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“Both political and metaphysical thought, in other words, express the deep convictions of a particular community at a particular time and place about how the world ought to be. More than that, they both share a similar ambition to provide a coherent account for the whole range of human experience, and this shared drive toward systematicity and totality leads to the often uncanny homologies between the two fields that political theology aims to uncover.”

A Very Different Book than Prince of This World

At its heart, Neoliberalism’s Demons is Kotsko’s follow-up to ‘The Prince of This World’ attempts to address the looming struggle for legitimacy between secular political authority and religious authority. If we take the aforementioned quote at face value, both secular governance and religious ‘authority’ attempt to derive their legitimacy from consensus by shaping the beliefs and actions of people through economic manipulation. The question, ultimately, is one of the legitimacy of that authority. This (possibly) pits religious authority, derived from an unprovable, unsubstantiated, unknown ‘God’ against a political legitimacy derived from a mandate from the governed.

However, if a substantial enough proportion of the population believes in a god whose ideas of ‘freedom’ and ‘justice’ diverge from that of secular authority we have a real problem on our hands. As Kotsko points out the question is not one of the tools a legitimate power will use, but the nature of that legitimacy. Kotsko attempts (and I think largely succeeds) at establishing competing binaries. We see this most notably in the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Kavenaugh, who now despite two allegations of moral impropriety is almost certain to be confirmed as a Supreme Court Justice on the winking, unspoken, promise that he’ll put an end to legal abortion in the United States.

Conflating the Problem of Evil and the Problem of Legitimacy

While we’re used to discussing the abortion debate in moral terms of autonomy vs. morality, Kotsko highlights the social engineering aspects of economically ‘demonizing’ behaviors like extramarital sex, divorce, and homosexuality. Neoliberalism seeks to incentivize conformity, which the far-right in America markets as ‘family values’. This ‘demonization’ is further reinforced by eliminating government social safety nets, leaving the ‘burden’ of providing for those in need of assistance to predominantly religious ‘private’ organizations, which can compel adherence to religious authority in exchange for that assistance. It’s a system designed to make the vast majority of people unable to effectively dissent because they’re either too poor, too busy, or too both. This, of course, has implications for ethnic, gender, and economic relations across all strata of society.

“Neoliberalism is, in sum, a totalizing world order, an integral self-reinforcing system of political theology, and it has progressively transformed our world into a living hell. This is felt most acutely by those who have been fully demonized by an economically rapacious and brutally violent prison system. From a political theological perspective, we can see that this infernal system is far from being some merely particular “issue” or “cause”—it I the most extreme expression of the logical of our neoliberal order. The rest of those of us excluded from the elect 1 percent are not so thoroughly demonized, but our lives are increasingly hemmed in by a logic of entrapment and victim-blaming. The psychic life of neoliberalism, as so memorably characterized by Mark Fisher in Capitalist Realism, is shot through with anxiety and shame. We have to be in a constant state of high alert, always “hustling” for opportunities and connections, always planning for every contingency (including the inherently unpredictable vagaries of health and longevity). This dynamic of “responsiblization”, as Wendy Brown calls it, requires us to fritter away our life with worry and paperwork and supplication, “pitching” ourselves over and over again, building our “personal brand”—all for ever-lowering wages or a smattering of piece-work, which barely cover our increasingly exorbitant rent, much less student loan payments.”

Kotsko does not shy away from discussing the inherent racial and religious implications of this. Where a family is unable to adequately meet its needs the job of fulfilling the role of a social safety net falls to charities, particularly religious charities, which themselves can compel compatible behaviors though a withholding of services for stepping out of line. One can easily picture the dangling carrot of childcare assistance with mandated marriage counseling while struggling battered women’s shelters remain underfunded and languishing. From the perspective of Kotsko this is intentional, those charities that seek to serve the unrepentant underserved are marginalized because of a perceived moral failing on the part of those in need. This ties economic security and success with moral ‘rightness’ in an inversion of ‘prosperity gospel’. Essentially, the syllogism of this ‘neoliberal theology’ would be states something like ‘morality is rewarded economically, if you are economically unsuccessful, this must be because of a moral failing on your part’.

“Vulgar Libertarianism” Demonizes the Different

The upshot of the system Kotsko defines and objects to is one in which monetary concerns compel behaviors of social conformity by economically disadvantaging non-conformity to the ‘traditional family’ model. At the same time, that model is reinforced socially by ‘demonizing’ behaviors that challenge the model like extramarital sex, homosexuality, intellectual pursuits that are not easily monetized without the benefit of wealthy philanthropic benefactors who only fund pursuits that reinforce the neoliberal narrative. This system technically allows freedom of expression but increases the economic penalty for non-conformity severely disincentivizes minority voices. “Shut up, make your money, and take comfort where you can.”

Neoliberalism’s Demons” is a far more political tract than Kotsko’s previous book, but it still holds as a natural extension of the concept of Lucifer as a personification of the demonized and downtrodden rebel very much in the tradition of the Miltonic Satan of Paradise Lost. It’s a complicated read that leaves much food for thought about the money and influence behind economic and social policy, illuminating how those forces converge and interact in an attempt to shape society to the advantage and disadvantage of competing beliefs and interests.

FOR INFERNAL USE ONLY Jack Matirko was raised in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, but it didn't take. His projects include The Left Hemispheres Podcast, The Naked Diner Podcast, and An Ongoing and...