I’ve followed Peter Rollins’ work for a couple years now and this weekend I had an epiphany: Are “transformance art collectives,” as he calls his communities (read: churches in a pub), really just a new kind of church for a new kind of capitalism?
Let me preface by saying that I’ve met Pete and his stated goals are admirable, but whether these communities, or other similar “emerging churches” (both of which mostly seem to be a white, middle-class phenomenon), are actually different from traditional church is questionable.
David Harvey continually emphasizes that changes in the deployment of political economy result in changes to the way that subjects experience space and time. Individual behaviors must be brought into a semblance of uniformity in order for particular regimes of capitalism to function. These social rules are internalized by the subjects of that regime, and therefore similarities can be found among the various institutions that thrive in a particular place and time. Simply put, under industrial capitalism, subjects are disciplined to remain passive in school, army, factory, prison, and church. The individual is not required to know how the assembly line works, never questions their superiors, can sit in church and think about where they will go to lunch afterwards, etc etc.
However, under the regime that we have entered and are currently living in, which, following Mauricio Lazzarato, I will call a debt economy, we now embody a new form of subjectivity.
[Whereas] the injunction to remain passive was dominant; now, the injunction to remain “active” mobilizes subjectivities. But the activity is empty because it offers no possibility to evaluate, choose, or decide. Becoming “human capital” and being an entrepreneur of the self are the new standards of employability. (The Making of Indebted Man, 145)
Institutions in the debt economy discipline subjects into a new form of subjectivity. We must build our personal brand and bring every aspect of our lives into the realm of exchange. Perpetually in debt, we are all required to deepen the “self,” because it is towards this biometrically reduced self that our debts are targeted. We must take responsibility for our selves, always fostering our creativity and injecting more and more energy into the institutions within which we participate. Employers monitor Facebook to see how employees are representing The Brand. Hobbies are no longer for fun, but must lead to a Kickstarter or an Etsy store.
Where do Rollins’ collectives, or more generally emerging churches, fit into this trajectory?
They articulate themselves as either successors to, an evolution of, or in opposition to “traditional” forms of church. That may or may not be the case, but whether or not any particular community has adopted the latest bourgeois views on sexuality or doubts the existence of God, it appears to me that these new forms of christian community perfectly instantiate the institutional mode inherent to the debt economy (and the answer isn’t a Radical Orthodoxy line about doing the same thing over and over again, which is mere nostalgia for old forms of oppression).
Members of these groups are expected to contribute their creativity. New versions of old liturgies and scriptural texts must continually be produced. New brands are built and carefully maintained. The self must be deepened in the drive to “be more human.”
Neoliberalism has been with us for around 30 years now. I hate to make a pure base/superstructure argument, but is “the church” finally catching up to the debt economy?