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.

Neoliberalism’s Demons Book Event: Maybe the Real Hell Was the Guilt We Incurred Along the Way

This post is by Timothy Snediker, a PhD student in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbaraspecializing in philosophy of religion. His interests include twentieth-century phenomenology, critical theory, psychoanalysis, political theology, and non-philosophyHis current research concerns the joy of living at the end of the world. 

At a pivotal moment in the titular chapter of Neoliberalism’s Demons, amidst a discussion of the thorny problem of the freedom of the creaturely will and the paradoxical temporality of the fall of the devil, Adam Kotsko evokes—briefly—a specter that haunts every Christian theological attempt at theodicy. I refer, of course, to the figure of the malicious God, who, in creating the angels sets them up for failure, for their own fall, so that he can lay blame upon them and punish them (84). Kotsko has undertaken an extended and more granular study of this particular theological problematic in his prior work, The Prince of This World (Stanford University Press, 2017), but the basic point of the paradox is here adequately adduced. The discomforting image of the malicious God, Kotsko notes,

cuts against a commonsense reading of the doctrine of providence, namely that God allows evil to happen owing to the conceptual necessity of allowing free will and subsequently makes up for it by drawing good out of evil. What the primal scene of the fall of the devil shows is that the causation is reversed: the first thing God does is induce some of his creatures to ‘rebel’ against a meaningless imperious demand, to ensure that there will be a reservoir of evil for him to turn toward the greater good. (Ibid.)

Here we have a God for whom evil is not only necessary in an abstract sense, but for whom evil is positively desirable, since God uses evil, as would an addict, in order to glorify himself. In fact, I reckon that one could deepen and intensify the significance of this idea further still. To wit, evil is not, per se, desirable (it is not the object of God’s desire) but is itself God’s desire, that which is, in God, desirous of God.

In the following, I suggest that the emergence of this figure of the malicious God is one of the many conceptual felicities of Kotsko’s general theory of political theology. I understand Kotsko’s general political theology as exemplary of what he has elsewhere called ‘political theology from below.’ Such a view from below not only accords with a Benjaminian ethics of thinking according to ‘the tradition of the oppressed’ but also avoids the most obvious pitfalls of the narrow, Schmittian schema of political theology, which concerns itself almost exclusively with questions of state and sovereignty, and which offers itself as the obvious paradigm of ‘political theology from above.’

In Neoliberalism’s Demons, Kotsko claims that there are at least two visions of political theology present in Schmitt’s foundational 1922 text, Political Theology. The first vision, which will be familiar to those with any proximity to political theology, is the “restricted” point of view promulgated by Schmitt himself, grounded in Schmitt’s “normative commitments to the political as the ‘ultimate concern’ of human existence and to a singular, personal, omnipotent sovereign as the guarantor of the political.” The second vision, which is implicit in Schmitt and which is espoused explicitly by Kotsko, is a general political theology, which Kotsko describes as “a nonreductionist analysis of the homologies between political and theological or metaphysical systems, grounded in the recognition that both types of systems are attempts to grapple with the perennial dilemma that is represented theologically as the problem of evil and politically as the problem of legitimacy” (31). Here it is worth noting that Kotsko aims less to reveal the religious infrastructure of secular institutions than to refuse the supposedly self-evident character of their difference. It is not that at the bottom of every secular concept there lies a religious kernel, but that, as Talal Asad has observed in Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford University Press, 2003, esp. pp. 21-26), the religious and the secular are two masks that mutually obscure, and interfere with, one another.

That is to say, Kotsko’s political-theological procedure is also genealogical. As he puts it in his conclusion, “Political theology is a holistic, genealogical inquiry into the structures and sources of legitimacy in a particular historical moment” (128). I have written elsewhere about my suspicions regarding the dubious marriage of genealogy and political theology, yet, on my reading, Kotsko anticipates and avoids the pitfalls of this union precisely by means of his shift to a general political theology, which is unfettered by a simplistic Schmittian hermeneutics of secular surface and religious depth, to say nothing of the tired binary opposition of the religious and the secular that subtends much of contemporary popular discourse on secularization. Kotsko’s genealogical political theology concerns itself not with exposing the religious truth of secular conceits, but with “the study of the sheer fact of transfers between the two realms” of politics and religion (28). He derives the parameters for this study from Schmitt’s invocation of a “sociology of concepts.” Schmitt writes in his famous text that one can, for instance, speak of a sociology of the concept of sovereignty

when the historical-political status of the monarchy of [a given] epoch is shown to correspond to the general state of consciousness that was characteristic of western Europeans at that time, and when the juristic construction of the historical-political reality can find a concept whose structure is in accord with the structure of the metaphysical concepts….The metaphysical image that a definite epoch forges of the world has the same structure as what the world immediately understands to be appropriate as a form of its political organization. (Qtd. in Kotsko, 30)

Inasmuch as he pays close attention to the historical and contingent features of our contemporary “metaphysical image of the world,” Kotsko follows Schmitt’s method, but he does so unbound by Schmitt’s normative commitments to sovereignty in the form of absolute monarchy.

Thus political theology becomes a process (or act) of translation, wherein the question of how an omnipotent and benevolent God could allow the existence of evil is revealed (or iterated) as a version of the political problem of legitimacy. Sovereignty was and is but a special case of the more comprehensive question of legitimacy; e.g. even the Hobbesian sovereign must appeal to the existence of the people for his legitimacy. From my point of view, and in terms of the future research I hope to pursue in the vein of political theology, one of the great merits of Kotsko’s general theory of political theology is that it establishes clear parameters for the field without remaining shackled to the narrow vision of political theology established and transmitted by Schmitt. The elegance of Kotsko’s approach is evident in the explanatory power it affords him when he turns to his main subject: neoliberal governmentality.

Kotsko follows the analyses of Karl Polanyi, Melinda Cooper, and Silvia Federici in order to show that neoliberalism does not simply erode the old disciplinary regimes but invents new regimes as it goes. (As Deleuze and Guattari were at pains to remind us in the 1980s, every deterritorialization is immediately a reterritorialization.) On Kotsko’s account, we deeply misunderstand the hegemonic political economy of our era if we presume that neoliberalism is simply reducible to free-market dogma or is a project that simply ‘replaces’ the political with the economic. On the contrary, neoliberalism is a “totalizing world order, an integral self-reinforcing system of political theology” (95). An extremely brief summary of Kotsko’s argument would go something like this: neoliberalism needs democracy, but of a certain kind; it needs subjectivity, but of a certain kind; it needs the state, but of a certain kind; it needs the family, but of a certain kind; it needs freedom, but of a certain kind; above all it needs legitimacy—and it has a method of obtaining that legitimacy, a method which weaponizes democracy, subjectivity, state, family, and freedom.

Indeed, Kotsko marshals the rehabilitated tools of political theology to show that the theological concept of freedom—as it is iterated by the orthodoxy of Christian tradition and as it operates in the crypto-theological machinations of neoliberal governmentality—is the lynchpin for a mechanism of generating blameworthiness. The operative process of this mechanism, which masks its own perverse system of moral entrapment as a Heilsgeschichte, is what Kotsko calls ‘demonization.’ This demonization, Kotsko assures us, is visited not only upon the angels in the instant of their rebellion just subsequent to God’s creative act ex nihilo, but is—in the living hell we call late capitalism—allotted to each and every one of us inasmuch as we are forced to freely choose our own servitude and indebtedness. Neoliberalism is never to blame, the wonkish technocrats are not at fault; it’s you and me, reader—we debtors, we students, we teachers, we workers—who are blameworthy. We have freely chosen to live in this inferno. “Neoliberalism makes demons of us all” (89, 120ff).

This brings us back, so to speak, to God. Kotsko’s allusions to the perversity of a capricious God who deliberately creates angels in order that they should immediately—in the very first instant of their existence—fall from grace put me in mind of a passage from François Laruelle’s General Theory of Victims (trans. Jessie Hock and Alex Dubilet, Polity, 2015). There Laruelle remarks that

the true atheism is not as simple as philosophy imagines it to be. It occurs in two stages: the banal refusal to believe in a God is self-contradictory and satisfies those who think little, but the refusal to believe in a good God is the true rebellion. There is always a God lying in ambush, preparing his return in whatever negation is made of his existence, even a materialist one, but it is important that it be a malicious God, a thesis that only an  ‘ultra’-religious heresy can face. (21, my emphasis)

My sense of Kotsko’s intervention is that it allows one to take political theology as a methodological approach to the twinned problems of evil and legitimacy that resolutely refuses to believe in a good GodHere is a political theology that refuses to be hoodwinked by the ruses of theodicy—and in that precise sense it marks a real contribution to the theory and the practice of a true rebellion.

Neoliberalism’s Demons Book Event: Seeing Through a Bubble Darkly

This post is by Dean Dettloff. Dean is a PhD Candidate at the Institute for Christian Studies. He is also a host of The Magnificast podcast and writer for America Magazine.

There are a lot of stories about how we got here, to a moment in human history where our species is on course to burn ourselves out of the only planet we have because of one of the most harebrained economic systems ever made up. Among them, though riddled with plot holes, is the one told by Peter Sloterdijk. Once upon a time, he says, certain humans lived inside a metaphysical soap bubble, a canopy of orienting ideas. Surrounded by a conceptual atmosphere, some people could look up and see themselves in the ordered fabric of the cosmos, situated in a reasonable station among other reasonable beings and relationships. The colorful doctrinal hues that slid into one another across the film of that bubble changed significantly over time, but the bubble, that fragile source of safety and familiarity (even a place for tragedy), remained all the same.

Somewhere along the line, the bubble popped–!–evacuating the air and revealing humans live on a big, weird rock hurtling through the horrible void of space around a terminal star. As Blaise Pascal put it in one of his Pensées, gasping for Providence, “When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in an eternity before and after, the little space I fill engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces whereof I know nothing, and which know nothing of me, I am terrified. The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.”

Without the concentric circles of the planets as guides, Sloterdijk explains, Europeans needed another way to stabilize the contingencies of life. Providence was displaced by Fortuna, and while prayer and fasting certainly did not go away, debt and credit were more reliable forms of genuflecting. Sloterdijk describes the globe of colonial expansion like an “occult clock,” connecting the hours of profit to continents and the people that live there, reduced to speculative equations. Modern capitalism became the means by which human beings, bereft of cosmic guarantees, could be more predictable, calculable, or at least more accountable. Today, Sloterdijk says, it is insurance, the logic of manageable or controlled risk, that has defeated all the lofty conceptual boundaries of philosophy and theology alike, creating what he calls the “world interior of capital.” The air inside has changed, and all that is solid melts into it–Dense Fog Advisory.

Adam Kotsko is also telling us a story in Neoliberalism’s Demons, one that picks up where Sloterdijk eventually veers right. For Kotsko, too, the fog of neoliberalism has become the air we breathe. Though his story is different than Sloterdijk’s, recalling a narrative about European consciousness that goes back to visions of ancient Greece and medieval Europe helps to situate what’s really at stake in Kotsko’s analysis. Throughout the book, he reminds us that neoliberalism is not simply a system where “economics” supplants “politics” or philosophy, a reversal of the idyllic polis imagined by Aristotle and preserved among philosophers in its own way in the twentieth-century. It is not reducible to a series of policies or thoughts about taxation. Neoliberalism is, rather, an attempt to build a container for a whole way of life, enlisting domains of society conjured by classical and medieval thinkers to create new brands of humans.

As Kotsko explains, these domains are not harnessed as essential facts of human life, but embraced and remodeled as the imposed conceptual apparatuses that they are, used to make certain forms of life possible. To take one example, while neoliberalism is acidic with respect to particular family structures, Kotsko explains it “does not simply destroy some preexisting entity known as ‘the family,’ but creates its own version of the family, one that fits its political-economic agenda, just as Fordism created the white suburban nuclear family that underwrote its political-economic goals” (71).

It’s easy to miss the sheer scale of world-making here. Neoliberalism is a project, an attempt to create an edifice in which we can live and move and have our being, a massive, climate-controlled hothouse for growing certain kinds of subjects, shaping our entire perceptual capacities. Kotsko’s contribution gives us resources for a phenomenology of human life under neoliberal conditions, for neoliberalism aims at nothing less than the transformation of human beings themselves. And to a frightening degree, it has succeeded. The world today comes to us neoliberally; now we see through a bubble, darkly.

Inside the neoliberal bubble, one chokes on a thick, toxic atmosphere of paranoia, which strangely results in breathing out desires for more of the very structures that produce that atmosphere in the first place. Even those who resist clamoring for borders, oil, and demagogues still have to maintain little breathing apparatuses that inhale paranoia and are supposed to exhale productivity.

“We have to be in a constant state of high alert, always ‘hustling’ for opportunities and connections, always planning for every contingency (including the inherently unpredictable vagaries of health and longevity),” Kotsko explains. We have to “fritter away our life with worry and paperwork and supplication, ‘pitching’ ourselves over and over again, building our ‘personal brand’–all for ever-lowering wages or a smattering of piece-work, which barely covers increasingly exorbitant rent, much less student loan payments” (95).

We’re forced into a strange inversion of Pascal’s terrors. The eternal silence of infinite spaces might be unsettling, but at least it’s not interested in me. How much more frightening it is to be surrounded by a society that demands you ought to be interesting all the time, to transform your life into a personal brand–communicable, marketable, available, profitable. And even if you aren’t the type to pitch yourself in an endless cycle of side-hustles that lead to more side-hustles, your data, browsing habits, and physical movement in real space are tracked and sold. In short, you can’t stop mattering, can’t stop being interesting. The freedom of being irrelevant is long gone.

But as Kotsko explores these existential problems, what he really drives home is that insurance has not, in fact, supplanted theology. On the contrary, insurance is itself involved in a complex political theology that maintains the sheen on the bubble of neoliberalism. Among the achievements of the book is Kotsko’s ability to whittle down amazingly complex bodies of literature into only the component pieces he needs to make his point. For political theology, that means isolating two problems: legitimacy and evil. In its attempt to shore up a claim to legitimate sovereignty and to explain the apparent gap between promises and material realities, neoliberalism reproduces recognizable theological strategies to maintain the air in its interior, to make the neoliberal world and those in it appear in a particular way.

Theology, as Kotsko tells us, is not just about God, but also about us. Seen through the foggy air of neoliberalism, some people look an awful lot like the demons that roamed around in earlier bubbles. And, for that matter, a lot of people choked in those atmospheres, too. Just as some had to be named, contained, and murdered as demonic agents to ensure the perceived safety of a universe of nested, rational circles, so, too, does neoliberalism need a legion of demons to ban from heaven, incarcerate, and exorcise from this world entirely to ensure that when some look up through the fog, they see not an empty void, but a speculative opportunity, one more place to spend their “winnings.”

It might be tempting here to embrace this demonization, to perhaps follow a line from Bakunin’s God and the State, where the biblical story of the fall reveals human beings are qualified by their ability to rebel, to be demons. For Bakunin, we ought to eschew the theological redemption story that pacifies our rebellious nature and embrace our negative liberty. Kotsko also rejects the idea that only a God can save us, whether Providence or Fortuna. He reminds us, however, that the problems of political theology are not things we can simply reject or depose; the bubble doesn’t just pop.

We have to live inside some kind of edifice, to consider what kind of air conditioning we want, and we should think through what atmospheres create the mirage where people appear like demons, de facto failures consigned to the inferno of capital. Combatting neoliberalism would need more than policy changes and electoral victories; it would entail reconfiguring our entire sensual ratios to perceive one another without the haze of capital. There are no readymade solutions. “The only infallible sign I can offer,” says Kotsko, “is that we will know it is a new paradigm when we find ourselves building it” (143).

Perhaps, too, we will know the air in the bubble is safe to breathe when those who move through it can finally see, face to face.

Introduction: Neoliberalism’s Demons Book Event

I’m pleased to announce the start of our book event on our own Adam Kotsko’s most recent book, Neoliberalism’s Demons: On the Political Theology of Late Capital (Stanford University Press: 2018). We’ve got a very exciting lineup of contributors, listed in our schedule below.

The starting point for Kotsko’s intervention in the book is his rejection of what he terms “Arendt’s Axiom.” The notion of a division between the ‘political’ and the ‘economic’ as distinct spheres of human activity maintains a high degree of inertia within studies of political theology. Kotsko argues that this is, at least in part, due to the highly influential roles of both Carl Schmitt and Hannah Arendt in the formation of political theology as a field of inquiry. Schmitt’s focus on the concepts of law and sovereignty in both Political Theology (1922) and The Concept of the Political (1932) was motivated in part by an attempt to explain the qualitative distinction between politics and other spheres of human social life. Arendt’s The Human Condition (1958) argued—on the basis of a highly idiosyncratic reading of Aristotle—that an original Greek experience of the oikos and the polis as distinct spheres of human life, with distinct logics and activities proper to each, had undergone a transvaluation through late antiquity and the Christian Middle Ages; with the ‘economic’ sphere coming, in modernity, to dominate and threaten to extinguish its counterpart. Proceeding on the basis of this division—the aforementioned ‘axiom’—a good deal of early work in political theology either ignores or explicitly rejects the idea of conceptual transfer between these two fields, whether from economy to sovereign polis or from polis to oikos. And this assumption is visible even now, Kotsko claims, in recent inquiries into economic theology by Giorgio Agamben and Dotan Leshem, or inquiries into the neoliberal condition by writers like Wendy Brown.

Proceeding instead from the assumption that any division between the political and the economic is a division made and remade by new political-theological-economic paradigms, Kotsko turns to an investigation of the specific form taken by the ‘political theology’—which is also to say the ‘economic theology’—of neoliberalism. Key to this move is a focus on the question of neoliberalism’s legitimation. That is: where previous studies (focused on the seemingly hermetically sealed paradigms of political sovereignty or economic governmentality) draw attention to the nature of the ‘god’ endemic to either the political or the economic sphere, Kotsko focuses on the way obligation to that god is engendered: through the demonization of the neoliberal subject. That is: the political-theological paradigm that is neoliberalism is neither simply a political nor an economic agenda, on Kotsko’s reading. It reaches into every facet of social life, making its subjects culpable for their own economic and political condition, while at the same time unable to change the nature of that condition. It entails a specific model of human agency, one which has to be actively made for its subjects. In its treatment of religion, family structure, gender and sexuality, and racialization, Neoliberalism entails the re-narration of subjective agency in such a way as to make the victims of its worst effects responsible for their own suffering and demise. Neoliberalism, in other words, “makes demons of us all.”

Contributors’ posts will be posted next couple of weeks, and this page will stay updated with links to new posts. Our projected schedule is as follows:

Lies and neoliberalism

Under neoliberalism, lies become an accepted feature of political leadership. The goal is purely to instrumentalize democratic legitimacy, in order to gain the power to make the necessary decisions that ordinary people can never understand or be persuaded of.

The fact that Obama was so astoundingly honest compared to all presidents in recent memory contributed to his weakness, because he was surrounded by habitual liars and cheats. He thought he could make the neoliberal consensus positively legitimate again, instead of just a default option supported by “spin” and demonization. That the lies that propelled Trump to the presidency were specifically about Obama is thus fitting — as is the fact that they propelled him to the presidency in an obviously democratically illegitimate way.

As ever, Trump is the parody of the neoliberal consensus, which shows us the truth of its intellectual and political bankruptcy. And the neoliberal Democrats’ answer is not to mobilize the population in protest, not to take direct action against an obviously illegitimate political structure — but to double down on elitism and technocracy by imagining that the FBI will somehow save us.

We are not the ones we have been waiting for

A few weeks ago, the New York Times Magazine published an article about how “we” almost stopped climate change. It is a remarkable piece, rich with detail, about how scientists and public officials raised the alarm on climate change and nearly succeeded in getting a binding international treaty capping carbon emissions. I am among those who was very critical of the framing of this story, which concludes with breezy generalizations about human nature that would be more at home in an undergraduate essay than the paper of record. In reality, the general public is not heard from at any step along the way — this is all a story about a power struggle among elites. And all the evidence points toward an obvious conclusion: hardline conservatives in the first Bush administration, following up on the climate nihilism of Reagan, wound up torpedoing the effort, with results that are by now familiar to us.

This critique is obvious. What I wonder about, though, is why the author would choose this framing when it is such a poor fit for the story he is telling. Clearly one motive is to avoid “politicizing” the issue and alienating conservative readers. Indeed, perhaps there was even an effort to highlight the fact that Republicans and industry representatives contributed positively, to encourage them to do so in the future. But it is interesting to me that this attempt to avoid partisanship should take the form of a gesture toward collective guilt. After all, there is evidence that pro-corporate Democrats also stood in the way of action, so why not go for standard both-sidesism? Why blame the people at large for something that happened almost exclusively behind closed doors?

The author of this piece is hardly alone in gesturing toward collective blame, which is one of the most characteristic gestures of contemporary political discourse. For instance, today on Twitter I learned that “we” made a mistake in adopting an ad-driven model for the web. I do not recall being consulted on that decision, nor on so many others where “we” are reportedly to blame. This discursive tic becomes most absurd, of course, when we are talking about the actions of the Trump administration, which was installed against the wishes of the American people, who continue to despise him at record levels. But since an election happened, whatever resulted from it, however perverse, must be “our” collective fault — presumably “we” should have arranged for a population transfer of tens of thousands of liberals into the Rust Belt states in anticipation of the election. Shame on “us” for not thinking of that!

In Undoing the Demos, Wendy Brown talks about the neoliberal strategy of “responsibilization,” which systematically invests formal decision-making power in the bodies least equipped to exercise it. In her example, a university decides to shift health care costs onto individual departmental budgets rather than handling them on an institution-wide basis. The predictable result that departments move toward more part-time labor to avoid ballooning health care costs was presumably what the upper administration was aiming at, but by using the strategy of “responsibilization” they get to blame the individual departments for their “choice” of adjunct labor.

The gesture of collective blame, where “we” are all responsible for political and economic outcomes, is the ultimate extreme of “responsibilization,” and like all strategies of “responsibilization,” it aims ultimately to displace blame for decisions that are made elsewhere. This is a hard-and-fast rule of neoliberalism, as I discuss in my forthcoming book: whenever someone talks to you about freedom and choice, they are looking for someone to blame. The strategy reaches a point of absurdity in the gesture toward collective blame, because the people at large actually have no meaningful moral agency whatsoever. We have no tools of collective action or deliberation — indeed, we are systematically deprived of them, and any new technology that might enable the development of collective action or deliberation is immediately corrupted and rendered unusable. If “we” can’t make reasoned collective decisions to take collective actions, then “we” are not a moral agent, full stop.

The illusion that “we” do have collective agency is actually one of the most effective strategies to prevent such agency from emerging. After all, “we” have apparently messed things up pretty badly — how can we be trusted with that kind of responsibility? Shouldn’t “we” instead hand that agency over to the nice technocratic elites, or the not-so-nice self-styled deal-makers, so that they can take care of everything for “us”?

This dynamic is not limited to neoliberalism — in fact, we can see the same basic logic at work in the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, where “We the People” make a brief cameo appearance to legitimate a self-enclosed and largely unaccountable power structure where “the people” have no explicit powers or responsibilities. Indeed, in Federalist 78, Hamilton can even argue, paradoxically, that the Supreme Court is the branch of government with the most direct connection to “the people,” insofar as the will of the people is identified with and reduced to the continued enforcement of the federal Constitution. It is in this sense, I suppose, that “the people” elected Trump, because even though the result went against the immediate will of the people as expressed in the voting totals, it still reflected “our” deeper will-to-have-a-Constitution insofar as it followed the procedures laid out in that august document.

How do we — in the non-scare-quoted sense of actual people with actual identifiable collective interests — respond to this situation? Two possibilities present themselves. The first is to call the elites on their bullshit. “We” didn’t torpedo climate change action, Bush’s asshole chief of staff did. “We” didn’t despoil the planet, corporate elites did. Human civilization has been placed on a trajectory toward extinction by identifiable individuals with institutional power. But to make good on those accusations, we need to take the bad-faith accusation of collective responsibility as a prophecy and become the collective agent that they say “we” already are. That will require developing new institutional forms and modes of leadership, with many contemporary movements giving us promising models. If “we” have any genuine responsibility at the present political moment, it is precisely to become a non-scarequoted we that can really take responsibility.

The Decline of the West

In the New York Times, David Leonhart worries that Trump is consciously attempting to destroy the West. Now I have no great affection for the Western alliance or the global free trade regime — and in any case, the Bush years teach us that neither can do much to restrain US excesses. So I could see a kneejerk case to root for Trump’s bull-in-a-China-shop routine.

The problem is that Trump is trying to construct a world order that doubles down on everything that is worst about the NATO-IMF-World Bank regime and gets rid of even the faintest illusion that some kind of ideals may be remotely involved in any of it. You may say that the Trump version has the virtue of being honest, but I wonder how “refreshing” or “clarifying” that honesty feels to the inmate of an ICE concentration camp.

It’s similar to the delusion of a left-wing version of Brexit — it’s not that I am rooting for the EU as such, but the people who are in a position to administer the alternative are psychotic austerians who want to use “freedom” from the EU to brutalize immigrants and turn the UK into an open-air work camp for the poor.