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Quick Takes

Political Theology And Debt – Confronting The Capitalist Machine (Roger Green)

A few years ago, a collection of papers by major thinkers in Christian political theology appeared under the title Political Theology: Contemporary Challenges and Future Directions.

In the collection Jürgen Moltmann and Johann Baptiste Metz both note the development of their use of a “new political theology” as opposed to the “old” political theology of Carl Schmitt.  Although the book was published in English in 2013, the papers collected were given in January of 2010 and largely reflect the reception of Jürgen Habermas’s conversation with Joseph Ratzinger famously published as Dialectics of Secularization. Thus, the book publishing was well under way before Ratzinger stepped down as Pope in early 2013.

A counter-dialog concerning the term political theology in recent years among academics has seen a growth in interest in all things related to Carl Schmitt.  In the edited volume Political Theology Francis Schüssler Fiorenza notes that “[b]y distinguishing Schmitt’s critique of liberalism from his critique of democracy, they attempt to utilize his critique of liberalism as a way of advancing a much more radical democracy.”(48)

Thus, a discursive muddling occurs between the “new political theology,” its relationship to liberation theology, and the production of new academic work largely concerned with critiques of liberalism and democratic crises.  Of course, a tension exists between the two discursive situations in relation to the role of religion in public spheres, which has prompted all sorts of scholarly inquiry into what people mean by “religious” or “spiritual,” etc.

I want to align these two discussions of political theology without concern for distinctions between secular and religious.  I see a specific line of commensurability with Michael Welker’s sentiment that “a Political Theology of the future will be a pneumatologically-oriented theology which makes use of social analysis and develops a critical awareness through social theory”(56) and the recent publications of Maurizio Lazzarato, eThe Making of Indebted Man (2011) and Governing by Debt (2013).

By way of Deleuze and Guattari’s readings of Nietzsche, Lazzarato argues in The Making of Indebted Man that “[t]he capitalist machine has gone off the rails, not for want of regulation nor because of its so-called excesses or the greed of financiers.” Instead, he claims it is due to the collapse of finance, which is “the consequence of the failure of the neoliberal program (which has made business the model for all social relations) and the resistance mounted by the subjective figure it has aimed to promote (human capital or entrepreneur self).”(181)

At the end of Governing by Debt Lazzarato calls for a number of ways to counter the situation, beginning with a call to slow down production in order to create “time”: “We need ‘time,’ but a time of rupture, a time that arrests the ‘general mobilization,’ a time that suspends apparatuses of exploitation and domination – an idle time” in which laziness, socialism, and the refusal to work, pay debt, etc. all play their part.(245)

The reversal of values so intimately entwined with what Max Weber had called the Protestant ethic is pronounced in a shift away from what Michel Foucault called disciplinary society in The Birth of Biopolitics.  As Lazzarato argues in Governing By Debt:

“Governmentality must act on a society ‘in which the field is left open to fluctuating processes, in which minority individuals and practices are tolerated.’  In the debt crisis, these techniques of differentiation function at full capacity, and yet they restrict subjects’ freedom instead of producing it by neutralizing rather than increasing the ability to make decisions, by tolerating the interests of capital alone.”(209)

It is here that we see some of the flimsiness of critiques made along the traditional lines of an ever expanding and all-inclusive democracy by which traditionally marginalized individuals gain more and more access to an inherently flawed conception of humanity.  The values that underwrite such critiques are not wrong so much as they have been co-opted by a debt morality that enslaves people mentally and physically.  As Wendy Brown writes in Undoing the Demos, “through their formal context and content neutrality, liberal democratic ideals of personhood, freedom, and equality appear universal while being saturated with norms of bourgeois white male heterosexual familialism.”[8]

And we only need to look at the longer analysis of, say, African American lives that are “paying the debt to society” in prisons as the continuation of slavery itself, as writers like Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow have argued, to see the perpetuation of the struggle the social gospel has long sought to critique.

In Governing by Debt Lazzarato gives similar treatment to heteronormative gender divisions.  A critical question for those committed to social justice movements will be in how to continue to give support to those who continue to be marginalized from a society imploding from the internal wars that capitalisms foist on individuals and groups.

For Lazzarato, in the terms of Deleuze and Guattari, the critique must come from a line of flight that does not merely perpetuate a self-sacrifice that reinscribes an authoritarian state, such as Schmitt’s sovereign decider who from the place of exception establishes the norm; instead, it must be an affirmative stance, a true difference, in the way Deleuze and Guattari read Nietzsche.

As Lazzarato argues in Indebted Man:

“We have lost a lot of time, and lost a lot, period, by trying to clear our debts.  In doing so, we are already guilty! We must recapture this second innocence, rid ourselves of guilt, of everything owed, of all bad conscience, and not repay a cent.  We must fight for the cancellation of debt, for debt, one will recall, is not an economic problem but an apparatus of power designed not only to impoverish us, but to bring about catastrophe.”

And yet, as in any time of struggle, it will be the marginalized and the poor who will suffer most, not just from the brutalizing physical conditions but the mental anguish of trading in values of hard work, repaying debts, and being “honest” – the very values that have been co-opted by a false God.

Wendy Brown ends her book Undoing the Demos with a discussion of sacrifice.  According to her, neoliberalism’s stealth revolution succeeds in a postsecular conflating of “religious” and secular” notions of sacrifice:

“As we are enjoined to sacrifice to the economy as the supreme power and to sacrifice for ‘recovery’ or balanced budgets, neoliberal austerity policies draw on both the religious and the secular, political meanings of the term.  We appear to be in the orbit of the second, secular meaning insofar as ‘sharing’ is called for, rather than assumed, the call itself is issued in a moral-political idiom, and the call implies overcoming self-interest for the good of the team.”

The social analyses of writers such as Lazzarato and Brown give us much in the way of what the Christian Political theologians at the beginning of this post call for.  But that theological-political work needs to also unpack some of the normative value assumptions that United States citizens who claim to be democratic express while politically allowing for avowedly undemocratic powers to be elected.  The critique must extend beyond flimsy moralizing and examine the intricate ways morality is economically shaped by forces that exceed mere social constructions.

Roger Green, PhD, is a Lecturer in English who teaches composition and rhetoric at Metropolitan State University in Colorado.  His recent professional work brings political theology into conversation with the field of aesthetics.  He is the author of “Aldous Huxley, in the Aldous Huxley Annual: A Journal of Twentieth-Century Thought and Beyond (Ed. Bernfried Nugel and Jerome Meckier (vol. 14, 2014 / 2015) and several other related articles.  In 2011 he received a certificate from the Cornell School of Criticism for the work he did with political theorist Victoria Kahn.  He is also a performing musician and a composer.

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