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 »

Special Issue of Religions

I have a new article out in a special edition of Religions edited by Michael Thate and Douglas Davies, on the theme Religion and the Individual: Belief, Practice, and Identity. My article, ‘It’s Not the Money but the Love of Money That Is the Root of All Evil’: Social Subjection, Machinic Enslavement and the Limits of Anglican Social Theology reads some recent attempts to articulate a distinctively Anglican/Church of England Social Theology through Lazzarato’s discussion of the role of Christianity in shaping capitalist subjectivities. The issue as a whole looks great, and the journal is open access so all the articles are free to read or download.

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From medieval to modern in political theology

One of the preoccupations of political theology is the relationship between medieval Christianity and secular modernity.

The first question to ask is whether they are continuous with each other. For some theorists, there is no continuity — the entry into modernity is a qualitative break. Modernity is just its own thing and shouldn’t be judged in terms of the Christian heritage that preceded it. As far as I understand, Blumenberg is probably the most prominent advocate of this view.

If we decide that medieval Christianity and secular modernity are continuous in a serious way, the question then becomes whether modernity is a good thing. If we answer yes, then we have two options for how to view Christianity. The first is to say that Christianity was bad and we’re glad modernity has overcome it. To the extent that modernity retains Christian elements, they need to be purged to the extent possible. This tendency is arguably the hegemonic one in the field today. The second is to say that since modernity is good, the Christianity that in some sense led to it must have been good as well. Here we might think of Hegel or the “heroic era” of Liberal Protestantism (Harnack, Ritschl, etc.).

If we answer that no, modernity is not a good thing, then we similarly have two choices. The first is to claim that Christianity was good and it was a bad idea to deviate from it. We could associate this view with Radical Orthodoxy and arguably with Schmitt. The second is to claim that Christianity was also bad, and hence it was only natural that it would lead to something as bad as modernity. This is the position of Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, as well as Nietzsche, Foucault, and probably Heidegger and Agamben, too.

Any guesses as to which tendency best describes my work?

Political analogies for the Trinity

I’m reading David Potter’s Constantine the Emperor, partly just for my own edification but partly as “deep background” for the Trinity project I’m beginning to think about considering planning. The first third of the book is devoted to the state of the Roman Empire in the decades preceding Constantine’s rise to power (indeed, Constantine barely manages a handful of cameo appearances within the first 100 pages). One striking feature of Diocletian’s reign is the use of power-sharing as a way of managing the sprawling Empire. Eventually Diocletian had a co-emperor to whom he was formally equal (both being titled Augustus), then two sub-emperors who also shared power (termed Caesars). Diocletian still maintained a certain primacy over his fellow Augustus, but he was at great pains ideologically to assert that power was not divided, but shared among the four.

In “Monotheism as a Political Problem,” Erik Peterson famously declares that the Trinity renders political theology impossible because the inscrutable mystery of divine triunity has no possible earthly analogue. I have a healthy dose of Barth in my theological background, so I see where this is coming from, but I think it’s basically wrong. There are plenty of political analogies for a power that is shared among several persons while deriving from one of them and remaining undivided. We can see something like this in the rise of a powerful vice-president in recent American politics — a VP can often function as an effective co-president (or supra-president, in the case of Dick Cheney). Other figures might gain similar stature, as Rahm Emanuel and Timothy Geithner arguably did in the early years of the Obama administration. The legitimacy of the administration derives ultimately from the elected president, but someone with the implicit trust of the president shares in and extends the president’s authority rather than competing with it. (Or at least that’s how they present things for public consumption.)

The Fathers at Nicea would have had personal experience of such a regime. I don’t want to be reductive about this, but I also don’t want to claim that questions about the divine governance of the world — particularly questions that are being adjudicated in a politically-charged environment, at the Emperor’s behest — exist in splendid isolation from questions about human governance. (Once developed, of course, theological doctrines maintain a certain autonomy and can have unanticipated effects, as in all the liberation and other politically radical theologies that have drawn on the Trinity as a rebuke to worldly powers.)

Untimely Italians: A Profile of The Italian List and Interview with Alberto Toscano

When someone begins to study European philosophy and theory, or Continental philosophy as the unhelpful designation goes, the focus is usually on the traditions of French and German philosophy (leaving the term analytic to denote the work of the British, those living on that island off the coast of Europe proper). The relationship between this kind of national identity and those philosophers varies. Oftentimes the position of these philosophers disappoint us, as with Bergson during World War I writing about “French spirit” needing to overcome the “German barbarism” or Heidegger during the rise of the Nazi party in Germany doing much the same with more horrific results. But there is something to naming these traditions if only because the way in which language and location shapes one’s thinking, to say nothing of the importance of particular political situations that arise within these fictional but nonetheless efficacious spaces of the various nation-states. Italian philosophy has largely been ignored by those anglophone readers interested in European thought. This despite the fact that the fictional element of the nation-state is perhaps nowhere better on display than Italy, which never quite coalesced its various cultures into a singular Italian culture the way that French republicanism did. This creates an interesting dynamic and leads to a different style of philosophy. This seems to me to hold especially true for leftwing theorists and perhaps arises from what Roberto Esposito identifies as the clear manifestation of antagonism within the Italian context. Nothing like Italy the nation-state exists except through the process of conflict, the creation of antagonism that continues when Italy the nation-state has to become a part of Europe the economic union.

Italian philosophy has long been an interest for many authors here, with Adam’s work on Agamben and my own less intenstive work on Negri, as well as with many of our readers. We have here discussed Esposito’s attempt to reclaim the distinctiveness of Italian philosophy, already mentioned, and many readers will be familiar with the collection edited by Lorenzo Chiesa and Alberto Toscano The Italian Difference with re:press. So I was excited to see that Alberto was editing a new series called The Italian List with Seagull Books (which has the support of the University of Chicago Press, but apparent autonomy from the usual deadends of academic publishing). While the list has published three shorter texts by Agamben, I wanted to highlight the lesser known figures that Alberto and Seagull Books were bringing to a new audience. In what follows you will find a conversation between Toscano and myself as well as a few side remarks where I provide some summary information about the texts. Because of the length of this post I have also generated it as a PDF for those who prefer that medium for reading longer texts. Read the rest of this entry »

The theodicy of ethical consumerism

I wrote a few weeks ago about the ideological function of free will: we don’t blame people because they have free will, we say they have free will so we can blame them. In the theological realm, the goal of granting us free will isn’t to enhance our dignity or the meaningfulness of our life, but to make sure God has someone to blame for all the bad things that happen — and I believe we can apply the principle of a homology between the theological and the political realm here as well.

A perfect example of this is dynamic is ethical consumerism. It often strikes me as bizarre that we’re even given a choice between the gross processed food and the healthy organic food, or between the hideously wasteful product and the ecologically conscious product — much less that the “price signals” are invariably tilted toward the bad option. Wouldn’t it be better to remove the bad option in the first place? Why is something so important left to arbitrary individual choice?

Here I think the fact that we know consumers will generally make the wrong choice is not a bug, but a feature of ethical consumerism. The political class and business elites have already collectively decided that ethical farming and environmental sustainability are not important goals — and so they have left them up to individual consumer choices so that they can disavow responsibility and blame all of us for not choosing correctly.

Whenever we’re offered a free choice, we’re being set up.