EssaysFeatureImaginal PoliticsSpeculative futures: Explorations of the Financial Imagination

“No Gods, No Masters”

Antisemitic tropes and utopian ideals in imagining and resisting capitalism

This piece was prepared for a short talk as part of “Navigating finance and the imagination: A collaborative theoretical walking tour ”, an event organized by Max Haiven and Aris Komporozos-Athanasiou, that took place in London in April 2018. Participants in this interdisciplinary event drew on Cornelius Castoriadis’ work to explore the imagined and imaginary aspects of both financialization and ideas about post-capitalist futures. In my discussion, I look at the ways that both the negative and the positive images of rootlessness as a mode of human existence are intertwined with ideas about global capitalism, on the one hand, and with anti-Semitic tropes on the other. In focusing on the tradition of radical, anti-capitalist educational experiments within the anarchist movement, I suggest that this tradition has much to offer the project of re-imagining capitalism and the capitalist state, but that, in its intersection with issues of identity, ethnicity and race, it also raises complex questions about the relationship between personal experiences of rootlessness and displacement and political projects that seek to challenge the dominance of statist and sedentary systems and imaginaries.

A Jewish history of London

The geographical space referred to today as the City of London has recognizable surface features, associated with the visual imagery of power and finance: elaborate neo-classical buildings; shiny metal and glass structures discretely displaying the familiar logos and names of investment banks; private security guards posted outside closed glass doors through which we glimpse yet more cavernous gleaming spaces.

Yet beneath the surface there are also invisible, ghostly presences; the buried histories – sometimes hinted at by a plaque embedded in a brick wall – of earlier, other, inhabitants of the city. The streets around St. Paul’s Cathedral were once the heart of the Medieval Jewish settlement of London. The first Jews in England are thought to have arrived soon after the Norman conquest. There was a Jewish community in England until the Jews were expelled by Edward 1 in 1290, not to be officially readmitted until the mid 17th Century.

The oldest and largest Jewish cemetery in the country stood near what is now the Barbican; an 18th Century Jewish prison was around the corner on Poultry, and Bevis Marks synagogue, the oldest synagogue building in use in Britain, was built in 1701, after the resettlement. The synagogue is in a small lane off the main road as Jews at that time were not allowed to build on public highways. The mainly Spanish and Portuguese Jewish population of the city expanded rapidly at the end of the 19th Century with the mass influx of Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe, many of whom settled in the working class area of the East End, often finding work in “the rag trade”. But much of what was once “Jewish London” has now disappeared from view: the part of London, not far from here, that for decades was referred to as “the Jewish East End” is now mostly Bangladeshi, reflecting the general themes of migration, displacement and movement that I will discuss here.

Anti-Semitic imaginary

The multi-layered and complex way in which shifts in historical experience and meaning underlie the contemporary reality of London’s financial centre is mirrored in the complex and often contradictory shifts in the meaning of ideas associated with the imaginary of rootlessness and cosmopolitanism, Jewishness and Jewish identity, as well as money, capital and power.

The image of “the Wandering Jew” has a long history. It is widely thought to have originated in a Christian legend, first popularized during the Middle Ages, about a Jew – sometimes depicted as a shoemaker – who taunted Jesus on the way to the Crucifixion and was then cursed to wander the earth until the Second Coming. As Galit Hasan-Rokach notes,

“this figure served multiple functions in European culture in its complex processes of change from medieval times through postmodernity, processes that encompassed theological, political, and economical negotiations of the status and image of Jews — and others — among Europeans,” serving not only to embody the theology of guilt reflected in the legend, but to enable “a consolidation of the Europeans’ self-image as indigenous inhabitants of their continent and later in their particular national territories, in counter-distinction to the itinerant Other.”

In contemporary times, the idea of the “rootless cosmopolitan” was famously used by Stalin as a pejorative euphemism in 1948-53 towards Jewish intellectuals who were accused of a lack of patriotism towards the Soviet Union.

The image of the Jews as “rootless” and therefore not able to form allegiances to the nation state was a central part of Nazi antisemitic propaganda. The complex relationship between the actual historical experience of displacement, expulsion and migration so common throughout Jewish history, and the prejudice that has been variously both the cause and the result of this experience, is part of a more general web of meaning surrounding the concept and experience of migration. The negative imagery of the Jew as outsider drew not just on the suspicion of Jews as often visibly different from dominant cultural groups and on legends surrounding Jews in Christian theology, but on a general suspicion of “the foreigner” and the migrant.

The wandering threat

Thomas Nail, in his work on the philosophy of movement has offered a rich and detailed analysis of the pathologization, throughout human history, of “the figure of the migrant”. As he explores, this pathologization is the flipside of the historical development of sedentarism as a normative conception of society, and of the associated political structures of the nation and the state. As Nail puts it, “Place-bound membership in a society is assumed as primary; secondary is the movement back and forth between social points.”

Images of the Jew as barbarian, as Nail notes, are associated with the positioning of immigrants as naturally inferior: “If it is true that many mobile subjects have also been treated as naturally inferior, it is precisely because this political idea was first invented and incarnated in the ancient barbarian and then redeployed historically. Hence the persistence of the term ‘barbarian’ throughout all of history to designate one’s cultural and political enemies as ‘naturally inferior’”. The same language, Nail notes, is deployed today towards Mexican immigrants in US, amongst others.

Interestingly for this discussion, in particular historical periods, this same suspicion – a suspicion of something not quite belonging, not quite “part of our society” — was directed at capital itself, conceived of as an increasingly global and mysterious network of finance, not conforming to the place-bound imaginary of modern societies. Yet the cosmopolitan imaginary associated with global capital reflects historical shifts and contradictions, much like the figure of the “Wandering Jew” which, as Rokem notes, “later transformed from outright demonization as the blasphemer of Christ, to Romantic idealization as an individualist or even a revolutionary hero.”

The particular anti-Semitism of the British Imperial project

Thus while the antisemitic trope of “the money-counting Jew” has its own history, connected to Christian views of usury and to the historical fact that in many eras, when Jews were banned from entering the professions or owning land, money-lending was often the only means of earning a living available to them, the connections between the antisemitic trope of the “rootless cosmopolitan” and that of the “evil banker” or the “mean money-lender” are not straightforward. David Blaazer has documented how these tropes were intertwined in complex ways in late 19th Century and early 20th Century Britain when, although the financial city of London was part of the economic engine that both drove and profited from imperial expansion, many viewed its operation with suspicion. “Hanging permanently over the City was a question mark over its status as a distinctive British institution; an anxiety stemming from its ‘cosmopolitanism’, both in the literal senses of ‘free from national attachments’, due to its increasingly transnational role, and in the coded sense of its having a strong – and in many minds dominant – contingent of Jews, who were widely believed to have no nationality.”

During this same period, as Bar-Yosef and Valman note, Jews were often portrayed in literature as characters with “the capacity to disturb categories of identity, particularly the boundaries of nation.” But Blaazer argues that while “the opposition of Jewishness and Englishness appears virtually everywhere that Jews and finance were discussed together between 1870-1913”, terms such as “Jew” “cosmopolitan” “international financier” and indeed “the City” cannot be straightforwardly viewed as euphemisms; rather, “it is more analytically useful to see them as constituting an unstable web of signifiers, each of which had the capacity to act as a metonym for each or all of the others according to circumstance and audience”.

One could perhaps argue that the same “unstable web of signifiers” persists today, and is part of what makes current debates around antisemitism so fraught. To what extent critics of global capitalism knowingly or unknowingly draw on antisemitic tropes in their imagery and rhetoric, and to what extent their audiences understand them as such, are important questions; but this is not the focus of the current discussion.

Working class Jewish imaginaries against The City

To add a further layer to this complexity: During the same historical period that Blaazer describes, anarchists, anarcho-syndicalists, communists and other radical activists were involved in setting up schools, often not far from the financial heart of the City in London’s East End. This was a part of London with a large concentration of poor, working-class immigrants, many of them Jewish. For East End Jews, many of whom had grown up in traditional Jewish communities but sought to escape them for a more liberal way of life, these anarchist schools were one of the few secular alternatives to the religious education provided by the local Jewish organizations.

This was a time, too, when the establishment of a compulsory, free, universal system of state education was being contested by radical thinkers and working class communities. Anarchists saw a state system of education as inherently nationalistic and based on coercion. In the words of William Godwin, writing in 1793: “The project of national education ought uniformly to be discouraged on account of its obvious alliance with national government. […] Government will not fail to employ it, to strengthen its hands, and perpetuate its institutions…”.

Anarchists and other radical educators set up their own schools in order to challenge this project that they saw solidified in the Education Act of 1870. As an article in the anarchist journal Freedom in 1909 puts it, the schools were “an antidote to the patriotic bombast that the day schools were giving.”

Many anarchist activists became key figures in the world of radical and libertarian education. Louise Michel, who came to London from New Caledonia, where she was exiled by the French state for her role in the Paris Commune, founded the International School in Fitzroy Square in 1890 for children of political refugees. Members of the school committee included William Morris, Peter Kropotkin and Errico Malatesta. Other anarchist schools included the Libertarian Sunday School, founded in Whitechapel in 1906 (affiliated with the Workers’ Circle, a Jewish anarchist organization), and The Ferrer School on Commercial Rd., founded in 1912, one of several schools established by anarchists around the world following the trial and execution of Francisco Ferrer, the anarchist activist and founder of the famous anarchist school, Escuela Moderna, in Barcelona in 1908.

As Matthew Thomas notes in his study of anarchist schools in Britain in the late 19th and early 20th century,

“In the anarchist schools children were educated to believe in liberty, equality and social justice. They were taught that war was a crime against humanity, that the capitalist system was evil, that government was slavery and that freedom was essential for human development. Lessons were illustrated with examples of patriotism, superstition and exploitation and the suffering they produced.”

A cosmopolitanism from below?

So how should we reflect on this complex intertwining of the negative imagery of the cosmopolitan as an outsider, a threat to the stability and coherence of the nation state, the association of this imagery with the world of capital and finance, and the positive imagery of the cosmopolitan as the true humanist embodying universal values, international solidarity and justice? As DouzinasLevy and other scholars have noted, the concept of cosmopolitanism has always had two opposing traditions: in one version, dating back to the Stoics and later associated with imperialism, “a variety of cultures could flourish under the benevolent rule of imperial law, in which all citizens were equals. Universal morality derived from rational human conduct would restrain local national rivalries of the citizens of the empire by teaching them to retrain their human passions through Stoical principles. ” But the other version of cosmopolitanism, associated with the figure of Diogenes and the anarchist tradition, emphasizes the image of the liminal, the border-crosser, who belongs not in the bounded polis, but in the utopian society free from rigid institutions, laws and domination.

Perhaps this more radical version of cosmopolitanism is especially needed today, to offer an alternative social imaginary to that which dominates so much political discourse around immigration and belonging. Theorists such as Thomas Nail have made significant contributions to the project of developing a theory of the migrant that challenges the perspective of stasis as ontologically and historically prior and allows us to “diagnose the capacity of the migrant to create an alternative to social expulsion”. Yet several questions remain:

Can we retrieve a positive imaginary of the liminal and the rootless, while at the same time acknowledging the personal tragedy of displacement and homelessness, the political processes that lead to it, and the moral obligation to create political communities in which nobody is excluded from the basic right to a life of dignity and material security? For the words of Hannah Arendt, writing in 1951, are just as potent today: “Under the most diverse conditions and disparate circumstances, we watch the development of the same phenomena – homelessness on an unprecedented scale, rootlessness to an unprecedented depth.”

For Arendt, being recognised as a member of a political community is the basic condition on which all other rights depend. More fundamental than the abstract notion of universal human rights is the right to belong (captured in Arendt’s problematic phrase: “the right to have rights”); a right that is only made possible through the agreement of others and their recognition of one’s being a person; thus of being able to be fully heard and seen by others in the public sphere of speech and action.

Arendt’s insight was that,

“The calamity of the rightless is not that they are deprived of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or of equality before the law and freedom of opinion – formulas which were designed to solve problems within given communities – but that they no longer belong to any community whatsoever”

Yet can we reconcile this insight with a political imaginary of a world without nation states and international borders?

Can we promote a politically valuable ideal of the cosmopolitan while acknowledging that in the contemporary context of global corporate capitalism — perhaps nowhere more evident than in “cosmopolitan” cities such as London — the actual “rootless cosmopolitan” is more often than not a member of the socio-economic elite, whose material privilege shields them from the worst ravages that the same capitalist logic inflicts on local communities and disenfranchised groups.

Can we construct, as anarchist theorists have long argued that we must, non-territorial forms of imagining and doing politics? This is a difficult task, given that so many of our political concepts are bound up with a sedentary mind-set, and with the logical contrasts that this implies.

And finally, how do these social imaginaries intersect with the phenomenology of belonging, displacement and migration? How is the emotional and psychological condition of rootlessness and liminality connected, both empirically and normatively, to the aspiration and struggle for a political ideal that transcends nationalism, borders, and the dominating relationships of capitalism?

A key thinker in working through these ideas is Gustav Landauer, the German Jewish anarchist, murdered by the Freikorps after the suppression of the Munich Soviet in 1919. Landauer, as Carl Levy notes, articulated a “spiritually based politics of community” and “promoted the idea of multiple, indeed hybridic identities.” Interestingly, “he argued that since the Jewish people were least smitten by the cult of the state, they could take the lead in constructing communities independent of the state.”

In summary, the anarchist tradition, and in particular the anarchist history of educational experiments, has much to contribute to the project of re-imagining capitalism. Yet, if educational spaces are to offer people ways of questioning, challenging and reimagining the structures and institutions of the state and capital, more thought needs to be given to the ways in which the personal experiences of the people in these spaces, their identities, and their position within relationships of belonging and not-belonging, can contribute to our ideas about the kinds of political communities we have and the kinds of political communities that we want to create.

Judith Suissa is Professor of Philosophy of Education at UCL Institute of Education, London. Her research interests include anarchist theory, utopian theory, radical educational traditions, critical philosophy of race, and parent-child relationships.

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