Naomi Wolf fact-checking
Author and journalist Naomi Wolf (Image: Flickr/Michael Fleshman)

I think I’m going to use part of my 2020 Brendan Behan allocation this year: “I have never seen a situation so dismal that a policeman couldn’t make it worse” — except replace “policeman” with “Naomi Wolf”.

The somewhat tarnished author/activist jumped into the Angus Taylor pile on by debunking some piece of nonsense he blurted about being “anti-elitist” at Oxford(!), alleging that Wolf had lived down the hall from him. She didn’t — they were there at different times — but Taylor never lets the truth get in the way of a good story. This stuff about “anti-elitism” was, Wolf said, “antisemitic”.

God oh God. No it isn’t, of course. It’s absurd right-wing populism, but it isn’t anti-Semitic. Yet Wolf’s statement is another example of the way in which the charge of anti-Semitism has been repurposed to attack either anything vaguely left, or now anything, even spuriously so, anti-elitist.

The real and most frequent target of the new antisemitism accusations has been the left in general, and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in particular — first for his anti-Zionism, then for his alleged failure to investigate examples of antisemitism among the 500,000 members of the expanded Labour party. The accusations were deranged before the election campaign; they have become psychotic during it.

This quickly went beyond Corbyn there, and here, to a fact-free fusion of Western anti-Zionism — now a small, low-visibility movement — with the rise in what is clearly right-wing anti-Semitism of the old “painting swastikas at night” school (as in the fatuous recently released CIS paper by Peter Kurti). Part of this, as I noted, was forward defence of Israel, as it sought to make alliances with anti-Semitic authoritarian governments, such as Viktor Orbán’s in Hungary.

But, bizarrely, the charge has now become part of the labour movement’s centre and right formations, in their war against the left. The UK comedian activist Alexei Sayle pointed this out, highlighting an interview with anti-Corbynite Labour MP Siobhain McDonagh, in which “anti-capitalism” was anti-Semitism, because, in history, some anti-capitalists had been anti-Semitic (as had one or two capitalists). Wolf’s comments are in that vein. What’s going on?

What it seems to be is part of the internal war between an old left (actually the old new left), which had a conception of material power and anti-imperialism, and the new progressivism, formed around sections of the new knowledge and professional classes, which has dispensed with much of a left program, a regard for the working class and the poor that is much other than charitable, and spruiks an actual elitism that is undisguised.

Across the Anglosphere, the centrepiece of such a formation remains Hillary, the lost 2016 campaign, and the accusation that the left destroyed the progressive dream. This ties in with progressives’ accusations of left collusion with historically anti-Semitic Russia — witness Hillary’s comment that Green Party candidate Jill Stein is practically “a Russian asset” — in allegiance with Trump, against the progressive centre.

Witness, too, The Guardian‘s willingness to publish any amount of anti-Corbyn bilge, including a piece by Simon Sebag Montefiore, arguing that Corbyn’s failure on anti-Semitism “undermines the Labour leadership’s ability to be real progressives at all” in this article, an obvious pitch to wavering leftists.

The new progressives are happy to align with the new big powers — tech, global finance, media — as the force of the future, and to use anything against criticism of such, or resistance from the left.

This is particularly obtuse, because there is a new and specific anti-Semitism on the rise, but it has very little to do with Israel, now an irrelevancy to Western debate aside from a degree of Cold War political cosplay around it.

The new anti-Semitism creeping back is, well, the old anti-Semitism, re-emerging for new conditions. This anti-Semitism seems to be a response to the 2008 global crash, the lack of a real subsequent recovery, but the parallel surge of tech wealth, much of it based on access to finance, and the tsunami of quantitative easing money that has washed towards the rich, and trickled down to the rest.

Part of 19th century anti-Semitism was a response to the rise of finance and credit. These seemed magical — money out of nowhere — and quickly became tormenting, controlling peoples’ lives. Jewish people were strongly represented in the sector, and hatred of them became a concretised explanation for the new oppression, even though there was no shortage of gentile financiers.

In a post 9/11 era, where conspiracy theory has become epidemic as a form of “folk reasoning”, the new fusion of finance and tech is a form of magic on steroids. An algorithm plus seed capital = billionaire? The coincident occurrence of that with the seemingly permanent suppression of wage power has recharged the process of “reconcretisation” whereby abstract and impersonal forces of history are given a false and specific agency (Marxism, contrary to Kurti’s claims, explicitly fought this process).

This process is occurring apace. There is a renewed “casual” anti-Semitism spreading across the world — in east Asia, the anti-Semitic writings of Henry Ford have become steady bestsellers, and Mein Kampf‘s sales are well above the demand created by pol-sci students — that has affinities with the mass anti-Semitism that was a “given” of public opinion before World War II.

The Jewish peak bodies in the West have been slow to pick up on this, obsessed with Israel forward defence, and anti-BDS campaigns. If people like Sebag Montefiore — from the leading British Jewish establishment family — and The Guardian want to focus on a spurious accusation of the phenomenon to damn even mild efforts to address the decades of reversal in ordinary people’s lives, they are playing a very stupid game indeed.

When even mild left projects are demonised, when the magical promises of Trump and Brexit are seen to have failed, the era of “reconcretisation” will really get going, and this crazed, libeling of anyone who dares question the status quo will be made visible as its destructive precursor.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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