Agamben on philosophy and theology

[Note: This text represents the introduction to a lecture I gave at the University of Copenhagen earlier this month. The remainder of the lecture investigates The Kingdom and the Glory at greater length. I felt that this section can stand alone and may be of broader interest.]

Giorgio Agamben is surely the most theologically erudite living philosopher. While theology has formed an increasingly important site of reflection for contemporary European philosophy—as seen in the so-called “religious turn” in phenomenology and the more recent studies of the apostle Paul from a materialist perspective—there is no other single figure who has displayed such an imposing command of the full range of the Christian intellectual heritage, from the New Testament to the great theological debates of the 20th century, from doctrinal treatises to liturgical texts, from the stakes of the doctrine of the Trinity down to the smallest details of a monk’s habit. As a scholar of theology, I often find irritating errors in the works of other philosophers, but never Agamben. There is always room to nitpick—to lament that a certain scholar has not been cited, a certain theme left unexplored—but the quality of his work on Christian theology is unquestionable.

It is not only the depth and breadth of his engagement with Christian themes that sets Agamben apart from his contemporaries. If we compare him with another theologically astute philosopher such as Jean-Luc Marion, we see a clear difference in purpose. Whereas Marion, always a conservative Catholic thinker, has increasingly advanced a confessional theological agenda in his work, Agamben’s purpose has been unrelentingly critical and genealogical. Although he does have normative commitments that lead him to privilege certain figures in the history of Christianity—notably Paul and the early Franciscans—and view later developments as a kind of betrayal, he never advances a doctrine that takes those privileged sources as an authoritative canon. Instead, their successes and failures serve as materials for thinking through our own contemporary dilemmas.

Another way of putting this is that he draws no firm distinction between theological and philosophical materials. Continue reading “Agamben on philosophy and theology”

Economics cannot solve politics

I recently read William Clare Roberts’ book Marx’s Inferno. I was attracted by the notion that Marx structured his work according to Dante’s poem, but that connection proved to be a framing device for Roberts’ attempt to recontextualize Capital within the socialist debates of his own time. The upshot of this rereading of Capital, vol. 1 (which Roberts treats as a self-contained unit that represents Marx’s mature views on every topic it addresses — a move that I know many will find questionable) is that several classical features of Marxism are undermined. First, there is no intrinsic necessity for the progress from capitalism to communism, no teleology. Capitalism is a hell, not a purgatory — we need to escape it, not go through it as some kind of necessary penance. Second, he completely rejects the idea that Marx thinks capitalism is cool because it lays the foundation for a post-scarcity society. Instead, Marx sees in the capitalist mode of production (especially factory production) a novel social form that makes possible a new form of collective agency and control.

From this perspective, it seems that the blind alley of 20th Century Communism was its effort to create a post-scarcity society by using planning mechanisms that would supposedly deliver higher rates of growth than unplanned capitalist development. In the case of the USSR, that led them down a path of developing “heavy industry” almost as an end in itself and demanding endless sacrifice — ranging from political freedoms and everyday creature comforts — on behalf of the future generations who would enjoy “the material conditions of full communism.” Every political decision was justified by reference to the magical post-scarcity future that would answer every political question automatically. This utopia of pure economics is similar to the promise of neoliberalism, which attempts to deactive all political participation and decision-making by imposing economic standards and constraints. The supposedly automatic mechanism of the market makes decisions for us, removing any possibility of principled dispute or conflict.

As you will see in my forthcoming book Neoliberalism’s Demons, I am a huge critic of “Arendt’s axiom” on the absolute qualitative distinction between the political and the economic, which I view as a fatal flaw in Wendy Brown’s Undoing the Demos. So I don’t want to say here that we need to favor the political over the economic or resist the eclipse of the political by the economic or anything like that. The two realms really are inseparable, and I shouldn’t have to belabor that point. What I want to suggest here is that the idea that economics can replace or solve politics is a fantasy generated by capitalism itself — a strategy for legitimating its power structures as something other than power structures, its forms of oppression as something other than oppression.

If Marx really did believe that a sufficient level of economic development would automatically solve all serious political problems, then he would be the ultimate capitalist ideologue — and the 20th Century Communists who believed that was his teaching wound up becoming fodder for capitalist ideology, because the primary ideological lesson we are taught to take away from the experience of the USSR and pre-Deng China is that any alternative to capitalism is (in one of those grand ideological self-contradictions) simultaneously terrifying, boring, and impossible. One wishes — even taking into account the impossible situation in which they found themselves — that they had spent more time developing the machinery of collective decision-making and a little less laboriously reinventing the machinery of churning stuff out for the sake of churning stuff out. If there are any lessons to be drawn from that experience, it is not that planning, done right, with computers this time, can finally bring us the post-scarcity paradise, but in the very gesture of planning itself — collective planning not as a way of churning out more stuff, but as a way of taking collective responsibility for ourselves and the conditions of our life together.