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  • Politics without Action, Economy without Labor
  • Brett Neilson (bio)

1. The bipolar machine

Politics and economy, sovereignty and governance, Father and Son, law and order: this is the series of binaries along which Giorgio Agamben, in Il regno e la gloria, strings his analysis of the current dominance of management over all aspects of social life.1 By seeking to demonstrate how the paradigm of oikonomia, particularly as developed in arguments about the Trinity among 2nd-century AD theologians, provides a hidden but crucial current in the genealogy of contemporary forms of power, Agamben parts ways with the main thrust of Western political theory, which focuses its analysis upon sovereignty. Conversely, he refuses the path of many of Michel Foucault's latter day interpreters, who insist that the historical break with sovereignty has been decisive and that power now takes exclusively the horizontal and decentered form of governance. For Agamben, there are always two poles to what he calls the bipolar machine of power. Even if, as today, there is a primacy of governance, both poles remain present. If sovereign power were absent, there would be no government. Rather, there would be another form of power.

The strength of Agamben's analysis is to account for what thinkers all over the world describe as a process of depoliticization, without relinquishing the possibility of repoliticization. The apparent dominance of economics over politics that seems a hallmark of modern capitalism is not a definitive victory or "end of politics" but rather part of a longer historical tension or conflict between sovereignty and governance that is constitutive of the so-called bipolar machine. Agamben's genealogical reconstruction of the economy is thus something other than a political economy, which assumes (once and for all) the dominance of politics over economy. At the same time, it is something other than what Marx dubbed the critique of political economy, to remember the subtitle of Capital. Agamben's analysis shares affinities with that of Hannah Arendt, who laments Marx's elevation of the animal laborans to a position of primacy in his vision of human existence.2 Like Arendt, Agamben seems to believe that the emergence of the private concerns of the oikos within the public sphere signals an eclipse of meaningful political action. Yet there can be no return to the ancient polis. The political and the economic remain locked as two poles of a single machine of power, their fluctuations and relative dominance shaping not only micro negotiations of power but also the unfolding of entire historical epochs.

In tracing the theological origins of modern economy to patristic debates about the trinity, Agamben builds a genealogical configuration of the economy that parallels the one he constructed in State of Exception, where the theological political figure had been forged to represent the practice of state violence.3 Put simply, 2nd-century theologians such as Irenaeus introduced the Greek concept of oikonomia to theology to explain how the oneness of God could be reconciled with the tripartite structure of the trinity. Just as the master of the Greek oikos could share the management of the household without losing power, so God can remain one in substance or being but divided into three as regards his practical actions. The mystery of the Trinity thus pertains not to the ontological dimension of God's being but rather to his management of the world and salvation. Agamben discovers in this mystery the hidden epistemological paradigm of economic theology that not only animates current neoliberal administration but also leaves occasional traces in the history of economic thought, such as the entry on "animal economy" in Diderot and d'Alambert's Encyclopedia or Adam Smith's metaphor of the invisible hand.

2. The Trinity formula

The gambit of this paper is to read Agamben's genealogical analysis of modern government against a striking moment of Trinitarian thinking that, despite its pre-eminent positioning in the archive of political economy, goes strangely un-analyzed in his sweeping reconstruction of the paradigm of economic theology. I have in mind Chapter 48 of Marx's Capital: Volume III entitled "The Trinity Formula." The first sentence of this chapter makes it clear that Marx does...