The Kingdom, The Power, The Glory, And The Tawdry – Media And The Undoing Of The Demos, Part 1 (Carl Raschke)

This article appears in three installments. It was originally a paper given at the international conference “The Crisis of Representation” at Melk Conference Center (Stift Melk, Austria) sponsored by the Religion and Transformation in Contemporary Society Platform at the University of Vienna (June 27, 2017). The next two will be published on July 11 and 18 respectively.  

In the third volume of his critical trilogy entitled The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government, Giorgio Agamben lays out in the opening sentence a project that will take Foucault’s theory of “governmentality” to a new level.  “This study,” he writes, “will inquire into the paths by which and the reasons why power in the West has assumed the form of an oikonomia.”

It “locates” itself within the ongoing genealogical investigations that Foucault initiated in the 1970s, Agamben says, “but, at the same time, it also aims to understand the internal reasons why they failed to be completed.”  Foucault was unable, Agamben suggests, to acknowledge “the shadow that the theoretical interrogation of the present casts onto the past reaches well beyond the chronological limits that Foucault causes, as if a more primordial genetic rank would necessarily pertain to theology.”

In fact, it can be traced all the way back, according to Agamben, to the very “onto-theological” template for all Western thought itself, the three-in-one Godhead.  Agamben announces in his opening statement this his aim is to go beyond Foucault’s fixation on the clerico-confessional management of both the language and psychology of salvation compressed into the latter’s notion of the “pastorate,” which becomes the groundwork for the theory of “biopolitics”.  He argues that he wants to “show instead how the apparatus of the Trinitarian oikonomia may constitute a privileged laboratory for the observation of the working and articulation—both internal and external—of the governmental machine. For within this apparatus the elements—or the polarities—that articulate the machine appear, as it were, in their paradigmatic form.”[1]

Agamben proposes a few sentences later that the question of oikonomia, which means “household” in Greek and from which we derive both of the terms economy and ecology, is ultimately about the essence of “power” in the Western context.  The metaphysics of “economy” is, in crucial but somewhat opaque respects, paired with the seemingly “antinomical” (Agamben’s term) construct of “sovereignty” in the absolute sense that Carl Schmitt analyzed in the 1920s.

The double structure of the governmental machine, which in State of Exception (2003) appeared in the correlation between auctoritas and potestas, here takes the form of the articulation between Kingdom and Government and, ultimately, interrogates the very relation—which initially was not considered—between oikonomia and Glory, between power as government and effective management, and power as ceremonial and liturgical regality, two aspects that have been curiously neglected by both political philosophers and political scientists.”[2]

For Agamben, both Schmitt and Foucault serves as the double axis today, much like Kant and Hegel in the nineteenth century, for the analysis of the political.  In addition, the analysis of the political is impossible without consideration of its embedded theological substrata, a famous argument which Carl Schmitt advanced almost a century ago, but which has only been applied for all intents and purposes (as Agamben points out) heretofore to the notion of exceptionality (Ausnahmezustand) without due regard for the increasingly relevant concept of proportionality.

This question, which perhaps amounts to a Derridean aporia or “undecidable”, harks all the way back to Plato and the beginnings of Western philosophy in itself.  It also trenches on the question in early Christianity of the significance of “law”, or nomos, within the larger scheme of what the Greeks named dikaiosyne, or “justice”.  Is the law strictly situational (i.e., does it apply only, as Paul asked, to those who like the Jews are “under the law”), or is it truly “universal” in the way that Kant’s “practical reason” later formulated it (i.e., valid for all persons from all cultures and polities at all times in the same set of circumstances)?

Simply stated, is “justice” ultimately retributive or distributive?  And who can, or should, administer it?  If justice is founded merely on sovereign, or divine, decree, then the appropriate “political” configuration is doubtlessly autocracy.  If it justice is all about ratio, or proportional allotment (Simonides’ “rendering to each person his due”)[3], then it must subject to what contemporary theoreticians would term “administrative” or “managerial” reason – in other words, the logic of bureaucracy and the subtle play within the biopolitical venue of “power” alongside “knowledge”, as Foucault understood it.[4]

The latter would also be the prevailing semiotic coding mechanism for present day democracies. How does one, therefore, assess real, as opposed to imagined, power in accordance with the paradigm of “governmentality” that Foucault initially sketched out?  And what would be the theological episteme, as Foucault might call it, within which this process unfolds?

Agamben notably argues that the paradigms of both sovereignty and oikonomia derive straightaway from “Christian theology” – on the one hand, a “political theology, which founds the transcendence of sovereign power on the single God,” and on the other hand, an “economic theology, which replaces this transcendence with the idea of an oikonomia, conceived as an immanent ordering—domestic and not political in a strict sense—of both divine and human life.”[5]

The theological provenance of both transcendent sovereignty and an “immanent ordering” is the Trinitarian formulation at Nicea, which from the historical standpoint can be interpreted as a compromise to reconcile the Caesaro-papal instincts of Christianity’s new imperial benefactor Constantine, seeking to unify the empire under one common faith, with the “pastoral” apparatus that the underground and previously persecuted church had already achieved with its remarkable, organizational prowess over nearly three centuries.  It was also the sophisticated outworking at both a political and philosophical level of the inherent “incarnational” synthesis of pagan and Jewish thought brilliantly articulated from 50 to approximately 65 A.D. by the apostle Paul.

Without such a synthesis, Christianity would not only have failed to develop over time, especially after the debacle of the Jewish War, but would have been inadequate for a true “state religion” designed to hold the fractious and centrifugal forces of a decaying Roman empire together, an initiative which a succession of Caesars just prior to Constantine had unsuccessfully attempted under the guise of an innovative form of unitary “solar monothesism” by leveraging the glamor of the soldier’s god Sol Invictus.[6]

The prestige of the militarized Roman state had already been in decline since the disasters on the frontiers a century earlier.  Hence, Constantine needed a new, religio-symbolic order that embraced the pieties of the already sprawling and largely literate clerical classes, which were heavily populated by Christians.  The Christianity of antiquity from the outset was what Foucault terms “governmental”, and it came to be secularized, especially in the France of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as well as Prussia during the nineteenth century, which invented through the ministrations of the Lutheran Landeskirche what has come to be known as “state socialism”.

Genealogically, the Prussian prototype of a secularized clerical state governance centered on the university and its “faculties” along with the military and a cartelized financial system dating all the way back to the Middle Ages was the seedbed for the growth of what currently we recognized as larger “neoliberal” order, not to mention Bernard Stiegler’s “cognitive capitalism” or Peter Drucker’s “knowledge society.”

So far as Agamben is concerned, the “biopolitical” administration of the world is authorized by the idea that the divine is, in effect, a triple functionary, as first enunciated per scholarly consensus by the church father Irenaeus of Lyon in the latter half of the second century with his claim that the Godhead is one in reality, but manifests through three different functions, or operations.[7]  Whereas Irenaeus understands the “economic” administration of the Triune God to entail the work of the Son as well as the Father and the Spirit, Agamben is concerned mainly with the first and third persons of the Trinity.

But what makes oikonomia unique, according to Agamben, is that it mirrors not the sphere of sovereignty that informs the politeia (that is, “the political”) but the household.  Broadly conceived, oikonomia in the Aristotelian setting has only to do with the conduct of personal or family affairs – dealings between master and slave, father and children, husband and wife – which are completely set apart from, and impenetrable by, the polis.  Whereas in the modern “republican”, or bourgeois, setting the household would be regarded as a kind of monadic prototype for civil society – and in Hegel’s “philosophy of right” for the rationality of the state tout court –  it would paradoxically in the Athenian environment be envisioned as the very penumbra of the political.

How would, therefore, the “economic” model of human relationships be placed on a separate, but equal plane of signification with “despotic” sovereignty, inasmuch as a Christian “political theology” might give substance to it, a political theology that would ultimately leave its unmistakable “signature”, as Agamben puts it, on the modern secular order, not to mention become in a certain sense what the later Schmitt describes as the “nomos of the earth”?

It is a commonplace among historians that the Christian church arose during and throughout the pre-Constantinian era as a kind of shadow state purposed in important respects for the general “care of souls” that filled an enormous social as well

Constantine the Great

as a spiritual vacuum, which the militarized and overly politicized imperium was completely derelict in supplying. The role of the Christian pastorate, therefore, was more comparable the Aristotelian “household” writ large and inscribed, despite the recurrent antagonism of the imperial authorities, within the “cosmopolitan” expanse of an increasingly unwieldy – and ungovernable – empire.  After the “conversion” of Constantine, the dialectics throughout the Mediterranean world of polis versus oikonimia resulted in an unparalleled moment of Aufhebung, which still persists into the present.

At the same time, if “politics” and “economics” are now separate, yet theoretically inseparable, in the guise of what we have come to call “political economy”, and if these two modalities of “administration” have been fused ever since the age of Constantine by a dominant political theology of both God and government as necessarily sovereign, yet simultaneously “caring” and concerned for the general welfare, what does that portend for the present and evolving “globalist” configuration in which once independent ethnicities, the marrow of national sovereignties ever since the seventeenth century, have been replaced with the new transnational empire of rhizomic markets and nomadic capital, defined no longer by disciplinary structures of hegemony and authority as much as by the swarming and “sliding” signifiers (in Lacan’s sense) that constitute digital communications and the infinitely rarified iterations of financial transactivity?

This state of affairs, following the academic conventions of the last decade or so, have come to be known as “neoliberalism.”  And the new planetary regime that carries its name, which according to the populist vernacular bears the generic nom de guerre of the “global elites,” has come to be invested with a certain disrepute, even among those who are visibly as well as invisibly its agents of influence and benefactors.

At a very superficial level, the new global dominion of etherealized capital, which derives its power from the pseudo-ethical imperative of a “socially conscious” consumerism that will “save the planet”, resembles the ancient ideal of Romanitas, summed up simply as collection of  higher “humanist” values on which citizens of the empire relied in order to justify morally and culturally their brutal subjugation of the far-flung multitudes.  It was not unlike the British colonialists’ fiction of their “civilizing mission” throughout the nineteenth century.

But this kind of “humanism,” which the Romans invariably contrasted with the indigenous barbarism which had both to be conquered and pushed back from its borders, was ultimately inadequate to keep the empire together as it inexorably fell prey to a kind of regional warlordism stoked by the increasing reliance of the regime on non-citizens, or what today we would describe as “stateless” mercenaries, to maintain peace and order amidst a widely dysfunctional political and slowly collapsing economic system.

What the Christian oikonomia provided was a different form of governance akin to what today we would call “soft power” through the mediation of a compelling new symbolic system of instrumentalities.  In Agamben’s view the power wielded by the “pastorate” in this new clerical economy derives from what he calls a politics of “glory,” which is immanent to the extent that it encompasses the entirety of those who are subjects within the political realm (in Roman times this privilege was accorded only to the narrow circle of those holding “citizenship”) and transcendent in the measure that the such a novel style of “subjectivity” in guaranteed soteriologically through participation in the body of Christ, corresponding to a kingdom “not of this world.”

Augustine, writing during the decades of imperial prostration during the fifth century, first laid out the general theory of such dual subjecthood in his City of God.   But while he, like Paul, looked for the reconciliation of these “two kingdoms” only at the moment of an eschatological finale, his ecclesiastical imagination laid the groundwork for the revival of the Constantinian synthesis during the high Middle Ages and eventually for the rise of a novum ordo seclorumn in the late modern period.  The question of “glory” as  “the uncertain zone in which acclamations, ceremonies, liturgies, and insignia operate”, for Agamben, came to be transposed from the sacerdotal to the symbology of secular politics overall.[8]

Agamben writes:

glory is the place where theology attempts to think the difficult conciliation between immanent trinity and economic trinity, theologia and oikonomia, being and praxis, God in himself and God for us. For this reason, the doxology, despite its apparent ceremonial fixity, is the most dialectical part of theology, in which what can only be thought of as separate must attain unity.[9]

The instrumentality of “glory,” which was used routinely by both kings and clergy up until early twentieth century and became the flash point for the kind of sectarian conflict that eventually morphed into anti-clerical political revolutions, served as the precursor, according to Agamben, for the aestheticization of mass politics that found its most demonic expression in the various totalitarianisms of the twentieth century.  “We find here, as we find at the hidden root of all aestheticisms,” Agamben notes, “the need to cover and dignify what is in itself pure force and domination.[10]  But this “aesthetic” subterfuge can also be understood in terms of the virtualization of politics through both earlier and later forms of media and the manipulation of what once were material interests through the idealizing mechanisms of a “symbolic economies,” about which I have written in my book Force of God.[11]

The idea of a purely symbolic economics was advanced during the 1970s by a lesser known French post-structuralist theorist named Jean-Joseph Goux, roughly about the same time as Foucault began his decade of lectures at the College de France, wherein he elaborated many of the intricate ramifications of the “biopolitical.”  It is Goux’s overarching approach, adapted from Marx’s analysis of the fetishism of commodities in Book I of Capital as the generative principle in the formation of surplus value, that helps us frame a general theory of neoliberalism as global governance by autonomous signifiers.

These signifiers are not so much a cover for “pure force and domination” as they are they are the force of domination itself.   Goux relies on Marx’s observations about how commodification serves as an anticipation of the ultimate epiphany of alienated labor under the aspect of money.  Political economy, not only for Marx but for a number of his predecessors, comes down to the issue of how value is created.

In the final analysis for Marx, such value constitutes different transmutations, or “crystallizations”, of labor as commodities, culminating in their “dazzling money form.”[12]   Commodification progresses through the increasingly obscure alchemy of the market exchange mechanism.  In order for commodities to be exchanged, their “values” must be compared by some kind of rational set of criteria.  But the commodities themselves cannot serve as a basis of comparison.  Their values are merely “relative” to each other.

Thus there must emerge a general principle for comparing the relative values of commodities, a “value of values”, so to speak, or what political economy designates as a “general equivalent”.  The brandishing of the general equivalent requires that we excise the value of the labor that went into making it, yielding a more recondite form of value containing nothing more than “abstract labor.” Marx writes that “the body of the commodity that serves as the equivalent, figures as the materialisation of human labour in the abstract, and is at the same time the product of some specifically useful concrete labour.”[13]  The money form of the commodity becomes the very prima materia for the accumulation of “surplus” labor value (Mehrwert) from which all historical variants of “capitalism” spring.

The general equivalent, or the “money form,” thereby becomes the sorcerer’s apprentice that sets in motion an endless procession of formal correlations (“simulacra,” as Jean Baudrillard calls them) that converts material inputs into immaterial significations.  This “virtualization” of concrete value through commodity production, especially in the money form, is also the occasion for class conflict and exploitation, so far as Marx is interested.

Marx, of course, in his fidelity to Hegelian dialectics believed that this process over time would bring about the ripening of multiple, inherent “contradictions” in the system, leading to its collapse and the onset of revolution.  But what Marx did not envision was the way in which the virtualization process itself, including what Maurizzio Lazzarato terms “immaterial labor”, could be further virtualized and consequently commodified, bringing into being the brave new world of today where “knowledge” is not a simple condition for the manufacture of usable “things,” but a thing to be produced and valued for itself, which is what we really have in mind when we prattle on about “knowledge workers” and the “knowledge society.”[14]

Goux explains how this kind of transformation takes place: “instead of the relation, in which symbolicity is constituted; instead of exchange, through which subjects, in partially reversible fabric, can metabolize the signifiers that constitute them – the symbolic freezes into a rigid mediation that dominates them.“ Furthermore,  iff the symbolic relations introduces a third entity, a mediating element, by which the ceaseless floods of the imaginary are absorbed …a symbolic counteraction, operating like a forced currency, blocks the balancing process and dispossess subjects of their own activity, through the symbolic functions of the state, money, the concept.“[15]

Thus the contemporary “crisis of representation” can be understood as fundamental to the very translation of politeia into oikonomia,  or at least the beginning of a recognition that they are interchangeable somehow at an ontological level.  The introduction of the primordial intuition of value as “exchange value”, which defines the “economic” paradigm as a whole, demands this shift in our perception.

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 besides Critical Theology include 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).  His previous two books – GloboChrist (Baker Academic, 2008)  and The Next Reformation (Baker Academic, 2004) –  examine the most recent trends and in paths of transformations at an international level in contemporary Christianity. Faith and Reason: Three Views (IVP Academic, 2014), of which he is a co-author, is a conversation among three contemporary Christian philosophers.  Finally, he is current managing editor of Political Theology Today and senior editor for The Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory.

_________________________________________________________________________________________________

[1] Giorgio Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government, trans. Lorenzo Chiesa and Matteo Mandarini (Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, Kindle Edition, 2011), loc. 107-113.

[2] Ibid., 113-119.

[3] Plato, Republic, 331(e).

[4] See Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews And Other Writings (New York: Vintage, 1980).

[5] The Kingdom and the Glory, op. cit., 150-156.

[6] See James B. Rives, Religion in the Roman Empire (Hoboken NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2006) as well as Andrew Cain, The Power of Religion in Late Antiquity (New York: Routledge, 2009).

[7] Jackson J. Lashier, however, in his close reading of Irenaeus’ works suggest that Irenaeus was not the first to articulate an “economic” model, but drew on various threads of commentary from an earlier generation of Christian apologists.  See Lashier, The Trinitarian Theology of Irenaeus of Lyons, unpublished doctoral dissertation, Marquette University, May 2011.

[8]  The Kingdom and the Glory, op. cit., 3917.

[9]  Op. cit., 4316.

[10] Op. cit., 4385.

[11] See Carl Raschke, Force of God (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), especially pp. 73-77.

[12]  Karl Marx, Capital, Book 1, 6.

[13]  Capital, op. cit., 11.

[14]  Lazzarato writes: “The ‘great transformation’ that began at the start of the 1970s has changed the very terms in which the question is posed. Manual labor is increasingly coming to involve procedures that could be defined as ‘intellectual,’ and the new communications technologies increasingly require subjectivities that are rich in knowledge. It is not simply that intellectual labor has become subjected to the norms of capitalist production. What has happened is that a new ‘mass intellectuality’ has come into being, created out of a combination of the demands of capitalist production and the forms of ‘self-valorization’ that the struggle against work has produced. The old dichotomy between ‘mental and manual labor,’ or between ‘material labor and immaterial labor,’ risks failing to grasp the new nature of productive activity, which takes this separation on board and transforms it. The split between conception and execution, between labor and creativity, between author and audience, is simultaneously transcended within the ’labor process’ and reimposed as political command within the ‘process of valorization.’”  Maurizio Lazzarato, “Immaterial Labor”, in Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics, ed. Paolo Virno and Michael Hardt (Minneapolis MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), 133.

[15]  Jean-Joseph Goux, Symbolic Economies: After Marx and Freud (Ithaca, NY: Columbia University Press, 1990), 163.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *