Neoliberalism’s Demons Book Event: Piercing the Darkness

The following post is by Devin Singh. Devin is an Assistant Professor of Religion at Dartmouth and the author of Divine Currency: The Theological Power of Money in the West (Stanford University Press, 2018).

I very much enjoyed this book. Adam Kotsko treats his subject matter with characteristic lucidity and distills a number of scholarly tropes and conversations into accessible and engaging prose, with accompanying clear analysis. Perhaps because Kotsko and I are excavating similar archives with many overlapping presuppositions, I found little that was problematic or troubling with his overall presentation (obviously, neoliberalism as subject matter is troubling, but that’s not what I mean). What follows, then, are less points of critique than of interest and potential further discussion.

“Arendt’s Axiom” is what Kotsko labels Hannah Arendt’s false dichotomy between the political and the economic, built upon a specious reading of Greek thought (especially Aristotle) that distinguishes between a distinct logic and ethos of the polis and of the oikos. This leads to Arendt valorizing the political above the economic, exalting “political man” as an ideal over against the “laboring animal” of the economy. Such a hierarchy, as Kotsko notes, presupposes the slave economy and relegation of the mundane tasks of procuring the goods of bodily life to a profane realm, while holding up as sacred an elite realm of speech, deliberation, and governance. I appreciate Kotsko’s thorough dismantling of this assemblage, which has garnered an unjustified afterlife and trajectory of scholarly impact.

As Kotsko notes, Carl Schmitt also resists the economic realm and yet asserts the political sovereign in antinomy. There is thus a specificity to Schmitt’s assertion of the political that differs from Arendt’s democratic ideal, and this difference gets interesting precisely in relation to the economy. Schmitt is not simply against economy as such, and thus in favor of the political in general; rather, he proffers a specific form of monarchical authority as the guiding shape of the political. Schmitt seeks to reassert the personalist, autocratic sovereign because, for him, democracy is more prone to economism.

Democracy’s problem is not simply that power and decision are dispersed among a deliberative body (Schmitt has parliamentary democracy primarily in mind), but that this form of governance (“one person, one vote”) smacks of quantitative reductionism. There is a blurring of economy and the political in the democratic form. The representational authority of the sovereign (miming that of papal authority, which, for Schmitt, through rather tortured argumentation, resists economy) protects the political realm against what he saw as the outcome of liberal democracy in his day: non-relational and non-discursive atomism in voting, erosion of political community, which requires such relation and discourse, and endless deferral of the moment of decision.

What Arendt (and following her, Wendy Brown) misses and what Schmitt intuits but does not delineate, is that democratic politics in the ancient polis were bound up with monetization and the rise of a merchant class in challenge to the landed aristocracy. The issuance of coinage in the polis was a move to wrest power back from the wealth holding elites and redistribute it among those faithful to the political authority of particular city-states. This coincided with equal representation for citizens, those who, like the coin token they now possessed, could be counted, itemized, and accounted for (in the overlapping senses of voting, census, and tax records).

Platonic and Aristotelian diatribes against money-making and exchange for profit are based on their positionality as apologists for the gentry. Coinage and activities associated with acquiring it became objects of scorn precisely because they threatened to undo the concentration of power in land wealth. Respectable (read: aristocratic) attitudes toward money meant pretending it did not matter, at best, to labeling it a scourge that eroded traditional communal ties and even the good life, at worst.

The historical coincidence of democracy in the Greek polis with the incursion of money as coinage, along with the concomitant and parallel logics of enumeration and quantification implied in both, thus raise the question of whether democracy and the money economy are bound together. This provides further theoretical and historical underpinnings for the troubling affinities between democracy and neoliberalism that Kotsko unveils. If money and democracy are so linked, then Brown’s lament over the economic erosion of democracy is incoherent not only for the false dichotomy pointed out by Kotsko (there is no distinct economy over against democracy as pure politics), but also because the social relations and modes of power dispersal necessary for democracy appear to be enabled by monetization (and let’s be clear here, as a point of contrast: gift economies have never supported the radical egalitarianism that democracy strives for, except in the fantasies of theologians). Granted, Brown’s critique could be taken to decry the threats arising from the concentration of wealth into particular hands, which becomes not a critique of economy (or even money) as such, but of wealth distribution. If this is the case, then the problem is not the economy but unequal allocation. The solution, then, is not some mystical world without economy, which her critique implies, but, as Kotsko advocates, a political model aimed at protecting redistributive incentives and pathways.

Disrupting Arendt’s axiom matters because there was no polis vs. oikos (or even agora) but a landed class with fixed wealth vs. a mercantile class with movable wealth in the form of money (and, of course, commodities). While both sides made use of slave labor, the former relied on it in the aristocratic presumption that work was undignified. The disdain for the merchant class thus blended resentment of money as movable wealth with the trader’s willingness to engage directly in labor, something shameful. The fact that both slaves and merchants were typically racial and ethnic others  signals the further layers of unthought (as Amaryah Shaye Armstrong has already signaled for us in this discussion) that persist when this idyllic story of ancient democracy gets retold. This set of actual tensions and the historicized struggle they represent intersects nicely with Kotsko’s sense of theological discourse as loyalty to particular historical events and institutions, and I wonder what new insights a political theological lens might unveil about this persistent tension in the critique of monetary economy.

Such frictions are carried forward with the censure of mercantilism that became a basis for the critique of capitalism: tensions are imported by using the values of old money and aristocracy to decry the practices associated with a rising merchant class and its laborers. Certain Marxisms remain plagued not only by Romanticism (an unmediated return to the land) but also other aristocratic ideals that denounce commodity exchange and are scandalized at the forthright pricing of things. This of course also helps explain the recurrent antinomy between the intellectual elitism of an educated vanguard—inhabiting aristocratic ideals of liberal education and an aesthetic sense that despises monetization—and the workers they claim to represent—who live with the brute realities of wages, pricing, and the struggle to acquire at least some wealth. (In the immortal words of White Town: “So much for all your highbrow Marxist ways.”)

One recent Yellow Vest slogan captures this apparent ambivalence beautifully: “On veut des thunes en attendant le communisme” (We want dough while we wait for communism). This can be taken in various ways and has predictably been dismissed as incoherent. Yet, I think it’s absolutely enlightened for the ways it inhabits the real contradictions of the moment. The phrase’s prime object of ressentiment is, of course, the French neoliberal regime. Yet it also represents the longing for a more just and equitable economic system coupled with a refusal of the imposition of an ascetic ideal by elite progressives or radicals. Faithfulness to the vision of communism should not require economic martyrdom in the long moment of passage. Partaking of the money economy, and indeed seeking to acquire money to live and to exercise social power, should not be taken as automatically invalidating one’s commitment to economic transformation. Indeed, as noted, one can point to specific historical moments where money was precisely such a tool for transformation.

One task of political theology, then, is to get better at its demonology of money. Perhaps money has been demonized precisely because it has at times been a tool for the demons to fight back. As Kotsko notes, Fordist social welfare did not garner such heated critique until it was extended to a demonized underclass of racial others. Money only becomes a problem when the witches demand payment. Blanket dismissals of monetization are thus naïve and counterproductive. Yet, money’s reliance on the networks and tactics of political power to institute and enforce it means that money is also an agent of the “powers and principalities” of the world—and here the uneasy alliance between aristocracy and the sovereign/state becomes problematic.

These ambiguities have long presented themselves in Christian scripture: only when the strongman is bound (a favorite theme in contemporary pop demonology) can his oikos be raided and possessions be plundered (Mark 3:27; Luke 11:21). If the katechon is the restrainer, is the implied mythology that the political can tame the economic? Have neoliberals then sought to untie the strongman and unwittingly usher in apocalypse through the loosing of economic forces? If only we were so lucky.

One thought on “Neoliberalism’s Demons Book Event: Piercing the Darkness

  1. Thank you for this — and for the “handshake” to my Peretti reference in chapter 4! I will be responding to everyone in a couple days (as I have been striving to find slightly reworded ways of saying to everyone), but I would be remiss if I did not express my gratitude immediately.

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