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

Anamik Saha
On Race and the Media

Anamik Saha
On Race and the Media

The question of how race is represented in the media remains as pertinent as ever. Most notably, the social media campaign #Oscarssowhite has highlighted the continued racial imbalance within the Hollywood film industry, but this low level representation of racial difference, as well as its misrepresentation, are issues that cut across all forms of mainstream news and entertainment media. In his new book, Race and the Cultural Industries (Polity, 2018), Anamik Saha explores the politics of racial representation in popular culture. He focuses especially on how cultural industries, such as music, TV and film, actually function to exclude or stereotype racial minorities, often by following capitalist logics. Here, I discuss with him some of the central points he raises in the book.

Anamik SahaAnamik Saha is a Lecturer in the Department of Media and Communications, Goldsmiths, University of London. Anamik’s research interests are in race and the media, with a particular focus on cultural production and the cultural industries. He has had his work published in journals including Media, Culture and SocietyEthnic and Racial Studies, and European Journal of Cultural Studies. With David Hesmondhalgh (2013) he co-edited a special issue of Popular Communication on race and ethnicity in cultural production, and with Dave O’Brien, Kim Allen and Sam Friedman (2017) he co-edited a special issue of Cultural Sociology on inequalities in the cultural industries. His new book Race and the Cultural Industries came out in 2018, published by Polity Press.

In your recent book, Race and the Cultural Industries, you analyse how commodified mass media represents or constructs conceptions of race. Could you briefly summarise the importance of your approach, and how it enables us to understand the mechanisms of representation surrounding race and ethnicity in popular culture?

Anamik Saha: In a nutshell, I am interested in the production of representation of race in the context of the cultural industries. That is, how cultural industries make race. This I feel is a neglected area of study. In media and race research, the main concern is with how racial and ethnic minorities are (mis)represented in the news or in popular culture. Such research mostly entails examining how a particular representation of racial or ethnic minorities works at the point of reception/consumption. But there’s little understanding of how that representation came to be made in the first place. And surely that should have some bearing on how we understand that particular text?

For instance, while this may not be their main motivation, for many cultural producers from minority backgrounds – whether an author, a scriptwriter, a filmmaker, or a musician – one aim is to challenge a particular racial or ethnic stereotype through the stories they are creating. But very often they will encounter (white) creative managers, for instance an editor, a producer or executive, who, armed with sales data, market research, or even just a ‘gut feeling’, will attempt to steer the author/filmmaker/playwright into reproducing the very trope they were trying to undermine in the first place, on the basis that it will work better with the ‘mainstream’ audience. This explains those instances where we find minorities behind the making of what we deem problematic representations of race.

I argue that having this insight into the production process, at a basic level, will shed new light on how we read and interpret the cultural commodity in question. But more than that, it points us to the question of where exactly we need to stage interventions: during the process of industrial cultural production itself. A key argument of the book is that we need to couple a ‘politics of representation’ with a ‘politics of production’, that is, a focus not just on the stories we want to tell, but how we make them. READ MORE

One Question
Democracy

One Question
Democracy

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:

Is democracy working?

President Trump

Jeremy Gilbert

The question of whether democracy is working obviously depends on what we mean by ‘democracy’ and what we mean by ‘working’. But let me answer the question as naively as possible. By ‘democracy’, let us mean the existing institutions of liberal representative multi-party democracy in most countries that have such institutions. By ‘working’ let us mean ‘doing the thing that they are hypothetically supposed to do’. The definition of the latter is obviously itself contentious, but let us agree that if they are supposed to do anything, those institutions are supposed to translate the express wishes and desires of electorates (insofar as they can be measured) into the programmes enacted by their governments.

From this perspective, it is clear that they are not working and have not been, across much of the globe, since the 1970s. The general neoliberal programme has never enjoyed a clear majority mandate anywhere (except perhaps in parts of Eastern Europe in the wake of the collapse of state socialism).

It has been implemented by governments from the notional Right, elected by an electorate who believed that they would enact socially conservative measures that would slow down processes of social dislocation and cultural change; those governments may have passed some reactionary measures, but they slowed down nothing.

It has been enacted by governments from the notional left, elected by electorates who for the most part expected them to restore and extend post-war social democratic settlements; those governments may have passed some measures to ameliorate the worst effects of economic inequality, but they have rarely passed a measure that would have been recognised as social democratic by even the most right-wing members of their own parties just a decade or two previously.

Such a situation cannot be described as ‘democracy’ in any meaningful sense. 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

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

Alfie Bown
Digital Technologies and the Conditioning of Desire

Alfie Bown
Digital Technologies and the Conditioning of Desire

Mobile phone apps, social media platforms and videogames play a major role in shaping activity in modern consumer societies, and help fulfil a great range of desires. But to what extent are the desires themselves created or enhanced by the technology, and what interests influence the kinds of desires created? In his new book, The Playstation Dreamworld, Alfie Bown explores such issues. Using concepts based in psychoanalysis, he perceives how digital technologies direct our consciousness, especially towards goals that naturalise corporate capitalist social structures. He also considers the social importance of reimagining these technologies for progressive political ends. In what follows, I discuss with him some of the main points he raises in the book.

Alfie BownAlfie Bown is an assistant professor in Hong Kong and co-editor of the Hong Kong Review of Books. He has written two books on psychoanalysis and technology, Enjoying It: Candy Crush and Capitalism (Zero, 2015) and his new book The Playstation Dreamworld, just out with Polity. He writes for many online publications as well, including The Paris Review, The LA Review of Books, ROAR Magazine and The Guardian. He is currently working on co-editing Post-Memes: Seizing the Memes of Production (forthcoming with Punctum).

One of the arguments in The Playstation Dreamworld is that using today’s entertainment technology, especially apps, games and social media on mobile phones, can alter our desire, enjoyment, and even consciousness. For example, you suggest that games such as Pokémon GO or apps such as Uber, JustEat and Tinder do not so much allow us to fulfil desires through the phone as create desires in us. Could you explain how this works and what you see as its potential political and economic repercussions?

Alfie Bown: I do think that mobile phones are powerfully transforming consciousness itself. My book is primarily influenced by the ideas of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, and the answer to your question hinges on a Lacanian approach to enjoyment. For Lacan, enjoyment (both jouissance and plaisir in the French, which are two very different sides of enjoyment) is at the very centre of social life. Despite this centrality of enjoyment to our modes of living, Lacan felt that enjoyment was the thing that existing modes of philosophy and psychology had most consistently failed to account for. In this way we could describe his project as primarily concerned with working out how to understand enjoyment in relation to political and social life. In this spirit, I look at new forms of technology – mainly mobile technologies – which connect us to the objects of our desire (whether that object is a Pokémon, a lover or a delicious meal) and analyse the ways in which the enjoyment and pleasure produced via our technological relationships to objects and humans are changing the way we desire and the way we fit together as a society.

With even a very limited amount of research you can discover some amazing patterns here – similarities in the front- and back-end systems of food apps and dating apps for instance, or shared ownership of apparently diverse and unrelated forms of technology. Patterns are emerging in which increasingly large portions of social life (from games to travel to food to love) are organized by a small group of powerholders with shared interests and shared technological tactics, and I wanted to make some of this visible. These stakeholders are working towards new forms of social organization by going to work on the very ways in which we think and feel.

In fact, this connection between the way we relate to a Pokémon and the way we relate to a lover is what I’m hoping to work more on in the future, as bizarre as that sounds. I want to trace the transformation of love in the age of Silicon Valley and in the world of what Nick Srnicek calls ‘platform capitalism.’ Readers can see a bit of where I am going with it in this recent article. In short, phones don’t just help us get what we want easily and efficiently, they change what we desire and how we relate to desire itself. The problem is that they don’t do so innocently or accidentally, they do so with state and corporate interests in mind. READ MORE

William Davies
Mental Health and Neoliberalism

William Davies
Mental Health and Neoliberalism

Mental health and wellbeing are now major concerns for government and big business, as stress, depression and anxiety become widespread in modern societies. But their focus is often solely on the attitude of the individual, which ignores the particular social and economic causes behind such conditions. Here, I discuss with William Davies the psychological demands and effects of neoliberalism and the science of happiness.

William DaviesWilliam Davies is a Reader in Political Economy at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is author of The Limits of Neoliberalism: Authority, Sovereignty & the Logic of Competition (Sage, 2016) and The Happiness Industry: How the Government & Big Business Sold Us Wellbeing (Verso, 2015). His writing is at www.williamdavies.blog

Historically, most social formations have involved widespread inequality and poverty, and have placed many people under mental stress. It may therefore seem likely that people would experience anxieties and depressive feelings less now, given the relative ease of modern life. So, what is it that makes mental well-being such a prominent matter today? Is it simply that we understand and diagnose mental health issues much more clearly and efficiently now, or are these issues actually more prevalent?

William Davies: Clearly diagnostics techniques exert an influence over the thing they diagnose, meaning that symptoms present themselves differently in different eras, especially where there is a psychological dimension. It is true that the vocabulary and techniques for diagnosing and experiencing depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder in particular have grown since the 1970s, and that this must be considered a factor in their current levels in Western societies. There isn’t some underlying ‘truth’ about distress, that exists entirely independently of the concepts and metrics society introduces for representing and managing it.

On the other hand, the question of why there is so much distress, represented in this way, must still be asked. This distress is not ‘fake’, even if it is conditioned by its historical and cultural context. I think two things are worth focusing on. Firstly, there is the meritocratic ethos of contemporary capitalism, which states that social class is no longer relevant, and therefore everybody ends up with the socio-economic position they deserve. This produces a chronic sense of self-blame, unease, anxiety and self-recrimination, with individuals having nobody to blame but themselves for not being famous, very rich or more attractive. Combine with digital tools that allow all time and space to be used productively, and you have a society without any sanctuaries from economic competition. This, incidentally, is partly why the phenomenon of ‘safe spaces’ is necessary, providing the possibility of being somewhere where vulnerability is accepted, and also why such a phenomenon attracts so much rage from those of an older generation not privy to them.

Secondly, we live in a time of psycho-somatic confusion, no longer knowing what to attribute to the ‘mind’ and what to the ‘body’, with the ‘brain’ serving as a medium between the two. A great deal of mental illness, as discussed and encountered today, hovers in a psycho-somatic space which is existential but also medical at the same time. The medical dimension stems partly from the fact that psychiatry has become increasingly medicalised since the 1970s, and more dependent on pharmaceuticals, but also from the fact that the medical doctor is one of the last experts that we truly trust, and – in Britain – the NHS is one of the last public institutions of all-round care and sympathy. So we turn in these directions in search of those things, as much as because of physical ailments. READ MORE