July 29, 2021

Neoliberalism And The Illusion Of Sovereignty, Part 1 (Carl Raschke)

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

In the preface to his book Emancipations, published in 1996, the distinguished Argentinian political theorist Ernesto Laclau writes:

If we wanted briefly to characterize the distinctive features of the first half of the 1990s, I would say that they are to be found in the rebellion of various particularisms – ethnic, racial, national and sexual – against the totalizing ideologies which dominated the horizon of politics in the preceding decades. We could say that, in some way, the Cold War was – in the ideologies of its two protagonists – the last manifestation of the Enlightenment: that is, that we were dealing with ideologies which distributed the ensemble of the forces operating in the historical arena in two opposite camps, and which identified their own aims with those of a global human emancipation.(vii)

According to Laclau, such emancipatory projects have lost their “globality”.    Whatever the sign of the new vision of politics which is emerging is going to be,” he writes, “it is clear that one of its basic dimensions is going to be the redefinition of the existing relation between universality and particularity. How is the unity – as relative as one wants – of the community to be viewed, when any approach to it must start from social and cultural particularisms not only stronger than in the past but constituting also the element defining the central imaginary of a group? Does not this imaginary exclude any identification with more universalhuman values?” (vii-viii).

The Hegelian posit that the universal only manifests itself in the form of the particular, which in turn then discloses itself as something far more than any particular instance, has always been at the basis of every modern “emancipatory” schema.  It is characteristic of both liberalism and socialism, even we detect no whiff of German idealism or Hegelian speculative reason.  In the former the particularism that becomes the portage for the sign of the universal is the deliberative individual, the “rational actor” as latter day versions of neoliberalism have described it.  In the latter it is the proletariat, Marx’s “universal class.” 

What is insidious about our present day refusal of concretized universals, Laclau observes, is that the assertion of “particularities” as unique and indivisible social identities undermines the very notion of society itself.  “’Particularism’ is an essentially relational concept: something is particular in relation to other particularities and the ensemble of them presupposes a social totality within which they are constituted. So, if it is the very notion of a social totality that is in question, the notion of ‘particular’ identities is equally threatened. The category of totality continues haunting us through the effects that derive from its very absence.” (13)

Neoliberalism at its very core radiates this spectral totality.  Through the regime of such seductive but utterly contentless signifiers as “diversity”, “inclusion”, or “multiculturalism”, neoliberalism promises an emancipatory option for certain clients or constituencies who have historically been denied voice and visibility within previous social or political ensembles of status or power.  As I have written, “neoliberalism hybridized…libertarian proclivities with the new-found range for ‘social justice’.” (22).  Or as the noted economist and geographer David Harvey has put it, “neoliberal rhetoric, with its foundational emphasis upon individual freedoms, has the power to split off libertarianism, identity politics, multiculturalism, and eventually narcissistic consumerism from the social forces ranged in pursuit of social justice through the conquest of state power”.(41) 

Neoliberalism promises recognition without autonomy, participation without sovereignty.  In its furtive shadow play of emancipatory simulacra, it purports to reverse the tragic dialectic of subjection and abjection by elaborating a “globality” of disparate collectivities that are now afforded recognition as equal in their historic abuse or maltreatment.  They are for the first time no longer neglected in the prevailing schemes of representation concerning what is “human”.  They have been reincorporated into the newest version of the “great chain of being” from which the modern/colonial matrix of power extruded them.  According to Sylvia Wynter, the colonial/modern matrix of power emerged as the secularized sequel to the Medieval, clerical ordo salutis.

“The medieval world’s idea of order as based upon degrees of spiritual perfection/imperfection, an idea of order centered on the Church, was now to be replaced by a new one based upon degrees of rational perfection/imperfection. And this was to be the new ‘idea of order’ on whose basis the coloniality of being, enacted by the dynamics of the relation between Man – overrepresented as the generic, ostensibly supracultural human – and its subjugated Human Others (i.e., Indians and Negroes) together with…the continuum of new categories of humans…was to be brought into existence as the foundational basis of modernity.” (288) The neoliberal upgrade of the modern/colonial matrix of power is designed all along to reverse this process, but not for any obvious “emancipatory” purpose. 

Its aim is sanctify as well as codify the pluralistic dispersion of the remnants of “subjugated Human Others” as a global project of presumably restorative justice carried out by corporate and state agents that does not in any serious way disrupt the very system of capital accumulation and the reproduction of cosmopolitan class privilege.  Quite the contrary.  The structure of social representation propagated by the ideology of the new “progressive” neoliberalism, which purports to transpose the old matrix, actually cements and durably embeds a far more surreptitious “coloniality of being” that converts the symbolic markers of those previously underrepresented subjectivities into moral trophies for an emergent “rainbow” consortium of divergent ethnicized, racialized, and of course gendered elites. 

Just as the “postcolonial” moment created the occasion for an ascent to permanent hegemony on the part of the once submissive administrative professionals, who had learned to please their colonial masters while safeguarding the interests of their native constituencies, so the neocolonial coup d’etat of the global neoliberal transnational financial apparatus opens the way for select representatives of the previously underrepresented to perform for the self-gratification of the cosmopolitan elites the charade of emancipation when in reality nothing at the ground level has changed at all. 

As Laclau stresses, the progressive neoliberal trope of pure “inclusion” for every instance of difference contradicts the very emancipatory logic which it claims to manifest.  That is because “the discourses of emancipation have been historically constituted through the putting together of two incompatible lines of thought: one that presupposes the objectivity and full representability of the social, the other whose whole case depends on showing that there is a chasm which makes any social objectivity ultimately impossible.” (5).

In Laclau’s view, shared by Alain Badiou in his book on Saint Paul as the “foundation of universalism”, Christianity consists in the first genuine emancipatory mythology because it brooks no compromise between the order of the world and the plan of redemption.  It l’eventment without precedent that splits open the putatively inseverable seams of cosmic consistency.  “The Christian vision of history,” Laclau comments, exposes “the incommensurability existing between the universality of thetasks to be performed and the limitations of the finite agents in charge of them.”(9)  Satan is no longer merely a “bad boy” who ultimately can be tamed, domesticated, or absorbed as a functionary within the divine economy of multiple spiritual operations and agencies.  Satan is now the adversary who must be defeated once and forever by Christ who is longer a conjugate of cosmic homeostasis, but one who puts all the countervailing forces of creation “under his feet.” 

Jesus is indeed, as the Book of Revelation calls him, cosmocrator.  Such a “dichomotic dimension”, as Laclau terms it, that belongs uniquely to the logic of emancipation passes over into such “secular eschatologies” as Marxism, which require “a universal actor who is beyond the contradictions between particularity and universality, or rather, one whose particularity expresses in a direct way, without any system of mediations, pure and universal human essence.” (11)  In the latter case that “universal actor” is the proletariat.

In neoliberalism, however, there is no universal actor.  There is only an expansive troupe of walk-ons, stand-ins, and disposable “extras” with fungible roles that vary according to the distinctive political script that the corporate-financial-educational hegemons choose to pacify specific populations.  The proletariat has been rubbed from the ledger of history through the formation of an interlocking, but invisible network of what in social media parlance are known as “influencers”.  The proliferation of “marginalized” identities that need to be acknowledged and represented within their appropriate cultural narratives and social ecologies guarantees that no one particularity can have serve as the torchbearer for a salvific history. 

Each particularity thus becomes, like a winking bulb on a string of outdoor Christmas lights, a mere ephemeron within a kaleidoscope of shifting popular oddities and sympathies, all of which constitute part of a gridlocked taxonomy (“race, class, gender”, etc.) within the neoliberal imaginary that pretends to liberate but simply enforces empire. 

Neoliberalism as a vast and tentacular cognitive as well as social control apparatus thus does in one important sense play the subtle role of “satanic” deceiver, substituting semblance for substance.  It simulates emancipation by muddling representation with redemption.  It refuses the necessary “incarnation” of the universal in the redemptive or “revolutionary” particular in order to spin like a venomous spider’s web an imperceptible hegemony that relies exclusively on a systemic discursivity singled out by its unique capacity to name and shame those multitudes who bear responsibility for human suffering. 

It follows the trajectory Gilles Deleuze so aptly describes in his analysis of Foucault’s odyssey as diagnostician of the historical transition from the disciplinary to the “control” society which turns about the axis of “knowledge/power.”  For Foucault, Deleuze argues, “the subjectivation of the free man is transformed into subjection: on the one hand it involves being ‘subject to someone else by control and dependence’, with all the processes of individuation and modulation which power installs, acting on the daily life and the interiority of those it calls its subjects; on the other it makes the subject ‘tied to his own identity by a conscience or self-knowledge’, through all the techniques of moral and human sciences that go to make up a knowledge of the subject.”(103)  

That is precisely the stratagem by which neoliberalism foments the illusion of sovereignty.   Sovereignty intrudes as an empty signifier.  Everyone is now a “global citizen”, and everyone is at the same time “represented”.  Yet no one has any genuine agency, other than the right to consume or to make the increasingly ritualized but meaningless discursive gesture that one seeks to “save the planet”.  The semantic confidence game that is neoliberalism, especially its now dominant “progressive” variant, derives from the dubious premise that politics itself can function apart from a “transcendental” starting point that coincides with a discreet metapolitics of sovereignty

For all his faults Schmitt soundly demonstrated that politics is impossible without robust affirmation of the principle of sovereignty.  Although “sovereignty” is not an ascendant term in Laclau’s technical vocabulary, he makes the telling observation that “a pure particularism which does away entirely with any kind of universal principle” is impossible. “There is no way that a particular group living in a wider community can live a monadic existence – on the contrary, part of the definition of its own identity is the construction of a complex and elaborated system of relations with other groups. And these relations will have to be regulated by norms and principles which transcend the particularism of any group.”(48)  Sovereignty itself entails the expression of some universal intuition, if not an actual signifying process, in a concrete particular. 

Until the advent of the modern era the consensus gentium, or “common sense”, associated it with the person of the monarch, as Bodin makes clear.  That consensus was finally rationalized by Hobbes in his identification of state with sovereign as an “artificial human being”, but it was not until Rousseau in his Social Contract redefined sovereignty as la volonté générale or “the general will” that the issue became thorny and problematic for political philosophy.  Though not the first to articulate the idea, Rousseau was the first thinker effectively to establish the rule that sovereignty must be separate from governance, as Richard Tuck notes. (134). 

It was the inability of political theorists from Aristotle forward to entertain the possibility that sovereignty and office-holding could be separated from each other that fueled the congenital distrust of democracy.  The administrative state, no matter how concentrated or “absolute”, was automatically assumed to carry out what of necessity constituted the exercise of “sovereignty”.  And since in Christendom at least the actual sovereign was regarded as a monarchial God ruling over a multitude of peoples, a monopolitics that projected outward from himself an enormous and scopious realm, which even under the Doctrine of Discovery could be inflated to demand incorporation of subjects who were not even Christian was the invariable outcome.

Carl Raschke is Professor of Philosophy of Religion 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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