Adam Kotsko
The Political Theology of Neoliberalism

Adam Kotsko
The Political Theology of Neoliberalism

Neoliberalism is primarily considered an economic logic which promotes ideals of ‘free trade’, and reduces the role of government to a facilitator of deregulation and privatisation. But accompanying the economics has always been a particular worldview or ideology, and neoliberalism in fact relies on a whole social system of support and legitimation.

In his new book, Neoliberalism’s Demons, theologian and social theorist Adam Kotsko considers neoliberalism as a form of political theology, to understand how it functions in societies not only as a mode of economics, but also politically and culturally as a moral order. In this interview, I discuss with him some of the core ideas in the book.

Adam Kotsko teaches in the Shimer Great Books School of North Central College. He is the author, most recently, of Neoliberalism’s Demons (Stanford University, 2018) and The Prince of This World (Stanford University, 2016), and the translator of many works by Giorgio Agamben. Visit his professional site for more information about his work, including links to articles and interviews.

Adam Kotsko

In your book, you approach neoliberalism from the perspective of political theology. What does political theology bring to the analysis of neoliberalism?

Adam Kotsko: Political theology has meant many things since the term was coined in the early 1920s by the German jurist Carl Schmitt, and so I was aware going into this project that I was at the risk of trying to explain the unknown by the unknown. In the book, I try to define the term in a way that is faithful to the intentions of earlier political theologians like Schmitt, while also making it more broadly useful. Ultimately, I view political theology as the study of the structures and sources of legitimacy – of the ways that people attempt to answer the question of who should be in charge and why.

A lot of times, people think of political theology as a discipline that points out parallels between theological and political structures – for instance, the sovereignty of the executive branch bears comparison with the sovereignty of God – but I think that the focus on legitimacy allows us to account for why those parallels exist: namely, because both the theological and the political orders are asking for our trust, for our faith. Neoliberalism is no exception to that, though most analyses of neoliberalism as a system do no foreground those questions of how the system legitimates itself. READ MORE

One Question
Universal Basic Income

One Question
Universal Basic Income

One Question is a monthly series in which we ask leading thinkers to give a brief answer to a single question.

This month, we ask:

Do we need a Universal Basic Income?

With responses from: Julie Wark; Doug Henwood; Peter Frase; Heikki Patomaki; Danielle Guizzo & Will Stronge; Karl Widerquist; Anton Jäger & Daniel Zamora; Alyssa Battistoni; Danny Dorling; Francine Mestrum; Daniel Raventós; Louise Haagh.

Universal Basic Income

Julie Wark

Understanding that the ‘we’ in the question includes everybody then, from the human rights perspective, I say yes. A big yes because, if human beings have any valid claim of need at all, it is the basic right to a dignified material existence without which all other rights are impossible. Accordingly, human rights don’t float around outside political economy but must be grounded in social institutions and guaranteed by real mechanisms.

In the neoliberal system, human rights are given with declarations and snatched away by the real world. As great fortunes are made, human rights are trashed. And there’s a racist skewing here. Most victims are dark-skinned (just look at the world’s twenty poorest countries) but are subsumed as a colour-free group called ‘the poor’.

If we’re not already living in a dystopia, it’s just around the corner. You only have to read the recent (almost zombie-genre) Davos reports talking about rich people in strongholds and chaos reigning outside. States have created so many scapegoats: black kids who get shot by white cops, ‘bad-hombres’ immigrants, Muslim ‘terrorists’, homeless ‘felons’, ‘traitor’ journalists… Extreme injustice and cruelty, for example in the treatment of refugees, is normal. The planet itself is threatened.

Any struggle against this awful situation will require a political economy aiming at guaranteeing the right of existence for everyone, real freedom, and a decent standard of living (housing, education, health, culture, environment, etc.). Nobel laureate Herbert Simon writes that social capital belongs jointly to all members of society, so the producer should get a small share of the profits and the rest should be taxed and redistributed as an unconditional universal basic income. In This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein notes that the universal sense of basic income is that it could help to transform the way we treat our whole (social and physical) environment.

Basic income is possible. It can be financed. Any obstacle isn’t a problem of economics but of politics. So far, basic income is the best mechanism on offer for any project of trying to make real the three essential principles of universal human rights: justice, freedom and human dignity. And it holds out a viable means for attaining this. So the next question is, do we care enough to try? READ MORE

One Question
Marx at 200

One Question
Marx at 200

Karl MarxOne Question is a monthly series in which we ask leading thinkers to give a brief answer to a single question.

This month, to mark the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx’s birth on 5th May, we ask:

How has Marx influenced your thinking?

Responses from: Ursula Huws; Sven-Eric Liedman; Terrell Carver; Jayati Ghosh; Wolfgang Streeck; Frigga Haug; Lucia Pradella; Neil Faulkner; Lars T Lih; Esther Leslie; Guilherme Leite Gonçalves; Michael Roberts.

 

Ursula Huws

Marx helped me understand how capitalism works. There are many developments he did not predict, but he bequeathed us tools to unpick the business models and explain the processes by which capitalism continues to expand and develop, and the creative-destructive way it lurches from crisis to crisis, transforming labour and everyday life along the way. As he put it in the Communist Manifesto, ‘Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones’.

Using his concepts, we can see how the continuous need for expansion drives a voracious appetite to seek out new sites of accumulation and how this sucks more and more aspects of human activity within the scope of the market, opening up new opportunities for making money out of them. To quote again from his Communist Manifesto, ‘The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere’.

For me, the concept of ‘commodification’ is key to understanding these dynamics. In Marx’s day, industrialists took activities that were previously based in the household, such as weaving, sewing, making cleaning materials and preparing food, and, turned them into standard commodities, forming the basis for huge new industries. New machines played a key role in this. In our own times, new commodities are being generated from art and culture and the exploitation of the natural world, as well as many other aspects of daily life and sociality. We are turned into customers, even for such basic aspects of subsistence as health, clean water and the ability to communicate. This locks us into an ever-greater dependence on the market. To change this situation we will have to find a collective way to say ‘No’! READ MORE

One Question
Economic Crash

One Question
Economic Crash

One Question is a monthly series in which we ask leading thinkers to give a brief answer to a single question.

This month, we ask:

Are we heading for another economic crash?

Economic Crash

Wolfgang Streeck

I’m not a prophet. But there is no capitalism without the occasional crash, so if you will we are always heading for one. Inflation in the 1970s was ended by a return to ‘sound money’ in 1980, which begot deindustrialization and high unemployment, which together with tax cuts for the rich begot high public debt. When public debt became too high, fiscal consolidation in the 1990s had to be compensated, for macro-economic as well as political reasons, by capital market deregulation and private household debt, which begot the crash of 2008.

Now, almost a decade later, public debt is higher than ever, so is private debt; the global money volume has been steadily increasing for decades now; and the central banks are producing money as though there was no tomorrow, by buying up all sorts of debt with cash made ‘out of thin air’, which is called Quantitative Easing. While everybody knows that this cannot go on forever, nobody knows how to end it – same with public and private debt, same with the money supply. Something is going to happen, presumably soon, and it is not going to be pleasant. READ MORE