Capitalism is not a Jewish conspiracy

This article is part of Fightback’s “What is Capitalism” series, to be collected in an upcoming magazine issue. To support our work, consider subscribing to our e-publication ($20 annually) or magazine ($60 annually). You can subscribe with PayPal or credit card here.

Stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before. In a 2012 Facebook post, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn defended a mural by New York artist Mear One. The mural depicted a cabal of bankers ruling the world. More recently in 2018, the post was dredged up to prove Corbyn’s anti-Semitism. He quickly apologised, saying he had not paid the mural close enough attention.

What is notable here is not the original event itself, nor Corbyn’s personal views. The issue is the failure of many on the left to detect anti-Semitic tropes. During the controversy, Corbynistas took to Facebook in droves to argue the mural was in fact legitimate anti-capitalism.

Corbyn’s defenders argued that anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism. However, the mural had no references to either Palestine or Israel – the only useful definition of modern political ‘Zionism’ refers to the state of Israel, not Jewish people in general. Equating Jewish people with Israel is the preferred method of two counterposed groups: Zionists and anti-Semites. Many Jewish people do not support the actions of the Israeli state. The Palestinian cause, like the socialist cause, is discredited by any association with anti-Semitism. There is no good reason to bring up Israel when discussing Mear One’s mural.

Moreover, the mural deployed uncomfortable anti-Semitic tropes. The artist presents a circle of large-nosed financiers, conspiring to rule the world, with an Illuminati symbol in the background. Before analysing this image, it’s worth noting some tropes of anti-Semitism: Jewish people are often depicted with big noses, and as a financial elite conspiring to rule the world.

The use of an Illuminati pyramid is the first obvious clue, reflecting a conspiracy theorist mindset. The noses of the conspirators are also larger than life. The six historical figures sitting around the table are an “elite banker cartel” in the artist’s words, but there are no capitalists from other industries – factory owners, or farmers, tend to get a free pass in the conspiracy theorist mindset – whereas finance capitalists are depicted as a separate race of leeches preying on the productive national economy. The artist includes Baron Rothschild, a significant dog-whistle, representing a Jewish family whose influence in the 21st century is wildly overstated by conspiracy theorists.1 To simplify, compare Mear One’s mural with the Polish Nazi poster below: six large-nosed figures framed by a Star of David, sitting around a table which crushes the global majority (Polish text translates to ‘Soviet Pyramid’). This is not, to put it lightly, an artistic legacy anyone should want to be associated with.

Mear One mural

anti semitic

Australasia’s political culture isn’t immune to these memes. New Zealand’s former Prime Minister John Key, who had a Jewish background, was repeatedly caricatured with a large nose in political cartoons. Dumping the subtlety, some charming individual decided to graffiti the word “Lying Jew Motherfucker” on a Key billboard. There are many good reasons to dislike John Key – his Jewish background is not one.

Although Aotearoa’s billboard defacement is a particularly overt example, subtler forms of anti-Semitism pervade conspiracy theorist accounts of capitalism. If you will forgive an extended quote, Matt Bolton and Frederick Harry Pitts explain the problem with conspiracy theorist anti-Semitism well:

[A] critique of capitalism which focuses only on the machinations of the “1 per cent” fails to understand how fundamentally capitalist social relations shape the way in which we live – capitalists and bankers included. It does not grasp the extent to which “real” industrious production and intangible “abstract” finance are inextricably entwined. The pursuit of profit is not a choice in capitalism, but a compulsion. Failing to do so leads to bankruptcy, starvation and death. Nor are banks and the international financial sector an unproductive parasitical outgrowth undermining the vitality of the “real” national economy. They are that economy’s precondition.

The results of this incessant pursuit of profit, facilitated by the global movement of money, are by no means equal, and to that extent Corbyn and his supporters are right to highlight the widespread economic disparities in society. Indeed, the danger of conspiratorial thinking on the left is that it does in some ways “reflect a critical impulse”, a suspicion about the world and its forms of power.

It is also why, as the sociologist David Hirsh has argued, anti-Semitism can present itself as a progressive and emancipatory force, a valiant attempt to rid the world of the evils dragging it down. It replicates the way that anti-migrant racism has become a sign of one’s commitment to a downtrodden “white working class” in the aftermath of Brexit.

Therefore to dismiss the existence of anti-Semitism on the left as a minor problem compared with that of the right is to fail to heed the risks that the two forms can, on occasion, complement each other. A critique of capitalism based on the need to eradicate “globalism” is politically ambiguous at best, able to be utilised by the far-right as easily as the left.

What this lapse from critical to conspiracy theory suggests is that the anti-Semitic tropes which pervade the Corbyn-supporting “alt-media” and activist base, as well as Corbyn’s own dubious brand of “anti-Zionism” and “anti-imperialism”, are not mere contingencies, but the logical outcome of the movement’s morally-charged, personalised critique of capitalism as conspiracy.

This has implications for how Labour addresses the current crisis. The specificity of left anti-Semitism arises partly from a foreshortened critical impulse imbued with a racism that punches upward, rather than down. Building an alternative therefore requires much more than expulsions of “pockets” within the Labour Party.

What is needed is a commitment to education and consciousness-raising capable of replacing bad critiques with good – and Corbyn showed yesterday that he might be prepared to lead from the front. The work of [Jewish Marxist theorist Moishe Postone] would be an excellent place to begin. What it shows is that, if Corbyn is as serious as he says he is about militant opposition to anti-Semitism, his worldview as it is may not survive intact. Rather, it must be radically revised and rethought.2

At a glance, Mear One’s mural could be mistaken for anti-capitalism, and that is precisely the problem. Most capitalists are not Jewish, and most Jewish people are not capitalists: fixation on a minority of Jewish bankers is a dangerous diversion. In a NZ context, locally owned ‘productive’ agricultural companies Talley’s and Fonterra are as craven as any finance company, so the focus on ‘international bankers’ would be a diversion even without the dog-whistle. As socialists, we need to be able to clearly identify and distance ourselves from anti-Semitic tropes, especially those in ‘left’ garb. Perhaps anti-Semites are just bad apples, but the origin of that metaphor goes: one bad apple spoils the bunch.

Those who followed the Corbyn anti-Semitism row are likely aware of the happy ending [Ed Note: this was written before the recent debate over the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism]. Corbyn attended a seder held by Jewdas, a Jewish radical group. As far-right rag the Daily Mail3 reported in shocked tones, those in attendance held beetroots in the air and cried:

FUCK CAPITALISM!”4

1Brian Dunning, Deconstructing the Rothschild Conspiracy, Skeptoid https://skeptoid.com/episodes/4311

2 Matt Bolton and Frederick Harry Pitts, To combat left anti-semitism Corbynism must change the way it sees the world, NewStatesman https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2018/03/combat-left-anti-semitism-corbynism-must-change-way-it-sees-world

3A publication which literally endorsed the Nazis in the 1930s.

4Andrew Pierce, They raised a beetroot in the year and shouted f*** capitalism…, Daily Mail https://donotlink.it/jl1N

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