Market Theology

An interesting paper was making the rounds on twitter yesterday: “Hayekian Neoliberalism as Negative Political Theology” by Scott A. Kirkland (what’s novel here is that Kirkland’s specialty isn’t the history of economic thought, but ethical theology). What Scott focuses on, contra the pop-histories of neoliberalism that look to Reagan, Friedman, etc, is a line that stretches backwards through the familiar figure of Hayek to Walter Lippmann—and before him, Alfred North Whitehead. Similarly, Scott moves away from the now-demolished understanding of neoliberalism as a deregulatory agenda; his touchstone is instead the one outlined by Quinn Slobodian in Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism.

Slobodian’s argument is basically this: neoliberalism must not be thought of the shrinking of the state (a narrative that takes it cues from the rhetorical offerings of conservative media pundits), but as a transformation of the logic of the state itself. The neoliberal ideology is one of the market not as a composition of self-organizing, acephalic forces that serve to manifest the ‘real’ and perfect form of democracy; instead, the market is—as figures from the right to the left, from Hayek to Polanyi, argued—a series of commercials that are embedded within a social matrix and upheld by networks of institutions. What makes neoliberalism novel in history is that it seeks to walk a tight-rope: to produce institutions that uphold the market order while also insulating the market from form of social regulation.

…the neoliberal project focused on designing institutions—not to liberate markets but to encase them, to inoculate capitalism against the threat of democracy, to create a framework to contain often-irrational human behavior, and to reorder the world after empire as a space of competing states in which borders fulfill a necessary function.

Kirkland looks to Walter Lippman’s essay “The Providential State”, which took up what Whitehead called the question of ‘foresight’—a kind of historical forecasting that is impossible on a mass scale. The alternate to foresight is understanding; and tellingly Whitehead took up the figure of the commercial agent to articulate the distinction. Understanding unfolds through the apprehension of series of locally-embedded and context-dependent relations of cause and effect; go up the chain from these more simple relations to the social level, where increasingly complex relations reign, and understanding breaks down. The implication is that forms of planning thus run head-long in problems of unavoidable epistemic uncertainty. Commercial relations evade this through specialization and the division of labor: no one person (or even institution) needs know all, and yet the interlocking of different parts shows how order can nonetheless exists.

Lippman begins with these argument and expands them into an argument for a liberal form of government (the term ‘neoliberal’ itself has often been traced back to a colloquium organized by Lippman in 1938). The interventionist state committed to planning is, for Lippman, “something of an idol, or heretical cult”. Its providential gaze is executed through the “exclusion of the spontaneity and creativity of the economic subject”, which draws it towards an inescapable horizon: “authoritarian collectivism”. “Like his classical liberal forebears”, Kirkland writes, “Lippmann is skeptical of the state’s involvement in economic affairs. However, the state is responsible for the creation of the social conditions in which individuals might actualize themselves as economic agent”.

It’s only a small leap from here to Hayek, who in his Law, Legislation and Liberty writes that “In a free society the state does not administer the affairs of men. It administers justice among men who conduct their own affairs”. Or, as Kirkland puts it: “The state is obliged to foster the conditions for economic exchange, but not to direct exchange itself”. (There’s another story here, beyond the analysis, that is partially charted by Mirowski in Machine Dreams: how the ‘opposing’ faction in the so-called “calculation debate” was institutionalized in the Cowles Commission, and made as their explicit goal the creation of an apparatus for “social engineering”, the direct organization of economic life via modeling techniques that allowed precise intervention the market to blunt the repeated blows of the business cycle. Aspects of the toolkit—what Mirowski calls the ‘cyborg sciences’—that developed at Cowles and elsewhere became the underpinnings of the contemporary technocratic governance of political and economic life. Originally slated to subordinate the market, now they serve as key aspects of the infrastructure that “encases” it).

Where Kirkland’s analysis treads the waters of theology proper is his identification of the market as being treated as a realm unknowable to man. A weird spin on Fukuyama:

In a very real sense, the market’s unknowability is eschatologically grounded, the market is the now of its realization, and it must remain atelic to the extent that it is to continue to serve as the site of the liberty of the individual. The state, in managing the legal architecture encasing the market, then, does not so much direct it toward social ends but maintains the market as the end in itself. History as the history of the unfolding of a sovereign good or project, in a very real sense, comes to an end.

He further relates this to the distinction that Agamben draws between transcendent and immanent relations of sovereignty, which is mappable across the divide between ‘political’ and ‘economic’ theologies. In the former, God (and later the ‘secular’ state) operates as the transcendent figure, which extends itself to the political realm (we might think of this in relation to Kantorowicz’s analysis in The King’s Two Bodies: the “body natural” of the king, “God-like or angel-like”, and the “body politic”). In the latter, the transcendent is collapsed into the immanent, now understood as the oikonomia, the economy. While this might seem to be eschewing the notion of sovereignty outright, Kirkland adds another twist: the market itself is sovereign, but due to its unknowing and immanent nature, it is a negative political theology. As for the state itself, the import of governance is “the effective protection of the sovereign mystery”.

What sounds out to me in this analysis it that if it is the market, not the state that encases it, that is sovereign, and this sovereignty is defined in terms of an immanent unfolding of relations and circuits in time, then the state itself is denied a transcendent position. It too becomes folded, paradoxically, into these immanent relations, even if at some historical moment it was defined by its externality. This converges unexpectedly with the analysis of the capitalist state as outlined by Deleuze and Guattari (which I wrote about in my previous post). For them, the state takes on a double (yet interrelated) set of functions: that as the agent of ‘anti-production’ that is coupled to production as a hidden engine, and as the manager of capitalist axiomatics (which is what comes to replace pre-capitalist society’s drives to recode flows that have become decoded—though the axiomatic system does not begin with the state. It carries them out, but is also subjected to them).

The analysis stays at a lower level in Anti-Oedipus, but is expanded considerably in A Thousand Plateaus. The primordial Urstaat is projected backwards into the deep recesses of history, where it forms the apparatus that is “erected upon the primitive agricultural communities”, whose own “lineal-territorial codes” are subjected to the process of overcoding. In this mythic formulation, the urstaat is treated as the extension of the body of the “emperor-despot”, the “sole and transcendent public-property owner, the master of the surplus or stock, the organizer of large-scale works (surplus-labor), the source of public functions and bureaucracy”. (Deleuze and Guattari link this directly to Marx’s controversial notion of “Asiatic despotism”, which gets taken up in a much more direct and dynamic way in a seminar delivered by Deleuzein November of 1979).

The emperor-despot and Urstaat‘s public property is the presupposition for the private property that serves as the decoded flows of land upon which the capitalist mode of production of is erected (the other decoded flow is that of labor, which also presupposes the “work-model” generated by the Urstaat). Capitalism ultimately revives the Urstaat, Deleuze and Guattari write, but it revives it internally to itself. “States are no more than means or objects or means adapted” to this order which now circles the world, raising the specter (in our times) of a terrifying ‘postfascist’ regime.

Driving home the transition from transcendence to immanence—and directly anticipating Slobodian’s theory of neoliberalism—they write:

…the axiomatic deals directly with purely functional elements and relations whose nature is not specified, and which are immediately realized in highly varied domains simultaneously; codes, on the other hand, are relative to those domains and express specific relations between qualified elements that cannot be subsumed by a higher formal unity (overcoding) except by transcendence and in an indirect fashion. The immanent axiomatic finds in the domains it moves through so many models, termed models of realization… the different [economic] sectors are not alone in serving as models of realization—the States do too…

…we must take into account a “materialist” determination ofthe modern State or nation-state: a group ofproducers in which labor and capital circulate freely, in other words, in which the homogeneity and competition of capital is effectuated, in principle without external obstacles. In order to be effectuated, capitalism has always required there to be a new force and a new law of States, on the level of the flow of labor as on the level of the flow of independent capital.

So States are not at all transcendent paradigms of an overcoding but immanent models of realization for an axiomatic of decoded flows.


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