Neoliberalism’s Demons Book Event: We are going to make them give us what we want

“To educate man to be actional, preserving in all his relations his respect for the basic values that constitute a human world, is the prime task of him, who, having taken thought, prepares to act.” – Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks

One of the central puzzles of Christian theology is the question of how evil entered the world. Why, in a world perfectly designed by a wise and benevolent God for the total satisfaction of its creatures, would anyone choose to reject the love of God – the highest of all the goods? At some point this question, first a problem for readers of the Genesis account of the fall of Adam and Eve, is pushed back before the creation of humankind to the creation of the angels. Sin, evil and suffering entered the world not when Eve ate the apple, but when the devil rebelled against God. Adam and Eve fell because Eve was tempted by the devil. But all this does is to intensify the problem of evil’s genesis. Eve was a woman, and an embodied human; for early Christians, longing to be freed from captivity to the flesh, it was not so difficult to imagine the lure of god-like knowledge. The devil, though, had no body to contend with; had nothing to tempt him except nothingness itself. Why would an almost-divinely perfect being choose to reject eternal bliss? Following Augustine, the standard answer came to be that the fall of the angels was almost instantaneous, taking place ‘the first instant after their creation’ (what, after all, could change in heaven so significantly as to prompt this change of heart?), because of an angelic refusal to submit to God’s authority, resulting in the permanent distortion of the now-demonic nature of the fallen angels. As Kotsko writes,

This conception of the fall of the devil is very difficult to understand. Everything that we associate with moral responsibility seems to be lacking. There is no moral obligation at play here other than sheer submission to God, a demand that seems to have no concrete content. There is no way to assess motivations or circumstances, because the decision to rebel was not only instantaneous but at the time it occurred was quite literally the only thing that had ever happened in God’s created world. It seems more like a random impulse than a morally relevant choice, much less a choice carrying such severe and inescapable consequences. (83)

Why did evil enter the world? For no reason. Evil is fundamentally irrational, excessive, unjustifiable. How else could something so alien to God’s creation enter into it? This nothingness of evil, its groundlessness, is also how theologians dodge the question of how a good God could have created a world full of such horrors. Evil isn’t a thing in creation, the argument goes; all it is is a lack, a gap, an absence, a falling away from what God intended.

The problem is (as I argue in my forthcoming book) that this solution to the problem of evil is structurally homologous to the problem of creation itself, and also therefore to the problem of freedom. Why did the devil fall? For no reason: if there had been a reason then the devil would not be free and could not be blamed for this decision. Why did God create? For no reason: God did not need the world; God was not unhappy or lonely; God didn’t need to be worshipped or entertained. If there had been a reason then God would not be free and would be dependent on the world. Creation is not done for anything, because of anything, but out of an overflow, an irrational, excessive, unjustifiable decision on God’s part to call being out of nothingness.

The problem of freedom is this: if I have a choice, and make a decision, then there are two ways I can account for my decision. If, on the one hand, there are reasons why I have made the decision – for this reason or the other, due to this pressure or the other, because of this thing that happened to me when I was a child or because of the mechanical unfolding of physical causality – then the decision is not, cannot be free. If the decision is made for no reason, or in excess of all reasons, then it cannot be meaningful: why this decision and not that? Either God’s creation is free, and ultimately meaningless (it’s not for anything); or it is necessary, meaningful, but ultimately unfree (God needed it). Either the devil’s fall is free, and ultimately meaningless; or it is necessary, meaningful, but ultimately unfree (God needed it and can be held accountable for it).

One name for this convergence of creation and fall is the Lacanian sinthome, the the inexplicable excess which grounds both language as such and the individual –  ‘”the only positive support of our being, the only point that gives consistency to the subject … the sinthome brings the subject into being’ (Lee Edelman, No Future, quoting Žižek, p36). The sinthome cannot be explained, cannot be absorbed into meaning; it is what ‘connects us to the unsymbolizable Thing over which we constantly stumble’, and as such to that which cannot be integrated into the structures of meaning we create to contain human sexuality and desire. Sinthomosexuality, Edelman argues, ‘speaks….to the “sin” that continues to attach itself to “homosexuality” … and materializes the threat to the subject’s faith that its proper home is in meaning.’ (No Future, 38-39). The figure of the sinthomosexual, Edelman argues, is the symbol of that which cannot be integrated into the existing order of meaning – legitimacy, as Kotsko has it – and also therefore into the existing order of the family – for Edelman, the sinthomosexual is associated primarily with the figure of the homosexual, but for Kotsko with ‘the “welfare queen,” that racialized figure of sexual license who depletes the public purse with her lavish lifestyle’ (77).

Kotsko’s book concludes with the question of freedom. ‘Our present political moment’, he argues, ‘is the beginning of a struggle to withdraw consent from the neoliberal order by developing a new and more meaningful conception of freedom … More work is needed, however, because at this early stage, the alternative conceptions of freedom can be characterised more by what they reject than by what they promote. Both demand freedom from neoliberalism (construed in different ways), but neither is quite clear on what they want freedom for‘ (140-141). I want to suggest two things here: first, that freedom is, essentially, a question of desire. To be free is to pursue what we want – what is inexplicable, unnecessary, unjustifiable – rather than what is demanded of us, what is necessary – and to refuse what we do not want – the world as it currently is, a system of domination and exploitation. It is both an excess of meaning, an act of creation, and a refusal of meaning, an act of destruction. As Kathi Weeks writes in relation to the 1970s Wages Against Housework movement, the demand made by feminist activists was ‘a statement of desire: “We are going to make them give us what we want”. In comparison to needs and rights – both of which allege some measure of objectivity … demands register more clearly the subjective dimensions of the assertions … the act of demanding connotes a kind of personal investment and passionate attachment, the presence of a desiring subject behind the demand’ (The Problem with Work, 134).

Second, Kotsko discusses left visions of freedom as ‘freedom from exploitation and precarity – which is to say, from the anxiety that has become pandemic in the neoliberal age’ (141). But there is a danger that this vision of freedom falls into the trap of the Christian vision of heaven, where the angels and perfected humans, freed from the temptations of sin and the body, engage in endless contemplation of God. The problem with this vision of freedom is that it is boring. The vision of a heavenly machine endlessly worshipping God functions, as Agamben argues, ‘to cover with its splendor the unaccountable figure of divine inoperativity’ (The Kingdom and the Glory, 163). What is the point of freedom if there is nothing to do? Freedom must be, then, the freedom to create and destroy, not as the isolated individuals which neoliberalism seeks to make of us but as ‘a world building practice … a social and hence necessarily political endeavour. It is, as Marx might put it, a species being rather than an individual capacity’ (Kathi Weeks, The Problem with Work, 22). ‘No one can deliver us from this body of death but us’ (144), Kotsko writes: what is at stake, then, is the question of this ‘us’. What ways of being, working, creating, destroying together can we build outside and against the logic of neoliberalism which divides in order to condemn us?

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