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Jews, Money and Globalisation

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jews global feature

Nathan Abrams reviews two new books which tell us surprisingly little about the links between Jews and global capital.

Jews might be considered the archetypes of globalist capitalists. And with the figure of Sir Philip Green looming large in the press over the weekend, the negative connections between Jews, globalisation, capitalism and finance once again rear their ugly heads.

But according to two recent books, the historical links between them are not as strong as one might think.

Money by Jacob Goldstein and Outside the Box by Marc Levinson explore the histories of money and globalisation respectively.  

I picked them both up expecting to be inundated with Jews because of the overarching financial stereotypes that have cemented the links between Jews, finance and usury.

But, apart from their authors, both of whom I presume are Jewish, Jews — surprisingly — barely figure.

Jews didn’t play as key a role in the invention of money as one might have expected other than being part of a general ancient Mesopotamian culture that used silver as a proto-money.

Jews may have facilitated the lending of money with interest (leading to the creation of perhaps the most famous moneylender in history, Shylock) and played a role in banking and finance but they don’t figure much in Goldstein’s account other than the odd name here and there.

Similarly, despite its current usage as a dog whistle trope to refer to the Jews (in much the same way as ‘rootless cosmopolitans’, ‘cultural Marxists’ or ‘bankers’ are), Jews didn’t play that big a role in globalisation.

Probably the biggest driver of recent globalisation wasn’t even animate. It was ‘the box’, that is the shipping container, which revolutionized the world economy by vastly reducing transportation costs. Now, practically everything we consume comes in a shipping container. If there is a basic unit of global capitalism, it is the shipping container.

Were Jews instrumental in this? No. In fact, the only mention to something vaguely Jewish in the history of the shipping container are references to the Israeli shipping company, ZIM (founded in 1945 to transport new immigrants to Israel, it is now one of the top twenty global carriers).

In fact, the origins of the term globalisation date back to 1929, when it referred to a young child’s developing attention to the broader world rather than itself alone.

Over time, though, it has come to take on many other meanings.

It can refer to the idea that giant companies can sell the same product everywhere rathe than different models in each country. It has also come to mean the transmission of ideas, religions and even diseases from one country to another. Most recently, the term is associated with the increasing intensity of economic exchange across international frontiers.

Today it means Jews. Listen to the conspiratorial fantasists and one will hear talk of such ‘globalists’ as the Rothschilds or George Soros. Running for president of France in 2017, right wing politician, Marine Le Pen, predicted ‘a totally new dividing line: not the right against the left, but the patriots against the globalists’.

Jews though have undoubtedly benefitted from globalisation. In eliminating barriers and allowing for new ways of doing business, Jewish entrepreneurialism has flourished. Indeed, the very conditions that allowed for globalisation to rise – open borders, better and cheaper transportation and communication – have allowed Jews to escape poverty and pogroms and better themselves elsewhere.

In fact, the individual whose thinking did more to pave the way to globalisation than any other was Jewish.

David Ricardo was a descendant of Sephardi Jews. His father’s family originally came from Portugal but fled the Inquisition sometime in the early sixteenth century where they found a haven in Italy.

They moved to the burgeoning financial centre of Amsterdam around 1662.

Abraham Ricardo then emigrated from Amsterdam to London in 1760 and married Abigail Delvalle, whose own family had arrived in London shortly after the Jews were permitted to live there openly in England in 1656. Her surname suggests roots in Spain.

By the time David, the third of at least 17 children was born in 1772, Abraham had become a British citizen and had grown wealthy trading stocks and bonds. David was educated in Amsterdam for two years of schooling before returning home to learn the family business.

David Ricardo soon excelled in finance in his own right, becoming a prominent subscriber to government loans and joining the committee of proprietors on the Stock Exchange. In 1815, he criticised proposed duties on grain imports set out in legislation known as the Corn Laws with the radical assertion that protecting Britain’s farmers from foreign competition was unwise as it would be better he said to let it let in imports a grain prices would fall.

Two years later, in 1817, he developed the point in his book Principles of Political Economy and Taxation in which he developed the theory of comparative advantage to his lasting fame.

Ricardo’s thinking was a key driver of globalisation just as his own life was a key product of it but that’s about as Jewish as it gets.

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I teach film studies at Bangor University in north Wales where I live. I research, write and broadcast regularly (in Welsh and English) on transatlantic Jewish culture and history.
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