Neoliberalism's Demons
On the Political Theology of Late Capital
Adam Kotsko


Contents and Abstracts
1 The Political Theology of Late Capital
chapter abstract

This chapter begins by recognizing that pairing neoliberalism and political theology is counterintuitive. On the one hand, most accounts of neoliberalism leave little room for the conventional themes of political theology. On the other hand, Schmitt's initial formulation of political theology denigrates the economic concerns that are ostensibly the sole concern of neoliberalism. Hence this chapter shows that the conventional themes of political theology emerge persistently in the existing accounts of neoliberalism and provides grounds in Schmitt's text for a broader vision of the field that could include a phenomenon like neoliberalism. This more general political theology would ask about attempts to answer the ultimately unanswerable question that is expressed theologically as the problem of evil and politically as the problem of legitimacy. The chapter concludes by sketching a political theology of neoliberalism centered on the core legitimating principle of freedom.

2 The Political and the Economic
chapter abstract

This chapter makes the case for overcoming political theology's traditional hostility toward the economic realm. Drawing on the work of Wendy Brown, Giorgio Agamben, and Dotan Leshem, it traces this binary opposition back to the work of Hannah Arendt, who famously opposes the two realms and privileges the political over the economic. It then argues that "Arendt's axiom" is false: there is no pregiven distinction between the political and the economic; in fact, each political theological paradigm—very much including neoliberalism—reconfigures that binary for its own ends. Along the way the chapter holds up a variety of examples of alternative approaches to the relation of the political and the economic, including those of Marie-José Mondzain, Mark C. Taylor, Philip Goodchild, Joshua Ramey, and Eric Santner.

3 Neoliberalism's Demons
chapter abstract

This chapter provides an account of neoliberalism as a political-theological paradigm that governs every sphere of social life—not just the state and the economy but religion, family structure, sexual practice, gender relations, and racialization—by means of a logic of demonization. Drawing a parallel between the shift to neoliberalism and the origins of capitalism, it argues that capitalist ideologues have tended to find common cause with reactionary Christians because both adhere to a worldview centered on divine providence, which is in turn inextricably intertwined with demonization as a logic of moral entrapment. The difference between neoliberalism and neoconservatism is more often one of degree than of kind, with the former leaving more room for redemption and the latter opting more often for total, irreversible demonization for subject populations.

4 This Present Darkness
chapter abstract

The political theological account of neoliberalism developed in the previous chapter serves as the basis for an investigation of the reactionary populist wave represented by the Brexit vote and the Trump presidency. Rather than attempt to directly answer the question of whether it makes sense to view these phenomena as betokening the "end" of neoliberalism, the chapter begins by asking what the advent of the reactionary wave tells us about the intrinsic vulnerabilities of neoliberalism, focusing on the areas of electoral legitimation, the politicization of expertise, and the vision of society as a perpetual competition. It concludes by arguing that reactionary populism is a "heretical" version of the political theology of neoliberalism, which pushes core neoliberal values to near-parodic extremes.

Conclusion: After Neoliberalism
chapter abstract

This chapter begins by consolidating the new concept of political theology developed in the preceding chapters. It then asks what the general shape of a true break with neoliberalism might look like, drawing clues from the collapse of the Fordist regime that preceded it. It argues that Fordism's downfall came from its decision to preserve and tame capitalist structures—including structures of race, gender relations, and family—which were intended to legitimate the Fordist regime but were ultimately instrumental in its downfall. Any attempt to rebuild Fordist welfare state structures or even state-run industries would be vulnerable to a similar overthrow as long as the market economy remained the foundation of society. Hence, the only way to create a durable alternative to neoliberalism will require abolishing the "invisible hand" and taking control of the process of production through conscious, collective deliberation and decision making.