Some Thoughts on the Undeath of God in Markets

This post is inspired by Adam’s great scrib today.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this issue of how/why “we” let the market re/emerge as a new God, as well.  (Shameless self-promotion:  I’m writing a book on it called Politics of Divination:  Neoliberal Endgame and the Religion of Contingency that is coming out next year from Rowman and Littlefield, Intl.).  It’s important as I’m sure Adam and the other commentators on his post would agree that we remember that this “we” is not really global society, at all, but a handful of entitled bourgeoise potential “voters” living in relatively prosperous and overwhelmingly white Northern nations. It’s hard not to think of the “us” who have possibly “regressed” into taking God back in the form of markets as the particularly spoiled, anxious, neurotic recipients of the benefits of ongoing primitive accumulation, i.e. colonialism, slavery, and continued racial and sexist violence. But given the hegemony of their/our ideologues, perhaps I digress. For that particularly narrow “us,” I think there are a lot of different approaches to this question of regression that can be insightful (psychoanalytic, Nietzschean, Frankfurt School-inspired, political theological, etc.). All hands on deck. One really important reference here for me is Goodchild’s _Capitalism and Religion: The Price of Piety_ (which I think reads very interestingly alongside _The Kingdom and the Glory_). Goodchild poses the problem in terms of how to deal with the possibility or reality of an “immanent” God (i.e. money) as taking on all the traditional attributes of God, but precisely as Adam points out, now being purposeless, an end immanent to itself rather than for the sake of any transcendent ends, no matter how modest–i.e., I mean modest sorts of Kantian or Habermasian regulative ideals of order or communicability, let alone richer Aristotelian ones of good living).

Thanks in part to Cleo Kearns’ recent suggestions, lately I’ve been thinking about how much this kind of immanent God resonates with a “Gnostic” one (I use the term under quotes because I agree with Dan Barber that there really is no “Gonsticism” other than as a retroactive historical generalization over “gnosticisms” that can’t really be understood on their own terms other than as heresies of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, etc.). At any rate theorists of the “modern” era from Hans Blumenberg to Cyril O’Regan, and perhaps even Harold Bloom or more recently Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, should be included here) tend to think of so-called Western “modernity” (and maybe “secularism” or “the secular,” with apologies to APS and others working hard on this idea) as precisely this kind of -confusion- about what counts as providential and what counts as meaningless or arbitrary. If events are providential, they presumably have ends beyond themselves in terms of which they can be organized or made sense of. If events are arbitrary, they are chance or random, with no teleology worth speaking of. Modernity seems not to be so much a decision for chance over providence but some kind of confused mixture of the two discourses, some kind of partial or incomplete blend of pagan and monotheistic ideas, a confusion I think is further facilitated, at our conjuncture, in part by the development of sciences of probability and now information science and cybernetics in the context of evolutionary sociobiology.  In these “scientific” discourses there is all kinds of confusion about what randomness (or “noise”) really is and what role (productive or negative) it plays in a system (where systems are not supposed to be defined teleologically but only functionally).  I have a hunch that neoliberalism has been brilliant at using the confusions inherent to these discourses as they try to use scientific discourses to describe and justify market forces.

In view of this situation I’m trying to argue that part of the enduring appeal of neoliberalism post-2008 is not so much that we are actually –convinced– that there is no providence, that there are only markets, but something more sinister. If the markets really are God, then two different systems of thought can be combined in a double-speak worthy of George W. Bush himself. Rhetorics of destiny or fortune (inherently meaningful claims about why certain individuals or firms or families succeeded or failed) are continuously and bewilderingly combined with rhetorics of what was a random, non-rational, inherently arbitrary and meaningless process of change (because markets are, as for Hayek for example–when they are left to their “own” devices–supposed to be perfect transcriptions of sociobiological/evoultionary forces beyond our ken).

The political opportunity seized by neoliberalism is a peculiarly theological one, in the sense that many have argued that the entire so-called modern or so-called secular era can be defined (at least in part) by this continuously incomplete and failed yet continuously necessary (not sure why) attempt to replace theological discourses of providence with scientific or pseudo-scientific discourses of chance or randomness. I think that one way to cut this Gordian knot is to take a step back from the secular-modern self-definition as “other” than the non-modern or non-secular, in part by observing that (and this is only one potential strategy) non-modern cultures tend to ritually or performatively include invocations of chance within deliberative processes. The generic name of such processes that ritually evoke chance is “divination,” and divination is generically part of many social and political processes (to say nothing of religious ones), both in the pre-modern West as well as in global society, today.

In part because monotheistic and then secular-modern cultures are bent upon denying the divinations they actually practice (notice that many forms of divination persist in contemporary monotheistic cultures, such as Bibliomancy among evangelical Protestants), a structure of disavowal perverts our relationship to chance, or to what is called in more rationalistic and pseudo-scientific terms “risk” or more neutrally still, “contingency.” While I fully agree with Adam that the left has lost its nerve since mid-century (perhaps we could say, in US politics, since Johnson), and that the massive drift into right wing authoritarianism (which is what trust in markets ultimately amounts to) can be characterized as a kind of regression into adolescence and a failure to do the hard work of deliberation and assume the responsibility of finite understanding, I also think that the triumph of neoliberal ideologues at minimum preyed upon a certain weakness in leftist visions of the rationally-planned society. That weakness has something to do with the inability of what is called thinking or reasoning in the guise of planning or institutional development to be either responsive enough or flexible enough both to the peculiarities of suffering and also to the role of chance, games, and play in lived reality (human and non-human). This is a very complicated issue, I think, and one about which I have many more questions about than answers. I in no sense think that markets are “better” at dealing with complexity than are other forms of social/natural organization, let alone our “only” hope, as neoliberals have managed to convince us. But as Adam points out, we obviously wanted and still want to be convinced that the markets are our only (non)hope, our only (non)God, our only (non)Purpose, even in the face of patent failures (perpetual financial crises) and obviously catastrophic consequences of market allegiance (why did it take Pope Francis to point out that climate change is primarily a moral and political problem, not a strictly speaking “ecological” one?).

There are many, many reasons, including good “traditional Marxist” ones about how we arrived at the particular appeal of neoliberal market fundamentalism. That is to say it is perfectly helpful to look at our “regression” away from the difficult task of collective planning as in part an effect of the self-development of capital into its post-Fordist guise, and the contingent rise of finance capital (as opposed to industrial or labor or land capital) as dominant and hegemonic. But a truly immanent critique has to go beyond Marx and question, as Adam does in his post, why “we” remain so attached to a system (markets markets markets) that is obviously destroying the conditions of life on earth, as such. I think it has something to do, in a very strange and perverse and archaic way, with a proclivity to approach the meaning of even catastrophic events (wars, acts of terrorism, natural disasters all included) from the point of view, “Gnostic” or otherwise, that there is some game being played with reality by indifferent and/or hostile gods, and that they key is to attain to a “speculative” perspective as a way of identifying (vicariously) with such a God, or at least perversely justifying its ways to suffering humanity (what used to be called theology and is now called economics).

Why the rest of “us”—who are neither Bill Gates nor Milton Friedman—are so into this is something I am trying to explain in part by how there truly is a game-like or playful relation to chance implicated in everyday life for any creature (Nietzsche actually has some surprisingly humane and beautiful things to say about this in The Gay Science). What the Masters of the Universe perhaps have managed to convince us is that “we are all the same,” in the sense that we are convinced that we are all playing the same game, when in fact we are not.  We are convinced that we are all in this together, that just as we are going about divining the meaning of the everyday twists and turns of chance and contingency in our lives, so too “they,” our masters, are doing this on/for/in place of the pseudo-providential God (what Philip Mirowski calls the “meta-information processor”) of the Market. At this point I think we have to adopt the strategy of “delinking” Ken Surin and others suggest, beginning with the recognition that no, the meta-games of the markets and meta-markets is obviously NOT the playful and interpretive and contestable and revisable process of making meaning that actual living organisms engage in, and NO, Wall Street traders are not subject to the same motivations, fears, and anxieties as ordinary folks on Main Street (one of the best right wing tricks is to remind us that rich folks are human, just like us, too).  As Goodchild argues persuasively in _Theology of Money_, the perspective of the speculator and the householder on money are not different in degree but different in kind.

Markets are not at all what they appear to be. It is questionable whether a “free” market has ever existed, outside the highly arbitrary construct of the massively endowed and state-protected zone of speculative finance, where there are no real consequences for the so-called players and nothing but debt for the rest of us, who continue, for many reasons, to allow ourselves to be the stakes and the ritual sacrifices in this disavowed divination process with no other question raised for the oracle other than “how does someone = x profit from the next catastrophic change”? Or more precisely, “even though this catastrophe will consume us all, what seat on the Titanic will give me the right to describe exactly how we all would have profited from its sinking, if only we had believed it was truly fated to be?”   I can’t really formulate how perverse our thinking is, here.  But I’m sure you all can help me out.

On Dropping Dead

I’ve been reading a lot of medieval history recently in preparation to teach about medieval Christian Europe this term. What’s mostly struck me so far is how depressingly familiar it seems. There are whole books to be written (perhaps there already have been) about the continuities between the medieval invention of heretics and witches in order that they might be persecuted and the contemporary War on Terror; about the commonalities between the much-feared figure of the wandering Jews, rootless in society because society uprooted them and the contemporary figure of the migrant; about the many and various ways in which the European past is not nearly such a foreign country as we’d like to believe.

One way, though, that things really do seem to have changed between then and now is the role of death in shaping the course of historical events. One of the books I’ve been reading is F. Donald Logan’s “A History of the Church in the Middle Ages”, and at times it seems like it’s basically an account of the ways in which history was formed by the fact that somebody – sometimes several people – died at a crucial moment.

For example, in 867 there was almost a schism between the Eastern and Western Churches: the Western Pope Nicholas I and the Eastern Patriarch Photius had both excommunicated one another, which seems like it would be a fatal blow to Christian unity. But then the Byzantine emperor was assassinated, and the new emperor deposed Photius; even more crucially, Pope Nicholas died before he found out either that he’d been condemned by Photius or that the emperor was dead; and so the split didn’t finally happen for another couple of centuries.

Not long afterwards, Pope Formosus got, ahem, encouraged by the local nobility to recrown the local Duke Wido as emperor, and his son as co-emperor along with him. Formosus tried to relieve some of the political pressure that was being brought to bear on him by inviting Arnulf, the Carolingian king, to invade Italy, but Arnulf got ill and had to go home, then Wido died, leaving the empire officially in the hands of his son but in practice in the hands of his former wife. She tried to defend herself from Arnulf’s second attempt at an invasion, but failed. So Formosus crowned Arnulf the new Roman Emperor, except then Arnulf died on his way home; and then Formosus died (and then, just for fun, a subsequent pope dug up his decaying body, put it on trial, defrocked it, threw it in a common grave, where it was dug up by grave robbers, then thrown in the river Tiber, which flooded, subsequent to which the body ended up back on land, was secretly buried, then exhumed by a subsequent pope who dug it up again, re-robed it, and put it back in its original tomb. For some reason, there were no more popes called Formosus): all of his scheming with Arnulf came to nothing.

In 1046 Henry III marched on Rome to instigate papal reform, kicked out three popes who were arguing over who was the real pope, and installed a new pope – Benedict IX – to transform the papacy. This pope just about managed to crown Henry emperor, but died after ten months; and then the next pope, Damasus II, died after twenty-three days in office; only with the third pope, Leo IX, did anything much get done.

In 1439, the Eastern and Western churches came within a whisker of reunification: they’d managed to resolve all of their major disputes (the solution to the problem of the filioque, charmingly, was that each side got their formulae from their saints, and that saints couldn’t possibly be propagating contradictory formulae, so the two sides must in fact be saying exactly the same thing just in different words; ain’t patristic authority a marvellous thing?). Anyway, they’d gotten so close to agreement and reunion that they declared a civic holiday, had a massive party, sat important people on massive thrones and read a bull of union. Everyone started to fall into line; except that then King Albert, the king of Germany died all of a sudden, leading to a struggle over who would succeed him. The pope had promised, as part of the reunification negotiations, to send some military aid to help the Greeks fight the Turks, but the wrangling in Germany meant he couldn’t do that. Then, when the Greek delegation got home, they discovered that Emperor John VIII’s wife had died while they were away, and the emperor spent six months in such deep mourning that he lost the opportunity to enforce the new union of the church. And so the consensus fell apart and the Eastern and Western churches remain disunited.

I can’t think of any contemporary parallels, where the course of history has been shaped by people just …dying, all of a sudden, out of nowhere, without being assassinated (I’m probably missing some and look forward to you correcting me in the comments). Where death plays a different role for us, perhaps, is in those regimes held together around a single figure who lives far longer than anyone expected them too, in the midst of slowly declining health: the papacy of John Paul II, Cuba under Castro, Venezuela under Chavez. Medieval death happens with a bang; ours, with a whimper.

We don’t need a Bitcoin of the left

I’m given to understand that some technophilic strains of the left believe that Bitcoin is a liberatory technology, because it frees currency from the control of state and corporate interests. However, the price of this liberation, as far as I understand, is that effectively no one controls Bitcoin as a currency. Now that the algorithm has been set running, the supply of Bitcoin will expand based solely on user interest, until it ultimately hits an arbitrary limit. This means that as a currency, it will be subject to massive and permanent deflation once it reaches the limit, and in the meantime there is no way for anyone to manage the supply of Bitcoin or its value relative to other currencies. And of course, people are expending a huge amount of electricity “mining” Bitcoin.

In my opinion, fiat currency is far preferable. Yes, it is currently a tool of the big banks — but it’s also the most powerful and elegant tool of economic management ever devised. Even if one doesn’t go as far as Modern Monetary Theory‘s claims about its potential as a liberatory technology, in the postwar era fiat currency was in fact used in a broadly pro-worker way in Western countries. It’s being used to neoliberal ends now, but so is everything else.

And so, though I understand the distrust of actual-existing monetary authorities, I don’t think that humanity needs yet another way to surrender our collective decision-making responsibility to an impersonal economic mechanism. Working toward a People’s Central Bank — or, failing that, pushing for reform of existing central banking systems — is a much more promising venue than Bitcoin advocacy.

An implicit dialogue with Hegel in Heidegger’s Origin of the Work of Art?

van Gogh - Pair of Shoes (1886b)

I’ve been working through Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit in painstaking detail in a tutorial with a very motivated and long-suffering student this semester. This week, I started Heidegger’s Origin of the Work of Art in another class, and I was struck by a close correspondence between the three faulty conceptions of the thing (substance/accident, object of sense-perception, and formed matter) and the first three steps in Hegel’s section on “Consciousness” (sense-certainty, perception [which amounts to substance/accident], and matter subject to forces). They come in a different order, but basically the same three views are in play. The divergent sequence could be meaningful — since Heidegger views Aristotle as expressing the most originary Greek experience of thinghood, while according to Hyppolite Hegel is thinking of the pre-Socratics in the sense-certainty section — or it may not be that significant given that they both issue in a similar third step.

And then both of them further open out into the inter-human world: the peasant woman with her shoes, the master and slave with the various objects of use and labor, etc. It’s interesting that for Heidegger the conflict is not between human beings, but between the human world and the earth that resists our efforts to establish that world — and yet there is conflict all the same.

Other random reflections: Hegel is trying to move forward to a more fully-articulated view while Heidegger is trying to clear our preconditions to get to a more originary experience of Being — and yet both are fundamentally proceeding by way of explicating the necessity of mistakes on the way to the “correct” view. Heidegger had done his seminar on the Phenomenology several years prior, so there’s not necessarily a philological “smoking gun” here.

I’ll have to give this more thought as we work through the remaining two sections of Heidegger’s essay over the course of this week. Meanwhile, I invite you to chime in with your profound thoughts.

New Book Review: Two Books on the Devil

I have a piece up at Marginalia Review of Books on two recent books about the devil.

Ask me anything!

Earlier today, I participated in a Reddit Ask Me Anything. Thank you to the moderators of /r/RadicalChristianity for the invitation and everyone for the questions — and if there are any stragglers, I may still be able to squeeze out an answer or two.

Car culture will kill us all

This afternoon, I dropped The Girlfriend off at the airport. For the first time in close to ten years for either of us, we now own a car — the last leftover of her brief move to Minneapolis, the land of 10,000 expressways. Neither of us wants it, but getting rid of it would require taking a significant financial loss after a year with a lot of unexpected expenses (the dog’s surgery, moving to Minneapolis, then having to break leases and move back, etc.). And so we keep it around, taking day trips to state parks and out-of-the-way brewpubs to justify it.

I’ve always had a strange relationship to car culture, because I grew up in a genuine small town where one really could meet most basic needs by walking. My mom, aunt, and grandma owned a furniture store that was initially located across the main road and then literally on the same block as our house. We were used to walking around the little downtown, walking over to the convenience store, the ice cream shop, the comic book shop. I walked to school up through 8th grade, during more or less any weather.

The experience of being dependent on a car was the experience of being trapped. Reportedly the Holy Spirit prompted my parents to spurn the church within walking distance and opt for another one a thirty minute drive away — it must have been part of God’s plan for me to wile away endless hours wandering around the church during choir practice or the seemingly unlimited number of other activities that occupied our family there. Obviously as a teenager I wanted to have my own car, just to gain some kind of control over my fate: when I could see my friends, when I could have time to myself at home instead of waiting around indefinitely….

Once I got the lay of the land in Chicago, though, getting rid of my car became a positive goal. This despite the fact that it was objectively pretty inconvenient for me to commute at all hours from Hyde Park all the way to the north side. For me, access to reliable public transit was true freedom, while owning a car seemed burdensome and unnecessary. I even grew to hate getting rides from people — the endless waiting around for them to actually leave, the “let me move the stuff out of the back seat” (how the hell did you accumulate so much stuff in the back seat?!)…. If I had to wait either way, much better to wait for the bus so that I could at least read rather than make inane small talk.

And now, whenever I drive anywhere, there’s this voice in the back of my mind saying that none of this should have happened. All these expressways should be thriving neighborhoods, all these four-lane highways should be train lines, and every suburban-style development with its detached houses and stripmalls should be an open field. All of it, all of it is wrong. We need to tear out and start new to have any hope.

That’s not going to happen, though, is it? Not only because the obscene wealth inequalities in our society mean that the rich can endlessly bid up the price of the few rationally planned communities in the United States, but because car culture — like gun culture, like the carceral state — has popular legitimacy. Places like Russia and China were able to tear out and start new in the 20th century because people there desperately wanted and needed a change. They were profoundly aware of the inadequacies of their present systems and were, at the end of the day, game for a hugely risky totalitarian project.

In the end, of course, Russia wound up with something not unlike what we in the United States currently enjoy: a declining empire with a rudderless and hugely costly foreign policy, an overactive repressive apparatus, a chronic overinvestment in unsustainable economic infrastructure, and a reliance on imports to meet basic consumer demand. And up to the very end, it enjoyed popular legitimacy. It might have collapsed under its own weight eventually, but in point of fact it collapsed because the elites who had been formed by the cynicism and brutality of their system decided it was time to cash out. That collapse may have been more graceful than the other realistic alternatives — the counterexample of Yugoslavia leaps to mind — but the result was that things got much worse for most people and largely stayed worse.

Meanwhile, the greatest minds of our generation are making billions by making it easier to call a cab — or, more to the point, desperately trying to make ends meet by driving those cabs. And hardly a day goes by without an exciting new pipe dream about driverless cars. Because that’s the answer: more and better cars. Oh, and maybe a light-rail development to help attract tourists to the gentrified part of town.


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