“Progressive Neoliberalism” And The Political Theology Of The West (Carl Raschke)

Commentary, Neoliberalism

The following is the first installment of a four-part series.  

The election of Donald Trump to the Presidency of the United States in November 2016 not only stunned the world, it also ignited a ferocious debate among the political left, worldwide as well as in America, over the causes and implications of the surprising turn of events.

At first the narrative was defiant and oppositional.  Trump had supposedly been elected because of an upsurge in white racism, “ethno-nationalism,” xenophobia, and a brute and mindless “populism” which the candidate himself had encouraged, according to narrative.  But, as inauguration day in January 2017 approached, strains of self-rebuke and mutual recrimination began to surface, even while claims that the election itself had been manipulated by the Russians through online hacking and dark subterfuges of many kinds. including “fake news” and private influence-peddling, remained the dominant form of explanation.

One of more forceful lines of critique was offered by political philosopher Nancy Fraser in Dissent, the well-known and long-established left-wing magazine for intellectuals.  Fraser proclaimed that the election of Trump was undeniably the outcome of, and the electoral pushback against, an unspoken and long-evolving secret alliance between the interests of global capital and the leftist elites themselves, what she branded as “progressive neoliberalism.”

Referencing planetary trends and ideological shockwaves that had commenced the previous summer with the successful “Brexit” decision by voters in the United Kingdom, Fraser declared that “In every case, voters are saying ‘No!’ to the lethal combination of austerity, free trade, predatory debt, and precarious, ill-paid work that characterize financialized capitalism today.”

But Fraser went on in the article to say something even more controversial, and to perhaps the majority of her readers and admirers, something totally counterintuitive and outrageous.  Trump’s “victory,” she opined,

… is not solely a revolt against global finance. What his voters  rejected was  not  neoliberalism  tout court, but  progressive  neoliberalism. This may sound to some like an oxymoron, but it is a real, if perverse, political alignment that holds the key to understanding the U.S. election results and perhaps some developments elsewhere too.  In its  U.S. form,  progressive neoliberalism is  an  alliance of mainstream currents of new social movements (feminism, anti-racism, multiculturalism, and LGBTQ rights), on the one side, and high-end “symbolic” and service-based business sectors (Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood), on the other.  In this alliance, progressive forces are effectively joined with the forces of cognitive  capitalism, especially  financialization.  However  unwittingly,  the former lend their charisma to the latter. Ideals like diversity and empowerment, which could in principle serve  different  ends,  now  gloss  policies  that  have  devastated manufacturing and what were once middle-class  lives.

Her position, of course, provoked immediate recoil with counterarguments that were almost inevitable.  Twelve days later Johanna Brenner insisted that there could be no such thing as “progressive neoliberalism”. After all, neoliberalism had been a bogey word for the anti-globalization left for almost two decades.

Brenner pulled off the familiar gambit of attacking Fraser and her line of critique as a smokescreen for its own form of covert reactionary politics.

By shifting the analysis away from the capitalist class offensive that ushered in the neoliberal order, and which is primarily responsible for the U.S. political drift to the right, Fraser ends up attacking ‘identity politics’ in favor of ‘class politics.’ While her conclusion is that of course the left must embrace anti-sexism and anti-racism, her analysis implies the opposite— she’s clearly suspicious of multiculturalism and diversity.

To which Fraser herself replied that Brenner had misunderstood what she was doing. The real question on which she was focusing, Fraser insisted, was the issue of “hegemony”, a term with a venerable legacy in Marxist theory, specifically with the twist given by Antonio Gramsci.  Gramsci had argued that in a multicultural society economic hegemony is often achieved by “idealist” intellectuals, who mask their bourgeois interests, by foisting a worldview on the working class that serves to exploit the latter in the interests of the former.

Such exploitation as well as structures of dominance are maintained through a transcendentalist kind of moralizing which conceals the flagrant class interests of the “idealists” themselves.  Gramsci in his Prison Notebooks termed this process the “manufacture of consent.”   Following up on Gramsci’s argument, Fraser stressed that

…neoliberals gained power by draping their project in a new cosmopolitan ethos.  Contra Brenner, the point is not to dissolve ‘identity politics’ into ‘class politics”. It is to clearly identify the shared roots of class and status injustices in financialized capitalism, and to build alliances among those who must join together to fight against both of them.”

This kind of debate continues to move forward with various shadings and contingencies, although most Western liberals have a very difficult time perceiving themselves as unaware “neoliberals” in the kind of invidious sense that Charles Hughes Smith has railed about on his blog.  The transformation of “class politics” into “identity politics” was a shift that took place almost a half century ago with the advent of the New Left in the late 1960s and what came to be called, for the most part by its critics, as a form of “cultural Marxism” influenced by Herbert Marcuse and the later Frankfurt School.

What makes Fraser’s stance timely and noteworthy is a recognition, shared by mainstream sociologists, that the radicals of that period long ago grew up and became the “establishment” and thus enabled unconsciously the transformation itself, which today many take for granted.  What the New Left of olden days proudly characterized as a strategy of self-affirming “revisionism”, precipitated ironically by the realization of feminists within what was called “the Movement” that they had been hoodwinked by a certain “manufacture of consent” to the hegemony of male leadership, had devolved over the years into a new global, “hegemonic” progressivism that remained blind to the very economic “contradictions” (as classical Marxists would say) that the long-germinating ideological shift had gradually opened up.

It is not merely coincidental that “cosmopolitan” was a familiar object for name-calling among orthodox Marxists before and after World War II for many in their ranks whom they considered ideologically soft and who they believed were in covert league with the “capitalists”.  It is ironic that decades after the collapse of Marxism as an international political force – and even much longer after the end of Stalinism when the word was commonly employed – that the same kind of long-forgotten reproach should suddenly surface again.

But there is more that meets the eye in the cry of cosmopolitan elitism.  And, despite offering a courageous and insightful analysis of what perhaps is truly taking place these days on a global scale, Fraser seems to be missing something important – i.e., what I would identify as the inextricable religious dimension of neoliberalism, “progressive” or otherwise.

One must begin with Mark Lilla’s perspicacious comment in the opening section of his highly discussed book The Stillborn God that in this age of smug secularity “we are no longer in the habit of connecting our political discourse to theological and cosmological questions, and we no longer recognize revelation as politically authoritative.”(7-8)  Throughout the book Lilla maps the interlocking patterns of political rationality within Western thought alongside sundry religious ways of perceiving and thinking.

Lilla is not by any means the first theorist to make these connections, but he is perhaps the most concise and comprehensive among those who have undertaken this project.   Lilla’s underlying thesis is that we cannot have a serious political philosophy without a tacit political theology, and that the “war” on political theology in the name of a new secular reason, which began in the seventeenth century and found its initial voice in Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, has led into a contemporary wilderness of confusion.

If, as Carl Schmitt famously wrote, all political statements turn out to be disguised theological statements, then modern political thinking has lost both its heft and its bearings.  Lilla’s project, when the book came out right about the time of the great financial collapse, was far more diagnostic than prescriptive.    And its lack of any discernible anodyne rendered its impact less effective.  It is easy to disbeliever the doctor’s diagnosis if the doctor does not advise a remedy.

But Lilla was remarkably clear-sighted in his view that if the theological groundwork of Western politics had fatefully eroded away, the vacuum would have to be filled by a pure politics that served the very purpose of theology.  The venerable and ancient form of odium theologicum  had evolved into an odium politicum.

It is no accident that the totalitarian political monstrosities of the twentieth century – fascism and Stalinism – were thoroughly and decidedly anti-clerical as well as, especially in the latter instance, anti-Christian.  And it is no less curious that contemporaneous with the decline of religious belief in America’s “post-Christian” or “post-evangelical” twilight, partisan rancor, vilification, and zealotry has grown at an almost equal pace.

In the next three follow-up articles we will explore in more depth and detail the intimate historical link between so-called “progressive neoliberalism” and certain variants on the political theology of the West.  The second installment will focus on Friedrich Nietzsche’s framing of the conversation.

Carl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver, specializing in Continental philosophy, art theory, the philosophy of religion and the theory of religion.   He is an internationally known writer and academic, who has authored numerous books and hundreds of articles on topics ranging from postmodernism to popular religion and culture to technology and society.  Recent books include Critical Theology (IVP Academic, 2016), Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2015) and The Revolution in Religious Theory: Toward a Semiotics of the Event (University of Virginia Press, 2012).  He is current managing editor of Political Theology Today and senior editor for The Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory.  He is also one of the current co-conspirators in the formation of a fledgling initiative known as CRI, which seeks to engage the intellectual and political crisis of our times.

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