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Sunday
May172015

Two remarkably different Jewish intellectuals & their two very different formulations of the "Jewish Question"

Just finished Angus Burgin's masterful "The Great Persuasion: Reinventing Free Markets Since the Depression." Still plenty of time for another book to overtake it, but it is way out in front of my personal "best book of yr."

Among the many other gems is his discussion of Milton Friedman's "Capitalism and the Jews."

Friedman expresses perplexity over what he sees as the strong, persistent strain of anti-capitalism in Jewish intellectual culture.  He just doesn't get it -- b/c he is convinced that liberal market institutions & the cultural norms they propagate have done more than anything else to constrain persecution of Jews--by quieting the impulses of religious zealotry responsible for centuries of butchery & violence (Friedman would not have joined the historically illiterate chorus that condemned Obama for noting the parallels between Islamic Jihadism and the Christian Crusades).

Security and tolerance are underwritten by capitalism's historical redirection of human beings' attention-- away from the mesmerizing clarion of one or another brand of imperialist moral perfectionism and toward the self-indulgent benefits of free trade: don't cut off that those infidels' heads-- you might be able to sell them something, or buy something cool from them!

Burgin doesn't note the contrast but it's fascinating to juxtapose Friedman's essay (lecture; it has been transcribed & circulated since) w/ Marx's "On the Jewish Question."  In contrast to Friedman, Marx reacts dismissively toward the demands of 19th century Jews, supported w/ uneven degrees of commitment by European liberal parties, to remove barriers to full integration of Jews into emerging democratic political & market institutions.  

No "special pleading" was Marx's stern msg: if you want to be free, then "liberate humanity," not your particular identity group -- & from liberal market and political institutions, the acquisitive individualist foundations of which estrange human beings from their natural sociality (Marx's "On The Jewish Question" should definitely be read together with his essay "The German Ideology," another classic in the "young Marx" oeuvre).

So strikingly different!  

I'm sure someone has written on the two essays.  It's interesting, of course, that both were written by intellectuals who were estranged from their Jewish identities, while by no means assimilated to anything else (aside from their diametrically opposed systematizations of ideas about the relation of markets to human nature and collective life).

For my part, I think Friedman was right to see the benefits of liberal market institutions for Jews and for pretty much everyone else. This is simply the "doux commerce thesis," which A. Hirschman and S. Holmes develop brilliantly in The Passions and the Interests and The Secret History of Self-Interest, respectively (and which Pinker adapts/embroiders/elaborates in his more recent, wildly more popular Better Angels). 

But what most intrigues me is how the two could have such different views of Jewish attitudes toward liberal market institutions: Friedman that Jews were  misguidedly hostile; Marx that they (along w/ everyone else) were self-delusionally enamored w/ them....

I don't think the answer, btw, has anything to do with the different eras they lived in.  

On the contrary, I think their opposing "Jewish Questions" are still very much in conversation-- or noncoversation-- with respect to the stance that not only Jews but members of various other identity-defining affinity groups should adopt toward liberal market institutions.

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