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




Thus far, I have distinguished two forms of political theology at work in Schmitt’s foundational text. The first is a restricted form focused on sovereignty and the transition from the medieval to the modern, which has largely set the agenda for research in the field. The second is a more general form of which the restricted form is only a narrow subset, which would study the parallels between political and theological or metaphysical discourse as rooted in the interminable struggle with what can be variously called the problem of evil or the problem of legitimacy. I have also provided a broad overview of what it would mean to view neoliberalism as a political-theological paradigm in the broader sense and some initial indication of the advantages such an approach might have over the dominant Marxist and Foucauldian interpretations of neoliberalism.

At the same time, I have identified a major obstacle to any attempt to view neoliberalism through a political-theological lens: the field’s deeply polemical relationship to the economic realm. My task in this chapter will be to show that this bias against the economic, just like the bias in favor of sovereignty and medieval-to-modern genealogies, is an arbitrary one that leads the field into unnecessary contradictions and aporias. At bottom, my argument is based on my conviction that one of the most attractive things about political theology is the way it overcomes—or, perhaps more accurately, shows a principled disregard for—simplistic binaries. In connection with the political-economic binary in particular, a political-theological account promises a nonreductionist account of the role of economics in the neoliberal order.

If all I wanted was a theoretical apparatus for interpreting the economic dynamics of the neoliberal order, of course, I should look no further than Marxism. David Harvey’s influential account is a case in point: virtually no other interpreters of neoliberalism show anywhere near the same confidence and rigor in their handling of economic material. At the same time, I have already pointed out that Harvey seems to have difficulty specifying what is unique about neoliberalism. His Marxist approach leads him to view political institutions and ideology as superstructures that ultimately only reflect the more fundamental economic base or mode of production—but once we leave aside neoliberalism’s explicit ideology and political ambitions, what is left but the same old story of capitalism? In Dardot and Laval’s words, “Trapped in a conception that makes the ‘logic of capital’ an autonomous motor of history, [Marxists] reduce the latter to the sheer repetition of the same scenarios, with the same characters in new costumes and the same plots in new settings.”1 This economic reductionism “presupposes that the ‘bourgeoisie’ is an historical subject which persists over time; that it pre-exists the relations of struggle it engages in with other classes; and that it was sufficient for it to apprise, influence, and corrupt politicians for them to abandon Keynesian policies and compromise formulas between labor and capital.”2 Such a simplistic narrative is belied by Harvey’s own “recognition of the fact that classes have been profoundly changed during the process of neo-liberalization”—meaning that the beneficiaries cannot have planned the neoliberal push in any straightforward way.3 More than that, an economic-reductionist account ignores the decisive role of the state in the development of the neoliberal order: “To believe that ‘financial markets’ one fine day eluded the grasp of politics is nothing but a fairy tale. It was states, and global economic organizations, in close collusion with private actors, that fashioned rules conducive to the expansion of market finance.”4 In other words, politics are not epiphenomenal to economic structures but directly transform them.

Dardot and Laval are far from the first to notice a problem here. Marxists have always had an ambivalent relationship with the tendency toward economic reductionism in their intellectual tradition, by turns embracing it as the only possible basis for a scientific Marxism and distancing themselves from its more extreme implications. The most popular version of the latter strategy can be encapsulated in the notion that the economy is “determinative in the last instance,” which seems to provide some breathing room for a relative autonomy of the political-ideological “superstructure” over and against the economic-material “base.” As Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe argue, however, such a threading of the needle ultimately fails: if the economy is determinative in the last instance, it is always determinative.5

Working in the wake of Laclau and Mouffe’s intervention, Slavoj Žižek has reconceived the material “base” more abstractly as the existence of an insoluble deadlock or obstacle that Jacques Lacan designated as “the Real.” On this basis Žižek puts forth a new vision of Marxism in which ideology critique took on an unexpectedly central role as a Hegelian critique of the Marxist tradition allowed him to move past conventional reductionism.6 Žižek has proven to be a helpful interlocutor for many working in political theology (including Eric Santner and myself),7 and that dialogue has been reciprocal insofar as Žižek has engaged extensively with theological themes in many of his writings. Yet his attempt at a synthesis of Hegel and Lacan (two thinkers who are surely already complex enough on their own) has grown more and more self-referential and unresponsive to changing political and economic realities.8 If this increasingly baroque—and still incomplete—system is what it takes to overcome Marxist reductionism, why not simply start from the nonreductionist standpoint of political theology?

Here I may seem to be knocking at an open door, however, insofar as Foucauldianism already represents a nonreductionist approach to the interplay of discursive, political, and economic forces. Foucault starts from the position that both knowledge and institutional practices contribute equally to networks of power, and in contrast to conventional political theology’s animus against the economic, he includes economic practices and techniques alongside the many other modes in which power is exercised.

With respect to the political-economic dyad that is my quarry in this chapter, then, Foucauldianism provides a model for my general theory of political theology. In the next chapter, I hope to demonstrate that political theology’s focus on the sources of legitimacy—which carries with it a focus on moral agency, responsibility, and obligation—can help supplement the Foucauldian account of neoliberalism by exposing the way that neoliberalism presents itself as a moral order of the world and “hooks” us by exploiting our moral intuitions.

My first step down that path will be a consideration of Wendy Brown’s Undoing the Demos, which attempts to combine a Foucauldian analysis with an account of popular sovereignty in order to hold open the hope of overcoming neoliberalism. In this respect Brown is already pushing Foucault toward something very much like political theology, but she does so at the cost of reaffirming the very political-economic binary I am seeking to overcome. After analyzing the disadvantages of this binary for Brown’s project, I will trace the roots of her approach in Arendt. I will then turn to two contemporary thinkers, Giorgio Agamben and Dotan Leshem, who both attempt, in their own ways, to investigate the relationship between the political and the economic by means of a synthesis of Arendt and Foucault and who both end up in similar deadlocks as Brown. Having established that the political-economic dyad that I call “Arendt’s axiom” leads to a dead end, I will take up a variety of alternative proposals that seem to me to point toward the possibility of a political theology that operates outside that misleading binary. Finally, I will conclude the chapter by arguing that there is actually no stable political-economic binary but rather that it serves as a kind of “container” for a series of more fundamental binaries that different political-theological paradigms sort out and combine in different ways.

Demonizing Neoliberalism

In the lectures collected under the title The Birth of Biopolitics, Foucault, writing at a time when neoliberalism was just starting to cohere into a governing rationality, approaches the topic with some equanimity and even fascination. In fact, though most Foucauldians have used these lectures as the starting point for a harsh critique of the neoliberal order, some commentators have detected in Foucault’s stance a deep sympathy for neoliberalism as an alternative to the apparatuses of control represented by the welfare state.9

Future scholars will detect no such ambiguity in Wendy Brown’s Undoing the Demos. Writing not only amid the wreckage of the Global Financial Crisis but as a witness to neoliberalism’s shockingly rapid reconsolidation of power in the wake of that catastrophe, Brown evinces not even the most grudging appreciation of the mechanisms of neoliberal hegemony. A voice crying out in the wilderness, Brown wants her readers to recognize the profound danger that neoliberalism represents. This danger is bigger than any of the well-known features of the neoliberal agenda: the erosion of welfare protections, the ever-accelerating income inequality, and so forth. Though she does not explicitly use the term, one is tempted to claim that she is pointing to an ontological danger—the danger that a crucial part of what we have come to regard as human nature might be permanently eclipsed. Specifically, neoliberalism threatens to undo our sense that human beings are creatures who can collectively rule themselves, and more insidiously still, to make us forget that we ever could have wanted to do something so improbable.

Brown situates her project of resistance very explicitly in terms of the political-economic binary. In the opening of her first chapter she defines her investigation as “a theoretical consideration of the ways that neoliberalism, a peculiar form of reason that configures all aspects of existence in economic terms, is quietly undoing basic elements of democracy . . . converting the distinctly political character, meaning, and operation of democracy’s constituent elements into economic ones.”10 In defining this distinction, which structures her entire argument, she draws on the authority of Aristotle, Marx, and Arendt, all of whom, in her account, align the economic with servitude and the political with freedom. Hence, with its one-sided emphasis on the economic to the exclusion of any other concern, neoliberalism limits human aspiration to “the limited form of human existence that Aristotle and later Hannah Arendt designated as ‘mere life’ and that Marx called life ‘confined by necessity.’ . . . Neoliberal rationality eliminates what these thinkers term ‘the good life’ (Aristotle) or ‘the true realm of freedom’ (Marx), by which they did not mean luxury, leisure, or indulgence, but rather the cultivation and expression of distinctly human capacities for ethical and political freedom, creativity, unbounded reflection, or invention” (43). In Brown’s account, her three authorities (joined now by John Stuart Mill) believe that “the potential of the human species is realized not through, but beyond the struggle for existence and wealth accumulation” (43). In the terms of neoliberalism’s economic reconfiguration of the human prospect, however, “there are no motivations, drives, or aspirations apart from economic ones, [and] there is nothing to being human apart from ‘mere life’” (44).

Brown identifies two major institutions in the modern West that have cultivated the space of authentic human freedom that she calls the political: the liberal-democratic state and liberal arts education. Though she acknowledges the profound failings of both, she views them as promising insofar as they keep alive the desire for real freedom, even in their very inadequacy. By contrast, the neoliberal takeover of political and educational institutions removes that aspiration even as a point of reference. Whatever remains of democratic rhetoric is hollowed out into neoliberal buzzwords—consent of the governed becomes stakeholder buy-in, public policy is reduced to the implementation of “best practices,” etc.—and education’s promise of self-cultivation and personal growth is replaced by the endless accumulation of human capital.

Hence Brown would disagree with Schmitt that “politics cannot be exterminated.”11 The danger she is warning against is precisely that the process of exterminating it is well under way. Yet in other respects there is in Brown’s account a striking resemblance to Schmitt’s concept of the political. Most notably, both Brown and Schmitt agree that the political represents the highest sphere of human existence. It is a sphere that has to do with rule—popular sovereignty for Brown, dictatorial sovereignty for Schmitt—and also with dispute. With her democratic perspective, Brown is not explicitly concerned with anything like Schmitt’s friend-enemy distinction but rather with the necessary conflict of democratic politics, which is based on the general principle that the given order of things must always be open to challenge and transformation according to the will of the people.

It is here that a deeper resonance with Schmitt’s concept of the political begins to emerge. I have already noted that Brown is well aware of the failings of actual existing democratic institutions. Most galling of all, one assumes, is the fact that, at least in the major Western countries, neoliberalism was implemented by means of nominally democratic processes. A common rhetorical trope for defenders of democracy is to take the position that democracy cannot fail, it can only be failed—hence if democracy delivers a bad result, it is because the decision-making process was insufficiently democratic. Brown does not take this route. She openly acknowledges that democracy, as “political self-rule by the people, whoever the people are” (20), offers no guarantee of good outcomes. For Brown, “democracy is neither a panacea nor a complete form of political life” (210). It must depend on the support of good institutions and education, though even here there are no guarantees because of “Rousseau’s paradox: to support good institutions, the people must be antecedently what only good institutions can make them” (200). In the end there is no positive, substantive reason to prefer democracy, only the claim that if we lose it, “we lose the language and frame by which we are accountable to the present and entitled to make our own future, the language and frame with which we might contest the forces otherwise claiming that future” (210).

This defense of democracy is, if anything, even more openly tautological than Schmitt’s defense of the political: we should preserve democracy as a space of contestation because otherwise we will lose democracy as a space of contestation. If we might ask what, precisely, we are contesting, then only one answer is possible: neoliberalism as a purely economic antipolitics. Here once again we are edging into Schmitt’s territory, as Brown seems to be proposing a kind of metapolitical version of the friend-enemy distinction, a struggle between the political as such and that which threatens the political “way of life,” namely the economic. And in the end she even follows Schmitt’s lead in theologizing this struggle, setting up neoliberal economism as a false god with a “perverse theology of markets” (221) and an implacable demand for human sacrifice on the idolatrous altars of GDP and global competitiveness (216–19).

Alongside these (presumably unintentional) parallels, there is a deeper resonance with the political-theological project of tracing governing paradigms to the deep convictions of a given age. More specifically, Brown traces the root of the neoliberal paradigm to what she calls “civilizational despair”: “At the triumphal ‘end of history’ in the West, most have ceased to believe in the human capacity to craft and sustain a world that is humane, free, sustainable, and, above all, modestly under human control. . . . Ceding all power to craft the future to markets, it insists that markets ‘know best’” (221). Yet this is more like a negative political theology, because it correlates a lack of positive conviction (despair) with a lack of any political order or project (neoliberalism). This account of the rise of neoliberalism is exactly parallel to Schmitt’s account of the rise of classical liberalism. For Brown, the ideal is the good old days of Fordism rather than the good old days of early modern absolutism, but the structure is the same: for Brown as for Schmitt, the era that came after their respective ideals did not put forth a new and different political paradigm, but sowed the seeds for a demonic antipolitics. In the face of such an implacable foe, the only answer is to assert the necessity of the political as such—before it is too late.

Thus, even if Brown does not explicitly use the term, she is explicitly pushing the Foucauldian account of neoliberalism in the direction of political theology—and from my perspective, in so doing she loses what is most appealing about the Foucauldian analysis and inadvertently takes up what is most dangerous in conventional political theology. Even from a purely Foucauldian perspective, her reading of neoliberalism is questionable insofar as it is premised on a distinction between homo politicus and homo oeconomicus that Foucault does not ignore or downplay (as Brown claims) but explicitly rejects. In the Foucauldian account, economic and liberal-democratic means are both intertwined in the broader ensemble of governmental techniques that define the modern era. Insisting on a clear distinction, much less a rivalry, between the two models is not a supplement to Foucault’s analysis but a break with it.

Meanwhile, the concept of the political in Brown’s terms is so underspecified that her break with Foucault brings no clear benefit. This supposedly highest realm of human existence amounts, in the end, to the maintenance of the very possibility of resistance against neoliberalism—as though such resistance is not already happening all the time. In her demonization of neoliberalism she exaggerates its power, imagining that the most distant dreams of neoliberal ideologues are virtually a fait accompli, and the narrow window of political resistance is closing. And her vision of political resistance is almost entirely negative and backward-looking, focused on what we have lost in the transition from Fordism. Those losses are real and devastating, but Brown risks indulging in a nostalgia that can only imagine rebuilding the very institutions that neoliberalism has already proven itself quite capable of destroying.

A helpful alternative here is Jodi Dean’s Crowds and Party.12 In contrast to the despair over the loss of political resistance that Brown at once diagnoses and participates in, Dean presupposes the existence of a radical political potential in the resistance movements that have erupted continually throughout the neoliberal era. The task of activists and political theorists is to take the demand for transformation embodied in movements like Occupy and Black Lives Matter and help them formulate concrete programs and take on durable institutional forms. While her hope for a return to the party form could be seen as its own form of nostalgia, it is clear that Dean has in mind a renewed vision of the party that can take into account both the failures and the real successes of past movements in the course of building an institutional structure that can respond to the radically different circumstances we face in the present.

Indeed, from the perspective of Dean’s Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies, Brown ironically takes up a number of positions that could be viewed as distinctively neoliberal: fetishizing a concept of democracy that turns out to have little concrete content, echoing the apocalyptic rhetoric that Dean shows to fall easily off the tongues of American presidents in the neoliberal era, and arguably indulging in a paranoia about neoliberalism’s successes that resonates with the growing prominence of conspiracy theories in contemporary politics.13 The last point is most striking given the political context of Brown’s book: writing as the American neoliberal regime continued to descend into economic stagnation and political deadlock and only a few short years before energetic challenges to the neoliberal status quo erupted in both major parties, Brown nevertheless treats neoliberalism’s final victory as all but assured. Overall, what Dean says of the American left’s reaction to George W. Bush’s 2000 Electoral College victory could be repurposed as a critique of Brown’s relationship to neoliberalism: “It’s almost as if we believed in their strength and unity, their power and influence, more than they did themselves.”14


1. Dardot and Laval, New Way of the World, 7.

2. Dardot and Laval, New Way of the World, 9.

3. Dardot and Laval, New Way of the World, 9.

4. Dardot and Laval, New Way of the World, 12.

5. Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, 2nd ed. (New York: Verso, 2014).

6. The classic articulation of Žižek’s position remains his first major publication, The Sublime Object of Ideology (New York: Verso, 1989). For my account of the development of his thought over the subsequent two decades, see Adam Kotsko, Žižek and Theology (New York: Clark, 2008).

7. In particular, I take from Žižek the conviction that human social orders are responding to a fundamentally unfixable problem (what he calls the Lacanian Real and I call deadlock underlying the problem of evil or problem of legitimacy), that therefore no solution to this problem can claim to be complete or fully self-consistent (in Lacanian terms, every symbolic order is pas-tout, non-all or non-whole), and that we need an account of what “hooks” people and convinces them to go along with the social order. Hence on a purely formal level, one could say that my general political theology is very “Žižekian.”

8. In this sense he falls victim to Dardot and Laval’s critique of Marxism: his body of work is increasingly characterized by “the sheer repetition of the same scenarios, with the same characters in new costumes and the same plots in new settings” (New Way of the World, 7). For an encapsulation of my growing ambivalence toward Žižek’s project see Adam Kotsko, “Repetition and Regression: The Problem of Christianity and Žižek’s ‘Middle Period,’” in Repeating Žižek, ed. Agon Hamza (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015).

9. See, e.g., Daniel Zamora and Michael C. Bennett, eds., Foucault and Neoliberalism (New York: Polity, 2015).

10. Brown, Undoing the Demos, 17 (emphasis in original). Subsequent citations will be given in-text.

11. Schmitt, Concept of the Political, 78.

12. Jodi Dean, Crowds and Party (New York: Verso, 2016).

13. See Dean, Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies, chaps. 3, 4, and 6, respectively.

14. Dean, Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies, 1.