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.

Neoliberalism’s Demons Book Event: A Contribution from Amaryah Shaye Armstrong

This post is by Amaryah Shaye Armstrong, a doctoral candidate in the Graduate Department of Religion at Vanderbilt University.

Neoliberalism’s Demons is an exciting development in Adam Kotsko’s thought. The most significant contributions here are, I think, methodological. With this book however, Kotsko offers up a helpful rearticulation of political theology that exchanges obligation to the Schmittian sense of political theology for a more heuristic sense. Overcoming some of the stalements of what I’ll call the “classic” form of political theology, Kotsko provides a clear and concise sense of political theology that finally catches up to the multitude of analyses that have been taken up under its banner. I primarily found his examinations of the the link between the political problem of legitimacy and the theological problem of evil to be a very astute insight that subtly but effectively shows the conceptual homologies that tie questions of governance to questions of meaning and value. This definition in particular stayed with me:

Political Theology is a holistic genealogical inquiry into the structures and sources of legitimacy in a particular historical moment. Political theology in this sense is political because it investigates institutions and practices of governance… and it is theological because it it deals with questions of meaning and value… And it is both simultaneously because the structures of governance are always necessarily caught up with questions of meaning and value and because the answers we offer to questions of meaning and value always have direct implication for how the world should be governed–in other words, the structures and sources of legitimacy tend to correlate conceptually.

It seems obvious now that Kotsko has stated it so clearly, but having spent time with some stodgy old white men doing “political theology” in what felt like a deeply stilted and unecessarily narrow sense, it can’t be understated how helpful this is as an intervention into the more “traditional” sense of political theology. Along with his rearticulation of the relationship between the political and the theological, Kotsko also helpfully revises the conception of economic such that political theology’s bias against it is able to take more seriously its structuring of everyday life. This will go a long way in overcoming some of the hang ups of the field that have prevented useful analysis of the political, theological, and economic to emerge.

Aside from the methodological, the book is generally accurate in its intuitions of how neoliberalism operates as a political theological paradigm. However, there were places that felt thin or underworked, specifically around demonization and blackness, that revealed the extent to which political theology needs a serious engagement with black studies. Primarily relying on Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, the gestures to race in Neoliberalism’s Demons while not wrong per se, are not at the theoretical level of the rest of Kotsko’s sources. This belies not only a gap in Kotsko’s argument, but a gap in political theology that is worthy of significant study. Such study would, I think, shift the terms of enunciation for more than just Kotsko’s argument, but there are specific ways I think it would apply here.

In the book, there seems to be the sense that neoliberalism demonizes everyone, and while there’s a vague attempt to note that not everyone experiences this in the same way, the desire to present neoliberalism as a total worldview seems to ignore the sense in which antiblackness is the total worldview that gives order to the economic arrangement on which neoliberalism depends. For instance, to track the sense in which individuals are now scapegoated in the name of freedom and become captive to debt is to ignore the sense in which blackness was already structured as that permanently demonic figure of wretchedness, Fanon’s damned, for centuries preceding the emergence of the neoliberal paradigm. What neoliberalism seems to reveal is the extent to which the carceral techniques that have structured the antiblack economy of the world have developed into a unique set of justifications, practices of governance, and technologies of control through which to manage non-black people now, albeit according to a different logic of reproduction. And it is this inability to perceive that the situation that white people are now subject to is not a novelty in black life, but has been its persistent climate (what Christina Sharpe calls “the weather” in her book In the Wake), that sometimes left me frustrated with the book. To use a black colloquialism, when white people have a cold, black people have pneumonia. A more attentive tracking of not only the disparate racial formations that structure neoliberalism, but a sense of how the liberal democratic project was always already funded by antiblack carcerality would shift the tone of the book toward a more precise sense of the novelty of neoliberalism and its extension of and dependence on the antiblack justification of carcerality that long precedes it.

In her groundbreaking work, Sisters in the Wilderness, Delores Williams inquires into the persistent oversight of the oppressed of the oppressed in theology. And not just dominant theology, but black liberation and feminist theologies. Her methodological intervention, rereading and a womanist hermeneutic of identification-ascertainment highlights the urgency of reforming perception prior to even beginning critical analysis. With this rereading and reorientation to material, Williams write, “heuristics and issues emerge.” In what sense does Kotsko’s helpful diagnosis of neoliberalism as a political theological paradigm highlight the sense in which antiblackness as a political theological paradigm continues to be the unthought that produces novelty in other fields? Such a pervasive and persistent imperception of the ways that black studies has been theorizing and surviving these problems reveals the depth of structural white supremacy that orients most fields of study. Blackness either becomes an illustration of a more general problem or is unthought. What would it mean to take this moment of methodological reorientation in political theological to also radically reorient it, rereading it, such that it can be thought as a heuristic in service of a radically black mode of inquiry? By this line of questioning, I simply mean to say, what would it mean to think from the underside of neoliberalism and its demonizing machinations? It is only through such thought that a clearer picture of neoliberalism’s operations emerge and, in so doing, we can recognize what is truly novel about it while resituating within the antiblack economy as a new conflict in white governance that continues the deadly effects of white governance for black people the world over.

Now that white people are subject to extensions of antiblack protocols of governance, many are beginning to wake up to the death-dealing of antiblackness and its carceral economy. This is not an “I told you so.” In some sense, since the invention of modern racial slavery and global antiblackness, it’s always been too late. The blackness of justice is that it is never timely but of its own time. This can be a lesson for us in becoming adequate to our own time, always living in the failure of being too late. Still, our lives depend on making something of that lateness, and Neoliberalism’s Demons provides an occasion for just that.

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:

A Note On the Concept of Neoliberalism

On Facebook today, Adam noted a strange issue that appears repeatedly in David Harvey’s Brief History of Neoliberalism. Harvey insists that financial bailouts, of the sort that would later follow the 2008 crash, contradict neoliberal theory despite the fact that these sorts of provisions are manifestly consistent with the work of a number of neoliberal theorists, given any reasonably charitable standards of interpretation. In other words, Harvey insists on a contradiction between neoliberal policy and neoliberal theory where none need be posited. The question that arises then is why? Adam raised the point that Harvey’s Marxism may be part of what’s in play here: squaring theory and policy isn’t crucial here because Harvey is beginning from the assumption that neoliberal theory can’t be more than a superstructural factor. I wonder, though, if there’s a more basic issue in play though, one that gets to the heart of some of the ambiguities in the concept of neoliberalism itself.

I’ve been thinking lately that there’s a fundamental semantic confusion in play with regard to the concept of neoliberalism. In recent theory, the term neoliberalism is often used in order to name not one, but at least three more-or-less distinct notions. First of all, it names [1] a set of theoretical positions in economic theory or political economy. In this sense, it is a position primarily associated with members of the Walter Lippmann colloquium, the Mont Pelerin society, and—most specifically—the ideas of Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, and Milton Friedman. Second, it can name [2] a policy orientation, and third [3] a generalized ‘situation’ or ‘dynamic’ in ‘late capitalist’ society. In the first two senses, we may refer to neoliberal ‘theories’ and neoliberal ‘policies’ or ‘movements;’ each of which are things that could be said to act ‘on,’ for instance, markets, societies, and institutions. Only in this third sense, however, does it make sense to specify ‘markets,’ ‘societies,’ and so on as themselves neoliberal.

Generally, it’s hard to talk about more than two of these at once without losing hold of neoliberalism as a name for anything specific, so a theorist is forced to pick. Harvey emphasizes [2] and [3], insofar as it’s policy (2) as a response to inherent contradictions in post-Fordist production (3) that drives neoliberalism. As a result, he can’t integrate [1] without losing resolution, but that causes the aforementioned slips. Other theorists make different choices of emphasis. Wendy Brown, e.g., really pushes [3] in Undoing the Demos and ties in [2] and [1] as loose subordinates. The concept, in other words, is tasked with pulling together such a wide variety of referents that it doesn’t seem to be able to support them all. Brown, in fact, recognizes the issue explicitly, calling the term’s expansion across difficult to connect spheres a “paradox.” (Undoing the Demos, 21) What Brown doesn’t do, however, and what I’m increasingly suspicious that we should do, is question this situation, and the pertinence of a catch-all concept like neoliberalism that has a tendency to expand to include new data rather than to specify. To use an Adam-ism: what do you think, readers?