Review – The Origins of Neoliberalism: A Racialized Review (Adam F. Braun)

Leshem, Dotan. The Origins of Neoliberalism: Modeling the Economy from Jesus to Foucault. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016. ISBN-10: 0231177763. Hardcover, paperback, e-book. 248 pages. 

Leshem’s recent volume, The Origins of Neoliberalism suffers from the implications of its subtitle: “Modeling the Economy from Jesus to Foucault.” One quickly gets the idea that this volume might be a historical genealogy of oikomenos from Jesus to Foucault. Yet, it is neither this, nor does it involve a thorough discussion of neoliberalism. Rather, it is a re-investigation into the Foucauldian neoliberal subject, who (which) internalizes the pastoral economy. It cannot escape comparisons with Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory, not only because of its focus on a particular genealogy, but also for its lack of consideration for globalization and white supremacy.

Chapter 1 traces the meaning of oikomenos from classical discourse concerning household (oikos) management to ecclesia in Third Century Christian texts. Following Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Irenaeus of Lyon, Leshem argues that they “set the stage for a radical change in the conceptualization of time, history, and space.” (10) In particular, the nature of the space of oikos and polis are changed, now divided into three kinds: Theology, Christ’s Economy, and the Profane World. Christ’s Economy is a the space of the “society of believers” (31), who are “the communion between divinity as revealed in the world and humans.” (52)

Chapter 2 “reformulates the Christian Doctrine into three economic models” (10), following the dynamic semantic range afforded to oikomenos. The first is the ontological communion which “portrays the inner organization of the Trinity.” (10) The second describes the hypostatic union and its “economy of the incarnation.” The third Leshem briefly refers to as Christomemesis, a privileging of the economy of the perichoresis, where the incarnation is the “all-inclusive/all-penetrative” (56) between the divine and human. The conclusion of this chapter traces the trajectory from the classical oikomenos to the Orthodox definition, summarized by Leshem in this way: “faced with the human condition of excess, one must acquire a theoretical and practical disposition of prudence in order to fulfill the economy and generate surplus that is alien to it and appears inside its boundaries. This surplus, in turn, necessitates the existence of a political community.” (76) For the classical, economy begins with necessity. For the Orthodox, economy begins with Freedom.

The main function of chapters 2 and 3 is to show how “the nature of a thing economized is rendered intelligible.” (153) Chapter 3, then, taking upon itself the models of oikomenos, “addresses philosophy as a way of Christian life.” (10) It includes a genealogy of philosophical life from Plato to Origen, through Gregory of Nyssa to Foucault’s Hermeneutics of the Subject.

Chapter 4 moves from economy and philosophy to “Economy and Philosophy.” From patristic exegesis of certain political pericopes to patristic political thought, the political thought of John Chrysostom in particular, Leshem traces three principles accordingly in the development of early Christian economics: 1) “regarding political sovereignty as embedded in an economic context;” 2) “keeping the political and economic institutions distinct;” and 3) “assuming a disposition of a limited self-subjection to political authorities.” (11) In essence, Leshem claims that Chrysostom “transformed the relation between economy and politics by subjecting the latter to the service of the former.” (11)

Chapter 5 takes up from the introduction Agamben’s genealogy of economy, concerning itself with how economy is remodeled with respect to legal frameworks. Its main purpose is to “refute” Agamben’s critique “of Foucault’s genealogy of pastoral power.” Reading Basil the Great, Cyril of Alexandria, and a manual by Eulogius, it “situates the exercise of pastoral power in the state of exception as an imitation of divine economy” and conducts “a genealogy of the formulation of such use.” (11)

Chapter 6 shows how the findings of the book are a modification of Foucault’s genealogy of philosophy and economy. In addition it takes up Arendt’s genealogy of politics, “redefining the economic human condition as excess.” (12) Finally, it gives a reading of the neoliberal marketized economy and “suggests that modern economists embrace and anarchic pantheism rather than simply secularizing economic growth theory,” while also giving the “main ethical consequences” of neoliberalism. (12)

In response, I turn to the categories of space and race. It is difficult to say that Leshem has missed an opportunity to discuss these two (he does in fact deal with space). Yet, the apertures formed by his critique of Foucault and Agamben opens a necessary new line of questioning. For, Leshem does not set out to talk about globalization, yet this is certainly a critical feature of Neoliberalism. His precise thoughts on the space of the oikos in relation to Christianity seem to form the foundations for thinking about colonial expansion and the globalization of oikomenos.

In the classical moment, the space of the oikos is managed for “supplying the master/citizen with leisure time so as to enjoy the good life, whether by participating in the political life… or by engaging in philosophy.” (49) Yet the markedly different Christian economic space the human can transcend/transgress time. For Leshem, “Transgressive desire is fulfilled by generating a space where the divine, which resides outside of time and space, reveals itself in both.” (49) The space where the divine enters is, of course, the community of believers, who can be found anywhere. However, Leshem mentions little about the possibilities of a spatial genealogy of globalization, upon which neoliberalism depends, that has its originary points around the same imaginary space of “the Church.” In this paradigm, the Church can be always inside the imperium and beyond its borders as well. Therefore, if the economy is formed in the subject, then the Church is the formation of some sort of globalized “market.” (see 104)

Furthermore, this Divine in the community of believers contains the “Neoplatonic conception of God in himself as unknowable to humans.” (51) This sort of absent “sovereign” means that sovereignty is likely internal to the subject. Far more than Agamben, Leshem is focused on Foucault’s question of the subject, the economy in the subject and the subjugation of the oikomenos, and secondarily, the economy external to the subject, the neoliberal subject in particular. But questions are not asked as to what hegemonies necessarily dominate the neoliberal subject. The implication is capitalism, but cannot the same subject just as easily be subjugated (and constructed) under white supremacy or patriarchy? Or does the subject constructed by White Supremacy construct (produce) capitalism and visa versa? Does Leshem’s neoliberalism include these—does his economy? This is not his aim, of course, but if his question is aimed at the economic internal to the neoliberal subject, then why leave these out, in particular White Supremacy, since his is a genealogy of Western theology?

For example, Leshem gives account of the pastorate, in accordance with Foucault, in the development of mechanisms which shape desire for the production of the neoliberal subject. This pastoral “love,” a so-called mimesis of Divine Love (p.5), is a way of “governing men,” perhaps of establishing a power that does immediately “feel” like power. The self-sacrificing love of the pastor produces mechanisms not only of control of desire, but also the pathways for the formation of ideology. But what of the pastors who defended such monstrosities of slavery? Slavery produced the capital that made U.S. capitalism possible. Has the formation of the economy in Western Theology on formed neoliberalism? For if race is not reducible to class (it is not), Western Theology has also produced the equally formidable structure of whiteness, or White Supremacy. Capitalism and Whiteness are formed together in the womb of Western expansion, an expansion that depends precisely on the formation of economy in the Western Theological tradition. To perform a genealogy of neoliberalism without a genealogy of whiteness is a genealogy of a leg rather than of a body.

A thoroughgoing consideration of the internalized oikonomia in the formation of the Western subject ought to raise questions of its deep intertwining with the formation of Whiteness if only because the shift of Western power moved from the Holy Roman Empire to an Anglo-Saxon supremacy. So when Leshem distinguishes the space of the political-economy in terms of the Classical Moment (“The political sphere is distinguished by exclusion”), the Imperial Moment (“Economy is everywhere”), and the Christian Moment (“Economic growth by inclusion”), all three moments are part of the colonial structure of the formation of White Supremacy, and not simply Neoliberalism. Blackness (or political lack) is formed by exclusion in opposition to Whiteness. The Economy is everywhere White people are. And economic inclusion is the resulting “benefit” of colonial expansion (growth). For ultimately, Neoliberalism is designed to benefit Whites, and thus, the cultural underpinnings of Whiteness and Neoliberalism can only be similar. For beyond even this question internal to the subject, we should ask the explicit external question which is constantly hidden in plain sight: is not the global neoliberal project racialized?


Adam F Braun holds a PhD in New Testament from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. He will be an adjunct at McCormick Theological Seminary this fall (2017). He works at the intersection of Luke-Acts, Post-structural thought, Critical Race Theory, and “the Church.” His upcoming work focuses on the accidental collisions between the #blacklivesmatter movement and New Testament Hermeneutics.

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