In a pluralistic society, there can be a great deal of give and take in the political process. We see compromise even in the cornerstone of the drafting of the United States Constitution. From a Christian point of view, the only way that this compromise can happen is through love. It is love that we seek in our communal life, mirroring the love God has for all of us. What would happen, however, if a system were in place that did not allow for the possibility of love? The current neoliberal political order does not seem to allow for that possibility. The neoliberal political order is built on the cornerstone of an empty, acquisitive desire, which cannot allow genuine love a place at the table. My goal in this essay is to pick this sentence apart, developing the meaning behind both major parts, and explain why this is a problem from a Christian perspective.
First, we need to define what the neoliberal political order is. Neoliberalism can be a slippery term to define precisely. It’s best understood as a network of linked concepts hovering around a few central ideas: laissez faire economics as first philosophy, the market as idol, and a close relationship between corporations and government.
Laissez faire economics as first philosophy is the idea that the concepts that govern business, such as profitability, thrift and enterprise, return on investment, and efficiency, are the primary ways to establish value. Instead of loving God or loving our neighbor as the primary way to understand life, it is put in terms of profitability. For example, instead of asking questions of how well a university will form me and educate me, I ask if it will be a good return on my investment. It becomes a question of business instead of a question of formation.
From this idea of laissez faire economics as first philosophy comes the idea of the market as idol. Western Eurocentric culture, especially that of the United States, focuses around the belief that market is a self-regulating system that eventually brings goods to everyone. This idea is central to Brazilian theologian Jung Mo Sung’s Desire, Market, Religion. Sung writes:
This ‘magic,’ which transforms selfishness into solidarity is performed by the ‘invisible hand of the market (Adam Smith). It is the supernatural entity we mentioned before, the supra-human being able to bring about limitless accumulation, the satisfaction of all desires and the unity of human kind. In the biblical tradition this is called idolatry. (21)
The market is that to which we sacrifice the poor and needy for the sake of growing the wealth of others. One could make the connection to say it sounds like a blood sacrifice.
This idea of the relationship between government and corporations may seem tenuous, but a look at the last 8 years of US electoral politics suggests otherwise. Since the landmark United States Supreme Court Decision Citizen Untied v. Federal Election Commission changed the political landscape by declaring corporations, among other groups, as people entitled to free speech and monetary donations to campaigns as free speech.
This ruling allows for corporations to start PACs to fund their selected candidates,. This creates a political order that is in service of corporations, who spend the money to get the politicians elected, as opposed to the people it is supposed to represent. Again, this means that profit and return on investment, and not the well-being of the people, are the primary goal, setting aside more blood sacrifices in the form of the poor.
Now that I have given an idea of what a neoliberal political order is, I can move on to the cornerstone of an empty acquisitive desire. In her book Religious Resistance to Neoliberalism: Womanist and Black Feminist Perspectives, Keri Day describes this as the “acquiring mode,” in which relationships are reduced down to ownership of commodities. She writes:
Human meaning is then colonized and commodified within market systems. Human meaning becomes commodified in which human beings see themselves as object to be bought and sold on the “social status market.” This social status market refers to the ways in which human beings derive worth by being able to compete as the most salable commodity among other human “commodities” or personalities. (48-9)
This approach is inherently dehumanizing, turning the rich, deep conception of individuals with loves, hopes, dreams, and fears into one-dimensional objects one tries to collect.
This approach of the acquiring mode stands in opposition to a fundamental element of Christian life: love. This Christian love, following Day, is the interplay of agape and eros: the creative tension between a self-giving love that mirrors and partakes in divine love, and the desire not to possess, but to unify and share in deep feelings of pleasure, freedom, and love (81).
It’s important to note that this interplay of agape and eros does not seek to acquire or profit. Christian love exists outside the market, and it can’t be bought or sold. With a political order that places the market at the center, Christian love has no place at the table.
Why is it important for us to take note of this? If we are committed to the tenets of Christianity and seek to follow the new commandment to love one another of John 13:34, then love must be a central piece of our political discourse. Without love, we are no longer acting in a Christian mode.
When one reflects on the current state of political discourse, especially in the context of the United States, there are elements of love at work. In movements like Black Lives Matter and the Women’s March, we see the interplay of agape and eros at work; the love of one’s neighbor motivating communities to come together to protest injustice certainly embodies self-giving love and a desire for unity.
The problem, however, is that these expressions of Christian love are the exception and not the norm. The norm in the United States are policies that benefit the wealthy at the expense of the poor and bellows of hatred fanning the flames of political sentiment. Since the market values competition, this hatred and destructive tension feed right into the neoliberal political order.
What, then, are we as Christians to do? While I can’t offer a full solution, as that would require a creative, communal effort that is beyond the limits of this essay, I can provide two initial directions to pursue.
First, there needs to be a concerted effort to recognize the way neoliberalism has influenced the way we think about politics and community. The most dangerous part of neoliberalism, as put so well by George Monbiot in his article from April 2016, is that we have no idea how this ideology has formed us. If we can name this ideology on a grander scale, perhaps we could see a more active struggle against it.
Second, we need to work harder at letting love serve as our motivator. So long as hate and distrust motivate our political moves, we will continue to feed into this neoliberal ideology. If love motivates us and our political decisions, following Christ’s commandment in John 13, then we move closer to a just political order.