Francis Fukuyama was right: we were at the end of history, the ‘happy 90s’ a brief millennarian period before the arrival of judgment day: the global financial crisis. We live now in
a secularized version of the medieval world structure. At the foundation is hell, where bare life is produced and reproduced, while the pinnacle is the global elect, that small minority on whose behalf all the glory is extracted from the damned. In between, there is the aspirational zone of purgatory, where by dint of hard work and sacrifice, we can all make it to heaven assuming we have all of eternity to work off their debt.
The Prince of This World, 202
We have entered, that is, what Will Davies calls the age of ‘punitive neoliberalism’, distinguished by ‘the sense that the moment of judgement has already passed, and questions of value and guilt are no longer open to deliberation’ (‘The New Neoliberalism’). The better angels of political liberalism have fled, leaving us with nothing but the cold heart of the social contract: the insistence that we are free and the intensifying desire to punish us for the uses we have made of that freedom. The world has already ended; can’t you hear the weeping and gnashing of teeth?
In the final chapter of The Prince of This World, Adam argues that we cannot simply escape our entanglement in the demonic logic of modernity by an act of new creation: ‘the fantasy of starting from absolute zero, of creatio ex nihilo, is the fantasy of a pure freedom’ (204) that is impossible. I want to suggest that this problem of freedom in the context of creation is deeply bound up with the problem of freedom as a solution to the problem of theodicy that runs throughout the argument of the book. Although it emerges out of the desire to account for and to resist suffering, it comes, both within the Christian medieval and the contemporary capitalist paradigms, to function as an ‘a trap … as an apparatus for generating blameworthiness’ (199).
As Adam discusses, the basic difficulty for Christian theology in the attempt to account for the fall of Satan, for the entrance of sin into the world, is that there is no way of accounting for this fall, for Satan’s decision to freely reject God. If evil is only negation then there can be no reason to choose it; the fall of Satan must, in the end, be an utterly inexplicable, unjustifiable act. The problem here is that this formal structure of Satan’s fall – an act of decision which cannot be explained by reference to what currently exists but only as a moment of groundless excess – is the same as the formal structure of the problem of creatio ex nihilo, at least in its classical form. Why did God create? Not for any reason or out of any need, but as an inexplicable, unjustifiable, groundless and excessive act which cannot be explained by reference to what existed prior to that act. It is not so much that Satan’s desire to be like God led to his fall but that the fall itself was Satan’s becoming-God. Freedom – understood in this sense as a groundless act emerging from nothing – is itself our original sin, and the most God-like thing about us. At best this means that there is nothing to choose between God and the devil except that God came first; at worst it means that the devil’s sin was not desiring to be more like God but actually becoming more like God. If God became the devil, as Adam suggests, then perhaps this is because the devil is (a face of) God, as Amaryah has argued.
This question of freedom is also, as Adam points out, a question of political ontology. If freedom is necessarily in excess of the world, of any reasons we might have for choosing one thing over another, then just as Christian theology struggled unsuccessfully to explain why the devil might choose what was so obviously not in his best interests, so too are contemporary politics incapable of imagining any reason why people might make choices, of accounting for the ways that our freedom is shaped and constrained by the options and resources available to us. But this dynamic also plays out in many recent conversations about radical politics. As Žižek makes clear, the question ‘how can something emerge out of nothing?’ is at the heart of the problematic of both creation and of fall; but it is also the question curled at the heart of the desire for apocalyptic or revolutionary politics. Žižek’s solution is to fully endorse both freedom and fate, to argue that the end of the (end of the) world is made possible precisely insofar as we freely accept our destiny. It’s a kind of reversal of that old saw: pray as if it all depended on you; act as if it all depended on God.
What Adam’s piece suggests, I think, is that we need to let go of the idea that revolution might arrive out of nowhere, as a miracle. This entails in turn that we must give up on the quest for a position of purity, of absolute newness, as though it is possible to think or desire or act in ways that escape determination by the existing order of things. This issue has become fraught in recent years, and requires careful unpicking, a difficult reckoning with our own entanglements in the systems of demonisation and punishment which Adam so elegantly describes. But there is something crucial, I think, in his argument that the fantasy of transformation as creatio ex nihilo must give way to the acknowledgement that ‘if we are to build an alternative order, we must recognise that we are shaped by that order and that we can only use materials that have been shaped by that order’. What does political engagement look like when there is no absolute outside to the existing order of things, when the Devil is God and we are all his creatures?