Constructing a tradition

As most readers of this blog know, I teach at a school in the Great Books tradition. While Shimer is more liberal and open to contemporary sources than most schools in that tradition, our curriculum remains pretty firmly within the classics of the “Western tradition.” I think it’s fair to say that the current faculty are all pretty convinced of the need to add further diversity to our curriculum, though there are disagreements on how best to go about it. For classes with a modern focus, it’s a little easier, because there are more texts and other materials reflecting diverse gender, sexuality, race, class, etc., backgrounds available — “diversity” in the sense it is normally used in contemporary discussions. For classes with a pre-modern focus, the problem is often harder. Read the rest of this entry »

Some thoughts on Leshem’s Origins of Neoliberalism

Early this summer, I received an unsolicited review copy of Dotan Leshem’s Origins of Neoliberalism: Modeling the Economy from Jesus to Foucault — true proof of divine providence, given that I was working on a project connecting political theology to neoliberalism. It is a fascinating study of the concept of oikonomia, with its center of gravity in the era of classical orthodoxy (Nicea and Chalcedon).

Leshem hit on the idea of a genealogy of oikonomia around the same time as, but independently of, Agamben’s study in The Kingdom and the Glory. The book evinces a certain anxiety to differentiate itself from Agamben, which in my view sometimes leads to overhasty critiques. I prefer to view them less as competitive than as supplementary to each other. Agamben focuses on the formative moment of Christian economic thought (Pauline and proto-orthodox), whereas Leshem focuses on developments within established orthodoxy itself. When we add Mondzain’s account of the decisive role of economic thought in the iconoclastic controversy, we wind up with a fairly comprehensive view of the role of oikonomia in pre-modern Christian thought. This is not to downplay the very real differences between the authors’ approaches, of course — a truly comprehensive account has yet to be written, but it will need to start with the labors of these three.

I learned a great deal from Leshem’s study, which in many ways does a better job of following up in detail on Foucault’s suggestions about the role of Christian pastoral in forming modern subjectivity. He also deals much more closely with Arendt, who is claimed as a major source of the Homo Sacer series but mostly stays in the background. His study is based around the “human trinity” of economic, political, and philosophical, and the text is punctuated by helpful diagrams illustrating how this trinity keeps getting reconfigured over time. This provides clarity and orientation to a study that is not afraid to delve into the fine details of doctrinal and pastoral theology. What worries me about this approach is that it pitches Christian doctrine primarily as a development of Greek and Roman thought — as in Agamben, the Hebrew roots of Christian thought are comparatively neglected. I wonder whether that same “trinity” would apply to the Hebrew biblical tradition, and if not (which is my suspicion), how that might require us to reconceive the genealogy of oikonomia.

The weakest point of the book, in my view, is the title itself. The warrant for the book’s claim to establish “the origins of neoliberalism” is that Christian Orthodoxy establishes the dominance of the economy over the other hypostases of the human trinity and neoliberalism also forcefully asserts the dominance of the economy over other areas of life. The genealogical connections provided are even sketchier than in the appendix to The Kingdom and the Glory, and explicit discussions of neoliberalism are few and far between. The subtitle is misleading as well, given that the pre-Christian Greek concept of oikonomia is the real starting point, not Jesus (who is not a major figure in this book, given the absence of references to oikonomia in the Gospels).

I like to imagine Leshem’s book with a more accurate title. What it achieves is an important and formative contribution to the genealogy of oikonomia, one that places him into an emergent “canon” alongside Agamben and Mondzain. From this point forward, anyone investigating the place of economy in Christian theology will have to engage with Leshem’s work.

Against “the political”

Everyone knows that according to Aristotle, there is a sphere called “the political.” It is dependent upon but fully distinct from the economic, which is the realm of necessity and slavery. By contrast, the political represents the realm of freedom and full human dignity; it is the chief end of man. For all its faults, Aristotle’s account is taken as normative by a powerful line of political theory that runs up through Arendt and Wendy Brown, among many others.

Returning to Book 1 of the Politics in my class after engaging with a range of Greek texts (Homer, Aeschylus, Thucydides) and Nicole Loraux’s The Divided City, I am deeply, deeply skeptical. First of all, I am not sure why the idealized self-image of Athens needs to be normative for all future political thought — especially because Aristotle’s rosy picture of a peaceful, natural hierarchy presided over by free and equal men is obviously a sheer fantasy with almost no relation to the actual highly conflictual history of Athenian institutions.

Second, the teleology of the political serves to justify a whole laundry list of evils. It legitimates elitism, strict patriarchy, and slavery. It serves as a sign of Greek cultural superiority — because weirdly, this “natural” institutional structure has never managed to appear among the barbarians — and justifies imperialism. I understand why early modern political theory would latch onto this structure; it is less clear why a contemporary critical political theory would take it as normative.

Finally, Aristotle’s account empties the political of nearly all content. Division of labor, gender relations, economic exchange, and even some wars (against people who are “naturally slaves”) are not sites of political contestation for Aristotle — they have a “natural” form that serves as a support for the political. Aside from war, the only thing that really results from the profound dignity and freedom of the political is public displays and monuments to glorify the city. So the city is great because it grants 10-15% of the population the freedom to bring glory to the city. I’m unimpressed.

“The political” in Aristotle’s account is a classic empty master-signifier. It’s good because it’s good. It’s the goal of everything because he says so. And this connection becomes clearer when we compare Book 1 of the Politics to Pericles’ funeral oration — which is open propaganda, arguing that Athens is great because it provides us all with such amazing opportunities to contribute to its greatness. Was Athens really so great and unsurpassable, though? Is a slave society that kept its women trapped in the home, dominated over its neighbors, and wrote really cool plays really normative for all subsequent politics?

Neoliberalism’s Demons: A Lecture Transcript

[This represents the final version of the talk on the devil and neoliberalism that I gave at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and subsequently at various universities in Australia and New Zealand as well as the Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy. I have been reluctant to post the text because I am working on an article, but there have been so many requests that I have finally relented. Please do not cite without permission.]

This lecture represents a development of a project that I have been working on for many years – a reinterpretation of the devil from the perspective of political theology. Last year, I completed the first phase of the project, which took the form of a historical genealogy of the devil, tracing the development of the figure from his roots in the Hebrew Biblical tradition up to his decisive role in Western medieval Christianity.

My guiding thesis is that the devil is at once a theological and a political figure, because the God of the Hebrew Bible (and subsequently of Christianity) is at once a theological and a political figure. God is envisioned as the direct ruler of the Israelites – he ensures their survival, liberates them from slavery, hands down their legal code, and secures their territory for them. Everything that an earthly ruler does, he does. But over time, the biblical authors become more and more convinced that God is not merely the ruler of Israel, but in some sense the ruler of the entire world as well. And this means that his truest rivals are not the pagan gods – who are usually dismissed as laughably inadequate, mere statues made of wood and stone – but others who presume to rule in this world.

In the book, I argue that we are still in some sense living in a version of the “minority monotheism” that emerged in ancient Israel and that if we want to understand the relationship between medieval Christianity and secular modernity, the most productive lens is the set of political-theological problems that emerged around the figure of the devil. And now that my book has established that historical genealogy in broad terms, I want to narrow the focus and show how my thesis can help us understand the dynamics of neoliberalism as a particularly extreme and self-destructive manifestation of the modern secular political theological paradigm. Read the rest of this entry »

Reminder: God and Difference Book Event

A brief reminder that in late October/early November this year we’ll be hosting the next AUFS book event on Linn Tonstad’s recent book God and Difference: The Trinity, Sexuality and the Transformation of FinitudeLinn was recently appointed Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Yale Divinity School, and her book examines Christian accounts of the trinity through the lens of queer theory. Special thanks are due to Linn, who went above and beyond to make sure we could get copies of the book for all our participants. Be sure to get a copy of the book for yourself or order one through your local library so you can join us for what looks to be a great event, scheduled to run as follows:

Friday, October 21 – Introduction by Marika Rose

Monday, October 24 – Ashon Crawley

Wednesday, October 26 – Beatrice Marovich

Friday, October 28 – Adam Kotsko

Monday, October 31 – Robyn Henderson-Espinoza

Wednesday, November 2 – Anthony Paul Smith

Friday, November 4 – Response by Linn Tonstad

Worthy Opponents

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Jay Rosen has written a summary of the reasons that the traditional model of campaign reporting has broken down. The old approach envisioned the political process as involving “two similar parties with warring philosophies that compete for tactical advantage” — in other words, a struggle between two worthy opponents who recognized each other as such. Now that symmetry has broken down as Republicans increasingly view Democrats, along with the entire traditional field of battle (Constitutional constraints, journalistic balance), as fraudulent and illegitimate. To use Schmittian terminology that Rosen does not, the Republicans shifted from viewing the Democrats as enemies to viewing them as foes. Unfortunately, in Rosen’s view, journalists were too complacent about this process and wound up getting blindsided by Trump, who is the logical outgrowth of this asymmetrical dynamic.

I agree with Rosen’s overall analysis, and I would add that the Democrats in general, and Hillary Clinton in specific, also seem to be in denial about this dynamic. The Democrats have become the party, not of some specific ideological agenda, but of the traditional system as such. One of Obama’s major goals has been to rehabilitate the Republicans and force them to act as a worthy opponent rather than an implacable foe. This approach was naive and in many ways dangerous, as shown most vividly when Obama tried to “leverage” the Republicans’ unprecedented brinksmanship on the debt ceiling to engineer a “grand bargain” on the deficit, but it fits with the view that the system only works if there are two worthy opponents locked in an eternal struggle with no final victories. We can see something similar in Clinton’s controversial decision to treat Trump as an outlier rather than letting him tar the Republican brand as such. It works to her political disadvantage — showing that her centrist opportunism is weirdly principled in its own way — but from within her worldview, the most important thing is to restore the traditional balance of forces.

The situation we are in shows the intrinsic instability of party democracy. An eternal struggle between worthy opponents is not possible in practice. Eventually, one of the two teams is going to decide that they want to win in the strong sense, to defeat the opponent once and for all. And if that desire cannot be achieved immediately, it will inevitably lead to a long period where the old enemy is treated as a foe — as intrinsically evil and illegitimate. Within the American system, with its baroque structure of constraints and veto points, that will lead to a period where government is barely functional, because the natural tendency will be for the radicalized party to refuse to go along with the system until they have full control over it.

One possible outcome would be for the Democrats to recognize the Republicans as a foe and seek their final defeat, a crushing victory that delegitimizes the party entirely. Given the Republicans’ strangle-hold in many regions of the country, though, such a final defeat is not likely in the near term. Without something like the Republican party to channel these groups’ demands through the political system, the only alternative is an impotent frustration that can easily issue in violence, particularly in a gun-saturated culture like our own. From this perspective, we could see police shootings and mass shootings as the first signs of a fragmentary but intensifying push toward civil war.

What Hillary Clinton is offering us is one more chance to put a lid on it, kick the can on the road, and hope that the Republicans somehow get it out of their system and go back to being a “normal” party. Trump, by contrast, is pushing for a solution that we might characterize as more — final. The latter agenda is sure to be hugely destructive, not least because it is delusional. A final victory in the political sphere is impossible because the eternal struggle between worthy opponents is an attempt to intermediate and render survivable the implacable conflict at the heart of American society — a conflict that already resulted in one of the most destructive civil wars in world history.

The fundamental problems of America are not fixable via the traditional political system, which has only served to deny and yet paradoxically maintain the conflict that provides the subterranean energy necessary to keep the eternal struggle between worthy opponents going. Short of a total revolution and refounding of American society (or some number of societies to replace what we currently know as America), somehow rebooting the eternal struggle is probably the only option to prevent the outbreak of civil war and total collapse. Rarely have we been confronted so starkly with the choice between the katechon and the man of lawlessness in the voting booth.

And rarely has it been so uncertain whether the election of another would-be katechon will lead to the collapse or the intensification of the forces of chaos. In retrospect, it may have taken a once-in-a-generation political talent like Obama simply to manage to kick the can down the road. An uninspiring technocrat who has been the subject of a generation-long demonization campaign — who virtually embodies the image of the Democrats as foe for a critical mass of Republicans — may prove to be too fragile a reed to master the forces that have always been tearing America apart.

The ethics of voting

In the field of theology, one sometimes finds a job listing that requires the successful applicant to sign a statement of faith. I am most likely past the point of applying for such jobs, so it is safe for me to reveal that I have always maintained that, if confronted with such a statement of faith, I would sign it, literally no matter what it says.

There are several reasons for this. One is that if I were in that situation, it would not be a question of choosing between a job demanding a statement of faith and one without — I would only consider the former if it were my only option for continuing my academic career. Signing would increase my personal survivability and enable me to reach students who might desperately need an alternative perspective. As for the dishonesty involved, I regard the entire system of demanding a statement of faith from faculty members as deeply fraudulent. Signing it dishonestly shows the appropriate level of respect for their ham-handed attempt at uniformity of thought. Refusing to do so out of protest would actually grant the whole thing too much legitimacy.

It occurs to me that we could view voting under a bourgeois democracy similarly. We all know that the system is fraudulent at many levels. The most important and destructive policies are a bipartisan consensus, meaning there is no way to vote against them. All candidates are fake in the sense of being media phenomena, and they all represent a front for the power of moneyed interests. Yet there is a difference between the candidates, and in a big powerful system, a small difference can make a big difference. One choice really is more survivable than the other.

Refusing to vote out of principle or voting for a third-party candidate who supposedly reflects your “real” views grants the system too much legitimacy. It gives the impression that the system could and should give us a positively good option, when we know that it cannot and never wanted to. Holding your nose to vote for the less destructive class enemy is in a way as dishonest as signing the statement of faith, but as a gesture, voting cynically shows the appropriate level of respect for a corrupt system.