April 20, 2024

On The Cultural Power Of Neoliberalism – Unlocking The Secret Of Identity Politics (Carl Raschke)

The following is a sequel to an earlier article published in the former Political Theology Today entitled “Kant, Hayek, and the Truth of the Market.”

Whereas theories of classical liberalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were consistently intertwined with emergent convictions concerning the superiority of democratic government, even if the historical reality was altogether different, the often unself-conscious forms of advocacy for twenty-first century neoliberalism (characterized by Nancy Fraser as “progressive neoliberalism”) speak less and less of egalitarianism and more often than not about the intractability of historic forms of “injustice.”

The language of neoliberalism is couched in terms of the inevitability of preformed identities and the way in which these “rainbow” spectra of group self-representations need to be both differentiated and administrated by certain people with expertise to promote the greater good of society.  At the same time, the idea of the greater good, which neoliberal “governmentality” dangles before the populace, is almost always cast as recompense for past injustices rather than general reconciliation and the manifestation of real equity in the present tense.

In the same way that the prestige of the “pastorate” in both imperial and feudal society, in accordance with Foucault’s research, was moored within a penitential system that relentlessly redefined both sin and grace, while scrupulously distilling the kinds of expertise indispensable to administering it effectively, so the role of the neoliberal elites at a global level is to  craft, and recraft, the methods of identifying how “inequity” is stifling the deployment of capital and labor in its most productive allocation.

The meritocracy of neoliberal governance replaces the type of democratic order once extolled by Theodore Roosevelt in the salad days of the Progressive Era as a “fair deal”.  Although it claims to be perfecting democracy by making it more “inclusive”, progressive neoliberalism undermines the very fabric of democracy by dissolving the threads of mutual accountability that make democratic participation possible in the first place.

But progressive neoliberalism, like the Catholic penitential system as a whole, could not succeed without manufacturing its own internal and psychological control devices that keep the structure intact.  For Catholicism it was the fear of hell and the sacred aura such a psychology invested in the personae of those theological “experts” who might somehow know the mysterious ways of God and how he might mete out proper portions of divine punishment and prevenient grace.

For progressive neoliberalism it is anxiety about one’s place in a vast, economically integrated yet infinitely diverse cosmopolis of humankind itself along with proper regard for authority of the world’s elites, who are somehow capable of adroitly devising the complex technics of justice in every imaginable situation in order to conceive appropriate reparations for all the untold horrors of human history hitherto and the frailties of the present generation.

In Julie Wilson’s terminology the stranglehold of neoliberalism on the minds of the Western intelligentsia nowadays derives from its unique “cultural power” rather than any subterfuge of political persuasion or social coercion.  The “fear of hell” in the present day comes down to a distinctive existential dread that the world must just blow up – or burn up – any day if each one of us does not do their utmost to “save the planet” from those ubiquitous demons that are constantly tearing it apart, whether it be the burning of fossil fuels, the mistreatments of minorities and immigrants, or the activation within oppressed populations of their age-old resentments against those who have done them wrong and never been requited for it.

Foucault’s genealogy of neoliberalism, of course, rests on what might be termed an historical process of composition and division whereby the classical ideal of the “care of the self” (epimelesthai sautou), which finds its apotheosis in Stoicism, gradually mutates into the Christian, ascetic ideal that Nietzsche so famously castigated, then through what we may loosely term an effect of “secularization” transforms the politics of sovereign rule into an unprecedented form of political economy, portrayed in the lectures of 1977-78 as the uniquely modern mode of “governmentality.”

It is within this final matrix that what we now refer to as “neoliberalism” was birthed.   As his College de France lectures unfolded, Foucault admitted that he had previously focused too much on structures of power and the means of institutional surveillance suppression at the expense of exploring those collective psychological formations that should be characterized as technologies of self-domination.  “Perhaps “ Foucault confessed, “I’ve insisted too much on the technology of domination and power. I am more and more interested in the interaction between oneself and others, and in the technologies of individual domination, in the mode of action that an individual exercises upon himself by means of the technologies of the self.” (125)

These technologies of self-domination had their origin in the elaboration of the complex moral and confessional economies of post-Constantinian Christianity, Foucault’s “pastorate.”  The pastorate came to the fore during the transmutation of the ancient polis, or city-state, just before the beginning of the first millennium into the cosmopolitan imaginary that legitimated the brutal hegemony of imperial Rome.

As Foucault notes in Security, Territory, Population, “pastoring” or “shepherding” as the regnant paradigm of authority emerges whenever divinity has been separated from spatiality, when the “political” in its etymological sense has been thoroughly de-localized and disembedded. “The shepherd’s power is essentially exercised over a multiplicity in movement.”(125)  The shepherd is the archetype for “leadership”, broadly conceived, when indigenous forms of authority have been either trivialized or largely liquidated.  Only in what Augustine named the “city of God”, which is both invisible and transmundane, can the true, constitutive identity of the new de-territorialized persona – i.e., “the soul” in classical terminology –  be properly detected.

The “care of the self”, or the ethics of self-discipline, morphs into the “cure of souls” which requires both an omniscient God and a panoptical curia to oversee a pedagogy for the upbringing and training “citizens” to be admitted eventually to the civitas Dei.   Whereas the politician is concerned with only those territorial “constituents” for whom he speak and whom he represents within the classic Greek framework of an incommensurability between politeia and the exercise of logos, the “pastor” is charged with a universal calling.  He has his eye “on the whole of humanity.(148)

Inasmuch as the government of the polis derives from an abstract method of reconciling concrete differences (which is why Aristotle’s zoon politikon was by definition a zoon logikon), the job of the shepherd is to ignore such differences for the sake of a higher “cosmopolitan” aim in view.  Thus within the classical realm of thought the “politician” is invariably a mediator, which is why Hegel more than two millennia after Socrates in the golden glow of the German Romantic revival of all things Greek could identify the perfection of Staatsrecht as the outcome of dialectical reason.

The Prussian “enlightened despot” henceforth was lionized as the stand-in for the Platonic philosopher king, a prototype first proposed by Frederick the Great a century earlier.  But the Christian cleric, the prototype of the shepherd, has always had little interest in the “political” in this sense.  Even the Jesuits throughout the Age of Absolutism, who were technically “politicians”, did not assume this role.  Their objective was by and large to preserve the universal authority of the Pope, the supreme shepherd or “vicar of Christ on earth”, through various machinations ultimately serving the undivided sovereignty and insurpassable majesty of the monarch.

Hannah Arendt insightfully characterizes the political as a kind of computative settlement of the natural heterogeneity that counts as the human condition. Human beings “organize themselves”, Arendt argues in The Promise of Politics, “politically according to certain essential commonalities found within or abstracted from an absolute chaos of differences”.(93)

Shepherding, or pastoral administration, takes what might be considered a “univocal” approach to this welter of differences.  Although politics in the final analysis comes down to a facilitation of rational self-expression within a regulated gridwork of harmonized diversity, pastoral “rationality” – if it can be called that – is merely instrumental.

It is simply “humanitarian” insofar as it constitutes a technology for mobilizing all with even the most minimal human status (i.e., those who are defined merely by what Agamben terms “bare life”) to achieve some transcendent purpose that is soteriological rather than political.   This contest between the political and the pastoral has been the hallmark of the modern era, so far as Foucault is concerned.

We can see it raising its great, grisly head today in the struggle between populism and cosmopolitanism, or between ethno-nationalism and the kind of transnationalist humanitarianism that places demands on the Western democracies to accept and absorb the burgeoning flows of refugees from all over the world in light of the collapse of civil societies and the proliferation of “failed states.”

Foucault – again, in Security, Territory, Population – writes that “the great battle of the pastorate traversed the West from the thirteenth to the eighteenth century and ultimately without ever getting rid of the pastorate.” He adds that “the Reformation was undoubtedly much more a great pastoral battle than a doctrinal battle.”(149) It was a battle over who truly sustained the supreme authority to shepherd a flock.

The pastoral system, according to Foucault, is one of command and subordination.  It is “a generalized field of obedience that is typical of the space in which pastoral relationships are deployed.”(179)  For Foucault, pastoral relationships are always authoritarian. The Protestant version of the pastoral system simply replaced the mandate of the Pontiff with the unconditional authority of Scripture (or in the case of the Radical Reformation with the illumination of the Holy Spirit), opening what today we would term a “democratic” zone of mutual accountability only with respect to the interpretation of the meaning of God’s Word.  But it was not until the mid-seventeenth century that God’s Word would become subject to demands for rational validation.

Interestingly, it was the Westphalian accord of 1648, ending the horrendous Wars of Religion and forging an uneasy entente between the key claimants to pastoral primacy, that allowed for a resurgence of the idea of the “political” in both its ancient and modern connotations, which during the following two centuries of republican revolution relentlessly pushed the demands of the pastorate towards the margins.

Ironically, it was the Kantian critical philosophy that revived the fortunes of the pastorate, transforming the Anglo-Gallic ideal of liberty into the strange and paradoxical notion that one could only be “free” if one exercised their absolute duty to the requirements of “pure practical reason.”  The Kantian formulation thus altered the republican political calculus of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in ways we are still struggling to unravel today.

The Bismarckean image of the “citizen” as one who is educated or “constantly formed” (ausbildet) to serve the state in order to realize, as we would say nowadays, their authentic human potential replaced throughout Western society the Jeffersonian idyll of the self-made, self-disciplined, and self-reliant individual exercising a modest, but ageless intuition of what it means to live both free and virtuously.  It became the founding principle of public education, invented in Prussia and spreading to America, which served as the broader, cultural framework for the rise of neoliberalism with its secularized “pastorate” and the kind of curious, but neurotic “entrepreneurial” psychology of self-invention that Brown describes.

But something else was also at work in the preservation of the pastorate over the centuries.  It is only recently that this peculiar factor, which the ancient Greeks understood as an inherent tension between the realm of the political and that of the household (oikos), has come to the fore.  The recent publication of Dotan Leshem’s massive, detailed, historical study entitled The Origins of Neoliberalism: Modeling the Economy from Jesus to Foucault, which may be described as an “economic” genealogy of neoliberalism, has brought this factor into focus (even though it should be also noted that his erudition is not always matched by his theoretical sophistication).

Leshem essentially updates and revises with  dramatic and effective flourishes in light of the recent spate of literature on the nature and origins of neoliberalism what Hannah Arendt observed in the late 1950s about the relationship between to politikon and to oikonimikon. In addition, he aims to go beyond Foucault’s own genealogy of the pastorate by criticizing and carefully refining Agamben’s paradigm of the political that we find in The Kingdom and the Glory.

In that provocative, but controversial work Agamben argues that the model of a “theopolitics” resting on a decisionist rendering of sovereignty popularized by Carl Schmitt is inadequate to how politics has evolved from a religious standpoint since the Middle Ages.

We are, of course, quite familiar with Schmitt’s dictum that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts not only because of their historical development – in which they were transferred from theology to the theory of the state, whereby, for example, the omnipotent god became the omnipotent lawgiver – but also because of their systematic structure, the recognition of which is necessary for a sociological consideration of these concepts.”(36)

Although Schmitt’s quote is often taken as a kind of Ur-text for political theology for all time, he was merely re-interpreting Jean Bodin’s formulation of the problem of sovereignty in the 1500s, which in turn must be viewed against the horrific aftermath of the Thirty Years War.  Bodin contended that political and religious unity within a state must be preserved in tandem with each other (a position that had been well-night conceded by all theorists since Roman times), and that the only visible token of this unity could be executive power.   In other words, political cohesion is of necessity grounded in some kind of consensus concerning the singular, “ultimate reality” that anchors all representations of how people should live together in community.

But, as Agamben has shown, there have always been two “paradigms” operating across the spectrum of political thought  – the one founded in the singularity of sovereign will and decision and the other in what he terms a divine “economy,” which can be traced all the way back to the Trinitarian specifications of the Church Fathers.  Agamben in The Kingdom and the Glory wants to “supplement” Schmitt’s formulation with what he terms a second “paradigm” advancing “the thesis according to which the economy could be a secularized theological paradigm acts retroactively on theology itself, since it implies that from the beginning theology conceives divine life and the history of humanity as an oikonomia, that is, that theology is itself “economic” and did not simply become so at a later time through secularization.”(3)

Agamben’s rundown is exceedingly complex – and perhaps a little too straightforward to encapsulate the arcane textual sources on which he often relies.  But its gist can be summarized as follows.  If we go all the way back to Aristotle, we cannot avoid his dictum in Book I of the Politics that the life of the polis is invariably founded on the “law” (nomos) of the “household” (oikos), from which we derive the principle of oikonomia, or “economy”. For Agamben, any political theology therefore must be twinned with a discernible political economy.  However, the tradition of political economy cannot be viewed strictly as a modern, “secular” convention.

It is foundational to the organization of the state, even as Aristotle understood it.  Whereas Aristotle’s Politics is primarily concerned with the “natural” power relationships that constitute the household, Agamben focuses on what might be considered the magnification and diffusion of the domestic order of oikonomia throughout the much larger sphere of “political” administration that have defined both the modern state as well as post-Hellenistic empires.

For Agamben, economy is no less important than sovereignty.   If, as Aristotle asserts, “justice” (dike) is “the bond of men in states”, any concept of “social justice”, for Agamben, must appear to be the relational analogue of all those who are normatively and reciproocally connected with each other both within and outside of the global order of nation-states.

We can locate the origin of this double paradigm of sovereignty and economy in Jesus’ proclamation of the “kingdom of God” (basileia tou theou).  On the one hand, basileia signifies unconditioned divine sovereignty, but as we can easily adduce from both the Great Commandment and Jesus’ own radically relational interpretation of what it means to be a participant in the “kingdom”, it equally implies limitless mutual obligations that we have to each other, which acquires a form of a familialism reaching infinitely beyond the limits of blood, kinship, and the management of any particular, concrete “household.”   It was under the influence of Christianity and the writings of Saint Paul that the classical notion of dike morphed into the broader, “cosmopolitan” ideal of what nowadays we term social justice.

Politics within the modern context of “representative democracy” follows more naturally the trajectory of economy rather than sovereignty.  The democratic imaginary of the “people”, as invested with sovereignty, was always viewed as a kind of conceptual sleight of hand by Schmitt.  He would have also considered Stephen A. Douglas’ idea of vox populi vox Dei to be unworthy of serious consideration.  But Agamben is correct in his position that the divine “force” of any would-be “political theology” does not necessarily have to be infused exclusively with the overtones of monarchial supremacy.

Its axis can just as easily be horizontal as vertical.  What any serious political philosophy can, and must, do is to maintain plausibly as well as consistently the balance between the vertical and horizontal axes in demonstrating an integral affiliation between the divine and the human when it comes to any “reasonable” legitimation of the order of governance.

That is where Leshem’s approach becomes so timely and instructive.  Leshem makes the case that it is not only within the internal dynamics of the Trinity as part of the heavenly sphere that oikonomia matters.  Leshem shows with painstaking elaboration through successive chapters how the theology of the Church Fathers was not merely a speculative venture, but was designed to bring heaven down to earth, to mobilize and regulate human life in keeping with the communion sanctorum, which in turn derived its format from the operations of the Trinitarian God they so fiercely defended.

Thus the Church Fathers altered irrevocably the relationship between oikos and polis, creating an ecclesiastical “economy” for the salvation of all human souls that stipulates at both a theological and practical level the very rationale Foucault misses for the pastorate overall.  Especially in the Post-Constantinian subsumption of this economy under the guarantee of first the Emperor, then the Pope, did the template for what eventually became the secularized neoliberal hegemony mimicking the Medieval pastorate begin to emerge.

The theological innovations of the fourth and fifth century were basically metaphysical reverberations of the metamorphosis of the pagan, Roman cosmopolis into an extensively theorized, and sacralized, oikonomia.   As Leshem points out with respect to the often overlooked Patristic period , “the greatest transformation occurred in the nature of the thing economized. Whereas in the classical moment the needs of the life process itself, common to humans and all other living beings, are economized, in the Christian moment the divine within humans—that which humans and God hold in common—is economized.”(155)

Leshem, of course, is referring here to the kind of argument Arendt made sixty years ago, which he believes falls short in depicting the genesis of the modern construct of political economy.  Leshem maintains that Arendt’s argument does not work because it traces the economization of politics to the Age of Discovery, starting in the sixteenth century, and assume an almost two-thousand year lacuna between Plato and Columbus.

He insists that Arendt was more intent on chronicling the “defeat of the political” than on attempting to tell the story of the evident victory of the economy.”(159)  The re-organization of human life under the magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church, therefore, serves as the “missing link” between the notion of the political as is found in the ancient Greek city-states and what comes into play with the rise of mercantile capitalism.  “While in the classical moment the economy was seen as originating in and subsequently corresponding to the human condition of necessity, in the Christian moment it was seen as corresponding to the condition of freedom.”(155)

In The Human Condition Arendt presumes as a legitimate reading of Aristotle that the political, as the realm of freedom, must be wrested from the economic as the sphere of necessity.  The oikos, the private sphere of family (including slaves), is in Aristotle’s rendering the foundation stone upon which the oikodespotés, or “master of the house”, could achieve the kind of self-sufficiency necessary for political freedom.  Arendt insists that the decline of the political can be attributed in many respects to the historical fusion of the public with the private, i.e., of the political with the economic.

This amalgam is what we mean by “society,” according to Arendt.  Society amounts to “the public organization of the life process,” which in classical time was a private matter.  “The victory of equality in the modern world,” Arendt writes, “ is only the political and legal recognition of the fact that society has conquered the public realm, and that the distinction and difference have become private matters of the individual.”(41)

But what Christianity did, according to Leshem, was not to economize the political so much as to “politicize” the economic through the Pauline principle that “in Christ” there is no male nor female, slave nor free.  The ekklesia becomes the genuine realm of freedom under the guidance of the church because of the Christ-principle serves to provide “political” status for even the most unfree members of the oikos, which was its overwhelming appeal to those who were excluded from having a voice in the Roman, patriarchal order of things.

It is in the ekklesia that “political economy” is nurtured for the first time. “The difference between the Christian economists and their predecessors lies in the radical change of the nature of the economic activity they are entrusted with and the master they serve, so that instead of being charged with the management of the earthliest of all things in the service of their despotes, the Christian economist is entrusted with the management of divine matters and with the mission of divinization for the sake of their subordinates. Another crucial difference between the two is that the Christian economist labors to include all spheres of life in the economy instead of generating political and philosophical spheres that are ‘economicless.’”(28)

This evolution of the meaning of the political in Patristic times is not only a cipher to unlock Foucault’s theory of the pastorate, it also can help us understand the rise of “identity politics,” which would have been an oxymoron for Arendt.  And, as we have seen, identity politics – mistakenly construed as some mongrel product of the so-called “culture wars” of the past quarter century – functions as the symbolic currency that entrenches through its rhetorical power the “stealth” regime of neoliberalism.

Carl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver, specializing in Continental philosophy, art theory, the philosophy of religion and the theory of religion.   He is an internationally known writer and academic, who has authored numerous books and hundreds of articles on topics ranging from postmodernism to popular religion and culture to technology and society.  Recent books include Postmodern Theology: A Biopic (Cascade Books, 2017), Critical Theology: An Agenda for an Age of Global Crisis (IVP Academic, 2016)Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2015) and The Revolution in Religious Theory: Toward a Semiotics of the Event (University of Virginia Press, 2012).  


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