Symposium Introduction

Neoliberalism has assumed center stage as an object of inquiry in contemporary critical scholarship. Its particular fusion of economic logic, state power, and decentralized and dissimulated mechanisms that shape desire calls for analysis, critique, and resistance. As a multifaceted beast, a variety of perspectives and layers of assessment are needed. In such a vein, Dotan Leshem’s genealogy of neoliberalism makes important contributions to the interdisciplinary discourses exploring the origins and preeminence of the modern economy. In line with work by Foucault and Agamben, and in conversation with Arendt, Leshem adds his voice to the number of studies examining ancient perspectives on the economy for the light they might shed on our current regime.

Like Agamben, Leshem makes oikonomia a central object of analysis, examining the term in its ancient Greek and Christian permutations. Leshem provides correctives and amplifications to many of the insights provided by Agamben’s study. He also expands the field to a richer consideration of oikonomia in Eastern Orthodox traditions. In so doing, Leshem offers a more robust template for assessing the traces of Christian theological legacy in the development and pervasiveness of the modern economy and in its particular iteration in our period of neoliberalism.

In introducing this symposium, I want to highlight three interventions (among the many that Leshem makes) that I find noteworthy. These are contributions that his study offers to contemporary conversations around political theology as well as genealogies of economy, ones that I believe will be of particular interest to readers of this symposium:

The first is a corrective to Agamben’s own important study of economy and government in The Kingdom and the Glory. Leshem critiques Agamben for too narrowly concentrating on the uses of oikonomia in its earliest trinitarian formulations in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. This leads Agamben to focus on oikonomia’s mediation of being and praxis in the Godhead and to remain bound by what Leshem sees as a providential paradigm. Leshem claims that this misses the bulk of the constitution of oikonomia in Christian tradition, particularly as developed in the major ecumenical councils of the 4th and 5th centuries. These later iterations reveal that oikonomia is tied to matters of incarnation and to concerns of divine accommodation to the immanent, earthly sphere. Oikonomia is also bound directly to and derives much of its semantic content from pastoral economy, reflecting as such economy does this Christocentric mission and incarnational model of downward mobility and servanthood. Attending to these periods and themes would have broadened and deepened Agamben’s analysis. Leshem provides such a focus.

The second contribution of Leshem’s sheds light on the ways oikonomia is transposed from a notion of measure and balance in the ancients toward a valence focused on limitless expansion. In conversation with Gregory of Nyssa, Leshem argues that the salvific orientation of the incarnational oikonomia, setting as it does the believer on the path to apotheosis, is tied to themes of growth and surplus. Whereas the classical economy retained limits and was given to cyclical rhythms, the eschatological trajectory of the believer who communes with the eternal God breaks the economy open. Divine superabundance infuses a notion of surplus and expansion. The eventual phase of modern economy as focused on endless growth and accumulation may derive such orientation from this Christian modification. This insight is important for helping make sense of contradictory impulses conveyed within the Greco-Roman and Christian legacies of economy in the West, modulating between themes of balance and control, on one hand, and surplus and growth, on the other.

Leshem’s third contribution involves a particular intervention into matters of the exception introduced by Schmitt and taken up by Agamben. As the latter argued in Homo Sacer, the exception takes its cue from the primordial ban. Here, the shunning and exclusion of the condemned from the group removes them from the protections of law, while relegating them to serve as the limit case to enable the order of law itself. For Agamben, exception operates by an inclusive exclusion: driven out from the political, homo sacer exists on the outside in a way that grounds and informs the logic of the whole. Leshem takes his cue, rather, from the pastoral exceptions made to canon law. Oikonomia in pastoral economy connotes the accommodation to matters of weakness or aims in evangelization, exceptions that permit the suspension of law and judgment in the interests of broader salvific goals. Ultimately, the purpose of such exceptions is the incorporation of outsiders into the ecclesial fold. In this sense, it is characterized by exclusive inclusion, bringing outsiders in, through an absorption that ultimately grounds canon law in its redemptive telos.

Whether or not the analogue here to modern economy or the exception in political theology is correct remains a matter for debate. Yet, to my mind, the dynamics Leshem lays bare provide a more compelling and intuitively persuasive correlation. For, the process of exceptional co-optation of outsiders, drawing them into the economic and ecclesial fold, as excluded inclusion, appears more in line with the dynamics we observe in the global economy as it continually expands and draws more bodies into its ambit. Ultimately, the two dynamics may work in tandem, for Agamben’s insights draw attention to the excluded remainders that must persist, as economic “dead zones,” to vivify the centers of capital.

Our four interlocutors each bring their own insights and expertise to Leshem’s study, amplifying and problematizing its conclusions. Jennifer Rust applies her Reformation expertise and knowledge of Weber to examine the dynamics of secularization implied in Leshem’s genealogy of economy. She shows the limits of his implicit secularization paradigm and fruitfully suggests ways we might understand and even model the modern transmutation of economy, as Europe forged its notion of the secular in conversation with the religious heritage Leshem retrieves. Mitchell Dean drives down to the nature of sovereignty as set forth by Foucault and Agamben to inquire about its implications for Leshem’s project. He wonders whether decentralized and diffuse mechanisms of power remain the best heuristic for thinking about the influence of capital and channels of governmentality in our age, and what this means for the dynamics of oikonomia that Leshem highlights. Roger Friedland draws upon his expertise on institutionalization to ask how the theological patterns Leshem sets forth might be discerned in a variety of other registers. Channeling Hans Blumenberg’s notion of reoccupied positions, he provocatively shows how Leshem’s model of the divine economy, as well as incarnational dynamics like the hypostatic union, might help us understand operations in other institutional spheres. Finally, Aristotle Papanikolaou challenges the disciplinary spaces occupied and traversed by Leshem’s study. Taking up a long tradition of akribeia as the protection of canon law and ecclesial boundaries (contrasted to oikonomia as granting exceptions to such law), Papanikolaou questions whether Leshem’s location as an “outsider,” a scholar of political theory and economic history, qualifies his intervention into a theological genealogy of the West. Together these scholars have prompted an important discussion about the broader relation of theological genealogies to the ongoing story the West tells itself about itself. In his replies, Leshem spurs the conversation forward, and we invite others to join the dialogue.



The Stripping of the Altars

Dotan Leshem’s study is a valuable intervention in the larger project of developing a theological genealogy of the modern concepts of economy and government, a project inspired by Michel Foucault’s lectures on governmentality in the late 1970s and extended more recently in Giorgio Agamben’s latest contributions to the Homo Sacer series.1 In my remarks, I will focus mainly on Leshem’s dialogue with Foucault and Agamben, highlighting areas where I believe his work has clarified and furthered their established discourses. I will then turn to several questions that I believe are productively opened in the conclusion of Leshem’s book. These questions revolve around the mechanisms through which the theological heritage of economy mutates into the neoliberal market of the contemporary world. Leshem’s work seems ambivalent about whether this mechanism should be understood as a process of secularization or something more radical. I suggest that a deeper engagement with the Reformation moment, and particularly the classic understanding of the Reformation’s impact on the economic subject established in Max’s Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism, might be pursued in future work.2 Moreover, I suggest that a more extended engagement with Foucault’s own account of the transformation of the Christian pastorate in the wake of the Reformation and the pastorate’s implicit transformation into the regime of neoliberal governmentality could also illuminate some of the questions raised by Leshem’s study.

The singular achievement of Leshem’s study is the way it extends our understanding of how the principles of incarnation and growth are central to the way the early church develops its unique notion of oikonomia. In order appreciate this intervention, it is helpful to review briefly key texts by Foucault and Agamben with which he engages. In Security, Territory, Population, Foucault derives the concept of an “economy of souls” (oikonomia psuchon) from Gregory Nazianen and identifies this notion of “economy” as a distinctive and foundational concern of the Christian pastorate, which more broadly forms the deep “background” of modern “governmentality.”3 Before he turns to the pastorate, Foucault defines governmentality as such as the “art of exercising power in the form of economy”—economy is the key term designating the “field of intervention for government” in both modernity and in the early and medieval church.4 While the orientation of economy will change over time (shifting from the pastoral concern for salvation in the next world to the well-being of populations and individuals in this world), what remains consistent for Foucault is that economy fundamentally involves questions of human “conduct”: how individuals conduct themselves or others, or allow themselves to be “conducted” through various strategies and tactics. Indeed, Foucault suggests that the “least bad translation” for Gregory’s “economy of souls” would be “the conduct of souls.”5 When Agamben picks up the thread of economy and governmentality from Foucault in The Kingdom and the Glory, he shifts the emphasis decidedly away from conduct and the pastorate, and instead seeks to develop the “theological implications of the term oikonomia” in terms of the “fracture between being and praxis” in the “Trinitarian paradigm.”6 From the perspective Agamben develops, governmentality is best understood as a “secularization” of divine providence: the “way in which God articulates and carries out his providential action” in the created world.7 Governmentality is thus cast as a predominantly providential scheme, which shapes modern political economy in secularized concepts such as Adam Smith’s “invisible hand.”8 Agamben’s analysis tends to take place on the level of large theoretical paradigms; the way these paradigms might intervene at the more prosaic level of the conduct of individual actors is left undeveloped.9

The great virtue of Leshem’s study is that it reconciles divergent approaches to the theological genealogy of economy and governmentality, and at the same time clarifies how Christianity inaugurates a distinct form of economic life at both micro (subjective) and macro (social) levels. Leshem accomplishes this reconciliation, by recentering the discussion around the key Christian concept of the incarnation, which is persuasively shown to emerge, in the discourses of the fourth and fifth centuries, as a “transcription” of the economic life of the Trinity. In turn, the economy of the incarnation is shown to unfold into specific forms of human conduct, mimetically related to divinity, that inform the “art of pastoral economy.”10 The Christian principle of the incarnation, which is hardly mentioned by Foucault, and generally treated as a distraction by Agamben, is shown by Leshem to be the key to the distinctive Christian development of economy and government: “In the economy of the incarnation humans witness a perichoresis [full communion and interpenetration] between a divine nature and a human nature.” (69) The incarnation introduces a constitutive excess into the understanding of economy; the economy becomes the space in which an order of reality that transcends human reason appears. Furthermore, the transcendent excess of the incarnation enables the continual growth of the economy, insofar as it operates according to “inclusive purification”: in unifying divinity with human nature, Christ purifies this nature of sin, and sets in motion a concatenation of purifying actions on the part of followers who imitate his conduct and grow his economy in the created world. (70–71) It is this purifying growth that the pastorate seeks to foster in its guidance of individual Christian conduct and that of the Christian community, cast in Leshem’s terms as “the society of believers in Christ’s economy,” a society formed around an ongoing incarnational event that exceeds full human comprehension. (77)

This précis illustrates how Leshem’s study identifies key concepts of neoliberal economics—notably excess and growth—as emergent in the concept of economy developed within the early church. Furthermore, how pastoral governance is a specifically economic activity (cultivating modes of conduct that will enable the growth of the incarnational economy) is clarified in this account. However, what I find less clear in Leshem’s account is how the passage from this theological economy of the early Christian world to the materialistic economy of the contemporary world occurs. At several moments in the final chapter of The Origins of Neoliberalism, mechanisms for the transformation of Christian economy into the neoliberal economy are suggested, but are not fully elaborated. In the remainder of this response, I want to consider how the mechanisms that are allusively suggested might be more fully fleshed out in further research, particularly by engagements with Weber’s classic thesis of the Protestant Ethic and with Foucault’s implicit extension of the concept of pastoral power in his analysis of neoliberalism in The Birth of Biopolitics. The potential intersections and tensions between Foucault and Weber may prove a particularly productive site for extending some of Leshem’s insights.

In chapter 5 of Leshem’s study, where the transition between the economy of the early church and the economy of neoliberalism is pursued most directly, the transformative event of the Reformation and Max Weber’s sociological account of its consequences for economic life are addressed only in passing, in connection with a critique of Hannah Arendt’s diagnosis of the ills of a modern society organized in primarily economic terms. According to Leshem, Arendt’s embrace of a “cultural-Weberian” explanation of modern economic society as a state of “world alienation” is only partially persuasive, because it does not recognize the deep history of the Christian ecclesia as an “economic” society, and thus fails to comprehend that “in addition to the expropriation of the Church’s worldly possessions . . . a further expropriation took place . . . the Church was stripped of the society of believers in the economy.” (161)

This notion of a social stripping away of the economy of the ecclesia, which coincides with a material stripping of the church is provocative but underdeveloped. How precisely did such a stripping away occur? By what means and mechanisms? To a scholar of early modern England, such as myself, Leshem’s language is evocative of Eamon Duffy’s classic account of the early English Reformation, The Stripping of the Altars (although that work is not cited), where we find a historical narrative that suggests that a material expropriation of the church by the state was indeed accompanied by a social expropriation, by the collapse of an incarnational economy—both material and pastoral—that (Duffy claims) sustained an entire social-sacramental lifeworld.11

Such a historical account would be one place to begin filling out Leshem’s claim; however, I want to suggest that a fuller engagement with Weber’s work might be another place to begin, closer in spirit to Leshem’s project, which is fundamentally philosophical and sociological, rather than strictly historical. For it seems to me, reviewing Weber’s argument in light of Leshem’s account, that the Protestant Ethic does describe the emergence of the signature economic sensibility of capitalism as the result of a profound reorganization and mutation of the economy of the incarnation established in patristic discourse and practice. The radical expansion of an Augustinian sense of original sin, the corresponding amplification of the sense of the divine as absolutely transcendent, the denial of free will in the doctrine of election, and the devaluation of good works as means of salvation—positions cultivated particularly by Calvinist teaching—alter fundamentally the society of believers in the economy of Christ. The notion that the economy of the incarnation may grow through “inclusive purification” would seem to be forestalled by such doctrines. The transposition of “good works” (which would seem to belong firmly within the pastoral, incarnational economy that Leshem describes) into “signs” of divine election seems a crucial pressure point. As Weber famously argues, in this transposition, “the Calvinist ‘creates’ his salvation himself . . . more correctly: creates the certainty of salvation” in the absence of the traditional patristic pastoral universe; this “certainty” is, of course, never actually certain, and for Weber, the striving, entrepreneurial “spirit” of capitalism may be traced as a consequence of the Reformed “idea of the necessity of putting one’s faith to the test [Bewährung des Glaubens] in secular working life.”12 Referring back to the theses of The Origins of Neoliberalism, I wonder how far Leshem would accept this as an account of how the concept of growth may have been displaced from the incarnational economy into the mundane economy of the creaturely world. Do the doctrinal shifts wrought by the Reformation constitute an actual “stripping away” of the incarnational economy and its society—or simply an effective and momentous recalibration of it into a new ethic, that of the “ascetic conduct of life” that Weber claims inadvertently contributes to a vast wave of capitalist expansion?13 As Leshem’s book ends with a call to reflect on “Economic Ethics,” I would submit that Weber’s hypothesis warrants more careful consideration, and I would welcome further elaboration on this front.14

This last point about the nature of “conduct” in Christian and capitalist economies leads back to a consideration of Foucault, and one final point where I believe the concluding arguments of the Origins of Neoliberalism could be further developed. We can discern some complementarity between Foucault’s concept of pastoral government and that of Weber’s Protestant Ethic insofar as both represent efforts to account for the conduct of economic subjects in modernity as they are conducted by techniques and practices that are genealogically related to the religious sphere, particularly if we consider how Foucault implicitly extends his analysis of pastoral government into the regimes of liberal and neoliberal governmentality in The Birth of Biopolitics (1979).15 While direct references to the pastorate disappear in Biopolitics, I believe we are warranted in finding its implicit extension in these later lectures, particularly if we bear in mind Foucault’s claims that pastoral power “has never been truly abolished”; even if it has been reorganized and redirected.16 I read Birth of Biopolitics as anatomizing the new form of pastoral power that emerges in neoliberal governmentality (ironically, inspired in part by Weber’s Protestant Ethic, which in Foucault’s account introduces the powerful motif of “irrational rationality of capitalist society” which neoliberalism will attempt to address systematically). 17 This assumption of an irrationality within capitalism and its market mechanisms that must be controlled or contained forms an essential part of the episteme of the neoliberal governmentality. It provides a warrant for the development of a new variant of pastoral power, which will produce the entrepreneur as homo economicus—not a rugged free agent, but an eminently “governmentalizable” individual to be comprehended according to the “grid of intelligibility” of economic behavior, which may in turn be modified, governed, by strategic initiatives and policy interventions, both within the political sphere and beyond it.18 Despite differences in emphasis, both Foucault and Weber were alert to how the modern economic subject is shaped by the long-term continuity of pastoral government, its extension and proliferation beyond the church.19 Both identify the Reformation as a crucial event in the transformation of Christian economic conduct. However, while Weber is frequently identified with claims that this process should be understood as a process of secularization, Foucault resists conceiving of this change in secularizing terms: in the wake of the Reformation, “there was not a transition from the religious pastorate to other forms of conduct, conduction or directing. In fact there was an intensification, increase, and general proliferation of this question and these techniques of conduct.”20 Pastoral government explosively grows in the sixteenth century; it intensifies with the multiplying religious pastorates, but it also exceeds the boundaries of these churches, entering into new spheres. This is the condition that Foucault presents as a prelude to his analysis of neoliberal governmentality.

I would like to relate this analytic back to another striking, yet under-elaborated, claim in Origins of Neoliberalism, where Leshem addresses the mutation that the “modeling of humans” has undergone in the neoliberal economy. Like Foucault, Leshem resists thinking of the modern transformation of the economic sphere and the economic subject as a straightforward secularization: “What occurred was not a clear and simple secularization of Christian society but a radicalization of the Christian theory of economic growth, which now holds that each and every object possesses the ability to generate in humans an unlimited, unsaturated desire”; this state is characterized as “a double-edged displacement of Christ’s excessive quality to the interplay between, on the one hand, the desiring subject and, on the other hand, each and every object of desire.” (168) This is a fascinating claim, but again, the mechanisms by which this transformation in subjective and objective economic life occurs appear opaque. My question is whether this proliferation of desire beyond the bounds of the patristic incarnational economy can be correlated to Foucault’s claim about the proliferation and transformation of pastoral techniques beyond the bounds of the church and into the realm of what we now call governmentality? As Leshem ably demonstrates earlier in his work, the early church pastorate effectively formulates and fosters a specific model of the desiring subject as a participant in the economy of the incarnation. To what extent are these pastoral techniques (or a version of them) still at play in molding the subject of the neoliberal market economy? And if we resist saying that these techniques and this subjectivity are “secularized,” by what other conceptual means can we describe this radical change (and the continuities within it).

  1. See in particular Foucault’s lecture series Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1977–1978, trans. Graham Burchell (New York: Picador, 2007), and The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-1979, trans. Graham Burchell (New York: Picador, 2010). Agamben’s effort to develop a theological genealogy of Focuault’s concept of “governmentality” is elaborated in The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government, trans. Lorenzo Chiesa with Matteo Mandarini (Stanford University Press, 2011).

  2. See Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism and Other Writings, ed. and trans. Peter Baehr and Gordon Wells (New York: Penguin, 2002).

  3. On Gregory Nazianen and the “economy of souls,” see Security, Territory, Population, 192–93; on the pastorate as the “background” of “governmentality,” see 165.

  4. Security, Territory, Population, 95

  5. Ibid., 193.

  6. Agamben, Kingdom and Glory, 110–11.

  7. Ibid., 111–12.

  8. See Agamben’s appendix to Kingdom and Glory, “The Invisible Hand,” 277–87.

  9. Although we could read Agamben’s subsequent engagement with the Franciscans in The Highest Poverty: Monastic Rules and Form-of-Life, trans. Adam Kotsko (Stanford University Press, 2013), as an oblique effort to engage the Foucauldian categories of pastoral conduct and counter-conduct.

  10. The intricate interlocking of the economic models of the Trinity and the economy of the incarnation are mapped out elegantly in ch. 2 of the Origins of Neoliberalism; see esp. 55–76. The reference to “pastoral economy” occurs on 56.

  11. See Eamon Duffy, Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400–1580, 2nd ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005). For further elaboration on the social dimension, as encompassed in the transformation of the concept of the “mystical body,” see my The Body in Mystery: The Political Theology of the Corpus Mysticum in the Literature of Reformation England (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2014).

  12. Weber, Protestant Ethic, 79; 83.

  13. Ibid., 83.

  14. On economic ethics, see Origins of Neoliberalism, 177–81.

  15. The larger topic of affinities and antagonisms between Weber and Foucault is vast and remains to be fully articulated; some preliminary observations pertinent in this context are sketched by Philippe Steiner in “Foucault, Weber and the History of the Economic Subject,” European Journal of the History of Economic Thought 15.3 (2008) 503–27.

  16. Security, Territory, Population, 148. See also remarks in a similar vein in Foucault, “Subject and Power,” Critical Inquiry 8.4 (1982) 783–84.

  17. Birth of Biopolitics, 105.

  18. Ibid., 252–53. While homo economicus is presented as the innovation of American neoliberalism, the affinity and genealogical relation between the German and American variants of this governmentality is persuasively developed throughout the lecture series.

  19. Compare Foucault’s claim that the Reformation and Counter-Reformation “gave the religious pastorate much greater control, a much greater hold on the spiritual life of individuals than in the past” (Security, Territory, Population, 129) to similar observations by Weber that the Reformation introduced “an infinitely burdensome and earnest regimentation of the conduct of life [Lebensführung] which penetrated every sphere of domestic and public life to the greatest degree imaginable” (Protestant Ethic, 2).

  20. Security, Territory, Population, 231. On Foucault’s resistance to narratives of secularization in his account of pastoral power, see Philippe Büttgen, “Théologie politique et pouvoir pastoral,” Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales 62.5 (2007) 1137–39.

  • Avatar

    Dotan Leshem


    A Reply to Jenifer Rust

    In her comments, Professor Rust advances two of the central arguments put forward in The Origins. The first is the crucial role of the incarnation for any genealogy of economy and government; the second is the transformation of pastoral technologies and the ascetic ethic associated with it from the ecclesia to the market. And while Mitchel Dean concentrated in his comments on how the book description matches Giorgio Agamben’s and Michel Foucault’s inquiries into the Christianity of late antiquity, Rust centers her comments on how it fits into Foucault’s and Max Weber’s description of the transformation from ecclesia to market in early modernity, no doubt a crucial moment in the history of the transposition of economy from ecclesia to market. As Rust (rightfully) observes, my treatment of this period is rushed and is based on Arendt’s reading of Weber (and Marx). Rust, a scholar of that period, generously offers some hypothesis of what took place in a way that could lend credibility to the general framework of The Origins. I am grateful for that.

    Rust’s comments are also structured on two levels: the first is on the “macro level,” that is, on the relocation of the economy of growth from ecclesia to market. Her second set of questions zooms in on the micro level and focuses on the techniques of the conduct of conduct, the economic subject, and the corresponding ethics. Both lines lead her time and again to pose the question of “what is secularization?” if indeed such a process ever occurred.

    1. Macro-economy

    Rust offers two, seemingly mutually exclusive, stories as to what happened in early modernity. The first—relying on Eamon Duffy’s Stripping of the Alters—supports with ample and minute detail my Arendt-based description. As recalled, this description stressed what may be called the kenosis of the society of believers in Christ-economy, which left it empty to be taken over by the moderns for their own purposes. The second story moves in an opposite direction and points towards the excessive nature of Christ’s economy that overflows into different institutional settings, first and foremost, into that of government. Although this explanation seems to go in the opposite direction to the one I used, it does fit much better into my stipulation of the economy as excessive by nature. Since I am not a scholar of early modernity, I cannot judge which of the two explanations is more accurate given the historical evidence. Instead, I would like to redirect the next question to Rust: why not combine the two stories? That is, on the one hand the emptying of the society of believers in Christ’s economy and on the other hand the overflow of the technology into other institutional settings that took over the abovementioned intangible asset?

    2. Micro-economy

    If I read rust correctly, she is more inclined to the excessive hypothesis when it comes to ethics and the technology of conduct of conduct. This seems clear in the way she portrays Weber as describing the affinities between Christian and capitalist ethics and Foucault as describing the overflow of technologies of conduct from the pastorship to governmentality. This inclination leads to question the narrative of secularization, namely, was there really a historical “event” in history that lead to a whole new era. As her questions suggests, rust entertains the idea that what really took place in early modernity is the adaptation of Christian technologies of government to new spheres of existence. Such adaptation is no stranger to the art of economy, as one of its main features since its inception is being context-dependent. As Rust (correctly) senses, I am “ambivalent about whether this mechanism should be understood as a process of secularization or something more radical.” Her suggestive question whether the “proliferation of desire beyond the bounds of the patristic incarnational economy can be correlated to Foucault’s claim about the proliferation and transformation of pastoral techniques beyond the bounds of the church and into the realm of what we now call governmentality” seems very plausible to me. But an answer to this pressing question indeed calls for future research. All I can say (and tried to demonstrate in The Origins) is that these pastoral techniques are very much still at play, although modified, in molding the subject of the neoliberal market economy.

    3. What is secularism, if there’s such a thing at all?

    Rust asks, “What if we resist saying that these techniques and this subjectivity are ‘secularized,’ by what other conceptual means can we describe this radical change (and the continuities within it)?” Preparing for this symposium, I have reread much of the “canonical” literature on secularization, a concept that runs through Dean’s, Friedland’s and Rust’s comments. My ambivalence towards the concept of secularization has only gotten stronger, and I feel that it may have run its course into a conceptual rut. It is laden with too much intellectual baggage, and seems to hold the same position in modernized history as the incarnation occupies in a Christian one. That is, it became the hermeneutical key to history itself, a quasi-transcendent event that makes this history intelligible instead of yet another, though significant, event among many. Looking for a way out of this conceptual rut, it may be useful to treat it as what Foucault termed a “universal” in his short methodological discussion at the beginning of the Birth of Biopolitics (2–3). It seems to me that in this situation, and given the shared ambivalence towards the term, it will be useful to embrace Foucault’s methodological decision that universals do not exist, and as suggested by him (I’m paraphrasing here), to start our inquiry into the transposition of economic art, theory and ethics from ecclesia to market by following how this triad reflects on itself and is rationalized instead of taking secularization as a primary, original, and already given object. That is, instead of starting with secularization as an obligatory grid of intelligibility for certain complex transposition of concrete theories and practices, start with these concrete theories and practices and, as it were, pass secularization through the grid of economy, art, and theory.


    Duffy, Eamon. The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400–1580. 2nd ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.

    Foucault, Michel. The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978–1979. Trans. Graham Burchell. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.



Foucault and Agamben on Government, Economy, and Theology

Comments on The Origins of Neoliberalism

There is very much in Dotan Leshem’s book to recommend it.1 It extends and makes available the philological or semantic history of “oikonomia,” the Greek term that modern English renders as “economy.” It articulates that history with a genealogy of the “human trinity” of politics, economy and philosophy through five moments that it calls classical, imperial, Christian, liberal and neoliberal. In doing so, it provides us with many more of the building blocks of a theological genealogy of economy and government. And its genealogical ambitions include no less than a diagnostic of the ethical radicality of neoliberalism as a formation that “inserts the power relations of the market . . . into the ethical sphere of the relationship between a person and herself.”2 It is indeed an important study that will form the foundation of many more.

I should first “confess,” if I can use that term, that my own interest in matters theological has been modulated through the study of three “profane” thinkers, Michel Foucault, Giorgio Agamben and Carl Schmitt, rather than the firsthand study of theology.3 There is little about the third of these thinkers in Leshem’s book, and quite a bit about the first two, and it is his use of these thinkers that provides the opening for my comments here. Indeed, in contrast to my own theoretical trinity, Leshem adds Hannah Arendt to his. I should also confess a little surprise that although Leshem’s book follows in the footsteps of Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory4 in that it could be described as a “theological genealogy of economy and government” (as it is by Etienne Balibar on the dust jacket), it ultimately confirms a Foucauldian genealogy of governmentality rooted in the Christian pastorate. So I shall briefly offer a precis of the Foucault-Agamben debate, if I can call it that given that one of them is party to it only posthumously, summarize the way it appears in Leshem’s book, and then conclude with a few questions to the latter.

It has long been known that Foucault had an interest in what he called pastoral power and its relationship to modern forms of power and government. In his long-published lectures at Stanford, he had spoken about the way Western political rationality was formed through not only the “city-citizen game” but also, and more importantly for him, the “shepherd-flock game.”5 Together with the early-modern cameralist Polizeiwissenschaft and raison d’État, the Judaeo-Christian trajectory of the pastorate would be a key element in the formation of that rationality. Yet it was somewhat unexpected to find that his lectures on the history of governmentality in 1978, not published until about a decade ago (2004 in French, 2007 in English), contained some four and a half lectures on the topic.6 Even there, there seems an equivocation and a degree of embarrassment on the part of the speaker. At the beginning of the third of these (of 22 February) he announces he would like to finish with these “long-winded” histories of the “pastoral,” and at the conclusion of the lecture, he declares that he has done so and will return to his principal theme of governmentality.7 When he tries to do precisely this at the beginning of the next lecture (of 1 March) he is forced to ask the question of “how the problem of government, of governmentality, was able to arise on the basis of the pastorate.”8

The lectures unfortunately offer no clear answer to this question. In this lecture (1 March) he attempts to do so by considering the relationship between conduct and “counter conduct” in the “great age of the pastorate” from the tenth to the seventeenth centuries.9 The lecture in effect is a long discussion of these counter-conducts, which include practices founded on asceticism, community, mysticism, the Scripture itself and eschatology. At the conclusion of the lecture, he again promises an end to the discussion of the pastorate after adding that by analyzing it he had sought the “inner depth and background” of early modern governmentality.10 An indication that none of this was very satisfactory for him was that he begins the next lecture (8 March) again on the same theme of the “transition from the economy of souls to the government of men and populations.”11 Having examined historical contexts, and St. Thomas Aquinas’s text about secular monarchical government (De regno), he finally explains the “de-governmentalizaton of the cosmos” through the discoveries of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo, the natural history of John Ray, and Port Royal grammar, all of which removed God’s rule of the world to that of “general, immutable and universal laws” and “final causes.”12 Foucault is clearly frustrated with himself at not being able to bring this discussion of the pastorate to a conclusion and not being able to give an intelligible account of its transition and relation to modern governmentality. Elsewhere, he will appear to make a gloss of a secularization thesis to explain the post-Reformation release of the pastorate onto modern authorities and experts from the enclosure provided by its “ecclesiastical institutionalization.”13

In The Kingdom and the Glory, to my mind a work every bit as important as the paradigm-shifting Homo Sacer 1,14 Agamben places his research “in the wake” of precisely these investigations and seeks to explain this sense of their incompletion.15 He argues there are three internal reasons why Foucault could not bring them to completion.

The first is a historical misstep. While Foucault recognizes the intimate relationship between the early Christian pastorate and governmental techniques, he ignores the theological importance of the oikonomia. This is particularly strange since he cites Gregory of Nazianus’s definition of the pastorate as an oikonomia pyschōn, an “economy of souls,” but immediately proceeds to redefine “oikonomia” as the concept of government understood in terms of the notion of “conduct”—as indeed, the “conduct of conduct.”16 He thus suppresses the theological genealogy of the economy for some fourteen centuries until the term rather mysteriously reappears in the work of the Physiocrats in the eighteenth century.

Second, Agamben claims Foucault fails to attend to archaeology as a “science of signatures” as evidenced by his use of Aquinas’s De regno rather than his treatise De gubernatione mundi.17 Foucault had also mentioned Malebranche in his fundamental misreading of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” as an image that encapsulates the constitution of economics as an “atheistic discipline . . . without God . . . without totality . . . that begins to demonstrate not only the pointlessness, but also the impossibility of a sovereign point of view over the totality of the state that he has to govern.”18 Again, Foucault’s tendency to move with a secularizing current in his genealogy of governmentality is confirmed. Just as he notes that raison d’État was denounced by Pope Pius V as ratio diaboli, an atheistic devil’s reason,19 in the sixteenth century, so liberal government will enter into a dialogue with the truly atheistic discipline of political economy two centuries later.

Leshem engages in detail with the work of both these thinkers but positions himself somewhat closer to Foucault than Agamben. He recognizes certain incompletions and misconceptions in Foucault. The incompletions include gaps between the “micro” and “macro” levels of pastoral power and governmentality, between philosophical life and communal life, and between the imperial politics of Western and Eastern late antiquity and what he perspicaciously calls the “ecclesiastical economy.” (6) Most of all “Foucault does not allude to the (theological) knowledge of divine economy that informs the art and theory of pastoral power.” (6) Foucault also misconceives Christian philosophical life as departing from the previous philosophical tradition, in describing its technologies as “self-alienating” and in ignoring its communal aspects. (6) Nonetheless, despite the anachronism of calling the ecclesiastical economy “pastoral power,” the strength of Foucault’s genealogy of governmentality is the insertion of “the patristic chapter in the archaeology of the human trinity.” (5)

Leshem’s treatment of Agamben is somewhat less forgiving. He starts from a historical shift: from the prominence of the Trinitarian theology of the second century for Agamben to the formulations of the fourth- and fifth-century Greek church fathers. This shift has a number of consequences: Agamben identifies economy with providential administration, and fails to recognize orthodox Christian distinctions between the divine economy for humans and providential care of the world. Most significantly, the shift undermines the very notion of an “economic theology” because economy and theology had become distinct by the time of the Council of Chalcedon as “the internal organization of the triune Godhead in the case of theology and the worldly manifestation of God in that of the economy.” (7) This leads Agamben among other things to a misidentification of a number of conceptions including the dual theoretical and practical character of the economy and a downplaying of the ethical dimension of the economy. Leshem also parries Agamben’s state of exception concept with a conception of pastoral power as a suspension of canon law that does not unleash the violence of sovereign power but facilitates philanthropy as the “mimesis of divine love” and “accommodation unto salvation.” (148–49)

At a crucial point of the diagnosis of neoliberalism, Leshem repeats Foucault’s phrase about cutting off of the king’s head, only to correct himself and say that for neoliberalism, “the political monarch has been anarchized.” (175) These of course are not quite equivalent. In addressing the first catchphrase, we can try to displace its preeminence in current political thought by “the king reigns, but does not govern,” an old syntagma from at least 1600 that has been taken up by Adolphe Thiers in 1830 and, via him, by Max Weber, Schmitt, Erik Peterson, Walter Lippmann, Foucault and Agamben himself.20 This phrase would keep together without reduction or displacement, in a certain kind of oscillation, reigning and governing, theology and economy, divine and human orders, providence and fate, sovereignty and governmentality, an act that serves as an emblem of the signature of power. Perhaps to speak of an anarchized monarch is to keep that same tension or, to use a fashionable term, pay homage to a certain “hybridity.” It definitely reminds us of the phrase, “the anarchy of the market.” But it also calls to mind the Ordoliberal Alexander von Rüstow’s characterization of classical liberalism as a form of pantheistic economic theology that requires correction by a legal and political order that leads “toward a new life of human dignity” and thus requires a resolution of pantheism and monotheism, anarchism and monarchy, economic and political theology.21 It will be said there are different kinds of neoliberalism, no doubt. But at least in its practical formations, contemporary neoliberalism tries to effect this resolution, and is mired in the attempt. It is an anti-statism that calls for a strong state to implement its “free” economy, it grounds the political and legal ordering of human life and freedom in an ultimately unknowable economic order, and it institutes the conditions of freedom, entrepreneurship and just competition by what Rüstow called “a strong and prudent state policy of policing the market.”22 An anarchized political monarch means that in every form of economic governing there remains a form of sovereignty or reigning, in every historical form of salvation there remains a divine order, in every market, a system of police, and in every economy, a theology.

This, then, is how I understand one small but crucial set of theoretical arguments in the book. Rather than trying to position myself in relation to this, I shall simply conclude by posing a series of questions. They are mainly directed to Leshem’s critique of Agamben, but the first set concerns Foucault. While one can accept that Foucault indeed built the foundation of a theological genealogy by placing the ecclesiastical economy (or what he called “pastoral power”) at its center, is there not a sense in which Foucault remains a thinker too rooted in immanentism to grasp the way in which religious practices and forms of organization constitute and depend upon transcendent conceptions of theology? Isn’t his narrative of government and economy too immanent, too flat, and ultimately too anti-sovereigntist to grasp the ambiguities, hierarchies and even violence of contemporary neoliberalism? Doesn’t it bear too close a relation to a secularization thesis as a “relative eschatology” in which all that will be left is a governing through self-governing to really hit upon the aporias of contemporary neoliberal forms of governing that weave together both “free markets” and “police,” economic liberal freedoms with illiberal or authoritarian practices and interventions?

In respect to Agamben, the core of Leshem’s argument concerns the historical shift in the relations between theology and economy in the fourth and fifth centuries. Yet, one of Agamben’s theoretical virtues would appear to be his capacity to search for the moments of “indistinction” between such opposed terms. Can’t we read him as searching for a logical, philological or historical point prior to a distinction (e.g., sovereignty and biopower in Homo Sacer, economy and theology in The Kingdom and the Glory)? To put this in methodological terms, if he is read as an “archaeologist” in his own (and not Foucault’s) terms, that is, as a researcher who seeks to recover archai that stand prior to such distinctions, then isn’t he being judged by alien protocols when we point to the later developments of a semantic history? In that sense, to ignore or claim the supersession of the early discussions of the Trinity recovered by Agamben is to ignore the way in which theological discussions of what is later called the “immanent Trinity” are articulated upon the history of salvation of the “economic Trinity”?23 Doesn’t a focus on the relative autonomy of “the human trinity” from theology risk missing this articulation and already point too easily in a-theological or secularizing direction?

Further, Agamben’s theological genealogy does not rest content with the oikonomia; he continues it through medieval notions of “providence” and “order.” The three notions of oikonomia, providence and order have the virtue of maintaining the relationship between transcendent and immanent powers or what Leshem calls theology and economy and what Agamben calls the two paradigms of political theology and economic theology. Are we not in danger, for example, of missing the role of providence in early economic liberalism from the Physiocrats to Malthus? Of missing the role of scholastic conceptions of order in the formation of what Ordoliberalism from the 1930s (alluded to above) and hence a relationship between acting to create the conditions of a competitive market and a market order that is ultimately unknowable, so central to neoliberalism? Moreover, doesn’t a narrative that emphasizes the break between the theological and the economic one too easily suppress the way “immanent” economic and managerial forms of government constitute and depend upon “transcendent” or sovereign aspects of worldly powers? Again, how can we avoid Foucault’s error of analytical, historical and political anti-sovereigntism, exemplified by his too forthright desire to cut off the king’s head in political thought and characterize the modern liberal economy as atheistic?

Having asked these few questions, I realize I am only scratching the surface of this rich and challenging book. These are some first thoughts, located at a site I have been digging for some time. Leshem’s book will no doubt continue to help direct me to new and richer fields for a long time to come.

  1. The Origins of Neoliberalism: From Jesus to Foucault (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016).

  2. Ibid., 173.

  3. In The Signature of Power: Sovereignty, Governmentality and Biopolitics (London: Sage, 2013).

  4. The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government, trans. Lorenzo Chiesa with Matteo Mandarini (Stanford University Press, 2011).

  5. Michel Foucault, “Omnes et singulatim: towards a criticism of ‘political reason,’” in The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, edited by Sterling M. McMurrin (Salt Lake City: Utah University Press), 2:223–54.

  6. Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population. Lectures at the Collège de France 1977–1978, trans. Graham Burchell (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).

  7. Ibid., 164, 185.

  8. Ibid., 193.

  9. Ibid., 197.

  10. Ibid., 215–16.

  11. Ibid., 227.

  12. Ibid., 234–35.

  13. Michel Foucault, “The Subject and Power,” in Power: Essential Works of Foucault 1954–1984, edited by James D. Faubion (New York: New Press, 2000), 3:333.

  14. Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford University Press, 1998).

  15. Agamben, Kingdom and Glory, xi.

  16. Ibid., 110–11; Foucault, Security, Territory, Population, 192–93.

  17. Agamben, Kingdom and Glory, 112.[/footnote For Agamben, signatures are those fundamental markers that place concepts within determinate pragmatic and semantic contexts. They make it possible to displace concepts and move them across different fields, in this case from the theological to the political or, more precisely, the governmental, or the sacred to the profane. In other words, Foucault looks to texts about secular government for his genealogy of governmentality but fails to attend to the massive literature on the divine government of the world as a massive laboratory for modern concepts of government.

    Third, while Foucault acknowledges the problem of sovereignty in early modern political thought, such as in that of Rousseau, he fails to grasp the intimacy of the relationship between government and sovereignty that is intelligible only in light of the contemporary theory of providence found in those such as Malebranche.[footnote]Ibid., 272–77.

  18. Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France 1978–1979, trans. Graham Burchell (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan), 282ff.

  19. Foucault, Security, Territory, Population, 241.

  20. See Signature of Power, passim, and “The King Reigns but He Does Not Govern,” Theory, Culture and Society 29.3 (2012) 145–58.

  21. Alexander von Rüstow, “Appendix: General Sociological Causes of the Economic Disintegration and Possibilities of Reconstruction,” in International Economic Disintegration, edited by Wilhelm Röpke (London: Hodge, 1942), 267–83.

  22. Ibid., 281.

  23. Agamben, Kingdom and the Glory, 207–8.

  • Avatar

    Dotan Leshem


    A Reply to Mitchell Dean

    Professor Dean’s comments call into question my self-positioning vis-à-vis Giorgio Agamben’s and Michel Foucault’s inquiries into the Christian origins of contemporary economy and government. Dean, who endorses a position much closer to Agamben’s than to Foucault’s, focuses his remarks along three axes that differentiate the two inquires abovementioned. These are: (1) Trinitarian theology/pastoral technology; (2) providence/economy; (3) reign/government. As to the first axis, I suggest adding the third term of incarnational economy that hypostatically unites Trinitarian theology and pastoral technology and dissolves the dichotomy between the two. When it comes to the second axis, I argue that the distinction between providence and economy should be maintained. Dealing with the third axis, I accept Dean’s (and Agamben’s) position that reign cannot be reduced or displaced into government.

    The Theology of the Trinity / Pastoral Technology

    If one had to schematize somewhat crudely Agamben’s and Foucault’s inquiries into the origins of (neo)liberal economy and government, one may say that Agamben locates its original denotation in the theology of the trinity from the second century CE while Foucault searched for it in the technology of pastorship that was developed between that century and the fifth. In The Origins of Neoliberalism I followed a third path, arguing that divine trinity and human pastorship are hypostatically united in the economy of the incarnation as articulated in the fourth and fifth centuries. Moreover, I presented how the theology of the trinity, the economy of the incarnation and pastoral technology are modeled, and how the three concatenated and hierarchized by what I termed “the principle of transcription.”

    Consequently, I agree with Dean that Foucault’s discussion of pastoral power and governmentality is “too rooted in immanentism to grasp the way in which religious practices and forms of organization constitute and depend upon transcendent conceptions of theology.” But instead of dismissing it as inadequate for that reason, I attempted to situate Foucault’s description (and amend some crucial points in it that are mentioned by Dean) into its broader economic and theological context. That is, I tried to demonstrate how those transcendent conceptions of theology determine the operations of the technology of pastorship through the indispensable economy that binds the two together; in particular, I tried to do so by showing how pastoral technology is performed as Christomimesis. By contextualizing Foucault’s inquiry, I embraced a different approach than the one chosen by Agamben, who diminishes the importance of such technologies for a genealogy of contemporary economy and government (as his theory of the signature clearly suggests).

    But my main disagreement with Agamben lies elsewhere, as it concerns the question of where and when should we look for the Christian origins of contemporary economy and government. Focusing on the thought of Tertullian and Hippolytus, Agamben locates them in what he terms “economic theology” of the trinity. Relying on patristic texts from the fourth century onward, I hold that strictly speaking there’s no such thing as “economic theology,” and that the origin is to be found in the abovementioned economic models.

    In his comments, Dean offers a way that may reconcile the tension between Agamben’s position and my own. He does so suggesting that Agemben’s return to second-century theology ought to be understood as a return to the moment when the trinity formed a zone of indistinction between economy and theology, and that doing so he is “recovering the archai that stand prior to such distinctions.” I tend to disagree with Dean’s interpretation for a couple of reasons: To begin with, I am not at all sure that, given the different nature of the economic and political forms of powers (see 32–34, 147–50), this conceptual language is applicable when trying to trace the operations of the former. For example, the theological perichoresis is at the same time a “zone of indistinction” between the three persons of the Godhead that nevertheless makes them distinct from each other. The same goes for the distinction between the immanent and the economic trinity, as well as the divine and the human in Christ: at the kernel of the relation between the two there’s always-already a perichoretic “zone” of indistinction. Put differently, the post-Nicean elaboration of the economic models, including the explosion of the economy from theology (but not the other way around), is based on a concrete model in which distinction and indistinction, the norm and the exception are not antithetical. Second, it seems to me that the thing that is at stake in Agamben’s inquiry into economy and government it is not to recover the archaic zone of indistinction but, as argued by Devin Singh,1 to establish anarchism and void in the trinity. So, to begin with, there seems to be a discrepancy between treating the trinity as a zone of indistinction and the void Agamben is looking to establish at the heart of the governmental machine. But, more importantly, I believe that his conclusion that the Son is anarchic is incorrect, or better yet, heterodox; not that’s there’s anything wrong with siding with the heterodoxy and saying that the heterodox version was transposed onto (neo)liberal economy and government by the signature of secularization, but it needs to be called as such. On the contrary, I believe that liberal secularization revolves around anarchizing the economy. The two views seems to be irreconcilable.


    In his comments, Dean referred to the ordoliberal father Alexander Rüstow who discussed the theological origins of liberal political economy. I wish to quote Rüstow’s comment on the different origin of economic growth and the providential order revealed in the market from his magnum opus, Freedom and Domination:

    The rationalist belief in progress is a secularized version of faith in a divine plan of salvation. . . . And the “hidden harmony” and “invisible hand” of classical economics, which—behind everyone’s back, as it were, combine all individual egoism into the welfare of the whole are nothing but the invisible divine logos, which according to Heraclitus, governed the world-a notion passed on to modern times by the Stoic philosophy.2

    As can be seen, Rüstow shares my interpretation, against Agamben’s, that oikonomia and providence are of different origin and order, both in antiquity and in classical liberalism. A more precise description of the relationship between the two will account for the fact the church fathers kept the stoic notion of providential care for the world alongside the distinct divine economy for humans. As argued by Rüstow (and myself), Christian growth was secularized by the liberals, while the providential order was transposed to the market. Thus, once again, Agamben’s interpretation and my own are irreconcilable.

    Rüstow’s citation also makes it clear that the neoliberal project is a secularization project. As Rüstow has it, classical liberal order was based on religious mores that kept the liberal project of releasing the market from the supervision of the sovereign from disintegration. But, he continues, as the influence of these mores faded as a result of setting the market free and the egoist mores came to reign supreme over all spheres of human existence, so did the political and economic liberal order deteriorate. What is needed then, according to Rüstow, is to found the liberal order in a “humane economy,” that is, to consciously secularize it. Or, to translate it to the conceptual language of The Origins: as the economy is anarchized by the liberals—that is, is no longer rooted in Christ as its Arche, the neoliberal project has to do with establishing secular frameworks that will sustain the order of the market that is itself, counter to what Smith had us believe, not a providential order but a human-made one.


    I believe that it is against this background that Dean’s skepticism whether the king’s head was cut off / sovereignty anarchized comes to the fore. But first, a “confession” of my own: At this stage of my inquiry into neoliberalism, his query calls for an answer I do not possess, at least not with great certainty. Instead, I will stick to the typology of neoliberalism suggested by Foucault in the Birth of Biopolitics: that is, an American anarcholiberal school on the one hand and a German ordoliberal on the other. As I was suggesting in The Origins with reference to the anarcholiberal project of what is commonly referred to as public choice theory, this school attempted to anarchize the political sovereign by demonstrating that there is no king at all, just an interplay of group interests. The ordoliberals, as is made clear by Rüstow, do not believe that such a project is attainable. When referring to the same interest groups, they hold that these groups weaken the sovereign and by doing so harm the human-made liberal order itself. Thus, they conclude, sovereign power needs to be safeguarded against these destructive interests. So, on its face, two tendencies: the American that anarchizes sovereign power and the German that attempts to redeem (and secularize) it. I believe that, especially nowadays when we are witnessing the rise of more authoritative political sovereignty that seems to embrace the ordoliberal slogan of “strong state-free economy,” Dean is undeniably correct suggesting that the king’s head is very much intact, and that the ordoliberals (under the influence of Carl Schmitt) have the upper hand.

    1. Devin Singh, “Anarchy, Void, Signature: Agamben’s Trinity among Orthodoxy’s Remains,” Political Theology 17 (2016) 27–46.

    2. Rüstow, Freedom and Domination: A Historical Critique of Civilization, trans. Salvator Attanasio (Princeton University Press, 1980), 472.



Christ’s Body Is Everywhere

An Excessive Reading of Dotan Leshem’s Origins of Neoliberalism

Dotan Leshem offers us a new Christian secularization story, not of the sovereign as an earthly God, à la Schmitt, but of the transposition of the Christian model of the earthly ecclesia, the expansionary sphere of the revelation and outworking of God’s salvific plan, to the capitalist market. In contrast to Noam Yuran, his countryman, who has recently sought the secret of Protestant asceticism as a religious outworking of the “unspeakable voice of money,” the infinitely expansive desire that constitutes its substance, a desire for what money cannot buy,1 Leshem tells a secularization story not of money nor market, but of the ordering of divine excess, the generation of surplus, and growth. The formation and functioning of the Christian economy as a divinized earthly sphere parallels the Father’s begetting of the Son, “a surplus world created through the Son” (33).2 Following Tatian, the economy’s “principle of movement” is the generation of surplus from the divine excess immanent in its formation.

In Leshem’s account the Christian model, “a techno-theoretical apparatus” of the divine economy, understood as the outer earthly expansion and transcription of the inner economics of the triune Godhead in the ecclesia, ultimately migrated to the capitalist market (3, 9). Contra Agamben, it is this divine growth, not providential administration of the mystery, that constitutes the Christian economy.3 Paul first proclaimed the role of the church bishops as economists charged with “the dispensation of revealed divine mystery” (25). Major elements of the formal model grounding their understanding of their mission would, centuries later, show up in those of the economists who laid out the beneficent temporal logic of the market in wealth formation, and the growth of employment and consumption. It is not that religious figurations are economic; his genealogy demonstrates that our economics, our formal understandings of the capitalist market, are religious in form.

Leshem’s text, a brilliant, muscular historical semiotics of the economy, traces not only the category, but the model, of the economy from the classical world in which the private oikos whose prudent management of nature’s excessive means would generate a surplus allowing the master to freely participate outside in the polis or to pursue philosophy, to the Christians, through Paul of Tarsus who identified the ecclesia as an open-air oikos within which the excessive economics of the mystery of divine incarnation was proclaimed, witnessed and experienced, to Iranaeus who set the stage for the economy to be understood as a progressive history of salvation, a realization of the divine plan culminating in the “fullness of the ages” (38, 48), to Gregory of Nyssa who theorized an ever-growing sphere of human souls purified of sin, driven by their ever-growing, unsaturated desire for God (93–96), a desire that itself became desired, right up to the relentlessly expansive free market, likewise grounded in limitless human desire, which transforms all, including the self, into commodities convertible into coin.

In both the Christian and the market orders, growth is the watchword and telos, the substantiation of their value and truth, the evidence of the excess that animates them: growth of membership, belief and desire in the Christian economy, of the reach of the market and the amount of the goods that circulate within its ambit in the liberal market. As Cyril writes, “the ultimate end of economy is the sheer size of the Church” (143). In both, excess is desirable. In both, the economy is a sphere of freedom, of choosing. In both, the economy is a society of believers (163). In both, the state, a potentially coercive sinful body, should be subservient to the service of economic expansion based upon the free choice of its members.4 For those of us in the social sciences long conditioned to understand the capitalist economy as a profane and carnal domain, as the secret sociological ground of the power of dominant classes and nation-states, let alone our god, Leshem has turned the tables. God is the originary invisible hand.

But perhaps there are no tables to turn.

I engage Leshem’s book not as a historian of religion, let alone a theologian or philosopher of religion, but as a religious sociologist. My project is not to locate the sociological ground of religion, but the religious constitution of society. I look to Leshem’s elaboration of Christian “models” of the economics of mystery not for their interpretive adequacy and textual faithfulness in his reading of master Christian thinkers, something I am anyway not qualified to judge, but as materials for the building of a religious approach to orders of social being. I wish to push Leshem’s model beyond where he intended it to go.

The Christian economic model at the center of his story crystallized in response to the vexed relationship between the humanity and divinity of Christ. The critical Christian move that sets up the ontology and the cartography of the divine economy, Leshem shows, comes in the fourth and fifth centuries, between the councils of Nicea and Chalcedon, when on the one hand, an “ontological communion” of the three personas of the Godhead is elaborated as a theological domain outside space and time and the reach of philosophy, and on the other the separate sphere of the ecclesia as a human domain outside the Godhead in and to which he reveals his plan for salvation. It is this latter sphere, to which the Godhead is invisible, known only by its operations, that is henceforth identified by the Christians as the economy, the kataphatic face of “revealed operations” of the apophatic God (51).

Humans do not share in divine nature, yet participate in the Godhead through the divine indwelling of the perichoresis. It is only through human practices in the divine economy, in a human becoming afforded by divine being, that man is in communion with God, that human society becomes “a mirror in which the Godhead participates and in which it is reflected” (68). The inner organization of the trinity, its paradoxical combination of unity and plurality, one divine substance and multiple personas, this central mystery, is mirrored, or mimed, by the outer organization of the ecclesia (57, 71). The relationship between the divinely human Christ and God is the template for the relationship between the earthly ecclesia and Christ, the church as the body of Christ. Growth of the divine economy depends on human mirroring and miming of the Godhead, on what Leshem terms Christomimesis.

Although he asserts that the model is productive, a “paragon to be imitated, a mimesis by which the economy’s proper conduct and growth are secured,” its actual impact on growth is neither specified nor estimated (57). This is not a study of how growth actually takes place—the material practices of preaching, conversion, baptism, tithing, charity, taking of sacraments, church building, missionizing, conquest and colonization—in the Christian economy. Nor is it a study of the productive role of the economic models through which that growth was understood. This is a historical semiotics, not an analysis of the productive performativity of those words. It is a study of economics, not economies.

When I read Leshem’s Christian models of the economy of mystery, of hypostasis and perichoresis, of one essence and multiple modes of being, of the relation of divine and the human, it was uncannily familiar. I had not imagined that I would find sociological tools in the Cappadocian settlement. I read in Leshem’s model of the divine economy the elements for a model of a general institutional logic.5 I want to explore the possibility that this Orthodox Christian incarnational theology is not just a model of a divine Christian economy, but the general form and mode of operation of all institutions. The implication, as Weber suggested long ago, is that we live in a world of heterogeneous “value spheres,” an earthly polytheism.6

Institutional logics are constellations of subjects, practices and objects whose coherence and efficacy depend on metaphysical goods.7 Institutional logics are grounded in goods that I conceptualize as non-phenomenal institutional substances, beyond experience and reason, which can only be known through the operations which presume them and the institutional objects through and around which those practices are effected. And reciprocally, the practices of an institutional logic are only effective because of their grounding in the institutional objects which themselves depend on those institutional substances, for their believability and desirability, on belief and faith. Institutional objects—money, equity, accounts, contracts, borders, ballot boxes, scientific findings, a lover’s body, depend for their objectivity on institutional substances—market value, accountability, state sovereignty, popular representation, knowledge, love. Institutional objects incarnate the substance. These goods function as the gods of institutional life, not as highest beings, which would imply an institutional theolatry, nor as subjective values externally imprinted on things, but as virtual entities, or, in terms laid out by Jean Luc Marion, as divine givens.8

Christianity is true. But the truth of this Christianity, I want to suggest, is the truth not just of God and Jesus, but of institution. The troubling question for a book entitled The Origins of Neoliberalism is the historical relation between the two. I would suggest that the model of the Godhead, a “community” of divine personas, a “self-sufficient excess that inherently exceeds human rationality” (56), which is reflected and participates in the ecclesia, is a model of all expansionary institutional worlds. In the “ontological communion,” there is a “communion of interpenetration and mutual inclusion that subsists as the condition of appearance of the singular mode of being (hypostasis) of each of the Godhead’s personas” which is likewise the model for the ecclesia (56). In this new Christian understanding, Leshem writes, “the relation between the origin (God the Father) and the image (God the Son) is reflected and participates in the persona of the transcribed image, in the mirror of the being of the Son” (66). Just as Gregory imagined the church, human communities are held together by their communion, their mutual participation, with and through these institutional substances mirrored by their communion (98). And parallel to Gregory of Nazianzus’s anti-Arian proposition that the communion of divine persons of the Godhead be a model for the thinking the relation of ecclesia and Caesar, institutional communities are constituted through practices organized through constellations of institutional objects, no one of which necessarily has primacy (118).

In my view institutional substance is a Godhead whose being is knowable neither to experience nor reason—or as Basil remarked, “his essence remains beyond our reach” (70)—which, like Christ, penetrates and is reflected in the singular mode of being of institutional objects, whose objectivity depends on that hypostatic immanence, on the penetration, participation and reflection that is there in the mystery of its central material symbolizations. In this vein, Devin Singh has pointed to money’s incarnational logic, of Jesus as “God’s coin.”9 Institutional objects, whose substance is not located in Cartesian extension but through their participation in something which make them a “this” in Aristotelian terms, are icons of the substance. Institutional objects depend on this same “mutual interpenetration/inclusion,” the mutual immanence, that distinction without separation, that obtains in the ontological communion, the hypostatic elimination of any gap between a transrational good and its exemplary material objects.

The Christian cannot rationally access the relationship between divine personas, can never fathom Christ’s divine begetting. He can only know his God through God’s principles of action, through the ways in which we, not just God, participate in God’s divine operations in the human economy. In our institutional worlds, we only know institutional substances through the material practices they afford which participate in and reflect them. It is through these practices anchored in institutional objects that we “participate in the divine personas which reveals itself in the economy, whether of Christ’s body, the Church, the martyr’s flesh, a human’s own souls, and in the eyes of the his fellow members in the society of believers” (68). As with the hypostatic Christ, it is through institutional objects that we achieve a consubstantiality with the substance—with truth, sovereignty, market value, love, knowledge, representation. We have been formed and form ourselves in their image. They afford kinds of personhood, written in our hearts, interiors that exceed us. And thus the substances both participate and are reflected in our practical relation with institutional objects (68). Defending the border, appreciating the masterwork, manipulating a body of knowledge, turning goods into property, casting our ballot, caressing the body of a beloved, we become members through the incarnations of the highest goods. As in Gregory’s account of the Christian community, we are both bound as a community and revealed in our singularity in the eyes of others through this “communion in divine excess” (92). Through them we likewise “ceaselessly beget” ourselves “anew” (93). The truth of each of us is located in the way we reflect and participate in our distant, yet intimate, gods. In our institutional worlds, we “become at home only in a perichoresis with some One whose nature is alien” to us “beyond recognition” (77). Like Gregory’s virgin we all desire invisible grooms. We all, like Jesus, freely, lovingly subject ourselves to one Father or another (119). Christ’s body is everywhere.

Institutional substances are, and must be, excessive to the material practices through which they are substantiated on earth. That excess is essential to the central engine of the divine economy, the individual freedom to choose to participate in the persona revealed within it (68). The economy depends on a double gift, on a double exception external to it. The mystery of divine will, his self-giving, to which Paul pointed is complementary to the twinned mystery of human will, in which we give ourselves to the given which gives us to ourselves.10 This excess is integral to our choosing, choice being the center of the Christian economy.

That excess is part and parcel of the indeterminacy of reference, essential then to the inclusionary growth of any institutional logic, to its ability to incorporate new objects, new persons, new practices. Growth entails the uncertainty of reference, and reference exceptional authority that can never be reduced to a norm. Reference is always a potential state of exception. That excess, the intentional energy of growth it implies and its irreducibility to the visible practices it informs is also integral to the exceptional powers of institutional authorities to suspend the rules in pursuit of inclusion and the prevention of exclusion, just as Leshem documents in the extra-canonical validation of words and sacraments outside the boundaries of the church as in the case of the Catharoi (138). That growth—the ever-changing reference, the multiplication of practices, the re-agglomeration of institutional objects, the increasing number of things that circulate in its name—affirms the immutability and eternality of the Name (95). The transcription of this excess is sustained by the perpetual possibility of the sacrifice of its material forms and instances—results which are no longer knowledge because they have paved the way to new knowing, money that disappears only to reemerge in new expanded form, even objects and persons who have been institutionally excised, made inert. Such sacrifices are both a test and a source of belief in the divine substance which is in no way diminished, and indeed its excess is revealed, affirmed and grows, by them.

That excess is a source of desire that is itself excessive, yet integral, to their operation and their extension or growth. It is, as Gregory maintained, an erotic desire that “nourishes itself” (74). It is that institutional excess—as characteristic of money as it is of Christ—that is the presupposition of expansive “human wants,” which Leshem identifies as a natural source of excess in the market (177). To ground those practices solely in the pleasures of our individual benefit is to make a carnal reduction, making the origins and operations of institutional practice solely about passions and interests, conflating the desire for goods with the desire for the goodness of the good. To ground those practices only in their productivity, to refuse to ground them in something which transcends them, which can never be present, is to engage in an idolatry, to fail to understand the mysterious excess and consubstantiality essential to the fusion of productivity and performativity upon which institutional logics depend. The divine economy of an institutional logic is constituted by excess, an excess that is an engine of growth, a source of a limitless desire, of individual choice, a basis of passionless desire, the creation and production of surplus, and the suspension of norms and breaking of rules.11

Although not referenced in his text Leshem returns us to the preoccupations of Karl Lowith’s Meaning in History: The Theological Implications of the Philosophy of History who read the Western doctrine and apotheosis of progress as a secularization of Christian eschatology. Leshem, too, locates the “debut” of the “story of progress” in Christian historicity, “composed of crucial moments that are connected and ordered along a line that begins with creation and ends in endless eternality” (49). Lowith’s account was challenged by Hans Blumenberg both for his failure to recognize the Christian sources of secularization of eschatology as it adapted to the apparent deferral of Christ’s return, the conversion of the “energy of eschatological ‘state of emergency,’ set free, pressed toward self-institutionalization in the world,”12 and his failure to see the ways in which the nominalist tradition in Christianity, precisely the one that emphasized the unknowable and transcendent Divine will, his potential absoluta, that thereby stripped history of any telos and created the conditions for human self-assertion, not as a driver of secularization, but of the creation of a new modern world.13

What is the historical force of Leshem’s model of the divine economy? For Leshem, the model of the Christian economy worked out in the fourth and fifth centuries is a “key moment” in the “genealogy of the neoliberal marketized economy” (6). Leshem tells us a tale of the “migration” of economy—as concept and model. In part Leshem follows in the footsteps of Blumenberg who recast what had been described as secularization as the “reoccupation of answer positions that had become vacant,” not a “transposition of authentically theological contents.”14 Leshem offers us a history of ideas as answers to “seemingly different” questions grounded in a trans-historical conceptualization of an invariant economy, a separate sphere in which excess is converted into surplus through prudence (3).

But contra Blumenberg, there is still a secularization story in the answers, in the uncanny parallels between the Christian economics of mystery and the neo-classical mystery of the market, particularly its emphasis on growth, in the migration of the model and the identification of the “origins” of a growth-centered marketization in the Christianity of late antiquity (163).15 So while Leshem repeatedly tangles with Agamben over his reading of the Christian economy, he repeatedly adopts Agamben’s understanding of secularization as a “signature,” “which move[s] and displace[s] concepts and signs from one field to another . . . without redefining them semantically.”16 In Leshem’s account the institutional movement of oikonomia is understood not in terms of changing sense, but of new denotations, in which the “very secularization of the world becomes the mark that identifies it as belonging to a divine oikonomia.”17

A religious approach to institution would obviate the need to invoke secularization. It is not that the economy has religious origins: All institutions are religious mechanism, which may also facilitate the transposition of models across them. That the divine is always already contained in the Son spells out a more general economics, ultimate goods as givens that ground an infinite desire for their materialization on earth. We all live for one Son or another, this One a hypostasis that provides a clarified formal model for the ways in which the goods of human life give us to ourselves, and that it is the necessary sacrifice of their material instantiations that both expresses and enacts the gap between the “economy” as a domain, or theater, of divine operations and the existence of the divinity itself. The god is known through this difference in the same way that market value transcends any price, knowledge any result, sovereignty any border, information any datum, property any possession. In an institutional approach, the origins of excess never fall to earth; they remain on the plane of the gods.


Agamben, Giorgio. The Kingdom and the Glory. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011.

Blumenberg, Hans. The Legitimacy of the Modern Age. Trans. Robert M. Wallace. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1986.

Friedland, Roger. “Divine Institution: Max Weber’s Value Spheres and Institutional Theory.” In Religion and Organization Theory, ed. Paul Tracey et al., 217–58. Research in the Sociology of Organizations 41. Bingley, UK: Emerald, 2014.

———. “God, Love and Other Good Reasons for Practice: Thinking Through Institutional Logics.” In Institutional Logics in Action, Part A, ed. Michael Lounsbury and Eva Boxenbaum, 25–50. Research in the Sociology of Organizations 39. Bingley, UK: Emerald, 2012.

———. “The Value of Institutional Logics.” In Topics and Issues from European Research, ed. G. Kruecken et al. Cheltenam, UK: Elgar, 2016, forthcoming.

Lowith, Karl. Meaning in History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949.

Marion, Jean Luc. Being Given: Toward a Phenomenology of Givenness. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002.

Singh, Devin. “Incarnating the Money-Sign: Notes on an Implicit Theopolitics.” Implicit Religion 14 (2011) 129–40.

Weber, Max. “Religious Rejections of the World and Their Directions.” In From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, trans., ed., and intro by Hans H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, 323–62. New York: Oxford University Press, 1958.

Yuran, Noam. What Money Wants: An Economy of Desire. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014.

  1. Yuran, What Money Wants, 189.

  2. Parenthetical references throughout are to Lesham, Origins of Neoliberalism (2016).

  3. Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory, 111.

  4. I do not share Leshem’s understanding that freedom in the market is just a negative freedom (129).

  5. Friedland, “Value of Institutional Logics”; “Divine Institution”; “God, Love.”

  6. Weber, “Religious Rejections”; Friedland, “Divine Institution.”

  7. Friedland, “Value of Institutional Logics.”

  8. Marion, Being Given.

  9. Singh, “Incarnating the Money-Sign,” 136.

  10. In the divine economy human will mirrors divine will. According to Gregory, we become the image of God in freely choosing him (96). The economy is constituted by a double exception, an indeterminate and unknowable divine and human will. That implies, I would think, that sin comes into the world because humans are like God, that human sin is a divine potentiality. As my friend Elliot Wolfson has suggested to me, this implies “paradoxically, that our divine perfection is to be imperfect and therefore less than divine” (personal email, July 28, 2016). The immanent possibility of imperfection makes the growth of the divine economy even more mysterious.

  11. It is striking—and there is no room here to explore it—that although the religious accounts are filled with begetting, the ur form of human creation, there is no discussion in this text of birth, a curious omission that also marks Agamben’s discussion of homo sacer, Boltanski and Thévenot’s conceptualization of the domestic cité. The making of life is the other exceptional side to its taking. This would lead us to reconsider the status of life itself, which Weber made the ground of all religions. The divine excess is the life of one’s life that one finds in the God of Augustine and the Jews as well, who demanded the draining of blood and the first circumcision of Moses’ son, blood being the locus of life belonging to God, not man. In this account life itself is the exceptional property.

  12. Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, 45.

  13. See Blumenberg, Legitimacy.

  14. Ibid., 65.

  15. His contention that the market economization of all desires without regard to ends is a “divinization of each and every object of desire” maintains the continuity of the “sense” of the Christian economy, even while pantheistically shattering it (168). It is also to naturalize human desire, in parallel with the Classical oikos. Both are much more religious than Leshem makes them, literally in terms of the household gods, which have an integral relation to the polis in the classical world, and to a religious understanding of the institutional objects like money and property which themselves often also have religious origins, conventionally understood.

  16. Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory, 4; 146, 147, 151.

  17. Ibid., 4.

  • Avatar

    Dotan Leshem


    A Reply to Roger Friedland

    In his reply, Prof. Friedland wishes to push my modeling of the Christian dogma beyond where I intended to go. He does so by “suggest[ing] that the model of the Godhead, a ‘community’ of divine personas, a ‘self-sufficient excess that inherently exceeds human rationality’ (56), which is reflected and participates in the ecclesia, is a model of all expansionary institutional worlds.” And just as Friedland had not imagined that he would find sociological tools in the Cappadocian settlement, I did not imagine that my description of this settlement would resemble a model of a general institutional logic that was developed by Friedland independently. Moreover, as Friedland masterfully performs the necessary work of translation, the resemblance between the two becomes indisputable. This similitude leads Friedland to explore “the possibility that this Orthodox Christian incarnational theology is not just a model of a divine Christian economy, but the general form and mode of operation of all institutions.” To which he answers in the affirmative. That is, he asserts, it is indeed the general form and mode of operation of all institutions. Moreover, Friedland suggests that by this generalization we can rid ourselves of the haunting question (at least for this symposium) of what is secularization, if it ever took place. The question is obviated, according to Friedland, once we see all institutions as “religious mechanism, which may also facilitate the transposition of models across them.”

    This is where the resemblance between Friedland’s religious institutional analysis and my genealogical inquiry into the origins of neoliberalism comes to the fore. For while Friedland generalizes my historical findings I historicize his generalization. This in itself shouldn’t come as a surprise to any informed reader of the symposium, as surely this is not the first time that she witnessed the two approaches collide. For this reason, I don’t believe that there’s a need to rehearse the Methodenstreit between the genealogical school that I subscribe to and the structural one that Friedland attends to, nor repeat the merits and disadvantages of each. Instead, I’ll try to focus my reply on a couple of issues that seem crucial to the specific question at hand.

    As we just saw, one of the major merits of Friedland’s generalization is that it obviates the haunting and debilitating historiosophical problem of secularization (which is discussed elsewhere in the symposium, most explicitly in Jenifer Rust’s comments). But this generalization does so at the cost of eradicating the historical narrative of how the Christian models migrated from the ecclesia to the market and how the latter logic was generalized to include (nearly) all institutions. I believe that, setting the crucial differences in opinion as to what exactly was transposed from ecclesia and market aside, I am on the same page with Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben mentioned in other comments. Both argue that these models (whatever they may be) were institutionalized at a certain moment in the history of the “West”—namely in the Christianity of late antiquity. Moreover, we all return to the Christianity of late antiquity not “simply” as historians, but as genealogists who believe that such a return is essential for a better understanding of the present economy and government.

    What I do insist on is that the expansionary logic that Friedland identifies in all present institutions has a singular (Western) history which is traced in The Origins. It also has a prehistory, that is, no institution subscribed to that specific logic until early Christianity. The latter discovery means that this particular institutional logic came into the world at a certain moment in history and was limited to the bounds of ecclesiastical institutions for many centuries. It was only later, due to a series of historical events that The Origins does not fully account for (and which are discussed in Rust’s reply) that it was transposed to a different institutional setting, namely, to the liberalized market. As I suggest in the last chapter of The Origins that picks up on this historical narrative with the rise of liberal political economy in the turn of the nineteenth century, the marketization of the economy forms the background for the fact that divine quality of excess (that was limited to the bounds of divinity as revealed and conducted in the ecclesiastical institution) is now present in (nearly) all institutions. This took place due to the economic marketization of these institutions, which, although resembling in many features the institutional logic of the ecclesia, had also been transformed in some crucial ways. That is, history and human agents matter. And they do so not just in the change of institutional setting from oikos to ecclesia and then to the all-encompassing market. They also have a hand in tweaking its internal logic. The latter argument is another crucial point in which my “Foucauldian” approach differs from Friedland’s approach that resembles Agamben’s.1 As my genealogical inquiry reveals, we humans can determine the nature of the excess that we face, as well as where to turn the surplus generated from our rational engagement with institutionalized excess (itself and an ethical choice). Moreover, we are capable of setting limits to the institutions in which this process takes place and by doing so directing the surplus generated to relatively excess-free institutions, as was the case with pre-Christian oikonomia.2

    Lastly, a genealogical approach that accounts for the resemblances and differences between the different institutional settings clears the ground for a new approach of comparative economics.3 As I end my book, I find such genealogical inquiries into the origins of neoliberalism combined with a comparative economics essential for a critical engagement with the neoliberal formation of generalizing the expansionary formation of religious institutions (borrowing Friedland’s conceptualization). That is, I see such a form of inquiry as essential for an attempt to reconstitute a new political philosophy that will either transcend or transform the contemporary and devastating formation of these institutions.

    1. See Leshem, “Embedding Agamben’s Critique of Foucault: The Pastoral and Theological Origins of Governmentally,” Theory, Culture and Society 32.3 (2015) 93–113.

    2. See Leshem, “What Did the Ancient Greeks Mean by Oikonomia?,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 30.1 (2016) 225–38.

    3. See table 6.3 in Leshem, Origins of Neoliberalism: Modeling the Economy From Jesus to Foucault (Columbia University Press, 2016), 177.

    • Avatar

      Roger Friedland


      Excess and Institution

      I want to push back on excess and institution. Whether I agree or not, Leshem is good to think with, in part because he is a fellow institutionalist, somebody who argues comparatively in terms of spheres and fields, and their relationships. There are so many things to talk about; I will just mark a few.   Leshem suggests that I think we can be done with the “haunting question” of secularization. I am, in fact, obsessed with the problem. Issues of transposition, its mechanisms and its evidence become even more vexed and indeterminate. It is both a question, as he notes, “how Christian models migrated” from ecclesia to market, but also, which he does not, whether and why they migrated, and how we would know. Nor is it the collision of the genealogical and the social structural that is at stake; at issue is their alignment and the kind of social theory embedded in Leshem’s genealogical approach. Leshem’s genealogy requires not only an identification of what actually moves from the religious sphere, but the conditions and consequences of its movement.

      For Agamben, secularization is a signature, not a concept (Agamben, 2011:4). “Signatures move and displace concepts and signs from one field to another (in this case, from sacred to profane, and vice versa) without redefining them semantically.” Leshem, speaking of Foucault’s approach to the pastoral origins of multiple forms of governmentality, suggests that we should rather speak of secularizations, each with its “own particular way of generating growth by accommodating itself to the way of the governed” (Leshem, 2016: 167).   It is the idealized micro and macroeconomics of Christomimesis that migrates from ecclesia to market as a result of which there are genealogical lineaments that connect Gary Becker and Gregory of Nyssa. Leshem insists that we locate the origins of all expansionary models of economic growth in Christianity’s divine excess. There may be multiple forms of reference of the economy back to the original denotation in 4th century Christianity, but they all do refer back. Today that “divine quality of excess…is now present in (nearly) all institutions.”

      What is at issue is the institutional location and nature, the institutional generality and specificity, of this excess. The divine quality of excess, in Leshem’s casting, is both transposed and refracted (“tweaking,” he calls it), through “the marketization of the economy.” He characterizes me as following in the tracks Agamben’s mapping, in which meanings of concepts do not change in migration, unlike his own multivariate Foucauldianism in which they do. While I really appreciate Leshem’s comparative institutionalism, both its cartography, its specification of boundary conditions and the ideal relation between spheres, I don’t accept his characterization of my project.

      Leshem is certainly correct that I seek to posit a singular model of an institutional logic.   He Christianizes the sources of a general institutional excess, while I would suggest we entertain that Christianity theorized – theory originally understood by Christians as a vision of God – a generalized institutional excess. We agree that it is excess, while not necessarily that excess, that animates the formation and hence growth of the market or any institution for that matter. And we agree that it is excess that affords the contingency of its reference, the changing territorialization of its practices, its variable inclusions and exclusions, its giving and taking of institutional life (Friedland, 2017).

      It is its Christian specificity that makes me pause. Indeed beyond the nominal identity of economy, the inclusiveness of the pastoral economic art, its ability to suspend canon law and admit aberrant rite and creed in order to expand the boundaries of the church points to the contingency of reference on the one side and excess of divine substance on the other.   I am not yet convinced of what of the specifically divine is actually transposed to the market economy.   The inclusionary accommodations that he relies on as examples and evidence of the Christian governmentality revolve around questions of reference, driven by cost-benefit calculations as to their impact on the growth, or reach, of the ecclesia. I am not convinced there is something particularly, or essentially, Christian here. Indeed one could argue that Christianity itself first emerged through the Israelites’ inclusionary accommodations. Inclusive purification, the neutralization of heterogeneous and potentially polluting properties, is, it seems to me, a trans-institutional practice as the ontologies of bodies, practices, objects and constellations of words are regularly incorporated into or expelled from one domain or another, a sexual body becoming an individual property right, clean air a citizenship right, a corporation a citizen with rights to free political speech. The introduction of a new international accountability regime in 2008 to purify sovereign wealth funds of their political charge, to align them with market criteria alone, in order to grow the American financial market is a pertinent example (Mehrpouya, 2015).[1] Leshem suggests that my approach marginalizes human agency and choice. Quite the contrary: Institutional excess not only affords, but demands and depends on human agency, in part because both reference is always necessarily open, because authority and law can never be reduced to each other.

      So how to decide whether Christianity first specified something general, my position, or the modern world generalized this Christian specificity, his position?  I do not know, but it remains a vexing problem.

      In her Syndicate commentary Rust returns us to Weber’s Protestant “spirit of capitalism,” suggesting that the collapse of the incarnational economy, the absolutization of divine will and the insufficiency of human will, the primacy of election, the transformation of works from a means into signs of salvation, blocks the inclusive purification central in Leshem’s model of growth. For Rust it is either the emptying out of the incarnational economy attendant upon the Reformation that opens a space for the capitalist market to appropriate or which affords a new space from which the transposition of Protestant “testing” practices and its Christian economy of excessive desires would be conduits by which Christianity came to inform mundane market conduct.   Rust puts it this way: “Do the doctrinal shifts wrought by the Reformation constitute an actual “stripping away” of the incarnational economy and its society—or simply an effective and momentous recalibration of it into a new ethic, that of the “ascetic conduct of life” that Weber claims inadvertently contributes to a vast wave of capitalist expansion?” If we follow Foucault, the transom between God and market is not a secularization, but a migration of practices, or as he is cited here, a “proliferation… of these techniques of conduct.” In Foucault’s theorizing of modern governmentality and disciplinarity, techniques migrate from asylum to prison to industrial floor to produce useful bodies, and power is capillary and diffuse. It is an institutionally flat account; it is not good or God-dependent.

      Mechanism aside, does anything migrate, transpose or relocate?   And if it does, could the ground of the genealogy be located not just in the causal force of the exterior logic of the religious sphere, but in its inner consonance with that of its destination?   This possibility is implicit in Leshem’s responsive appropriation of Rust’s hypothesis that the collapse of the incarnational economy cleared a space, as he writes, leaving “it empty to be taken over by the moderns for their own purposes.”

      In this context it is germane to invoke the analysis of Noam Yuran, an economic philosopher, who points to the ways in which Protestantism anticipated the symbolic logic of money which depends on a metaphysical market value in which money stands in for what money cannot buy (Yuran, 2014). For Leshem it is human desire, the number who desire and the intensity of their desire, including the desire to desire, and not its object, that is the primary axis of his comparative economics. Neo-liberalism, which represents a “radicalization” of that Christian model, holds “that each and every object (and no longer the Divine One) possessed the ability to generate in humans an unlimited, unsaturated desire” and the “divinization of each and every object of desire,” an anarchic pantheism (Leshem, 2016: 168).

      In Yuran’s approach the unsaturated desire derives not from the relationships of subjects and objects, as in Leshem’s account, but from the material symbolism of money.   Yuran retrospectively re-reads Max Weber’s understanding of the Protestant spirit of capitalism, not as an external cause of capitalist practice of “the incessant, calculated pursuit of gain for its own sake,” inexplicable from the point of view of individual utility, but as anticipating it, as the moment in which the nature of capitalist money becomes “explicit” (Yuran, 2014: 183-185).   Ascetic Protestantism’s moral and salvific reading of economic action already contains the secret of capitalist money.   Yuran writes:

      What needs to be asked is: What exactly is the economic function of factors like God, heaven, and salvation? What function in the economy do divine beings have? Why is it necessary or appropriate at some stage to relate certain economic behavior to God?” (Yuran, 2014: 189).

      For Yuran the answer has to do with the religious nature of money, not the economic nature of God, with the ways in which ascetic Protestantism understands and expresses “the unspeakable voice of money” (Yuran, 2014: 189). Money not only speaks; it sees. In a manner parallel to a Christian icon, Yuran conveys the “social gaze inherent in money,” where its expansive potential is experienced as a demand on one’s person, as the omniscient and omnipresent eye of God, internalized as “religious conscience” (Yuran, 2014: 190). It is the modern capitalist who teleologically reveals the secret of Protestant asceticism. Money’s demanding call to fulfill its potential for expansion, its omnipresent gaze, its totalizing reach and precise accounting, are refracted as if they were the demands of a divine being, specifically a God whose grace cannot be earned through good works and whose presence is manifested by a ceaseless disciplining of a life. Modern capitalism is not a secularization of Protestantism; Calvinist Protestantism is an anticipatory expression of the religious nature of capitalism.

      Seeking to read Leshem’s Christian genealogy of the economy I, too, understand the course of incarnational theology as the outworking of a model of collective practice, but that its secularization may be the signature of institution, not just a divine Christian economy. Every institution has its god; each is an immanent excessive, incarnational and transcribed economy. The production of desire depends on a god who can take human form, who can be incarnated and materialized, such that we can mirror it, that we become more than human. The Christians exquisitely theorized the incarnational mystery that inhabits and animates every institutional domain. Christ, a particular bodily form, is an exemplar of an institutional object with an afterlife that depends on the unmade, the unbegotten, the good which is the ground and source of unsaturable desire, of that which can never be possessed, the irrationality that inhabits our every rationality, the good whose reality is evidenced by but can never be reduced to our desire for more of it.

      Analyses of institutional logics center on historically specific constellations of practices and goods, non-phenomenal institutional substances in the Aristotelian sense, in which subjects and objects are understood as their effects, not their causes.   Giving primacy to practices requires a suspicion of the notion of self-contained and purified spheres or domains. The practices of an institutional logic are good dependent; goods that are actionable because of their materialization in institutional objects. This is the case in both the ecclesia and the capitalist market, salvation and market value, Christ and coin and property.

      In an institutional logical approach formal accounts of an institutional logic need not accord with its practical regularities. Leshem centers his genealogy not in practice, but in formal models, not in economy, but economics, specifically the abstracted dynamics and domains of divine incarnation affording the expansive inscription of this excess in the economic life of the trinity into a distinct, exterior domain, delimited by divine nature on the one side and human sin on the other. He writes: “All the changes in relations of economy to philosophy, as well as politics and the legal framework, were initiated by the redesign of the economic models discussed in this chapter” (Leshem, 2016: 55). It is the models that afford and inform the practices. Although we now better understand, a la MacKenzie, the ways in which models can produce the economy they supposedly represent – as engines, not cameras as he titles his book, an historical philology does not broach the problematic relationship between the language of power and the power of language, between elite members’ accounts of their economy and ways in which that language is constitutive, as opposed to a mediation, of the material practices by which it grows.

      From my vantage point, the abstraction of economization as the conversion of excess into surplus through the conduct of desire and ascesis leads to the evacuation of the institutional specificity of the market economy.   He writes: “we should consider the hypothesis that instead of the exclusion of God from the economy what we are really confronted with is the divinization of each and every object of desire; if we unmasked the a-theistic persona that contemporary economy has taken on, we would come face to face with is an anarchic pan-theism (anarchic because it excludes Christ as the economic arche of The Father). If so, it would be more accurate to describe this as a double-edged displacement of Christ’s excessive quality to the interplay between a desiring subject on the one hand and each and every object of desire on the other.” (Leshem, 2016: 168).

      Leshem seeks to cleave the economy from the market, locating divine excess grounding growth in the former and divine providence in the latter. “Attributing the origin of this inclusiveness to ‘economy’, by revealing its origins in fourth century Christianity, clearly suggests that the well-recorded tendency of market economy to grow by inclusion is a quality of the economy rather than of the market. It also suggests that the marketization of Christ economy ought to be understood as the transposition of the excess found in the economy from Christ to the desiring subject and desired object” (Leshem, 2016: 168).

      I do not agree that the economy is anarchized in the liberal world because it is no longer rooted in Christ, the Arche. Leshem’s analysis can posit the transposition of the excess of the Christian triune God to the market only by bracketing the institutional good or substance, and the institutional objects – market value and property and money, upon which it is grounded. These institutional objects are not just media; they “incarnate” what cannot be seen or touched, or ever had. Market value is only revealed in price, but can never be reduced to it, thus affording the suspension of the laws of property and contract, as we saw most recently in 2008. Their authority both authorizes and can suspend the laws meant to effect them, not unlike the suspensions of canon law as part of pastoral governmentality.  I do not understand how it is possible to parse economy and market in the way that Leshem proposes. It is only according to the orthodox model that the excess is located in humans, the unfalisifiable premise of neo-classical economics. I would argue that the excess is located in market value, in what cannot be bought, what exceeds any object at any price. Market objects and subjects only exist as effects of particular institutional goods and the institutional object-dependent practices through which they are effected.






      [1] Afshin Mehrpouya, “Instituting a transnational accountability regime: The case of Sovereign Wealth Funds and ‘GAPP,’” Accounting, Organizations and Society, 44 (2015), pp. 15-36.


    • Avatar

      Dotan Leshem


      A Reply to Roger Friedland’s Reply

      I wish to thank Roger Friedland for pushing back on institutions and excess and for clarifying what is at stake in the debate between us fellow institutionalists. Friedland does so by pointing out what are our shared beliefs as well as where do our disagreements lay.  Although entangled, it seems to me that for the sake of the argument our disagreements may by divided into historical, methodological and critical differences.

      I will try to restate my positions on each in reply to Friedland’s reply.


      As Friedland (rightly) observes, I tried to single out to two key moments in the history of economy, or, as one may rephrase it by for the sake of this discussion, the history of the institutionalization of excess prudently turned into surplus. The first moment is the Christian moment that occupies most of the pages of the book that initiated this debate. At this moment excess, which until then was checked and confined to a certain institution (at first the oikos), and in this state allowed and supported the existence of other – excess free – institutions such as the polis. The second moment is that of secularization.

      Friedland is not convinced by my stories of each turning moment for different reasons. While he embraces my description of the institutionalization of excess turned into surplus as economic growth in Christianity he is not persuaded that this unique formation is specifically Christian. As to the moment of secularization, Friedland is “not yet convinced of what of the specifically divine is transposed to the market economy.”

      As to the second moment, as said in my reply to Rust, an elaborated answer calls for further research, although I sense that Rust’s suggestions to what happened point in the right direction.

      As to Friedland’s question regarding the Christian moment, that is, “how to decide whether Christianity first specified something general, my (Friedland’s) position, or the modern world generalized this Christian specificity, his (Leshem’s) position?” I believe that an answer to this question can be found by looking to a pre-Christian institutionalization of excess in the economic institution. As I tried to show in my articles on pre-Christian oikonomia, excess was dealt with differently before the rise of the society of believers in Christ’s economy. It was only in the latter that turning excess into growth was specified and institutionalized (and yet, not in all institutions). So, in short, my answer is that this specific mode of turning excess into growth, let along its institutionalization, didn’t exist in the “Western tradition” before Christianity. That is, it is specifically Christian and was not generalized to all institutions before liberal modernity.

      Put differently, it seems that Friedland and me are repeating, although in a different setting, the long (and by now neglected) debate between the substantivalists and the formalists regarding the pre-Christian economy. While I embrace Moses Finley’s and Karl Polanyi’s general attitude on this question, Friedland seems to hold a more (although much more elaborated and sophisticated) formalist approach.


      It seems to me that if we were to accept an abbreviated version of Finley’s (in)famous aphorism that the ancients lacked a concept of economy in the sense of an institution in which excess is turned into economic growth, then Foucault’s methodological rule regarding such ‘universals’ like our economy, which made its debut in the ecclesia and latter transposed onto the marketized economy is applicable. That is, this specific institutional logic may well be approached as if it “is not a primary and immediate reality; it is something which forms part of … governmental technology. To say that it belongs to governmental technology does not mean that it is purely and simply its product or that it has no reality. [it]… is like madness and sexuality, what I call transactional realities (realities de transaction).  That is to say, those transactional and transitional figures that we call civil society, madness, and so on, which, although they have not always existed are nonetheless real, are born precisely from the interplay of relations of power and everything which constantly eludes them…” (Foucault 2008: 297)

      The same applies to Friedland’s comment that he “does not understand how it is possible to parse economy and market in the way that Leshem proposes.” I propose so based on my historical finding that the universal termed “market economy” has not always existed, and I try to trace how and when it came into being.

      Yet another methodological objection that Friedland raises is that I center my genealogy “not in practice, but in formal models, not in economy, but economics…between elite members’ accounts of their economy and ways in which that language is constitutive, as opposed to a mediation, of the material practices by which it grows.” As with the first methodological rule, I again follow Foucault (2008: 2) who conducted a genealogy of the art of government from pastoral power to its neoliberal form by trying “to grasp the level of reflection in the practice of government and on the practice of government.” As in the case of treating universals as if they do not exist, focusing on what Foucault termed ‘self-consciousness” of the economy, in the ‘selfie’ of the engine as reflected in the art of economy and government (and I would suggest, not only the art, but also the theory and ethics of economy and government) as a privileged location does not come to dismiss tracing this history in non-reflective ‘practice’.


      The disagreements mentioned above should not distract us from our shared observation: both Friedland and I look at the current institutions and see a similar image. We both agree that the three BIG economic institutions in history of the “West” were infused with excess. So, then, why stress the disagreements in the present? As elaborated at the closing pages of “the origins” I believe that the genealogical approach, and its finding, in this case, is of crucial relevance for a critique of the logic that guides the institutions in which our lives are conducted.