16 February 2014

I can’t believe this still needs saying

Three awesome Jewish philosophers: Shlomo Avineri (l), Martin Buber (m), Amitai Etzioni (r)

Radical social critiques coming out of Orthodox and Catholic spheres, particularly as it regards basic institutions of the modern global economy, have a lot going for them in their assertions of truth. The links between secularist and rationalist ideologies (including both Marxism and liberal economism), the ongoing proletarianisation of practically all aspects of middle-class life, the entrenchment of the ‘new class’ and the triumph of predatory global finance capitalism are all very much worth expounding. And we have plenty of resources for doing this. Distributism and social credit theory have both come out of the British Western Catholic tradition, and are bolstered on the continent by the work of the Christian social movement and the traditions of organised labour. Deep personalist critiques of bourgeois ethics and the materialist world-view, such as those of Nikolai Berdyaev and Fr. Sergei Bulgakov (amongst countless others both in the Patristic tradition and afterwards!), have their roots in an Orthodox anthropology which regards the situated person as a living ikon of the All-Holy Trinity.

So why do these conspiracy theories keep cropping up? Why are these phenomena still so often portrayed as the fault of an international conspiracy of the Jews? What explanatory power does the attribution of global secular modernism’s manifest ills to a shadowy cabal of the ‘international Jewry’ lend us, that we wouldn’t have otherwise? As Austrian social-democrat Ferdinand Kronawetter once said, ‘anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools’; I think the saying applies in equal measure to other forms of anti-capitalism.

And let’s not give those who expound these canards and fables under the guise of socio-theological critique any quarter on this. It becomes too simple for apologists for the globalist order to dismiss us as a bunch of anti-Semitic cranks when we just wink and nod in their direction. Quite frankly, too many promising threads at building a more humane, human-scaled economy tailored to the needs of the whole person have been derailed and discredited by the indulgence of their proponents in anti-Semitic intellectual onanism. The social credit movement of Major C. H. Douglas has been attacked as a whole (as in Janine Stingel’s Social Discredit) on account of Douglas’s conspiracy theorising. The same has gone, though to a lesser extent, for the work of Karl Freiherr von Vogelsang in Austria, whose tendencies toward anti-Semitic mannerisms attracted demagogues such as Karl Lüger.

Not only do such associations allow for ungrounded attacks on the entire body of personalist, populist, radical-orthodox and communitarian critiques of modern global capitalism emerging from Catholic and Orthodox thought, but they also alienate potential allies and interlocutors within Judaism. Emmanuel Mounier himself gladly owned that his philosophy shares more than just a passing resemblance with the existential philosophy of Martin Buber, and even borrowed much of his language (like the ‘narrow ridge’) in expressing his political thought. There are also interesting potentials for mutual reinforcement, critique and shared social action between Christian personalism and other strains pioneered and championed by Jews: the ‘Anglo-American’ communitarianism of Amitai Etzioni and the ‘continental’ one of Shlomo Avineri.

Let me be clear in the other direction as well. None of the above means giving up any part of the creedal Christian anthropology, politics or eschatology. I still believe and will always do in a sociable God, whose sociability is rooted in the inner mystery of his very Triune nature. The Trinity is a necessity if we take seriously the idea of the situated human being in all her modes of being as an ikon of the living God. As such, in their explicit rejections of Trinitarianism, I find that Jewish and Muslim anthropologies share a weakness which can ultimately lead to distorted views of grace and of human psychology. But taking these stances is of worse than no effect – indeed, it is the height of hypocrisy! – if it shuts down avenues of shared social action with Jews or Muslims, or leads us into the spiritual quagmires of pride at their expense. We can do better than that. Indeed, if we claim to be good Christians, confessing the faith that was expounded at Nikaia, we must do better!


  1. Great piece. For my part, I believe the anti-Jewish conspiracy theories are due to the sense that Jews are overrepresented in financial circles. Of course, there are plenty of non-Jews in the finance industry but this fact never stopped the anti-Semites from making their claims. It is a bit like the way white Europeans are obsessed with black and Hispanic criminal gangs while downplaying the Irish, Italian, and Eastern European mafias, just to name a few.

  2. Hi John! Many thanks for the comment!

    Historically that's certainly true, and if you look at the numbers, yes, I think Jews still are quite overrepresented in the world of big finance - but this isn't due to a conspiracy so much as due to a confluence of multiple factors. Historically, Ashkenazi Jews were kind of relegated to finance by law. I realise this is also a stereotype, but they also have cultural tendencies to value tight networking and excellence in their work.