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.

Cameron’s Christianity

This week David Cameron ventured into the realm of political theology, boldly speaking up for ‘the values on which our nation was built’ – that is, ‘the values of Easter and the Christian religion – compassion, forgiveness, kindness, hard work and responsibility’. The Guardian were quick to object, with both an editorial in which we were informed that Christianity’s distinctive contribution to the world was, actually, ‘the extraordinary idea that people have worth in themselves, regardless of their usefulness to others, regardless even of their moral qualities’; and with a piece by Giles Fraser which argued that ‘Christianity, properly understood, is a religion of losers’, and that the real meaning of Easter is that ‘failure is redeemed’.

But however much we might dislike Cameron’s Christianity, we can’t simply reject it in the name of some more authentic form of Christianity, of ‘Christianity, properly understood’, of what Jesus really meant, if only we could learn to focus on the right verses, read in the right way. What Christianity really is is also what it actually means and does in the world today, what people who call themselves Christians think and do.

And In that sense, Cameron is absolutely right: Christianity is about respectability, hard work, ‘decency’; it is about white middle class values. The Protestant work ethic, the cleanliness that is next to godliness, the respectability politics of compulsory heterosexuality and all those ‘real and necessary’ values that have been weaponised so effectively by the West as it has pursued racist, genocidal, and colonialist policies around the world are precisely a Christian invention, whatever the elusive historical Jesus might have made of them.

Christianity is the things Cameron represents because that’s what it is for many, perhaps most, British people who call themselves Christians. 70% of British people call themselves Christians even though most of them never attend church services, because for many of us ‘Christian’ has come to mean ‘white British’. The language of the far right in Europe is increasingly moving away from that old appeal to securing a future for white children and towards the mainstream political discourse – eagerly endorsed by popes and archbishops alike – of defending Europe’s Christian heritage. Remember Anders Breivik? Whatever Christianity was, or should be, or could be; however multiple it is, however contested its terms, it is now also a metonym for white supremacist patriarchy. We need to confront that.

Welcome to my Crisis; or, Marx, Labour and Religion

After my father died, a couple of years ago, we had a fairly standard Anglican funeral for him in our local church. One of the things that struck me was how little the words spoken and the symbols affected me. No, I’m not pretending to be The Outsider. There was plenty of mixed up grief on show. But I did wonder if the traditional formulae about the resurrection – not to mention the eulogy’s equally traditional standard Anglican vague hope for ‘something’ beyond death – would either console me or get me angry. In fact, they did neither. They just passed me by.

Fast forward to a week or so ago, and I found myself, probably for the first time since that day, robed in an alb and stole, a guest preacher at an Anglican service. I’ve been involved in (some might say, clinging on to) a liberal church near the centre of Liverpool for some time. But my own church has no sermons, and, though I have occasionally presided at communion, I’ve been able to almost forget (or deny) that I am, in fact, an ordained priest.

Now, some small events have brought the memory of my father’s funeral back, right at the time I publicly step into an ordained role, however briefly. And it leaves me wondering: what the hell am I doing?

I hope readers will forgive the personal nature of how this post begins. I am really not trying to privilege my own, very limited experience. But my existential question is inseparable for me from things that obsess me academically too. When providence has died, when consolation in transcendence has cooled, what do we do with religion?

It was in this context that I was struck by remarks made by Richard Seymour, the Marxist writer, in a Facebook thread discussing his blog post on the niqab. Someone brought up Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach, and Seymour replied:

‘Let me see: religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the spirit of spiritless conditions; it is the opiate of the masses. This seems to me to be, not the end of analysis but a good starting point for a materialist approach to religion. And if I start from a materialist approach, I have to look into religion not as a set of texts or static interpretations, but as a body of practices wherein people craft meanings and labour over ideas to make them adequate to their real life. Most religious people, I am willing to bet, are not devotees of scripture; they have a lived theology that is acquired from sermons, selective readings of this or that text, and wrought into some form that gives them a lived relationship to their social world. But even those who are devotees of scripture are engaged in an act of interpretation and labouring over meanings. The texts themselves are too indeterminate to provide a ‘true’ interpretation. (Notably, the only people who strongly believe otherwise are ‘fundamentalists’ and Islamophobes.)’

I also think this is a really promising ‘starting point’ for a materialist, but non-reductionist approach to religion: as a way of labouring over meaning, faced with the finitude of our flesh and blood condition. It is why – despite sharing much in common with Seymour’s outlook (we are both members of a socialist network which broke with the Trotskyite Socialist Workers’ Party over the latter’s cover-up of rape allegations against a leading member, but that’s another story!) – I still practice within a religious tradition. No doubt many Marxists and others would find this self-deluded or nostalgic, but I disagree.

As Adam’s post argued, Marxism need not be an economic determinism, but an attempt to open up radically different choices than those dictated by the logic of scarcity. Those choices will always have a taint of madness, of running up against limits and inventing ways forward. In that sense, I don’t think the way Derrida opened up the spectral nature of Marxism – and its implicit messianicity and religiosity – has ever adequately been addressed. At the time, it resulted in some pretty stupid reactions by academic Marxists, and a rather barbed response from Derrida. Renewing that conversation might help us avoid some of the soul-deadening technocracy or banal empiricist attachment to the one ‘truth’ which many churches and socialist groups are partial to.

No, I am not saying ‘Marxism is a religion’, which would be another boring reductionism. Rather, that thinking Marxism and religion together – and, for some of us, practising them together – might be a way of exploring, beyond consolation, what grace bodies can invent.

On having never been done with fanaticism: Book Review of Alberto Toscano’s Fanaticism

Alberto Toscano’s recent Fanaticism: On the Uses of an Idea is the culmination of research into the philosophical uses of the idea of fanaticism throughout various political philosophies of history. It develops what could be thought of as a critical philosophy of religion, one that turns the usual modern constellation of politics and religion on its head by investigating the form this thought takes itself. The project is not merely critical though, but aims to explicate a kind of “emancipatory core” at the heart of fanaticism, one that suggests, for those who take the axiom of equality seriously, that think a better world is possible for everyone, we should be distrustful of those discourses of anti-totalitarianism that have mutated in our contemporary age into anti-Islamic discourses. Continue reading “On having never been done with fanaticism: Book Review of Alberto Toscano’s Fanaticism