Debt And The Theological Character of Neoliberalism (Hollis Phelps)

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The following is a summary as well as some brief reflections by Hollis Phelps of his article “Overcoming Redemption: Neoliberalism, Atonement, and the Logic of Debt,” which appears in issue 17.3 of our journal print Political Theology published by Taylor & Francis..  Issue 17.3, which allows limited access to certain articles, is linked here.

I wrote “Overcoming Redemption: Neoliberalism, Atonement, and the Logic of Debt” on the assumption that the question of political theology rests in part on debt.

As I use it in the article and following others such as Maurizio Lazzarato and David Graeber, “debt” does not only name an economic relationship; it has theological, political, and moral valences as well. I agree with Lazzarato that the multifaceted discourses and practices surrounding debt interlock to create subjects as indebted.

I suggest in the article that the theological articulation of the human beings as indebted resonates with neoliberalism’s own marking of individuals as indebted subjects. The term “resonate” (which I borrow loosely from the work of William Connolly) is important here. I’m not interested in making a causal argument, which I don’t think is possible for numerous reasons but, rather, interrogating the way in which overlapping discourses contribute to fashion and discipline subjects as indebted.

The paper itself focuses on how Anselm’s satisfaction theory of atonement contributes to this sense of indebtedeness. Readers of the blog and the journal will certainly be familiar with that theory. In sum it says that through sin human beings have violated God’s honor, which Christ satisfies on our behalf through his obedience and death. Anselm understands the notion of sin at work in terms of debt; sin is a violation of what we owe to God. Indeed, it’s mounting debt to the point of infinity that necessitates divine intervention.

What interests me more about Anselm’s understanding of atonement, however, is that he understands the human condition itself in terms of indebtedness. Debt isn’t simply a byproduct, the result of sin, but worked into the very fabric of creation. According to Anselm, the reason human beings get into trouble in the first place is their failure to make good on the original debt of obedience they owe to God. Even after their redemption via Christ’s satisfaction, human beings continue to owe God their obedience, along with an additional debt of gratitude.

Although I don’t develop it in the paper in as much detail but have elsewhere, it’s the latter point that makes forgiveness equally as problematic. Forgiveness is certainly multilayered, and I don’t want to reduce it to any one sense. But it assumes some fundamental wrong and, in remedying it, may plunge subjects into further indebtedness.

Redemption, in other words, implies something that needs to be redeemed, and so simultaneously presupposes and adds on to the very debt that it seeks to erase. This is what we see in Anselm but also, I would suggest, in something like current debt forgiveness plans related to student loans.

In the article, I draw on Giorgio Agamben to suggest that the way out of debt is not through forgiveness but through denial. We should reject the notion of indebtedness itself and be blissfully unaware of our debts. Translated into a politics, doing so might take the form of debt resistance, or something along those lines.

I thus take an almost wholly negative view of debt in the article. I view this negative position as necessary, at least initially, but it also needs to be complicated. Although I think that indebtedness should be rejected as a way to think about, organize, and exploit human beings, such a rejection should also lead to a rethinking of debt itself, in all its articulations. Indeed, Christianity thinks about debt in different ways, and it may be the case that, as Fred Moten and Stefano Harney have suggested in The Undercommons, debt can function more positively.

Nevertheless, in order to get to that point, my own view is that we need to view debt as an illegitimate capture of human beings and life itself. Calling debt illegitimate is not to reject the relationships that we maintain with others, including non-human others, but rather to rethink these relationships along different lines.

Hollis Phelps is Assistant Professor of Religion at Mount Olive College, Mount Olive, NC (USA). He is the author of Alain Badiou: Between Theology and Anti-theology (Acumen, 2013) and is co-author with Philip Goodchild of  Religion and European Philosophy: Key Thinkers from Kant to Today (Routledge, 2016).  He holds a Ph.D. in the Theology, Ethics, and Culture Program from the School of Religion at Claremont Graduate University. He is also a regular writer for Religion Dispatches.  

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