Neoliberalism, Populism, And Modern Transforms of Sovereignty – From The Doctrine of Discovery To The Capitalist “Thaumaturgy”, Part 1 (Carl Raschke)

The following is the first of a two-part series.

The Metapolitics of Sovereignty

The question of what constitutes the political is a question of first principles.  The question of the political versus politics in general – a distinction frequently drawn in the French language and in theory between le politique and la politique) – comes down to whether we are talking about so-called “first principles” in keeping with which political judgments are made, or about political behavior that assumes that such judgments are right and proper. Aristotle referred to the “scientific” quest for these first principles as metaphysics.  Thus any true science of politics, or political science, must be likewise be derived from a kind of metaphysics of politics.  As Ian Adams has argued, all “normative political theory” is in essence “a kind of metaphysics.” (269) 

Sometimes the metaphysics of politics, which is rarely an issue these days, is known as metapolitics.  The term “metapolitics” was first invented by the American poet and historian Peter Viereck in an effort to make some sense out of the monstrous metastasis of politics that was National Socialism.  Viereck in typical erudite, but flamboyant terms, described the German metastasis of the political as due somehow to a kind of Manichean struggle within the German soul between Kultur and civilization, with the latter as a tenebrous abyss of myth, mysticism, and collective sentimentality finally winning out.  Viereck was engaged in more of a psycho-historical bathoscopy than any exercise in political theory. 

But the main point of the book, and the context of the controversy its publication in the early 1940s at the start of World War II raised, was that “normative” politics is always in danger of slipping into a kind of collective madness when its grounding principles are so opaque or so compromised by historical trauma that “the political” as we are wont to understand it fails to function.  For the Germans Kultur was always a kind of heavenly kingdom that saturated the worldly.  The so-called Kulturkampf (literally “culture war”) of the late nineteenth century in Bismarck’s Germany was not merely a struggle between the authority of the church and the supremacy of the state, it was also a contest, as Viereck himself acknowledges, between Herder and Goethe. 

Goethe was a cosmopolitan and humanist of the old-school variety, the so-called “Renaissance man.”  Herder was an exponent of what at the time was known as Popularphilosophie,  the sentiment that great ideas must have some significant and galvanizing effect on the life of the people.  As a linguist, anthropologist, and historian as well as a philosopher Herder was convinced that the “first principles” of thought lie in the formative experience of a people with a common language and culture.  The German frame of reference for this kind of thinking is encapsulated in the broad, vague, but highly influential – and in the case of the Third Reich toxic – theory of the Volk

The insight, later formalized as the methodology we know as “historicism,” can be traced by way of etiology perhaps back to Luther’s theological revolution in the sixteenth century that sought to decipher the mysteries of God not through scholastic reasoning but through what later came to be known as the “plain sense” of Scripture, which even the unlettered through the illumination of the Holy Spirit could easily discern.  What the Kulturkampf did was eradicate all traces of “Catholic” (i.e., clerical and cosmopolitan) terminology from the body of signifiers that might mediate between “folk wisdom” and the universalistic epistemology of the Enlightenment. Thus the dominant German confession that was Lutheranism gradually dissolved into a crypto-mythic Germanic Volksreligion that ultimately came to be articulated in an official, political idiom by the Nazi regime.

Today we encounter a world where sundry parlances of metapolitics dominate familiar discourse.  Contrary to the way in which these discursive idioms are construed as part of the globalist lingua franca, these metapolitical symbolic systems are not necessarily “nationalistic.”  In fact, they are more and more what might be characterized as ethno-nationalistic, which does not necessarily imply some sort of “conservative” valorization of historically perduring and prevailing national cultures as much as aspirational, if not utopian, formularies for a politics of the future among groups who perceive themselves as historically marginalized and oppressed, or recently minoritized, as in the case of many contemporary white nationalist movements 

The principle applies as much to the Third Reich as to the Raza Unida party in America during the 1970s.   The notion of Germans as a superior “Aryan race” gained currency after the military disaster and political disorientation of 1918.  It was crafted to replace a failed, nationalistic politics with a universalized form of racial politics that transcended all state boundaries.  La Raza Unida, which arose as the Chicano counterpart of the Black Power movement at the same time, rejected the assimilation of Mexicanos into American electoral politics, but called for the creation of a separate political entity erasing national boundaries known as Aztlan (22).   

The name Aztlan was derived from speculations about the mythic homeland of the Aztec or Mexica people, who settled in the Valley of Mexico, and was often conceived, as Michael Pina puts it, as a “spiritual reality” that was destined to be either constituted or recovered as a “politico-territorial entity”(44).  Thus the spiritualization of a political conviction, or the politicization of a spiritual longing, is what metapolitics always comes down to.

But metapolitics itself, of which “identity politics” represents merely a surface perturbation of a broader and more volatile flux of disembedded, migratory symbols and what Benedict Anderson famously termed “imagined communities,” flourishes among the detritus from moldering eurochristian, conceptual  artifices and architectures that themselves were put in place to replace the decadent ancient symbols of divine tutelage and hegemony.  One of the most important theoretical milestones of the last forty years has been the rehabilitation of the ideas of Carl Schmitt, especially his writings on “political theology.”

Schmitt’s now almost axiomatic dictum that all “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts” (36) has served as the linchpin that binds together miscellaneous trajectories of both political theory and the history of religious thought, and not just the Jewish and Christian varieties.  What we might technically term Schmitt’s dictum has in turn refocused our attention in seeking to solve hitherto confusing conceptual problems of governance on his ancillary notion of sovereignty as a transposition into the political register of the principle of monotheism.  A unitary politics demands a monistic enunciation of its underlying a priori set of presuppositions, and these “transcendental” categories, as Kant termed them, are crystallized from the very “spiritual” ether in which politics normally functions. 

The multiplication of hard-core and “intersectionalized”, if not irreconcilable, political identities conversely corresponds to the proliferation of shadowy spiritual entities or “deities.”  Metapolitics, which often goes hand in hand with what is roughly known as “populist” politics, reflects the loss of the general sovereignty precept, which from Schmitt’s vantage point is based on a deep rule of exclusion.  Sovereignty, once situated in a substantive as well as holistic concept of the people where what Rousseau termed the volonté générale (“general will”), mirrors the unitary force of the one God, even if that divinity remain diffuse from a theological vantage point or represented only figuratively or metonymically in a ceremonial monarch.  To decode sovereignty as a political construct one must first map carefully the terrain in which the play of signifiers circulating around a transcendental signified, more often than not clothed in some kind of archaic religious costumery, can be found.    

The issue of “sovereignty” in accordance with the sweeping range of connotations in which the word is commonly allowed to roam, therefore, lays bare the transcendental space in which political theory and political theology as distinctive metaphysical reference frames for the analysis of what appear at first glance to be empirical, historical, or situational types of problems are secretly compelled to operate. 

Neoliberalism versus Populism

The increasingly visceral nature of politics (what is somewhat misleadingly tagged as its “polarization”) means only that its metaphysical skeletal anatomy is finally starting to wear through and become visible amid the putrefaction of once glittering political generalities such as “representative” and “constitutional” democracy.  The odium theologicum is metamorphosized into the vitium politicum

George Lakoff has characterized our predicament as a failure to grasp the dynamics of what he terms a “moral politics.”  Yet all politics is inherently moral. Polarization is not so much the consequence of a clash of moralistic “deep frames” (to employ Lakoff’s phraseology) as it is the outgrowth of the dichotomization of the transcendental principles that govern everyday political judgments, the institutionalization of a Manichean political theology shaping all iterations of everyday politics. 

The source of this Great Manichean Transformation of democratic politics at a global level has little to do with the history of political parties or the congenital patterns of political partisanship that stalk different countries, regions, or even “civilizations” in Samuel Huntington’s sense.  It has to do with the twilight of the age of social democracy as well as “socialism” in the general as well as Marxist meaning of the expression and the emergence of a gaping global socio-economic rift that spans many cultures and nations.  It is the great divide of neoliberalism versus populism.

I have attempted to sketch a genealogy of his divide in my earlier book Neoliberalism and Political Theology: From Kant to Identity Politics.  The argument centers on the necessity of reconceiving the slippery notion of “neoliberalism” in terms of progressive rather than neoconservative politics and the mechanisms by which ever more powerful “globalist” networks of economic power and social influence, particularly the new tech titans of industry allied with entrenched national bureaucracies, financial institutions, and transnational corporatized cognitive industries such as universities and news media, have ruthlessly combined to create almost overnight a new caste system in which the educated elites rule both ideologically and economically over the less educated, or the uneducated.  The 2020 election and its aftermath put the dangerous power of the global cognitive neoliberal elites on full display.  Global “progressive” neoliberalism, as I argued in the same context, corresponds to the twenty-first century version of colonialism.

The Great Manichean Transformation at the same time gives rise to a system of de-nationalized, but globalized dual sovereignties.  On the one hand, we have the neoliberal system itself.  It is not clear exactly what “sovereignty” means in the global neoliberal context.  Klaus Schwab, one of the premier theoreticians of a nationless global order earmarked by the neoliberal form of pure “governmentality” (in Foucault’s usage of the word) which he has come to dub “The Great Reset” and which he believes the worldwide onset of Covid 19 will make inevitable, hints that sovereign power should be located outside of government itself. 

In his earlier work The Fourth Industrial Revolution Schwab writes that “governments must also adapt to the fact that power is also shifting from state to non-state actors, and from established institutions to loose networks. New technologies and the social groupings and interactions they foster allow virtually anyone to exercise influence in a way that would have been inconceivable just a few years ago” (67-8).

Before Covid Schwab envisioned a world where the new sovereignty of influence would be derived primarily from the velocity of change itself and unlimited human mobility from one sector of the planet to another. “The fusion of the physical, digital and biological worlds,” Schwab surmised, “will further transcend time/space limitations in such a way as to encourage mobility.” He adds: “one of the challenges of the fourth industrial revolution will therefore be the governance of human mobility to ensure that its benefits are fully realized by aligning sovereign rights and obligations with individual rights and aspirations, reconciling national and human security and finding ways to maintain social harmony in the midst of increasing diversity” (83).

Interestingly, the pandemic with its clampdown on the mobility of populations, even at national level, did not force Schwab to revise in any significant way either his predictions or his prescriptions.  Now it is the global threat itself to health, livelihoods, and social well-being that must force the same drastic “reset” of global order on the main.  Whereas earlier he imagined the supersession of national governments by “non-state actors”, in The Great Reset Schwab conceives a growing alliance between expanded national bureaucracies within existing welfare states and transnational corporations who have more of an interest in promoting defined social goals within the political and legal settings in which they conduct their business. 

But “sovereignty” (a term that Schwab refrains from using), if we may call it that, still will be lodged among “expert” cadres of cosmopolitan elites.  It is only these de-nationalized national leaders, ironically, who can save us from ourselves.  “Unless individual nations and international organizations succeed in finding solutions to better collaborate at the global level, we risk entering an ‘age of entropy’ in which retrenchment, fragmentation, anger and parochialism will increasingly define our global landscape, making it less intelligible and more disorderly.” (105)

The New Global Class Struggle

The other pole of global, de-nationalized sovereignty comes down to those who increasingly have little power, and no voice, in the neoliberal system of administration, which has come to be dominated by the knowledge classes as the new satraps of a digital technocracy.  The regime of neoliberalism that constrains extreme social stratification through differentiation of cognitive skills training is what has come to be known as a “meritocracy.”  While economic advancement and status mobility through education has always been at the heart of the modern democratic experiment, neoliberalism has thoroughly flipped the traditional script by making it ever more difficult, if not impossible, to participate in the process of social transformation. 

As Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel puts it, “today’s meritocracy has hardened into a hereditary aristocracy” (24).  This new hereditary caste structure derives from the hierarchical and inequitable apparatus of education that molds minds, personal identities, family arrangements, job possibilities, and life expectations as early as pre-school while ruthlessly and rigorously reproducing itself from one generation to the next.  It also, as Sandel argues, creates its own feedback loop with reinforcing impact on everything from affordable housing to health care. 

Sandel does not mince words in describing what is taking place around us

Those who celebrate the meritocratic ideal and make it the center of their political project overlook this moral question. They also ignore something more politically potent: the morally unattractive attitudes the meritocratic ethic promotes, among the winners and also among the losers. Among the winners, it generates hubris; among the losers, humiliation and resentment. These moral sentiments are at the heart of the populist uprising against elites. More than a protest against immigrants and outsourcing, the populist complaint is about the tyranny of merit. And the complaint is justified. (25)  

The runaway trend toward a sclerotic meritocracy is part of the metapoliticization of all politics as well.  A metapolitics is one in which the robust play of democratic demands and interests metastasizes into a tumult of aleatory dreams, desires, and fantasies spun from carefully nurtured resentments and grievances.  Such a metapolitics depends on the persistence of a broadly dichotomized “body politic” fatefully split down the middle between those “in the know” and those deprived of the kind of knowledge necessary to make a living, or enjoy the blessings of personal dignity and peer recognition.  This new schizoid reality is becoming more and more evident not so much within the familiar scaffoldings of national politics as in a theater of often violent confrontations between ad hoc groupings indicating a new but still inchoate global class struggle

Unfortunately, it is well-nigh impossible for classical Marxist theorists to make easy sense of this new class struggle.  Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union and the shift of turnkey Communist nations such as China away from radical egalitarianism toward a neo-Confucian, crony capitalist form of socio-economic organization increasingly resembling classical imperialism, the burden of Marxist theorizing has passed from the champions of the actual working class to the academic and university-centered cognitive elites. 

The result is strangely what Marx wrote sardonically in The German Ideology about the “Young Hegelians” such as Strauss, Stirner, and Feuerbach.   The academic Marxist focus on “materialist” (especially “new materialist”) readings of cultural and symbolic differentia such as race and gender over the last half century at the expense of genuine class analysis amounts simply to a “demand to interpret reality in another way.”  Like the Young Hegelians of yore, these academic Marxists “in spite of their allegedly ‘world-shattering’ statements, are the staunchest conservatives.”

In an eerie anticipation of what today’s conservatives gratuitously dub “cultural Marxism” and the popular argot labels “political correctness,” Marx sneered that “the most recent of them have found the correct expression for their activity when they declare they are only fighting against ‘phrases’,” while “they forget, however, that to these phrases they themselves are only opposing other phrases, and that they are in no way combating the real existing world when they are merely combating the phrases of this world”(13).

“Marxism”, if there ever were such a thing in the sense of an historical movement that actually privileged the working class over all other classes, has at least always given lip service to the latter, and has in those distinctive moments of revolutionary crisis actually taken concrete steps to ameliorate both their feelings of indignity and real world suffering.   Focusing on the “phrases of the world” (e.g., the policing of speech not only in higher education but throughout society corporate tech behemoths gorged on the “capital”, or surplus value, from liquidated material labor) as a faux revolutionary gesture that masks rampant economic exploitation and the consolidation of class divisions into a permanent caste system has all along been the hallmark of “progressive neoliberalism.” 

It has used the social markers of former systems of exploitation (e.g., racial capitalism, the codification of female domestic labor as industrial wage labor, the symbolical re-constitution of long-standing systems for dividing up the working class through the grant of “white privilege”) to entrench itself as the true masters and mistresses of the universe.  Weaponizing phrases of common speech as a strategy in order to solidify a global, oligarchic regime under the pretense of emancipation (albeit only semantically) for the world’s multitudes has been one of the slyest ruses of capital that not even a cynic such as Lenin could have imagined. 

If Lenin had reputedly made the remark that the socialists would sell to the capitalists the rope by which to hang themselves, what he did not anticipate was how the capitalists would ingeniously only pretend to string the noose around themselves, then secretly hang the socialists and assume their stolen identity.  If Marx set about changing the world instead of re-interpreting it, his wily heirs would succeed in radically re-interpreting what such “change” meant, so that the old French idiom would once again truly prevail – plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.  Bismarck – and later the Keynesian policy-makers of both fascist and democratic nations during the interwar years -would discover how to buy off, or “co-opt”, the threat of proletarian revolution through elaborating a sentimental political rhetoric of “social democracy”, while simultaneously locking in place an institutional architecture for their new Sozialstaat.  

Neoliberalism as the Metapolitics of the Commodified Self

But neoliberalism carried the trend even further, according to Anita Chari, by radically separating the Sozialstaat from democratic politics.  Redefining the economic struggle strictly in terms of the “politics of recognition”, or “identity politics” – Chari uses the phrase politics of “intersubjectivity” – served, in effect, to de-politicize the totality of the emergent neoliberal hegemony.  The result has been, according to Chari, a “surplus of normativity” whereby authentic political claims, which always involve a measure of demand for addressing economic inequities, are now reduced to a conflict of discursive status markers derived from a profusion of socially or historically contextless moral judgments concerning who is “marginalized” or mistreated or left out. 

Divorced in its entirety from “the logics of capital,” this system of discursive markers (Marx’s “phrases”) purports to fight the virtuous fight with only the most casual regard for the embedded relationships of economic production.  Chari blames the Frankfurt School itself for attenuating the original Marxist critique of political economy into a kind of cultural-linguistic formalism.  She notes that such “theoretical formalism plays into neoliberal forms of depoliticization in contemporary society because the neoliberal state relies on liberal normativity for legitimation, yet in practice overrides the separation between economics and politics upon which liberal normativity is based” (218). 

The neoliberal focus on a rhetorically stylized and ritualized politics of pure normativity, which begs except again at a purely formal level the issue of exploitation and maldistribution of both the means and outcomes of social and economic production, is what in Chari’s analysis is the secret to its very staying power.  The notion of emancipation as formal, or gestural, rather than as a material rupture at some level tellingly factors out the core element of the Marxist critique of political economy, which is its emphasis on overcoming alienation.  The separation between the modern and the postmodern paradigms of subjectivity from a classical Marxist perspective rests on this distinction.  Neoliberalism turns belonging into a simple act of signification in accordance with the semiotics through which one “self-identifies” rather than any kind of perceptible or material ensemble of dynamic human relationships. 

Neoliberalism, therefore, is the metapolitics of the commodified self that is both fantasized and fetishized as a great global “reset” of human relationships.  In the modern period  the commodified self – the “rational actor”, as it came to be known in the late twentieth century , or the bearer of “liberty” in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – has always served as a contentless signifier for classical liberalism.  But in the era if neoliberal hegemony it has been reworked to simulate some sort of phantasmal, transnational iconography of human solidarity – for example, the idea of the “global citizen,” or what Wendy Brown has termed “responsibilization”, that is, “forcing the subject to become a responsible self-investor and self-provider”, one which “reconfigures the correct comportment of the subject from one naturally driven by satisfying interests to one forced to engage in a particular form of self-sustenance that meshes with the morality of the state and the health of the economy” (84). 

The obverse of this dystopian idealism turns out to be specter of the global populist rabble, mythicized in the increasingly paranoid, neoliberal political unconscious and accorded its baleful , historical site of metonymy in the American regime of Donald Trump from 2016-2020. This paranoia, which ironically has launched a whole new professional type immured in the psycho-politics of “Trumpism” that looks beyond a mere public figure where, according to William Doherty,  “public behavior represents the triumph of the antitherapeutic—a lionizing of the unexamined life where personal insecurities are boldly projected onto the world and where self-serving beliefs become public facts” (352-3).

Whether the public behavior of our cognitive elites in the age of Trump does not simply mirror such bombastic denigration of the working classes through the classic psychoanalytical mechanism of collective projection is a question in itself.  The working classes themselves, envisioned as increasingly irrelevant to the new economy of virtual goods and services, loom ever larger in the neoliberal planetary imaginary as a dark, encompassing populist sea of demoniac desires and atavistic impulses.  Cast irredeemably beyond the boundary buoys of civil society, they are destined for the collective fate of social and cultural erasure for all of time past and all of time moving forward, vanishing with the entire flotsam and jetsam of human history at unmarked watery grave sites over which future cognitive cartographers will write, as was done for the ancient mariners who might venture past the pillars of Hercules, “beyond here be monsters.”

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.

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