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‘‘You’re Jewish? You can't be English"

As a New Yorker long settled in London, Rhoda Koenig has become increasingly concerned about low-lev

The moment the icy splinter of fear entered my heart, four years ago, occurred, as it has for so many of us, at a dinner table. “Don’t you think that Israel is becoming very unpleasant?” said one deep thinker. “We used to be on their side because they were the underdog, but now they’re so aggressive.” That was not the moment. It was the next comment, made as I was taking a deep breath, by another guest. “Well,” he said, “I never thought about that before, but, yes, you’re right.”

That person was someone who had for several years been a good friend, good not only to me but in general. He is a kind, compassionate man, quick to offer practical help and moral support to his friends. He does a great deal of unpaid work for charity. His words took me back to a time when the same sort of mindless verbal ping-pong was played over other tables, when Gentiles in England dismissed reports from central Europe as hysteria or propaganda. I later said to my friend, who never reads a newspaper, that he shouldn’t comment on topics he didn’t understand. He protested that he wasn’t commenting: he was “just agreeing”.

In New York, where I grew up, I never heard remarks of this type, not simply because of the number of Jews living there, but because my accent and appearance identified me immediately as one of them. Since moving to Britain 20 years ago, I have learned that others see me only as an American or a New Yorker. I therefore came late to the sort of disconcerting encounter that European Jews probably take for granted – the person of respectable and benevolent appearance who, chatting to us in a railway carriage or a coffee shop, hopes we do realise that the Jews are plotting to steal our gold and rule the world.

That type of person – as well as those, of course, who won’t hire Jews and those who vandalise synagogues and cemeteries – is what most people think of as an anti-Semite. But I would suggest that the definition be made broader to include those who let unpleasant remarks about Jews go unchallenged, who don’t consider the subject to be worth a fuss. Those, in other words, who feel that we are not worth defending from the mindless vilification that has been increasing over the past several years, and zooming up since the air strikes on Gaza.

It was not the first time my friend had startled me with a remark of this kind. We had met not long before 11 September 2001. About a week after the World Trade Center was destroyed, he said to me, “I don’t mean to offend you by saying this: I just wonder if you think this could be true. Someone told me there was a rumour that the Israelis were responsible.”

That remark, however, passed me by in an I-didn’t-hear-that moment because I was already reeling from the reactions of the “America deserved it” crowd, and couldn’t take in anything more. But later I reflected that there was a point at which innocence and ignorance are not the same. As recently as 50 years ago, it was normal to think that homosexuals sought to corrupt pure young boys, and that children who said an uncle or priest had touched their private parts were dirty little liars. Nowadays, anyone who

espoused such beliefs would be ridiculed and might be up on a charge – as would someone who believed, as people did 700 years ago, when the Jews were expelled from England, that we kill Christian children and use their blood to make matzos.

My friend and I remained on good terms until last year, when he asked if I would join him on a trip he was very eager to take – to Syria. As my heart sank deeper and deeper, he enthusiastically described the archaeological treasures, the history, the romance.

“I know all about those,” I said sadly, “but do you know that Syria is a hotbed of anti-Semitic terrorism? Their newspapers and radio and TV are full of attacks on Jews, and some of them actually say it is part of our religion to kill babies.”

He was silent for a moment, and then sighed. “Oh, can’t you forget about that? Just for two weeks?” I said I couldn’t.

My friend departed alone for Syria – where, he told me, he had a marvellous time and didn’t hear a single anti-Semitic remark – and I was forced to conclude that, sadly, as we say in my native land, three strikes and you’re out.

I never thought I would end a friendship on political grounds and it distressed me greatly to end this one. Was I simply taking personal offence at my friend’s unwillingness to treat me with imagination and sympathy? In the end I decided that if the comments had insulted only me, I could have chosen to ignore them, but, as they did not, I could not.

Many non-Jews will probably think that I behaved in an intolerably pompous way towards someone who has no political influence whatsoever, and that I am elevating a personal slight to an absurd degree. But, as the last sentence of my favourite novel, Middlemarch, says, “the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts”.

Surely that goes for the growing evil, too? How do we know what effect a word or a nod may have? A single remark has at times been enough to alter a life. And not only words but thoughts – recorded in surveys or the ballot box – sway politicians to pass, execute, or ignore our laws.

Unfortunately, many of the sentiments that make the English so agreeable – their diffidence, tolerance, witty detachment – mean that “nice” anti-Semitism is practically bred in the bone. It’s a condition that has less in common with bomb-throwing than with the reluctance of most people to tell off those who are discourteous or disgusting in public, with the results we know. Just as the “nice” passengers on the bus or train turn themselves into zombies when others start shouting obscenities, the nice guests at the dinner party pretend, at an awkward moment, that they have heard nothing amiss.

Another friend was at such a party when a turn in the conversation made it relevant for her to say she was Jewish.

A man asked, “You’re Israeli?”

“No,” she said, “I’m English.”

When he asked her to explain this apparent paradox, she said that she and her parents had been born here. “But,” her interlocutor continued, struggling with this concept, “you’re different from the rest of us.”

When no one else said anything, my friend decided it was time to leave. She knew that there was no point in challenging the company, or taking up the matter with the hostess later, because, like me, she had done so in her youth and met only embarrassment and resentment. Why, we were asked each time, did we (and not the person who had made the remark) have to create unpleasantness?

I can understand the reluctance to turn an amusing evening into a trial for thought crime. But the riposte to bigots need not be solemn and drawn-out. Once my fork stopped halfway to my mouth when a film director’s bimbo girlfriend came out with an offensive characterisation of Jews, which she followed with the defence: “But I’m not anti-Semitic. No one can say that I’m anti-Semitic.”

A Gentile screenwriter replied: “I’m afraid, dear, I’ll be the judge of that,” and got a laugh. I then got a bigger laugh with, “No, I’ll be the judge of that,” and we moved on.

People may sometimes be deterred from objecting to remarks about Jews because they don’t feel qualified to judge whether the comments are true. But it is not necessary to know a raft of facts before you challenge a statement. You need only refuse to accept it unquestioningly. Be suspicious, I would urge you, of statistics that are presented as carrying intrinsic moral weight. (You hear a flagrant example of the current rush to judgement from people who want to arouse horror by pointing out how much higher the Palestinian casualty toll is than the Israeli. In response to their “That’s so not fair!” one might mention that German deaths in the Second World War were many more than deaths of US and UK forces and civilians. Should one, therefore . . .) And anyone announcing, with sanctimonious condescension, that the Jews today are just like the Nazis of yesterday should be handed a history book and asked: “Do Israelis do this?”

I should not like to leave the impression that my life in England has been characterised by anti-Semitic prejudice and hatred. Far from it; I have enjoyed prosperity and pleasure here, and my Jewish friends would say the same. But the intelligence and good manners we have known so much of the time make even more shocking those moments when they fall away. We wish that more of you would speak up when you hear ignorance and nastiness paraded, and not remain silent, like spectators to a crime, though the crime in this case hasn’t happened. Not yet.

Rhoda Koenig is a former nightclub singer, travel writer, literary editor and theatre critic for Punch and the Independent

This article first appeared in the 09 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Planet Overload

Picture: Archives Charmet / Bridgeman Images
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What Marx got right

...and what he got wrong.

1. You’re probably a capitalist – among other things

Are you a capitalist? The first question to ask is: do you own shares? Even if you don’t own any directly (about half of Americans do but the proportion is far lower in most other countries) you may have a pension that is at least partly invested in the stock market; or you’ll have savings in a bank.

So you have some financial wealth: that is, you own capital. Equally, you are probably also a worker, or are dependent directly or indirectly on a worker’s salary; and you’re a consumer. Unless you live in an autonomous, self-sufficient commune – very unusual – you are likely to be a full participant in the capitalist system.

We interact with capitalism in multiple ways, by no means all economic. And this accounts for the conflicted relationship that most of us (including me) have with capitalism. Typically, we neither love it nor hate it, but we definitely live it.

2. Property rights are fundamental to capitalism . . . but they are not absolute

If owning something means having the right to do what you want with it, property rights are rarely unconstrained. I am free to buy any car I want – so long as it meets European pollution standards and is legally insured; and I can drive it anywhere I want, at least on public roads, as long as I have a driver’s licence and keep to the speed limit. If I no longer want the car, I can’t just dump it: I have to dispose of it in an approved manner. It’s mine, not yours or the state’s, and the state will protect my rights over it. But – generally for good reason – how I can use it is quite tightly constrained.

This web of rules and constraints, which both defines and restricts property rights, is characteristic of a complex economy and society. Most capitalist societies attempt to resolve these tensions in part by imposing restrictions, constitutional or political, on arbitrary or confiscatory actions by governments that “interfere” with property rights. But the idea that property rights are absolute is not philosophically or practically coherent in a modern society.

3. What Marx got right about capitalism

Marx had two fundamental insights. The first was the importance of economic forces in shaping human society. For Marx, it was the “mode of production” – how labour and capital were combined, and under what rules – that explained more or less everything about society, from politics to culture. So, as modes of production change, so too does society. And he correctly concluded that industrialisation and capitalism would lead to profound changes in the nature of society, affecting everything from the political system to morality.

The second insight was the dynamic nature of capitalism in its own right. Marx understood that capitalism could not be static: given the pursuit of profit in a competitive economy, there would be constant pressure to increase the capital stock and improve productivity. This in turn would lead to labour-saving, or capital-intensive, technological change.

Putting these two insights together gives a picture of capitalism as a radical force. Such are its own internal dynamics that the economy is constantly evolving, and this in turn results in changes in the wider society.

4. And what he got wrong . . .

Though Marx was correct that competition would lead the owners of capital to invest in productivity-enhancing and labour-saving machinery, he was wrong that this would lead to wages being driven down to subsistence level, as had largely been the case under feudalism. Classical economics, which argued that new, higher-productivity jobs would emerge, and that workers would see their wages rise more or less in line with productivity, got this one right. And so, in turn, Marx’s most important prediction – that an inevitable conflict between workers and capitalists would lead ultimately to the victory of the former and the end of capitalism – was wrong.

Marx was right that as the number of industrial workers rose, they would demand their share of the wealth; and that, in contrast to the situation under feudalism, their number and geographical concentration in factories and cities would make it impossible to deny these demands indefinitely. But thanks to increased productivity, workers’ demands in most advanced capitalist economies could be satisfied without the system collapsing. So far, it seems that increased productivity, increased wages and increased consumption go hand in hand, not only in individual countries but worldwide.

5. All societies are unequal. But some are more unequal than others

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an increasing proportion of an economy’s output was captured by a small class of capitalists who owned and controlled the means of production. Not only did this trend stop in the 20th century, it was sharply reversed. Inherited fortunes, often dating back to the pre-industrial era, were eroded by taxes and inflation, and some were destroyed by the Great Depression. Most of all, after the Second World War the welfare state redistributed income and wealth within the framework of a capitalist economy.

Inequality rose again after the mid-1970s. Under Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the welfare state was cut back. Tax and social security systems became less progressive. Deregulation, the decline of heavy industry and reduction of trade union power increased the wage differential between workers. Globally the chief story of the past quarter-century has been the rise of the “middle class”: people in emerging economies who have incomes of up to $5,000 a year. But at the same time lower-income groups in richer countries have done badly.

Should we now worry about inequality within countries, or within the world as a whole? And how much does an increasing concentration of income and wealth among a small number of people – and the consequent distortions of the political system – matter when set against the rapid ­income growth for large numbers of people in the emerging economies?

Growing inequality is not an inevitable consequence of capitalism. But, unchecked, it could do severe economic damage. The question is whether our political systems, national and global, are up to the challenge.

6. China’s road to capitalism is unique

The day after Margaret Thatcher died, I said on Radio 4’s Today programme: “In 1979, a quarter of a century ago, a politician came to power with a radical agenda of market-oriented reform; a plan to reduce state control and release the country’s pent-up economic dynamism. That changed the world, and we’re still feeling the impact. His name, of course, was Deng Xiaoping.”

The transition from state to market in China kick-started the move towards truly globalised capitalism. But the Chinese road to capitalism has been unique. First agriculture was liberalised, then entrepreneurs were allowed to set up small businesses, while at the same time state-owned enterprises reduced their workforces; yet there has been no free-for-all, either for labour or for capital. The movement of workers from rural to urban areas, and from large, unproductive, state-owned enterprises to more productive private businesses, though vast, has been controlled. Access to capital still remains largely under state control. Moreover, though its programme is not exactly “Keynesian”, China has used all the tools of macroeconomic management to keep growth high and relatively stable.

That means China is still far from a “normal” capitalist economy. The two main engines of growth have been investment and the movement of labour from the countryside to the cities. This in itself was enough, because China had so much catching-up to do. However, if the Chinese are to close the huge gap between themselves and the advanced economies, more growth will need to come from innovation and technological progress. No one doubts that China has the human resources to deliver this, but its system will have to change.

7. How much is enough?

The human instinct to improve our material position is deeply rooted: control over resources, especially food and shelter, made early human beings more able to reproduce. That is intrinsic to capitalism; the desire to acquire income and wealth motivates individuals to work, save, invent and invest. As Adam Smith showed, this benefits us all. But if we can produce more than enough for everybody, what will motivate people? Growth would stop. Not that this would necessarily be a bad thing: yet our economy and society would be very different.

Although we are at least twice as rich as we were half a century ago, the urge to consume more seems no less strong. Relative incomes matter. We compare ourselves not to our impoverished ancestors but to other people in similar situations: we strive to “keep up with the Joneses”. The Daily Telegraph once described a London couple earning £190,000 per year (in the top 0.1 per cent of world income) as follows: “The pair are worried about becoming financially broken as the sheer cost of middle-class life in London means they are stretched to the brink.” Talk about First World problems.

Is there any limit? Those who don’t like the excesses of consumerism might hope that as our material needs are satisfied, we will worry less about keeping up with the Joneses and more about our satisfaction and enjoyment of non-material things. It is equally possible, of course, that we’ll just spend more time keeping up with the Kardashians instead . . .

8. No more boom and bust

Are financial crises and their economic consequences part of the natural (capitalist) order of things? Politicians and economists prefer to think otherwise. No longer does anyone believe that “light-touch” regulation of the banking sector is enough. New rules have been introduced, designed to restrict leverage and ensure that failure in one or two financial institutions does not lead to systemic failure. Many would prefer a more wholesale approach to reining in the financial system; this would have gained the approval of Keynes, who thought that while finance was necessary, its role in capitalism should be strictly limited.

But maybe there is a more fundamental problem: that recurrent crises are baked into the system. The “financial instability” hypothesis says that the more governments and regulators stabilise the system, the more this will breed overconfidence, leading to more debt and higher leverage. And sooner or later the music stops. If that is the case, then financial capitalism plus human nature equals inevitable financial crises; and we should make sure that we have better contingency plans next time round.

9. Will robots take our jobs?

With increasing mechanisation (from factories to supermarket checkouts) and computerisation (from call centres to tax returns), is it becoming difficult for human beings to make or produce anything at less cost than a machine can?

Not yet – more Britons have jobs than at any other point in history. That we can produce more food and manufactured products with fewer people means that we are richer overall, leaving us to do other things, from economic research to performance art to professional football.

However, the big worry is that automation could shift the balance of power between capital and labour in favour of the former. Workers would still work; but many or most would be in relatively low-value, peripheral jobs, not central to the functioning of the economy and not particularly well paid. Either the distribution of income and wealth would widen further, or society would rely more on welfare payments and charity to reduce unacceptable disparities between the top and the bottom.

That is a dismal prospect. Yet these broader economic forces pushing against the interests of workers will not, on their own, determine the course of history. The Luddites were doomed to fail; but their successors – trade unionists who sought to improve working conditions and Chartists who demanded the vote so that they could restructure the economy and the state – mostly succeeded. The test will be whether our political and social institutions are up to the challenge.

10. What’s the alternative?

There is no viable economic alternative to capitalism at the moment but that does not mean one won’t emerge. It is economics that determines the nature of our society, and we are at the beginning of a profound set of economic changes, based on three critical developments.

Physical human input into production will become increasingly rare as robots take over. Thanks to advances in computing power and artificial intelligence, much of the analytic work that we now do in the workplace will be carried out by machines. And an increasing ability to manipulate our own genes will extend our lifespan and allow us to determine our offspring’s characteristics.

Control over “software” – information, data, and how it is stored, processed and manipulated – will be more important than control over physical capital, buildings and machines. The defining characteristic of the economy and society will be how that software is produced, owned and commanded: by the state, by individuals, by corporations, or in some way as yet undefined.

These developments will allow us, if we choose, to end poverty and expand our horizons, both materially and intellectually. But they could also lead to growing inequality, with the levers of the new economy controlled by a corporate and moneyed elite. As an optimist, I hope for the former. Yet just as it wasn’t the “free market” or individual capitalists who freed the slaves, gave votes to women and created the welfare state, it will be the collective efforts of us all that will enable humanity to turn economic advances into social progress. 

Jonathan Portes's most recent book is “50 Ideas You Really Need to Know: Capitalism” (Quercus)

Jonathan Portes is senior fellow The UK in a Changing Europe and Professor of Economics and Public Policy, King’s College London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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