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.

Continue reading “Neoliberalism’s Demons Book Event: Piercing the Darkness”

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.’

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

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. Continue reading “Neoliberalism’s Demons Book Event: Seeing Through a Bubble Darkly”

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.