2 Trump 2 Neoliberalism

At New APPS, Gordon Hull has a good response to my post on Trump and neoliberalism, where he argues that Trump can be construed as broadly neoliberal due to his emphasis on branding and competition. There is nothing in the post that I would strongly dispute, and I think that in part it’s a terminological question. Certainly I wouldn’t claim that Trumpism is intellectually robust enough to constitute a radical break with the logic of neoliberalism, so I can understand calling him a mutation rather than something else. When I said that Trump personally isn’t neoliberal, I meant that he’s basically too ignorant to be a principled, self-conscious neoliberal, which does not exclude him being shaped by neoliberalism in the ways Hull lists.

As I ponder Trump’s infrastructure plan, which Krugman critiqued yesterday, I think that we could say that Trumpism is where neoliberalism shades over into open corruption. It always looks like corruption, but Trump’s vision takes the “public-private partnership” to a new level in terms of supporing rent-extraction by wealthy capitalists. That makes sense once you realize that Trump is basically nothing but a corrupt property developer, and if Trumpism’s corruption produces a public outcry while (as is likely) failing to deliver the promised economic boom, that does increase the likelihood of a return to “normal” neoliberalism if no serious left option is on the table.

The problem, as I see it, is that at a conceptual level, all the options for managing capitalism have been done. Whether we’re talking about Keynesianism, neoliberalism, or outright “crony capitalism” — which were all conveniently personified in this election by Sanders, Clinton, and Trump, respectively — all of them are models that presume that capitalist accumulation will be taking place and use specific strategies to promote it while redirecting the proceeds in some way. Capitalist accumulation is a very powerful engine for creating material plenty and technological progress, but we are increasingly reaching the point of diminishing returns when it comes to just letting the thing run and using its leftovers for socially important goals. The undiscovered country is a model that would actually direct production, that would determine that certain things need to happen regardless of whether surplus value can be extracted from them.

Trump and neoliberalism

In Australia and New Zealand, I was often asked after my lectures whether I thought Trump was a neoliberal. I answered that since neoliberalism is a specific set of ideas, it was unlikely to be within Trump’s grasp. Then, on a more serious note, I said that I really don’t think he is neoliberal and that I would actually prefer standard neoliberalism to Trump. Indeed, that preference guided my vote for Hillary Clinton, the virtual incarnation of neoliberalism, over Trump.

If we grant for the moment that Trump is not neoliberal, how does the Trump phenomenon stand in relationship to neoliberalism? The most common narrative seems to be that neoliberalism atomizes the social body, leading to a right-wing explosion of nationalism or other revanchist forms of social identification. In this narrative, the right-wing reaction is somehow external to neoliberalism — it just so happens that these national or racial identities persist from previous eras, as it were — but necessarily entailed as a predictable backlash. This narrative strikes me as a variation on the well-known theory that racial and national identities are extrinsic “distractions” from the reality of economic exploitation.

I don’t find that narrative very satisfying as an answer. Read the rest of this entry »

Obamacare Wasn’t Worth It

In 2009, Obama entered office with an unmistakable mandate and control of both houses of Congress — including a rare fillibuster-proof majority in the Senate — and the Democrats wasted it. They pushed through a stimulus package that barely offset the cuts in government spending at the state and municipal level, providing line-item veto power to a small rump of centrist Republican senators in exchange for bipartisan “cover.” And most of the rest of their “political capital” was spent on a Republican health care plan that the Republicans immediately demonized them for. Obama was determined that it be “deficit-neutral” over a ten-year period, and the conditions of its passage (using the reconciliation process, which was only necessary because of the Democratic majority’s foolish refusal to abolish the fillibuster) absolutely necessitated it.

This meant that most of its provisions wouldn’t even go into effect until four years later, so that the Democrats literally could not point to a single concrete benefit to a law that sounded… pretty bad. Yes, the Republicans exaggerated, as is their habit, but this was hyperbole that centered on an unavoidable truth about Obamacare: Americans would be forced by the government to give their money to some of the most hated and distrusted corporations on earth, whose continued profitability is taken as axiomatic under the terms of the health care reform law. Obamacare does a lot of good things other than that, and the insurance mandate has in fact decreased the number of uninsured — but the central premise of the law is one that is deeply offensive.

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.

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?