In the eyes of Judaism, whatever meaning life acquires derives from this encounter: the Divine accepts and confirms the human…
Religions—which differ in much else—differ in substance according to their experience and understanding of the meeting between the Divine and the human: whether, when, and how it occurs, and what happens in and through it. In Judaism, the fundamental and all-penetrating occurrence is a primordial mystery, and a miracle of miracles: the Divine, though dwelling on high and infinitely above man, yet bends down low so as to accept and confirm man in his finite humanity; and man, though met by Divine Infinity, yet may and must respond to this meeting in and through his finitude.
Some scholars attribute to the God of early Jewish faith mythological finitude. But this reflects blindness to the religious realities of Judaism—a blindness arising out of modern prejudice. In the very beginnings of Jewish faith, God is experienced and conceived as the all-demanding God; and it is only a question of time until the one-important God becomes the one-existing God. Hence even His earliest followers smash the idols: Judaism is anti-mythological from the start.
Just as the God even of “primitive” Judaism is infinite, so the man even of “advanced’ Judaism remains finite. Man, though created in the Divine image, is still a creature; he is neither a fragment of Divinity nor potentially Divine. Such notions—the product of modern humanism—remain unassimilable to the Jewish faith.
As a consequence of the miracle of miracles which lies at the core of Judaism, Jewish life and thought are marked by a fundamental tension. This tension might have been evaded in either of two ways. It might have been held—as ancient Epicureanism and modern Deism, for example, do in fact hold—that the Divine and the human are after all incapable of meeting. But this view is consistently rejected in Jewish tradition, which considers Epicureanism tantamount to atheism. Or, on the other side, it might have been held that the meeting is a mystical conflux, in which the finite dissolves into the Infinite and man suffers the loss of his very humanity. But this view, too, although a profound religious possibility and a serious challenge, is rejected in Jewish tradition. Such thinkers as Maimonides, Isaac Luria, and the Baal Shem-Tov all stop short—on occasion, to be sure, only barely—of embracing mysticism. And those who do not—such as Spinoza—pass beyond the bounds of Judaism. The Infinity of the Divine, the finitude of the human, and the meeting between them: these all remain, then, wherever Judaism preserves its substance; and the mystery and tension of this meeting permeate all else.
In the eyes of Judaism, whatever meaning life acquires derives from this encounter: the Divine accepts and confirms the human in the moment of meeting. But the meaning conferred upon human life by the Divine-human encounter cannot be understood in terms of some finite human purpose, supposedly more ultimate than the meeting itself. For what could be more ultimate than the Presence of God? The Presence of God, then, as Martin Buber puts it, is an “inexpressible confirmation of meaning. . . . The question of the meaning of life is no longer there. But were it there, it would not have to be answered.”
In Judaism, however, this “inexpressible confirmation of meaning” does, after all, assume expression; and this is because the Divine-human meeting assumes structure and content.
First, it is a universal human experience that times of Divine Presence do not last forever. But this experience does not everywhere have the same significance or even reality. Conceivably mythological religions—for which the world is “full of gods” (Thales)—may find divinity even in the most worldly preoccupation with the most finite ends: this is not possible if the Divine is an Infinity and radically other than all things finite. Mystical religions, for their part, may dismiss all such worldly preoccupations as mere appearance, and confine reality to the moment in which the human dissolves into the Divine: this is not possible if the moment of Divine-human encounter itself confirms man in his human finitude. In Judaism, man is real at every moment of his finite existence—including those moments when he is divorced from the Divine. The God of Judaism, while “near” at times, is—for whatever reason—“far” at other times. But times of Divine farness must also have meaning; for the far God remains an existing God, and nearness remains an ever-live possibility. These times of Divine farness, however, derive their meaning from times of Divine nearness. The dialectic between Divine nearness and Divine farness is all-pervasive in Jewish experience; and it points to an eschatological future in which it is overcome.
Secondly, the Divine-human meeting assumes structure and content in Judaism through the way man is accepted and confirmed as a consequence of this meeting. In Judaism God accepts and confirms man by commanding him in his humanity; and the response called for is obedience to God—an obedience to be expressed in finite human form. Here lies the ground for the Jewish rejection of the mystic surrender. Man must remain human because in commanding him as human, God accepts him in his humanity and makes him responsible in His very presence. In Judaism, Divine Grace is not superadded and subservient to Divine Commandment. Divine Grace already is, primordially, in the commandment; and were it not so, the commandment would be radically incapable of human performance. It is in the Divine Law itself that the Psalmist finds his delight, not only in a Divine action subsequent to observance of the Law; and if the Law saves him from perishing in his affliction, it is because Divine Love has handed it over to humans—not to angels—thereby making it in principle capable of human fulfillment.
Because the Divine acceptance of the human is a commanding acceptance, the inexpressible meaning of the Divine-human encounter assumes four interrelated expressions of which two are immediately contained within the commandment itself. First, there is a dimension of meaning in the very fact of being commanded as a human by the Divine: to be thus commanded is to be accepted as humanly responsible. And before long the undifferentiated commanding Presence will give utterance to many specific commandments, which particularize Divine acceptance and human responsibility according to the exigencies of a finite human existence on earth.
Secondly, if to be commanded by God is to be both obligated and enabled to obey, then meaning must be capable of human realization, and this meaning must be real even in the sight of Divinity. The fear induced in the finite human by the Infinite Divine Presence may seem to destroy any such presumption. Yet the acceptance of the human by the commanding Love makes possible, and indeed mandatory, human self-acceptance.
A third aspect of meaning comes into view because the Divine commandment initiates a relation of mutuality between God and man. The God of Judaism is no Deistic First Cause which, having caused the world, goes into perpetual retirement. Neither is He a Law-giver who, having given laws, leaves man to respond in human solitariness. Along with the commandment, handed over for human action, goes the promise of Divine action. And because Divine action makes itself contingent upon human action, a relationship of mutuality is established. God gives to man a covenant—that is, a contract; He binds Himself by its terms and becomes a partner.
The meaning of the Divine-human encounter, however, has yet a fourth expression; and if this had not gradually emerged, the Jewish faith could hardly have survived through the centuries. Because a pristine Divine Love accepted the human, a relation of mutuality between an Infinite Divinity and a finite humanity—something that would seem to be impossible—nevertheless became possible. Yet that relation remains destructible at finite hands; indeed, were it simply mutual, it would be destroyed by man almost the moment it was established. Even in earlier forms of Jewish faith God is long-suffering enough to put up with persistent human failures; and at length it becomes clear that the covenant can survive only if God’s patience is absolute. The covenant, to be sure, remains mutual; and Divine action remains part of this mutuality, as a response to human deeds. But Divine action also breaks through this limitation and maintains the covenant in unilateral love. The human race after Noah, and Israel at least since the time of Jeremiah, still can—and do—rebel against their respective covenants with God. But they can no longer destroy them. Sin still causes God to punish Israel; but no conceivable sin on Israel’s part can cause Him to forsake her. Divine Love has made the covenant indestructible.
In Judaism, covenantal existence becomes a continuous, uninterrupted way of life. A Divine-human relation unstructured by commandment would alternate between times of inexpressible meaning and times of sheer waiting for such meaning. A relationship so structured by commandment, yet failing to encompass both Divine nearness and farness, could not extend its scope over the whole of human life. For if it were confined to times of Divine nearness, covenantal existence would be shattered into as many fragments as there are moments of Divine nearness, with empty spaces between them. If, on the other hand, it were confined to Divine farness, it would degenerate, on the Divine side, into an external law sanctioned by an absent God and, on the human side, into legalistic exercises practiced in His absence. But as understood and lived in Judaism, covenantal existence persists in times of Divine farness. The commandment is still present, as is the Divine promise, however obscured for the moment. The human power to perform the commandment, while impaired, is not destroyed; and he who cannot perform the commandment for the sake of God, as he is supposed to do, is bidden to perform it anyway—for performance which is not for His sake will lead to performance which is for His sake. Times of Divine nearness, then, do not light up themselves alone. Their meaning extends over all of life.
So much for the general characteristics of the Divine-human relationship according to Judaism. What humans partake of this relationship? Individuals or communities? And some individuals and communities only, or potentially the whole of the human race? It will become evident that in Judaism these are not mutually exclusive alternatives, and indeed, that those modern conceptions which would make them so—“individualism” versus “collectivism,” and “particularism” versus “universalism”—are alien to the dynamic of the Jewish faith.
Consider, first, “universalism” and “particularism.” Because the God of the Divine-human encounter is Infinite, each meeting discloses Him—potentially at least—as the One of every meeting. Because the man of this encounter is finite, and accepted in his finitude, each meeting singles him out—potentially at least—as a unique individual or a unique group. Mythological deities may remain “particularistic”—i.e., confined to limits of time and space: the Jewish God who smashes the idols breaks through such limits. The mystical conflux may dissolve the here-and-now into a “universalistic” eternity; the Jewish encounter with God accentuates the here-and-now in which it occurs. If He did not from the start transcend the here-and-now of the encounter, the Jewish God would fragment himself (in Buber’s phrase) into “moment-gods” according to the moments of meeting; and if He did not in every encounter single out this individual, this people, in the here-and-now, He would accept not existing humans but only unreal abstractions. The Biblical God is indeed the God of all the nations; but there is no word for the abstraction “mankind” in the Hebrew scriptures.
To be singled out by the Divine is a crucial and persisting Jewish experience. The first commandment given to the first Jew—that Abraham leave his country—is addressed to him only, it does not call for a universal migration of peoples. The commandment to become a holy people unto God constitutes Israel as a unique people; it does not enunciate a universal principle. The Talmud teaches that God has made each man unique and speaks to him in his uniqueness, and this teaching is powerfully reaffirmed in modern Hasidism. Even today, Jewish existence cannot be understood without reference to such singling out. To be sure, some modern Jewish thinkers (Mordecai Kaplan, for example) have identified the “essence” of Judaism with universal moral and religious principles shared by all higher religions, but though they take great pains to connect this “universal” essence with the “particular” existence of the Jewish people, their efforts always end in failure.
Just as the human remains singled out even in the most “advanced” Jewish experience, so God transcends, even in the most “primitive” Jewish experience, the here-and-now in which such acts of singling-out occur. The significance of the commandment addressed to Abraham is realized only in future generations. The covenant between God and Israel has from the outset a scope which transcends Israel; in time it will encompass the whole of the human race.
“Universalism” and “particularism,” then, are not only both present throughout Jewish religious experience; they are also internally united, and their union is manifest in history. History is not history unless each of the events that makes it up is unique; and it remains fragmented into many histories unless these unique events nevertheless constitute one “universal” whole. In Judaism, the events of history become one through the direction it assumes as a result of Divine incursions into it. The Jewish God is from the start a God of history; eventually He will become the Lord of all history.
A crucial dimension of meaning in Judaism is therefore historical. The Hebrew prophets do not only proclaim a universally applicable Divine Will; it is their inescapable agony to be men of their own day. Jeremiah demands passive submission to the enemy, well aware that armed resistance has been the Divine Will at other times. And when he is confronted by another would-be prophet offering the opposite counsel, he suffers—and the people suffer—because no resort to general principles can settle the issue between them. This issue may indeed be settled by the future. But by then it will be too late for an action which is needed now: so radically singled-out and singling-out can a prophetic message be, so wholly historical can a commandment be. And yet, though a man of his time, the prophet is not for his time alone. His moment is an epoch-making moment significant for all of history.
In addition to becoming historical in this way, the Divine commandment also establishes the historical meaning of human action. A Providence which in pursuit of its historical purpose reduced man to a will-less automaton would not be a Providence which governed history, but rather a blind Fate which destroyed it. The prophets do not predict an inescapable future. Their predictions—such as they are—are contingent upon human action. Human action, therefore, assumes a decisive historical meaning; and this action is no less epoch-making than the prophetic message which demands it. For it leaves an indelible mark on all future history.
This would, however, be impossible if history were composed of human action only, albeit responding to Divine command. Human action is finite: how can it give direction to history, or leave indelible marks upon it? The answer is that it can do so only if it is not left to itself, only if it works in persistent mutuality with a Divine action which responds to it. Thus, in Judaism, the relation of mutuality between the Divine and the human becomes manifest in history. Such early Jewish documents as the Book of Judges can see an exact correlation between Israel’s obedience and national victories, and between Israel’s defiance and national defeats: the victories are given by God and the defeats are sent by Him. And naïve though this view may seem, some degree of belief in such a correlation remains an element of all subsequent forms of the Jewish faith. For a history dependent for meaning on human action alone would lead to despair, while Divine incursions into history that were devoid of all reference to human action would deprive human action of meaning.
Later stages of Jewish faith, however, modify the naïve view of history reflected in the Book of Judges in three main respects. We have already noted how in Judaism Divine action, mutually related to the human and contingent upon it, is gradually seen to have a unilateral aspect as well. Such unilateral Divine action comes to be part of the Jewish understanding of history, and traces of it are already present in the Book of Judges itself: behind the Divine punishment which is a reaction to man’s sinfulness is a Love which seeks to produce repentance. This Love, to be sure, was not conceived as wholly unilateral so long as it was considered possible that sufficiently grave sins on Israel’s part might cause God to abandon or destroy His covenant with her. But at least from Jeremiah on, Jewish faith rules this possibility out.
In rabbinic literature, the inextricable connection between Divine-human mutuality and Divine unilateralness becomes the object of explicit theological reflection. God is Judge, and God is Father; and unless He were both the world could not exist. God is Judge: love without judgment would destroy the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, and hence all human responsibility. God is Father: judgment without love would place on human responsibility a greater burden than it could bear.
The Book of Judges harmonizes with ease a Divine power encompassing all history with a human freedom to rebel against it. For its interest is confined to Israel, and it sees Divine power as responding to Israel’s deeds. But later Biblical writings reflect the awareness that a Providence limited by human deeds would lose its providential character. Biblical thought is not philosophical thought, and therefore it does not confront the problem posed by the conflict between Divine omnipotence and human freedom. Neither, however, does it fall into the dilemma of having to choose between the two. Nebukhadnezzar is the instrument of a Divine Providence which uses him to punish Israel. Yet he remains a free and responsible agent, and hence is punished for his sins.
The rabbis of the Talmud recognize the paradox involved here, but being no more philosophical than the Bible itself, they agree with the Bible in rejecting the dilemma. Human action limits Divine power, which is why men “strengthen” it when they obey the Divine will and “weaken” it when they disobey. But human action limits Divine power only “as it were”: finite man cannot literally either weaken or strengthen the Infinite God. And yet human thought must remain content with such paradoxical symbolic statements. It cannot rise to a literal truth which is free of paradox; it can only hold to the double truth that “everything is foreseen, yet freedom of choice is given.”
The implication is that history is wholly in Divine hands even while man has a share in making it; that, whereas righteousness makes man a partner in the realization of the Divine plan, sin, for all its reality and power, is unable to disrupt or destroy it.
There is still a third respect in which the fully developed Jewish understanding of history departs from the naive view of the Book of Judges. In opposition to this view, Jeremiah complains that the way of the wicked prospers, and the Book of Job is wholly devoted to refuting the belief—persisting elsewhere, and in secular form even in modern times—that prosperity and good fortune are a proof of virtue, adversity and disaster a proof of vice. Such complaints might have been belittled either by the admonition to worry about virtue only and not its reward, or by the restriction of meaning in history to a spiritual dimension, exclusive of all worldly fortune, good or ill. But while Jewish thought does occasionally give voice to such an admonition, it rejects any suggestion that history is not, after all, in Divine hands; and as for the restriction of significant history to the domain of pure spirit, Judaism always and wholly repudiates it. The complaint of Jeremiah and Job, then, cannot be evaded; and here, the Jewish quest for meaning in history runs into certain limitations.
We have already come upon the outlines of two such limitations. First, if Divine omnipotence co-exists with human freedom; if Divine power is manifest in what yet remains the criminal act of a Nebukhadnezzar (or, for that matter, the righteous act of an Abraham or Moses): then meaning in history, even if and when disclosed, is disclosed only within the confines of finite understanding. And this falls radically short of the understanding of God. Secondly, meaning is not everywhere disclosed in history. Nebukhadnezzar is seen as serving a Divine purpose; but not every tyrant is a Nebukhadnezzar. And while a prophet proclaims the will of God to one generation, most generations are lacking in prophets.
In such times, however, men are not left alone with their own wisdom when engaged in historical action; nor are they forced to deny meaning to history where none is disclosed. For even when God is far, His commandment is still near; it is not merely on his own counsel that man falls back in fathoming the task of the present hour. And the events of the present, although disclosing no meaning, nevertheless possess meaning. For history remains in God’s hands even when all is dark.
This distinction between meaning and disclosed meaning in history is crucial in Judaism and has been among the most vital factors in its survival. Without it the Jews might have identified meaning in history with what history discloses, and celebrated naked success: but how could they have done so and yet resisted Babylonians and Romans in the name of their faith? Or they might have abandoned history as a sphere of religious meaning: but how could they have done so and yet carried forward a religious existence inextricably bound up with history? Finally, they might have distinguished between a sacred history in the keeping of God and a secular history outside the Divine concern: but how could they have done so and remained true to fundamental Jewish realities? The pristine Divine-human meeting in Judaism accepts man in his totality; and the Divine commandment specifies itself socially, politically, and economically, as well as individually and spiritually. A meaning at once manifest in history and yet indifferent to poverty, war, and tyranny is unthinkable to the Jewish mind.
But the Jewish search for meaning in history is bounded by yet a third limitation, and this only gradually emerges. Not only is the disclosure of meaning in history fragmentary; the meaning itself is fragmentary. Past and present point not only to a finite future but to one which is absolute and all-consummating as well. Not until an eschatological dimension, a messianic belief, comes into view is the Jewish understanding of meaning in history complete.
A Jeremiah sure of history, and ignorant only of a portion of its contents, would not contend with God but merely seek Divine enlightenment; a Job sure of history would begin where in fact he ends: with the incommensurability of the Divine dispensation with all things human. Both Jeremiah and Job, however, are forced to contend with God by the very nature of the primordial Jewish experience. Divine Love has singled out man so as to make him humanly responsible; is it not bound, then, to the consequences of its own action—to a Divine Justice not wholly incommensurate with responsible human action? Jews were thus forced to go beyond acceptance of an undisclosed meaning in history. They had to question meaning in history itself, in the light of historical realities. This questioning, to be sure, did not result in wholesale skepticism, or a despair of meaning in history. But it did result in the belief that meaning has remained incomplete in past history, and must remain so in any future that does not differ qualitatively from the past.
The question to be asked of Judaism, then, is not so much why the Messianic belief appeared on the scene as why it appeared so late. Is the prosperity of the wicked or the suffering of the righteous so rare a phenomenon, or one so difficult to perceive?
A partial answer may be that for early Biblical man the meaning of life, when that meaning remains incomplete, can find completion in the lives of others. If Abraham dies satisfied, it is because of a Divine promise extending to his descendants. If the Book of Judges perceives complete justice in history, it is at least to some extent because justice is due to the people only, not to the individual members of it. Early Biblical man takes no offense at a God who punishes the children for the sins of the fathers: and here lies one reason why for him a finite future can consummate the meaning of past and present.
But the God of Jeremiah and especially of Ezekiel will not tolerate the visitation of the sins of the fathers upon the children: for the God of Israel is God of each person as well. Once this becomes the explicit Jewish faith—after long being implicit—the contention of Jeremiah and Job becomes inescapable. Individuals do suffer unjustly, and their suffering cannot acquire meaning through historical events after they have died. Meaning in history, then, is fragmentary; and a merely historical future, no different in nature from the past, cannot complete it. Thus an eschatological future comes into view.
We have already rejected the disjunction of “universalism” and “particularism” as alien to the dynamic and structure of the Jewish faith. We must now do the same with the disjunction of “collectivism” and “individualism.” Jewish faith ends by repudiating any reduction of the individual to his communal or historical role, but this repudiation is implicit from the beginning. For the acceptance of man in the pristine Divine-human meeting would be incomplete if it did not encompass the individual in his own right as well as the community. There is Jewish authenticity in the rabbinic legend which makes the Sinaitic revelation address each individual Israelite.
Aspects of such “individualism” are present even where the emphasis is “collectivistic.” In binding the community, the Mosaic code nevertheless recognizes the individual within the community, which is why its scope can also extend beyond the community, to strangers and slaves. This motif becomes still more radical in post-Biblical thought. In the view of the rabbis, the Divine spirit rests on all individuals according to their actions, whether they be Gentiles or Israelites, men or women, slaves or handmaidens; and the righteous among the Gentiles are priests of God.
The consequence of such “individualism” is that historical change can hold no total sway over the commandments. Orthodox belief, of course, considers the Mosaic Law to be exempt from historical change in any case, but all Jewish belief takes this view concerning those laws which state what is morally due to individuals: the wrongness of theft or murder does not depend on historical circumstances. The distinction between the historical and trans-historical commandments becomes fully explicit—and inescapable even for Orthodox belief—in the prophets. Jeremiah proclaims submission to the enemy as the task of the hour when armed resistance has been the task of another hour. But it is unimaginable that he should adopt a similar position regarding what is owed to widows and orphans.
“Individualism” is as much present in Divine promise and its fulfillment as it is in the commandment. It is the individual who in the Psalms comes upon Divine salvation—both that which rewards human faithfulness and that which is the sheer gift of a gratuitous Love. Nor does this reflect an “individualistic” piety unrelated to, let alone at odds with, the “collectivistic.” Not a few Psalms were written in and for public worship, and they retain an essential place in public Jewish worship today. Indeed, the Jewish liturgy is so structured as to unite its communal and individual aspects into an organic whole. The God addressed as God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob by the whole community is also addressed as his God by each individual member. And the Jewish calendar which includes Pass-over, celebrating the origin of the community of Israel, also includes the Day of Atonement, on which the individual stands before God in radical solitariness—in the midst of the congregation.
But just as history comes at length to point to an eschatological dimension, so does the life of the individual. Early Biblical man may immediately rejoice in a commandment wholly fulfilled or in a salvation suddenly made manifest. In due course Jewish faith comes to accept that the saving moment does not vanquish evil permanently, nor absolutely even while the moment lasts; and that no man is free of sin. To be sure, there is forgiveness wherever there is repentance, and a man ought to repent a day before his death. Yet repentance itself remains fragmentary, and even the most righteous of men—such as Abraham and Moses—do not die sinless. The Pharisaic insistence on life after death is in the Jewish spirit; and there is poetic if not literal truth in the rabbinic view that this belief is present in the Bible itself.
Since prophetic times Jewish faith has looked to a Messianic future. The goals of this future are no longer limited—to a united people, a promised land, a central Sanctuary. They are, rather, all-encompassing: all nations flow to Jerusalem; the Kingdom of God is forever established; and it extends over the whole earth.
This is a hope for history. And it arises from a decisive historical experience: the land was given as promised to Abraham, and the central Sanctuary established, but the covenant still has at best only a precarious existence. Time and again Israel has returned to God only to forsake Him once more. And in the end the wearisome cycle is broken by catastrophe and exile.
It was doubtless the original Jewish belief that the Divine commandment is capable of total human performance, and that the Jewish commitment to the covenant, once made, might have been kept with total fidelity. Under the impact of historical experience, however, the prophets were led to qualify this belief, and Judaism acquired a new dimension through the qualification.
Israel has broken the covenant; so long as she can, she will always break it sometimes. Man will always sin so long as he is able: for sin, though not original, is nevertheless universal. The covenant, then, remains threatened, and from without as well as from within. For the nations not only tempt Israel to idolatry but also endanger her very survival. History, in short, seems to have lost the direction it once had; and it cannot re-acquire direction from a future which does not differ qualitatively from present and past.
In the teeth of these perceptions, the prophets nevertheless reaffirm the ancient faith in the direction of history. Revelation has initiated meaning in history: it points to a Redemption which will complete that meaning. The revealed commandment demands human performance; a Messianic Redemption will place the commandment in man’s inward parts. Man has been able to obey the Divine Will ever since the Divine commandment accepted him in his humanity; in the Messianic future he will be neither willing nor able to disobey it. For all Nature will have been cured of its anti-Divine potential: the wolf will lie down with the lamb. And since Redemption will extend to all nations, all history will be embraced in total consummation: the Kingdom of God on earth will be complete.
For such a future, incommensurate as it is with human historical action, men must wait, radically uncertain of the time of its arrival. Throughout Jewish history, there seemed to be moments of human righteousness ripe for Redemption in the sight of Divine Justice, and long periods of human suffering ripe for it in the sight of Divine Compassion. But even popular legend came to picture the Messiah as bound in fetters—anxious to come and yet held back by a God who alone knows the secret of the right time. And the rabbis prohibited all attempts to calculate the end.
And yet men must work for the Messianic end even as they wait for it. A Messianic future simply incommensurate with all historical human action would retroactively destroy the historical meaning which it was intended to consummate; yet if Jewish faith has come to expect this future at all, it is precisely because meaning, however fragmentary, is nevertheless actual in pre-Messianic history. Hence men must, here and now, “prepare the world for the Kingdom of God”; and it is to this goal that Jewish obedience to the commandments is in due course directed. And so aware does Jewish faith become of the weight of its Messianic obligation as to imagine that a single day of wholehearted obedience would cause the Messiah’s immediate arrival.
But the incommensurability of human action with its Messianic goal remains. When, for one thing, is the individual or community capable of even a single day’s total faithfulness? How, for another, would the righteousness of some cause all sinners (tyrannical rulers, for example) to repent? The Messianic future, then, is at once connected with human action in pre-Messianic history and yet incommensurate with it. The Messiah will arrive when the world has become good enough to make his coming possible; or evil enough to make it necessary. Men must act as though all depended on them; and wait and pray as though all depended on God.
Because the Messianic end is tied to present history, the prophetic expectation can even now imagine it; because it remains incommensurate with all pre-Messianic history, the prophetic imagination cannot make it literally intelligible. Thus, the Messianic peace is no unearthly mystery but one in which men beat their swords into plowshares. And the hunger stilled is not of the soul alone, but of the body as well. Yet such a peace and prosperity transcend all literal comprehension. What transfiguration will make the wolf lie down with the lamb—or men incapable of oppressing one another? Jewish thought moves between a “left-wing” view which sees the Messianic world as rid of tyrants but otherwise unchanged, and a “right-wing” view which sees an apocalyptic transfiguration. But the mainstream of Jewish thought flows between these extremes.
The messianic future, while the earliest, is not the only eschatological expectation in Judaism. Beside and beyond it emerges the hope for a “world-to-come”—a hope which, although post-Biblical in origin, was always implicit in the Jewish belief that God gives meaning to individual lives wholly and in their own right. Whereas the Messianic future redeems an incomplete history, the world-to-come redeems the incomplete individual lives which exist in history.
Classical Jewish thought never achieves clarity as to the relation between these two expectations, but all attempts to assimilate one to the other are consistently rejected. Despite the absence of the belief in life after death from the Hebrew Bible, Orthodox post-Biblical theology quite deliberately embraces it. For the Divine commandment has accepted the individual and therefore any Redemption would remain incomplete—as the Messianic end by itself does—if it did not give completion to the individual. But no more can the Messianic goal of a redeemed future be identified with an Eternity beyond all time. A primordial Divine commanding Love has endowed history with meaning, in that it calls for meaningful human action. The great Divine-human drama of history thus initiated cannot be retroactively destroyed by an end which makes this world merely a place in which to prepare for another, and in itself meaningless. Redemption must consummate both the history in which men work and wait, and the lives of the individuals who work and wait in it.
The two aspects of the eschatological expectation, then, must remain mutually irreducible, even despite the conscious recognition that Eternity must surely supersede all future history. This can be so because the world-to-come remains radically unintelligible. The rabbinic sources confine themselves to saying that it will redeem the whole man whom the Divine commandment has accepted from the beginning—not an immortal soul only, but a resurrected psychosomatic totality. They are well aware that this is past all understanding, and they view silence on the subject as a necessity imposed by the silence of the Bible itself. “Rabbi Yohanan said: ‘Every prophet prophesied only for the days of the Messiah; but as for the world-to-come, no eye has seen what God has prepared for those who wait for Him.’”
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Judaism & the Meaning of Life
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Their coming-and-going polka—now you see ’im, now you don’t—consumed the first 10 days of March. One week Cohn was in the driver’s seat of U.S. economic policy, steering his boss into a comprehensive overhaul of the tax code and preparing him for a huge disgorgement of taxpayer money to repair some nebulous entity called “our crumbling infrastructure.” The next week Cohn had disappeared and in his place at the president’s side Navarro suddenly materialized. With Navarro’s encouragement, the president unexpectedly announced hefty, world-wobbling tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. At first the financial markets tumbled, and nobody in Washington, including the president’s friends, seemed happy. Nobody, that is, except Navarro, whose Cheshire-cat grin quickly became unavoidable on the alphabet-soup channels of cable news. It’s the perfect place for him, front and center, trying to disentangle the conflicting strands of the president’s economic policy. Far more than Cohn, the president’s newest and most powerful economic adviser is a suitable poster boy for Trumpism, whatever that might be.
So where, the capital wondered, did this Navarro fellow come from? (The question So where did this Cohn guy go? barely lasted a news cycle.) Insiders and political obsessives dimly remembered Navarro from Trump’s presidential campaign. With Wilbur Ross, now the secretary of commerce, Navarro wrote the most articulate brief for the Trump economic plan in the months before the election, which by my reckoning occurred roughly 277 years ago. (Ross is also Navarro’s co-conspirator in pushing the steel tariffs. They’re an Odd Couple indeed: Navarro is well-coiffed and tidy and as smooth as a California anchorman, while Ross is what Barney Fife might have looked like if he’d given up his job as Mayberry’s deputy sheriff and gotten a degree in mortuary science.) The Navarro-Ross paper drew predictable skepticism from mainstream economists and their proxies in the press, particularly its eye-popping claim that Trump’s “trade policy reforms” would generate an additional $1.7 trillion in government revenue over the next 10 years.
Navarro is nominally a professor at University of California, Irvine. His ideological pedigree, like the president’s, is that of a mongrel. After a decade securing tenure by writing academic papers (“A Critical Comparison of Utility-type Ratemaking Methodologies in Oil Pipeline Regulation”), he set his attention on politics. In the 1990s, he earned the distinction of losing four political races in six years, all in San Diego or its surrounding suburbs—one for mayor, another for county supervisor, another for city council. He was a Democrat in those days, as Trump was; he campaigned against sprawl and for heavy environmental regulation. In 1996, he ran for Congress as “The Democrat Newt Gingrich Fears Most.” The TV actor Ed Asner filmed a commercial for him. This proved less helpful than hoped when his Republican opponent reminded voters that a few years earlier, Asner had been a chief fundraiser for the Communist guerrillas in El Salvador.
After that defeat, Navarro got the message and retired from politics. He returned to teaching, became an off-and-on-again Republican, and set about writing financial potboilers, mostly on investment strategies for a world increasingly unreceptive to American leadership. One of them, Death by China (2011), purported to describe the slow but inexorable sapping of American wealth and spirit through Chinese devilry. As it happened, this was Donald Trump’s favorite theme as well. From the beginning of his 40-year public career, Trump has stuck to his insistence that someone, in geo-economic terms, is bullying this great country of his. The identity of the bully has varied over time: In the 1980s, it was the Soviets who, following their cataclysmic implosion, gave way to Japan, which was replaced, after its own economic collapse, by America’s neighbors to the north and south, who have been joined, since the end of the last decade, by China. In Death by China, the man, the moment, and the message came together with perfect timing. Trump loved it.
It’s not clear that he read it, however. Trump is a visual learner, as the educational theorists used to say. He will retain more from Fox and Friends as he constructs his hair in the morning than from a half day buried in a stack of white papers from the Department of Labor. When Navarro decided to make a movie of the book, directed by himself, Trump attended a screening and lustily endorsed it. You can see why. Navarro’s use of animation is spare but compelling; the most vivid image shows a dagger of Asiatic design plunging (up to the hilt and beyond!) into the heart of a two-dimensional map of the U.S., causing the country’s blood to spray wildly across the screen, then seep in rivulets around the world. It’s Wes Cravenomics.
Most of the movie, however, is taken up by talking heads. Nearly everyone of these heads is attached to a left-wing Democrat, a socialist, or, in a couple of instances, an anarchist from the Occupy movement. Watched today, Death by China is a reminder of how lonely—how marginal—the anti-China obsession has been. This is not to its discredit; yesterday’s fringe often becomes today’s mainstream, just as today’s consensus is often disproved by the events of tomorrow. Not so long ago, for instance, the establishment catechism declared that economic liberalization and the prosperity it created led inexorably to political liberalization; from free markets, we were told, came free societies. In the last generation, China has put this fantasy to rest. Only the willfully ignorant would deny that the behavior of the Chinese government, at home and abroad, is the work of swine. Even so, the past three presidents have seen China only as a subject for scolding, never retaliation.
And this brings us to another mystery of Trumpism, as Navarro embodies it. Retaliation against China and its bullying trade practices is exactly what Trump has promised as both candidate and president. More than a year into his presidency, with his tariffs on steel and aluminum, he has struck against the bullies at last, just as he vowed to do. And the bullies, we discover, are mostly our friends—Germans, Brazilians, South Koreans, and other partners who sell us their aluminum and steel for less than we can make it ourselves. Accounting for 2 percent of U.S. steel imports, the Chinese are barely scratched in the president’s first great foray in protectionism.
In announcing the tariffs, Trump cited Chinese “dumping,” as if out of habit. Yet Navarro himself seems at a loss to explain why he and his boss have chosen to go after our friends instead of our preeminent adversary in world trade. “China is in many ways the root of the problem for all countries of the world in aluminum and steel,” he told CNN the day after the tariffs were announced. Really? How’s that? “The bigger picture is, China has tremendous overcapacity in both aluminum and steel. So what they do is, they flood the world market, and this trickles down to our shores, and to other countries.”
If that wasn’t confusing enough, we had only to wait three days. By then Navarro was telling other interviewers, “This has nothing to do with China, directly or indirectly.”
This is not the first time Trumpism has shown signs of incoherence. With Peter Navarro at the president’s side, and with Gary Cohn a fading memory, it is unlikely to be the last.
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Review of 'Political Tribes' By Amy Chua
Amy Chua has an explanation for what ails us at home and abroad: Elites keep ignoring the primacy of tribalism both in the United States and elsewhere and so are blindsided every time people act in accordance with their group instinct. In Political Tribes, she offers a survey of tribal dynamics around the globe and renders judgments about the ways in which the United States has serially misread us-and-them conflicts. In the book’s final chapters, Chua, a Yale University law professor best known for her parenting polemic Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, focuses on the clashing group instincts that now threaten to sunder the American body politic.
As Chua sees it, “our blindness to political tribalism abroad reflects America at both its best and worst.” Because the United States is a nation made up of diverse immigrant populations—a “supergroup”—Americans can sometimes underestimate how hard it is for people in other countries to set aside their religious or ethnic ties and find common national purpose. That’s American ignorance in its most optimistic and benevolent form. But then there’s the more noxious variety: “In some cases, like Vietnam,” she writes, “ethnically blind racism has been part of our obliviousness.”
During the Vietnam War, Chua notes, the United States failed to distinguish between the ethnically homogeneous Vietnamese majority and the Chinese minority who were targets of mass resentment. In Vietnam, national identity was built largely on historical accounts of the courageous heroes who had been repelling Chinese invaders since 111 b.c.e., when China first conquered its neighbor to the south. This defining antipathy toward the Chinese was exacerbated by the fact that Vietnam’s Chinese minority was on average far wealthier and more politically powerful than the ethnic Vietnamese masses. “Yet astonishingly,” writes Chua, “U.S. foreign policy makers during the Cold War were so oblivious to Vietnamese history that they thought Vietnam was China’s pawn—merely ‘a stalking horse for Beijing in Southeast Asia.’”
Throughout the book, Chua captures tribal conflicts in clear and engrossing prose. But as a guide to foreign policy, one gets the sense that her emphasis on tribal ties might not be able to do all the work she expects of it. The first hint comes in her Vietnam analysis. If American ignorance of Chinese–Vietnam tensions is to blame for our having fought and lost the war, what would a better understanding of such things have yielded? She gets to that, sort of. “Could we have supported Ho [Chi Minh] against the French, capitalizing on Vietnam’s historical hostility toward China to keep the Vietnamese within our sphere of influence?” Chua asks. “We’ll never know. Somehow we never saw or took seriously the enmity between Vietnam and China.” It’s hard to see the U.S.’s backing a mass-murdering Communist against a putatively democratic ally as anything but a surreal thought experiment, let alone a lost opportunity.
On Afghanistan, Chua is correct about a number of things. There are indeed long-simmering tensions between Pashtuns, Punjabs, and other tribes in the region. The U.S. did pay insufficient attention to Afghanistan in the decade leading up to 9/11. The Taliban did play on Pashtun aspirations to fuel their rise. But how, exactly, are we to understand our failures in Afghanistan as resulting from ignorance of tribal relations? The Taliban went on to forge a protective agreement with al-Qaeda that had little if anything to do with tribal ties. And it was that relationship that had tragic consequences for the United States.
Not only was Osama bin Laden not Pashtun; he was an Arab millionaire, and his terrorist organization was made up of jihadists from all around the world. If anything, it was Bin Laden’s trans-tribal movement that the U.S. should have been focused on. The Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance was based on pooling resources against perceived common threats, compatible (but not identical) religious notions, and large cash payments from Bin Laden. No American understanding of tribal relations could have interfered with that.
And while an ambitious tribe-savvy counterinsurgency strategy might have gone a long way in helping the U.S.’s war effort, there has never been broad public support for such a commitment. Ultimately, our problems in Afghanistan have less to do with neglecting tribal politics and more to do with general neglect.
In Chua’s chapter on the Iraq War, however, her paradigm aligns more closely with the facts. “Could we have done better if we hadn’t been so blind to tribal politics in Iraq?” she asks. “There’s very good evidence that the answer is yes.” Here Chua offers a concise account of the U.S.’s successful 2007 troop surge. “While the additional U.S. soldiers—sent primarily to Baghdad and Al Anbar Province—were of course a critical factor,” she writes, “the surge succeeded only because it was accompanied by a 180-degree shift in our approach to the local population.”
Chua goes into colorful detail about then colonel H.R. McMaster’s efforts to educate American troops in local Iraqi customs and his decision to position them among the local population in Tal Afar. This won the trust of Iraqis who were forthcoming with critical intelligence. She also covers the work of Col. Sean MacFarland who forged relationships with Sunni sheikhs. Those sheikhs, in turn, convinced their tribespeople to work with U.S. forces and function as a local police force. Finally, Chua explains how Gen. David Petraeus combined the work of McMaster and MacFarland and achieved the miraculous in pacifying Baghdad. In spite of U.S. gains—and the successful navigation of tribes—there was little American popular will to keep Iraq on course and, over the next few years, the country inevitably unraveled.I n writing about life in the United States, Chua is on firmer ground altogether, and her diagnostic powers are impressive. “It turns out that in America, there’s a chasm between the tribal identities of the country’s haves and have-nots,” she writes, “a chasm of the same kind wreaking political havoc in many developing and non-Western countries.” In the U.S., however, there’s a crucial difference to this dynamic, and Chua puts her finger right on it: “In America, it’s the progressive elites who have taken it upon themselves to expose the American Dream as false. This is their form of tribalism.”
She backs up this contention with statistics. Some of the most interesting revelations have to do with the Occupy movement. In actual fact, those who gathered in cities across the country to protest systemic inequality in 2012 were “disproportionately affluent.” In fact, “more than half had incomes of $75,000 or more.” Occupy faded away, as she notes, because it “attracted so few members from the many disadvantaged groups it purported to be fighting for.” Chua puts things in perspective: “Imagine if the suffragette movement hadn’t included large numbers of women, or if the civil-rights movement included very few African Americans, or if the gay-rights movement included very few gays.” America’s poorer classes, for their part, are “deeply patriotic, even if they feel they’re losing the country to distant elites who know nothing about them.”
Chua is perceptive on both the inhabitants of Trump Country and the elites who disdain them. She takes American attitudes toward professional wrestling as emblematic of the split between those who support Donald Trump and those who detest him. Trump is a bona fide hero in the world of pro wrestling; he has participated in “bouts” and was actually inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2013. What WWE fans get from watching wrestling they also get from watching Trump—“showmanship and symbols,” a world held together by enticing false storylines, and, ultimately, “something playfully spectacular.” Those on the academic left, on the other hand, “are fascinated, even obsessed in a horrified way, with the ‘phenomenology’ of watching professional wrestling.” In the book’s most arresting line, Chua writes that “there is now so little interaction, commonality, and intermarriage between rural/heartland/working-class whites and urban/coastal whites that the difference between them is practically what social scientists would consider an ‘ethnic difference.’”
Of course, there’s much today dividing America along racial lines as well. While Americans of color still contend with the legacy of institutional intolerance, “it is simply a fact that ‘diversity’ policies at the most select American universities and in some sectors of the economy have had a disparate adverse impact on whites.” So, both blacks and whites (and most everyone else) feel threatened to some degree. This has sharpened the edge of identity politics on the left and right. In Chua’s reading, these tribal differences will not actually break the country apart. But, she believes, they could fundamentally and irreversibly change “who we are.”
Political Tribes, however, is no doomsday prediction. Despite our clannish resentments, Chua sees, in her daily interactions, people’s willingness to form bonds beyond those of their in-group and a relaxing of tribal ties. What’s needed is for haves and have-nots, whites and blacks, liberals and conservatives to enjoy more meaningful exposure to one another. This pat prescription would come across as criminally sappy if not for the genuinely loving and patriotic way in which Chua writes about our responsibilities as a “supergroup.” “It’s not enough that we view one another as fellow human beings,” she says, “we need to view one another as fellow Americans.” Americans as a higher ontological category than human beings—there’s poetry in that. And a healthy bit of tribalism, too.
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Then again, you know what happens when you assume.
“Here is my prediction,” Kristof wrote. “The new paramount leader, Xi Jinping, will spearhead a resurgence of economic reform, and probably some political easing as well. Mao’s body will be hauled out of Tiananmen Square on his watch, and Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize–winning writer, will be released from prison.”
True, Kristof conceded, “I may be wrong entirely.” But, he went on, “my hunch on this return to China, my old home, is that change is coming.”
Five years later, the Chinese economy, while large, is saddled with debt. Analysts and government officials are worried about its real-estate bubble. Despite harsh controls, capital continues to flee China. Nor has there been “some political easing.” On the contrary, repression has worsened. The Great Firewall blocks freedom of speech and inquiry, human-rights advocates are jailed, and the provinces resemble surveillance states out of a Philip K. Dick novel. Mao rests comfortably in his mausoleum. Not only did Liu Xiaobo remain a prisoner, he was also denied medical treatment when he contracted cancer, and he died in captivity in 2017.
As for Xi Jinping, he turned out not to be a reformer but a dictator. Steadily, under the guise of anti-corruption campaigns, Xi decimated alternative centers of power within the Communist Party. He built up a cult of personality around “Xi Jinping thought” and his “Chinese dream” of economic, cultural, and military strength. His preeminence was highlighted in October 2017 when the Politburo declined to name his successor. Then, in March of this year, the Chinese abolished the term limits that have guaranteed rotation in office since the death of Mao. Xi reigns supreme.
Bizarrely, this latest development seems to have come as a surprise to the American press. The headline of Emily Rauhala’s Washington Post article read: “China proposes removal of two-term limit, potentially paving way for President Xi Jinping to stay on.” Potentially? Xi’s accession to emperor-like status, wrote Julie Bogen of Vox, “could destabilize decades of progress toward democracy and instead move China even further toward authoritarianism.” Could? Bogen did not specify which “decades of progress toward democracy” she was talking about, but that is probably because, since 1989, there haven’t been any.
Xi’s assumption of dictatorial powers should not have shocked anyone who has paid the slightest bit of attention to recent Chinese history. The Chinese government, until last month a collective dictatorship, has exercised despotic control over its people since the very founding of the state in 1949. And yet the insatiable desire among media to incorporate news events into a preestablished storyline led reporters to cover the party announcement as a sudden reversal. Why? Because only then would the latest decision of an increasingly embattled and belligerent Chinese leadership fit into the prefabricated narrative that says we are living in an authoritarian moment.
For example, one article in the February 26, 2018, New York Times was headlined, “With Xi’s Power Grab, China Joins New Era of Strongmen.” CNN’s James Griffiths wrote, “While Chinese politics is not remotely democratic in the traditional sense, there are certain checks and balances within the Party system itself, with reformers and conservatives seeing their power and influence waxing and waning over time.” Checks and balances, reformers and conservatives—why, they are just like us, only within the context of a one-party state that ruthlessly brooks no dissent.
Now, we do happen to live in an era when democracy and autocracy are at odds. But China is not joining the “authoritarian trend.” It helped create and promote the trend. Next year, China’s “era of strongmen” will enter its seventh decade. The fundamental nature of the Communist regime in Beijing has not changed during this time.
My suspicion is that journalists were taken aback by Xi’s revelation of his true nature because they, like most Western elites, have bought into the myth of China’s “peaceful rise.” For decades, Americans have been told that China’s economic development and participation in international organizations and markets would lead inevitably to its political liberalization. What James Mann calls “the China fantasy” manifested itself in the leadership of both major political parties and in the pronouncements of the chattering class across the ideological spectrum.
Indeed, not only was the soothing scenario of China as a “responsible stakeholder” on the glide path to democracy widespread, but media figures also admonished Americans for not living up to Chinese standards. “One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks,” Tom Friedman conceded in an infamous 2009 column. “But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages.” For instance, Friedman went on, “it is not an accident that China is committed to overtaking us in electric cars, solar power, energy efficiency, batteries, nuclear power, and wind power.” The following year, during an episode of Meet the Press, Friedman admitted, “I have fantasized—don’t get me wrong—but what if we could just be China for a day?” Just think of all the electric cars the government could force us to buy.
This attitude toward Chinese Communism as a public-policy exemplar became still more pronounced after Donald Trump was elected president on an “America First” agenda. China’s theft of intellectual property, industrial espionage, harassment and exploitation of Western companies, currency manipulation, mercantilist subsidies and tariffs, chronic pollution, military buildup, and interference in democratic politics and university life did not prevent it from proclaiming itself the defender of globalization and environmentalism.
When Xi visited the Davos World Economic Forum last year, the Economist noted the “fawning reception” that greeted him. The speech he delivered, pledging to uphold the international order that had facilitated his nation’s rise as well as his own, received excellent reviews. On January 15, 2017, Fareed Zakaria said, “In an America-first world, China is filling the vacuum.” A few days later, Charlie Rose told his CBS audience, “It’s almost like China is saying, ‘we are the champions of globalization, not the United States.’” And on January 30, 2017, the New York Times quoted a “Berlin-based private equity fund manager,” who said, “We heard a Chinese president becoming leader of the free world.”
The chorus of praise for China grew louder last spring when Trump announced American withdrawal from an international climate accord. In April 2017, Rick Stengel said on cable television that China is becoming “the global leader on the environment.” On June 8, a CBS reporter said that Xi is “now viewed as the world’s leader on climate change.” On June 19, 2017, on Bloomberg news, Dana Hull said, “China is the leader on climate change, especially when it comes to autos.” Also that month, one NBC anchor asked Senator Mike Lee of Utah, “Are you concerned at all that China may be seen as sort of the global leader when it comes to bringing countries together, more so than the United States?”
Last I checked, Xi Jinping’s China has not excelled at “bringing countries together,” unless—like Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam—those countries are allying with the United States to balance against China. What instead should concern Senator Lee, and all of us, is an American media filled with people suckered by foreign propaganda that happens to coincide with their political preferences, and who are unable to make elementary distinctions between tyrannical governments and consensual ones.
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Marx didn’t supplant old ideas about money and commerce; he intensified them
rom the time of antiquity until the Enlightenment, trade and the pursuit of wealth were considered sinful. “In the city that is most finely governed,” Aristotle wrote, “the citizens should not live a vulgar or a merchant’s way of life, for this sort of way of life is ignoble and contrary to virtue.”1 In Plato’s vision of an ideal society (the Republic) the ruling “guardians” would own no property to avoid tearing “the city in pieces by differing about ‘mine’ and ‘not mine.’” He added that “all that relates to retail trade, and merchandise, and the keeping of taverns, is denounced and numbered among dishonourable things.” Only noncitizens would be allowed to indulge in commerce. A citizen who defies the natural order and becomes a merchant should be thrown in jail for “shaming his family.”
At his website humanprogress.org, Marian L. Tupy quotes D.C. Earl of the University of Leeds, who wrote that in Ancient Rome, “all trade was stigmatized as undignified … the word mercator [merchant] appears as almost a term of abuse.” Cicero noted in the first century b.c.e. that retail commerce is sordidus (vile) because merchants “would not make any profit unless they lied constantly.”
Early Christianity expanded this point of view. Jesus himself was clearly hostile to the pursuit of riches. “For where your treasure is,” he proclaimed in his Sermon on the Mount, “there will your heart be also.” And of course he insisted that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
The Catholic Church incorporated this view into its teachings for centuries, holding that economics was zero-sum. “The Fathers of the Church adhered to the classical assumption that since the material wealth of humanity was more or less fixed, the gain of some could only come at a loss to others,” the economic historian Jerry Muller explains in his book The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Western Thought. As St. Augustine put it, “Si unus non perdit, alter non acquirit”—“If one does not lose, the other does not gain.”
The most evil form of wealth accumulation was the use of money to make money—usury. Lending money at interest was unnatural, in this view, and therefore invidious. “While expertise in exchange is justly blamed since it is not according to nature but involves taking from others,” Aristotle insisted, “usury is most reasonably hated because one’s possessions derive from money itself and not from that for which it was supplied.” In the Christian tradition, the only noble labor was physical labor, and so earning wealth from the manipulation of money was seen as inherently ignoble.
In the somewhat more prosperous and market-driven medieval period, Thomas Aquinas helped make private property and commerce more acceptable, but he did not fundamentally break with the Aristotelian view that trade was suspect and the pursuit of wealth was sinful. The merchant’s life was in conflict with the teachings of Christianity if it led to pride or avarice. “Echoing Aristotle,” Muller writes, “Aquinas reasserted that justice in the distribution of material goods was fulfilled when someone received in proportion to his status, office, and function within the institutions of an existing, structured community. Hence Aquinas decried as covetousness the accumulation of wealth to improve one’s place in the social order.”
In the medieval mind, Jews were seen as a kind of stand-in for mercantile and usurious sinfulness. Living outside the Christian community, but within the borders of Christendom, they were allowed to commit the sin of usury on the grounds that their souls were already forfeit. Pope Nicholas V insisted that it is much better that “this people should perpetrate usury than that Christians should engage in it with one another.”2 The Jews were used as a commercial caste the way the untouchables of India were used as a sanitation caste. As Montesquieu would later observe in the 16th century, “whenever one prohibits a thing that is naturally permitted or necessary, the people who engage in it are regarded as dishonest.” Thus, as Muller has argued, anti-Semitism has its roots in a kind of primitive anti-capitalism.
Early Protestantism did not reject these views. It amplified them.3 Martin Luther despised commerce. “There is on earth no greater enemy of man, after the Devil, than a gripe-money and usurer, for he wants to be God over all men…. Usury is a great, huge monster, like a werewolf …. And since we break on the wheel and behead highwaymen, murderers, and housebreakers, how much more ought we to break on the wheel and kill … hunt down, curse, and behead all usurers!”4
It should therefore come as no surprise that Luther’s views of Jews, the living manifestation of usury in the medieval mind, were just as immodest. In his 1543 treatise On the Jews and Their Lies, he offers a seven-point plan on how to deal with them:
- “First, to set fire to their synagogues or schools .…This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians …”
- “Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed.”
- “Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them.”
- “Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb… ”
- “Fifth, I advise that safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews. For they have no business in the countryside … ”
- “Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them … ”
- “Seventh, I recommend putting a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow.… But if we are afraid that they might harm us or our wives, children, servants, cattle, etc., … then let us emulate the common sense of other nations such as France, Spain, Bohemia, etc., … then eject them forever from the country … ”
Luther agitated against the Jews throughout Europe, condemning local officials for insufficient anti-Semitism (a word that did not exist at the time and a sentiment that was not necessarily linked to more modern biological racism). His demonization of the Jews was derived from more than anti-capitalism. But his belief that the Jewish spirit of commerce was corrupting of Christianity was nonetheless central to his indictment. He sermonized again and again that it must be cleansed from Christendom, either through conversion, annihilation, or expulsion.
Three centuries later, Karl Marx would blend these ideas together in a noxious stew.
The idea at the center of virtually all of Marx’s economic writing is the labor theory of value. It holds that all of the value of any product can be determined by the number of hours it took for a laborer or laborers to produce it. From the viewpoint of conventional economics—and elementary logic—this is ludicrous. For example, ingenuity, which may not be time-consuming, is nonetheless a major source of value. Surely it cannot be true that someone who works intelligently, and therefore efficiently, provides less value than someone who works stupidly and slowly. (Marx anticipates some of these kinds of critiques with a lot of verbiage about the costs of training and skills.) But the more relevant point is simply this: The determinant of value in an economic sense is not the labor that went into a product but the price the consumer is willing to pay for it. Whether it took an hour or a week to build a mousetrap, the value of the two products is the same to the consumer if the quality is the same.
Marx had philosophical, metaphysical, and tactical reasons for holding fast to the labor theory of value. It was essential to his argument that capitalism—or what we would now call “commerce” plain and simple—was exploitative by its very nature. In Marx, the term “exploitation” takes a number of forms. It is not merely evocative of child laborers working in horrid conditions; it covers virtually all profits. If all value is captured by labor, any “surplus value” collected by the owners of capital is by definition exploitative. The businessman who risks his own money to build and staff an innovative factory is not adding value; rather, he is subtracting value from the workers. Indeed, the money he used to buy the land and the materials is really just “dead labor.” For Marx, there was an essentially fixed amount of “labor-power” in society, and extracting profit from it was akin to strip-mining a natural resource. Slavery and wage-labor were different forms of the same exploitation because both involved extracting the common resource. In fact, while Marx despised slavery, he thought wage-labor was only a tiny improvement because wage-labor reduced costs for capitalists in that they were not required to feed or clothe wage laborers.
Because Marx preached revolution, we are inclined to consider him a revolutionary. He was not. None of this was a radical step forward in economic or political thinking. It was, rather, a reaffirmation of the disdain of commerce that starts with Plato and Aristotle and found new footing in Christianity. As Jerry Muller (to whom I am obviously very indebted) writes:
To a degree rarely appreciated, [Marx] merely recast the traditional Christian stigmatization of moneymaking into a new vocabulary and reiterated the ancient suspicion against those who used money to make money. In his concept of capitalism as “exploitation” Marx returned to the very old idea that money is fundamentally unproductive, that only those who live by the sweat of their brow truly produce, and that therefore not only interest, but profit itself, is always ill-gotten.
In his book Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, Jonathan Sperber suggests that “Marx is more usefully understood as a backward-looking figure, who took the circumstances of the first half of the nineteenth century and projected them into the future, than as a surefooted and foresighted interpreter of historical trends.”5
Marx was a classic bohemian who resented the fact that he spent his whole life living off the generosity of, first, his parents and then his collaborator Friedrich Engels. He loathed the way “the system” required selling out to the demands of the market and a career. The frustrated poet turned to the embryonic language of social science to express his angry barbaric yawp at The Man. “His critique of the stultifying effects of labor in a capitalist society,” Muller writes, “is a direct continuation of the Romantic conception of the self and its place in society.”
In other words, Marx was a romantic, not a scientist. Romanticism emerged as a rebellion against the Enlightenment, taking many forms—from romantic poetry to romantic nationalism. But central to all its forms was the belief that modern, commercial, rational life is inauthentic and alienating, and cuts us off from our true natures.
As Rousseau, widely seen as the first romantic, explained in his Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences, modernity—specifically the culture of commerce and science—was oppressive. The baubles of the Enlightenment were mere “garlands of flowers” that concealed “the chains which weigh [men] down” and led people to “love their own slavery.”
This is a better context for understanding Marx’s and Engels’s hatred of the division of labor and the division of rights and duties. Their baseline assumption, like Rousseau’s, is that primitive man lived a freer and more authentic life before the rise of private property and capitalism. “Within the tribe there is as yet no difference between rights and duties,” Engels writes in Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State. “The question whether participation in public affairs, in blood revenge or atonement, is a right or a duty, does not exist for the Indian; it would seem to him just as absurd as the question whether it was a right or a duty to sleep, eat, or hunt. A division of the tribe or of the gens into different classes was equally impossible.”
For Marx, then, the Jew might as well be the real culprit who told Eve to bite the apple. For the triumph of the Jew and the triumph of money led to the alienation of man. And in truth, the term “alienation” is little more than modern-sounding shorthand for exile from Eden. The division of labor encourages individuality, alienates us from the collective, fosters specialization and egoism, and dethrones the sanctity of the tribe. “Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist,” Marx writes. “Money degrades all the gods of man—and turns them into commodities. Money is the universal self-established value of all things. It has, therefore, robbed the whole world—both the world of men and nature—of its specific value. Money is the estranged essence of man’s work and man’s existence, and this alien essence dominates him, and he worships it.”
Marx’s muse was not analytical reason, but resentment. That is what fueled his false consciousness. To understand this fully, we should look at how that most ancient and eternal resentment—Jew-hatred—informed his worldview.
The atheist son of a Jewish convert to Lutheranism and the grandson of a rabbi, Karl Marx hated capitalism in no small part because he hated Jews. According to Marx and Engels, Jewish values placed the acquisition of money above everything else. Marx writes in his infamous essay “On the Jewish Question”:
Let us consider the actual, worldly Jew—not the Sabbath Jew … but the everyday Jew.
Let us not look for the secret of the Jew in his religion, but let us look for the secret of his religion in the real Jew.
What is the secular basis of Judaism? Practical need, self-interest. What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money [Emphasis in original]
The spread of capitalism, therefore, represented a kind of conquest for Jewish values. The Jew—at least the one who set up shop in Marx’s head—makes his money from money. He adds no value. Worse, the Jews considered themselves to be outside the organic social order, Marx complained, but then again that is what capitalism encourages—individual independence from the body politic and the selfish (in Marx’s mind) pursuit of individual success or happiness. For Marx, individualism was a kind of heresy because it meant violating the sacred bond of the community. Private property empowered individuals to live as individuals “without regard to other men,” as Marx put it.
This is the essence of Marx’s view of alienation. Marx believed that people were free, creative beings but were chained to their role as laborers in the industrial machine. The division of labor inherent to capitalist society was alienating and inauthentic, pulling us out of the communitarian natural General Will. The Jew was both an emblem of this alienation and a primary author of it:
The Jew has emancipated himself in a Jewish manner, not only because he has acquired financial power, but also because, through him and also apart from him, money has become a world power and the practical Jewish spirit has become the practical spirit of the Christian nations. The Jews have emancipated themselves insofar as the Christians have become Jews. [Emphasis in original]
He adds, “The god of the Jews has become secularized and has become the god of the world. The bill of exchange is the real god of the Jew. His god is only an illusory bill of exchange.” And he concludes: “In the final analysis, the emancipation of the Jews is the emancipation of mankind from Judaism.” [Emphasis in original]
In The Holy Family, written with Engels, he argues that the most pressing imperative is to transcend “the Jewishness of bourgeois society, the inhumanity of present existence, which finds its highest embodiment in the system of money.” [Emphasis in original]
In his “Theories of Surplus Value,” he praises Luther’s indictment of usury. Luther “has really caught the character of old-fashioned usury, and that of capital as a whole.” Marx and Engels insist that the capitalist ruling classes, whether or not they claim to be Jewish, are nonetheless Jewish in spirit. “In their description of the confrontation of capital and labor, Marx and Engels resurrected the traditional critique of usury,” Muller observes. Or, as Deirdre McCloskey notes, “the history that Marx thought he perceived went with his erroneous logic that capitalism—drawing on an anticommercial theme as old as commerce—just is the same thing as greed.”6 Paul Johnson is pithier: Marx’s “explanation of what was wrong with the world was a combination of student-café anti-Semitism and Rousseau.”7
For Marx, capital and the Jew are different faces of the same monster: “The capitalist knows that all commodities—however shabby they may look or bad they may smell—are in faith and in fact money, internally circumcised Jews, and in addition magical means by which to make more money out of money.”
Marx’s writing, particularly on surplus value, is drenched with references to capital as parasitic and vampiric: “Capital is dead labor which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks. The time during which the worker works is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labor-power he has bought from him.” The constant allusions to the eternal wickedness of the Jew combined with his constant references to blood make it hard to avoid concluding that Marx had simply updated the blood libel and applied it to his own atheistic doctrine. His writing is replete with references to the “bloodsucking” nature of capitalism. He likens both Jews and capitalists (the same thing in his mind) to life-draining exploiters of the proletariat.
Marx writes how the extension of the workday into the night “only slightly quenches the vampire thirst for the living blood of labor,” resulting in the fact that “the vampire will not let go ‘while there remains a single muscle, sinew or drop of blood to be exploited.’” As Mark Neocleous of Brunel University documents in his brilliant essay, “The Political Economy of the Dead: Marx’s Vampires,” the images of blood and bloodsucking capital in Das Kapital are even more prominent motifs: “Capital ‘sucks up the worker’s value-creating power’ and is dripping with blood. Lacemaking institutions exploiting children are described as ‘blood-sucking,’ while U.S. capital is said to be financed by the ‘capitalized blood of children.’ The appropriation of labor is described as the ‘life-blood of capitalism,’ while the state is said to have here and there interposed itself ‘as a barrier to the transformation of children’s blood into capital.’”
Marx’s vision of exploitative, Jewish, bloodsucking capital was an expression of romantic superstition and tribal hatred. Borrowing from the medieval tradition of both Catholics as well as Luther himself, not to mention a certain folkloric poetic tradition, Marx invented a modern-sounding “scientific” theory that was in fact reactionary in every sense of the word. “If Marx’s vision was forward-looking, its premises were curiously archaic,” Muller writes. “As in the civic republican and Christian traditions, self-interest is the enemy of social cohesion and of morality. In that sense, Marx’s thought is a reversion to the time before Hegel, Smith, or Voltaire.”
In fairness to Marx, he does not claim that he wants to return to a feudal society marked by inherited social status and aristocracy. He is more reactionary than that. The Marxist final fantasy holds that at the end of history, when the state “withers away,” man is liberated from all exploitation and returns to the tribal state in which there is no division of labor, no dichotomy of rights and duties.
Marx’s “social science” was swept into history’s dustbin long ago. What endured was the romantic appeal of Marxism, because that appeal speaks to our tribal minds in ways we struggle to recognize, even though it never stops whispering in our ears.
It is an old conservative habit—one I’ve been guilty of myself—of looking around society and politics, finding things we don’t like or disagree with, and then running through an old trunk of Marxist bric-a-brac to spruce up our objections. It is undeniably true that the influence of Marx, particularly in the academy, remains staggering. Moreover, his indirect influence is as hard to measure as it is extensive. How many novels, plays, and movies have been shaped by Marx or informed by people shaped by Marx? It’s unknowable.
And yet, this is overdone. The truth is that Marx’s ideas were sticky for several reasons. First, they conformed to older, traditional ways of seeing the world—far more than Marxist zealots have ever realized. The idea that there are malevolent forces above and around us, manipulating our lives and exploiting the fruits of our labors, was hardly invented by him. In a sense, it wasn’t invented by anybody. Conspiracy theories are as old as mankind, stretching back to prehistory.
There’s ample reason—with ample research to back it up—to believe that there is a natural and universal human appetite for conspiracy theories. It is a by-product of our adapted ability to detect patterns, particularly patterns that may help us anticipate a threat—and, as Mark van Vugt has written, “the biggest threat facing humans throughout history has been other people, particularly when they teamed up against you.”8
To a very large extent, this is what Marxism is —an extravagant conspiracy theory in which the ruling classes, the industrialists, and/or the Jews arrange affairs for their own benefit and against the interests of the masses. Marx himself was an avid conspiracy theorist, as so many brilliant bohemian misfits tend to be, believing that the English deliberately orchestrated the Irish potato famine to “carry out the agricultural revolution and to thin the population of Ireland down to the proportion satisfactory to the landlords.” He even argued that the Crimean War was a kind of false-flag operation to hide the true nature of Russian-English collusion.
Contemporary political figures on the left and the right routinely employ the language of exploitation and conspiracy. They do so not because they’ve internalized Marx, but because of their own internal psychological architecture. In Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi, the talented left-wing writer, describes Goldman Sachs (the subject of quite a few conspiracy theories) thus:
The first thing you need to know about Goldman Sachs is that it’s everywhere. The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money. In fact, the history of the recent financial crisis, which doubles as a history of the rapid decline and fall of the suddenly swindled dry American empire, reads like a Who’s Who of Goldman Sachs graduates.
Marx would be jealous that he didn’t think of the phrase “the great vampire squid.”
Meanwhile, Donald Trump has occasionally traded in the same kind of language, even evoking some ancient anti-Semitic tropes. “Hillary Clinton meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers, her special-interest friends, and her donors,” Trump said in one campaign speech. “This election will determine if we are a free nation or whether we have only the illusion of democracy, but are in fact controlled by a small handful of global special interests rigging the system, and our system is rigged.” He added: “Our corrupt political establishment, that is the greatest power behind the efforts at radical globalization and the disenfranchisement of working people. Their financial resources are virtually unlimited, their political resources are unlimited, their media resources are unmatched.”
A second reason Marxism is so successful at fixing itself to the human mind is that it offers—to some—a palatable substitute for the lost certainty of religious faith. Marxism helped to restore certainty and meaning for huge numbers of people who, having lost traditional religion, had not lost their religious instinct. One can see evidence of this in the rhetoric used by Marxist and other socialist revolutionaries who promised to deliver a “Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.”
The 20th-century philosopher Eric Voegelin argued that Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire had stripped the transcendent from its central place in human affairs. God had been dethroned and “We the People”—and our things—had taken His place. “When God is invisible behind the world,” Voegelin writes, “the contents of the world will become new gods; when the symbols of transcendent religiosity are banned, new symbols develop from the inner-worldly language of science to take their place.”9
The religious views of the Romantic writers and artists Marx was raised on (and whom he had once hoped to emulate) ran the gamut from atheism to heartfelt devotion, but they shared an anger and frustration with the way the new order had banished the richness of faith from the land. “Now we have got the freedom of believing in public nothing but what can be rationally demonstrated,” the writer Johann Heinrich Merck complained. “They have deprived religion of all its sensuous elements, that is, of all its relish. They have carved it up into its parts and reduced it to a skeleton without color and light…. And now it’s put in a jar and nobody wants to taste it.”10
When God became sidelined as the source of ultimate meaning, “the people” became both the new deity and the new messianic force of the new order. In other words, instead of worshipping some unseen force residing in Heaven, people started worshipping themselves. This is what gave nationalism its spiritual power, as the volksgeist, people’s spirit, replaced the Holy Spirit. The tribal instinct to belong to a sacralized group took over. In this light, we can see how romantic nationalism and “globalist” Marxism are closely related. They are both “re-enchantment creeds,” as the philosopher-historian Ernest Gellner put it. They fill up the holes in our souls and give us a sense of belonging and meaning.
For Marx, the inevitable victory of Communism would arrive when the people, collectively, seized their rightful place on the Throne of History.11 The cult of unity found a new home in countless ideologies, each of which determined, in accord with their own dogma, to, in Voegelin’s words, “build the corpus mysticum of the collectivity and bind the members to form the oneness of the body.” Or, to borrow a phrase from Barack Obama, “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
In practice, Marxist doctrine is more alienating and dehumanizing than capitalism will ever be. But in theory, it conforms to the way our minds wish to see the world. There’s a reason why so many populist movements have been so easily herded into Marxism. It’s not that the mobs in Venezuela or Cuba started reading The Eighteenth Brumaire and suddenly became Marxists. The peasants of North Vietnam did not need to read the Critique of the Gotha Program to become convinced that they were being exploited. The angry populace is always already convinced. The people have usually reached the conclusion long ago. They have the faith; what they need is the dogma. They need experts and authority figures—priests!—with ready-made theories about why the masses’ gut feelings were right all along. They don’t need Marx or anybody else to tell them they feel ripped off, disrespected, exploited. They know that already. The story Marxists tell doesn’t have to be true. It has to be affirming. And it has to have a villain. The villain, then and now, is the Jew.
1 Muller, Jerry Z.. The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Western Thought (p. 5). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
2 Muller, Jerry Z. Capitalism and the Jews (pp. 23-24). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
3 Luther’s economic thought, reflected in his “Long Sermon on Usury of 1520” and his tract On Trade and Usury of 1524, was hostile to commerce in general and to international trade in particular, and stricter than the canonists in its condemnation of moneylending. Muller, Jerry Z.. Capitalism and the Jews (p. 26). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
4 Quoted approvingly in Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich. “Capitalist Production.” Capital: Critical Analysis of Production, Volume II. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, trans. London: Swan Sonnenschein, Lowrey, & Co. 1887. p. 604
5 Sperber, Jonathan. “Introduction.” Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life. New York: Liverwright Publishing Corporation. 2013. xiii.
6 McCloskey, Deirdre. Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 142
7 Johnson, Paul. Intellectuals (Kindle Locations 1325-1326). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
8 See also: Sunstain, Cass R. and Vermeule, Adrian. “Syposium on Conspiracy Theories: Causes and Cures.” The Journal of Political Philosophy: Volume 17, Number 2, 2009, pp. 202-227. http://www.ask-force.org/web/Discourse/Sunstein-Conspiracy-Theories-2009.pdf
9 Think of the story of the Golden Calf. Moses departs for Mt. Sinai to talk with God and receive the Ten Commandments. No sooner had he left did the Israelites switch their allegiance to false idol, the Golden Calf, treating a worldly inanimate object as their deity. So it is with modern man. Hence, Voegelin’s quip that for the Marxist “Christ the Redeemer is replaced by the steam engine as the promise of the realm to come.”
10 Blanning, Tim. The Romantic Revolution: A History (Modern Library Chronicles Series Book 34) (Kindle Locations 445-450). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
11 Marx: “Along with the constant decrease in the number of capitalist magnates, who usurp and monopolize all the advantages of this process of transformation, the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation and exploitation grows; but with this there also grows the revolt of the working class, a class constantly increasing in numbers, and trained, united and organized by the very mechanism of the capitalist process of production.”
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Review of 'Realism and Democracy' By Elliott Abrams
Then, in 1966, Syrian Baathists—believers in a different transnational unite-all-the-Arabs ideology—overthrew the government in Damascus and lent their support to Palestinian guerrillas in the Jordanian-controlled West Bank to attack Israel. Later that year, a Jordanian-linked counter-coup in Syria failed, and the key figures behind it fled to Jordan. Then, on the eve of the Six-Day War in May 1967, Jordan’s King Hussein signed a mutual-defense pact with Egypt, agreeing to deploy Iraqi troops on Jordanian soil and effectively giving Nasser command and control over Jordan’s own armed forces.
This is just a snapshot of the havoc wreaked on the Middle East by the conceit of pan-Arabism. This history is worth recalling when reading Elliott Abrams’s idealistic yet clearheaded Realism and Democracy: American Foreign Policy After the Arab Spring. One of the book’s key insights is the importance of legitimacy for regimes that rule “not nation-states” but rather “Sykes-Picot states”—the colonial heirlooms of Britain and France created in the wake of the two world wars. At times, these states barely seem to acknowledge, let alone respect, their own sovereignty.
When the spirit of revolution hit the Arab world in 2010, the states with external legitimacy—monarchies such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, Kuwait—survived. Regimes that ruled merely by brute force—Egypt, Yemen, Libya—didn’t. The Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria has only held on thanks to the intervention of Iran and Russia, and it is difficult to argue that there is any such thing as “Syria” anymore. What this all proved was that the “stability” of Arab dictatorships, a central conceit of U.S. foreign policy, was in many cases an illusion.
That is the first hard lesson in pan-Arabism from Abrams, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. The second is this: The extremists who filled the power vacuums in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and other countries led Western analysts to believe that there was an “Islamic exceptionalism” at play that demonstrated Islam’s incompatibility with democracy. Abrams effectively debunks this by showing that the real culprit stymieing the spread of liberty in the Middle East was not Islam but pan-Arabism, which stems from secular roots. He notes one study showing that, in the 30 years between 1973 and 2003, “a non-Arab Muslim-majority country was almost 20 times more likely to be ‘electorally competitive’ than an Arab-majority Muslim country.”
Abrams is thus an optimist on the subject of Islam and democracy—which is heartening, considering his experience and expertise. He worked for legendary cold-warrior Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson and served as an assistant secretary of state for human rights under Ronald Reagan and later as George W. Bush’s deputy national-security adviser for global democracy strategy. Realism and Democracy is about U.S. policy and the Arab world—but it is also about the nature of participatory politics itself. Its theme is: Ideas have consequences. And what sets Abrams’s book apart is its concrete policy recommendations to put flesh on the bones of those ideas, and bring them to life.
The dreary disintegration of the Arab Spring saw Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt replaced by the Muslim Brotherhood, which after a year was displaced in a military coup. Syria’s civil war has seen about 400,000 killed and millions displaced. Into the vacuum stepped numerous Islamist terror groups. The fall of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya has resulted in total state collapse. Yemen’s civil war bleeds on.
Stability in authoritarian states with little or no legitimacy is a fiction. Communist police states were likely to fall, and the longer they took to do so, the longer the opposition sat in a balled-up rage. That, Abrams notes, is precisely what happened in Egypt. Mubarak’s repression gave the Muslim Brotherhood an advantage once the playing field opened up: The group had decades of organizing under its belt, a coherent raison d’être, and a track record of providing health and education services where the state lagged. No other parties or opposition groups had anything resembling this kind of coordination.
Abrams trenchantly concludes from this that “tyranny in the Arab world is dangerous and should itself be viewed as a form of political extremism that is likely to feed other forms.” Yet even this extremism can be tempered by power, he suggests. In a democracy, Islamist parties will have to compromise and moderate or be voted out. In Tunisia, electorally successful Islamists chose the former, and it stands as a rare success story.
Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood took a different path in Egypt, with parlous results. Its government began pulling up the ladder behind it, closing avenues of political resistance and civic participation. Hamas did the same after winning Palestinian elections in 2006. Abrams thinks that the odds of such a bait-and-switch can be reduced. He quotes the academic Stephen R. Grand, who calls for all political parties “to take an oath of allegiance to the state, to respect the outcome of democratic elections, to abide by the rules of the constitution, and to forswear violence.” If they keep their word, they will open up the political space for non-Islamist parties to get in the game. If they don’t—well, let the Egyptian coup stand as a warning.
Abrams, to his credit, does not avoid the Mesopotamian elephant in the room. The Iraq War has become Exhibit A in the dangers of democracy promotion. This is understandable, but it is misguided. The Bush administration made the decision to decapitate the regime of Saddam Hussein based on national-security calculations, mainly the fear of weapons of mass destruction. Once the decapitation had occurred, the administration could hardly have been expected to replace Saddam with another strongman whose depravities would this time be on America’s conscience. Critics of the war reverse the order here and paint a false portrait.
Here is where Abrams’s book stands out: He provides, in the last two chapters, an accounting of the weaknesses in U.S. policy, including mistakes made by the administration he served, and a series of concrete proposals to show that democracy promotion can be effective without the use of force.
One mistake, according to Abrams, is America’s favoring of civil-society groups over political parties. These groups do much good, generally have strong English-language skills, and are less likely to be tied to the government or ancien régime. But those are also strikes against them. Abrams relates a story told by former U.S. diplomat Princeton Lyman about Nelson Mandela. Nigerian activists asked the South African freedom fighter to support an oil embargo against their own government. Mandela declined because, Lyman says, there was as yet no serious, organized political opposition party: “What Mandela was saying to the Nigerian activists is that, in the absence of political movements dedicated not just to democracy but also to governing when the opportunity arises, social, civic, and economic pressures against tyranny will not suffice.” Without properly focused democracy promotion, other tools to punish repressive regimes will be off the table.
Egypt offers a good example of another principle: Backsliding must be punished. The Bush administration’s pressure on Mubarak over his treatment of opposition figures changed regime behavior in 2005. Yet by the end of Bush’s second term, the pressure had let up and Mubarak’s misbehavior continued, with no consequences from either Bush or his successor, Barack Obama, until it was too late.
That, in turn, leads to another of Abrams’s recommendations: “American diplomacy can be effective only when it is clear that the president and secretary of state are behind whatever diplomatic moves or statements an official in Washington or a U.S. ambassador is making.” This is good advice for the current Oval Office occupant and his advisers. President Trump’s supporters advise critics of his dismissive attitude toward human-rights violations to focus on what the president does, not what he says. But Trump’s refusal to take a hard line against Vladimir Putin and his recent praise of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s move to become president for life undermine lower-level officials’ attempts to encourage reform.
There won’t be democracy without democrats. Pro-democracy education, Abrams advises, can teach freedom-seekers to speak the ennobling language of liberty, which is the crucial first step toward building a culture that prizes it. And in the process, we might do some ennobling ourselves.