“Just don’t call it the Cathedral!”

Just yesterday someone made this joke (by which I mean the title of this post) — online, in a private conversation so I won’t name names without asking — as if to say as soon as the Left gets close to articulating an analysis like the Cathedral it shuts down, or formulates it in such a way as to cleanse the analysis of any right-wing affinity.

“Just don’t call it the Cathedral!”

And then today, on the timeline, there’s an essay from Adam Kotsko which seems to encapsulate this completely. (Deepening the irony, perhaps, of this @Outsideness tweet.)

I do like Kotsko and read him a fair bit last year, coming to him as a translator of Agamben, whose Foucauldian analyses of the deep-rooted influence of Christianity on contemporary politics of the Left I find really interesting — which led to this post / talk.

The Cathedral, even as a Moldbug-Landian concept, does have much to say to many a Leftist blindspot, particularly the Left’s inherent complicity in the neoliberal subjectivity it so often tries to vocally position itself against.

Kotsko, in line with this, has a new book coming out called Neoliberalism’s Demons and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t sound precisely like “Just don’t call it the Cathedral!” in book form.

In an essay for the Stanford University Press Blog, he writes:

The question of neoliberalism’s legitimacy is not an economic, or even a political one. It is not simply a matter of tracing the history of the laws and policies that created the neoliberal world but of understanding the ways that the neoliberal paradigm exercises its influence. As many commentators have shown, this influence is profound: it goes beyond public policy to shape our own sense of ourselves and our self-worth. Under neoliberalism, we are continually marketing ourselves; we establish a personal brand where we might once have had a reputation, or we network where we might once have made friends. This market for selfhood is a deeply competitive one. We are in a constant struggle for attention, prestige, and respect—and can easily lose all three at any moment.

Clearly it is not enough to point to the power of law and state enforcement when dealing with such phenomena. There is a coercive element to neoliberalism, yet it would not be able to function without the soft power of persuasion and voluntary compliance. In other words, neoliberalism needs to make something like a moral claim on us. ‘Neoliberalism’s Demons’ contends that it achieves this by emphasizing the value of freedom. In many ways, the neoliberal model of freedom is very narrow: it prizes participation in the market through voluntary transactions and contractual agreements above all else. As for other forms of freedom—particularly the freedom to engage in collective rather than individual action—they are dismissed or even proclaimed contrary to “true” freedom. But this very narrowness is what grants neoliberalism its remarkable consistency and staying power.

To show why this is so, I draw on the conceptual resources of political theology. This hybrid field, which originated in the work of the German jurist Carl Schmitt, studies the often striking parallels between political and theological systems as well as the “secularization” of medieval theological concepts in modern political thought. My book attempts to broaden the field. It asks why parallels between the political and theological realms should exist in the first place and answers that both realms deal with a similar problem. On the theological side, we can speak of the problem of evil, namely, the problem of how an all-powerful and all-beneficent God can allow bad and unjust things to take place. On the political side, we can speak of the problem of legitimacy, which is to say, the problem of why the political order deserves our obedience and allegiance. I contend that these problems are fundamentally one and the same: the problem of evil asks why God deserves to rule over creation, and the problem of legitimacy asks why the political order allows bad things to happen to good people.

Freedom provides neoliberalism with an easy answer to the political problem of evil: bad things happen because we have chosen for them to happen. The market chooses winners and losers, and we all choose how to equip ourselves for market competition. Whatever happens, no matter how apparently unjust or arbitrary, thus reflects the free choice of everyone involved, which is in turn reflected in market outcomes. This dynamic reveals that the neoliberal concept of freedom is narrow in still another way. Not only is it limited to market transactions, but it is limited to generating blameworthiness.

And this, I argue, is where we find the strongest parallel between neoliberalism and Christian theology. In its classical forms, Christianity has always insisted on the existence of human free will, even while also insisting that exercising that will in any way that does not echo the will of God is evil or destructive. In other words, God has given us free will so that we will freely choose not to use it. This reasoning offers a two-pronged solution to the problem of evil. On the one hand, God is not responsible for it, as evil results from the free choice of his creatures; on the other, out of evil, God can draw even greater good, at once undoing that evil while ensuring that it contributes to his glory.

Over the centuries of Christian tradition, this latter point is increasingly emphasized, and eventually, it appears that God, in his endless pursuit of glory, actually entraps rebellious angels (that is, demons) in order to make sure that there is plenty of evil available for redirection toward the greater good. It is this perverse pattern that gives my book its title. My intention is not to demonize neoliberalism but to show how neoliberalism demonizes us. Just as God lures the fallen angels into making the mistakes that he will gloriously correct, so too does neoliberalism entrap us into taking the fall for its shortcomings and failures—all for the greater glory of shareholder value.

Joking aside, I’m genuinely interested to read this. It’s about time someone took this accusation (indirectly) to task and consider it seriously. I’ll have to read the book to properly consider how good a job it does though, of course… The first paragraph of the book’s introduction certainly seems to display the right amount of self-awareness:

Every academic critique of neoliberalism is an unacknowledged memoir. We academics occupy a crucial node in the neoliberal system. Our institutions are foundational to neoliberalism’s claim to be a meritocracy, insofar as we are tasked with discerning and certifying the merit that leads to the most powerful and desirable jobs. Yet at the same time, colleges and universities have suffered the fate of all public goods under the neoliberal order. We must therefore “do more with less,” cutting costs while meeting ever-greater demands. The academic workforce faces increasing precarity and shrinking wages even as it is called on to teach and assess more students than ever before in human history—and to demonstrate that we are doing so better than ever, via newly devised regimes of outcome-based assessment. In short, we academics live out the contradictions of neoliberalism every day.

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