Monthly Archives: August 2012

(Jewish) Social Theory and Anti-Semitism

We know that we can reach agreements with people, because we all the time act in accord with others’ tacit and explicit consent. We know that there must be some explicit dimension to our agreements with others—each of us must know that each is letting the other pass on the street, sticking to our respective places on line, etc. We also know that however explicit our agreements—even in the most elaborately constructed and sophisticated contract—there is a tacit dimension which makes it possible for us to understand what we have agreed to explicitly.

From this self-evident knowledge, I would further propose that we are led to seek the basis of our agreements when our explicit agreements become problematic in some way and that when that happens the best place to look for those foundations is in those tacit understandings, rather than, say, in concepts like natural law, natural right, and so on. The fact that we have agreed reveals us to be the kind of people capable of reaching and maintaining, to the extent that we do, those agreements. We are people with certain common needs, which those agreements tried to meet, with some kind of shared past and language which enabled us to meet and shape the agreement, and with certain capacities which our adherence to those agreements and responsibility to the exigencies consequent upon them have placed on display. We are also people with a certain relation to each other—we have agreed so far and no further, we have shored up and repaired the agreement where it has frayed in particular ways, we have let slip this or that obligation, kept an eye on each other in some particular way, and so on.

Further: a social theory starting from these minimal particulars can enable us to look forward: a thriving community will be one which can construct meta-agreements allowing for consensual revision or discarding of existing explicit agreements; which can allow for tacit agreements to become explicit in such a way as to enrich the existing body of explicit agreements while simultaneously re-sedimenting new layers of tacit agreement; and that can generalize existing agreements so as to welcome outsiders without diluting what we might call the “density of the tacit” embedded in the current world of contract and covenants. Instead, then, of talking about imaginary constructs like “progress,” we can study the visible forms of communication and cooperation in terms of the degree to which they reveal forms of rooted openness.

Judaism, and Christianity after it, is rooted in the repudiation of human sacrifice. Human sacrifice enters history with the asymmetric gift relationship established by the Big Man become tyrant become emperor/god: the Big Man gathers the resentment of the community upon himself, and can therefore be the “emissary victim” for the community; the Big Man continues to stand in for or represent the community, but the bigger he gets the less likely he is to allow himself to be victimized, in which case substitutes need to be sought; once it becomes possible to supply substitute victims (what kind of conceptual leap and what kind of event must have been necessary for this transformation?), the appetite for victims will expand. The power of the empire will be devoted to seizing victims, which introduces war on a massive scale (the conquest and incorporation of entire communities and even smaller empires) and then slavery as a utilitarian by-product. The one God, the God whose name is the declarative sentence, calls for the repudiation, at least in principle, of this entire system, and it seems to me it does so on the following grounds: first, an observation of history (and it is succession of empires and emperors, the dramas of their successes and failures, their over-reachings and usurpations that is, first of all, “history,” i.e., a discernable pattern to events) teaches us that kings come and go while the king who is greater than all kings, the God greater than all gods, endures and gives sustenance to those who hold fast to Him despite conquest and defeat; second, what they hold fast to is a rejection of scapegoating, of the arbitrariness of victimage, in the name of law and the truth—a wrongdoer can be punished, but only insofar as he violates a pre-existing law and is known to have done what he has been accused of. The hubris, the haughtiness, which leads inevitably to the fall of the great, is rooted in this endless search for victims, this belief that arbitrary deaths can feed the life of the community, of which the victimizer himself ultimately becomes a victim.

We know that the social contract theories of the origin of the state are liberal myths—the state, in its origins, was the empire, with its subjugation of all communities and, actually or potentially, all individuals, to a common center, which in turn required a large bureaucratic apparatus, infrastructure, massive armed force, and a transcendental gift relationship between center and margins: the emperor gives life to the people who must in turn be ready to give their possessions and if necessary their lives to the emperor. Along the way, empires came to depend upon legal structures providing regularity and predictability in managing the relations between center and margins, which in turn would secrete minimal notions of fairness and mythologies of cosmic order which the earthly empire mirrored: the monotheistic religions drew upon, while polemicizing against, the more enlightened versions of imperial mythology. All subsequent states, including our liberal democratic ones, are carved out of the ancient transnational empires, through a variety of processes: national liberation, which replaces a large, distant imperial order with one closer to home and therefore easier to confront and control; the creation of norms and contracts, enforced through threat (quite often acted on) of rebellion and/or regicide, making leaders accountable to the ruled; and, finally, the actual staffing of the state apparatus through participatory selection processes. (This last development, and I am sure the others as well to some extent, drew upon modes of accountability already available, indeed in more robust forms, in smaller, more primitive communities, such as selection of leaders by lot, the gathering of supporters ready to wage war behind contending leaders, and so on.)

What hasn’t changed is the relation between politics and history, which is to say the establishment of the state as a stage upon which the destiny of the nation is performed before a critical audience. How else could we account for the celebration of Obama’s election as some kind of triumph over our racist past if the political arena was, far from the neutral, problem-solving technocratic arena imagined by progressives, or, for that matter, the issue-oriented, debate-club style with an ideally informed public fantasized by another version of liberalism, if the political arena were not still imagined in basically dramaturgic terms? But dramaturgic means: still sacrificial. Through Obama we will transcend our racism, either through his willing self-sacrifice to the still powerful forces of racism or through his summoning of our “better angels” to deliver us from racism once and for all; or his sacrifice will be in vain and we will descend once more to our racist roots. These are, of course, the leftist versions, reiterating once more the leftist contradiction between heightening the historical contradictions toward the decisive confrontation and transcending the irrational passions, grounded in unjust social relations, that have driven history. On the conservative side, there are certainly dramatic constructions in play as well—overcoming the usurper, restoring the constitutional order and the transparency of rule by the people after the century long Progressive transgression. The conservative script (I’ll let others decide whether my own bias interferes with my analysis here) seems to me a more contained, less apocalyptic, and therefore less sacrificial one, but it is vulnerable to the objection that there is no true Constitutional order to be restored.

What is on trial now is that modern confection of Politics as the Center Stage upon which the Drama of the People’s Self-Liberation is Enacted. Local communities resisted empire because the asymmetrical gift relationship with the imperial center became onerous, but extracting concessions from, which is to say, entering agreements with and creating reciprocal obligations with the center had the effect of giving the people a share in the crimes and follies of empire. The only other choice would have been to withdraw altogether from the imperial order, which would have led to extinction, one way or another—so, there was really no choice. Indeed, though libertarians will dispute it, I consider it quite likely that commerce could only have expanded under the protection of empire and, even more, that modern science and technology could not have developed outside of the cosmological picture generated by the imperial incorporations of Christianity. Still, the distribution of responsibility between rulers and ruled has never been worked out, which is why war was transformed from an affair of monarchical and aristocratic elites, with restricted ends and carefully constructed rules (even if, of course, civilian populations in the way often suffered) to exterminatory assaults upon civilian targets (in World War II)—after all, from a democratic perspective, shouldn’t we hold the people responsible for the policies of their rulers (and even if the Nazis usurped power from the democratic state, the people must have been complicit in that usurpation, and hence still guilty) and assume that they can affect them?

Another very serious problem has not been solved and, unlike the problem of democratic war, this one has not even been addressed by the modern political machines. The ancient resentment between rulers and ruled has never been resolved—one reason for this is that the contending elites have an interest in keeping this resentment going insofar as each wants to represent itself as the popular party; but an equally important reason is that institutional separation between rulers and ruled is almost as stark as ever—we really do have a “ruling class” of Washington governmental and media elites and the corporate elites tied up with and favored by them. This resentment is stoked in a paradoxical way: by continually ratcheting up the asymmetrical gift relation between rulers and ruled, which is to say by extending more and more government largesse. The people resentfully assert on this on the assumption that the rulers live at their expense and this is just payback; the rulers give it through partisan competition but also through fear, never far from the minds of the rich and the politicians during the long period of Communist global terror, and, going even further back, the roots of the civilizing empires in slavery and conquest, of popular uprisings or some kind of leftist or rightest putsch; even more, such largesse must be concealed under democratic forms so as to include the middle class—so, while our finances would probably be in better shape with straightforward redistributions from, say, the top 1/3 to the bottom 1/5, it becomes politically necessary to insist that the entitlement programs are really social “insurance” so that we only get back what we paid in.

In this way, the government grows in power by capitulating to public demands, while the public can remain in an infantile state of rebellion, with “grass roots” partisans on each side exposing the dirty deals of the other, as the government becomes more powerful. The most binding long-term explicit agreements are more and more made by government bureaucrats amongst themselves and with their clients, with mere, and increasingly formulaic, ratification by the people; and these explicit agreements are more and more distant from the tacit agreements formed in companies, institutions and communities, which remain much closer to their traditional character: each is responsible for self and family, individuals who can be relied upon are trusted and rewarded, breaches in trust are scandals, good will is presupposed in most interactions, etc. Victimary thinking, and its apotheosis in the hysteric swell of support for Obama as transcendent figure in 2008, while an authentic religious response to the event of the Holocaust, in its hostility to the normal (re-coded as a source of unthinkable violence) has been redirected towards the effort to bring our tacit agreements and arrangements into alignment with those constructed at the top, but such attempts are becoming increasingly strained, to the point of desperation. At the same time, those more local attachments, grounded in an unself-conscious “oikophilia,” have no other external orientation beyond the central political stage while that stage has alienated itself from those local, familiar “affections.”

The rule for discourse under a democratic regime (and by “democratic,” I mean the resentment against everything imperial except for what is constitutive of the imperial: a single center from which each is equidistant) is that every agent and interest be represented as equal in relation to a presumed center; to put it another way, no one’s resentment is to be left out or left unbalanced by a complementary resentment. This process of balancing resentments holds for any community, but in the implicitly unlimited democratic community (which by now extends well beyond the nation via international human rights law, institutions and activism, incorporated into diplomatic discourse) in which the repudiated yet rights bestowing center must be distanced ever further, the balancing, increasingly, is driven by the most formulaic of explicit agreements (as if one’s feelings towards, say, same sex marriage, should be determined by the latest finding on civil rights law by a particular court), with no attention to the tacit realm. There have always been and still are many things (peoples, vocations, habits, dispositions) that democratic discourse cannot deal well with, and Jews are among them, and whatever can’t be framed in democratic terms must be framed in “meta-democratic terms,” as a usurpation of the center—perhaps foundational, perhaps salvational, but ultimately totalitarian, as the center, whenever evoked, must enforce the equidistance from itself. Anti-semitism, then, places Jews at the center—not, though, at the center of a centerless market society as Eric Gans once argued, but at the evacuated center of a democratic society that has constituted itself through its resentment towards imagined attempts to re-occupy that center.

Anti-semitism, in other words, is a “meta-democratic” discourse: it represents what cannot be balanced out within the chain of equivalences within democratic discourse but yet what is required to account for the uni-directional change metaphysical thinking requires: the evacuated and hated center (that from which we have liberated ourselves, which should only give, but yet insists on taking). The best way to identify anti-semitism, I think, is simply to look at how someone speaks about Jews and Israel—what is important is not the degree of hostility expressed, or whether Israel is singled out among nations, but whether in that discourse Israel or the Jews is the only agent. If someone is telling a story and Israel or the Jews is the only actor, with all other figures represented as passive victims or dupes, then we have an anti-semitic discourse. What “the Jews,” “Israel,” “Zionism” or, now less often, “neo-conservatism” is then being used to explain is why the resentments don’t all balance out, with the people thereby made collectively aware of its real interests and general will. There is really an imperial order, more hideous and insidious than any that has previously existed, even in the imagination, and that makes us all equal, but as slaves. It is such a discourse that makes interaction with Jews unthinkable, and their elimination correspondingly thinkable, because Jews operate on a different plane than everyone: getting rid of the Jews will restore the people. And this holds true for thoroughly undemocratic regimes like Nazi Germany and the contemporary Arab and Muslim dictatorships, which even more than liberal democratic regimes insist upon the homogeneity of the people’s will and the treachery implicit in any deviation from it. As modern societies, at least politically (insofar as any country needs a presentable government), these are totalitarian democracies (as was Communism). (The supposedly hopeful admonition that the solution to the problems of democracy is more democracy suggests, in this context, a continual expansion of the most formulaic terms of explicit agreement to every single area of life—an expansion which, of course, will always encounter obstacles, which will always be some kind of unregulated initiative, and which must be named and targeted.)

The Jews can be imagined on this “other” plane because the tensions between Jews as a people, Judaism as a religion, and Jews as an ethnic group; between actual Jews and the Jews of the Christian and Muslim theological imaginary (and the Jews of the Western literary and philosophical imagination more broadly), have not been resolved, not any more that the tensions between ruler and ruled I discussed earlier, and not any more for Jews themselves than for others. Here, I’ll make the point that I am simply supplementing, and not at all trying to replace, Eric Gans’s analysis of anti-semitism as resentment of firstness: most specifically, resentment at the Jews for discovering/inventing the One God, while resisting and exempting themselves from the Christian and Muslim universalizations of that discovery/invention; more broadly, though, as initiators of and within the European market economy and modern political and cultural institutions; even more, as pioneering, through the socialist and communist movements, the critique and dismantling of that modern, market society before a majority of citizens, even in the West, had had a chance to acclimatize themselves to it. The simple addition is that Jews must be resented within democracy, or any polity predicated upon a general will implicit in each citizen and recoverable through either through unfettered dialogue amongst the citizens or through revolutionary events, just as much as they must be resented within Christian and Muslim polities. Democracy cannot assimilate the Jews because it cannot assimilate firstness which, by definition, upsets the established balance of resentments and initiates some new form of agreement, something one can “sign on” to without prior permission or authorization. “The Jews” will always be a serviceable answer to the question, “why don’t the people see their way clear to their own best interests,” and that will always be the question of democratic discourse because that discourse presupposes that only the usurped center can interfere with our convergence upon shared understanding of our common interests. Democratese, in other words, is intelligible under the assumption that, presented with the relevant facts and freed from whatever ideological manipulations blind them, everyone would say what I am saying now.

I would conclude, then, that opposing anti-semitism within democratic discourse is a futile exercise: you can’t refute it, because the absence of evidence of Jewish control and manipulation is, of course, the best evidence of it. By now, charges of anti-semitism have been pre-emptively marked as disingenuous attempts to silence critics of Israel, and therefore more proof of Jewish manipulation, control, malevolence, etc. We can no longer assume some “mainstream” protocol by which well intentioned people recognize anti-semitism and shun it—the post-War victimary discourses which enabled the establishment of such a protocol have mutated into the most virulent source of anti-semitism, in the resentment of those whose victimary centrality has always already been pre-empted by the Jews. But, I think, it might be just as well to have less coded and more overt expressions of resentment, especially since those codes have constrained the speech of us Jews and those philo-semites who do and might stand with us, as taboos on “singling” out elements of Jewish singularity, for good and ill, have impinged upon all discourse.

It’s silly to tell other people what they should say, but my own preference is for speaking bluntly, as a Jew, about Jewish accomplishments as well as Jewish blunders and instances of genuine irresponsibility within modern Jewish history, such as the rush into the Communist movements, especially in Europe, especially in Eastern Europe, and especially in the Bolshevik revolution—movements which could never have gained the power they did without massive Jewish participation. Yes, Jews were oppressed under Czarism, indeed Czarist Russia was a dead end for Jews, they saw Communism as a liberation, etc.—but enough of such rationalizations! This is a key pathology of democratic discourse—any wrongdoing of which I am accused must be traced back to a wrong done to me so as to even things out, and I imagine the hope of many Jews was that tracing the ultimate wrong to the “ruling class” oppressors would mean it wouldn’t be traced back to them—but why not just acknowledge the wrong, assess the damage, repudiate the sources in one’s own experience that were evidenced in these events, rethink and create new practices? Yuri Slezkine, in “The Jewish Century,” traces the modern Jewish trajectory along three lines: Communism, with its fullest expression in the USSR; Zionism, leading, of course, to Israel; and the “therapeutic state” which he asserts Jews created in 20th century America—with this latest perhaps the furthest reaching, intellectually and socially, of them all. We can afford to reject the Communism, and Leftism more generally, while embracing Zionism and the flourishing of Judaism and Jewish culture, along with the remarkable example of a free, market society under construction in Israel, and untangling the complex legacies of the “therapeutic,” which I believe has done more good than harm in contributing to the self-understanding of modern society. In other words, there are many good reasons to be disgusted, to renounce and condemn anti-semitism, and I don’t say that Jewish repudiation of Leftism is a precondition of such responses; I do say, though, that Jews and their defenders will only be able to engage this battle fully through such a repudiation, which will enable us to frankly acknowledge our admittedly outsized contribution to the world and make the perhaps unsatisfying but undoubtedly true claim that we are more sinned against than sinning—but, in the end, who wants to keep score? We are strong enough to do this, and not simply adopt a victimized stance in relation to anti-semitism.

To return to social theory: the basic social model bequeathed by Judaism is one of a covenant formed through the revelation of a divinity external to any social center; implicit in this model is a law, both oral (given in the event of revelation itself and transmitted pedagogically and in practice) and written (with simulated reluctance, because the law can account for the dispersal of the people and the cutting of threads of tradition insofar as we supplement these losses with the sacralization of the very language in which the revelation took place); implicit in the law—actual statutes, governing everyday life and ethical experience, debated and implemented by specialists but visible to all—or Halacha, are the store of examples, embodied in stories, high and low, tragic and comic, constantly undergoing revision and accreting commentary, or Aggadah, in which the kind of people who discovered/invented, expanded, exemplified and violated the laws can be disclosed along with the kind of world in which such people would have been born, grown and struggled. Implicit in all of the above is a people capable of living in a world of strangers, of switching back and forth between explicit and tacit, extending the benefit of God and the Law to those who wish it while defending themselves against those who don’t—at any rate, there is never any social relation outside of some covenant, some mutual pledging, some willingness to be taken hostage or stand in for one’s fellow. This is pretty much the social model I proposed at the opening, which means we can now answer Marx’s implicit accusation and say, yes, we want to make all of society Jewish, and this is what it means.

Clearly, we need a radical break with victimary culture, which exacerbates what I have called “meta-democratic” discourse, has no intrinsic limits and in the near future might make basic economic activity and the maintenance of social peace problematic. Since the last radical break with victimary culture was that effected by the Nazis, people will understandably be cautious. I think that only the sacralization of agreements, tacit and explicit, will suffice—even unfair agreements, agreements entered into rashly, agreements undermined by changes in the conditions which first underlay them, agreements we have discovered we must have made in order to cooperate as we do now—a fetishization of agreements, and engagements which foreground what we must have already agreed upon simply to make the engagement possible. This would not replace a “victim” culture with a “victor” culture, but with a culture which privileges those who stick with commitments they have made and offer themselves as examples of the agreements we must have made simply in order to make sense of the example. The fight against anti-semitism might put forth those elements of Judaism that represent the human as subject to agreements already made, those yet to be made, and those we are to discover we have always already made. In seeking ceaselessly to covenant with our fellow men and women we earn the right to make explicit the covenant with God whose promise underlay that quest in the first place—even if we are at the point where we can eliminate the name “God,” if need be, and just treat every word as containing a solemn agreement with whomever cares to repeat, embody or mistake it.