Neoliberalism and Religion

Religious Studies As The “State Religion” Of Neoliberalism, Part 2 (Carl Raschke)

The following is the second of a three-part series. The first can be found here .

The supreme achievement of neoliberalism, according to Han, is that it has massively perfected on a planetary scale the system of exploitation that eighteenth and nineteenth century liberalism pushed under the false flag of enlarging “freedom.”  Robin Blackburn documents the complex, conflictual, and disingenuous patterns of discursivity by which the various processes of “modernist” subjectivation contributed simultaneously to the popular spread of both democratic and egalitarian ideals in Europe and America and to the horrific degradation and enslavement of Africans.  Similarly, Han analyzes the many ways I which the neoliberal modus operandi along with its rhetoric has turned so-called “emancipatory” strategies upside down and converted them into occasions for self-servitude.  As Han puts it, “neoliberalism represents a highly efficient, indeed an intelligent, system for exploiting freedom” [1]  

In addition, neoliberalism fosters what Isabella Guanzini characterizes as a universal tiredness or ennui that renders the very promises of neoliberalism – i.e., self-realization, mutual recognition, liberation from historical structures of oppression – impossible.  Unlike liberalism, which throughout two-century stint waved the vision of both infinite material acquisition and immanent self-transformation, as coded into Emma Lazarus’ famous image of immigrant “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” neoliberalism dangles before the hypersensitive sensibility of the overworked urban professional the seductive illusion that one through a  politics of polemics and protest without serious risk to their own privileged position in society can triumphantly free others. 

Neoliberalism, Guanzini points out, seduces us with the offer of community.  But it is enervated community that has no real substance or attraction in our “fatigued” state.  It is “a fundamental fatigue” that “turns into a surrenderto the world in the name of an ideal of community with the other.”  The presumed global solidarism of abstract “otherness” demonstrates to us that it is not merely the commodified self that abandons itself.  “It is no longer the tiredness of the self but the tiredness of the we.”[2]  It is this globalized ennui (in Guanzini’s terms an ennu-we) that epitomizes what we might regard as the religion of neoliberalism. 

The World of the “Woke”

The religion of twenty-first century neoliberalism is a vaporous, cosmopolitan sentimentality that postures as a vigorous moral project.  Its incoherence and insipidity is exceeded only by its surly self-righteousness and willingness to rely on both corporate and state power to commandeer information as well as censor dissent.  It is a religion with a vast “priesthood” of cerebral and behavioral specialists flouting innumerable streamers of self-representation and self-reverential status markers, very much like the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages. It is the latter day counterpart to Foucault’s “pastorate” in the guise of a proliferating, professional “knowledge class” that in recent decades has materialized as the present day, planetary ruling class.  It is a class, just like any decadent aristocracy, that is absorbed principally in maintaining its own privileges and sinecures.[3]

The foregoing can also be considered a more hard-core, anatomical profile of what has currently come to be known in the popular press as “wokeness”.  “Wokeness” is the sorrowful stupor of a once critically-minded intellectual aristocracy who, long impelled with ardent dreams of turning the world upside down and remaking it, have in their dotage as the new ruling class that is the “knowledge class”, hunkered down into a sanctimonious but secular clerisy reminiscent of Catholicism under the Bourbons, which Voltaire reviled with his slogan écrasez l’infâme, “crush the infamous thing”. 

The new clerisy from government functionaries to tech workers to college instructors to the self-styled urban cognoscenti sequestered most of their waking hours in corporate cubicles find relief from the barrenness of their lives to wallow in the wasteland of social media  in an ongoing orgy, as Nancy Fraser puts it, of “moralizing condescension”.[4]  Wokeness claims a certain comradeship of ever accumulating moral outrage aimed not so much at the profound abuses and predations of the present day, but crafted to stoke a growing obsession regarding past sins and transgressions of generic and caricatured historical types (e.g., the “slave holder”, the “fascist”, the “pioneer”, the “capitalist”) for the purposing of identifying and indicting an ever expanding circle of guilty parties, who cannot speak for or defend themselves.  They become an easy foil to distract from the hyperboles and hypocrisies of the very intellectual class who with only a superficial knowledge of history become grand inquisitors torturing history itself to confess what it wants to hear. 

Like the pastorate of yore, our woke warrior class orchestrate an endless spectacle of, condemnation, forced contrition, and public penance.  “Wokeness” is but the popular piety of this new kind of progressive neoliberalism.  Progressive neoliberalism has always had a comprehensive social agenda – an “hegemony” in the parlance of Gramsci.  Political theorist Thomas Biebricher  make this point cogently.  Biebricher argues that liberalism itself has never been devoid an expansive social theory.[5]  Contrary to the conventional wisdom, its classic formulation over a century ago never could be boiled down merely to laissez faire economics, the rights of individuals, and the consent of the governed. 

As early as the Progressive Era and especially under the impact of philosophers such as Thomas Dewey and later Richard Rorty, liberalism has insisted on the cultivation of an encompassing social-democratic order in which its core value “freedom” is purported to be necessarily embedded.  One could even make the case that a similar tacit form of “social ethics” can be found in the works of the nineteenth century utilitarians, especially Mill, as Wendy Donner has suggested.[6]  Fraser doubles down on this argument.

Like every form of capitalism, this one is no mere economic system but something larger: an institutionalized social order. As such, it encompasses a set of noneconomic background conditions that are indispensable to a capitalist economy: for example, unwaged activities of social reproduction, which assure the supply of wage labor for economic production; an organized apparatus of public power (law, police, regulatory agencies, and steering capacities) that supplies the order, predictability, and infrastructure necessary for sustained accumulation; and finally, a relatively sustainable organization of our metabolic interaction with the rest of nature, one that ensures essential supplies of energy and raw materials for commodity production, not to mention a habitable planet that can support life.[7]

A woke capitalism with its woke pastorate superintending its woke minions from top-tier universities ensconced in socially and economically dysfunctional metropoles with their global commercial gallerias may confound the Gilded Age myth of the politically reactionary Mr. Moneybags,  or Ayn Rand’s snorting and self-made saviors of industry with their utter contempt for the well-being of the less fortunate, and who like John D. Rockefeller or the Koch Brothers may in fact be prompted by some obscure style of Christian zealotry. 

The neoliberal metastasis of capitalism has come about concurrently alongside an outthrust into international markets with their highly diverse demographics and socio-cultural particularities.  “Wokeness” by nature is both an eclecticism of the affects and a dilettantism when it comes to  social theory.  At one level it evokes in a postmodernist register the Sehnsucht,  the longing for the “blue flower” as a trope for the impossible, of the early nineteenth century Romantics. 

At another level it projects out on to a turbulent and eminently fragile social universe its own unnameable night broodings, the disturbing “Gothic” undercurrent of all hypercharged collective, insurrectionary fantasies.   Its rage to identify malevolence and numberless malefactors in previously undisclosed alcoves of the social architecture is matched only by its dogmatic and persecutorial demand to pursue uncompromising remedies.  But that was also the pretense of the Inquisition.  And it has been the standard rationale of every terroristic atrocity as well as every totalitarian police action from the Jacobins to the Khmer Rouge. 

What separates the woke nowadays from their sanguinary forbears is not so much the energy of resentment and coiled ruthlessness.  It is their tendency to turn everything into a holy war for conceptual definition along with the aggrandizement of one’s own virtuous self-image.  Such a subtle, yet surly affect field emerges from a mass addiction to all the petty rushes that percolate from full-time immersion in the digitized “panopticon” of social media. Social media, in comparison with early visions of the internet as a global “safe space” for culture and conversation, has become a comprehensive system for surveillance and policing thought and opinion. It is capable of singling out most minimal affronts while amping up mob emotions to turn every perceived transgression of woke ideology into a mass perp walk for multitudes of perceived malefactors. 

But this show-trial monstrosity of digital politics is made more insidious by the supposition of those in its thralls are convinced they are heroically warring for the wretched of the earth, or for the survival of the earth itself. In truth, they are simply dreaming deeper into their own self-indulgent fairlyand.  In Guanzini’s words, they are wholly enticed like desperate lovers by “the illusion of becoming one, in other words the desire to overcome any alterity and separation,” which “is the narcissistic variety of a relationship that is lived as a pure reflection, as a mirrored reciprocity.” (104-5). But they are incapable either of loving others or loving themselves – or even loving the very abstract “goods” or virtues they insist they are defending.  Instead, they rave and despise.  

The world of the woke – that cloying, meme-infested fool’s paradise of the progressive neoliberal – is a friable and self-contradictory one that constantly spits out pharisaic fantasies on the part of those who pretend to hold them can no longer in good conscience do so.  It is a world in which the specter of “nihilism”, as Nietzsche described it, crouches at the door..  Nihilism, Nietzsche proposed, is the condition where “the highest values devaluate themselves,” while “the why finds no answer.”[8]  Nietzsche viewed nihilism as the unavoidable complication of the death of God.  Unlike our present day hordes of would-be “death of God theologians”, who routinely genuflect before Nietzsche as some kind of totem animal or ancestral spirit, Nietzsche himself did not revel in God’s death.  For Nietzsche, God was dead because “we have killed him, all of us are his murderers”[9].  The peril was that those responsible for God’s death, like feckless palace coup-plotters, might wrongly presume they could offer a plausible placeholder for the murdered monarch.  Nietzsche wrote in his unpublished literary remains:

Nihilism as a psychological state is reached, secondly, when one has posited a totality, a systematization, indeed any organization in all events, and underneath all events, and a soul that longs to admire and revere has wallowed in the idea of some supreme form of domination and administration (-if the soul be that of a logician, complete consistency and real dialectic are quite sufficient to reconcile it to everything). Some sort of unity, some form of “monism”: this faith suffices to give man a deep feeling of standing in the context of, and being dependent on, some whole that is infinitely superior to him, and he sees himself as a mode of the deity.- ‘The well-being of the universal demands the devotion of the individual’ – but behold, there is no such universal! At bottom, man has lost the faith in his own value when no infinitely valuable whole works through him; i.e., he conceived such a whole in order to be able to believe in his own value.[10]

The unacknowledged truth is simply that the death of God, nihilism, woke psychology, and the elaborate and pervasive circuitry of debt, guilt, anger, narcissism, mindless groupthink, and ubiquitous subservience to the idols of personal self-presentation constitute are the essential cerebral ecology of neoliberalism.  This ecology is almost undetectable by the cognitive elites, because they are all along profoundly enmeshed within it.  It is like young fish, as Guanzini notes in a parable, who cannot answer the simple question “how’s the water?” because they do not know what water is, even though they have been swimming in it the entirety of their little piscine lives.[11] 

The underside of neoliberalism is nothing more than a Protean semiosphere of once immanent symbolic forms and acts extracted from their native life-worlds and sedimented as “forms of religion” to be clinically dissected. These forms at one time comprised what Mignolo terms “local knowledge.”  However, they now course prolifically throughout our everyday speech and higher-order discourse as well as perhaps in our collective knowledge base and have simply become compostable fodder for the neoliberal pseudo-moral imaginary.  They are the putrefying skin and once vital organs of dead gods, or God.   The hackneyed expression “spiritual but not religious” crystallizes such a sensibility.  The transcendental comes to be commodified along with Nietzsche’s “highest values” which, like white bread or refined sugar, serve as delectable enticements to consume more and more of what remains in truth of little, or absolutely no value. 

Carl Raschke is Professor of Philosophy of Religion at the University of Denver and Senior Editor for the JCRT. His bio and publications can be found here.

[1] Robin Blackburn, The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern 1492-1800 (London: Verso, 1997), 3.

[2] Isabella Guanzini, Zärtlichkeit: Eine Philosophie der Sanften Macht  (Munich: C.H. Beck, 2019), 129.

[3] In Neoliberalism and Political Theology I wrote: The ruling class of the present era is the so-called ‘knowledge class’ – what in the first chapter I have named the ‘corporate-university-financial- information complex’. It is a class that controls both the means of ‘material’ production (which is now essentially ‘virtual’) in the form of the global ‘symbolic economy’ of digitised media, computerised investment and currency transactions, an increasingly credentialled lifelong learning and professional service industry, and a vast intellectual cognitive and communicative machinery that rigorously defines and enforces a new ‘global-civic’ moralism of self-criticism and self-denial ostensibly aimed at the good of all humankind, all the while ruthlessly grinding down the dignity and physical livelihoods of workers of all races, cultures and ethnicities. Neoliberalism is not in any way now the old-style ‘capitalism’ of Marx’s day. In fact, the word ‘capitalism’ as a synonym for neoliberalism may be highly misleading. It is indeed what Marx and Engels named the ‘ruling intellectual force’ of our contemporary era. Ironically, it is the very neoliberal ideology that often invokes ‘social justice’ terminology in order to impose the opposite agenda than classical Marxism once envisioned. It is the true wolf in sheep’s clothing, and it must be unmasked for what it is so that a radical and hitherto unenvisioned political and ethical path forward can be charted.  Neoliberalism and Political Theology, op. cit., 7-8.

[4] Nancy Fraser, The Old is Dying and the New Cannot Be Born: From Progressive Neoliberalism to Trump and Beyond (London: Verso, 2019), 33.

[5] See Thomas Biebricher, The Political Theory of Neoliberalism (Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, 2018).

[6] See Wendy Donner, The Liberal Self: John Stuart Mill’s Moral and Political Philosopher (Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 2018).

[7] Fraser, op. cit. 217.

[8] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1968), 9.

[9] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science

[10] The Will to Power, op. cit., 12.

[11] Guanzini,op. cit., 37.

Leave a Reply

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

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.