Would-be readers of Adam Kotsko’s valuable book may be hindered at the outset by disbelief in its subject. A sort of faux-rationalist prejudice has arisen in recent years against believing in what we can’t see. We often seem to feel the presence of a hostile cast of mind at work in our institutions and politics, sowing dissension, turning us against ourselves and each other, but prideful Modernity dismisses such notions as leftovers from the nursery room.
Alas, reader, neoliberalism is real. Here is Milton Friedman, writing in 1951: “Neo-liberalism would accept the nineteenth century liberal emphasis on the fundamental importance of the individual, but it would substitute for the nineteenth century goal of laissez-faire as a means to this end, the goal of the competitive order.” (Friedman, like the Friedrich Hayek of The Road to Serfdom, admitted some small role for the government in relief of “acute misery and distress”; some of his descendants forget that part.)
Kotsko, a professor at the Shimer Great Books School at North Central College and the author of popular works on political philosopher Slavoj Žižek, on theology, and on the television antihero, among other subjects, finds in Friedman’s 1951 paper a perfectly serviceable description of the overall direction of Western political and social life for the past forty years or so: Everything, even those social and intimate relations that nineteenth-century liberalism wanted to exempt from market discipline, will be brought under competitive order. But neoliberalism is a complex phenomenon, embraced and rejected in pieces by both of America’s major political parties. Here is Kotsko on, for instance, Obamacare and “the peculiar nature of neoliberal freedom”:
One of [the Affordable Care Act’s] most controversial provisions was a mandate that all Americans must have health insurance coverage. From a purely libertarian perspective, this is an impermissible infringement on economic freedom—surely if I am free to make my own economic decisions, I am also free to choose not to purchase health insurance. Yet the mandate fits perfectly within the overall ethos of neoliberalism.… Within the market created by Obamacare, I was free to choose whichever health plan I might want, but I was not free to opt out of the market altogether. If I am not inclined to express my economic freedom in that sphere, then I must be forced to be free.
This forced freedom replicates itself, Kotsko writes, “throughout neoliberalism at every level,” from countries passed over for intervention by the World Bank to workers locked in “perpetual competition” with each other.
Neoliberalism encompasses all three senses Kotsko provides of the term political theology: “theologically informed political action, treating politics in quasi-religious ways, and the general study of such transfers between the political and theological realms.” Here he relies on the work of Silvia Federici, who observed in the 1980s that the number of witch hunts spiked in Nigeria at the same time the World Bank imposed a structural adjustment program on the country. Sudden, widespread changes in landownership; the job market in spasms; a man’s inability to feed his family: Do you blame these on “economics,” whatever that may be? Or do you say that witches stole your genitals? You can at least do something about witches. Kotsko extends Federici’s point, comparing the 1980s American myths of welfare queens and satanic daycare centers to the Malleus Maleficarum’s criteria for identifying witches: simultaneously powerful and poor, simultaneously fecund and obsessed with abortion.
But Kotsko is only warming up for his most audacious claim: Neoliberalism’s conceptual structure can be traced directly to medieval Western Christianity. Christianity, like every system, must try to account for the presence of evil, and, like every system, it must fail. (Nihilism is the only exception to this rule: What it tries and fails to explain is the presence of good.) The Devil does this job, but why did Satan sin? Western theologians from Augustine forward assume, rather, that the Devil and his followers among the angels chose to reject God’s will from, as Kotsko observes, “the first instant after their creation.” He reminds readers how deeply strange this doctrine is:
It is difficult not to conclude that God is setting them up to fall specifically so that he can blame and punish them. This cuts against a commonsense reading of the doctrine of providence, namely that God allows evil to happen owing to the conceptual necessity of allowing free will and subsequently makes up for it by drawing good out of evil. What the primal scene of the fall of the devil shows is that the causation is reversed: The first thing God does is induce some of his creatures to “rebel” against a meaningless imperious demand, to ensure that there will be a reservoir of evil for him to turn toward the greater good.
This “detour through the Christian tradition,” as Kotsko calls it, supplies him with his operative definition of “demonization”: “To ‘demonize’ is to set someone up to fall, providing one with just the barest sliver of agency necessary to render that person blameworthy.” In his final chapters, he considers whether the twin surprises of Brexit and Trump signaled the approaching end of neoliberalism. He compares the death of the invisible hand beloved of free-marketeers to the death of God, and, like some squirrelly ’60s divinity professor, suggests that both would be a good thing, adducing Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s famous reflection on a “world come of age” as he does so. (Many Bonhoeffer enthusiasts now question the once-standard reading of the martyred German pastor as a death-of-God theologian, but apparently not Kotsko.)
It’s true that if one swaps out “God” and “beings” for “markets” and “consumers,” one has here a serviceable guide to Western economic life in the twenty-first century, in which we are constantly assured that the larger economic picture is gradually working out and yet that any private hardship resulting from our “necessary” decisions is our fault. We are all neoliberalism’s little demons, making the choices the system requires while absolving it of all responsibility. Yet Kotsko’s “death of God” talk suffers, as such talk always must, from the reader’s suspicion that the writer is trying to have it both ways. Either a monotheistic God exists, in which case “the death of God” is logically excluded, or God does not exist and humans are responsible for everything in the universe, in which case we don’t need, and never have needed, any such metaphor as God.
Kotsko chooses the second option: “Human beings must create their own structures of meaning and legitimacy because there is no one else who can create them.” I share Kotsko’s enthusiasm for the possible death of neoliberalism—if it were a person, I would gladly do it in. But his proposal for, in effect, a second Tower of Babel sounds not so much like a new and exciting possibility as it does the world we’ve always lived in.
While reading the closing chapters of Neoliberalism’s Demons, I thought of another short, smart, powerful book I read this past year, Alan Jacobs’s The Year of Our Lord 1943. In its coda we find Jacques Ellul, a Frenchman come of age, rejecting every possible human avenue away from the total dominance of technocracy and the triumph of the “Hitlerian spirit,” but hoping, anyway, for precisely what is left when you rule out human activity: a miracle. A miracle, I suggest, is likelier to save us from neoliberalism than Kotsko’s humankind come of age. Unless, of course, we suddenly learn to rule ourselves nonviolently, with humility and love, and earn the name of humankind—in which case, one might conclude that the two alternatives had turned out to be the same thing.