Jonathan Freedland continues his crusade against Corbynism and the Left with another disreputable column in the Guardian.
Basing himself on an article by two academics, (Matt Bolton and Frederick Harry Pitts) Freedland recycles their theory that antisemitism is deeply embedded in the ‘populist’ Left. This is because this Left, of which Corbyn is a key example, see capitalism not as a system, but as a conspiracy of rich individuals who want to exploit the virtuous masses. But seeing capitalism as a conspiracy can lead to antisemitism, because capitalism as conspiracy theory easily sees the enemy as rich Jewish bankers. (This incidentally is a more nuanced version of Nick Cohen’s theory that anti-capitalism necessarily leads to antisemitism).
Bolton and Pitts say:
“The rampant inequality of income and wealth Mr Corbyn rightly highlights needs tackling. But in our recent book, Corbynism: A Critical Approach, we use the work of critical theorists like Moishe Postone and David Hirsh to argue that the depiction of capitalism as a “rigged system” imposed by a minority of “wealth extractors” on “the many” carries potentially troubling resonances. Pushed to its limits, such a depiction can nurture the development of an antisemitic worldview.
“This is by no means inevitable. We do not claim that, in itself, the phrase “for the many not the few” — which features in the revised Clause IV instituted by Tony Blair — is antisemitic, latently or otherwise. Rather, we argue that when a political movement is built around the notion of an all-powerful elite extracting wealth from an innocent productive people, the potential is there to create an environment where antisemitic perspectives are legitimised.”
The idea that Left ‘populism’ leads to antisemitism is hedged around with caveats (“by no means inevitable…”). But these caveats don’t much bother Freedland. The whole argument is based on innuendo and chop-logic designed to attack the whole of the anti-capitalist Left. How so?
First, the notion that seeing capitalism as a structure is somehow counterposed to seeing that there is indeed a rapacious exploitative minority (the capitalist class) is ridiculous. Of course there are super-wealthy individuals whose whole existence is devoted to extracting as much as possible from the working class and sections of the petty bourgeoisie- they are called the bourgeoisie or capitalist class. When the ‘Occupy’ movement targeted the 1% and said ‘We are the 99%’, they were not counterposing a conspiracy to seeing capitalism as a structure’, let alone creating ‘an environment in which antisemitic perspectives are legitimised’.
The great propagandist of the ‘rigged economy’ idea is Bernie Sanders, and notably no one in his election campaign in 2016 suggested that his ideas were anti-Semitic, partly I suspect because he is Jewish and pro-Israel which headed off such accusations. Using the term ‘rigged economy’ or ‘rigged system’ is actually ambiguous about whether you see the problem as the system as a whole, or the problem as the functioning of the system that can be reformed or ‘un-rigged’.
The central idea of Bolton and Fredericks is that seeing capitalism as a conspiracy can, or is likely to, lead to antisemitism, presumably because ‘populists’ will see the conspirators as being Jewish, in line with fascist theories of ‘Jewish capitalism’’. Indeed such theories have existed and sometimes had an echo in the Left. But the idea that antisemitism animates the Occupy protesters, or today’s revolutionary left or the overwhelming mass of Corbyn supporters is nonsense. The function of this argument is to delegitimise anti-capitalism and, especially, to undermine Corbyn.
Incidentally, when workers see their companies shut down or their pensions stolen, they do not automatically see capitalism as the problem, but frequently blame ‘the bosses’ or indeed individual bosses. Reformist consciousness necessarily entails not wholly understanding capitalism as a system. Bolton and Pitt’s theory would delegitimise any targeted attack on individual capitalists or groups of capitalists, and have the consequence that to avoid antisemitism you have to just critique the system – ‘abolish the wages system’, SPGB here we come.
Even if Freedland, Bolton and Pitt were right that conspiracy views potentially open the door to antisemitism, you would still have to prove that in practice this really happens. Today it mainly doesn’t.
You can see where Bolton and Pitt are going. Capitalism is a system, according to them, where individual behaviour is governed by structural necessity:
“Capitalism is a specific historical form taken by human social relations. It compels everyone — rich and poor — to behave in certain ways in order to survive, even whilst one group benefits at the other’s expense. Companies have to compete to make a profit in order to avoid going bankrupt. This is a compulsion, not a choice. Workers have to go to work in order to earn a wage to buy the things they need. We have no other option.
“There is no doubt that the former enjoy a better time of it than the latter. Indeed, inequality — in Marxist terms, the result of the capitalist’s exploitation of the worker — is an unavoidable consequence of the way capitalist labour is organised. Exploitation is not a moral failing on behalf of a business owner, or a form of robbery. It is systemic. Even the nicest, fairest capitalist exploits their workers.”
I have heard this argument a thousand times. Sure, capitalism is bad, but not the result of then ill-will of anyone, anis mainly inevitable. And it’s definitely not a moral failure by individuals.
This theory is crap. The bourgeoisie does indeed contain hundreds of thousands of morally repugnant individuals. It is absolutely immoral when individual capitalists support and participate in reaction, repression, open theft of common land and assets, destruction of welfare systems, wars, torture, trashing the environment and then endless daily brutality of modern capitalism. All this does indeed involve moral choices for capitalists, which are mainly resolved in favour of personal wealth and power.
Jonathan Freedland claims that Bolton and Pitt are ‘from the anti-capitalist left’. I don’t know how they see themselves, but in practice they are trying to undermine the anti-capitalist left.
The anti-capitalism leads to antisemitism ideas has already been put forward by Labour MP Siobhan McDonagh on the Today programme. When asked by the presenter, John Humphrys, if she believed that the Labour Party is taking antisemitism “properly seriously”, McDonagh replied: “I’m not sure that some people in the Labour Party can. It’s very much part of their politics, of hard left politics, to be against capitalists and to see Jewish people as the financiers of capital. Ergo you are anti-Jewish people.” (Today programme 2/3/19)
The day before this interview former Blair adviser John McTernan wrote the same thong in the FT:
“All of these features in the criticism of Israel and the so-called Israel lobby. They can be easily moulded into a critique of capitalism, too. Rhetoric about the 1 per cent and economic inequality has the same underlying theme — a small group of very rich people who cleverly manipulate others to defend their interests. So anti-capitalism masks and normalises antisemitism — condemned as the “socialism of fools” by German political writer August Bebel.” (FT 1/3.2019)
He had previously written that “Anti-Zionism is anti-semitism, plain and simple”.
So there you get it – anti-Zionism=anti-capitalism=antisemitism. A crucial equation in a smear campaign.