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

Asad Haider
Identity Politics and Mass Self-Organisation

Asad Haider
Identity Politics and Mass Self-Organisation

The concept of ‘identity politics’ is central to a great deal of mainstream political discussion, both on the left and right. On one side, it is a form of politics that asserts the rights of marginalised groups against entrenched cultural (white male) privilege. On the other, it is an elitist drive to curtail free speech and undermine traditional values. But how does it relate to a more radical left-wing project? Has identity politics become a politics of the establishment? What kind of role must it perform in a mass movement for radical social change? In his new book, Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump, Asad Haider considers the history and modern form of identity politics, and what it means for the development of collaborative social movements. In the following interview I discuss some of the important points he raises.

Asad Haider

Asad Haider is a founding editor of Viewpoint Magazine, and author of Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump (Verso, 2018)

How was the emergence of identity politics in the 1970s important as a critique of the socialist politics of the time? Does modern identity politics continue to perform the same function?

Asad Haider: I advocate being very specific about terminology, so I associate the emergence of the term identity politics with the Combahee River Collective’s statement in 1977, which posed an essential challenge to the class reductionism of past socialist movements – that is, the assumption of these movements that economic exploitation was experienced in a unitary way, that other forms of domination were peripheral, and that struggles against other forms of oppression were subordinate to class politics. It was also a challenge to the black liberation movement and the feminist movement, because the specific position of black women was not taken into account. ‘Identity politics’ in this case meant producing a more radical struggle against all forms of oppression.

In my book, I jump from the introduction of that term to its usage during the 2016 primaries in the US, during which it was used to defend the Democratic Party elites and their agenda against challenges internal to the party, but which were riding the wave of previous social movements. ‘Identity politics’ in this context was seen in opposition to socialism, which was represented as necessarily exclusionary. This was not an attempt to enrich socialism and realise an emancipatory potential that had been suppressed by exclusion; it was a weaponised deployment of identity to prevent a shift to the left.

The point is that, like any word, the meaning of ‘identity politics’ is highly contested, and that its usage today is frequently diametrically opposed to its original usage. I am sympathetic to those who want to reclaim its original usage, but it seems to me that this will be very difficult, because the whole apparatus of the media and the liberal intelligentsia have appropriated the term, and have reshaped its meaning in such a way that it carries new effects; it will never simply return to its ‘pure,’ original usage, but will now also carry with it the resistance to coalitions, the opposition to socialism, the reduction of politics to a demand for recognition by the state. My intention in the book is to recognise the valuable and necessary contribution of the founders of the term, while criticising its contemporary appropriation and beginning to look for other languages that can carry on that emancipatory project. 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

Lewis R. Gordon
Revisiting Frantz Fanon’s The Damned of the Earth

Lewis R. Gordon
Revisiting Frantz Fanon’s The Damned of the Earth

Written at the height of the Algerian war of independence, The Damned of the Earth (1961) is a controversial book. This is because its author, Frantz Fanon (originally from Martinique but later based in Algeria, where he worked as a psychiatrist and developed close ties with the Front Libération Nationale, FLN), unapologetically says what a Black man is not expected to say: the degradation inflicted upon native populations by colonialism can only be overcome by anti-colonial violence. Here I discuss with Lewis R. Gordon the multiple layers of this anti-colonial violence which has been (sometimes wilfully) misrepresented by (mostly white) critics. Beyond the colonial context, we also talk about the impact of Fanon’s ideas on oppressed people around the world, particularly Black Americans (starting with the Black Panthers, who called The Damned of the Earth ‘the handbook of the Revolution’) fighting racism and injustice.

Lewis GordonLewis R. Gordon is a philosopher, musician, and global political intellectual. He is Professor of Philosophy with affiliation in Jewish Studies, Caribbean and Latin American Studies, Asian and Asian American Studies, and International Studies at UCONN-Storrs; Honorary President of the Global Center for Advanced Studies; Honorary Professor at the Unit of the Humanities at Rhodes University (UHURU), South Africa; and the Boaventura de Sousa Santos Chair in the Faculty for Economics at the University of Coimbra, Portugal. He also is the drummer for the band ThreeGenerations and a variety of jazz and blues bands in the New England area. His recent books include What Fanon Said: A Philosophical Introduction to His Life and Thought (NY: Fordham UP; London: Hurst, 2016) and the forthcoming Fear of a Black Consciousness (Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the USA and Penguin Books in the UK). He edits the American Philosophical Association blog series Black Issues in Philosophy and co-edits the UK’s Rowman & Littlefield International book series Global Critical Caribbean Thought.

Fanon’s Les Damnés de la terre (1961) is popularly known as The Wretched of the Earth, but you prefer to translate it as The Damned of the Earth. Apart from being the literal translation of ‘damnés’, does the word ‘damned’ give you more insight into the text?

Lewis Gordon: The word ‘damned’ is not only appropriate but also offers insight into the text. The standard response to my objection is to appeal to the English translation of L’Internationale, Eugène Pottier’s 1871 poem that concludes with the line: ‘Debout, les damnés de la terre!’ The well-known translation is, ‘Arise, the wretched of the earth!’ It could also be translated: ‘Arise, the damned of the earth!’ The preceding two lines (my translation) are: ‘The International / Will be humankind’.

Fanon, however, was referring to the Haitian poet Jacques Roumain’s ‘Sales nègres’ (‘Dirty nègres’) from his collection Bois-d’ébène (‘Ebony Wood’). Fanon referred to this work in the fifth chapter of Peau noire, masques blancs (‘Black Skin, White Masks’, 1952). The reference point here is not ‘The International’ but in fact the Haitian Revolution and its connection to revolution in the Third World or, in today’s parlance, the Global South. Roumain concludes his poem with a long list of subjects struggling against the days of being called ‘dirty nègres’ to ‘dirty Indians’, ‘dirty Hindus’, ‘dirty Indo-Chinese’, ‘dirty Arabs,’ ‘dirty Malaysians’, ‘dirty Jews’, ‘dirty proletarians’, and concludes with ‘And there we stand / all the damned of the earth’.

Now, dissecting both poems, we see an immediate difference between the role of the international as humankind and a list of humankind and the connection to ‘dirt’. The word ‘human’ is from the Latin word homo, whose origin relates to the word humus, which means ‘dirt’ or ‘clay’. Words such as ‘humility’ and ‘humble’ reveal the obvious connection of coming down to earth. This connection with earth and dirt reveals an influence or relationship with ancient African conceptions as found in, for example, the Hebrew language, where the word for human is adamah. It, too, is connected to the ground or earth. It specifically refers to red clay akin to what happens when animals are slaughtered in a kosher way, with the blood flowing into the soil. It’s the origin of the name Adam, which literally means ‘red’ as well as ‘human’. A more radical archaeolinguistic effort points to the precursor of the Hebraic forms in ancient Kmt (‘Egypt’) to the god Atum (think of the possible pronunciation of the t as the English d), the god who created himself out of a mound of earth arising from Nun (the primordial Nothing or dark waters).

We now have the basis of stressing the importance of the word ‘damned’. It’s from the Latin damnum, which refers to harm, hurt, or injury. The connection between the words damnum and adamah reveal a story of emergence from the earth and damnation or condemnation as a form of being pushed back into it. The human being, as we know, is a creature, in existential terms, of emergence, a creature with feet on the ground while reaching for the skies. 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