On civil war

Ever since Reagan, Republicans view any branch of government they have ever controlled as their birthright. Clinton and Obama were illegitimate in their eyes because the Republicans own the presidency. The same goes, but even more, for the Supreme Court. Media commentary seems bizarrely fixated on the idea that the Republicans are just now securing control of the Supreme Court, but they have actually held a majority for most of our lifetimes — secured in part by appointments from Republican presidents installed against the popular will. In reality, Democrats had their first shot at a majority in almost a generation, and the thought of allowing that was so unthinkable that the Republicans were basically willing to burn down everything. And the media went along with it as a case of “political hardball,” rather than the unprecedented insult to the American people it really was.

This points to a deeper crisis in our system. You can’t have a party-based representative democracy when one of the parties refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of the other party. The premise is that you alternate power and each party has the right to implement its agenda while in power. Republicans reject that premise. For them, any Democratic president or congressional majority is a state of absolute emergency. The number of Republicans willing to engage in traditional horse-trading politics while in the minority has dwindled sharply, while there are plenty of Democrats willing to play ball — Joe Manchin, most dramatically, but also many others who have voted for Trump cabinet and court appointees on the principle that the president has a right to appoint people who share his views, as long as they are otherwise qualified. Republicans refuse to even consider a Democratic Supreme Court nominee who would change the partisan balance, while many Democrats happily voted for the boring conservative who was nominated for the “stolen” seat and only mounted serious opposition when Kavanaugh turned out to have a cloud of sexual abuse and violent alcoholism in his past. And again, Republicans treated these reasonable concerns as an unprecedented outrage — because they own the court.

At this point, by continuing to play along with the system as it exists, Democrats objectively exist to give procedural cover for Republican rule. And it’s not clear to me how to break out of that pattern, because the public discourse is so systematically corrupt and false. Republican voters have been so brainwashed to believe that the Democrats secretly control everything that they are effectively inoculated against the idea that Republicans are rigging the system. The mainstream media has no interest in dispelling these illusions. Even if the Democrats managed to thoroughly delegitimate the Republicans in the eyes of their own base, they have no means to exercise institutional power — and hence they would only provide further justification to the Republican habit (accelerated under Trump) of governing only on behalf of their “base” and viewing the opposition party and public opinion with contempt.

Like many, I find the idea of delegitimating the Republicans and, with them, the whole Constitutional system deeply appealing. But in the absence of a plausible alternative with a claim to popular legitimacy, delegitimizing the system creates a situation where force decides, and I think we all know who would win if push came to shove. Yet surely there comes a point when the attempt to avoid civil war becomes a way of conceding victory in advance. Perhaps push has already come to shove — but in that case, it is very unclear how to proceed. Electoral victory is one option, but the Republicans have already primed their base to reject the validity of election results.

The last time our country was on the brink of civil war, the slavers had a stranglehold on institutional power and the terms of debate and yet continually viewed themselves as oppressed victims — and as soon as an opposition president took office, they decided to blow up the country rather than accept his victory. Like contemporary Democrats, Lincoln was conciliatory to a fault, but the slavers would not take yes for an answer. Lincoln was, of course, actually able to become president in the first place despite the slavers’ opposition. If a Democrat won the 2020 election, would they even be able to take office? Would Republicans control enough state-level governments to steal the Electoral College outright? And then what?

Abolish the states!

As is well-known, the US Constitution includes two major institutions that do not operate according to the principle of majority rule. The first is the Senate, where both California and Wyoming receive the same representation despite their vast difference in population. The second is the Electoral College, which in our young century has twice delivered the presidency to the loser of the popular vote. Critics of these institutions emphasize their obvious anti-democratic character, while defenders point to the special role of the states in the federal structure set up by the Founders. Though the system does go against our majoritarian instincts, the story goes, these so-called “laboratories of democracy” are crucial to America’s unique form of constitutional democracy.

Lost in this debate between democratic intuitions and the Founders’ intentions is the empirical question of whether the states as they currently exist actually fulfill a legitimate role in our system. One way to answer that would be to ask what states would have to look like to justify providing them with special representation even if it meant overriding the popular majority at the federal level. Clearly the states would need to have robust and meaningful democratic legitimacy on their own. They would need to represent coherent communities with identifiable and distinctive interests and values, and they would need to display an engaged political culture among their citizens.

Though each of our existing states would fare differently, it is clear that almost no actual-existing state meets those minimal standards of democratic legitimacy. Continue reading “Abolish the states!”

Political Theology: A Reading List

Some Facebook friends have asked me about my personal “canon” of political theology, and I decided it would make a good idea for a blog post. This list, like any attempt at a canon, does not simply reflect the state of a field but aims to change it. It is about what political theology is and also about what it could and should be. While some of my choices are presumably obvious, others reflect my conviction that political theology must grapple with questions of economics, race, gender, and sexuality, that our contemporary neoliberal order is an order of political theology, that political theology is a genealogical discipline, and that the root of political theology is not the homology between politics and theology but the problem that motivates both — in political terms, the problem of legitimacy, and in theological terms, the problem of evil. In other words, this could be taken as a reading list to understand the style of political theology I practice in The Prince of This World and Neoliberalism’s Demons. But more broadly, it is an attempt to group together a body of works that can be productively read with and against each other. [UPDATE: I have added two works to the list as several people have pointed out that I underemphasized the specifically Jewish contribution to the field.]

Here’s the list, in something like chronological order:

  1. Baruch Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise: Spinoza coins the term political theology in reverse, with a foundational work of modern political theory that is at the same time the foundational document of modern biblical scholarship.
  2. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals: So many of the key questions of political theology — the complex intertwining of morality, religion, economics, and power, as well as racial and ethnic differentiation — are front and center in this text, which also provides the basis for the genealogical method.
  3. Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism: The conventional blinders of political theology, which defines the political as excluding the economic, is the only thing that keeps this text from being an obvious classic for the field. Everything we expect from a political theological study is present in this text, and the exclusion is even more egregious when we recognize how deeply Weberian Schmitt is (precisely because he is also deeply anti-Weberian).
  4. Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: I’d be laughed out of the room if I didn’t include this one, and rightly so. I have been living for years in the tension between the promise of Schmitt’s research project here and the blinkers that lead it into a destructive blind alley.
  5. Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism: psychoanalysis has always played a role in political theology, and this is Freud’s most theological text. I would accept Totem and Taboo as well, but I lean toward Moses and Monotheism in recognition that most classics of political theology tend to be total unwieldy messes on the textual level.
  6. Ernst Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies: Another “gimme.” In dialogue with the other texts in this list, however, we can see in Kantorowicz a version of political theology that takes the interweaving of the political and economic for granted — this study is just as much about fiscal policy and corporate charters as it is about the vaunted parallel between Christ and the king.
  7. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition: This book provides the groundwork for the absolute qualitative distinction between the political and the economic — which in Neoliberalism’s Demons I call “Arendt’s axiom” — that will decisively shape subsequent studies in political theology. It takes Schmitt’s incohate bias against the economic realm and equips it with real theoretical rigor and a full-dress genealogy. I view the influence as unfortunate, but we need to confront it head-on to get past it.
  8. Jacob Taubes, Occidental Eschatology: Taubes’s account of the dynamics of eschatological thought and the way that different political-theological paradigms tend to grow out of the deadlocks in their predecessor helps to connect the genealogical and synchronic elements of political theology.
  9. Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population: This is really a stand-in for the entire lecture series, but this particular volume does a lot of heavy lifting with the influence of pastoral management techniques on modernity. So far, Foucault is presumably the author who would be most puzzled by my designation of him as a political theologian, but I don’t think we can understand the field as it is today, nor do the kind of genealogical work that needs to be done, without drawing on and extending Foucault’s analyses.
  10. Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: a masterwork of genealogy that ties together the rise of capitalism with the rise of race thinking, the disciplining of gender and sexual expression, and the ever-evolving place of theological and metaphysical thinking.
  11. Jan Assmann, The Price of Monotheism: A conceptually elegant account of the political ambivalence of monotheism, recognizing it as an ultimately unsustainable revolutionary demand.
  12. Giorgio Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory: here again, this is more a stand-in for his entire body of work, which has pushed political theology forward in so many ways. The Kingdom and the Glory has been most influential for my thought as well as for the field as a whole, forcing the question of the economic — albeit in a way that I find to be incoherent, due to his near-fanatical loyalty to Arendt’s axiom. (And of course, it meets the “unwieldy mess” standard.)
  13. Alexander Weheliye, Habaeus Viscus: A profound critique of Foucault and Agamben that homes in on their blindness to the question of race. His account of the unruly flesh provides one way of getting at the “unfixability” of the problem of legitimacy and the problem of evil that stand at the root of my account of political theology.
  14. Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: While she would surely not relish the comparison, Brown’s study of neoliberalism is deeply Schmittian in structure and approach and gets at the question of the legitimacy (or lack thereof) of our present order. Brown is guided by an unwavering faith in Arendt’s axiom that ultimately undermines her project in my view, but her way of posing the question of neoliberalism was what opened me to the possibility of thinking of it in political theological terms.
  15. Jared Hickman, Black Prometheus: This study of the enduring influence of the figure of Prometheus in modern race thinking is also (in Peter Coviello’s estimation as well as mine) the definitive political-theological account of race in the modern world. His theory of competing racialized political theological paradigms within the global space of immanence opened up by 1492 cuts through any number of the false binaries that prevent us from truly grasping the deep dynamics of modernity.

Of course, it would be arrogant to put my own books on there, though presumably if you were puzzled as to why these texts all belong together, taking a look at my work might help. And if anyone wants to hire me to teach a grad class with this reading list, you know how to reach me….

Every God wants to die: Belated reflections on Westworld

At the time that Westworld first aired, I wasn’t interested. I partly blame the marketing, which presented it as an anchor-style show on the scale of Game of Thrones — and the premise made it sound like it would be just as nihilistically exploitative as Game of Thrones as well. The whole thing sounded exhausting, all the moreso given that the show would surely attract a high level of attention from online critical culture.

Mark this day on your calendar, because it could very well be the first time someone on the internet has openly admited he was wrong. Westworld is absolutely excellent. I think it would have been fun to participate in speculation about where the plot was heading as it happened, and meanwhile I probably could have ignored most of the articles worrying about whether each individual character was given the exactly correct level of agency in every single scene, etc.

The marketing really is to blame, though, because Westworld is not like Game of Thrones. It is more of a niche-market piece, on the scale of Leftovers. And it is the opposite of exploitative or nihilistic. Many shows try to have their cake and eat it too, shaming the audience members who wish that women were not fully human, for example, while still satiating their lusts. Westworld refuses that gambit. There is plenty of nudity, but not of the sensual or tittilating kind — it is the nudity of the slave ship or the concentration camp, the nudity of the morgue. Its violence is at times impressively choreographed, but it is all the more horrifying in that its victims can never escape or effectively fight back.

Westworld already preempts the horrifically ill-conceived Confederate by showing us an unromanticized picture of slavery — and allowing us to understand how such a regime could be tempting and could even seem self-evident. Continue reading “Every God wants to die: Belated reflections on Westworld”

The Political Theology of Ecclesiastes

Why is the Teacher so depressed? When I was a teenager, the existential angst felt natural and obvious. Returning to the text as an adult who will be teaching it in class, I felt less secure. It seemed almost like an American arthouse film from the 70s, with everyone railing against an unspecified “phoniness” to which there nonetheless seemed to be no alternative. Compared to what is everything “vanity”? This is the only world, the only point of reference we have — what would it even mean for it to be meaningless?

And then it hit me: this isn’t the only point of reference, because this very “secular” text makes strategic reference (unlike Esther, for example) to God. Ecclesiastes is the lament of a man who can never be God, who lives in a world that God set up to remind you that you can never be God. The more he seeks for power, wisdom, and permanence, the more obvious it becomes that he can never be as all-powerful, as all-knowing, as eternal as God is. Indeed, the more he pushes the boundaries of what is possible for human beings — it is no accident that this text is traditionally attributed to Solomon, the pinnacle of human achievement in the Hebrew biblical tradition — the more reminders he gets.

Hence the continual advice that we should eat and drink and enjoy our toil. It’s not that those things are great or enjoyable. We are not dealing with an edifying message that we should “live for today.” The reason we should embrace fleeting pleasures and make the most of our subordination is that then we will not have to live with any painful reminders that we are not God.

In The Prince of This World, I claim that the political theology of the Hebrew Bible sets up a rivalry between God and the earthly ruler, and Ecclesiastes is arguably the only place that we see that rivalry from the first-person perspective of the ruler himself. Hence if Pharaoh is the primal root of the figure of the devil as God’s permanently humiliated rival, the Teacher of Ecclesiastes is the root of the philosophical despair of Milton’s devil, who knows for a fact that he can never defeat or replace God, but nonetheless feels compelled to keep trying — because for all his diagnoses of vanity, we never hear that the Teacher follows his own advice and abdicates the throne to become a simple laborer.

No one who has seized upon that hopeless hope can ever give up the quest to be God. Once that insane, impossible thought has entered one’s mind, there is no choice but to embrace the futility and humiliation and pain as a protest that becomes its own pleasure and satisfaction. Better to rule in hell than to serve in heaven — and better a world in which I can cast God as an illegitimate, arbitrary despot (in the very canon of Scripture!) than a world in which I cannot be God.

Social theory, race, and theology

A basic principle of the social sciences is that systemic effects have systemic causes. A classic example is Durkheim’s Suicide, where he argues that none of the individual reasons that people choose to take their own lives can account for the suicide rate in a given society — only an analysis of the general shape of those societies can explain a fundamentally social fact like the suicide rate.

There is a conservative form of faux-social science, of which David Brooks is probably the most self-conscious adherent. It tries to appear that it has tracked down systemic causes for the systemic effects it bemoans, but in reality it is still performing a fundamentally individualistic analysis. Social forces mutate into social trends, usually of a highly moralistic bent. Hence a Brooksian analysis of suicide rates might say that people are becoming less optimistic, more despairing, less serious about their duties to others, etc., etc.

This looks like a social cause because it’s a generalization about a lot of people. But if we ask David Brooks what caused people to become less optimistic, etc., in the last analysis all he can say is that a critical mass of people up and decided to stop being optimistic. And how do we solve this problem? Through moral exhortation that will make people up and decide to have hope again. Continue reading “Social theory, race, and theology”

A Question Regarding Agamben

As a student whose research deals prominently with what Gil Anidjar refers to as the ‘Christian question’–the significance of Christianity for the distribution of things like the divide between religion and politics, philosophy and economy, etc.–I’ve found my attention drawn in most of my recent work (including my dissertation research) to materials that are probably best periodized as ‘medieval.’ That means that something that I find myself needing to think and rethink on a regular basis is the relation between two divides: the divide between the secular and the religious, and the divide between the medieval and the modern. As an old post of Adam’s points out, this puts me in the middle of a fairly common set of problems in political theology.

As someone who comes to these questions from (more-or-less) continental philosophy as the closest thing I have to a ‘home’ discipline, this puts me pretty squarely in the neighborhood of Giorgio Agamben. This is probably intensified by the fact that I’m working on medieval debates over categories we’d probably characterize today as economic, and by the fact that for better or worse, The Kingdom and the Glory still seems to be the most well-known take on the genealogy of economy, despite the existence of multiple takes that are at least as compelling. As a result, both for the sake of figuring out what exactly it is I’m doing in my own research and for the sake of a paper idea I’ve been kicking around for a while, I’m trying to think through my relationship to Agamben on the questions of Christianity, ‘secularization,’ and method.

One thing I find interesting in Agamben is that while secularization is a concept that he’s willing to schematize fairly specifically, Christianity isn’t–or at least (and I may be missing a very obvious reference here) he doesn’t seem to. That’s not to say that Agamben isn’t concerned with Christianity; on the contrary, it pops up everywhere in his work, from reflections on monastic life, to reflections on trinitarian debates, even contributing to the ‘turn to Paul’ in continental philosophy. But I can’t think of a place where Agamben reflects on Christianity ‘as such,’ despite a consistent concern with Christian materials.

Right now, I’m playing with a methodological hunch, and what I’d like from you–reader–is to know whether this sounds right or if there’s some reason to think that I’m totally off. I’m increasingly starting to think that it’s at the points in Agamben’s work where he’s most closely concerned with Christian materials that he’s also forced to be concerned with issues of genealogical method. Usually, this takes the form of explicit reflections on Foucault. From what I can tell, Agamben’s most sustained reflections on Foucault tend to appear in his writings between about 2005 and 2008. Extended meditations on Foucauldian concepts and methods appear in Profanations, “What is an Apparatus?,” and The Kingdom and the Glory, and are sustained through The Signature of All Things. All of these texts have in common a sustained attention to Christianity, and to the Christian-secular or medieval-modern divides. Foucault maintains a presence throughout the Homo Sacer series (starting with the first volume in 1995) as a resource for borrowed concepts and concerns. What doesn’t occur until this later period however, (as far as I can tell) is an explicit reflection on the nature of Agamben’s debt to Foucault. It may be, I’m tentatively suggesting, the form of the ‘Christian question’ that provokes Agamben to feel a need to give such an account. Or, more specifically, approaching the question of Christianity means that Agamben is forced to directly confront the relay by means of which ‘Christian’ concepts find their distribution across ‘political,’ ‘theological,’ ‘economic,’ and other ‘domains.’

What do you think, reader?