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.

On Agamben and Mondzain

I have been rereading Mondzain’s Image, Icon, and Economy lately, and the topic of the relationship between this book and Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory came to mind. I already wrote several years ago about how I thought that Mondzain accomplished a tighter articulation between economy and spectacle than Agamben — indeed, her work is more tightly articulated in general, which is unsurprising given the bagginess of K&G.

Over the years, I have noticed that people who discover Mondzain often draw the conclusion that Agamben ripped her off in some way, or downplayed her influence on his work. Returning to the work after spending several years pondering over K&G, I have to say that such accusations are based on a very superficial comparison. Both talk about the concept of economy, both tie it to images or the spectacle, and both gesture at a connection with modernity. Sometimes they also seem to say similar things about economy.

But their approaches are totally different. Mondzain focuses on the iconoclastic controversy, and her entire presentation of the history of oikonomia is aimed at showing that the notion of economy demanded a consideration of the image. Agamben only turns to the question of the spectacle in the chapter on angelology, where he explicitly leaves behind economy to focus on glory separately; in his previous exposition on economy, there is no indication of a central role for the image, visibility, etc. Her center of gravity is the Byzantine period, his is the early patristics. The whole question of the reversal of “economy of the mystery” into “mystery of the economy” — which is so central to Agamben’s argument — is completely absent in Mondzain, who is comfortable attributing the notion of economy as providential plan directly to Paul.

Some of their patristic points of reference are the same, but even within this realm, they are drawing on substantially different archives, because Agamben privileges “theoretical” texts instead of the sermons and other rhetorical performances that Mondzain discusses at length. Coming at it from another angle, Mondzain strongly emphasizes the systematicity of Christian economic thought, while Agamben focuses on the non-conceptual nature of economic thought and even coins the notion of the “signature” to provide some means of tracing its effects. Agamben winds up moving through the Latin West, which is totally irrelevant to Mondzain’s project, and of course his whole argument is framed with the debate between Schmitt and Peterson, which Mondzain does not remotely mention.

The most likely explanation of the lack of explicit attention to Mondzain’s book is that he noted it was a specialized work on the iconoclastic controversy — which, you know, it is — and didn’t pay close attention to it. Such a choice seems defensible given that there is little evidence of the iconoclastic controversy having much impact on Western Christian thought, which he justifiably takes to be more relevant for modernity. Indeed, most scholars I have read seem to agree that there was almost no one in the West at this time who was intellectually equipped to even understand the iconoclastic debate.

You can definitely make the point that Agamben should have engaged more with Mondzain’s work, but the idea that he is somehow plagiarizing her or downplaying her influence is inflammatory and unfair. When he draws on a scholar, he is not shy about it — why would she be singled out for this treatment when he is quite happy to base half of Stasis directly on a reading of an essay by Nicole Loraux, for example?

In conclusion, to the extent that the books sometimes sound similar, it’s because they’re on similar topics — but within that framework, the differences are much more pronounced in my view.

Political theology, theological politics, and theo-political logic

I have been reading Wendy Brown’s Walled States, Waning Sovereignty in preparation for the next meeting of the Interccect reading group and wanted to jot down a few thoughts.

Why are modern political concepts supposed to be secularized theological concepts? That is to say, why is the theological supposed to be more originary? Doesn’t it seem obvious that the notion of divine sovereignty only arose after the notion of the ruler’s sovereignty — and perhaps, in some settings, as a challenge to that sovereignty?

The Jewish notion of a single God sovereign over the whole world, who manipulates empires and chooses as his own people precisely that nation that is in no position to rule anyone, certainly seems like a protest against worldly sovereignty, or an attempt to “detach” its theological appendage and turn it against that sovereignty. The same would then be true of the early Christian movement — and not only the early movement, as the Eastern Church’s attempt to maintain the power of icons against an “iconoclastic” emperor who actually wanted to keep the power of icons to himself demonstrates. (See Mondzain’s much-discussed-here book for information on that.)

Modern sovereignty’s “theological roots” would then be a particularly forceful, and manifestly successful, attempt to reclaim the conceptual apparatus that theology had artificially autonomized.

In Derrida’s Gift of Death, he outlines the common Christian strategy that I would call “displacement” — in his case, the displacement of the logic of debt into heaven so as to clear a space for a different type of practice on earth. One could also say that Christianity displaces sovereignty into the heavenly realm, which is why, as Agamben argues in The Kingdom and the Glory, the doctrine of providence could serve as a kind of laboratory for developing what would turn out to be the conceptual apparatus of governance.

Both cases show the limitation of this strategy: no matter how successful it is in opening up a provisional space to do otherwise, it still valorizes what it’s displacing. A simpler example: claiming that human property claims are invalid because God actually owns everything only displaces the concept of property, it doesn’t discredit or reject it. Ownership isn’t problematic in itself — it’s just that we’re falsely claiming what God rightfully owns.

It’s God as the “constitutive exception,” founding our (purportedly) moral behavior through exercising all the rights we supposedly should not. One of the major goals of my theological work is to figure out a way to get rid of this logic of displacement and the constitutive exception.

Mondzain and Agamben

I am about halfway through Marie-José Mondzain’s Image, Icon, Economy, initially brought to my attention by J. Kameron Carter’s post about it. Already it is clear that one of the primary objections made in comments to Halden’s post responding to Carter (which, to be fair, does seem to have been motivated primarily by contrarianism about icons, leading others to be defensive) is easily disproven — commenters remarked that it was an emperor who first embraced iconoclasm, meaning the link between icon and empire is questionable, but Mondzain is clear throughout that the emperor’s purpose was to reserve the power of the icon solely for the empire and deprive the church of that power. At the same time he was destroying religious icons, he was putting out plenty of imperial icons.

That’s not my main point in writing this post, though — what I’d like to discuss is the potential connection between Mondzain’s book and Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory (which I have studied closely). The overlap between the two is considerable, but it seems to me that Mondzain achieves, in a much shorter work, what Agamben struggles to articulate, namely the relationship between “kingdom” (or rule) and “glory” (or spectacle). Read the rest of this entry »