We are told that the world has never been richer, freer, or more advanced but at the same time, there are many who don’t seem to feel this. Among the young, especially, anxiety and depression seem rampant and young people are held up as politically disillusioned, increasingly turning their back on both political processes and institutional religion. How might this relate to neoliberalism? And what does neoliberalism have to with theology?
Neoliberalism is a word that critics often claim has no meaning or is just used as a way for left-leaning types to dismiss anything they don’t like. What’s fascinating about Adam Kotsko’s book, Neoliberalism's Demons: On the Political Theology of Late Capital, is the way he defines neoliberalism as a self-reinforcing and self-justifying system – a theology that replaces a providential God with the invisible and all-knowing hand of the market. The effect is that we hear almost every day about the virtues of freedom, about the dangers of regulation, about the necessity of widening freedom, of increasing choice, and expanding the efficiencies of the market into every aspect of our lives.
We’ve been made free from the burden of state intervention but what we’ve been made free for is perhaps a more difficult question. Here, Kotsko draws on old theological arguments about the nature of freedom, and specifically arguments around the fall of the devil. According to some early church theologians, the fall of the devil happened at the very beginning of creation because of an almost immediate exercise of will that was inexplicable and unknowable. As a result, the devil’s defeat in hell and his suffering is entirely justified. The devil’s fall is explained in terms of freedom, and it is this freedom which is used as retroactive justification for demonization.
In the contemporary neoliberal political order, Kotsko sees a similar logic at work. We are free, but this is a freedom that allows for generating blame and not exercising agency. The only freedom that exists is the freedom of the market – we are free to do anything as long as we are participating in and being compliant with the hand of the market. This isn’t just a matter of exchange but about making us all competitors, which implies winners and losers. As a result, given the apparent infallibility of the market, when things go wrong it cannot be a systemic problem, but we as individuals are somehow to blame.
Think of the job market. We’ve all been turned into competitors, self-employed or freelance contractors, forced to constantly hustle, to pitch, to build our brand and get the gig over and against others, who might once have been our friends or colleagues. Thus, if we lose our precarious employment, it is not the fault of the systemic forces of the economy, but it is our fault. We didn’t work hard enough, or we weren’t resilient or flexible enough. As Kotsko puts it in a striking line, neoliberalism makes demons of us all.
Systemic problems become explainable only in terms of individual choices. Medical bankruptcy becomes a matter of not getting the right kinds of insurance; the criminalization of communities of color becomes a matter of a lack of personal responsibility. The flip side of this process is that political debate and even protest become increasingly impossible, for if everything is a matter of choice, how could anyone possibly complain?
To live in this state of demonization is to live in the end times. In the wake of financial crises and the rise of authoritarian populism all around the world, it seems that the theology of neoliberalism is beginning to fray. The self-legitimating processes of neoliberalism, which depended upon the fact that you could accrue some wealth or security mostly based on credit, have started to fracture after governmental austerity and generalized insecurity have become ways of paying back what we owe. Politicians talk of running countries like a household. “We” must make tough choices and pay what we owe, but all too often this rhetoric does nothing but provide thin justification for the creation of new demons – the vulnerable, the needy and the others of our society who “cost” the rest of us too much.
Towards the end of the book, Kotsko shows that things did not have to be this way – that neoliberalism in its grinding demonical processes was not inevitable, which means then that it is not eternal. So, what comes next? The signs are not good – the right-wing reaction to neoliberalism could easily reinforce the systems of demonization.
If there is hope for a way out, then from where can it come? Kotsko avoids direct prognostication but makes the important point that it is those who have known nothing but demonizing, punitive neoliberal politics who are the most repulsed by it. The source of change cannot come from the outside but must come from what we have – ourselves.
If we are to make a way out of the logic of demonization, if we are to build a new political theology, then we must stop expecting there to be a space outside neoliberalism from where salvation might come, and instead realise the uncomfortable challenge that too often the Church has been complicit in this process of demonization.
What could happen then, if Christians stopped blaming the systemic ills of contemporary society on individual choice, and stopped waiting for a salvation to come from the outside? Can we move beyond seeing those around us as demonized people who have made bad choices that justify their suffering? If so, then perhaps, there is a chance of making a new form of life together and turning the hell of contemporary capitalism into a better world.