Pur­chas­ing Pow­er: The Eco­nom­ics of Mod­ern Jew­ish History

Rebec­ca Kobrin and Adam Teller, eds.
  • Review
By – June 16, 2016

Two renowned social sci­en­tists illus­trate the con­cept of social cap­i­tal with salient fea­tures of Jew­ish com­mu­nal life. In Bowl­ing Alone, Robert Put­nam points out that the mitz­vah of mishloach man­ot, the cus­tom of exchang­ing food and del­i­ca­cies on Purim, pro­motes social con­nect­ed­ness and ani­mates phil­an­thropy and vol­un­teerism. James Cole­man describes how three com­po­nents of social cap­i­tal — trust, norms and net­works — are crit­i­cal in dia­mond mar­kets. Like these two schol­ars, arti­cles in this anthol­o­gy explain how and why Jews deploy social cap­i­tal to sur­vive and some­times achieve promi­nence and eco­nom­ic suc­cess despite anti-Semi­tism, legal restric­tions and persecution.

Rebec­ca Kobrin and Adam Teller have made an impor­tant con­tri­bu­tion to the broad sub­ject of Jews and mon­ey espe­cial­ly their role in the evo­lu­tion of mod­ern cap­i­tal­ism and the glob­al econ­o­my since 1500. Pur­chas­ing Pow­er includes a series of essays that address the ways that Jews engaged with eco­nom­ic life in var­i­ous con­texts and at dif­fer­ent times. Their strong com­mu­nal ties and exten­sive transna­tion­al net­works enabled them to exer­cise agency and adapt to the con­straints and the oppor­tu­ni­ties they faced. Unlike most edit­ed vol­umes, which focus on one or two themes, this book is espe­cial­ly remark­able because the indi­vid­ual arti­cles devel­op two themes in a sequen­tial fash­ion. The book begins with a dis­cus­sion of money­lend­ing in Rome at a time when mod­ern cap­i­tal­ism was in its infan­cy in the six­teenth cen­tu­ry, and includes a series of arti­cles that bring us near­ly to the present.

Schol­ar­ly dis­cus­sions of the role of Jews in the emer­gence of mod­ern cap­i­tal­ism date back to the late nine­teenth cen­tu­ry when schol­ars tend­ed to argue for an inher­ent propen­si­ty — reli­gious, cul­tur­al, or even racial — on the part of Jews for cap­i­tal­ist activ­i­ty.” This work had impor­tant polit­i­cal ram­i­fi­ca­tions: it fueled the fires of anti-Semi­tism. Adam Sut­cliffe observes in the final chap­ter that The asso­ci­a­tion of Jews with com­mer­cial and finan­cial pow­er has long been a stock trope of anti-Semit­ic stereo­typ­ing… The depic­tion of the Jews as par­a­sit­i­cal cap­i­tal­ists fea­tured promi­nent­ly in the pre­lude to their geno­cide, and the field of Jew­ish eco­nom­ic his­to­ry remains haunt­ed by this fact.” This haunt­ing” meant that the eco­nom­ic role of Jews was sub­or­di­nat­ed to dis­cus­sions of reli­gion and cul­ture for most of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. But recent schol­ar­ship on Jews and mon­ey has shed impor­tant light on Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties, the evo­lu­tion of cap­i­tal­ism, and the nature of glob­al­iza­tion. In their Intro­duc­tion, Kobrin and Teller ana­lyze past schol­ar­ship and trace the eco­nom­ic turn” in Jew­ish stud­ies in order to sit­u­ate the book in con­tem­po­rary scholarship.

Two con­cepts uni­fy the col­lec­tion: net­works and pow­er. Arti­cles in Part I, Net­works and Nich­es,” describe the ways that local and transna­tion­al social net­works pro­mot­ed eco­nom­ic sur­vival and suc­cess. Two exam­ples are espe­cial­ly notable. Carsten Wilke’s Con­tra­band for the Catholic King: Jews of the French Pyre­nees in the Tobac­co Trade and Span­ish State Finance” ana­lyzes a unique sit­u­a­tion: the monop­oly on the sale of tobac­co in Spain by cryp­to-Jews. Some tobac­co mer­chants were transna­tion­al com­muters: their fam­i­lies lived open­ly as Jews in France while they trans­vered the Pyre­nees to con­duct their busi­ness in Spain. The open secret of their Jew­ish iden­ti­ty did not guar­an­tee pro­tec­tion from the Inqui­si­tion, but their piv­otal role in state rev­enue — tax­es on tobac­co com­prised near­ly a quar­ter of the Span­ish government’s income in the begin­ning of the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry — reduced the chances of pros­e­cu­tion. Adam Mendelson’s arti­cle, From Moses to Moses: Jews, Cloth­ing and Colo­nial Com­merce” describes how Jew­ish cloth­ing mer­chants and man­u­fac­tur­ers ben­e­fit­ted from the expan­sion of the British Empire cre­at­ing a high­ly inte­grat­ed mul­ti-con­ti­nent fam­i­ly busi­ness man­u­fac­tur­ing and sell­ing cloth­ing. Sons, nephews and broth­ers were sent abroad to pro­mote busi­ness expan­sion and in this way, tap the trust and strong ties with­in fam­i­lies to pro­mote glob­al busi­ness enter­pris­es. This case study sug­gests that the Roth­schild family’s strat­e­gy of send­ing sons to dif­fer­ent cities was not unique.

Part II pro­vides vivid evi­dence of how Jew­ish phil­an­thropy served as an instru­ment of glob­al pow­er and influ­ence. The case stud­ies con­sid­er the evo­lu­tion of glob­al advo­ca­cy net­works and orga­ni­za­tions, what Abi­gail Green labels the Jew­ish Inter­na­tion­al,” between 1840 and 1880; financ­ing the 1948 Israeli War of inde­pen­dence through for­mal orga­ni­za­tions and infor­mal donor net­works; the trans­plan­ta­tion and revi­tal­iza­tion of the com­mu­ni­ty of dia­mond deal­ers in Antwerp dur­ing and after World War II; and the transna­tion­al activism which led to the mass migra­tion of Sovi­et Jews.

The last arti­cle brings the dis­cus­sion full cir­cle with an analy­sis of Wern­er Sombart’s The Jews and Cap­i­tal­ism. While the fact of high earn­ings and the eco­nom­ic cen­tral­i­ty of Jews is not as fraught as in the past (although the anti-Semi­tism it evokes is far from absent), the schol­ar­ly study of the role of Jews in the devel­op­ment of cap­i­tal­ism has become more nuanced draw­ing on recent­ly devel­oped con­cepts like agency, social cap­i­tal and transna­tion­al social net­works. In con­trast to his con­tem­po­rary, Max Weber whose Protes­tant Eth­ic and the Spir­it of Cap­i­tal­ism is cen­tral to the soci­o­log­i­cal canon, Sombart’s work has not been influ­en­tial. His essen­tial­ism and tac­it sup­port of Nazism in his final years cast doubt on his objec­tiv­i­ty. Adam Sut­cliffe con­tex­tu­al­izes Sombart’s work not­ing that it was influ­enced by pre­vail­ing racial­ist the­o­ries and relied on the find­ings of Ger­man Jew­ish schol­ars. Rec­og­niz­ing the method­olog­i­cal and the­o­ret­i­cal lim­i­ta­tions of Sombart’s work, Sut­cliffe sug­gests that the com­plex ques­tions Som­bart addressed mer­it seri­ous exam­i­na­tion since they illu­mi­nate our under­stand­ing of the role of Jews in the evo­lu­tion of cap­i­tal­ism. Mov­ing beyond Som­bart, the schol­ars in this vol­ume tack­le impor­tant ques­tions and, like oth­er recent schol­ar­ship, have made major con­tri­bu­tions to a live­ly debate about the evo­lu­tion of the glob­al economy. 

Relat­ed Content:

Susan M. Cham­bré, Pro­fes­sor Emeri­ta of Soci­ol­o­gy at Baruch Col­lege, stud­ies Jew­ish phil­an­thropy, social and cul­tur­al influ­ences on vol­un­teer­ing, and health advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tions. She is the author of Fight­ing for Our Lives: New York’s AIDS Com­mu­ni­ty and the Pol­i­tics of Dis­ease and edit­ed Patients, Con­sumers and Civ­il Soci­ety.

Discussion Questions