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.

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 »

The Real Problem with the Clinton Foundation: It’s the neoliberalism, stupid!

I grow weary of the vague gestures about how the Clinton Foundation “raises questions” about Hillary Clinton and the influences she is subject to. It’s not that the concerns are unwarranted, though they often seem to be exaggerated — which of us would appear righteous if a hostile observer had access to our e-mail archives? The problem is that they miss the forest for the trees. What makes the Clinton Foundation appear potentially corrupt — its combination of state and financial interests in charitable projects — is not fixable by disproving any individual accusation of influence-peddling. The problem is the model of neoliberal governance that the Clinton Foundation embodies.

The Clintons are “reaching out” to various “stakeholders” to solve problems, without being overly fussy about the line between the public and private sectors or other traditional divisions of power. Secretary Clinton could prioritize donors at the State Department because her donors are the people who are contributing toward causes that she would pursue whether in or out of office. No matter what her official role is, she’s taking a classical neoliberal, ostensibly post-ideological, “problem-solving” approach that “leverages” all available resources.

We need to remember that Clintonian Democrats are meritocrats above all, which means that they trust that both traditional authoritative institutions and markets favor the “smartest” people. And in the neoliberal model, “smartness” is transferable, so that someone who made a fortune off of clever licensing models for a knock-off operating system is a natural fit for fixing education, for instance. Why wouldn’t you “reach out” to tech billionaires or accomplished financiers? Who else would you want at the table?

From the outside, it looks like corruption, but from the inside, it’s best practices. If you’re worried about the Clinton Foundation, you’re either really worried about neoliberalism or else you’re in bad faith.

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?

Academic strategery

The primary lecture I’m giving during my tour of the ends of the earth, “Neoliberalism’s Demons,” builds on my project in The Prince of This World. In that (still frustratingly forthcoming) book, I establish connections between key modern concepts and the theological problems that came to surround the devil, and in the various iterations of the lecture, I specify my claims further by connecting the most fully developed late-medieval theology of the devil with neoliberalism.

The interest this topic has generated made me ponder the possibility of trying to develop it into a short follow-up book. There are drawbacks to the idea, though. With a book-length treatment, even a relatively short one, I would probably have to wind up retreading a lot of the ground covered in The Prince of This World, and I’d also have to do a lot of “what is neoliberalism” exposition, which the academic world needs more of like it needs a hole in the head.

I’m now wondering if a journal article might be the more appropriate format. The idea may actually stand on its own more effectively as a shorter piece, while leading the inquisitive to The Prince of This World rather than replacing it in a dangerous supplement-type dynamic. It could even serve as the kind of thing that people could assign in classes, which would be helpful given that the book is probably not easily excerptable (or at least it doesn’t seem so to me). And best of all, I could finish it sooner, allowing me to maintain some momentum on my longer-term Trinity project rather than getting bogged down in the weeds of the vast and contentious literature on neoliberalism.

What do you think?

“Out of love — who could credit it? — out of love for the entrepreneur!”

Hillary Clinton’s ridiculous proposal to forgive student loans for certain entrepreneurs is ridiculous. It is also deeply revealing of the mainstream Democratic approach to policy — not just because it’s a classic Clinton-style micropolicy, but because it’s so individualistic. In the centrist worldview, the problem isn’t that entrepreneurs get outsize rewards. The problem is that potentially talented individuals don’t have the chance to compete for them on a level playing field. Student loans are both something that hold people back from entrepreneurship and something controlled by the federal government, so it’s “low-hanging fruit” for an innovation agenda.

If the Republicans are the party of inherited privilege — as shown by their most recent presidential candidates, all of whom have some combination of family money and political pedigree — the Democrats are the party of meritocratic privilege. They are the party of talented but disadvantaged people who gained access to opportunity and ran with it (cf. Bill Clinton, Barack Obama). Why do Democrats have such an affinity with Wall Street and Silicon Valley? Because they are, at least according to popular lore, the hotbed of meritocracy. Why do they place such emphasis on education as the sole possible lever of social justice? Because school is where merit rises to the top.

And why do they always suggest the most farcically small tweaks to the existing system? Because they believe in the system. The system is what allowed them to get ahead, and they know they deserve to get ahead. Maybe not everyone who deserves it gets ahead, and maybe — though this is a less urgent priority — not everyone who gets ahead deserves it, but broadly speaking, it’s a good system that promotes good people. When you’ve climbed the social ladder, the last thing you’re going to do is question the legitimacy of the ladder. The only thing you need to change is making sure more of those good individual people aren’t artificially held back from the first couple rungs.

One thing that definitely holds back individual striving is any form of collectivity. Union organization, systematic racial uplift, pulling entire communities out of poverty — that’s not on the agenda. If you are mired down in a poor urban neighborhood, the solution isn’t to make your neighborhood less poor, it’s to rig the education system so that the handful of talented people can figure out a way to get into the “best” school. This is why, for example, the current state of affairs could produce the first black president and still be such a rolling disaster for the black community. It’s not about building communities, it’s about giving people a chance to escape communities. It’s brain-drain as social justice.

Bregrets, I’ve had a few

Often, The Girlfriend and I are deadlocked on a decision where neither of us expresses a strong preference — for instance, which restaurant to go to. In those situations, we each pick a side and play rock-paper-scissors. Then, once the decision is “real,” we gauge how we actually feel about it and have the option to revise it.

The basic insight behind this method is that there is an unbridgable gap between the hypothetical and the real. We can’t really judge how we will feel about a choice, for instance, until we’ve actually made it and feel locked in. Merely entertaining the possibility does not predict our real reaction — in a weird way, in order to make an informed decision, we have to have already made it and know how it feels.

Hence I support the Brexit do-over referendum, on purely psychological grounds. The British public was clearly short-sighted in their decision because they were too focused on the — completely legitimate and justified — pleasure of defying the establishment and weren’t thinking about the longer-term consequences. In the cold light of day, they realize that the frisson of defiance is not worth it.

In short, now that UK voters know what the morning after actually feels like, they are finally in a position to make the decision for real. A second referendum would therefore be more legitimate than the original. Or to save time, Parliament could simply implement the policy that the public’s gut reaction to the Brexit vote clearly indicates.