Some reflections on the capitalist roots of the Holocaust.
Even seventy years later, having learned nothing, Western intellectuals still love to proclaim with the ponderous air of authority that the Holocaust was “thoroughly at odds with the great traditions of Western civilization,” as Richard Rubenstein paraphrases in his book The Cunning of History: The Holocaust and the American Future (1975). It was contrary to all our glorious Western values of freedom, truth, beauty, rationality, and other pretty words that intellectuals pretend to admire.
Let’s leave aside the fact that “the West” has never had a monopoly on such values: they’re not Western values but human values, which people from prehistory onwards have implicitly subscribed to and acted on. More pertinent is the fact that for centuries the West has been more committed to quite different values, such as insatiable greed, plunder and enslavement of foreign peoples, genocide of native populations, vicious exploitation of wage-laborers, murderous hatred of the “Other,” ever-increasing policing of society (in both “soft” and “hard” forms), and atomizing bureaucratic collectivism that dehumanizes everything it touches.
None of this has been because Westerners are uniquely evil or have a different human nature from other peoples; it has been because a new kind of society arose, structured around the institutional imperative to accumulate capital at whatever cost to the natural and human worlds.
At the same time as horrific tendencies of racism and nationalism gradually developed under the influence of an inter-nationally organized imperialistic capitalism, trends of depersonalization, regimentation, authoritarian control and monitoring of populations, and manufacturing authority-friendly popular attitudes through propaganda grew more pronounced. The relatively “personalistic” slavery of the antebellum American South gave way to the impersonal industrial slavery of the South in the 1890s and later. The violent and tumultuous conquest of society by profit-driven market relations, not humanizing but atomizing and instrumentalizing, spread reifying habits of thought that reduced humans to numbers, calculations, agglomerations, categories, ideologies, foreign objects to be used and discarded. Ever-larger concentrations of capital and industry made possible and necessary ever-larger bureaucracies, with their diabolical Weberian “formal rationality” and “efficiency”—exquisite subordination of every human impulse to the order from on high, the administrative rule, the technique for the smooth functioning of power.
Corporate capital and national governments matured together, intertwining in their policy formation and administrative machinery, the interests of one often becoming the interests of the other, each requiring for the sake of its power that social dissent be regulated or eradicated and domestic capital continue accumulating.
In an over-competitive capitalist world, the obsession of big business with big profits led to nationalistic protectionism, tariff wars, conquest of colonial markets, the “scramble for Africa,” an international arms race that exalted “blood and iron” as supreme values, and ideologies of national and racial grandeur to justify all this imperialism. A brutalization of the human spirit proceeded apace, particularly as savage colonial wars and amoral colonial administration trained bureaucrats in the efficient use of pure violence to attain the ends of power. World War I brought imperialist brutality home to Europe, intensifying it exponentially in the process. Afterwards, millions of shattered, defeated, resentful, homeless men roamed the continent, seething with rage against this society that had forgotten them, directing their rage at scapegoats readymade by the ruling class’s ongoing demonization of them: Socialists, Communists, Jews, foreign peoples, effete intellectuals—anything and anyone whose targeting would distract from class structures.
Again capitalism plunged into crisis: the Great Depression happened, which raised fears among ruling classes that organized labor or even Communists would attain political power. To prevent this, in a political environment of gridlock and dysfunction, conservatives and big business turned in desperation to the fascist movements that had spread in the 1920s, which they thought they could control. They installed Hitler, and elsewhere in Europe fascist parties made significant headway.
Under Hitler, finally, all the nefarious tendencies of Western civilization that had been building for decades and centuries were unleashed in a danse macabre that culminated in the most unfathomable enormity in history, the Holocaust. The racism, the institutional and ideological “categorizing” of people, the enslavement and genocide of the Other, the efficient doing-away-with superfluous people (the Jews were made stateless so that no government had to protect them), the impersonal cost-benefit mode of thinking, and the totalitarian aspects of bureaucracy, states, corporations, capitalism itself, were all perfected—the principle of submission to authority was deified.
It should be noted that Nazism and the Holocaust were singularly compatible with corporate capitalism: big business all over the West cooperated with and funded the Nazis (at least until that became politically inexpedient in Allied countries during World War II), who performed a useful service in destroying the German labor movement; and Jewish slave labor was gratefully used by politically connected companies.
Nor is there any inherent reason why business should object to genocide, which, in fact, can be profitable for firms lucky enough to get the contracts.1 Clear elective affinities exist between the anti-humanism of capitalism—everything subordinated to the mania for profit, workers ideally being pushed down to a starvation diet for the sake of profits (or, even better, being eliminated entirely through mechanization and automation)—and the anti-humanism of Nazism, which subordinates everything to the mania for power. The superfluity of humanity to capitalism was made literally manifest in the superfluity of individuality, personality, and millions of physical beings to state-capitalist totalitarianism—such that the death-factories can perhaps be considered an apt symbol of modernity itself.
–In short, far from being a betrayal of Western values, the Holocaust was the apotheosis of some of the most deep-seated, albeit implicit, Western values and social structures. Even if it hadn’t happened, the catastrophe it signified would have anyway, namely the elimination of human connections in mass society and in the dominant institutions of modern civilization. This plague of multifarious inhumanity has by no means been overcome since World War II; it has only assumed different forms in an age in which explicit racism and virulent nationalism have (until recently) gone out of style.
- 1As Rubenstein argues, “both genocide and slave labor proved to be highly profitable enterprises… The business of mass murder was both a highly complex and successful corporate venture,” as it has always been during the imperialistic age from the 1870s to the recent Iraq war. After all, “the same attitude of impersonal rationality is required to run successfully a large corporation, a death camp slave factory and an extermination center. All three are part of the same world.” The Cunning of History (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), 60, 62. The thoroughly capitalist nature of the Nazi regime is made clear in Ernest Mandel’s The Meaning of the Second World War (London: Verso, 1986).