Neoliberalism’s Demons Book Event: Seeing Through a Bubble Darkly

This post is by Dean Dettloff. Dean is a PhD Candidate at the Institute for Christian Studies. He is also a host of The Magnificast podcast and writer for America Magazine.

There are a lot of stories about how we got here, to a moment in human history where our species is on course to burn ourselves out of the only planet we have because of one of the most harebrained economic systems ever made up. Among them, though riddled with plot holes, is the one told by Peter Sloterdijk. Once upon a time, he says, certain humans lived inside a metaphysical soap bubble, a canopy of orienting ideas. Surrounded by a conceptual atmosphere, some people could look up and see themselves in the ordered fabric of the cosmos, situated in a reasonable station among other reasonable beings and relationships. The colorful doctrinal hues that slid into one another across the film of that bubble changed significantly over time, but the bubble, that fragile source of safety and familiarity (even a place for tragedy), remained all the same.

Somewhere along the line, the bubble popped–!–evacuating the air and revealing humans live on a big, weird rock hurtling through the horrible void of space around a terminal star. As Blaise Pascal put it in one of his Pensées, gasping for Providence, “When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in an eternity before and after, the little space I fill engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces whereof I know nothing, and which know nothing of me, I am terrified. The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.”

Without the concentric circles of the planets as guides, Sloterdijk explains, Europeans needed another way to stabilize the contingencies of life. Providence was displaced by Fortuna, and while prayer and fasting certainly did not go away, debt and credit were more reliable forms of genuflecting. Sloterdijk describes the globe of colonial expansion like an “occult clock,” connecting the hours of profit to continents and the people that live there, reduced to speculative equations. Modern capitalism became the means by which human beings, bereft of cosmic guarantees, could be more predictable, calculable, or at least more accountable. Today, Sloterdijk says, it is insurance, the logic of manageable or controlled risk, that has defeated all the lofty conceptual boundaries of philosophy and theology alike, creating what he calls the “world interior of capital.” The air inside has changed, and all that is solid melts into it–Dense Fog Advisory.

Adam Kotsko is also telling us a story in Neoliberalism’s Demons, one that picks up where Sloterdijk eventually veers right. For Kotsko, too, the fog of neoliberalism has become the air we breathe. Though his story is different than Sloterdijk’s, recalling a narrative about European consciousness that goes back to visions of ancient Greece and medieval Europe helps to situate what’s really at stake in Kotsko’s analysis. Throughout the book, he reminds us that neoliberalism is not simply a system where “economics” supplants “politics” or philosophy, a reversal of the idyllic polis imagined by Aristotle and preserved among philosophers in its own way in the twentieth-century. It is not reducible to a series of policies or thoughts about taxation. Neoliberalism is, rather, an attempt to build a container for a whole way of life, enlisting domains of society conjured by classical and medieval thinkers to create new brands of humans.

As Kotsko explains, these domains are not harnessed as essential facts of human life, but embraced and remodeled as the imposed conceptual apparatuses that they are, used to make certain forms of life possible. To take one example, while neoliberalism is acidic with respect to particular family structures, Kotsko explains it “does not simply destroy some preexisting entity known as ‘the family,’ but creates its own version of the family, one that fits its political-economic agenda, just as Fordism created the white suburban nuclear family that underwrote its political-economic goals” (71).

It’s easy to miss the sheer scale of world-making here. Neoliberalism is a project, an attempt to create an edifice in which we can live and move and have our being, a massive, climate-controlled hothouse for growing certain kinds of subjects, shaping our entire perceptual capacities. Kotsko’s contribution gives us resources for a phenomenology of human life under neoliberal conditions, for neoliberalism aims at nothing less than the transformation of human beings themselves. And to a frightening degree, it has succeeded. The world today comes to us neoliberally; now we see through a bubble, darkly.

Inside the neoliberal bubble, one chokes on a thick, toxic atmosphere of paranoia, which strangely results in breathing out desires for more of the very structures that produce that atmosphere in the first place. Even those who resist clamoring for borders, oil, and demagogues still have to maintain little breathing apparatuses that inhale paranoia and are supposed to exhale productivity.

“We have to be in a constant state of high alert, always ‘hustling’ for opportunities and connections, always planning for every contingency (including the inherently unpredictable vagaries of health and longevity),” Kotsko explains. We have to “fritter away our life with worry and paperwork and supplication, ‘pitching’ ourselves over and over again, building our ‘personal brand’–all for ever-lowering wages or a smattering of piece-work, which barely covers increasingly exorbitant rent, much less student loan payments” (95).

We’re forced into a strange inversion of Pascal’s terrors. The eternal silence of infinite spaces might be unsettling, but at least it’s not interested in me. How much more frightening it is to be surrounded by a society that demands you ought to be interesting all the time, to transform your life into a personal brand–communicable, marketable, available, profitable. And even if you aren’t the type to pitch yourself in an endless cycle of side-hustles that lead to more side-hustles, your data, browsing habits, and physical movement in real space are tracked and sold. In short, you can’t stop mattering, can’t stop being interesting. The freedom of being irrelevant is long gone.

But as Kotsko explores these existential problems, what he really drives home is that insurance has not, in fact, supplanted theology. On the contrary, insurance is itself involved in a complex political theology that maintains the sheen on the bubble of neoliberalism. Among the achievements of the book is Kotsko’s ability to whittle down amazingly complex bodies of literature into only the component pieces he needs to make his point. For political theology, that means isolating two problems: legitimacy and evil. In its attempt to shore up a claim to legitimate sovereignty and to explain the apparent gap between promises and material realities, neoliberalism reproduces recognizable theological strategies to maintain the air in its interior, to make the neoliberal world and those in it appear in a particular way.

Theology, as Kotsko tells us, is not just about God, but also about us. Seen through the foggy air of neoliberalism, some people look an awful lot like the demons that roamed around in earlier bubbles. And, for that matter, a lot of people choked in those atmospheres, too. Just as some had to be named, contained, and murdered as demonic agents to ensure the perceived safety of a universe of nested, rational circles, so, too, does neoliberalism need a legion of demons to ban from heaven, incarcerate, and exorcise from this world entirely to ensure that when some look up through the fog, they see not an empty void, but a speculative opportunity, one more place to spend their “winnings.”

It might be tempting here to embrace this demonization, to perhaps follow a line from Bakunin’s God and the State, where the biblical story of the fall reveals human beings are qualified by their ability to rebel, to be demons. For Bakunin, we ought to eschew the theological redemption story that pacifies our rebellious nature and embrace our negative liberty. Kotsko also rejects the idea that only a God can save us, whether Providence or Fortuna. He reminds us, however, that the problems of political theology are not things we can simply reject or depose; the bubble doesn’t just pop.

We have to live inside some kind of edifice, to consider what kind of air conditioning we want, and we should think through what atmospheres create the mirage where people appear like demons, de facto failures consigned to the inferno of capital. Combatting neoliberalism would need more than policy changes and electoral victories; it would entail reconfiguring our entire sensual ratios to perceive one another without the haze of capital. There are no readymade solutions. “The only infallible sign I can offer,” says Kotsko, “is that we will know it is a new paradigm when we find ourselves building it” (143).

Perhaps, too, we will know the air in the bubble is safe to breathe when those who move through it can finally see, face to face.

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