Neoliberalism’s Demons Book Event: A Contribution from Amaryah Shaye Armstrong

This post is by Amaryah Shaye Armstrong, a doctoral candidate in the Graduate Department of Religion at Vanderbilt University.

Neoliberalism’s Demons is an exciting development in Adam Kotsko’s thought. The most significant contributions here are, I think, methodological. With this book however, Kotsko offers up a helpful rearticulation of political theology that exchanges obligation to the Schmittian sense of political theology for a more heuristic sense. Overcoming some of the stalements of what I’ll call the “classic” form of political theology, Kotsko provides a clear and concise sense of political theology that finally catches up to the multitude of analyses that have been taken up under its banner. I primarily found his examinations of the the link between the political problem of legitimacy and the theological problem of evil to be a very astute insight that subtly but effectively shows the conceptual homologies that tie questions of governance to questions of meaning and value. This definition in particular stayed with me:

Political Theology is a holistic genealogical inquiry into the structures and sources of legitimacy in a particular historical moment. Political theology in this sense is political because it investigates institutions and practices of governance… and it is theological because it it deals with questions of meaning and value… And it is both simultaneously because the structures of governance are always necessarily caught up with questions of meaning and value and because the answers we offer to questions of meaning and value always have direct implication for how the world should be governed–in other words, the structures and sources of legitimacy tend to correlate conceptually.

It seems obvious now that Kotsko has stated it so clearly, but having spent time with some stodgy old white men doing “political theology” in what felt like a deeply stilted and unecessarily narrow sense, it can’t be understated how helpful this is as an intervention into the more “traditional” sense of political theology. Along with his rearticulation of the relationship between the political and the theological, Kotsko also helpfully revises the conception of economic such that political theology’s bias against it is able to take more seriously its structuring of everyday life. This will go a long way in overcoming some of the hang ups of the field that have prevented useful analysis of the political, theological, and economic to emerge.

Aside from the methodological, the book is generally accurate in its intuitions of how neoliberalism operates as a political theological paradigm. However, there were places that felt thin or underworked, specifically around demonization and blackness, that revealed the extent to which political theology needs a serious engagement with black studies. Primarily relying on Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, the gestures to race in Neoliberalism’s Demons while not wrong per se, are not at the theoretical level of the rest of Kotsko’s sources. This belies not only a gap in Kotsko’s argument, but a gap in political theology that is worthy of significant study. Such study would, I think, shift the terms of enunciation for more than just Kotsko’s argument, but there are specific ways I think it would apply here.

In the book, there seems to be the sense that neoliberalism demonizes everyone, and while there’s a vague attempt to note that not everyone experiences this in the same way, the desire to present neoliberalism as a total worldview seems to ignore the sense in which antiblackness is the total worldview that gives order to the economic arrangement on which neoliberalism depends. For instance, to track the sense in which individuals are now scapegoated in the name of freedom and become captive to debt is to ignore the sense in which blackness was already structured as that permanently demonic figure of wretchedness, Fanon’s damned, for centuries preceding the emergence of the neoliberal paradigm. What neoliberalism seems to reveal is the extent to which the carceral techniques that have structured the antiblack economy of the world have developed into a unique set of justifications, practices of governance, and technologies of control through which to manage non-black people now, albeit according to a different logic of reproduction. And it is this inability to perceive that the situation that white people are now subject to is not a novelty in black life, but has been its persistent climate (what Christina Sharpe calls “the weather” in her book In the Wake), that sometimes left me frustrated with the book. To use a black colloquialism, when white people have a cold, black people have pneumonia. A more attentive tracking of not only the disparate racial formations that structure neoliberalism, but a sense of how the liberal democratic project was always already funded by antiblack carcerality would shift the tone of the book toward a more precise sense of the novelty of neoliberalism and its extension of and dependence on the antiblack justification of carcerality that long precedes it.

In her groundbreaking work, Sisters in the Wilderness, Delores Williams inquires into the persistent oversight of the oppressed of the oppressed in theology. And not just dominant theology, but black liberation and feminist theologies. Her methodological intervention, rereading and a womanist hermeneutic of identification-ascertainment highlights the urgency of reforming perception prior to even beginning critical analysis. With this rereading and reorientation to material, Williams write, “heuristics and issues emerge.” In what sense does Kotsko’s helpful diagnosis of neoliberalism as a political theological paradigm highlight the sense in which antiblackness as a political theological paradigm continues to be the unthought that produces novelty in other fields? Such a pervasive and persistent imperception of the ways that black studies has been theorizing and surviving these problems reveals the depth of structural white supremacy that orients most fields of study. Blackness either becomes an illustration of a more general problem or is unthought. What would it mean to take this moment of methodological reorientation in political theological to also radically reorient it, rereading it, such that it can be thought as a heuristic in service of a radically black mode of inquiry? By this line of questioning, I simply mean to say, what would it mean to think from the underside of neoliberalism and its demonizing machinations? It is only through such thought that a clearer picture of neoliberalism’s operations emerge and, in so doing, we can recognize what is truly novel about it while resituating within the antiblack economy as a new conflict in white governance that continues the deadly effects of white governance for black people the world over.

Now that white people are subject to extensions of antiblack protocols of governance, many are beginning to wake up to the death-dealing of antiblackness and its carceral economy. This is not an “I told you so.” In some sense, since the invention of modern racial slavery and global antiblackness, it’s always been too late. The blackness of justice is that it is never timely but of its own time. This can be a lesson for us in becoming adequate to our own time, always living in the failure of being too late. Still, our lives depend on making something of that lateness, and Neoliberalism’s Demons provides an occasion for just that.

3 thoughts on “Neoliberalism’s Demons Book Event: A Contribution from Amaryah Shaye Armstrong

  1. Thank you Amaryah for this thoughtful reply. I appreciate the direction of your critique. I am not an academic and would never have time or background knowledge to pursue this myself, but I would like to see Adam’s project engage with someone like Cedric Robinson. Noting the missing pieces you identified the following might offer a new depth of insight: A genealogy of racial capitalism, interrogation of “the terms of order,” and even the later work on cinema and representation speaks to demonization.
    I look forward to reading more of your work.

  2. Thanks for this thoughtful response to my work! I will respond in more detail in my overall response to the event, but I want you to know how much I appreciate your time, attention, and critique.

  3. Hi Darren, yeah I think that’s part of what is exciting about Adam’s book is that it can have a very generative engagement with these thinkers and I would be excited to see him and other folks build on or recast his insights to do precisely that.

    Adam, I’m so glad I could participate! I really appreciate this book and it really is something I’m recommending to a lot of people precisely because I do think it does a great job of resituating political theological inquiry and making it relevant.

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