With demons like these…: A Response from Adam Kotsko

I would like to begin by thanking all five contributors for their engagement with my work and Sean Capener for his labor in coordinating the event (and selection of great post-header images!). Not everyone has the privilege of getting such varied and interesting responses to their book from five brilliant friends. And in contrast to many other book discussions I have seen (both of my own work and those of others), I never got the sense that anyone was misreading or mischaracterizing my work, responding to “the kind of thing” they think it is rather than to its specific goals and approach. While internal critique is not the only viable method, I think that academics as a whole tend to read with too much impatience and too little sympathy, mistaking harshness and negativity for intellectual rigor. The most productive discussions, in my mind, are never “debates” between opposed sides, but open-ended discussions between friends.

Normally I would start off a response to this type of event by clarifying my aims in Neoliberalism’s Demons, but that is unnecessary since each participant, in their own way, captured my intention perfectly. This is especially the case for Dean and Tim‘s posts, which emphasize, respectively, my account of neoliberalism and my account of political theology — and both take my ideas and run with them in interesting ways. Dean foregrounds both the danger of climate change (which I largely leave aside until the conclusion, though I have increasingly emphasized it in public talks) and the subjective misery of the neoliberal lifestyle. The contrast with Sloterdijk also opens the path for him to clarify, from a new direction, that neoliberalism is not simply the nihilistic lack of a worldview, the death of all meaning and certainty, but a robust — a word chosen with full intentionality — worldview in which we find ourselves increasingly entrapped. Indeed, an impersonal, meaningless universe might be attractive: at least it’s not an ethos! For his part, Tim takes up my shift toward the demonic in political theology and draws the conclusion that my real target is the malicious God, who relentlessly entraps us and sets us up for failure. Here I find — much to my surprise — that I am allied with François Laruelle, who views the belief in the evil God as the greatest and most subversive heresy of all. In both cases, I appreciate the connections they are making with thinkers whose work I have not yet delved into.

One thing that sets Devin‘s post apart is the clarification he provides on my reading of a thinker I have (for better or worse) very much delved into: Carl Schmitt. He is right to point out that I may too easily conflate Schmitt’s anti-economism with “Arendt’s axiom,” and I appreciate the way this opens out onto a discussion of the necessary historical and conceptual relationship between economy and democracy. At the root of my critique of Wendy Brown — whose work I love, and regard as the kind of utterly necessary foil who made my work possible precisely insofar as I had to reject her approach — is the question of what exactly democratic politics is supposed to be about if not economic distribution. (Presumably we are not going to be seeking to outdo each other in competitions for aristocratic glory once we manage to overthrow neoliberalism.) Indeed, we may take the exaggerated reaction of the powers that be to the economic demands of the lower classes — their shock and dismay “when the witches demand payment,” as he puts it — as a sign that such demands are not mere reformism, but point toward a more radical alternative. When power shows itself to be afraid, we should pay attention.

This brings me to Marika‘s contribution, which puts productive pressure on my work from two directions. On the one hand, drawing on her forthcoming work (which I have read — it’s brilliant!), she demonstrates not only that the problem of freedom is homologous the problem of creation as such, but that both equally overlap with the problem of evil. From that perspective, my gesture in the conclusion toward a new ideal of collective freedom that would avoid individualistic entrapment may not fully grapple with the problem. And at the same time, my negative account of what it would mean to escape neoliberalism — freedom from anxiety, precarity, etc. — appears to be empty and, worst of all, boring. This is an interesting twist, since one of Fukayama’s big concerns about the “end of history” was that the era of liberal democratic capitalism’s unquestioned dominance would be, precisely, boring. And from the other direction, one could say that the primary reason that Polanyi’s “hundred-year peace” broke down was because the great European powers were getting bored with peace and welcomed war as a way to shake things up.

As someone with a great personal aversion — even amounting to a gut-level fear — of boredom but with an equally great proclivity toward stability and routine, I am torn on how to respond, other than to say, first, that neoliberal precarity and anxiety is, despite its apparent flux and change, the most boring life of all and, second, that we will figure out what to do with our newfound leisure and security when we get there. For now, though, to preserve our power to create and destroy, we need to throw off the shackles of a supposed freedom that has locked us on an (increasingly irrevocable) path toward destruction. But perhaps I am myself falling into the trap of the katechon in this regard. I don’t claim in any of my work to have fully overcome the Christianity that has so deeply formed me — only to be continually working it through, in the hopes of perhaps one day finding a way out.

I have saved Amaryah‘s contribution for last because — with all due gratitude and apologies to the other contributors — it is my favorite. And it is my favorite because it is most critical and challenging, but in a way that clearly respects and inhabits my deepest goals for the project. The area that I have done the most new research and teaching since completing my first draft of The Prince of This World has been on race and colonialism, and that was also the aspect of that previous book that I most thoroughly revised and expanded after peer review. In a sense, I have been trying to “earn” my gesture of opening The Prince of This World with the reference to Michael Brown’s literal demonization by the police officer who murdered him — while being fully aware, as a white man, that I can never fully earn the right to tell a story that is not mine to tell. Hence, while I am relieved to learn that the sections dealing with race are “not wrong per se,” I would agree that they are “not at the theoretical level of the rest of [my] sources.”

Stated less tactfully than Amaryah does, one objection to my work is that I start from the demonization of middle-class white people and then extrapolate back to the much more intensive demonization of blacks. This white middle-class starting point would also account for my “vague gesture” toward universalism. Drawing on Fanon, Williams, and others, she challenges me to reverse my approach, starting from the “oppressed of the oppressed” rather than attempting to gerrymander them into a scheme developed for underemployed white people with too many student loans. And I will also say that when I presented my work in Pakistan, I felt that same gap when drawing on examples from my relatively privileged experience in a post-colonial country that has been more radically entrapped in neoliberal “best practices” than I can imagine.

One reason I find Amaryah’s critique so compelling is that I have been increasingly drawn in that direction since completing Neoliberalism’s Demons. Particularly when reading Hickman’s Black Prometheus, I came to see how radically the concept of race has shaped the entire face of the world under capitalist modernity — an intuition that was only deepened as I worked through Federici’s Caliban and the Witch, Sylvia Wynter’s “1492,” and C.L.R. James’s Black Jacobins with my students in a unit on colonialism and capitalism. While I still have a lot of work to do, that intuition has coalesced into the suspicion — voiced in a semi-coherent way on Dean’s podcast — that race functions as the ultimate foundation of legitimacy for capitalist modernity.

If this suspicion turns out to be accurate, then under capitalist modernity, race is called upon to do the work of justifying exploitation and inequality, above all the world-histrocal crimes of indigenous genocide and race-based chattel slavery for life. Hence the supposed need to choose between so-called “identity politics” and class politics in much Marxist debate is false and deeply misleading. Race isn’t a “distraction” from class, but the very foundation of class, and every class formation necessarily includes an element of racialization (e.g., “poor white trash”). The partition of humanity into the damned and the saved — and a purgatorial middle whose size and composition has varied over time — is the gesture by which capitalism has sought to justify itself to itself from the very beginning.

There is still a great deal of genealogical work to be done to explore the full roots and implications of the inextricably racist character of capitalist modernity, work that I am not in a very good position to do at present. But I agree with Amaryah that it is the most important future path for political theology and am pleased to think that my labors might contribute in some way toward getting us further down that path.

I could say more in response to Amaryah’s post and all the contributions to this event that has pushed me intellectually while also cheering my spirits amid the February doldrums. But now, in the joyful hope that these posts represent not an end-point, but a particularly fruitful moment in my continually unfolding dialogue with all of you, I will simply thank you all once again and open the comment threads for questions, comments, and points of rebuttal.

2 thoughts on “With demons like these…: A Response from Adam Kotsko

  1. ‘Race isn’t a “distraction” from class, but the very foundation of class, and every class formation necessarily includes an element of racialization (e.g., “poor white trash”).’

    What’s been helpful to me is to go glihtly further and include its theological component. Here though, the subject is caste, which is neither race nor class, I’m thinking here of B.R. Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste: The Annotated Critical Edition and Arundhati Roy’s The Doctor and the Saint: Caste, Race, and Annihilation of Caste, the Debate Between B.R. Ambedkar and M.K. Gandhi.

  2. Here are a few short passages that have lodged themselves firmly in my mind re: race/class, all of which seem potentially relevant to the point you’re reaching for. First, from an interview with J Sakai, semipseudonymous Japanese-American revolutionary Marxist and author of the perpetually controversial book “Settlers”:

    This liberal intellectual polarity that “race issues” and “class issues” are opposites, are completely separate from each other, and that one or the must be the main thing, is utterly useless! We have to really get it that race issues aren’t the opposite of class issues. That race is always so electrically charged, so filled with mass power, precisely because it’s about raw class. That’s why revolutionaries and demagogues can both potentially tap into so much power using it. Or get burned.

    You can’t steer yourself in real politics, not in amerikkka and not in this global imperialism, without understanding race. “Class” without race in North America is an abstraction. And vice-versa. Those who do not get this are always just led around by the nose, the manipulated without a clue – and it is true that many don’t want any more from life than this. But wising up on race only means seeing all the class issues that define race and charge it with meaning. Why should it be so hard to understand that capitalism, which practically wants to barcode our assholes, has always found it convenient to color-code its classes?

    Second, from a book by the Danish revolutionary Marxist Torkil Lauesen, as quoted by his translator:

    The form of racism we are witnessing today has little to do with a ‘fear of the unknown’ or of that which is ‘different’. It is rather an ideological legitimation for the hierarchical division of the global labor force, citing supposed cultural inferiority as the reason for the economic and political oppression of the lower classes. Racism, therefore, is not a misunderstanding that can be corrected with enlightened thought and appeals to tolerance and mutual respect. It is, in the context of the current economic, political, and social order, fully rational and will exist as long as this order exists.

    And finally, and maybe most controversially, from the conclusion to a glowing review of Charles Murray’s “The Bell Curve” by the anarcho-capitalist luminary Murray Rothbard:

    If, then, the Race Question is really a problem for statists and not for paleos, why should we talk about the race matter at all? Why should it be a political concern for us; why not leave the issue entirely to the scientists?

    Two reasons we have already mentioned; to celebrate the victory of freedom of inquiry and of truth for its own sake; and as a bullet through the heart of the egalitarian-socialist project. But there is a third reason as well: as a powerful defense of the results of the free market. If and when we as populists and libertarians abolish the welfare state in all of its aspects, and property rights and the market shall be triumphant once more, many individuals and groups will predictably not like the end result. In that case, those ethnic and other groups who might be concentrated in lower-income or less prestigious occupations, guided by their socialistic mentors, will predictably raise the cry that free-market capitalism is evil and ”discriminatory” and that therefore collectivism is needed to redress the balance. In that case, the intelligence argument will become useful to defend the market economy and the free society from ignorant or self-serving attacks. In short; racialist science is properly not an act of aggression or a cover for oppression of one group over another, but, on the contrary, an operation in defense of private property against assaults by aggressors.

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