Antisemitism according to Postone and Zizek


By Eleutério FS Prado*

In Bolsonaro's campaign, the negative dimension of capital, in the forms of corruption and licentiousness, was associated with left-wing militants and, in particular, with members of the Workers' Party.

To better understand antisemitism, it is interesting to confront the theses of Moishe Postone and Slavoj Zizek. The first author examined this theme based on an original interpretation of The capital by Karl Marx, recorded in the book Time, work and social domination (Boitempo, 2014). Zizek, on the other hand, is well known for his heterodox Marxism/Hegelianism influenced by Jacques Lacan; his thesis on the origin of anti-Semitism, outlined in this perspective, can be found in “The difficulties of the real” (chapter 4 of the book How to read Lacan, Zahar, 2010).

Understanding this historical phenomenon remains very important. In the form of background knowledge, it can be used – we bet here – to understand the neo-fascisms and even the neo-nazisms that are emerging in contemporary capitalism, in several countries around the world.

It should be noted, at the outset, that these authors reject that the anti-Semitism that prevailed unfettered in Germany, between the beginning of the 1930s until the end of the Second World War, can be interpreted as mere prejudice, as a simple ideology or even as a “ trick” of a political party to rise and stay in power. To examine the theses of these two authors, we begin with the second mentioned

After the end of the First World War, Germany went through a very difficult economic period, with intense social struggles, in particular, with a sharpening of the class conflict between the bourgeoisie and the workers, which was inscribed in the memory of Germans in general and became unconscious, thus manifesting itself as anguish, despondency and a great anger. There was a nostalgia in the air for a nation that had been powerful in the past when the German Empire was in force, but now, in the face of the democratic reality of the Weimar Republic (1919-1933), it presented itself with a daily routine of defeats and humiliations.

This situation was then appropriated in the early 1930s as traumatic, a state of disarray that the German people needed to overcome. The Nazi party thus acted through a unifying discourse based on the speech of a great leader who dictated what is true about social reality and what is right to do so that these people could resume a destiny that supposedly belonged to them. The German nation wished then – by this means authoritative and, even. totalitarian – finding yourself with a more prosperous, more harmonious and grander future.

To achieve this goal, the Nazi party acted through intense anti-communist and anti-Semitic propaganda in the formation of the imagination of the German people in order to provide a justification, obviously fanciful, for the disastrous occurrences that were observed in the recent past of that European nation.

It was not a question, according to Zizek, of apprehending a trauma that had been engendered by the economic and social crisis of the 1920s, with the aim of overcoming it. In fact, it occurs only afterwards. Differently, it was about reviving and re-elaborating the disastrous experience as a trauma through a discourse of total power that aimed, without going to the real causes, to overcome the deadlocks of the situation in Germany. The method of action that corresponded to this profoundly anti-democratic discourse could only be violence against the nation's supposed “enemies”.

It is, therefore, with this perspective that Zizek apprehends anti-Semitism. It appears, then, as a transfiguration of the class struggle. Anti-Semitism “reifies” (embodying it in a particular group of people) the inherent antagonism of society: it treats “Jewishness” as the Thing that, from outside, invades the social body and disturbs its balance. What happens in the shift from strict class struggle to fascist anti-Semitism is not just a simple substitution of one enemy figure (bourgeoisie, ruling class) for another (Jews).

Behold, the logic of the fight is totally different. In class struggle, classes themselves form part of an antagonism that is inherent in the social structure, whereas for the anti-Semite the Jew is a foreign intruder who causes social antagonism. So, to restore social harmony, the only thing that needs to be done is to annihilate the Jews.

For Zizek, therefore, anti-Semitism is the position of the Jew as the personification of the capitalist placed as an unwanted and pernicious invader in a society that is presented as potentially whole. Well, Postone – in the article “Anti-Semitism and National Socialism”[1] – presents a thesis that differs from Zizek's contribution.

His starting point is that the Holocaust had a sense of ideological mission and, more importantly, was characterized "by an absence of functionality". The Jews were not exterminated for economic, military or even excessive fanaticism. They were coldly and systematically exterminated because they were Jews. Now, this leads to the question: why?

He notes, first, that the Jews came to be represented as the personification, somewhat mysterious, of an intangible, abstract and universal power. Now, that power, for Postone, consisted simply in the power of capital, the automatic subject of modern society. Behold, such disruptive power, through an unconscious transfer process, but consciously manipulated by the fascists, was associated with the Jewish people. In the view of the German people, they then came to be seen as if they were the living incarnation of greed, excess, profit without work, the disorganization of production. Note that this is possible because capital is always “disappeared” in the concrete forms through which it manifests itself.

Jews, he argues, were no longer simply regarded as mere representatives of money. Traditional anti-Semitism was now overlaid with a desire for total annihilation. Now, these Semites are blamed for the overwhelming economic and social crisis – massive unemployment and even hyperinflation – which suffered Germany. They are identified with the ills of the industrialization and urbanization process, becoming ghostly responsible for the decline of traditional classes and strata and for the emergence of an increasingly organized and demanding industrial proletariat.

Here is what Postone says: “When one examines the specific features of the power attributed to Jews by modern anti-Semitism – abstraction, universality, mobility – it is striking that they are all features of the value dimension of the social forms analyzed by Marx. It should be noted that this dimension, like the supposed power of the Jews, does not appear as such, but always appears through a material and concrete vehicle, the commodity [and, it should be added, money, apparent and successive forms of capital in process of valorization].

The abstract and the concrete merge in the commodity in such a way that it becomes, in the words of Marx himself, something “sensible and supersensible”. But this is not how it appears in the everyday world. As this contradiction is unbearable for common sense, the commodity can only be apprehended by it through forms of thought that displace it in an attempt to abolish it.

From this perspective, through a dissociation between the concrete and the abstract, it became possible to assimilate the concrete to the German people and the abstract to the Jewish people. In this way, the material conquests of capitalism, as well as machines, technology, factories appear as achievements of the disciplined, hardworking and creative spirit of the former, while disorders, crises and their results, as well as the petty spirit of the individualist bourgeois, are placed on the back of the second. Anti-Semitism therefore makes a cut in society, falsely separating the “good” from the “bad”, but starting from a really existing dialectical duplicity.

According to Postone, this dissociation is possible due to the very way of being of capitalist sociability that presents itself not as a direct social relationship, but as a “social relationship of things”. This configuration gives rise, according to Marx, to the fetish of the commodity which, in short, consists of a confusion between the form of the social relationship – the form of value whose substance is abstract labor – and the support of this form, that is, the value of use that is generated by concrete work. This confusion, as we know, is inherent to social practice – and does not consist of a mere subjective mistake.

The contradiction internal to the commodity between value and use value unfolds in markets in an external relationship between the relative form and the equivalent form. In this way, the double character of value of the commodity appears, on the one hand, as concrete use-value and, on the other, as money, the representative of value, the bearer of a real abstraction. Now, according to him, this “antinomy is usually recapitulated through the opposition between positivist and romantic forms of thought”.

The former take the concreteness of the commodity as mere concreteness, as material objectivity, thus implicitly falling into fetishism. Social forms then appear to them as merely natural. The romantics, in turn, separate the concrete from the abstract inherent in the commodity, seeking to expel fetishism from the real world.

Thus, they “remain hostages of the antinomy produced by capitalist social relations”. They seek, then, to save the concrete from the abstraction that subjugates it in social practice. They promote a revolt against money in the form of finance capital and against those who are supposed to personify money in that form, namely the Jews. It is by wearing the cover of romanticism that Nazism was able to appear to German eyes as anti-bourgeois and even as socialist.

The question that arises now is whether these explanations, which differ from one another but still overlap in part, can be used to somehow understand the rise of contemporary “neo-fascisms”. Here it will be assumed that yes, in order to raise a hypothesis about a particular case: the victory of the extreme right in the last election for the presidency of the republic in Brazil.

From the outset, it is easy to see that Zizek's explanation does not help to understand it, since the social fraction demonized in this last political process were the militants of a center-left political party and, with them, the left in general. Moreover, neo-fascism in Brazil adopted a conservative posture in terms of customs and associated itself with neoliberalism, an ideology that presents itself as capitalist par excellence.

Now, even though Postone has invoked the historical particularity of the Jewish people within Europe to explain the fact that he was branded as a representative of the irrational dimension of the movement of capital, it is believed here that his thesis can help in the task of understanding the Brazilian case. It is argued, in short, that the dissociation between the abstract and the concrete, which coexists as a contradictory unit in capitalist social forms, was also present in this case. Here, the negative dimension of capital in the forms of corruption and licentiousness could be associated with left-wing militants and, in particular, with members of the Workers' Party.

Both of these behaviors are inherent to capitalism, particularly as it is presented in Brazil. Corruption, in addition to being endemic in this mode of production, had long since become a general form of mediation between politics and economic power. Almost all major parties participated in this funding process, but almost only the PT was stigmatized as a corrupt party that had taken this crime to new heights. The anathema, with the help of the big press and the Lava Jato operation, was then glued to his forehead and thus won the social imagination.

Liberating social mores from repressive constraints has indeed been a value of the left for a long time. It happens that it has developed enormously in recent decades under the aegis of the commodity form. The need to create a market for superfluous goods, consumed by the higher income classes, led capitalism to manipulate sexual drives and narcissism in an increasingly open and cynical way. Consequently, instead of a healthy liberation, a false one occurred, which often ended in the corruption of customs and the spread of license. Now, this stigma has also been pasted on the foreheads of leftist movements in general because they are not hypocritically opposed to perverted liberation and because repression is seen as even worse.

In short, if anti-Semitism was the motto for the horrendous Holocaust of the Jewish people, the logic of dissociation on which it is based can reappear in contemporary society. It can act to promote the rise of right-wing extremisms that worship violence – verbal and material – as a form of political action. Such movements always aim to contain social transformations, promote political regressions, as well as perpetuate class privileges that have lost any historical functionality.

*Eleutério Prado is a retired senior professor at the Department of Economics at FEA-USP.


[1] Postone, Moishe (1986), Anti-Semitism and National Socialism. In: A. Rabinbach & J. Zipes (eds.) German and Jews since the Holocaust. New York: Homes and Meier, p. 302-314.

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