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The Demons of Neoliberalism

Adam Kostko’s Political Theology 

The newest book from Adam Kotsko, Neoliberalism’s Demons, extends his work on the devil and “demonization” to the current political problem of neoliberalism. His previous book, The Prince of This World, showed how the problem of evil in the figure of the devil shaped both Christian doctrine and modern political concepts. It ended with a ringing denouncement of our most-prized modern political virtue: freedom. We moderns are damned to our freedom, forced to choose, Kostko argued, and thus “freedom is a trap.”

This critique was left tantalizingly underdeveloped in The Prince of this World. How could more freedom make us less free? Neoliberalism’s Demons answers this question by reading neoliberalism through the lens of political theology. The result is not a new history of neoliberalism but a refocusing on how such an economic system makes us feel culpable and complicit in our own exploitation.

In other words, Kostko’s new book is a form of ideology critique, wherein he unearths the hidden influence of Christian theological concepts on our modern political ones. Although an appeal to theology may seem an unlikely source for radical politics, Kostko ends the book with what is indeed a radical call: the abolition of the market as part of establishing what he calls a politics without blame. Among the most pressing questions readers of Kostko must ask in turn, however, is how far Christianity itself is implicated in the dynamics he seeks to criticize.

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Kotsko is himself a remarkably productive scholar. He has edited, translated, and written extensively about continental philosophy, especially the work of Slavoj Zizek and Georgio Agamben. His work is best read as part of a conversation, indebted to Carl Schmitt, taking place at the intersection of Christian theology and politics. One of Kostko’s objectives in Neoliberalism’s Demons is to show the usefulness of political theology as a discipline.[1] Another is to position his own genealogy against the existing literature — an objective not particularly well-served by his relatively-shallow engagement with the relevant scholars. In order to understand the relevance of this lack, however, we ought first to understand what Kostko means by political theology.

Kotsko’s thought stands downstream from the controversial German legal and political theorist Carl Schmitt. It was Schmitt’s foundational text, Political Theology, that launched the discipline by claiming that all “significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts.” For Schmitt this was primarily a historical argument: it was because the relevant political concepts were historically and systematically linked that he made the claim. But this claim of Schmitt’s, like nearly all of his work, has inspired and vexed theorists in equal measure. Amongst those inspired is a Left-Schmittian tradition that has tried to rehabilitate his reputation and redirect his critique of liberal democracy in the service of Leftist political goals. It is this branch to which Kotsko, broadly, belongs.[2] Like Schmitt, Kostko is concerned with the political consequences of religious habits, ideas, and history. He is intent upon showing that religion, which provided metaphysical structure to the pre-modern world, did not simply disappear with modernity but instead was sublimated and appropriated by modern political institutions and ideologies.

One of the most famous examples of this is found in Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism. There Weber, who was Schmitt’s teacher, argued that the notion of predestination fundamentally changed the relationship of Protestantism with the world, creating lonely subjects who needed to reassure themselves of their own grace and salvation by pursuing worldly success. Gradually, the religious underpinnings of calling and entrepreneurship were forgotten, though the moral overtones of self-worth, deservedness, and vocation remained. What Weber aimed to demonstrate was that religious concepts operate “under the hood,” so to speak, providing unseen legitimacy for economic identities, relationships, and outward behaviors. To understand why capitalism functions as it does, Weber argued, we must examine the religious roots of capitalism.

Like most political theologians, Kotsko pushes this one step further, emphasizing that politics and theology are not just historically but systematically related. The entirety of Neoliberalism’s Demons is a demonstration of this relationship — something that can be seen in his most succinct definition of political theology. “Political theology is,” he writes, “a holistic, genealogical inquiry into the structures and sources of legitimacy in a particular historical moment” (128). Legitimacy is thus a key concept for Kotsko, and the work of political theology is “the study of systems of legitimacy, of the ways that political, social, economic, and the religious orders maintain their explanatory power and justify the loyalty of their adherents” (8).

Although religion and economics are functionally distinct systems in the sociology of Max Weber, to which Kotsko is indirectly tied through Schmitt, they share a similar need to legitimate norms and behaviors. Having taking note of this parallel, then, we can turn to Kostko’s argument about the symbiotic construction of the idea of “freedom” in both the neoliberal and the Christian senses.

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It seems today as if no serious critic of society can avoid engaging with neoliberalism. For Kotsko, too, neoliberalism is the topic of the moment; one that his political theology is uniquely suited to engage.

But it’s well known that neoliberalism is itself a slippery, amorphous, term. It has been defined as a stage of capitalism (David Harvey), as an intellectual movement (Stedman-Jones), a cultural regime (Wendy Brown), or a set of domestic and international state policies (Melinda Cooper, Dana Rodrik).[3] Regardless of their differences, however, each of these theorists hold take neoliberalism to refer to a set of outcomes and policies that promote technocracy, privatization, deregulation, personal indebtedness, inequality, and immiseration on a global scale. Neoliberalism holds that markets are the answer to any problem, and that the entrepreneur-consumer is the fulfillment of human purpose. In short, for the Left, neoliberalism has come to be the term for how capitalism and modernity have failed to keep even the moderate post-War promise of shared prosperity viable.

Kotsko discusses a healthy chunk of this literature in the book, particularly that of David Harvey, Mark Fisher, and Dardot and Laval. Kostko’s own definition, however, approaches neoliberalism through Will Davies, whose book emphasizes that neoliberalism is a system of legitimacy. While not sharply different from Harvey or Brown in the periodization or characterization of neoliberalism, Kostko is keen to emphasize the moral dimension, the ideological horizon, of neoliberalism: that it has become a hegemonic set of values that determines what is allowed to be true and good, valuable and thinkable. When Brown and others cite Foucault to describe the process of neoliberal subjectification, this is what they mean: the internalization of neoliberal values and purposes; our transformation from persons or citizens into consumers and workers. Kotsko shares this fear of ideological closure: “Neoliberalism is, in sum, a totalizing world order, an integral self-reinforcing system of political theology, and it has progressively transformed our world into a living hell” (95).

It is a bit surprising that the political theorist Wendy Brown is singled out for criticism by Kostko, especially since there doesn’t seem to be much daylight between her recent book, Undoing the Demos, and Kotsko’s claim that neoliberalism is “a complete way of life and a holistic worldview” (6). Both emphasize the constitutive, pre-subjective moment of interpolation into the economic system. Both are influenced by Foucault and his genealogical method. However, Kotsko distances himself from Brown when she expresses pessimism that we can break out of the ideological closure of neoliberalism as well as with what he perceives to be her political nostalgia for Fordism.

Worse, he charges that Brown never overcomes the “binary” or “dyad” that naively opposes the political to the economic. Kostko traces this misunderstanding to Hannah Arendt’s argument in The Human Condition where she celebrates the agonistic Greek polis against the meaningless world of labor. [4] Against the separation suggested by Arendt, Kotsko contests that the “intermingling of the political and the economic” is the historic norm (65). The point is a good one when it discourages us from treating politics as an imaginary utopian refuge from instrumental reason (although it’s debatable whether Arendt herself makes this mistake). According to Kotsko, we should stop treating politics and economics as “static unities” and instead turn to a “truly genealogical genealogy of economy” (66).

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His discussion of Melinda Cooper’s book Family Values provides an important illustration of where the contributions of political theology fit in the existing literature. Cooper’s book focuses on elite policymakers for whom devolving economic risk to poor families was ideological and self-interested. Though it is not the goal of her book, from Cooper’s account it’s unclear why the poor accepted the language of personal responsibility. She makes us ask why we, neoliberalism’s victims, consider the system to be legitimate. It’s this interpretivist need to understand why individuals do what they do to which Neoliberalism’s Demons has the most to say. In sum, Kostko argues that we neoliberal subjects think that markets are legitimate because they are free. But, in Kotsko’s account there is a problem that accompanies this symbiosis of personal and market freedoms: it generates a guilt that further binds us to the political and economic systems. Although he wants to avoid the baggage of the term “ideology,” Kostko’s book is a classic example of ideology critique in that it attempts to account for how individuals internalize a legitimating discourse.

Kotsko’s own history of religion, which he discussed in his earlier The Prince of this World, follows the problem of evil and the Devil through the history of the Church and its changing relationship with secular authority. There he identifies an “asymmetry” in the Christian idea of free choice insofar as God takes credit for good choices and we take the blame for bad choices.[5] Within this premodern moral universe, freedom can only create guilty, blameworthy subjects. But neoliberalism, says Kostko, makes a strikingly similar move, legitimating itself by manipulating the idea of freedom, not by making us free but by making us guilty.

It is this process of neoliberal legitimation that, at long last, explains Kostko’s titular reference to demons and demonization. “Demonization” is, he contends, the dynamic through which guilt is necessarily assumed by subjects under neoliberalism by virtue of their freedom. This is what he means: it is because we neoliberal subjects are free that we accept the blame for our freely-made choices. The irony is that we make these choices within a dysfunctional economic system that nearly always leave us worse off no matter what particular choice we make.

Even more, this individual acceptance of blame for economic failure is crucial for the system to function. As Kotsko writes, “if we buy into the narrative of personal responsibility, then our financial insecurity and underemployment must be our own fault” (96). This is an important and under-recognized aspect of our economic identities. Political imagery — from “welfare queens” to “makers and takers” — functions because our economic identities are built prior to our moral commitments. It is for this reason that appeals to “working hard for the team” (or “the dignity of work” for that matter) are able to interpolate us. If we were homo economicus, such appeals to non-economic obligations would not work. Kotsko’s analysis of freedom and guilt adds another layer to this story, albeit one quite similar to Wendy Brown’s concept of “responsibilization.” In exercising freedom, Kostko argues, neoliberal subjects find only moral culpability.

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In an interview, Kotsko clarified his project by way of a question: “what it would mean to come up with a politics that, at its deepest level, was not structured around blame and merit, reward and punishment?” This is an important question and it speaks to how political theory has, as Lisa Herzog has argued, absented itself from distributional questions within markets by asserting “that markets are not a normative issue.”[6] Under the liberal political scheme, adjudicating such normative questions was not the job of democratic institutions, deliberative or otherwise. In a modern pluralist society, philosophers could no longer dictate what was or was not fair, just, or good for everyone. For a time, political theory retreated into designing deliberative institutions that would allow publics to distribute their own justice. The return to these questions in the aftermath of the 2008 Great Recession is therefore a welcome change.

Within this context, Kotsko strikes many of the right notes. His political theology is an example of the kind of speculative thought that, like Zizek’s or Agamben’s, dares the reader to shift their paradigm. Such thinking is necessary if we are not to stagnate inside the intellectual horizons of neoliberal orthodoxy.

However, it is not entirely clear how the abolition of the market, which he calls for at the end of his book, would solve the problem of blameworthiness and freedom, or even if this is the correct way to think about the question. If the defining ideological characteristic of neoliberalism can be traced to a Judeo-Christian myth, then how can it be said that “demonization” is a neoliberal problem? Ought blame for the demon to be laid instead at the feet of Christian conceptions of freedom? Or, on a more methodological note, to what specific historical problem does “neoliberal” refer when our critical gaze encompasses all of Western political and religious thought?

At the heart of such critical questions lies another: Does the problem of freedom imply that we must abolish Christianity along with economic modernity? And what does this mean for the tradition of political theology? I’m not sure how Kotsko would answer such a question.

It’s not obvious that neoliberalism is best approached from the perspective of political theology. One could, without reference to political theology, attempt a similar analysis of the role of religious ideas in modern life via Max Weber and his modern sociological descendants. Such an analysis might pay closer attention to the historically-bound institutions that embody ideas and to the pragmatic dialogue that takes place over the legitimacy of those institutions. While such a perspective would probably not come to a conclusion much different than Kotsko’s (rationalization has not meant total disenchantment but the sublimation of morality into new cages that function alongside rationalization) it might allow for a more sociologically and historically nuanced discussion of how freedom could coexist within the mutually-accepted obligations of a society without, as Kostko puts it, “blame and merit.”

In other words, I don’t think that Kotsko has given adequate reason to accept the corner stone upon which his analysis is built: the necessity and utility of political theology as a method. Although there remains much to learn both about political theology and Kotsko’s own unique and often insightful historical work, I remain in the end unconvinced that it offers methodological or substantive insights unavailable to other approaches.

 


[1] For those interested, Kotsko has published an interesting essay on Schmitt and political theology called “The Problem of Evil and the Problem of Legitimacy.” The question of what political theology is and does often comes up in his interviews and other writings.

[2] This Leftist tradition is largely represented by the journal Telos. Although Telos has been published since May of 1968, Schmitt’s most visible renaissance occurred during the recent War on Terror, when questions about a “state of exception,” a concept central to Schmitt’s critique of liberalism and taken up in Agamben’s book of that title, have risen to the fore.

[3] On the various definitions, see Daniel Rodgers, “The Uses and Abuses of ‘Neoliberalism’” Dissent (Winter 2018). See also: David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford University Press, 2007); David Stedman-Jones, Masters of the Universe (Princeton University Press, 2012); and Quinn Slobodian, Globalists (Harvard University Press, 2018).

[4] In blaming Arendt for what he considers “static,” “binary” thinking, Kotsko does not engage in any close reading either of Arendt herself or of the secondary literature on Arendt.

[5] There is, he says, “a fundamental asymmetry in the Christian view of free choice: we can choose rightly only with the aid of the grace of God… This means that God effectively gets all the credit for our good choices, while we take the blame for our bad choices” (199).

[6] Lisa Herzog, Inventing the Market (Oxford University Press, 2016), p. 3.

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