, it would have been appreciated if he tackled more directly what causal weight one should be attribute to Jews’ preferences, namely Jews’ habits, ideas, practices, beliefs, values, interests, and cultural assets, and what causal weight should be attributed to the structure of capitalism itself in the Europe in which they found themselves?
The book’s last two essays tackle how at the same time Jews were being imagined by some as greedy capitalists, they were also being denounced by others as dangerous Communists. Muller considers the “myth” of Jewish bolshevism as an aspect of antisemitic rhetoric, while also giving a brief account of the prominent communists of Jewish origin who surfaced in Russia, Hungary, and Germany between 1917 and the post-WWII era. In his final chapter, Muller takes on the question of capitalism and Jewish nationalism within the framework of the peculiar dilemmas of minority-group and diasporic national movements. This final chapter in Muller’s book is the shortest, treating primarily an interpretation of Ernest Gellner’s view of ethno-nationalism under modern capitalism.
Overall, Muller’s accessible and highly readable work will raise new questions for its readers as it revisits questions of Jewish economic particularlity. Through its engagement with European intellectual history, economic history, and cultural history, this volume forces the reader to rethink Jews’ complex relationship with capitalism. But, in the end, Muller’s mining of the sources in this volume also leaves the reader with many troubling insights about antisemitism as well. For centuries, poverty, paranoia, and financial illiteracy have combined into a dangerous brew—one that has made economic virtuosity look suspiciously akin to a social vice.