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“Ideology” is the Wrong Word: What We Can Learn About Modern Capitalism from the Ancient Mediterranean

Aberdeen University’s Steve Mason, a scholar of the ancient Mediterranean world, was kind enough, nearly a decade ago, to seek my feedback on a fascinating article he produced on the origins of the term “Judaism.” While the peoples of the ancient Mediterranean were well acquainted with the state of Judea and ideas of Jewishness, the term “Judaism,” it turns out, was a rare and peculiar term. “Ιουδαϊσμός” and “Iudaismus” were largely absent from pre-Christian scripture, having been introduced in the apocryphal second and fourth books of the Maccabees, written in the two centuries prior to the Christian era.

When the use of the term finally did take off, it was not in documents written by Jews, who did not begin making use of it until the fifth century, but instead in Christian writings. Saints Paul and Ignatius introduced the term early on and by the third century, it caught on as an important piece of terminology as Christians argued with each other about who they were and what they stood for.

Back then, however, other terms were used to refer to the customs and traditions of the Jews. Our modern sense of “-ism” (originating from the Greek “-ισμός” via the Latin “-ismus”), referring to an ideology or set of beliefs, like Marxism or liberalism, was not one of the possible meanings this suffix held. So much of Mason’s work in the article was to excavate what, exactly, this term meant when it began to appear in early Christian writing.

It turns out that the original “Judaism” of the Christian Bible, both in Maccabees and in New Testament writings, actually refers to something much less abstract. The original “Judaism,” against which Pauline Christians inveighed, referred to the process of turning into a Jew. The Judaizers, an important faction in early Christianity, responsible for the Gospel of Matthew, believed that circumcision and keeping kosher were essential Christian practices for converts of all ethnicities, be they Gauls, Greeks, Romans or Numidians. Judaism, until the fifth century, was not the ideology of Jewishness but instead the process of changing into a Jew.

Mason’s discovery has major theological implications for how Christians read their scripture. But I am not interested in talking about them here. Instead I want to momentarily reverse the linguistic transformation of Late Antiquity in which our current meaning attached to “-ism” and see what light the earlier one can shed on the modern age.

People claim that capitalism is set of teachings or ideology. But is that how people really experience it? Generally, when people speak about capitalist ideology, they do not use the term. Nobody talks about believing in capitalism. People will identify with particular schools of thought within capitalism, advocating variously for “liberalism,” “free enterprise,” “the free market,” “progressivism” or “objectivism,” or they will inveigh against “casino capitalism,” “crony capitalism,” or “state capitalism.” And yet we all agree that capitalism shapes our daily experience as modern Anglo-Americans. Perhaps we should consider the possibility that the ways in which capitalism shapes our lives long ago transcended the merely ideological.

Could it be that capitalism is better understood in the ancient Greek sense, not as a set of teachings or principles, but as the experience of being transformed into capital itself? What if we understand capitalism not as something that people believe in but as something that is happening to us all? As current tort law attests, our bodies were turned into capital some time ago. And as the market extends further into the realm of the intangible, rendering our aesthetic preferences and ideological loyalties commodities to be extracted and traded via Facebook and the ubiquitous corporate “rewards” cards, as our very thoughts come to be commodified and financially commodified through intellectual property laws, capitalism has transformed from a mere ideology to a universal and inescapable experience of being transformed into capital itself.

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