Neoliberalism’s Demons Book Event: Maybe the Real Hell Was the Guilt We Incurred Along the Way

This post is by Timothy Snediker, a PhD student in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbaraspecializing in philosophy of religion. His interests include twentieth-century phenomenology, critical theory, psychoanalysis, political theology, and non-philosophyHis current research concerns the joy of living at the end of the world. 

At a pivotal moment in the titular chapter of Neoliberalism’s Demons, amidst a discussion of the thorny problem of the freedom of the creaturely will and the paradoxical temporality of the fall of the devil, Adam Kotsko evokes—briefly—a specter that haunts every Christian theological attempt at theodicy. I refer, of course, to the figure of the malicious God, who, in creating the angels sets them up for failure, for their own fall, so that he can lay blame upon them and punish them (84). Kotsko has undertaken an extended and more granular study of this particular theological problematic in his prior work, The Prince of This World (Stanford University Press, 2017), but the basic point of the paradox is here adequately adduced. The discomforting image of the malicious God, Kotsko notes,

cuts against a commonsense reading of the doctrine of providence, namely that God allows evil to happen owing to the conceptual necessity of allowing free will and subsequently makes up for it by drawing good out of evil. What the primal scene of the fall of the devil shows is that the causation is reversed: the first thing God does is induce some of his creatures to ‘rebel’ against a meaningless imperious demand, to ensure that there will be a reservoir of evil for him to turn toward the greater good. (Ibid.)

Here we have a God for whom evil is not only necessary in an abstract sense, but for whom evil is positively desirable, since God uses evil, as would an addict, in order to glorify himself. In fact, I reckon that one could deepen and intensify the significance of this idea further still. To wit, evil is not, per se, desirable (it is not the object of God’s desire) but is itself God’s desire, that which is, in God, desirous of God.

In the following, I suggest that the emergence of this figure of the malicious God is one of the many conceptual felicities of Kotsko’s general theory of political theology. I understand Kotsko’s general political theology as exemplary of what he has elsewhere called ‘political theology from below.’ Such a view from below not only accords with a Benjaminian ethics of thinking according to ‘the tradition of the oppressed’ but also avoids the most obvious pitfalls of the narrow, Schmittian schema of political theology, which concerns itself almost exclusively with questions of state and sovereignty, and which offers itself as the obvious paradigm of ‘political theology from above.’

In Neoliberalism’s Demons, Kotsko claims that there are at least two visions of political theology present in Schmitt’s foundational 1922 text, Political Theology. The first vision, which will be familiar to those with any proximity to political theology, is the “restricted” point of view promulgated by Schmitt himself, grounded in Schmitt’s “normative commitments to the political as the ‘ultimate concern’ of human existence and to a singular, personal, omnipotent sovereign as the guarantor of the political.” The second vision, which is implicit in Schmitt and which is espoused explicitly by Kotsko, is a general political theology, which Kotsko describes as “a nonreductionist analysis of the homologies between political and theological or metaphysical systems, grounded in the recognition that both types of systems are attempts to grapple with the perennial dilemma that is represented theologically as the problem of evil and politically as the problem of legitimacy” (31). Here it is worth noting that Kotsko aims less to reveal the religious infrastructure of secular institutions than to refuse the supposedly self-evident character of their difference. It is not that at the bottom of every secular concept there lies a religious kernel, but that, as Talal Asad has observed in Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford University Press, 2003, esp. pp. 21-26), the religious and the secular are two masks that mutually obscure, and interfere with, one another.

That is to say, Kotsko’s political-theological procedure is also genealogical. As he puts it in his conclusion, “Political theology is a holistic, genealogical inquiry into the structures and sources of legitimacy in a particular historical moment” (128). I have written elsewhere about my suspicions regarding the dubious marriage of genealogy and political theology, yet, on my reading, Kotsko anticipates and avoids the pitfalls of this union precisely by means of his shift to a general political theology, which is unfettered by a simplistic Schmittian hermeneutics of secular surface and religious depth, to say nothing of the tired binary opposition of the religious and the secular that subtends much of contemporary popular discourse on secularization. Kotsko’s genealogical political theology concerns itself not with exposing the religious truth of secular conceits, but with “the study of the sheer fact of transfers between the two realms” of politics and religion (28). He derives the parameters for this study from Schmitt’s invocation of a “sociology of concepts.” Schmitt writes in his famous text that one can, for instance, speak of a sociology of the concept of sovereignty

when the historical-political status of the monarchy of [a given] epoch is shown to correspond to the general state of consciousness that was characteristic of western Europeans at that time, and when the juristic construction of the historical-political reality can find a concept whose structure is in accord with the structure of the metaphysical concepts….The metaphysical image that a definite epoch forges of the world has the same structure as what the world immediately understands to be appropriate as a form of its political organization. (Qtd. in Kotsko, 30)

Inasmuch as he pays close attention to the historical and contingent features of our contemporary “metaphysical image of the world,” Kotsko follows Schmitt’s method, but he does so unbound by Schmitt’s normative commitments to sovereignty in the form of absolute monarchy.

Thus political theology becomes a process (or act) of translation, wherein the question of how an omnipotent and benevolent God could allow the existence of evil is revealed (or iterated) as a version of the political problem of legitimacy. Sovereignty was and is but a special case of the more comprehensive question of legitimacy; e.g. even the Hobbesian sovereign must appeal to the existence of the people for his legitimacy. From my point of view, and in terms of the future research I hope to pursue in the vein of political theology, one of the great merits of Kotsko’s general theory of political theology is that it establishes clear parameters for the field without remaining shackled to the narrow vision of political theology established and transmitted by Schmitt. The elegance of Kotsko’s approach is evident in the explanatory power it affords him when he turns to his main subject: neoliberal governmentality.

Kotsko follows the analyses of Karl Polanyi, Melinda Cooper, and Silvia Federici in order to show that neoliberalism does not simply erode the old disciplinary regimes but invents new regimes as it goes. (As Deleuze and Guattari were at pains to remind us in the 1980s, every deterritorialization is immediately a reterritorialization.) On Kotsko’s account, we deeply misunderstand the hegemonic political economy of our era if we presume that neoliberalism is simply reducible to free-market dogma or is a project that simply ‘replaces’ the political with the economic. On the contrary, neoliberalism is a “totalizing world order, an integral self-reinforcing system of political theology” (95). An extremely brief summary of Kotsko’s argument would go something like this: neoliberalism needs democracy, but of a certain kind; it needs subjectivity, but of a certain kind; it needs the state, but of a certain kind; it needs the family, but of a certain kind; it needs freedom, but of a certain kind; above all it needs legitimacy—and it has a method of obtaining that legitimacy, a method which weaponizes democracy, subjectivity, state, family, and freedom.

Indeed, Kotsko marshals the rehabilitated tools of political theology to show that the theological concept of freedom—as it is iterated by the orthodoxy of Christian tradition and as it operates in the crypto-theological machinations of neoliberal governmentality—is the lynchpin for a mechanism of generating blameworthiness. The operative process of this mechanism, which masks its own perverse system of moral entrapment as a Heilsgeschichte, is what Kotsko calls ‘demonization.’ This demonization, Kotsko assures us, is visited not only upon the angels in the instant of their rebellion just subsequent to God’s creative act ex nihilo, but is—in the living hell we call late capitalism—allotted to each and every one of us inasmuch as we are forced to freely choose our own servitude and indebtedness. Neoliberalism is never to blame, the wonkish technocrats are not at fault; it’s you and me, reader—we debtors, we students, we teachers, we workers—who are blameworthy. We have freely chosen to live in this inferno. “Neoliberalism makes demons of us all” (89, 120ff).

This brings us back, so to speak, to God. Kotsko’s allusions to the perversity of a capricious God who deliberately creates angels in order that they should immediately—in the very first instant of their existence—fall from grace put me in mind of a passage from François Laruelle’s General Theory of Victims (trans. Jessie Hock and Alex Dubilet, Polity, 2015). There Laruelle remarks that

the true atheism is not as simple as philosophy imagines it to be. It occurs in two stages: the banal refusal to believe in a God is self-contradictory and satisfies those who think little, but the refusal to believe in a good God is the true rebellion. There is always a God lying in ambush, preparing his return in whatever negation is made of his existence, even a materialist one, but it is important that it be a malicious God, a thesis that only an  ‘ultra’-religious heresy can face. (21, my emphasis)

My sense of Kotsko’s intervention is that it allows one to take political theology as a methodological approach to the twinned problems of evil and legitimacy that resolutely refuses to believe in a good GodHere is a political theology that refuses to be hoodwinked by the ruses of theodicy—and in that precise sense it marks a real contribution to the theory and the practice of a true rebellion.

2 thoughts on “Neoliberalism’s Demons Book Event: Maybe the Real Hell Was the Guilt We Incurred Along the Way

  1. I find your comments about Gods desires interesting. It made me think about how often theologians will tell us that God finds sin disgusting, or hates it absolutely, despises it etc. In any case God clearly does not desire it, but as psychoanalysis tells us, the opposite of desire is indifference not hatred, and often what we find most disgusting is exactly was we are recurringly drawn to.

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