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  • From the Secular City to the Regime of Neoliberalism
  • Carl Raschke (bio)
Undoing the demos: neoliberalism's stealth revolution
Wendy Brown
Zone Books
296 Pages; Print, $18.95

"The time has come," Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in his posthumous work The Will to Power (1901), "when we have to pay for having been Christians for two thousand years." What did Nietzsche imply by this remark? Nietzsche's most well-known trope for the long-term effects of two millennia of Christianity was, of course, "the death of God." Ever since the late 1960s, so-called death-of-God theology, made famous over time through the writings of Thomas J. J. Altizer, has continued to recycle itself for at least three generations now. Even though Nietzsche himself did not view the divine demise as something meriting jubilation, a voluminous genre of so-called death-of-God theology has accumulated since that fateful decade with the explicit aim of lauding that very event. In this literature, the death of God and the joyous advent of what theologian Harvey Cox, writing contemporaneously with Altizer, dubbed "the secular city" are frequently regarded as interchangeable. As Jeffrey Robbins wrote as recently as 2007, "It is no surprise, after all, that the death of God movement is celebrated as the embrace and culmination of the modern trend toward a fully secularized culture—or if not fully secularized, at least a culture that had become increasingly suspicious of the institution of religion."

But what if the secularized Christendom both secular theologians and death-of-God theologians signalize is not a cause for rejoicing, but for a kind of prophetic denunciation? That is increasingly the thread of argument that many contemporary political theorists with little or no interest in theology per se have been making about this brave, new global saeculum. They do not call it the secular city but by a term that is increasingly fraught with critical and controversial connotations. That term is "neoliberalism." Since the beginning of this decade there has been a major explosion of scholarly literature on neoliberalism. Much of this new literature, derived from a close reading of Michel Foucault's lectures at the Collège de France in the late 1970s, in which he laboriously traced a historical process he called "the birth of biopolitics" all the way back to the Christian pastorate of the Middle Ages. Simply put, neoliberalism is secularized Christianity with a posthuman face.

One of the most telling and influential books on neoliberalism, which takes off from where Foucault left off, is Wendy Brown's Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism's Stealth Revolution.

What exactly is the stealth revolution of neoliberalism? The stealth factor has been the appeal to progressive or humane (as opposed to acquisitive) impulses, the laying of the egg of an exploitative cowbird in the nurturing nest of an indigenous progressivism among the educated elites that purports politically to instantiate on a global scale what Nietzsche dubbed the "Christian-moral view of the world." Think the creation of failed states in Libya and Iraq under the banner of promoting human rights. Think galloping income inequality and wage immiseration under the unfurling moral banner of borderless economies and the perpetuation of subsistence labor through unrestricted immigration by bringing down the moral hammer against "xenophobia."

In what Brown identifies as the "changing morphology of homo oeconomicus and homo politicus," she underscores how neoliberalism seeks with its superior, cosmopolitan authority to put to rout the foundational Rousseauian inspiration for the sources of democratic politics, where "we are free, sovereign, and self-legislating only when we join with others to set the terms by which we live together."

In neoliberalism, the terms of sovereignty are no longer set by the demos but by the demands of capital itself, which masquerades as the guarantor of the social welfare of all who may find their way within its borders, not just citizens. It would appear counterintuitive to the progressive mind that emancipation can be a straightforward subterfuge for profiteering, but that indeed is precisely how socially conscious capital actually operates. If the young Marx called out the sham of Hegel's argument that the political subject is only...


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