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.