The Political Theology of Neoliberalism

Adam  Kotsko’s book Neoliberalism’s Demons (2018), which  focuses on the hidden but crucial religious side of neoliberalism, deserves far more attention than it  has been getting. (Kotsko teaches at a low-ranking school and is not part of  media pundit circuit or the academic star system, so his work is something of a secret).  In a just world he would be as rich and famous as he wanted to be, but that is not our world. Cuture is now market culture, and the winners of the cultural competition are those who compete successfully for the attention of the commercial media and the largesse of the plutocrats.

The main point of his book, at least for me, is that contemporary evangelical Christianity is not, as followers of Polanyi and might claim, a counterbalance to the ruthless market, but a handmaiden of the market. More than that, he believes thast neoliberalism would not be viable without religious reinforcement. This is not really a  new or startling idea. While few and perhaps none of the major neoliberal thinkers were religious believers, from very early on F. H Knight, Friedrich Hayek and James Buchanan, at least, realized that market freedom was not self-sufficient way of life, but needed political, cultural, and perhaps religious support. (To my knowledge they do not mention Plato’s cave metaphor  or the Noble Lie, but that’s the kind of thing  they’re talking about).

Kotsko’s thesis is that contemporary evangelical and conservative Christianity is not an  anachronism which will soon disappearand, far from being an adversary of neoliberalism, is an integral part of the neoliberal transformation of society. Likewise, the state (which Polanyi also spoke of  as a counterbalance to the markett) is also in its neoliberal form subordinate to the market – and this is not the minimal caretaker state of the classical liberalism, but a state as strong as market society needs it to be, all the way up to authoritarian dictatorship.

Kotsko is a theologian and Agamben scholar and very well versed in contemporary European thought, and while that does make parts of his book hard for me to follow, he is also in touch with  the realities of American life and by his personal history is well placed to understand American conservative Christianity. This book is well worth struggling through, even if you end up skipping parts of it.

Kotsko goes at neoliberalism from the point of view of “political theology”, a phrase that requires explanation. The German scholar Carl Schmitt argued that the fundamental principles of political philosophy  are merely transformed, secularized versions of theological concepts – for example political sovereignty is derived from the lordship of God. This does not mean that political thought finds backing for its principles in religion, but that political thought finds  ultimate meaning and value  in politics and history in a way analogous to the way that people used to find ultimate meaning and value in theology and religion. Politics, as opposed to religion, becomes the focus ofvalue.

There is a difference between Schmitt’s and Kotsko’s political theologies, however: Schmitt spoke of the state and the idea of sovereignty as  derivative from the religious lordship of God, but the theology of   neoliberal market society of which Kotsko speaks is developed from the theological idea of free will. In the market, everyone is free, and freedom is the greatest good. But along with free will comes “blameworthiness”, the theological basis of neoliberalism.  The market is the arena in which we exercise our freedom; there we make our choices, but we must accept the consequences of these choices, however dire.  The evangelical world, like the neoliberal world, is a world of individuals. (“There’s no such thing as society, there are just individuals”: Margaret Thatcher). Each of us stands alone before God (the market), and we do what we do, and he does what he does. (In this theology, all inconvenient social facts are hidden in order to treat social life as the summation of an enormous number of dramas of individual salvation or damnation).

Kotsko does not stress Calvinism, but what I know of Calvinism repeatedly came to mind while I was reading his book. To me the Calvinist combination of free will,  predestination, original sin, the inscrutable will of God, God’s grace, and “the visible signs of invisible grace” is not only unintelligible, but hellish. We are all sinners, so we all deserve to be damned. Doing good is the minimum requirement but we cannot possibly be good enough. Everythiong that happens is from God, but when things go well we cannot be sure that we are saved, and when things go badly we cannot be sure that we’re being  punished, or why. In either case it is possible that we are just being put to the test,  by temptation or by tribulation respectively. A particularly cruel consequence of Calvinism is that there can be no possibility of protest because there are no innocent victims. We are all guilty (“worms crawling on the earth”),  the Lord works in mysterious ways, and we must accept the judgement of God.

If you substitute the market for God in this schema, little will require change. The market is an infinite well of goodness, the source of all value, and the arena of the highest good of all, Freedom.  Life consists of a struggle for justification within this arena, and everyone is  liable. Competition and peril are the nature of things and of God, and it is wrong for anyone to be comfortably exempt. The inscrutable market can be arbitrary, like God, but we must accept its judgements as given.

Even the successful cannot relax, since it may be that the market God is just tempting them, waiting to destroy them if they make a misstep. The market God is inscrutable; as Hayek showed, we can never be sure why anything has happened, or predict what will happen next. But the successful and  those who suffer uncomplainingly are the only ones who might possibly be saved. The losers and whiners are cursed.

There’s a lot more in this short and not really very difficult book that I ‘ve missed. It  fills a huge gap in our understanding of neoliberalism, American popular religion,  and American right-wing politics,  and the relations between them. Everyone should read it.