Karl Marx, the Lutheran whose family had converted from Judaism, was key to the “secularization” and deracinating of the age-old contempt and suspicion held toward money and merchantry.
Marx did not succeed completely in his mission: before him, and into the present day, class division has taken on distinctly ethnic overtones, simply because the merchants are usually from minority nationalities. Throughout Europe, it was the Ashkenazim, from which Marx himself descended, who were disproportionately involved in trade. In the Near East, it was the Christian Armenians that dominated money and markets, while descendants of Arab-Muslim conquerors were predominate in trade in the Far East. The “overseas” Chinese, based out of Pacific Asia, have been disproportionately numerous in business in that region, and latterly in the western coasts of Canada and the United States, which also hosts a business class where Muslims from the Middle East, Jews from Europe and Armenians from Africa and the Near East (as well as those from the Subcontinent) are again found in trade more frequently than the strict proportions of these minorities in the general population.
The apparent universality of “stranger” or minority populations involved disproportionately in trade, stems from several causes. For one, minorities may be forbidden outright from standard occupations, such as farming or handicrafts, as well as the law, medicine and so on. Trade has always been considered, by the high and low, as so disreputable that only despised minorities were left to it. However, simple discrimination in this fashion is not sufficient for a minority population to survive in business. There are many minorities who remain penniless, but for their possession of religious beliefs of a lesser or greater ascetic import, which is shared in common with all or most of the minority-trading populations cited above. It is true of the Ashkenazi Jews, as of the Armenian Christians; the Muslims of the Far-East and modern-day Europe and North America, as well as the Hindu and Islamic Subcontinentals who live in the Occident today. The Overseas Chinese are adherents of Confucianism, which alike with Buddhism, expresses the ascetic aspect of Asiatic religiosity. This is of course paradoxical. Why is trade, supposedly based on greed and chicanery, so associated with the ascetic faiths of inconvenience? It is precisely the self-discipline and energy of the ethical and ascetic, which makes them so right for business.
As a rule, too, minority-trader populations are “homeless”, possessing no proper place of origin, being neither from here or from there. This is literally the case with the Jews of Europe, as well as the Armenians, who each lost their homelands thousands or hundreds of years ago. The Muslim descendants of the Arab conquerors were, by the time of the collapse of the power of the Caliphate, so integrated into the societies of those whom they had conquered, that the Arab language itself was lost or had evolved completely into a new tongue, and the Muslims themselves had become Asiatic in appearance. This holds true, to a lesser extent, with the Overseas Chinese, especially in the Pacific Asia home-base. However, for racial, ethnic or religious reasons, the minority populations are not considered a part of the host society. They instead sought a base of power outside what was acceptable to most — in trade. And, for this reason, virtually all the trader-minority populations mentioned, have been subjected to varying degrees of assault and despisal, especially when times were bad.
Karl Marx, the convert who was so darkly-complected that his nickname was “The Moor”, and who moreover came from a milieu familiar with money and markets (his father was a lawyer, but his uncle founded in Holland what became Phillips Electronics, and of course his partner was Freddy Engels, the Manchester factory-owner), sought to channel the natural hostility of the masses toward the merchant class, entirely away from ethnic and racial conceptions. His dialectical philosophy taught that all human beings were defined essentially not by race, religion, ethnicity or sex, but by class: either bourgeois or proletarian. These groups formed, as it were, separate and antagonistic “nations” that were (or would become) global in reach.
It is obvious that this is not the case, that members of bourgeoisie and of the proletariat define themselves foremost by nationality, ethnicity, gender, and so on, before they see themselves as middle- or working-class (this is dismissed by Marxists as an aspect of “false consciousness”). However, it is true more generally that participation in trade and (especially) industry in modern times has been characterized less so by ethnic or religious minority-status. In virtually all industrialized countries, the nationality, ethnicity and religion of the bourgeoisie was broadly the same as the proletariat. But this general statement disguises the fact that, very often, religious or national minorities were more predominant in capitalist trade given their share of the total population.
During the industrial revolution in Britain, for example, Dissenters from the Church of England were far over-represented among the nascent capitalist class, compared to their overall population. Dissenters were Protestants, but belonged to other than the official denomination, which meant their full participation in civic life was curtailed or forbidden (no holding of elective office, for example). In Scotland, industrialization was carried out mainly by those of Anglo-Saxon heritage, as compared to the proletarian descendants of the Celtic Highlanders (including the minority Scots Catholic population). Calvinist Anglo-Scots have in turn, been predominant in modern business throughout England itself, and in Ulster, Canada and the United States. In Germany, Max Weber famously observed that “Protestants eat well, while Catholics sleep well,” indicating the predominance of the former in business and the professions, the latter among the working-classes. In Germany, too, secular or convert Jews were again over-represented in trade and merchantry, notoriously to fall victim to Nazism because of it.
The reality of the prevalence, or outright dominance, of ethnic and religious minorities in the ranks of the merchantry, is confounding to the respective views of human nature held by Marxists, on the one hand, and by monetarists, on the other. Far from being, by definition, rational benefit-maximisers, as argued by classical liberals, people only take to trade as a primary way of life, under extraordinary social circumstances. It is the ascetic value placed on “saving for another day”, which paradoxically makes capital accumulation possible. But this is upsetting, in turn, to the Marxian assumption that, in the first place, capital accumulation is not dependent upon ethno-cultural particularities, and that it is impossible for the dispossessed to get ahead by saving and risk-taking.
All the religious and ethnic minorities that were, ultimately, noted for their shrewdness in business, were originally in wretched straits. It was precisely their denial of full participation in the feudal-tributary economy, which forced the minorities into trade, and thus, subsequent wealth. Under capitalism, it is possible to get ahead; but success and sagacity in business requires a particular socio-cultural conditioning, and is not otherwise intuitive. In reality, the industrial revolution of the eighteenth century occurred against a particular social and cultural background. Ascetic religion, the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation, thrived especially in nordic Europe (essentially, Britain, the Dutch- and German-speaking lands, as well as Scandinavia) during the early-modern centuries. Protestantism was successfully transplanted from there to northern America, as well as other outports throughout the world (southern Africa as well as Australia and New Zealand). True asceticism was the province of but a minority of the pious, but the values of hard work and sobriety in conduct and manners, were broadly held throughout English-speaking and other nordic-European societies.
Anglophone society as well, had a tradition of free labour, extant since long before the advent of factory-employment. This together allowed Britain to pioneer a factory-based economy, a process repeated on a far more grandiose scale in the United States. In Britain and the United States, industrialization was hardly trouble-free, but not marked by the sort of social and class division that characterized the factory revolutions in France and elsewhere in Europe. Although even in the English-speaking world, trade and commerce was dominated by those of ascetic denominations and ethnicities, the general embrace of Protestantism allowed those of lower station to make something of themselves, as long as they were ready to adopt monastic habits themselves.