The Anti-Imperialism of Fools: Why the Jewish Left Needs to Take Globalization Seriously

The Anti-Imperialism of Fools:  Why the Jewish Left Needs to Take Globalization Seriously

— Mark my words Mr. Dedalus, he said, England is in the hands of Jews.  In all the highest places; her finance, her press.  And they are signs of the nation’s decay.  Wherever they gather they eat up a nation’s vital strength. I have seen it coming these years. As sure as we are standing here the Jew merchants are already at their destruction.  Old England is dying…

— A merchant, Stephen said, is one who buys cheap and sells dear, Jew or gentile, is he not?

— James Joyce, Ulysses

One of many things that complicates antisemitism is that it only rarely refers to Jews; indeed, it may not even need actual Jews to function, as we are learning from the re-birth of Right in Eastern Europe, a land so thoroughly ethnically cleansed, old Jewish gravestones have been used to pave streets. In a way I can almost forgive the pro-Israel crowd for thinking all criticism of Israel is antisemitic — at least there are Jews there, who hold real power, and are committing actual crimes worthy of criticism.  So I was alarmed if not surprised the other week when the Trump administration, facing sharp criticism for tariffs on steel and aluminum, referred to their resigning economic adviser Gary Cohn as a “globalist” — and has used the term several times to mock critics of economic nationalism.

The term “globalist” has been pointed out to have a long antisemitic history, one that locates the Jew as a stand-in for international capitalism — cosmopolitan, without borders or roots to the land. If the Alt-Right’s nationalist rallying cry is the Nazi slogan of “blood and soil,” then the Jew is by contrast ethnically alien and perpetually foreign. As Marx pointed out in “The Jewish Question,” all the qualities of money that are threatening to a Christian state — its materiality, its fungibility, its universality, its abstraction — are also all the qualities that are transferred onto the category of “The Jew.” For the Right, which places race at the center of all ontological meaning, “The Jew” explains capitalism — it is its racial base, you could say — what the circulation of value would be to a Marxist.

Thankfully we haven’t slipped so far in the Trump era so that no one noticed:  several media outlets did point out the antisemitic, Alt-Right connotations of the term. Yet what mainstream, even liberal, media have a harder time with is talking about the actual economic debate going on the White House. If one takes NPR as any guide, the coverage of the Trump tariffs have been incredibly uniform: they focus on the increased cost to the consumer and often feature soft-focus stories on small manufacturers and small businesses that will be hurt either by rising prices on other items. Indeed, the tariffs are predicted to do so much harm, one would think workers are suffering because markets aren’t open enough. Never mind that the tariffs won’t raise prices all that much — like everything in the twitterverse that is our national conversation, the real economic and social impacts of policy are often beside the point.  

What narrative one receives from even progressive commentators on trade is that the series of processes we refer to as “globalization” — off-shoring, outsourcing, deindustrialization, de-unionization — have been a wholly positive process. While I agree with Marxist economists such as Doug Henwood that the tariffs are mostly toxic showboating and will have little economic effect one way or another, I fear the blithe dismissal of them more than I fear their impact. For the previously unionized worker in heavy industry, telling them the only life raft any one in government has offered is simply snake-oil — while not providing another alternative — is tantamount to announcing their labor does not matter.

Which brings us back to the uses of antisemitism. It is not a coincidence that the most antisemitic members of Trump’s cabinet are also the most critical of globalization. In Steve Bannon’s 60 Minutes interview, he articulated repeatedly that trade and the economic impacts of globalization should be the Trump administration’s main focus: “if we ran a campaign that focused on trade and immigration, I told myself, we could set this thing on fire.” He further elaborated that, “if we force the Democrats to defend the status quo, then we’ve won.” The “status quo” for Bannon is shorthand for our current neoliberal, global order, in which workers are pitted against each other in a global race to the bottom.  

This anti-capitalist, yet racial, vision of the world is not aberration for the Right — it is in some ways its essence. As Moishe Postone articulates in his well known essay on antisemitism and Nazism, antisemitism functioned as a “foreshortened anticapitalism” that offered a bracing critique of the liberal economic system — an economic system, it should be remembered, under which most Germans fared badly. Given that life expectancy for working class white men has declined for the first time in many decades, a trend attributable their declining standard of living, there is more than a whiff of late Victorian social Darwinism in suggesting that globalization is merely an “identity issue”.  While globalization is not the singular cause of working class decline in the U.S., for many, it is as visible a sign of economic collapse as the thousands of well paid jobs that once anchored Midwestern urban centers vanish.

We cannot dismiss the antisemitism of someone like Bannon, not because it is immoral, which it certainly is, but because it addresses even in an eclipsed way a real source of pain and outrage for many working class people. In the devastated mill towns from the Appalachians to the South Shore of Lake Michigan, the ruins of the “status quo” are all around, if anyone cares to look. They are available in statistics — the level of gun violence on Chicago’s South Side or the epidemics of opium abuse in small towns in the Midwest or stagnant wages in a de-unionized economy.  Or you can just go there, and see city centers that look like they’ve been devastated by tornadoes, and left to rot. Antisemitism, for Bannon and the Right, should not be understood as simply hatred, dislike or aversion:  it is a framework to explain the suffering of millions of people. If we do not develop a language and a politics that addresses the real devastation left by globalization then the party that does — in whatever language — will win.

Rather than simply dismiss the Alt-Right’s critique of globalization as economic dead-enders, as much of the liberal press does, we need to dust off an older language of anti-imperialism. One of the inherent problems in any conversation about globalization is that the term itself is mystifying — it lumps many parts of liberal culture that are positive, such as music, travel, global foodways, a concern for the plight of migrants and a celebration of diversity — with many things that are bad: offshoring, special economic zones, and global labor arbitrage. This mystification is often further complicated by the fact that globalization’s most vocal critics often conflate migration and diversity with off-shoring and job-flight:  Marine Le Pen who calls in one breath for the regulation of global finance capital, and in the other for the imprisonment of global migrants.

There can be something politically challenging in trying to keep two seemingly contradictory ideas clear in one’s head – and indeed, it’s why the Right’s position is easier to explain.  We need to keep clear that migration is a cultural benefit to the host country and we welcome the stranger among us; it is also clear that three decades of free trade orthodoxy have not brought a more prosperous world or a more stable global order — the companies that move from state to state, nation to nation, do so to profit from low wages, cheap resources, and then move on. Even China, once the location for cheap labor, is beginning to outsource its garment industry to Africa as its wages rise. Yet the way to fight these economic changes is not to build walls or erect tariffs, but rather, as Vladimir Lenin suggested in his famous volume on imperialism, to target financial capital.  

The great innovation of Marxism is to point out the way imperialism is not some inherent product of a Western imaginary., though God knows there is much to be discussed there. Rather, imperialism is born out of the material contradictions of capitalism. Early theorists such as Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin focused on the centralization of capital and its tendency to produce more than workers could consume — requiring that capitalists break open new markets for goods and find new arenas for investment. And as later world systems theorists articulated, this outpouring of capital did not “develop” the third world so much as restructure third world economies to be economically subordinate, caught both in basic resource extraction and financial debt traps. In our latest phase, as French economists Gérard Duménil and Dominique Lévy argue in their groundbreaking The Crisis of Neoliberalism, the move to financialization by one bloc of capitalist managers and investors precipitated the rise of globalization production. The trend away from industrial to financial management created pressure on manufacturing firms to lower the cost of labor and redirect investment to managers and shareholders and other rentiers. When we are talking of “globalization,” we need to keep in mind that we are really talking about just a new phase of capitalist exploitation — one that has ushered in a crisis of dependency for much of the world.

Yet the global compression of wages between the first and third world has also meant that we can talk — really for the first time — of a global working class with convergent interests. The devaluation of production through outsourcing and rent-seeking finance has also meant paradoxically that capital is being hoarded, parked in assets such as treasury bonds and real estate, rather than invested in production, infrastructure, or the public sector. As economist J.W. Mason recently wrote, one of the answers to crisis provoked by financialization is to “socialize investment” by “repressing” finance, democratizing central banks, using states to finance investment, and yes, closing borders to the outflow of Western capital. 

As Mason writes, “in a world where capital flows are large and unrestricted, the concrete activity of production and reproduction must constantly adjust itself to the changing whims of foreign investors” as they move capital from one industry to another, and one country to another.  Investment, or rather capital, needs to be democratized and put to use to meet human needs. The liberal premise that the export of U.S. capital benefits workers in other countries will no more save us than the right wing premise that foreign workers or foreign goods are our enemy.  Creating a real industrial policy in the U.S. that could direct investment away from off-shoring companies and to dying towns in the Midwest is a far better proposal for workers of all races than tariffs, immigration restrictions, or job retraining.  

Of course it might seem strange in an essay about antisemitism and global imperialism to not mention Israel, one of the world’s last settler-colonial states.  For many on the Alt-Right, Richard Spencer’s declaration that he is a “white Zionist” positions Israel as an answer to the multiple, intersecting crises of globalization.  An “ethno state” in Alt-Right terminology, Israel serves an example of the kind of racially pure garrison state that can construct a coherent national identity against the chaotic forces of neoliberal capitalism.  Israel also solves the “Jewish Question” by removing Jews from the “the West” and perhaps more subtly, but more importantly, “territorializes” the Jew — neutralizes their cosmopolitan, transnational, multicultural diasporic identity and makes them like other bound, rooted members of a defined national culture.  While Spencer is a vile antisemite, he is not altogether wrong, in so far as Herzl and other founders of Israel imagined Zionism as a counter to the image of culturally fluid, racially impure, and rootless Jew.

Yet Israel, as Ali Abunimah points out in Battle for Justice in Palestine, is fully integrated in both neoliberal global capital markets, as well as the military circuits of U.S. empire.  Israeli weapons, biotech, agricultural, and IT firms compete globally, engage in foreign direct investment, and park a great deal of their assets abroad.  Far from being the classless utopia of the Kibbutzim, according an OECD report, Israel is one of the most unequal societies in the Western world, even among Jews.  While Israel is exceptional in so far as it explicitly defines its borders and identity in demographic terms, it is not exceptional in so far as it is subject to the same global pressures on wages, real estate speculation, austerity, balance of payment traps, and so on, even for its majority Jewish citizens.  If one wants to conduct a materialist analysis about the right-wing lurch of Israeli society and its increasingly intractable inability to make peace with Palestinians, one would need to also consider the ways that Israel has adopted a racially defined, right-wing nationalism as an ideological hedge against its own economic unraveling.  The irony that a Jewish state should adopt such a political posture merely reinforces Althusser’s insight that history, or perhaps rather capitalism, is a process without a stable subject.

While talk of trade policy may seem esoteric, the implications are gut simple.  If the left does not develop a real analysis and critique of what we call “globalization,” we have ceded the issue to the Right. And the Right, make no mistake, is winning: given the option between “globalization” and liberalism, Americans, Europeans, Russians, and, increasingly, the Chinese are returning to nationalism — and to open antisemitism. Bannon is clearly wrong about most things, as is Trump, but they have a clear, easy to understand analysis of why good, union jobs have left the Midwest, and a proposal, however misguided, for what to do. As Martiniquan poet and politician Aimé Césaire reminds us, the Holocaust of Europe can trace its origins, or at least, its architecture, to the colonial genocides in Africa and the Americas.  Antisemitism, for Césaire, is always already linked to a global imaginary of race and exploitation.  And in this way, if we care about antisemitism, we also need to start caring about trade or, as I would say, imperialism.

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