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
1968

One Question
1968

One 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 50th anniversary of the events of May 1968, we ask:

How Should We Remember 1968?

With responses from: Lewis Gordon; Rachel Harrison; Françoise Vergès; Daniel A Gordon; Max Elbaum; Robyn C Spencer; Gabriel Rockhill; Stephen Milder; Sarah Lincoln; Eric Mann; Ron Jacobs; Nadia Yala Kisukidi; R A Judy; Leo Zeilig; Catherine Samary; Stephen D’arcy.

Internationale Vietnam Konferenz 1968

Lewis Gordon

We should combat the hegemonic, whitewashed historical misrepresentation of 1968. That year was one of upheavals across the globe, yet dominant discussions are of white college students taking over universities and mostly white people protesting against the Vietnam War.

Understanding 1968 as part of a period from 1966 whose arc reached into the mid-1970s, we should remember Indigenous people’s struggles, new formulations of Black Power, poor people’s campaigns, women’s liberation and queer movements, and, beyond North America and Europe, we should remember uprisings and ongoing practices of decolonisation across the African continent, Asia, Australasia, and Latin America.

It is significant that 1968 and now 2018 call for reflections on the lives of freedom fighters. This year Frederick Douglass and Karl Marx would have been 200.  Nelson Mandela would have been 100.   We lost such fighters as Mamma Winnie Madikizela-Mandela of Azania/South Africa, the Black Liberation Theologian James Cone, the great physicist Stephen Hawking, the Corsican liberationist Ghjuvan’Teramu Rocchi, the revolutionary jazz pianist Cecil Taylor, and so many more in the first half of 2018.

We should reflect on the global demand for freedom, marked by struggles for liberation and social justice.  This requires also thinking through mistakes of what is generally called ‘the left’.   While ‘the right’ unabashedly pursued power in their counter-revolutionary endeavours, an unfortunate development since the late 1960s is the left’s seeming allergy to power.  This has had a catastrophic effect of the right seeking and acquiring rule with the left locked in a pattern of reaction in the form of protest as the primary expression of political life.

Power is the ability with access to the means to make things happen.  It is crucial to understand that protest without power is ineffective.  A both-and approach is needed.   Disempowering fascism, new forms of colonisation, and unbridled capitalism, whose reach now threatens the ecological welfare of life on our planet, requires embracing positive power – empowering – through the building of institutions conducive to dignity, intelligence, and material conditions of freedom. READ MORE

One Question
International Women’s Day
(Part Two)

One Question
International Women’s Day
(Part Two)

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

This month, to mark International Women’s Day on March 8th, we asked a number of women academics:

What is the biggest challenge facing women today?

The response has been huge. Overall we have received 25 answers, and as such have split them into two parts. Part one can be found here. Please take the time to read through both.

International Women's Day
Sara R. Farris

I think we should begin by acknowledging that not all women are the same and not all of them face the same challenges. The brutality of neoliberal capitalism in the last twenty years or so – with its anti-welfare agenda, its profound class inequalities and its intensification of racism – has deepened the divisions among women along class and racial lines in particular, but also along gender lines when we think of the exclusion that trans-women encounter in some feminist and women’s circles.

While the women belonging to the wealthy 1% of the population – and I am thinking of course of the ‘neoliberal feminists’ à la Sheryl Sandberg – face the challenge of feeling in full control of the corporate boardrooms and making even more money, the large majority of women, or the 99%, have the problem of making ends meet. Migrant and ethnic minority women face additional challenges insofar as the racism ingrained in western labour markets and societies at large relegates them to the most precarious, low-paid and under-valued jobs in the socially reproductive sector (as cleaners, nannies, domestic workers and so forth). READ MORE

One Question
International Women’s Day
(Part One)

One Question
International Women’s Day
(Part One)

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

This month, to mark International Women’s Day on March 8th, we asked a number of women academics:

What is the biggest challenge facing women today?

The response has been so great that we have split the answers into two parts. Please take the time to read through both.

International Women's Day

Cinzia Arruzza

If I had to summarise in a slogan the greatest challenge women face today, I would say that ‘taking feminism back’ is the one. From the 1990s onwards, contrary to the past, in a number of countries formal gender equality and the recognition of formal rights for LGBTQ people has ceased to be a taboo. Even right-wing political forces have started to adopt some form of ‘feminist’ discourse to justify their policies. The most notable phenomena in this sense are those recently labelled as ‘homonationalism’ and ‘femonationalism’, that is, the mobilisation of ideas of gender and sexual equality stemming from feminism and gay liberation struggles in order to justify military aggressions.

This, of course, is not a novel phenomenon as women’s bodies and ‘liberation’ have been instrumentalised by colonial forces already before. But neoliberal capitalism has managed to both exhume and greatly expand this practice. Besides this adoption of feminist slogans by nationalist and neoliberal forces, we have also witnessed an increasing capacity of right-wing or conservative parties to endorse women’s leadership: Sarah Palin, Marine Le Pen, Theresa May, Angela Merkel and Giorgia Meloni are only some examples of this phenomenon, which shows all the limits of a formalistic approach to gender equality and the representation of women in elected institutions.

The candidature of Hillary Clinton in the US presidential election of 2016 also marked the impasse of the liberal feminist approach to gender equality. Hillary Clinton, in fact, embodied the kind of lean-in feminism that privileges the experience and aspirations of upper middle class women, while leaving the rest behind. Her candidature also symbolised the disconnection between women’s representation in elected institutions and the improvement of the large majority of women’s lives.

The challenge we face today is, therefore, to retrieve feminism as a force of social transformation for all women – starting from the liberation of working class, migrant, trans women and women of colour – and as a form of critique of social relations in their complexity, starting from capitalism and its effects on women’s lives. Together with other feminist authors and activists I have labelled this anticapitalist and antiracist feminism as ‘feminism for the 99%’, by which we understand a class-based feminism capable of being a force of transformation not just for women, but also for what we understand by class struggle, and for the life on this planet as a whole. READ MORE

Kathi Weeks
The Work Ethic, Gender and a ‘Postwork’ Future

Kathi Weeks
The Work Ethic, Gender and a ‘Postwork’ Future

Economic realities in recent years have begun to highlight problems with dominant attitudes to work. The idea of paid work as an ethical obligation or an inevitable part of daily life is called into question as decent, stable work becomes harder to find and maintain. But there is still a long way to go before this challenge to common assumptions can have a real political impact and change the social distribution of work. In her work, Kathi Weeks deals with such issues, from how the modern work ethic functions ideologically to how gender division and the family unit remain central to the meaning of work and how it is valued. She also considers the future of work, and the kinds of measures necessary to tackle the on-going crisis. The following interview focuses on these important issues.

Kathi Weeks is a professor of Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies at Duke University. Her primary interests are in the fields of political theory, feminist theory, Marxist thought, the critical study of work, and utopian studies. She is currently working on a genealogy of U.S. Marxist feminist thought. She is the author of Constituting Feminist Subjects (Cornell UP, 1998; Verso, 2018) and The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics and Postwork Imaginaries (Duke UP, 2011), and a co-editor of The Jameson Reader (Blackwell, 2000).

Gerd Arntz

At the beginning of your book, The Problem with Work, you question why so many people still seem willing to work so hard, and why work is still so often valued above other pursuits. As you say, ‘The mystery here is not that we are required to work or that we are expected to devote so much time and energy to its pursuit, but rather that there is not more active resistance to this state of affairs.’[1] But do you think that at least certain alternative ideas about work, such as Universal Basic Income (UBI), are beginning to gain mainstream traction? Are the contradictions between the ideal and the reality of work becoming too great to ignore?

Kathi Weeks: I do think that at least some of the key problems with work are becoming more legible within mainstream public discourse. Of course, the many contradictions between the ideals and the realities of work are longstanding, if not, to one degree or another, inherent to capitalist political economies. One way to approach this terrain would be to distinguish between the problem of quantity and the problem of quality.

First, there is the perennial contradiction between a political system of income distribution that revolves around waged work and an economic system that does not provide an adequate number of jobs. This quantitative contradiction may well be intensifying: although the system’s health has always depended on a margin of unemployment, not only did the crisis of 2008 expand the pool of unemployed and underemployed workers, the inclusion of more economically and/or occupationally privileged people in these ranks has resulted in a little more mainstream attention to the issue.

Second, there is the equally familiar problem of the quality of the employment available to us: a contradiction between, on the one hand, what it is we imagine that work should be like and what work should do for us as individuals, family members and citizens, and, on the other hand, the interminably stultifying and dreadfully demeaning realities of the daily grind in most jobs.

This general contradiction may also be sharpening insofar as the dominant mythology of work continues to expand its claims about how we should “do what we love,” “love what we do,” and cultivate an intimate relationship to work as a site of personal development and social belonging. But whereas the problem of quantity may be more visible in public discourse, it seems to me that the problem of quality is still too often ignored in these venues.

Although I think a basic income guarantee should be advocated as a response to—though certainly not a cure for—both the quantitative and qualitative problems of income generating work, my sense is that it is most often considered by the popular media lately in relation to the prospect of further technological unemployment rather than as a way to improve the qualities of our lives by lessening our dependence on work. READ MORE