Further reflections on Agamben, Marx, and Alberto Toscano’s “Divine Management”

It is perhaps inevitable that the claims of a thinker such as Agamben should be profoundly annoying to those firmly rooted in a hardcore “historical materialist” perspective. Despite the fact that Marx himself was consistently fascinated with religious and theological matters insofar as they reflected the material arrangements of society, his followers, disregarding his own admonitions on dogmatism, have too often succumbed to a reflexive disdain for any analysis redolent of ‘spirit.’ And if Agamben’s claims are arguably exaggerated, then the same could also be said of the claims of his more vehement detractors. […]

It is perhaps inevitable that the claims of a thinker such as Agamben should be profoundly annoying to those firmly rooted in a hardcore “historical materialist” perspective. Despite the fact that Marx himself was consistently fascinated with religious and theological matters insofar as they reflected the material arrangements of society (for example, he “repeatedly turned to Christological language to gain insight into money” [Wariboko 2008: 47]), his followers, disregarding his own admonitions on dogmatism, have too often succumbed to a reflexive disdain for any analysis redolent of ‘spirit.’ And if Agamben’s claims are arguably exaggerated, then the same could also be said of the claims of his more vehement detractors.

At least this is the impression one gets upon reading Alberto Toscano’s piece, “Divine Management: Critical Remarks on Giorgio Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory” (Angelaki 16:3). To be fair, Toscano’s erudition succeeds in certain respects, as in demonstrating that Agamben could stand to pay more attention to Marx, especially Marx’s reading of the same classical sources with which Agamben is preoccupied. I myself would argue that bringing Marx into a critical engagement with Agamben’s political theology serves both a supplementary and a corrective/balancing function. Insofar as Agamben’s own analysis in The Kingdom and the Glory emphasizes the eclipse of “sovereignty” by a hierarchical brand of “economic” governance, it has much in common with Marx’s rendering of capitalism. But if Agamben veers at times into a one-sided obsession with the ideational aspects (and theological pedigree) of such governance, a Marxian insistence on returning to the mundane and the material manifestations of power may be the appropriate antidote. As with most things, the trick is to find a healthy balance.

With that said, I would like to comment further on Alberto Toscano’s piece, following Adam Kotsko’s contribution to this symposium. (Kotsko’s article deals mainly with Toscano’s objections to Agamben’s method; I will focus on Toscano’s argument that Agamben’s political theology is irrelevant to modern capitalism). While Toscano’s criticisms of Agamben’s methodology – for example, whether or not it remains faithful to Foucault’s conception of genealogical research – are academically interesting, his insinuations that Agamben simply imagines a relevant historical continuity (i.e., within the realm of Christian political theology) are clearly misplaced. One need only consider contemporary America, the de facto center of both global capitalism and “Christianity” (despite the obvious contradictions between capitalist values and the teachings of Jesus) to get an inkling of the tremendous philosophical effort, expended throughout history, to reconcile such apparently incommensurable worldviews. This history is far too vast to recount here, but the present regime of church-approved capitalism would simply not be possible without a long evolution of political-theological developments, including the relaxation of usury prohibitions at the end of the middle ages, the formation of the “protestant work-ethic” and justification of self-interest through Calvinistic predestination, the appeals to divine providence in “manifest destiny” and other expressions of Anglo-American imperialism, etc. The category of oikonomia is obviously related to all of these developments, dealing as they have with questions (and theological justifications) of the proper management and distribution of material resources. Yet Toscano, evincing the bifurcating logic of an ultra-materialist and modernist stance, insists upon “thinking our predicament not in terms of oikonomia but in terms of capitalism, not in terms of theological genealogy but of historical materialism” (133).

The gravamen of Toscano’s argument is that Agamben neglects Aristotle’s notion of “chrematistics” (i.e., unlimited money-making) – a notion that, on first glance, would have far more currency in illuminating modern capitalism:

But what is more damning to Agamben’s claims for the political urgency and epochal depth of his archaeological operation is the absence of the other paradigm of ‘‘economic’’ behaviour which Aristotle in particular defined, only in order to ward it off as a potential threat to the order and stability of the polis: chrematistics, the science of monetary accumulation, circulation and interest that is opposed to the managerial stability of the paradigm of oikonomia. (130)

Toscano goes on to cite Marx’s note from Capital in which the logics of oikonomia and chrematistics are clearly differentiated, the latter constituting a prototype of the capitalist profit motive:

Chrematistics, by transgressing the natural order of needs and positing a limitless accumulation thereby presages the principle of capitalism as self-valorising, but also as the annihilatory and dissolving force depicted in The Communist Manifesto. One way of formulating this distinction in terms already encountered via Agamben is that chrematistics, in having money as both origin and end, threatens to generate an entirely unmanageable economy, and thus to mine the order of needs subtending the polis, as well as the very capacity for judgment itself.

While Toscano is entirely correct in pointing out the practical tension between oikonomia and chrematistics, his argument goes awry as soon as he extrapolates to a fundamental incompatibility between the two logics. In Marx’s own treatment cited by Toscano, the two forms, while conceptually distinct, nonetheless “overlap each other” (131). Moreover, the fact that capitalism has not yet annihilated itself (although it continually threatens to do so) suggests some countervailing tendency – presumably derived from the logic of oikonomia – that has served to manage the contradictions thus far. (Indeed, the need to understand such tendencies and to explain why Marx’s revolutionary predictions had not yet fructified was the primary motivation for the vast outpouring of “revisionist” Marxist literature in the early 20th century.) Yet Toscano is nonetheless confident in dismissing the possible relevance of Agamben’s political theology to an understanding of capitalism:

This very cursory treatment of the question of chrematistics, of an economy of limitlessness and accumulation, suggests that Agamben’s theological genealogy…has nothing to say about the constitutively unmanageable economies (chrematistic) that management (oikonomia) seeks to govern. The discontinuity and asymmetry between the economic and the chrematistic, or between management and accumulation, also indicates the poverty of trying to perpetuate the tired idea of Marx’s thought as a ‘‘secularisation’’ of some cloaked and damning theological content. The signatures just aren’t there. Neither capitalism nor Marx’s theory thereof can be encompassed by the notion of oikonomia and its genealogies, theological or otherwise, and it does not suffice to combine political theology with economic theology to overcome the shortcomings of Agamben’s work as a tool for politically thinking the present.

Obviously capitalism cannot be understood solely by reference to oikonomia, and I doubt that anyone would argue accordingly. (As Kotsko constructively remarks, Agamben “needs to cast a wider net in terms of filling out the context within which the notion of ‘economy’ operates in any given era.”) Yet ironically, in his haste to discard oikonomia – which is part of his larger project to refute Agamben’s alleged “reductivist idealism” – Toscano seems to have forgotten one of the most significant politico-economic developments of the 20th century (perhaps especially from a Marxist perspective), namely, the shift towards Keynesianism and various forms of welfare-state and state monopoly capitalism as attempts to prolong capital accumulation while palliating the crises and polis-threatening “excesses” of the system. If for Toscano, “a cursory treatment of the question of chrematistics” suffices to debunk Agamben’s theological genealogy of economy and government, one could easily make the counter-argument that a cursory awareness of modern political economy (e.g. fiat money, “redistributionist” social programs, central bank “management” of the economy, etc.) lends it credence. Though Agamben doesn’t articulate this nuance himself, the modern political economy obviously coordinates the logics of both oikonomia (the management and provision of goods, now conceived on a national or even a global scale) and chrematistics (the hypothetical infinitude of capital accumulation, as reflected in the apparent limitlessness of money). Indeed, to say so is to encapsulate the paradox of state capitalism, and what has given it such frustrating tenacity in spite of Marxists’ revolutionary aspirations. That such a possibility is lost on Toscano is doubly ironic, given that much of his essay is devoted to chastising Agamben for an “historically essentialist” treatment of ancient concepts that prevents one from seeing the ruptures and discontinuities in the lineage of ideas. No sooner has Toscano leveled such criticisms against Agamben’s method than he himself employs an essentialized distinction between oikonomia and chrematistics – as if nothing had changed since Aristotle’s time.

But even though Toscano ends up committing the very methodological error that he imputes to Agamben, his essay is nonetheless quite valuable for problematizing Agamben’s lexicon and introducing the neglected category of chrematistics – which, to borrow Adam Kotsko’s words, “provides a point of view from which Agamben’s own project can be critiqued, deepened, and extended.” If the modern capitalist state is ultimately a strange hybrid of “managed moneymaking,” then the genealogies of both management and moneymaking – theological or otherwise – are fully relevant and worthy of open-minded and critical investigation.

Paul Kemp is a graduate student at Colorado State University. His master’s thesis, currently in progress, focuses on a monetary interpretation of Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory.

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