Steve Jobs, #occupywallst, and Usury

A somewhat conservative friend of mine asked me yesterday, “how much do you think the Occupy Wall Street protests have in common with anti-Semites blaming the Jewish bankers for the world’s ills?

About zero, I answered. The OWS protesters are against something real (however inarticulately it’s sometimes expressed), while anti-Semites are anti a lie. 

And yet, a seemingly unrelated event—the untimely death of Apple’s genius Steve Jobs—makes me want to look again at the real grievances beneath the anti-Semitic lunacy.

Jobs was a true American genius. Everyone knows how the first Apple computer was founded in his parents’ garage, how he built Apple from nothing, not once but twice, and how, in between, he found time to reinvent American cinema (Pixar gets partial credit for the CGI and digital animation revolutions—but partial is enough). He and his fellow hackers did this not as part of the establishment but as countercultural heroes. Big Blue was run by corporate suits—Apple, and the early Microsoft, by long-haired hippies.

Steve Jobs invented stuff, and that stuff changed the world.

 

Contrast Jobs with the “Wall Street” being occupied for three weeks now. The symbolic “Wall Street” is not the New York Stock Exchange, but rather the financial industry writ large; the folks who brought us the 2008 financial crisis. Senator Bernie Sanders described the problem, and the villain, perfectly: “The average American understands that there’s something very, very wrong when the people on Wall Street—their greed and recklessness—caused this recession,” he said. “Millions of people lost their jobs, their homes, their life savings. And you know what the punishment was for the people on Wall Street? They got higher compensation benefits. They are making more money than they ever made before.”

The default credit swaps, Ponzi schemes (the “legal” ones, not Madoff’s), speculation gone wild, bubbles—all of these are what used to be referred to by one musty religious word: usury.

Usury, in short, is making money from money—rather than earning it from stuff. Apple makes iPads—stuff. Goldman Sachs moves capital around and makes profits off of returns on investment, interest, and so on—usury. 

Western civilization’s original usury laws are found in the Bible. The Torah contains several prohibitions against lending money at interest, and the New Testament several condemnations of it. Deuteronomy 23:20-21 is representative, here in the King James (why not): “Thou shalt not lend upon interest to thy brother: interest of money, interest of victuals, interest of any thing that is lent upon interest… that the LORD thy God may bless thee in all that thou puttest thy hand unto, in the land whither thou goest in to possess it.”

Two years ago, in the heat of the financial meltdown, I wrote an article suggesting that usury could be a unifier: a religious way to talk about financial misconduct, and a basis for stiff financial regulation that could unite progressives and religious conservatives. (States do limit the maximum interest rate one may charge for a loan, but this is but a shadow of what the usury prohibitions were meant to cover.) I stand by that article, and know that if we had usury laws based on the Biblical ideals, the sorts of super-leveraged financial instruments that caused the 2008 crash would never have been legal in the first place. 

My point here, though, is somewhat different. Because, as my conservative friend implied, usury is not just a musty Biblical sin, but a charge specifically levied against Jews. There was a clear historical reason for this: the medieval church banned usury, but Jews were exempt from the ban. Meanwhile, the Biblical rule (in the part I covered with ellipses above) allowed Jews to charge interest from “foreigners.” And at the same time, Jews were forbidden from owning real property. Jews generally couldn’t own stuff or make stuff, and so they disproportionately flocked to trade and usury—making money from money. “Jewish moneylending” sounds like an anti-Semitic canard, but it was a historical fact. 

Transferred, later, to the Rothschilds and other Jewish banking empires of the 19th and 20th century, and Shylock the moneylender becomes Shylock the malevolent Jewish banker, controlling world politics with his purse-strings. 

Of course, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates also controlled the world—and we sometimes resent them for it. But ultimately, they earned that control by building Apple and Windows. Ditto for Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg, and the rest. Of course, computer software isn’t “stuff” in the old-fashioned sense, but it’s still a product, something that comes from an invention. Jobs was not a usurer in the way the faceless masters of Citigroup, Bank of America, and Goldman Sachs are. Indeed, their facelessness is part of the point.

Obviously, Wall Street funds innovation. Capitalism succeeds because it incentivizes individuals and groups to increase efficiency and innovation in the delivery of goods and services. But I think there is a religious-spiritual undertone to the Occupy Wall Street protests that goes back to our core sense that you shouldn’t make money if you don’t make anything. If all you’re doing is moving your corporation’s capital around, you’re getting a windfall every time someone else’s genius makes you rich.

I owned Apple stock for awhile myself, and made a pretty nice profit. (Not the killing others made—Apple’s stock value rose 7000% after Jobs regained control of the company. I was happy to triple my money and cash out.) Did I earn that money, in the religious-ethical sense? Of course not. I earned (and inherited) the money that I invested in Apple, and I made a smart decision to choose Apple instead of, say, AOL. But the rewards I reaped were not based upon the sweat of my brow. 

Which brings me to Karl Marx. I’ve deliberately kept him out of my discussion so far, but obviously, the religious critique of usury-capitalism is very similar to the Marxist critique of it. Jobs and his employees labored, and I profited from their alienated labor. Magnify that by a trillion or two, and you have “Wall Street.”

I think this is also why so many people are growing their own food and learning to live “off the grid” a bit more. I don’t buy that it’s because the economy may collapse so completely that we won’t even be able to get bread at the supermarket. I think it’s because, in our online age, people want to be connected to stuff, to “real” things like soil and sweat and fruit. 

And I think that’s part of what’s behind the OWS protests. Their rhetoric is sometimes anti-capitalist. But it’s never anti-Steve-Jobs-capitalist. It’s anti-Goldman-capitalist. See the difference? One is a genius, the other a usurer. One is a person, the other a faceless corporate entity. And when I checked out the protest a few days ago, for every red-flag-waving Marxist in the crowd, I spotted a dozen people who wanted jobs—not Steve Jobs, but the old fashioned kind, the kind where you worked and got paid for what you did, and it was an “honest living,” and even if you were just building webpages, you were building something, dammit, and that was real and human and true.

JayMichaelson&ltjay@nehirim.orggt'

Dr. Jay Michaelson [@jaymichaelson] is Associate Editor of Religion Dispatches and the author of five books, most recently "Evolving Dharma: Meditation, Buddhism, and the Next Generation of Enlightenment" (North Atlantic, 2013). He holds a J.D. from Yale and a Ph.D. in Jewish Thought from Hebrew University of Jerusalem.