The following reflections on antisemitism emerged from my course European Studies 102 and were developed in a recent talk to the UCLA Center for the Study of Religion.

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What is most paradoxical about antisemitism is that the ancient hostility to Jews in the Christian and Moslem worlds is easier for us to understand than the virulent modern form that played so huge and horrible a role in European politics between 1879 (the first attestation of the word itself) and 1945. That a small and relatively powerless fraction of the population could become the obsessive focus of major political movements cannot be explained by either traditional suspicions or a universal need for scapegoats.

My explanation for this anomaly is that modern antisemitism coincides with the rise of the mature market system and was the means through which came to be expressed and discharged the tensions of this singular historical moment of whose importance not even Karl Marx was fully aware. Human life may be filled with problems, but it is the problems of human interaction that the most fundamental mechanisms of human culture are designed to solve. Just as explaining the origin of religion by “primitive man”‘s awe of natural phenomena misunderstands the critical danger to humanity posed by its own potential for mimetic violence, so the explanation of antisemitism as a generalized panacea for social ills neglects the chief potential source of mimetic violence at the time of its emergence.

The originary scene of culture responds to the need to defer the violence generated by mimetic rivalry for a central object. The “scene” of antisemitism answers a new version of this need, driven by the dominant form of human interaction in the late nineteenth century: the emerging modern market system. The difference between the old occasional anti-Judaism and the new obsessive antisemitism reflects the shift from a set of punctual disasters, typified by the Black Plague of 1348, to the ongoing problem posed by the modern free market. In the first case, the Jews were conceived as diabolical subverters of the Christian world order; in the second, the Jews were seen as the masters of a diabolical new order that held sway over the captive nations of Christianity.

Marx, the earliest and greatest theoretician cum practitioner of antisemitism, makes this association clear in his early pamphlet On the Jewish Question (an 1844 “review article” of a book by the same name by the Young Hegelian Bruno Bauer):

The Jew has emancipated himself in the Jewish fashion not only by acquiring money power but through money’s having become (with him or without him) the world power and the Jewish spirit’s having become the practical spirit of the Christian peoples. The Jews have emancipated themselves to the extent that Christians have become Jews.Money is the zealous one God of Israel, beside which no other God may stand. Money degrades all the gods of mankind and turns them into commodities…. Money is the essence of man’s life and work, which have become alienated from him. This alien monster rules him and he worships it.

The God of the Jews has become secularized and is now a worldly God. The bill of exchange is the Jew’s real God.

Jewry reaches its peak with the perfection of bourgeois society, but bourgeois society reaches perfection only in the Christian world. Only under the rule of Christianity, which externalizes all human relationships… could bourgeois society isolate itself entirely from the life of the state, destroy all those bonds that link man as a species, replace them with egotism and the demands of private interest…

Christianity sprang from Judaism; it has now dissolved itself back into Judaism…

Christianity is the sublime thought of Judaism, Judaism is the everyday practical application of Christianity. But this application could become universal only after Christianity had been theoretically perfected as the religion of self-alienation of man, from himself and from nature.

Only then could Jewry become universally dominant and turn alienated man and alienated nature into alienable, salable objects, subject to the serfdom of egotistical needs and to usury.

The social emancipation of Jewry is the emancipation of society from Jewry. (tr. Dagobert Runes)

The Jew, in Marx’s terms, converts Christendom to his “religion,” the market system. Marx’s neo-Hegelian analysis of the Judeo-Christian dialectic is not without subtlety. The triumph of “Judaism” is only possible after the prior triumph of “Christianity”: the creation of the modern market as a generalized system of exchange is only possible once worldly goods could be conceived of as alienated from the essence of the individual agent. (Marx conceives this alienation as an illusory substitution of the abstract soul for the material body rather than as an affirmation of the primacy of the ethical over the appetitive.) Only with the transcendence of sacrificial mediation could men detach themselves sufficiently from the specificity of material “compactness” (to use Eric Voegelin‘s term) to conceive of goods as exchange values. The Jews, dixit Max Weber, did not play a major role in the evolution of modern capitalism; their mastery of money did not make them the original source of European capital. But at the moment when capitalism began in earnest, when, after the French Revolution, the market-system replaced the old ritual hierarchy as the central institution of the modern nation-state, the Jew appeared suspiciously at home in this system because he alone was able to retain the values of community within the social alienation of market exchange. The Jew appeared not merely the master but the Subject of the decentered and increasingly international market system because he seemed able to live en famille within an exchange-system that defined itself against the “natural” human community of the nation-state.

The existence of the Jew permitted those threatened by the market system to conceive its “invisible hand” as the instrument of a hidden human volition. With the replacement of the Old Regime‘s centralized hierarchy by a decentered system of exchange, the King as the visible Subject of the community is replaced by the Jew as the imaginary Subject of the economy. The extraordinary importance of antisemitism during the maturing phase of the market system reflects the importance of this transition. Modernity is better understood as the result of the growing domination of exchange than of the decline of ritual into “secularization.” Nietzsche’s “death of God” and the other fin-de-siècle metaphors of decadent centrality are cultural figures of the decentralization of the modern exchange-system. But the dead God of the former ritual order could be replaced by the diabolical figure of the Jew.

The old ritual anti-Judaism condemned the Jew as the killer of Christ, heedless of the superior Christian intuition (powerfully developed by Girard) that all humanity, including his own disciples, had forsaken Jesus on the Cross. The continued existence of the Jew was the test of true Christianity because to imitate Christ is to forgive all men as his murderers, not only those who have learned to admit their guilt. Similarly, under the market system, the Jew is designated the Subject of a process for which all are equally responsible. But what accounts for the greater virulence of modern antisemitism is that this new “crime” is not a specific violent act but the dominant form of social interaction. The modern antisemite fears not that the criminal will escape unpunished but that the entire society has become his victim. Like Gulliver immobilized by the Lilliputians’ threads, the “Aryan” has been enslaved by the “Semite”; will he awaken before it is too late? The title of the first major French work of antisemitism, Alphonse Toussenel’s Les Juifs rois de l’époque (1845) is typical of the genre, as is the later Les Juifs nos maîtres. Edouard Drumont‘s best-seller La France juive refers not to the Jewish part of France but to France as a whole in the hands of the Jews. In an 1886 campaign poster for the National Assembly, the cartoonist Adolphe Willette exhorts: “The Jews are great only because we are on our knees. 50,000 alone benefit from the constant and hopeless work of 30,000,000 French slaves” (Robert Byrnes – Antisemitism in Modern France (1950)). These apparently hallucinatory visions of Jewish power, which would be reinforced after World War I with the worldwide distribution of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, can be explained only by the fact that the Jews were accused of controlling a process that no subject in fact controls, the market.

The paroxysm of antisemitism, the Holocaust, marks the end of the era in which communal uniformity could be conceived as the solution to the problems of the marketplace. During the four decades of Cold War between the end of World War IIand the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Communism still held out an illusory hope of transcendence of the market system. Few Western intellectuals followed Hannah Arendt‘s prescient assimilation of Nazism and Communism to a single “totalitarian” model; most persisted, and many persist even today, in maintaining hope for a socialist transcendence of the “capitalist” exchange system. The horror of the Holocaust had made it appear that what had to be overcome was nationalist compactness rather than the entire utopian-socialist dream of returning from the impersonal system of market exchange to a fraternal politico-economic community. The responses to the Holocaust in the form of liberation movements that ended colonialism and officially sanctioned racism were often seen as steps in direction of socialism rather than as expressions of faith in the reciprocal interaction embodied in the market system. It took forty more years to discover that the most useful model of national liberation was not the Russian but the American Revolution.

The greater longevity of Communism despite its economic inferiority to Nazism is no mere accident of history. The requirements for Cold War military spending put an end to the Soviet Union; Nazi Germany itself began the hot war that was to destroy it. Only in the urgency of war is antisemitism a possible remedy for the alienation of the market-system. The modern state created to annihilate modernity must project its contradictions outside itself. In order to preserve the “compact” exchange economy from the “cosmopolitan” temptations of modern consumption, the single mission of war in the name of racial purification had to replace the plural desires of self-definition that the peacetime consumer market serves. Once hostility to the market system had been concentrated on the Jews as its “bacterial” carrier, the German economy itself could function only as a means to their destruction.

If the Holocaust is the defining moment of postmodernity, mature postmodern self-consciousness required that we be convinced that the market must endure, that the imperfection of Gesellschaft will always remain preferable to the nightmare of restored Gemeinschaft. Once we understand that the only alternative to the market decisions of the general population are those of a tyrannical elite, we can concentrate our political efforts within the market system rather than awaiting the demise of “late capitalism.”

By designating the Jews as the Subject of the market, the antisemite makes them its Antisubject, those whom the exchange-system exists in order to despoil, exploit, and annihilate. But for any party to play the Subject role in earnest is to wreck the system altogether. The “death of the Subject” that is the core conviction of postmodernity refers not to the end of individual responsibility for one’s actions but to the illusiveness of the Subject position in the sphere of social interaction.