The cinema constantly reminds us of the enduring role of gangsters in our popular culture. The other day I saw Casino, a drawn-out remake of Goodfellas, where Joe Pesci reprises his now-classic exemplification of ruthless violence. Physical violence exercised by one human being on another affects us because we can easily identify with both victim and perpetrator; we play at being the latter as a defense against seeing ourselves in the place of the former. But what fascinates in the phenomenon of gangsterism is its plausibility as a mode of social organization. Watching films like The Godfather, we find ourselves in a world where a small number of ruthless, well-organized conspirators are able to bend peaceful, productive individuals like ourselves to their will. The striking images of our vulnerability to the mob secretly present in our midst make us realize the fragility of our everyday world. These images are part of popular rather than high culture; the moment of crisis they evoke is not that of individual decision but of mass panic. With the intriguing exception of Pulp Fiction, none of these films turns on an individual decision for good or evil; they portray an alternate world that we can react to only en masse, whether in affirmation or revulsion.

Reflecting on gangsterism as a model of the social order, one realizes that many societies operate under something very like gangland rule.  Hitler‘s or Lenin-Stalin‘s terror tactics are hardly redeemed by their dependence on ideology. So-called guerilla groups like the Sendero Luminoso or the recently newsworthy Tupac Amaru are little more than criminal bands who use revolution as a fig-leaf for extortion and drug-dealing. The Maffia itself was once a Sicilian national liberation movement, but the mystique of its American branch depends on its indifference to any ostensibly redeeming political goal. For gangsterism as a social model is not quite an end in itself; as soon as it aspires to power, in the form of the totalitarian police state, it cannot function without recreating the sacred as a political ideology.

This ideology may be as elaborate as Marxism–or as simple as antisemitism. For the antisemite, the Jews are far more dangerous than the Mafia, because the “violence” they are presumed to exercise is invisible. One can imagine other conspiratorial groups seeking to control the world–cf. Robert Ludlum or the James Bond films–but the Jews are the group of choice, the only one accused seriously and persistently on a large scale. Even countries like Japan, where Jews are virtually unknown, regularly reprint the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.


Explanations of antisemitism that start with the idea, developed in Jean-Paul Sartre‘s Réflexions sur la question juive (1947), that the Jews are arbitrarily chosen scapegoats defined only by their Otherness to the persecuting majority, miss the essential point that it is the historical exemplarity of the Jews, the refusers of the human Mediator, that explains the phenomenon of antisemitism, not the reverse. The world offers plenty of genocidal hatreds and actual genocides to choose from, but the role of the Jews is unique, and this uniqueness makes antisemitism an inevitable temptation. We owe this understanding to the unusual respite obtained by the Holocaust, which now appears to be coming to an end.

Although there were once many Jewish gangsters, the gangster image is associated not with Jews but with Italians (and lately with the Black inner-city gangsta). The gangster is a romantic figure because his violence, although generally latent, remains close to the surface; he manipulates reality through immediate control of life and death. In contrast, the Jew, in the typical stereotype, manipulates the world through the most abstract of social mediations–money.  The Jew does not engage in violence; he relies on the state to enforce his claims. This is his weakness, one exploited in antisemitic scenarios from Marlowe and Shakespeare to Der Jude Süss. Once the good citizens become aware of the Jew‘s secret manipulations, they can easily be rid of him. He survives only through the ignorance of the guardians of the social order, who fail to see that he is an exception to the social contract, a parasite on the body politic.

 The Jew is not in some undefined sense a scapegoat for the larger society’s frustrations. He serves as a model of the inexistent and unfigurable center of the market system. The gangster, a representative of past immediacy, is a living reproach to the mediated world of the market; the Jew, having rejected the Incarnation, incarnates the truly unincarnatable–mediation itself. Gangsters short-circuit the mediations of market society, extorting, as Pesci does in Casino, money from those who seek to conquer the world through the marketplace, but whose reliance on the intrinsic peacefulness of the market leads them to forget the human potential for violence that underlies all social organization.

When the antisemite calls the Jew a monster, he tempts us to return the accusation upon the accuser. But sacrificial thinking, even in its victimary inversion, remains within the world of ritual violence. If the horror inflicted by history’s most virulent embodiment of gangsterism on the powerless Jews has served any historical purpose, it should have taught us the danger inherent in sacrificial categories that regress from the reality of the market system. In the postritual world of market exchange, the Jew is a paradoxical construction who regulates the self-regulating market, who fixes the prices determined by the interaction of supply and demand; we must eliminate him to gain control over this “inhuman” mechanism. But the only ways to exercise this control are either to abandon the mechanism altogether and run the economy from the center, creating in the name of Socialism what Marx himself called oriental despotism, or to empower a ruthless political entity to extort from the market what it desires. In either case, we have replaced the Jew with the gangster.

Casino, like Goodfellas, is a story of the Italian Mafia seen through the eyes of an outsider, who survives while true believer Pesci is destroyed by the real masters of the violence he thought he controlled. But the new twist is that the outsider is a Jew, who outlives not only Pesci but the demise of Mafia control over the Las Vegas casinos. The car bomb Rothstein-De Niro survives can, with a little imagination, be likened to the Holocaust; chastened, the Jewish spirit of the market lives on in the professional gambler, the eternal outsmarter of the odds. Some might read this as a story of Jewish success, or at least of Jewish survival; I wonder if it isn’t an updated version of the Jew, the uncanny manipulator of mediations, the monstrous soul of the soulless market.