[This represents the final version of the talk on the devil and neoliberalism that I gave at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and subsequently at various universities in Australia and New Zealand as well as the Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy. I have been reluctant to post the text because I am working on an article, but there have been so many requests that I have finally relented. Please do not cite without permission.]
This lecture represents a development of a project that I have been working on for many years – a reinterpretation of the devil from the perspective of political theology. Last year, I completed the first phase of the project, which took the form of a historical genealogy of the devil, tracing the development of the figure from his roots in the Hebrew Biblical tradition up to his decisive role in Western medieval Christianity.
My guiding thesis is that the devil is at once a theological and a political figure, because the God of the Hebrew Bible (and subsequently of Christianity) is at once a theological and a political figure. God is envisioned as the direct ruler of the Israelites – he ensures their survival, liberates them from slavery, hands down their legal code, and secures their territory for them. Everything that an earthly ruler does, he does. But over time, the biblical authors become more and more convinced that God is not merely the ruler of Israel, but in some sense the ruler of the entire world as well. And this means that his truest rivals are not the pagan gods – who are usually dismissed as laughably inadequate, mere statues made of wood and stone – but others who presume to rule in this world.
In the book, I argue that we are still in some sense living in a version of the “minority monotheism” that emerged in ancient Israel and that if we want to understand the relationship between medieval Christianity and secular modernity, the most productive lens is the set of political-theological problems that emerged around the figure of the devil. And now that my book has established that historical genealogy in broad terms, I want to narrow the focus and show how my thesis can help us understand the dynamics of neoliberalism as a particularly extreme and self-destructive manifestation of the modern secular political theological paradigm.
I will be returning in more detail to my analysis of the devil, but I’d like to begin with an overview of what I understand by neoliberalism. It is a highly contested term, but there is one guiding thread throughout the entire wide-ranging debate about neoliberalism—namely, it’s a bad thing. In its current usage, the term was coined by leftist critics of capitalism, and it remains largely a term of abuse, almost a catch-all for everything that is wrong with the world. Indeed, a recent Guardian article claimed exactly that: neoliberalism is quite literally the source of all the world’s problems.
Doubtless it is this left-wing criticism that has made former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke so very sad.
Virtually no one self-identifies as a neoliberal, and that counts as evidence of its hegemony. To its advocates, it is not a particular ideology, it’s just common-sense policy making. Centrists in both American political parties advocate various mixtures of neoliberal policy priorities, seasoned with a spoonful of cultural issues to make the medicine go down. Those who reject the neoliberal consensus are dismissed as cranks and lightweights, as unrealistic and even dangerous dreamers.
In a certain sense, then, one could say that both neoliberals and their critics are frequently demonized—but I believe that that framing is over-simplistic. It presupposes that we already know what demonization is and can apply that familiar concept to the less familiar terrain of debates about neoliberalism, in a more or less metaphorical way.
What I hope to show in this lecture is that the links between neoliberalism and the realm of the demonic are more profound—and more profoundly strange—than that. Much of my work will consist in making the seemingly well-known figure of the devil seem much less familiar than we would have thought. But first I will try to provide something like a consensus definition of neoliberalism.
WHAT IS NEOLIBERALISM?
On the surface, the term neoliberalism refers to a grab-bag of policies that aim to dismantle the postwar political-economic settlement known as Fordism. Starting from Henry Ford’s insight that he would sell more cars if he paid his workers enough to be his customers, the system of Fordism combined strong government regulations, powerful unions, and high taxes and social spending to create broadly shared prosperity.
This system began to break down beginning in the 1970s. The reasons for this remain controversial, but what is clear is that in the US, persistent high inflation, coupled with the shock of the oil crisis, created an opportunity for a fundamental policy shift. Previously the state had focused on managing the level of consumer demand, and now, it was argued, there needed to be a shift toward the supply side of the equation—meaning the “supply” of capital available for investment.
This meant in practice a significant decrease in taxes, a weakening of unions, and a variety of other deregulatory measures meant to increase the profitability of capitalist firms. It was claimed that these measures would increase aggregate growth, producing a rising tide that lifts all boats—or else, in a contradictory metaphor, the wealth amassed by the capitalist class would “trickle down” to the little people.
Now the term deregulation is somewhat misleading. While it is true that restrictions on how firms could conduct their business were lifted to some extent, the goal wasn’t simply to let them do whatever they want. Instead, the goal was to subject them to a regulation that was supposed to be more efficient and inescapable—the regulation of “market discipline.” Regulated monopolies were gradually broken down into smaller parts in order to force competition.
Something similar was going on with privatization, another signature neoliberal policy. The goal was not simply to sell off state assets to enrich cronies—though some of this undoubtedly happened and continues to happen. Instead, it was believed that market forces would produce better and more efficient public services than government bureaucrats ever could.
Conscious, purposeful planning was replaced by a trust in the indirect mechanism of market competition to generate good outcomes. The state did not exist to tell people what to do, much less to directly do things itself—rather, its purpose was to lay down the rules of the competition in such a way that everyone would be compelled to “spontaneously” bring about the desired results. From this perspective, the government should not coerce us, but it CAN “nudge” us toward the “right” decision—something that is mainly attempted by means of tax credits.
A relatively familiar example of neoliberal policy making is Obamacare, the health care reform passed in Obama’s first term. Its primary goal is to increase health insurance coverage, not through direct state provision of insurance or of health care, but through a more indirect method. Though it tinkers around the edges of employer-provided insurance and expands the health care program for the poor somewhat, its core measure is an attempt to “fix” the market for individual insurance plans, which were previously almost impossible to get for anyone with a pre-existing medical condition.
The first step in this fix is apparently anti-neoliberal in that it introduces new regulations forbidding insurers from denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions. The second step makes up for this interference in the market by MANDATING that every American have health insurance. Taken alone, the new regulation would drive insurers to simply stop offering individual plans, because people could buy insurance when they became sick and therefore cost the company a lot of money without having paid significant premiums. The insurance mandate prevents that loophole, but more importantly, it creates a market in individual plans by FORCING everyone to participate in the market. Thus the regulation isn’t serving the same function as under Fordism – it is part of a broader effort to create a new market where previously there was not a functional market at all.
Though the Republicans have demonized Obamacare, the basic concept was famously first tried out by Mitt Romney in Massachusetts, and before he got the Republican nomination in 2012, “Romneycare” was considered his greatest achievement. And when pressed for how they would replace the hated Obamacare, Republicans mostly propose small tweaks to the basic model, which is probably the only neoliberal solution to the problem of health insurance. In short, you can choose which flavor you prefer, but you can’t vote against neoliberalism.
Much the same dynamic plays out in the international sphere, as countries are increasingly pressured to adopt neoliberal reforms in order to remain “competitive” in the race for international investment. Where Hobbes envisioned international relations as a state of nature, neoliberals believe the entire world can be a market, with nation-states as one economic entity among others—and not necessarily the most powerful or important ones. Even the sovereign power of the state is subjected to market discipline from without.
NEOLIBERALISM AS A WAY OF LIFE
If we look at these policies one-by-one, the whole thing could sound like an unprincipled cash-grab, and to some extent it certainly was. From a similar perspective, we could note how seldom neoliberal policy recommendations have delivered the promised results. Both Obamacare and charter schools require more spending than a conventional government monopoly would have, and there’s little indication that we are getting better health care or education as a result of these market-based schemes. The whole thing begins to look like a rip-off or a scam.
The more profound critics have recognized, however, that what makes neoliberalism so powerful is precisely how deeply principled it is. Its core principle is that market competition is an intrinsic good, because market competition is the purest instantiation of human freedom. The market is the purest democracy, because market outcomes are the spontaneous synthesis of all participants’ free decisions. The more deeply society is shaped by market forces, the freer it will be—and therefore the more legitimate the outcomes will be, because they will be what we all, collectively, chose. By contrast, the arbitrary imposition of an outside entity like the state seems like the road to tyranny and serfdom. The only outcomes that are legitimate are those that spring “spontaneously” from the aggregate of all individuals—and by the same token, any form of conscious collective agency is necessarily illegitimate because it constrains the spontaneity of individual wills.
Personally, I do not relish the opportunity to choose my health care plan. It is not high up on my list of expressions of authentic freedom. I would rather be relieved of that responsibility by a single-payer health care plan. Giving everyone “good enough” seems better—at least to me—than giving people the thrilling opportunity to choose a potentially inadequate insurance plan. From the neoliberal perspective, though, providing room for choice and personalization is an end in itself. Single-payer health care would be an imposition, depriving me of the exercise of my free choice.
To the extent that I prefer to let the government provide for me, I must be FORCED to be free. More than that, I must be forced to become the kind of person who makes good choices—which means becoming the kind of person who views all of life as a competition, every decision as a chance to maximize my utility. Where we might once have had a reputation, now we have a brand, which we must consciously cultivate. Where we once made friends, now we must “network” in order to find the most useful friends. And where we once had a career, now we have the exciting opportunity to reinvent ourselves every couple years, to prove ourselves to be the most nimble competitors again and again, for the rest of our miserable lives.
The nature of competition, of course, is that someone is going to have to lose. From the neoliberal perspective, however, that is a feature, not a bug. A well-designed market will seek out and reward merit and punish laziness and ineptitude. The losers may have a claim on our charity, but what society really owes them is a chance to get back into the game and prove themselves. The best thing for underdeveloped countries is not to give them grants or consumer goods, but to give them access to credit so they can be empowered by starting their own business. The best thing for the homeless is not to give them food and shelter, but to teach them to code.
But at the end of the day, failure must be possible, because otherwise people wouldn’t be sufficiently motivated to express their freedom—and any outcome that is not the product of the spontaneous expression of individual freedom (even if “nudged”) is illegitimate in neoliberal terms, regardless of how beneficial it may appear from other perspectives.
THE POLITICAL THEOLOGY OF LATE CAPITAL
Hopefully you have all processed what I mean by neoliberalism, because now I’m going to throw another highly contested term at you: political theology. In fact, I want to combine the two: neoliberalism is the political theology of the current stage of capitalism, which many Marxist critics call “late capital.”
What is political theology? The term originates in the work of the German legal theorist Carl Schmitt, who argued that there were deep connections between political or legal thought and theological or metaphysical systems. His book on the topic is best known for two quotations, the first of which I will quote with some commentary.
“All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts…”—which is usually where the quotation ends. The impression that most people take away from this segment of the quotation is that he means that modern political concepts are based on medieval theological concepts, which have gone through the washing machine’s secularization cycle.
The next segment of the quote reinforces this impression somewhat (and for the sake of readability, not all of this segment appears on the screen): “not only because of their historical development—in which they were transferred from theology to the theory of the state, whereby, for example, the omnipotent God became the omnipotent lawgiver—”
But the final part of the sentence shows that the transfer of concepts between different eras is only part of the story (again, not showing the whole quote): “but also because of their systematic structure, the recognition of which is necessary for a sociological consideration of these concepts.”
In short, political theology studies parallels between theological and political systems, both across history and AT THE SAME TIME. And as his subsequent discussion clarifies, the fact that the systems work in parallel AT THE SAME TIME is the more fundamental and important claim. Only because theology or metaphysics and political or legal thinking run in parallel AT THE SAME TIME is it possible for concepts and figures to be transferred from one realm to the other OVER THE COURSE OF TIME.
The reason that the two systems run in parallel, Schmitt claims, is that both are expressions of the deepest convictions of a given society about how the world is and ought to be. The dominant theological or metaphysical outlook reflects what people believe to be the deep structure of the world—above all, that society’s view about what matters most—and political systems must reflect those deep convictions if they are to remain legitimate.
Here we should recognize that Schmitt is using the term “theology” in a very broad sense that can’t be limited to traditional Christian orthodoxy. It would perhaps be more helpful to think of “theology” as the study of what Paul Tillich calls the “ultimate concern,” a term that designates the reality that is most meaningful and grants meaning to everything else. God is merely the most popular name for the ultimate concern.
Obviously neoliberalism brings with it a theory of how political institutions and laws should be set up, a program that it has been remarkably effective in carrying out. What is perhaps less noticed is its theology, its profound and—to many people, at least among business and political elites—deeply compelling account of how the world works and what matters most. In the neoliberal worldview, we live in a world full of isolated individuals who yearn to express their freedom through participation in market competition, and the best thing to do is to set up policies that effectively CREATE a world full of isolated individuals who yearn to express their freedom through participation in market competition.
From a certain perspective, neoliberalism is arguably the most coherent and self-reinforcing political theology ever devised – in fact, the political and theological are so deeply intertwined that it paradoxically becomes difficult to recognize it AS a form of political theology.
Now I must admit that Carl Schmitt himself would not agree with my interpretation. For Schmitt, neoliberalism would be the very opposite of a political theology—and that is because for Schmitt, a political theology without a clear God figure (and a clear earthly parallel) is no political theology at all, but just a form of nihilism. In fact, his book ultimately appears to be calling for some form of dictatorship that can restore order, a desire that would ultimately lead him to support Hitler. In my reading, Schmitt’s project is distorted by that insane and destructive agenda, but we can nonetheless extract profound insights from his text if we are aware of the agenda and keep an eye out for its effects.
That approach informs my reading of the other famous quote from Political Theology: “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.” (As a sidenote: at this point, you have read as much of Schmitt’s book as 90% of the people who quote it – congratulations!)
What he means by this is that the ultimate source of political authority is the person who has the power to declare that there are exceptional circumstances that warrant suspending the usual laws in order to preserve the state. This could be rephrased as “sovereign is he who decides when there’s a state of emergency”—and in fact, it was the Bush administration’s claims of emergency powers after 9/11 that drew so much attention to Carl Schmitt in contemporary academic debates.
Here again we can see Schmitt’s agenda at work: he thinks there HAS TO be a clear sovereign in order for there to be any kind of political system at all. Since traditional liberal democracy has tried to downplay or eliminate the role of sovereign emergency powers, Schmitt therefore thinks that it is not really a political order at all, but instead a form of regulated anarchy. And writing between the world wars, Schmitt clearly believes that there are plenty of ongoing emergencies that could really use some sovereign action.
When we recognize that Schmitt’s apparently descriptive claim is actually an attempt to legitimate the idea of a sovereign power, it begins to seem very strange. The very fact that an emergency has occurred shows that the sovereign is NOT in full control. An exceptional circumstance or emergency is by definition something that CANNOT be controlled or predicted—and yet Schmitt is seemingly giving the sovereign full agency over it, as though his “decision” is the most salient fact.
The fact that the sovereign can make this “decision” in exceptional cases is clearly meant to legitimate the need for sovereign authority, but from the perspective of everyday people, a serious emergency is much more likely to UNDERMINE the legitimacy of the existing order. We have an example of this in the recent financial crisis, which fatally undermined many people’s trust in the American system – and the emergency measures taken to stem the crisis only exacerbated that problem.
THE PROBLEM OF EVIL AS PROBLEM OF LEGITIMACY
By using sovereign emergency powers to LEGITIMATE the political order, Schmitt is making a bold and paradoxical move: he is taking the very facts that most CHALLENGE the legitimacy of the status quo and claiming that they are arguments in its FAVOR. And much as Schmitt might hate the comparison, we could detect a similar logic in neoliberalism’s self-legitimation: yes, bad outcomes happen all the time, but that just shows that people are truly free—and truly getting the punishments or rewards they deserve.
This paradoxical rhetorical move has a long history. In fact, one might even claim that the entire history of Christianity and modernity is nothing but an interminable series of similar claims. Indeed, the basic move was present in the Hebrew Bible, where God repeatedly takes credit for just the kind of events that would normally undermine people’s faith in God. Has a disaster struck? That was God’s way of chastising you for being insufficiently faithful. Has the kingdom been invaded and the population shipped to a foreign land? Far from showing that God has been defeated, it’s all part of God’s plan to purify the people of Israel—and ultimately restore them to the promised land.
This argument-from-disaster appears in its most naked form in the Book of Job (illustration from Blake). The story is well-known: God allows a righteous man to be grievously tested, to the point of losing all his possessions and even his children. A group of his friends try to convince him that he must have somehow had it coming, must have sinned even in some small way, but Job is utterly insistent that he did not commit any offense against God. In the end, God himself appears to Job and boasts of his overwhelming power—thus highlighting his ability to take better care of Job!—before admitting that Job had spoken the truth and restoring all his possessions.
It is a startling case of debate and critique within the biblical tradition itself, because Job’s friends repeat logic that can be found throughout the rest of the Bible—but God treats their words as blasphemy and requires Job to make a sacrifice on their behalf in order for them to be restored to his good graces.
GOD’S FOREIGN POLICY
This dynamic of victim blaming becomes particularly intense when we look at the figure I have identified as the ultimate model for the devil: Pharaoh. As the ruler of a great empire and the enslaver of God’s people, he is not only a rival to God’s claim to political supremacy, but a direct enemy to God’s people. The Book of Exodus records God’s absolutely crushing victory. God displays his mighty power via the Ten Plagues, and he even toys with his enemy by “hardening his heart” so that he repeatedly refuses to let the Israelites go—making his ultimate defeat all the more humiliating.
Already we can see the tensions that will give rise to the full-blown figure of Satan. On the one hand, we are clearly supposed to take pharoah to be a wilfully evil agent who deserves punishment and humiliation. And as God’s opponent, he allows God to show all his best qualities: his loyalty to his people, his commitment to justice, and his opposition to oppression and slavery. On the other hand, the portrayal of Pharaoh in Exodus would remain enduringly controversial in all the major monotheistic religions—not because his defeat is undeserved, but because the text raises very serious questions about Pharaoh’s free moral agency. Repeatedly, Pharaoh is at the point of letting the people go, but then “his heart is hardened” and he changes his mind. Sometimes, this seems to indicate some shift in Pharoah’s mood, but at other points, the text explicitly says that GOD hardened Pharaoh’s heart. In other words, God constrains him to do the very evil deeds that God will subsequently punish him for.
The story of how God’s rivalry with Pharaoh gave rise to the familiar Christian symbol of the devil is a complex one that I cover in my forthcoming book The Prince of This World and if appropriate, in another lecture here….. To compress it a bit here, the familiar symbol of the devil as a spiritual being emerges as the Jewish community struggles to make sense of persecution by earthly rulers who try to get them to renounce Judaism through torture and violence. Christianity inherits this symbol and at first aligns the devil with Rome. Yet as Christianity became more and more aligned with the Roman Empire, the devil became more and more identified, not with oppressive rulers (who were now the good guys), but with internal dissenters and non-conformists (Jews, heretics, witches) as well as external religious enemies (primarily Islam). And the accent fell more and more on individual free will as the standard by which reward and punishment were meted out – in other words, the bad things that happened were always our (individual) fault, not evidence of God’s negligence or malice. And the very first free choice, which set in motion all the disasters familiar to us from human history, was the devil’s free choice to rebel against God.
Through all these historical shifts and reversals, in short, the devil remained at once a political and a theological symbol, tied up with how Christian society thought of itself and thought of God.
THE FALL OF THE DEVIL
As the theological successor to Pharaoh, the devil was trapped in the same “negative sweet spot” of free will—meaning that he has enough agency to be blameworthy, but not enough to really change anything. In fact, the history of the theological debates surrounding the devil can be read as an attempt to entrap him ever more narrowly into that “negative sweet spot.” The devil takes the blame for everything evil that happens, while God takes all the credit for miraculously drawing good out of evil. Over time, the devil becomes less God’s rival than his perpetual punching bag, his pathetic foil, who is constantly humiliated when his futile attempts to rebel against God turn out to fit into God’s plan perfectly.
In order to constrain the devil as narrowly as possible into the “negative sweet spot” of free will, the most important Western medieval theologians—from Augustine to Anselm and Aquinas—follow a similar strategy. First of all, they remove any potentially sympathetic narrative features. Where earlier attempts to make sense of the devil’s fall had given him understandable motivations, by the late medieval period even that minimal level of potential empathy is unacceptable. The devil rebels against God through sheer arbitrary malice, for literally no reason—a conclusion that Augustine is bold enough to make explicit.
Second, they attempt to make the devil as evil as possible by making him evil for as LONG as possible. Now logically, he must be created good, because otherwise God would be responsible for the existence of evil. Hence he exists as a good angel for A SINGLE INSTANT—and in the SECOND instant after he is created, the devil rebels from God. The other demons follow suit instaneously, so that the devil is to blame for their fall as well. If we add in his role in tempting humanity to sin, the devil thereby becomes PERSONALLY responsible for literally every sin ever created in the history of God’s creation.
It is hard to make sense of this extremely abstract non-narrative, which lasts only two instants. The devil is good during instant #1. By instant #2, he has rebelled against God, setting every evil in history in motion. By definition, nothing could have happened between the two instants—after all, the whole point of making the fall occur at instant #2 is to deprive the devil of any mitigating circumstances. For one blessed instant, everything was going so well, but then things inexplicably went off the rails due to an arbitrary act of the devil’s will.
How can this work? On the one hand, there is a broad consensus that creaturely free will is in principle unlimited—if there were a limit to what we could will, we wouldn’t be fully free. On the other hand, it is believed that we owe it to God to submit our wills to his, to submit to him as our legitimate ruler. What happens in instant #2 is a kind of short circuit—God treats all the angels AS IF they had already submitted to his will, so that willing in an unrestricted way—which is to say, WILLING AT ALL—becomes an act of illegitimate rebellion. As anyone who has interacted with another creature with free will knows, however, immediate submission is difficult to come by, even in the most favorable circumstances. It takes more than an instant to subdue someone with free will, even if you’re in the right.
Now God had to know that demanding immediate unconditional submission instaneously was unrealistically impatient—indeed, that it seems to violate the very concept of free consent. And certainly an arbitrary one-off decision, completely divorced from any meaningful context, does not seem to be a morally relevant act, especially not a moral act carrying an eternal punishment.
The more I meditated on this strange argument, the more it became impossible to escape the suspicion that the devil had been set up. It was as though God NEEDED there to be evil and hence set up an impossible, meaningless test so that he could have someone to blame for it. Augustine comes close to saying this more or less outright, when he claims that the existence of evil enhances the beauty of creation, just as line and shading enhances a painting.
Indeed, the overall emphasis of his discussion is less on making sure that God is not responsible for evil than figuring out how God can MAKE SURE there is evil. For instance, if God had directly created the demons as evil, then they wouldn’t be evil at all—they would simply be following their nature. We don’t customarily hold animals morally responsible for destructive acts, and the same would apply to “naturally evil” demons. The only way to secure the necessary evil was by combining absolutely limitless free will with an arbitrary constraint—and then rolling the dice, with a virtual guarantee that some would “rebel.”
This, I claim, is the more precise sense of demonization: constraining someone to make a choice you will blame them for. That is what it means to turn someone into a demon in the strict theological sense, because it is how the theological system envisions God creating demons in the first place.
LIFE IN THE NEGATIVE SWEET SPOT
If theology expresses the deepest convictions of a given society, then we can only conclude that the medieval outlook was cruel and hopeless. It may seem tempting to attribute that to the difficulty of life in medieval times, much as one attributes the horrors of Nazism to the hardships and crises of the early 20th century. Yet I’m not sure that the historical record supports that. Demonization campaigns actually became more and more intense as medieval Europe became richer and more powerful.
Persecution of heretics was not at its peak when Christian hegemony over Europe was weakest, but on the contrary when it had most thoroughly saturated the culture. Persecution of Jews did not follow the familiar pattern of trying to find a proxy target for venting frustration in the wake of a crisis, but intensified to fever pitch precisely when and where the medieval paradigm was most dominant and confident—above all in the newly reunified Spain, which expelled all Jews in 1492, the same year that Columbus “discovered” the Native American populations who would be relentlessly demonized and enslaved in the coming centuries. Much the same could be said for the persecution of witches, where panic reached a fever pitch toward the end of the medieval period, which is to say, exactly when our progressive instincts would expect more proto-modern and enlightened views to rule the day.
All of these persecutions were demonizing in the precise sense. Witches and heretics were tortured until they “freely” offered confessions for which they were then executed. Jews were isolated from mainstream society and then persecuted for being isolated from mainstream society. Native Americans, who had obviously never heard of Jesus before the Spanish showed up, were viewed as being obligated to accept Christianity and then conquered as “retaliation” for rejecting the Gospel. All of the victims were in the same negative sweet spot of freedom as the devil—just free enough to be blameworthy, but not free enough to exercise meaningful agency. Free enough to be punishable, not free enough to change, much less legitimately resist.
FROM MEDIEVAL TO MODERN
One of the traditional preoccupations of political theology is the attempt to make sense of the connection between medieval Christianity and secular modernity. At the risk of oversimplification, here are a few of the main approaches.
The first is to claim that modernity is good, and since Christianity led to modernity, it must be good in some way too. We could associate this view with someone like Hegel as well as the classic Liberal Protestant theologians like Harnack and Ritschl.
The second is to claim that modernity is good, while Christianity is bad. To the extent that Christianity still affects modernity, then, we must get rid of it. The task of political theology is therefore a diagnostic one, helping us to find the leftover theological bits that are spoiling everything. This is probably the mainstream view on political theology. Derrida’s late work on religion arguably fits within this model.
There are also political theologians who believe that modernity is, on balance, bad. With this presupposition in hand, we might conclude that Christianity was better and that modernity was an unfortunate deviation from a good thing. This is associated with the theological movement known as Radical Orthodoxy, and with Schmitt as well.
Finally, there is the arguably less popular view that modernity and Christianity are both bad, and the connection between them only serves to emphasize this unfortunate effect. As you can probably tell, my project belongs in this camp—but I would claim as my comrades the Max Weber of “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” as well as Nietzsche and Foucault.
THE TRAP OF FREEDOM
But why do I embrace this final, harshly negative camp rather than the “modernity should purge Christianity” view? It’s because what modernity most fundamentally inherits from Christianity cannot be purged without destroying modernity itself. That non-negotiable inheritance is precisely FREEDOM, the central value of modernity—and the value that is absolutely foundational for the current neoliberal order. It saturates everything we do and legitimates all the major governing authorities in our life. The power of the state is based on the free consent of the governed, who freely choose their representatives, while the market is legitimate because it reflects and synthesizes the aggregate of all our free choices.
To the extent that we critique either or both of those governing regimes, we do so IN THE NAME OF freedom. The state isn’t free enough, its decisions don’t adequately reflect the will of the people—or the market only pretends to be a site of free exchange, while actually it includes relations of domination. The value of freedom itself is not questioned at any point.
In light of my analysis of the theological discourse surrounding the devil’s free will, I hope that the value of freedom sounds a little less self-evident and a little more sinister at this point. This is not to deny that humans do spontaneous, surprising, and creative things. We will doubtless need many people to do many such things if we hope to create a more livable world.
But that is not what freedom really means in mainstream modern political or economic discourse. There, just as in the narratives of the fall of the devil, freedom means primarily blameworthiness—and sometimes, though only rarely, rewardworthiness. And neoliberalism is the social order that has most thoroughly grounded itself in freedom-as-blameworthiness, that has most completely entrapped its subjects into the negative sweet spot of freedom.
We are free enough to be to blame for not getting the hot new job skills employers crave—but not free enough to join together into a union to fight for our fair share. We are free enough to choose recycled toilet paper—but not free enough to create the kind of systemic change that is needed to really fight against climate change and other environmental catastrophes. We are free enough to be to blame for everything that goes wrong—why didn’t we vote the bastards out of office, or make more ethical consumption choices, or choose a different major, or get the right toothpaste?—but not free enough to have any actual power over our collective fate. And just like Satan and his fellow patsies, we are all treated as though we had already consented to this order and punished for not conforming to it. We are all individually free, but our individual freedom only further enslaves us—above all by foreclosing any possibility that we will emerge as a meaningful “we.”
We live within an order that, like the late medieval world, has ceased even trying to positively legitimate itself. Instead, it seeks only to blame its ever increasing number of victims, using every crisis and failure as further evidence that there is no alternative to the world that our impoverished individual freedom has trapped us in. In short, neoliberalism rules via demonization.
WHAT IS TO BE DONE?
At this point, presumably many of you are asking what follows from this. Are we simply doomed? We may well be, but there is one possible ground for optimism: if I am right that neoliberalism has a special affinity with the late medieval Christian paradigm, then we should keep in mind that by the late medieval period, that paradigm was dying. Its dynamics of demonization were powerful and destructive, but the emergence of modernity can be read as a series of increasingly radical attempts to tame and counteract those dynamics.
The result was not as radical a break as some might have hoped, but it was a genuine transformation on the deepest political-theological level. So we know transformation is possible because it has happened before.
Another question that may be coming to mind: must we reject the value of freedom? What would that even mean? I don’t think that completely rejecting it is possible – after all, the very concept of rejection freedom implies that we freely decide to do so. One thing that I take away from Schmitt is that human decision and responsibility really is ineliminable. And there is therefore a sense in which neoliberalism is actually correct—human freedom really is the only source of legitimacy for human institutions and actions. The problem is that neoliberalism has such an impoverished and one-sided view of freedom, centered solely on the individual.
What we need is a new concept of collective freedom and agency – a concept of freedom centered not on blame and punishment, but on creative and collective self-formation. Doubtless that concept will carry its own theological baggage – as the very term “creation” may suggest – and future generations will need to escape from its baleful consequences. They may blame us for their problems, but hopefully we will at least provide them with the assurance that change is possible, even at the deepest political-theological level—because we did it. And if we don’t, perhaps there will be no one left to blame us at all.