Democracy between Neoliberalism and Populism

[This is the text of a talk I presented as part of the Imtiaz Moosa Philosophy and Ethics Speaker Series under the auspices of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin–River Falls, on Monday, April 17. Long-time readers may notice some repeated material — I apologize. In addition to bringing my thesis on neoliberalism and populism up to date with current events and fleshing out some intuitions about the relationship between populism and online trolling culture, my main goal in this article was to see whether I could advance my position without explicit recourse to the concept of political theology.]

Prelude: “Our Democracy” is in Peril!
It has become a commonplace in American political discourse that “our democracy” is in danger. Again and again, we hear that particular elections or legislative actions could spell the end of democratic self-governance in the US. In Wisconsin, you are certainly no strangers to this type of rhetoric. As I’m sure I don’t need to tell any of you, Wisconsin is one of the most aggressively gerrymandered states in the Union, as the Republican majority has stacked the deck so severely that Democrats would have to clinch a double-digit popular vote victory in order to gain a narrow majority in the legislature. Meanwhile, officials elected in statewide contests that cannot be gerrymandered are sidelined as much as possible, as when Republicans voted in a lame-duck session to simply remove key powers from the executive branch rather than allow the incoming Democratic governor to use them. And now—thanks to the outcome of the most recent election in which the fate of American democracy hung in the balance—the Republicans have lost the state Supreme Court majority that enabled them to rig the system so forcibly in the first place.

I was certainly relieved to hear that election result, but the American public didn’t have much time to rest on its laurels. Within a few days, we heard news that the Republican majority in the Tennessee state legislature was moving to expel three members who joined a protest in favor of gun control. Two out of the three were ultimately kicked out of office, meaning that American democracy is presumably back on the knife’s edge—at least until Democrats in some other state pass a law or win a court case that expands voting rights. Friends of democracy must sadly rest content with such piecemeal victories, since the Democrats failed to take advantage of a rare trifecta to pass nationwide electoral reform. This happened in large part because they could not muster the votes to make the Senate more democratic by abolishing the fillibuster rule. In other words, Democratic senators not only failed to protect our right to vote—they failed to protect their own right to vote.

At this point, I should be clear that I believe free and fair elections are incredibly important—the non-negotiable baseline of a functional society. At the same time, I want to be equally clear that the public debate on this issue is absurd and misleading. Continue reading “Democracy between Neoliberalism and Populism”

Lecture on Trump and neoliberalism

Last week, I gave a brief talk at North Central College about the relationship between Trump and neoliberalism, which was part of a series of TED Talk-style events hosted by the Political Science Department. Video is now available, and a full archive of all previous talks in the series can be found here.

The talk was pitched at an undergrad audience, and I was pretty happy with the solution I devised to the problem of how to define neoliberalism in an economical way. The basic thrust of my argument anticipates my conclusions from Neoliberalism’s Demons, albeit in a very compressed way.

January speaking dates

I am planning to kick off next year with two speaking dates. The first will be part of a larger event on “The Temptation of Christ” for the DePaul Humanities Center on Monday, January 16 (PDF flyer), and the second will be a conversation with Peter Coviello (possibly known to you as the author of one of the best post-election essays in existence) on The Prince of This World at the Seminary Co-op on Thursday, January 19 (JPG flyer).

My Australia and New Zealand Tour

This summer, I was invited to come speak at Australian National University by Monique Rooney. Subsequently, I was able to schedule several other talks in Australia and New Zealand, adding up to a three-week speaking tour that will double as a vacation, with The Girlfriend joining me in Sydney. Thanks to Monique, Julian Murphet (of the University of New South Wales), Robyn Horner and David Newheiser (of Australian Catholic University), Mike Grimshaw and Cindy Zeiher (of Canterbury University), and Campbell Jones (of Auckland University) for their generous invitations.

I will be giving two different lectures based on my forthcoming (and preorderable) book The Prince of This World and giving a masterclass (covering my Crisis and Critique article and some selections from Agamben). The primary lecture will be entitled “Neoliberalism’s Demons”:

The devil is one of the most enduring Christian theological symbols, a figure that has taken on a life of its own in the culture of secular modernity. In this talk, Adam Kotsko traces the origin of the devil back to his theological roots in the problem of evil. One of the greatest challenges to traditional monotheism has always been the existence of suffering and injustice — if God is all-good and all-powerful, why does he allow it? The devil emerged as a convenient scapegoat, a fallen angel who was created good by God and yet freely chose to rebel. This placed the devil at the root of a theological system that used the idea of free will as a way of deflecting blame away from God and toward his wayward creatures. Kotsko will argue that the neoliberal order implies the same logic — deploying notions of free choice as a way of blaming individuals for systemic failures.

The other is entitled “The Origin of the Devil”:

The devil is normally viewed as a theological or mythological symbol, but in this lecture, Adam Kotsko will argue that the devil is equally a political symbol. And this is because the God of the Hebrew Bible is not only an object of worship, but a ruler — of Israel first of all, but also of the entire world. His first major opponent is not a rival deity, but a rival king, namely the evil Pharoah who refuses to let God’s people go. From that point forward, God’s most potent rivals are the earthly rulers who challenge his reign, from the kings who lead Israel astray to the emperors who conquer the Chosen People. This rivalry reaches a fever pitch in apocalyptic thought, which elevates God’s earthly opponent into a cosmic adversary who is eventually identified as Satan or the devil.

Detailed schedule below the fold.

Continue reading “My Australia and New Zealand Tour”

Enjoy your creepiness!

Next Thursday, February 27, I will be giving a talk at Columbia College Chicago’s Cultural Studies Colloquium entitled “Creepiness and Culture.” The talk is at 4pm at the Columbia campus’ 624 South Michigan Avenue building, room 610. In it, I will be addressing ideas I am working through for the projected final volume of my trilogy on bad affects in pop culture, Creepiness.