Monasticism and neoliberalism: On Agamben’s The Highest Poverty

I’ve been slowly working my way through Foucault’s Birth of Biopolitics this summer, with a kind of dawning horror at the sheer nihilism of neoliberalism. The end result of this ruling ideology is that we should all be our own individual enterprises, in constant competition with others, making continual economic choices — and with no goal outside the competition itself. Even when we “retire,” we are not at rest, because then above all we need to be savvy managers of our various investments.

All this in the name of freedom! I think we need to be careful here not to jump too quickly to the idea that “freedom” is just a cover for a more sinister agenda — as far as I can tell, the neoliberal theorists sincerely believe that the market is the place where the most authentic form of freedom is instantiated, where people come together to form freely-chosen arrangements (appealing to liberals) and show their true aptitude and worth (appealing to conservatives), all (at least ideally) without the mediation of the coercive force of the state or any inherited tradition. If the market is where freedom happens, then what else can you do but make all of life a market? Yet the result, of course, isn’t really freedom, but the worst totalitarianism of all — a non-stop, exhausting agon with no goal and no prospect of rest (insofar as rest is always only geared toward more effective struggle).

I had a similar sensation of exhaustion on reading the first half of Agamben’s The Highest Poverty, where he focuses on the development of monastics rules and their ambition to turn all of life into a non-stop liturgy. For example, many rules and monastic commentators take very literally the Apostle’s injunction to “pray continually” — aside from the Liturgy of Hours, the monk is to be continually meditating on memorized passages from scripture, even when engaged in purely utilitarian work. Every aspect of the monk’s comportment and clothing (i.e., his “habit” in every sense) is saturated with meaning. Especially when translating these passages, which required me to think about every aspect of this regime in vivid detail, I thought it sounded horrible and exhausting.

This totalitarian regime, as Agamben calls it more than once, was ironically enough the end result of an attempt to flee from the polis and — given that this is Christianity we’re talking about — from its law. This is ironic, since the monastic rule seems to be an even more oppressive law than the law itself: where “normal” law specifies the boundaries of accepted behavior and leaves everything else indifferent, the monastic rule is an attempt to positively determine one’s every action.

Yet there was always an effort to distance the rule from the law. For instance, the monastic vow cannot be construed as a legally-binding vow requiring the monk to follow every single point in the rule — as the theory develops, it is gradually determined that what is at stake is not so much the rule as the life that it regulates. There is something about vowing to live according to the rule that is different from vowing the rule.

What is at stake here, for Agamben, is more than a practical compromise in light of the fact that fulfilling the rule’s totalitarian demands is basically impossible on the practical level. It is a way of reaffirming the fact that the rule is “read off of” the monastic life rather than determining that life. Where this comes out most clearly is in the form of monasticism that Agamben views as most radical and promising: Franciscanism. (Indeed, it would probably not be saying too much to claim that Francis is a messianic figure for Agamben.)

Francis introduces a radical simplicity into the conceptualization of monasticism. What the monk vows is to live according to the Gospel, and the “rule” itself is merely supplemental (indeed, some popes wouldn’t recognize it as a “rule” properly-so-called). More importantly, the emphasis on poverty is conceived explicitly as a renunciation of one of the most important points of the law, the right of ownership. Franciscan poverty does not mean that the monk must make every effort to avoid owning any particular thing, but rather that the monk completely abdicates any right to claim ownership. They don’t just lack all possessions, they lack the very ability to “possess.”

I am still thinking this through, but the contrast between “normal” monasticism and Franciscanism seems to be implicitly cast in terms of the structure set out in The Kingdom and the Glory: “normal” monks attempt to escape from the world’s economy by means of “glory” (i.e., the continual worship represented by turning one’s whole life into a liturgy), whereas Franciscans refuse the economy altogether. In a sense, then, Franciscans represent a real-life instantiation of communism (even more than monks in general, who might be viewed as analogous to state socialism).

The book ends on a negative note, though, as Agamben traces the ways in which Franciscan poverty was ultimately domesticated by the papacy. For Agamben, this results, in the last analysis, from an inadequate concept of law. The Franciscan theorists advanced the idea that the Brothers were able to “use” things in a purely de facto way, much as animals do, without claiming any explicit legal right to use them. (I found this argument exciting in light of my reading of Augustine’s De Trinitate in terms of “use.”) Yet this attempt to find a space that is “outside the law” proved to be totally unstable — as Agamben points out, it is in the very structure of law to claim what is outside itself. (Indeed, I would argue that for Agamben, that is in the very nature of Western culture as a whole; see my essay in Anthony’s edited volume.) By putting their practice forward as a kind of pre-legal zone, the Franciscans opened themselves up as new territory for primitive accumulation.

Now I doubt that anyone was expecting that Agamben’s fourth “volume” in the Homo Sacer series would begin with a detailed analysis — and it is incredibly detailed, probably the most erudite thing Agamben has yet put out — of how Franciscanism went wrong. But I think his diagnosis has “positive” implications, because the general sense of Agamben’s argument is that the Franciscans went wrong by trying to wall off a zone in which they could renounce property while leaving the rest of the world as it is. The law is perfectly capable of appropriating any determinate local territory, just as the Church proved more than capable of appropriating the desert into which the monks fled. What they needed to do was to go on the offensive against property as such, to attack the very legitimacy of legitimacy itself. That is, they could only effectively fight against the totalitarian power of law if they were willing to fight on the same level of universality.

What does this mean for the struggle against the totalitarianism of the market represented by neoliberalism? One potential take-away is that the welfare state looks much more questionable as a strategy (as in the work of Hardt and Negri). Insofar as the welfare state tried to set up certain zones “outside” the demands of market competition, it ultimately presented itself as a new field for primitive accumulation, just like the Franciscans’ zone of de facto use.

In the “ownership society,” nothing can truly escape the law of property — it is always only “pre-owned.” Privatization can be staved off, perhaps even indefinitely — the question is what it would look like to deny that anything could ever actually be private. Perhaps necessarily, Agamben leaves that question open at the end of The Highest Poverty.

5 thoughts on “Monasticism and neoliberalism: On Agamben’s The Highest Poverty

  1. Have you read The Fear of Beggars by Kelly Johnson? She traces the role of the beggar within the church and the state. The Franciscans especially were a community where begging made sense and was given honor and seen as a paradigm of learning to live dependently on God through dependance upon others. Theologians and those of the church had to make exceptions for those who had accumulated wealth and property in light of the lives of beggars.

    She then traces a gradual shift in the conceptions of private property and wealth to arrive where we are today in which begging is considered shameful and lazy. The beggar is the opposite of what. The term “stewardship” now designates the act of owning with private property rights the material “gifts of God” to do what we choose with them but using them in a way that He intends.

    Combine that with what you are saying about neoliberalism and stewardship begins to look like all of us being our own tiny enterprises and the best we can do is “win” in the field of competition in order to have the most to be good stewards of. Beggars, by nature, cannot be stewards by this definition and are “missing out” on participation in the life of God in this way. A far cry from how begging was conceived of and practiced by the Franciscans.

  2. Does he discuss the reformation in any way? In many ways what especially Luther did was to apply monasticism to life in society, and since the states that taken welfare the furthest also are the Lutheran Nordic countries, this seems to be an interesting “missing link”. Certainly all three (the monastics according to Agamben, Luther, and the modern Nordic welfare states share the ambition to include all life within the rule.

  3. John, I have not read the book you mention — thanks for the recommendation.

    Patrik, The Reformation gets only a very brief mention, as a movement that favored the monastic liturgy over the ecclesiastical liturgy (basically). I should clarify that the analogy to welfare states is my own and does not appear in any way in Agamben’s book itself.

  4. I am reminded of the crazy grandfather figure in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead who is presented as a kind of monastic/prophet during the Civil War era. He is always stealing clothes off the line or selling things right out from under his family’s nose to give to some one in need – sort of a way of universalizing poverty and property. A paltry example, but one that may fuel better minds than mine toward a constructive account.

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