July 19, 2024

“Progressive Neoliberalism” – Symbolic Capitalism And The Global Reproduction Of The “Precariat” (Interview With Carl Raschke)

The following is the first in a series of “book interviews” (as opposed to book “reviews”) which the The New Polis will be undertaking with certain recent authors.  The first title to be considered is by NP Senior Consulting Editor Carl Raschke.

Raschke, Carl.  Neoliberalism and Political Theology: From Kant to Identity Politics.  Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019.  ISBN-13: 978-1474454551.

NP: What was your motivation to write Neoliberalism and Political Theology: From Kant to Identity Politics?  We all know that neoliberalism is something that has been at top of the charts among progressive thinkers for the past two decades.  Do you really have anything new to contribute?

CR: My initial motivation, of course, was seeking to decipher the astonishing events of 2016 – both Brexit and the even more world-upturning election of Donald Trump, which no one, myself included, had expected to be the Republican nominee for President of the United States, let alone actually be elected.   Because, unlike 95 percent of my fellow academics, I am in regular touch and communication with Hilary Clinton’s infamous “deplorables”, who happen to be my immediate neighbors surrounding our family retreat property deep in the rural hinterlands of Red State America, where I do most of my writing these days. 

I have known these people for years (in fact, I grew up with them, even though my parents were both highly educated, liberal-minded Northeasterners), and even though I don’t necessarily share so many of their political views, I know they are not only decent human beings, but far more grounded, thoughtful, and complex than the bi-coastal, urban elite narratives gives them credit for. 

I think your garden variety American intellectual is far more blinkered, if not “bigoted”, than these people are, if by such adjectives one is describing a person prone to facile stereotypes, self-reinforcing disdain, and groupthink than many of these people are.  Contemporary American progressivism, with the exception of such political figures as Bernie Sanders, lacks the working class “gene pool” that deeply informed radical philosophical and political thought in Europe, and thus so much of its “radicalism”, emanating from the sexual and moral insurrection of the 1960s and 1970s, has tended since that time to be centered more on cultural avant-gardism and the psycho-social anxieties of credentialed professional types of people than on serious economic transformation. 

American intellectual life, unlike Europe, is confined almost exclusively to university and corporate media culture, incarcerating it within its own unacknowledged “ruling class” social prejudices and cognitive biases. 

What I have new to contribute in this book is a radical reframing of what “neoliberalism” actually is.  The expression goes all the way back to the Mount Pelerin Society .  It was an in-house theoretical term that gradually grew fashionable within a fairly narrow circle of internationalist thinkers during period right after World War II when the United States as the number one hegemon outside the emergent Soviet sphere of influence sought systemically and decisively to counter totalitarianism in general, and Communism in particular, with what came to be known as “democratic capitalism.”  That was the prevailing lingo used through that period. 

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the same campaign to promote “democratic capitalism” was revived.  However, by then it had already been infused during the previous decade by the free market fundamentalism of the Reagan and Thatcher administrations, which was aimed at combatting a different menace, the hyperinflation of the decade following Vietnam.  When the Soviet Union fell in 1991, and “capitalism” in the broad sense became the only serous option for the sundry nation-states of the emerging global economy, even if so many of them were hardly “democratic”, the word “neoliberalism”, which had for a long time been primarily an economic policy approach, now became what Jacques Lacan terms a “sliding signifier” to characterize the accelerating, broad-reaching changes that were underway internationally through most of the early 1990s and immediately after the turn of the millennium.

However, even though most social scientists during that era understood “neoliberalism” to be almost exclusively an economic policy descriptor, when George Bush became president, it unfortunately came to be associated in the progressive mind with the “culture wars” as well, particularly the “family values” agenda of the religious right and the militarism of American foreign policy following 9/11.  The assonance, if not the semantic confusion, of the phrase “neoliberalism” with “neoconservatism” – a word that had fallen into disrepute after the disastrous foreign policy debacle in Iraq and Afghanistan – contributed to such a misunderstanding.

Neoliberalism, in fact, has all along been truly “liberal” in the cultural meaning of the word.  Bill Clinton, who deregulated banks while pushing for LBGT rights both in the military and in society at large, was the classic neoliberal, and he was actually regarded in that fashion during his administration.  Trump himself,  prior to becoming the Republican nominee in 2016, actually held political views comparable to Clinton’s, and years before that he and Bill and Hillary were actually friends.

NP:In your book you talk about something called “progressive neoliberalism”, and you seem to claim something along those lines is currently the trend.  Where did you get that expression? 

CR: I didn’t come up with the term.  The locution was coined by political philosopher Nancy Fraser, who wrote a series of highly provocative and controversial articles about Trump’s 2016 election in Dissent magazine.  Fraser, who is well-known feminist and “socialist” thinker of the New Left ilk from a previous generation, forcefully called out the dominant progressive narrative – which is even more pervasive today – that the choice of the Trump by many white, working class voters who had previously supported Obama was due to their inherent racism and rural backwardness.  Fraser, in effect, noted rightly that it was actually the first volley, at least on American soil, of a new worldwide class struggle, one that pitted the so-called “populists” against the neoliberal cosmopolitan elites. 

Fraser didn’t follow up – or at least she hasn’t to this date followed up – with a book expanding on her insights.  But I was so impressed with her argument, I decided to take them and run with them in a slightly different direction.  During the previous year I had been working through much of the existing literature in the humanities on neoliberalism, especially Foucault’s lectures at the Collège de France in the early 1970s that were eventually published as Security, Territory, and Population and The Birth of Biopolitics.  I also had read Wendy Brown’s Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution which developed Foucault’s insights in the context of value formation and social ethics as well as political theory. 

At the same time, I was invited in July 2016 to give a three-day lecture series and workshop at the famous Melk Monastery, featured in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, sponsored by the prestigious Center for Religion and Transformation at the University of Vienna.  They had asked me to do something that might carry into the current moment my genealogical analysis of the “crisis of liberal democracy” in my 2015 book Force of God.  So I gave some lectures and a workshop, which I titled “Political Theology and The Genealogy of Neoliberalism” and are condensed into the first chapter of Neoliberalism and Political Theology

I didn’t mention Trump at all in those lectures, but the real possibility he might become president pre-occupied everyone, who were mostly Europeans, at the session.  When he was elected that fall, and after reading Fraser’s articles, I had my work cut out for me.

NP:What do you mean by “progressive neoliberalism”, and why do you think it most appropriately captures what neoliberalism actually is?

CR: In the book I portray neoliberalism as a “valuational” rather than an “economic” system.  I rely on a lot of Nietzsche’s insights in The Genealogy of Morals, which are thoroughly elaborated by Maurizio Lazzarato in his own trenchant account of neoliberalism in The Making of Indebted Man.  I also build on Brown’s argument that neoliberalism turns us all into “entrepreneurs of the self” seeking to increase indefinitely our own “personal capital” in the endless quest for an acceptable self-image and approval or recognition by others. 

Of course, if you read Marx through his chief work Capital, rather than through The Communist Manifesto, and put aside all the posturings and slogans of urban,  upper class “revolutionaries” who speak only for themselves, rather than for the working class, you discover mirabile dictum that the question of “value” is the very essence of Marxist theory in its most radical meaning since the get-go.

I blend into this particular mix the idea of “immaterial labor”, originally conceived by Pierre Bordieu, but technically consists in an expression coined by Lazzarato almost two decades ago as the new “labor theory of value” in the digital age.  Sometimes it is used interchangeably with the locution “post-Fordism.”  Of course, with “immaterial labor” comes “immaterial” or “symbolic” capitalism which no longer has as its controlling physical apparatus of factories, machinery, and assembly line workers but “big tech” operations in places like Silicon Valley and Mumbai along with their server farms and their reserve army of “data laborers.” 

Only in this new era of capitalism can you have a company like Facebook with a multi-billion-dollar capitalization whose only “product” happens to be “likes” and “shares” that are merely ethereal and virtual, not material, and are the new kind of global “commodity” that Jean Baudrillard on the threshold of the digital epoch described as purely virtual, as “simulacra”, as “hyperreality.” 

But what I also talk about in the book is the  character and ramifications of the deeper changes that have taken place with capitalism, particularly in the last quarter century since the beginnings of the digital transformation of the global economy.  As recently as a generation ago the preferred metonym for capitalism, a term first uttered by Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s, was “military-industrial complex.”  In the new economy, which as early as the 1980s we started describing as “post-industrial”, what we have instead is a phenomenon I term the “corporate-university-financial-information complex.” 

NP: In the book you seem to adopt the view of Lazzarato himself, a leading European Marxist, who depicts the contemporary American university as the heart of the beast of post-industrial capitalism, or what you call “progressive neoliberalism”.   Doesn’t that position provoke your readers, who are mostly academic? 

CR: I believe they need to be provoked.  But before I go there let me, first of all, let me make a more nuanced distinction between “capitalism” and “neoliberalism.”  The former is a word actually put into circulation by Marx himself in the early nineteenth century to epitomize the rapid accumulation of “capital” or “surplus value”, which has been around since the dawn of creation, as the grinding machinery of the industrial revolution, not to mention the “post-industrial” one we’re in now. 

“Liberalism”, a political as well as an ideological configuration (perhaps you can even name it an episteme in the broader sense Foucault talks about in The Order of Things) is concomitant with the industrial revolution.  Neoliberalism coincides with the post-industrial or digital revolution.  Those who say, “well, it’s just capitalism, and capitalism is always the same,” are not only ignorant, but miss entirely the point.  

The kind of “capital” that underlies the latest phase of capitalism makes all the difference, and the kind that underlies neoliberal capitalism is what Jean-Joseph Goux a while back denoted as “symbolic capital.”  Marx wouldn’t have it any other way.  That’s what the academic, financial, tech, governmental, and media behemoths all control these days, and these “captains” of the new symbol-making industries are almost exclusively “progressive”, are they not?  Thus post-industrial capitalism is ideologically sustained by a world view that Fraser, myself, and a few others find quite appropriate – “progressive neoliberalism.”

Circling back to what I said earlier in answer to your question, I think the academy definitely needs to be provoked in this subject area because they don’t realize how complicit they are in the predatory and exploitative process that has, as Marx called it, “immiserated” more and more people worldwide.  Growing immiseration in today’s world can be easily seen in the ever widening income gaps, not only in the developed but also the developing countries.  The economist Thomas Pikkety first demonstrated with overwhelming data a number of years back that growing inequality was indeed a deep and inexorable trend within post-industrial or “neoliberal” capitalism.

NP:  So if you keep citing Marx’s theory of political economy, who exactly is the “proletariat” these days, so far as your analysis goes?  Is it the “multitude”, as Hardt and Negri calls it, particularly the billions of people around the world marginalized according to their skin color, gender, cultural and religious identity, etc.

CR: No.  Absolutely not.  As Slavoj Žižek famously first pointed out in the 1990s, “multiculturalism” – as officially codified in today’s rampant forms of pseudo-activist “identity politics” – is the signature flourish of present day neoliberalism.  Neoliberalism commodifies “immiseration” as a system of fleeting, ineffective, personalized, symbolic gestures towards abstract “social justice” issues known as “slacktivism”, which social media has institutionalized and are spotlighted in the colloquial, but derogatory phrase “virtue signaling”, makes clear.  In the neoliberal system you can work yourself up into as angry a rage as you want over perceived injustices without ever lifting a finger or making any serious sacrifices in your own personal lifestyle or ever experiencing it from an “existential” standpoint other than witnessing video clips of it on YouTube, which themselves are often commodified.

Real marginalization is always economic marginalization, as the centrality of economic issues for all classes of economically disadvantaged people in all times and places prevails in any given “democratic” plebiscite or election.  That is not at all to say race, to be specific, does not play a huge role in the structural dynamics of marginalization itself, but it is always a form of relative marginalization, pitting one group who are often class victims of the same marginalization logic against each other on racial grounds in order to consolidate the power of the ruling classes.  It is not coincidental that historically the political clout of so-called “identity politics” is strongest when economic class differentials are maximal, or rapidly increasing.  That principle applies not only to the Jim Crow South in the late and early to mid-twentieth centuries but to much of Latin America today, especially those with large indigenous populations such as Bolivia. 

Because “identity politics” – wrongly termed “cultural Marxism” by neo-conservatives, though not without a grain of truth to it, even though it is not Marxism at all in the technical sense – has served in the last half-century as a way for the ruling neoliberal elites to prove to themselves their “progressive” bona fides while maintaining their visibly and not-so-visibly exploitative practices, I wryly term it the new “opiate” of both the ruling and the ruled classes.  The fact that so many of the most “progressive” cities historically, such as San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles, have the greatest income inequality and social misery these days should testify overwhelmingly to plausibility of this method of analysis.

NP: Okay, but you still haven’t really answered the question about who exactly is the “proletariat” these days?

CR: The term derives from the Latin proletarii which was used in the ancient Roman census to designate a class of people who owned no “property”.  Marx leveraged the word to indicate wage-earners who possessed nothing but their “labor power”, which they were forced to sell to the capitalist.  Under neoliberalism, where“ labor” means immaterial labor, the so-called “knowledge worker” is forced to sell his or her “labor power”, which is equivalent to their educational skills and training to the neoliberal “capitalist”, such as the banker, the global tech firm, the university bursar, or the foreign “capital investment” firm that owns the student loan or the slice of the national debt incurred to the federal government.  In fact, increasingly only a very few “own” anything anymore under the neoliberal form of capitalism, as Lazzarato argues, except the debtholder – the genuine “1 percent”, which is probably even less than that. 

Those who rattle on about the swiftly accelerating planetary trend of income inequality tend to harp on growth in income disparities, but the real metric of marginalization, or “immiseration”, is what in finance is known as “net worth”, or the balance of debt and assets.  More and more people, whether they are young professionals starting out their careers with huge student loan debt or immigrants compelled to take out “payday loans” to defray the rent, are becoming members of the “precariat”, a fashionable term that has come to replace the older one “proletariat.”  But, in essence, it means the exact same thing.

NP: One final question: what has all this to do with “political theology”?

CR:  The German jurist Carl Schmitt famously defined “political theology” as the recovery of the fundamental religious or “theological” meaning underlying what we normally consider to be “political” or “secular” terminology.  With more precision I hark back to Nietzsche “genealogical” approach, adopted by Foucault in his investigations into the origins of neoliberalism, which sees this effort at ferreting out the signification of both the “political”, and what historically has been known as “political economy”, as one of recovering the “valuational” discourse that props everything up.  Philosophically speaking, you might refer to this mode of inquiry as a quest for the deeper transcendental conditions of neoliberalism, which are far more moral and religious than they are “economic”. 

When Nietzsche described modern political thought as embodying the “Christian-moral view of the world”, he was anticipating its full flower in contemporary neoliberalism.

NP: Thanks so much for your observations and insights.

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).  His newest book is entitled Neoliberalism and Political Theology: From Kant to Identity Politics, (Edinburgh University Press, 2019).  He is also Senior Consulting Editor for The New Polis.