By Kevin Ovenden, March 22 2018. Background to the accusations of anti-semitism in the British Labour Party
Originally published on Kevin Ovenden’s blog
The FT yesterday published an absolutely outrageous column by Edward Luce. In it he ostensibly addresses the serious issue of anti-semitism, particularly in Donald Trump’s America, but then closely brackets Jeremy Corbyn with Trump and articulates a loose conception of anti-Jewish racism which makes it almost identical to any opposition to globalised, corporate capitalism per se.
He rightly states that “Mr Trump initially refused to disown David Duke, the pro-Nazi leader of the Ku Klux Klan. During the 2016 campaign, Trump ads demonised George Soros, a leading target of anti-Semitic campaigns from Viktor Orban’s Hungary to America’s alt-right. And he forgot to mention Jews on Holocaust remembrance day in his first week in office.”
Tellingly, he misses out Trump retweeting the fascist Britain First, whose leaders are now in prison, and its vicious anti-Muslim propaganda – something which rather undermines the thesis of the article that the Trumpist right operates solely, or largely, just through innuendo or by omission or even, in Trump’s case, possibly unwittingly.
That’s necessary for Luce then to go on to take the well worn trope of the radical left and the far right being two sides of the same coin into frankly defamatory territory by claiming that Trump and Corbyn are very similar, including in their political imagery and anti-Jewish predilections. He writes:
“But the biggest Trump effect comes from his anti-globalist imagery. Like Jeremy Corbyn, leader of Britain’s Labour party, the president has a taste for authoritarians, notably Vladimir Putin — the leading sponsor of online vitriol. Both disdain Nato, the EU and international bankers. But they differ on Israel. Mr Trump is a big fan. Mr Corbyn is one of Israel’s biggest detractors.”
Now, Cambridge Analytica with its massive targeted propaganda operation under the supervision of Steve Bannon for Trump’s campaign might contest the idea that they are not leaders in this field. And it is simply a smear to say that Corbyn has “a taste for authoritarians” – a claim promoted by the millionaire-funded far right in Britain that shares Orban’s obsession with Soros (particularly as Soros is funding efforts to overturn Brexit).
But the larger dishonesty here is the sleight of hand whereby detecting genuine anti-semitic innuendo on the right is turned into insinuating anti-semitism on the left – by a parallel and artful use of innuendo. A section of the transatlantic far right is attempting to cast the political faultline as between “globalisers” and “national identitarians”. That was the central strategic overlap between Bannon and his audience at the Front National, now Rassemblement National, conference he spoke at earlier this month in Lyons.
“Globaliser” for many of them connotes the old racist tropes of “Jewish [finance] capital” apparently loyal only unto itself and to some hidden mechanism or conspiracy at the expense of “the nations” in which it operates but of which it is not an authentic part.
But it is a logical fallacy and a political lie to claim the converse: that anyone objecting to globalised neoliberal capitalism and its negative effects, or to the overweening role of the bankers whose rampant greed was a critical proximate cause of the 2008 financial crash, is in reality harbouring an animus to Jews or is playing with anti-semitic imagery. We’ve had that smear for nearly 20 years now and from the same publications promoting neoliberal, capitalist globalisation – such as the Financial Times and the Economist.
At the beginning of the movement against corporate globalisation, of the anti-capitalist movement or of the altermondialiste movement as it was called in France, the Economistwould scarcely publish an issue without claiming that the radical farmer and environmentalist José Bové and the veteran French fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen were but two peas in a pod because both opposed McDonalds.
As rage grew on both sides of the Atlantic ten years ago over the bankers, there were some propagandists of the finance sector who tried to deflect it by claiming that the anger at what they had wrought to the economy was in reality motivated by anti-semitism or was a thinly veiled deployment of old anti-semitic tropes. It was cynical and cowardly. It was also reckless. In each case over the last two decades this ideological intervention to defend capitalism – in its globalised neoliberal phase – has in fact rested upon making the same false identification of “Jews” with finance capital, or with transnational capitalism stretching beyond the nation state, as do actual anti-semites.
Jews do not run the banking system or the few score giant transnational corporations that dominate the world economy. Attacking the role of the banks and corporations is not, therefore, attacking Jewish people.
Of course it is possible for anti-semites to conflate the two. The telltale is often a focus upon a minor investment bank such as Rothschilds (established by a Jewish family) and not major ones such as JPMorgan Chase, HSBC (the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation), Crédit Agricole, Barclays, Bank of America, Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group, Deutsche Bank…
But it is absurd to claim that when the Irish left said “burn the bondholders”, the Greek left said “nationalise the banks under workers’ control” and rupture with the euro, the British left said “jail the bankers” and the US left highlighted the outright robbery by the banks of poor Black families that they were “in reality” attacking “Jewish” finance capital.
Capitalism and finance capital
The term “finance capital” gained wide currency and was the subject of much serious theoretical work at the end of the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries among both pro-capitalist and socialist thinkers. The reason for that was the series of interconnected and rapid transformations of the capitalist system that in different combination gripped all its leading centres:
- the concentration of the units of capital into larger corporations as the bigger and stronger absorbed the smaller and weaker.
- the immense growth of the credit and finance system so that banks became not merely the lenders to productive or mercantile activity but in many cases fused in complex patterns of ownership with large firms themselves.
- the further extension of capitalist firms and relations into areas of everyday life hitherto barely touched.
- the growth of their activities beyond the borders of even the most powerful nation states.
- the projection of power abroad by those nation states in a process of inter-imperialist competition, including at that time the direct establishment of colonies in a violent and competitive process.
- relations between capitalist states becoming more and more governed by the effects of the “hidden hand” of capitalist competition fusing with inter-state competition for resources, markets and sources of extra-economic power the better to advance the growing power of the corporations they were entwined with.
For anti-capitalists, especially Marxists, this phase of the growth of “finance capital” was but an aspect of the fundamental problem of the capitalist system from the beginning. Finance capital (and with it imperialism) was not a distinct and special problem, it was an outgrowth of the deeper mischief of capitalism as a whole.
For others ranging from liberal economists to reform socialists, finance capital – the banks, to put it crudely – was an aberration. They looked to dealing with that excess and returning to what they saw as some kind of progressive or controlled capitalist expansion. For the liberal theorists that was the end of the matter; for the reform socialists it would lead inevitably to the end of the matter through an essentially evolutionary transformation of “productive capitalism” into egalitarian socialism.
Conservative elites and the radical reactionary right wing forces associated with them faced a problem. They were of (even if ultimately) the big sections of capitalism, but they had to appeal to popular layers – workers, peasants, a mass of small producers and professionals – who in all sorts of ways bridled at the effects of capitalism, even if they described those as mere “excesses”.
It is here that was laid the breeding ground for reheating and modernising old anti-semitic tropes about Jews as the “bad” form of wealth – unpatriotic and parasitic – as opposed to the “good”, national, aristocratic and “productive”. That was not a spontaneous expression of anti-capitalist sentiment. It was the product of reactionary elites trying to manipulate and disrupt the growth of, often confused but nevertheless, anti-capitalist sentiments.
It is put well in the description of the rise of the national conservative mayor of Vienna, Karl Lueger, who pioneered the use of anti-semitic ideology in mass politics at the turn of the twentieth century. It was said of him that he proceeded in the logic of his ideology and politics “from anti-capitalism, through anti-socialism, to anti-semitism”.
The critical step was his “anti-socialism”. His seeking to undermine the growing socialist left in conditions of widening anti-elite feeling propelled him to rediscover the “pseudo-anti-capitalism” of anti-Jewish racism in which the ills of society were the product not of capitalism, and with it finance capital, in general, but of “anti-national” or “cosmopolitan” Jewish capital and of Jewish people in toto.
It remains the case today that racist, nationalist and anti-semitic sentiment is not generated spontaneously out of popular rage at a capitalist system that is increasingly unequal, incapable of meeting people’s needs and careering from one disaster to another. The mechanism is, rather, reactionary forces that are at one and the same time pro-capitalist but also trying to tap anti-capitalist resentments.
Crucially, they are viscerally anti-leftist forces. Edward Luce enters fantasyland trying to equate Corbyn with Trump. He and the bereft ideologues of neoliberal capitalism hold themselves up as paragons of progressive politics. But in his anti-leftism Luce and with him other hired prize-fighters of the liberal capitalist establishment should know that they are fuelling the very Trumpist phenomenon they imagine they are refuting.
Worse, Luce is implicitly conceding the very anti-semitic imagery he implies in others. That is to ascribe or impute some “essential Jewishness” which is in someway coterminous with features of globalised capitalism, including its rapacious effects. He ends his piece examining the apparent paradox of the pro-Israel evangelicals in the US who form part of Trump’s base and also harbour all manner of anti-Jewish prejudices. He writes, “Evangelicals are politically philo-Semitic and theologically anti-Semitic. Mr Trump is their instrument.”
That holds a large measure of truth. But there is no contradiction in these apparently conflicting “philo-semitic” and “anti-semitic” ideas. The philo-semite projects an essence upon Jewish people as miraculously embodying the dizzying modern culture of global capitalism: cosmopolitan, polyglot and ever disruptive of old national traditions. The anti-semite merely takes that and replaces a moral and cultural positive sign with a negative.
Both share a common basic stereotyping. And both commit the crime against reason and all historical understanding of ascribing some racialised, ethnic essence. That’s how the same right wing Evangelicals in the US can hold such apparently conflicting positions. But it is not just them. Luce and others who see themselves as the antithesis of reaction end up echoing some of the same rubbish in their tortuous efforts to defend neoliberal capitalism from an anti-capitalist critique.
More anti-capitalism, not less.
It is possible, and frequently happens, that reaction to the most obvious depredations of capitalism stops short of a fundamental opposition to the system as a whole. The most common and influential form that takes is some variant of the reform socialist ideology of a century ago which failed in generalising the struggle for a new society, preventing this one plunging into world war and stopping the growth of fascist extensions of elite conservative reaction.
The peculiar structure of post-Empire British capitalism has often led radicals in this direction. The British economy is extraordinarily dependent on the finance sector and the City of London. They appear in national accounts as flattering how the economy is doing, but they are parasitic upon anything that could be described as a productive or sustainable organisation of economic affairs. And that produces egregious scandals – think the bankers’ bonuses lapped up in the City or Canary Wharf, when sandwiched between the two live some of the poorest people in England.
Critics ranging from the mildly Keynesian economist Will Hutton to the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm have focused upon this grotesque distortion. From the point of view of the radical left, the limitation in what they have said is not that it bashes the City of London, still less that it leads automatically to some nativist opposition to “cosmopolitan capital”. It is that it has not gone far enough and, such is its imprecision, it allowed Hutton and others to laud the turn to New Labour, which in fact further accelerated the very imbalances he railed against.
It is also true that an artificially restricted politics that focuses solely upon the “globalised” moneymen (as if the “nationally-minded” bosses were better) weakens the argument that must be made against the reactionary right trying to set social antagonisms along nationalist and racist lines.
But the two are not the same. At all. It is out of recognition of some capitalist “excess” (epitomised by the banks) that most people move in an anti-capitalist, socialist direction. That is why the economic programme put forward by Corbyn, John McDonnell and the Labour frontbench is attracting such support. For the anti-capitalist left it is a step in the right direction. For Luce and the ideologues of capitalism it portends a nightmare.
That is so obvious it is something of an asinine truism. What’s novel is that a section of the defenders of a failing capitalism is brigading false claims to represent progress in their efforts to derail a radicalising left. In so doing, they both invoke the spectre of the anti-semitic right and also do the immense disservice – crime, actually – of identifying opposition to anti-semitism with the defence of capitalism. Noticeably, they either never mention or at best downplay the even more extant and rising form of racism generated in contemporary capitalism: Islamophobia and ubiquitous state attacks upon Muslims, be it under Trump, Macron, May, Merkel or their predecessors.
In all of this, of course, they must efface the actual history of the struggle against anti-semitism, against racism in general, and that fight’s umbilical cord to the socialist movement against capitalism. We are talking not only Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, Leon Trotsky, Walter Benjamin and countless other major Jewish figures of the Marxist left. We are talking the Polish Bund, the massively disproportionate Jewish component of the Russian revolutionary movement, the very creation of the working class and revolutionary Marxist movement in Greece and much, much more.
Then as now the process inverts the logic of the anti-semitic reaction of Lueger and of what came after: from instinctual fury at aspects of capitalism, through a greater anti-capitalist understanding and its twin of anti-racism, and to international socialism.
The intervention by Luce and others aiming to sever that process is an abomination. They hold up as scarecrows the fascist right, but turn their attention to smashing the socialist left – in so doing they largely ignore racist realities and try to shore up the failing capitalist system by identifying it with the victims of the greatest racist crime in European history.
With friends like that, who needs enemies? What we need instead is more, and more thoroughgoing, anti-capitalism – not less. And upon that a revolutionary anti-racism.