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VCU Menorah Review Summer/Fall 2011
Number 75
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Jews in the Shaping of Modern Capitalism

A review essay by Steven Windmueller

Capitalism and the Jews by Jerry Z. Muller. Princeton University Press

In a relatively compact book, the reader is introduced to the story of Jews and capitalism by economic historian Jerry Muller.

Professor Muller posits that “to understand modern European and Jewish history” one needs to appreciate the historical relationship between capitalism and Jews. Unfortunately, this book simply does not achieve this outcome. This text can best be described as a brief overview of some of the core themes that might define this connection. Beyond this point, this work is disappointing in its lack of depth and content. Surprisingly, his endnotes are often more informative and useful than the body of his material.

The author sets out to explore how both the world of religion (namely Christianity) and of governments reacted to the role of Jews within the economic order. Where Jews were accepted in more liberal nation–state systems, they flourished within the capitalistic model. Where and when they were rejected, Jews sought to embrace alternative economic ideologies, including socialism and communism. An additional response involved the notion that unless Jews had their own nation–state, they would remain “the other”; thus, the Zionist enterprise was seen as another expression of their status in the world. But in none of these arenas, does Muller do justice to the historical, economic or political issues associated with these respective categories.

What Muller does capture are elements of the relationship between some of the core ideas that have shaped modern capitalism and the impact of these principles on Jewish economic behavior. He specifically accomplishes elements of his goal in two specific areas. His historic overview on the theme of usury is useful and informative. In this context Professor Muller’s analysis of church policy and early philosophical thinking about monetary notions are particularly illuminating.

Secondly, his background analysis on the works of Georg Simmel and Werner Sombart represents one of the stronger elements to this manuscript. Simmel’s The Philosophy of Money and Sombart’s two primary contributions, Modern Capitalism and The Jews and Economic Life shed some fascinating and useful insights on the theoretical principles aligning Jews with the capitalist enterprise. Correspondingly, Mueller’s analysis of John Maynard Keynes’ contributions to this discourse along with his brief references to the writings of Frederick Hayek’s Road to Serfdom and The Constitution of Liberty offer some important insights into the engagement of Jews with capitalism.

Hayek’s notions about capitalism, as interpreted by Muller, suggests the following: “The economic vibrancy created a social and cultural dynamic, demanding the adaptation of old ways of thinking and behaving.” For Hayek, Jews portrayed the necessary cultural characteristics that were seen as essential for “competitive capitalism”.

As Muller seeks to point out that the enemies of capitalism attempted over time whether under Nazism or Communism to identify Jews with the evils and failings of the capitalist system. Citing Osama Bin Laden’s “Letter to America” in 2002, the author notes how even radical Islam seeks to align Jews with the capitalistic system: “…the Jews have taken control of your economy, through which they have then taken control of your media, and now control all aspects of your life making you their servants and achieving their aims at your expense.”

In some measure, Jerry Muller’s focus on Jewish involvement with the world of Communism and the former Soviet Union seems to take away from his core thesis and focus on the engagement of Jews with capitalism. His attention to the 20th century, and more directly the American experience, is totally absent from these pages. In light of the contributions made by American Jews to this nation’s economic enterprise, this book falls far short in capturing that significant and essential story. Further and somewhat surprising, this writer ignores the past and recent events involving ponzi schemes and other indiscretions, where Jews have been specifically identified.

The subject matter is simply too complex to be condensed into a 200 page volume. Had the author elected to identify this work as focusing on some of the core issues associated with Jews and capitalism than such a volume would garner greater credibility. In its present form, the author simply fails to achieve what the title and his introduction seek to project.

Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles campus, and contributing editor.


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