Democratic Narrative, History, and Memory (Symposia on Democracy)

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Only America continued to redeem its currency with gold. Countries were allowed, and sometimes even required, to impose capital controls, measures that limited the cross-border flow of investment capital. So weak was the political power of investors that France, Britain, and America let inflation shrink the value of their war debts considerably. The result—highly inconvenient for free-market fundamentalists—was prosperity.

In the three decades following the Second World War, per-capita output grew faster in Western Europe and North America than ever before or since. There were no significant banking or financial crises.

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The real income of Europeans rose as much as it had in the previous hundred and fifty years, and American unemployment, which had ranged between fourteen and twenty-five per cent in the thirties, dropped to an average of 4. The new wealth was widely shared, too; income inequality plummeted across the developed world. And with the plenty came calm.

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Between and , per-capita income growth in the developed world fell to half of what it had been between and Income inequality rebounded. By , the real median earnings of prime-age American workingmen were four per cent lower than they had been in And, as Polanyi would have predicted, faith in democracy slipped. Kuttner warns that support for right-wing extremists in Western Europe is even higher today than it was in the nineteen-thirties.

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But was Keynesianism pushed, or did it stumble? When America fell into recession in , the Federal Reserve tried to boost the country out of it by dropping interest rates, and America became a target of opportunity for speculators: capital fled the country, taking gold with it. By May, , the United States was facing its first merchandise trade deficit since , an indication that the high dollar was discouraging foreign buyers.

Unwilling to pacify investors by inflicting austerity on voters, President Richard Nixon uncoupled the dollar from gold, ending the Bretton Woods agreement. Food prices skyrocketed, and, as wallets were pinched, the country tumbled into another recession. At this juncture, a new economic monster appeared: stagflation, a chimera of inflation, recession, and unemployment.

The predicament provided an opening for their critics, most notably Milton Friedman, who argued that incessant government stimulation of the economy risked promoting not only inflation but the expectation of inflation, which could then spiral out of control. Friedman declared Keynesianism discredited and demanded that the government refrain from tampering with the economy, other than to manage the money supply. The nation had gone back to stabilizing its currency the old-fashioned way—by throwing people out of work—and utopian faith in self-regulating free markets had made a comeback.

Kuttner thinks that this was a terrible mistake, arguing that the inflation of the seventies was limited to particular sectors of the economy such as food and oil.

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That sounds a little like special pleading. Both the Bush and the Obama Administrations adopted Keynesian policies in response to the financial crisis of But when stagflation flummoxed the Keynesians it cost them their near-monopoly on political advice-giving, and laissez-faire was rereleased into the political sphere. In January, , the United States removed constraints on sending capital abroad. A Supreme Court decision overturned most state laws against usury. The set of policies became known as the Washington Consensus.

The idea was pain in the short term for the sake of progress in the long term, but a meta-analysis was unable to find statistically significant evidence that the trade-off is worth it. Even if it is worth it, Polanyi would have recommended tempering the short-term pain. From , when austerity measures were first imposed on Greece, to , its G.

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A federally appointed panel is now pushing for a similar approach in Puerto Rico. Perhaps the most vexed issue Kuttner discusses, however, is trade policy—whether American workers should be protected against cheap foreign goods and labor. Half an hour with a supply-and-demand graph shows that free trade is better for every nation, developed or developing, no matter how much an individual businessperson might wish for a special tariff to protect her line of work. This implies a recognition of human interpretation—not law-making, because God is the only lawmaker. There is also the fact that the prophets speak in the streets to ordinary men and women.

The moment they leave the court of the king and come into the streets of the city is a democratizing moment. Over time in the exilic communities, we opened paths toward democratic decision making. There were assemblies of the male members, and they voted for representatives to the Council of the Four Lands in Poland and Lithuania from the 16th to the 18th centuries.

Representatives were chosen in the local areas and sent to a central meeting twice a year. But it was only about five to ten percent of Jews who voted.

Symposium / Is Democracy a Jewish Idea?

So we came to democracy slowly. Ben Gurion once said he was prime minister of a country of prime ministers, implying that Jews are hyper-democratic. If democracy encourages governance from below—by the people, of the people and for the people—then the memory of all the Jews standing at Sinai, and later, the practice of all the Jews reading from the Torah would certainly have encouraged a democratic culture.

Democracy is less a Jewish idea than a by-product of the Jewish way of life. The Greeks developed the idea of democracy in thinking about how one governs a polity. Among Jews it began with the sanctity of individual life. They badly needed mature self-governance in order to live as a minority among other nations.

Mitt Romney was only stating the obvious when he said that culture determines the democratic nature of Israel and the difficulty its neighbors have in attaining democracy. The tribal nature of the Jews is sometimes considered an obstacle to democracy. Just the opposite is true: Because Jews do not universalize their religion, they have no trouble co-existing with others. Democracy requires just that balance between self-sufficiency and respectful recognition of others. Jews know from their own difficulties the hard self-discipline that civilization requires.

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Ruth Wisse is professor of Yiddish literature and comparative literature at Harvard University and author of Jews and Power. The Jewish tradition carries very powerful democratic genes. Democracy was invented in ancient Greece and then reinvented in Europe in the 18th century, but there is a long-standing Jewish notion of popular civil participation, with numerous voices taking part in political decision-making.

The ancient Israelites are on biblical record as a dazzling multiplicity of voices—both men and women—debating and deciding issues such as what is the best form of government, who is the true sovereign, how should human beings be governed, what are the entitlements of the ruler and the ruled, how to achieve social and economic justice, and what community is all about? The fierce multivocality and the ever-present quest for human equality and social justice were often uniquely Israelite, and later uniquely Jewish, until they found their way to modern Western discourse at large.

In Talmudic times, the democratic instinct of the Jewish people turned from the political to the intellectual. In the Bible, many simple people were able to make their voices heard. In the Talmud, that same instinct is seen in the way that large numbers of rabbis and scholars debate each other.

The Jewish community has always left a window open for disagreement—intellectual and rabbinical, but also on matters of community and society. There is an ongoing tradition of openness—albeit not always and not everywhere—to a plurality of opinions. Modern-style pluralism came slowly and gradually, and modern-style democracy needed other sources than the Jewish scriptures.

In modern Israel today, anyone pretending that Judaism and democracy are incompatible traditions and that Israeli society must decide between the two is showing a certain measure of historical ignorance. When, in the 17th century, republican governments were established in the Netherlands and, briefly, in Britain, Protestant scholars of Hebrew sought to use the Jewish Bible and some rabbinic texts to lend extra theological support to these polities. I am skeptical, though, of claims made by some historians that republican thought in this period was inspired by Jewish sources.

British and Dutch political thinkers generally had a clear idea of what they were looking for in Jewish sources, and were able to interpret these texts to make sure they found it. For Kant and others this aspect of Judaism was deeply inimical to individually autonomous thought and judgment, which was and still is widely regarded as essential to the successful functioning of a democracy. The claim that the key ideas of Western political discourse are somehow proprietorially Jewish seems often to derive from a desire to associate Jews and Judaism with Euro-American values, in contrast to those imputed to the Islamic world.

Democracy has two essential parts: majority rule and the equal treatment of free citizens. Judaism never historically had much to say on the former, but it has a lot to say about the latter.


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Yet some modern ideals of equal treatment for all and the equal dignity of human beings can be said to have important biblical and rabbinic roots. The creation of Israel with its aspiration to be a Jewish and a democratic state opens the possibility for a distinctively Jewish democracy and for a form of Judaism that is more closely connected to democratic values.


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  7. For democracy to be Jewish, or for a state to be Jewish and democratic, requires treating all citizens—regardless of ethnicity, religion, or sex—as fully equal participants in that state, and respecting not only their legal right to equality, but their moral right to be treated with equality and dignity. If a Jewish state can satisfy those goals, it can be democratic in the same way that an Islamic state or a Christian state that satisfies those goals can also be democratic. This call for papers is restricted to the members of the GDRI.

    One of the objectives of the conference is to engage a comparative reflective history, a way of putting into perspective the low spots and high spots of established sources and the knowledge acquired literature included so as to go towards other reservoirs.

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    Rereading History presupposes dwelling on various traces that crop up in order to take another look at historical periods, bringing out testimonies, writing practices and subjectivities as yet unknown, etc. The role of History as shared exercise, as a discipline of comparison through time and space can be put alongside literary narratives and artistic narratives in order to give a more interdependent vision of past and current situations of democracy in the world.

    History as a discipline is in the process of opening up to new fields and uses; it is turning towards the private, the intimate, the domestic and even emotion. It is well-known that History has undergone falsifications and manipulations by those who are in power! It is not the major facts of history, great battles or even the famous pacts as they are related in school textbooks or in official texts that interest these authors; all that is important for them is individual, subjective, interiorised history, the painful experience lived by those to take part in making History.

    It is in fact less History as knowledge that is called into question in certain literary texts than the traditional forms of its legitimation. Writing is clearly situated within the historical context by which it is fashioned, a context that determines a point of view on the past but that also involves an image of the present, since the writing of History takes place in a determined time and space.

    The relations between History and Democracy have constructed an erudite knowledge translated into textbooks around two commonplaces which have it that democracy began with Athens to touch down on the American and European experiences starting in the 18 th century.


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