Agamben and the revival of a global political theology – from an economy of resentment to an economy of glory

“Grace is but glory begun, and glory is but grace perfected,” proclaimed Jonathan Edwards.

It probably seems quite strange to open what can be described as a brief meditation on political theology and the global crisis with a quote from Edwards, the “new light” of Colonial America’s First Great Awakening, but that is my task here.   With the ongoing crisis, which spreads and deepens by the hour,  we have all been re-invented in many ways as political theologians these days.  But as political theologians we are all too apt – as addicts of the “secular” – to politicize the theological rather than theologize the secular.

Mattia Preti's "Christ in Glory"

It is the Western instinct in general, and the American predilection in particular,  to transmute the gold of the Christian  sensibility concerning human history as the outworking of the divine glory into the dross of ideological railing and electoral scapegoating and blame-gaming, what adds up in this day and age to an ever malignant and metastasizing political economy of resentment.

In this economy of resentment we  crudely trivialize ot only what is really involved at the level of the world’s own deep politics,  but fail to discern the hidden hand of “prevenient” grace, as well as what classically was called the “hope of glory”, in the seemingly chaotic roiling and ferment.  Jonathan Edwards on the eve of America’s First Great Awakening had only lonely frontier anxieties, gangrened evangelical consciences, and the ugly wars between natives and settlers to ponder in relation to any thought of an “economy of glory.” But in hindsight he was hardly different from Augustine of Hippo in the 5th century who, as the hungry barbarians wrecked the frail, fragmenting frames of  what was once the “glory of Rome”, envisioned the persistence and eschatological promise of the true civitas Dei, the “city of God”,  in which the collapse of empire served as a mere chrysallis for the emergence of a new hidden economy.

Every age of global “shift” like the present one – indeed, the very phrase post-modernity signifies  a transitional rather than an easily identifiable era – raises up prophets of an invisible economy.  We only have to consider Condorcet’s formulation of the “idea of progress” as he pined in his jail cell prior to his execution at the height of the French Revolution, or  Bonhoeffer with his vision of “man come of age” as he also awaited the gallows in a German prison in 1944.   But how can we begin, perhaps in simply a thoughtful and less heroic manner, in this  current age of global upheaval – less than a generation after the collapse of the vision of a worldwide, democratic, market-based, neo-liberal future, as enunciated for example in Francis Fukayama’s The End of History and the Last Man (1992), in light of the events of those fateful years 2001 and 2008?

Perhaps the most important and provocative work to address these kinds of issues within the galaxy of today’s profusely productive European (postmodern) philosophers in Giorgio Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government (Stanford University Press, 2011).   Agamben is best-known for his incisive analysis of Carl Schmidt’s concept of  “sovereignty” as the act of one who declars the  “state of exception”,  especially how it has come to illuminate the challenges to democracy by the new “security state” after 9/11.   The Kingdom and the Glory completes a trilogy on the “genealogy” of Western political theory that include Agamben’s two very important earlier works – Homo Sacer (1995) and State of Exception (2003) .

In many ways today’s “political theology” centers on the genealogical method, invented by Nietzsche.  However, unlike Nietzsche, who saw both the theological and the political as metaphoric “masks” for the “reactive” force of resenntiment that has worked since the dawn of time to stifle the creative, active force of the “will to power”, Agamben views the theological itself as the very secret of the genealogical.   The theological is  a cipher not for a hidden economy of resentiment, which for Nietzsche distinguishes the conjugate histories of Christianity and democracy, but for a different kind of “force” (what in my forthcoming book Force of God on political theology I characterize as the “eventful productivity of the Singular”) that works itself out in all secular “economies.”

Agamben, in following the now fashionable line of reasoning introduced by Mark Lilla a number of years ago in his The Stillborn God (which traces the patterns of conceptual descent in current theories of democracy to early and Medieval Christianity),  sees the unmistakable footprint of the fourth and fifth century “economic” doctrine of the Trinity in modern and present day models of political order.  “Economic” paradigms in theology as well as political economy were introduced, according to Agamben,  to provide a distinctively Christian counterweight to the absolutist doctrines of sovereignty, which were dominant in the ancient world and enshrined  politically in the Roman idea of plenitudino potestatis  (“plenitude of power”)  informing Caesarism and Papal supremacy as well as spiritually in the Hebraic and Islamic theologies of unconditional monotheism.

The modern democratic ideal, starting with the Reformation, was really a revolution in religious thought that overthrew the reigning sovereignty paradigm for the economic-democatic one.   The “economic” paradigm (from the Greek oikosfor “household”) is radically different from the state paradigm.  The state paradigm, deriving from the notion of sovereignty, finds its ultimate expression in the National Socialist Führer-Prinzip.  The  economic paradigm, deriving from the division of labor and administrative responsibilities in a household, leads not only to the American Constitutional principle of the separation of powers and formulations of “representative democracy”, but even to the current global ideal of free markets and the neo-liberal economic doctrine of “comparative advantage” – the international correlate to the domestic division of labor. Theologically speaking, the disestablishment of religion, congregationalism in church polity and even the “postmodern” trend toward “post-denominationalism” are all heirs to the same revolution.

Agamben’s latest work is a treasure hoard of often arcane scholarly minutiae to buttress his highly persuasive genealogy of democratic thinking.   But what Agamben seems to be secretly longing for in such a tome is the recapture somehow in our hyper-economic new global order for the old ideal of  “glory” that historically has been intimately connected with the doctrine of sovereignty.   Agamben argues – and as far as I concerned not very convincingly –  that the gloria previously associated with monarchial sovereignty is furnished today by mass media.  We live today in a vast, worldwide, mediacracy that encompasses both CNN and Twitter.

However, even by Agamben’s own reckoning, glory amounts to a charismatic focusing on the political singular (comparable in some ways to Walter Benjamin’s notion of the “aura” in an original work of art), and it is questionable whether in a democracy we have no way of accomplishing that task, other than in the obvious case of Presidential pomp and ceremony. The same paradox arises in the contemporary “democratized” church.  After all,  in church every worship service we sing “glory” to God, implying that even the God of “democratic” Christianity is still a monotheistic sovereign.   Yet our “missional models” increasingly mitigate against this concentration of our visions, which only happens in the forms of theatrical stage worship our present “emergent” churches seems to minimalize.

I am not so concerned here, however, with the eccesiological conundrum of church organization as with the problem of democracy itself.  For it seems that, if we really take Agamben seriously, we are in caught in a kind of Derridean aporia involving a democracy without glory versus a sovereignty without economy.  So much of the current new global disorder seems to reflect an entropic breakdown of world “economy” with the concomitant movement toward the reaffirmation of sovereignty (whether religious or political) in the rise of many new authoritarianisms.   As everyone familiar with the growing pathology of liberal democracy in the West in general, and America in particular, is aware, it rides increasingly on the promiscuous proliferation of special interests, factions, partisan hostilties, popular banalities, and all the kinds of “nihilistic” tendencies Nietzsche prophesied as the outcome of such an economy of resentment.  It was this pathology that led Schmidt during the Weimar years of the 1920s to develop his own prototype of sovereignty, but we now know tragically what the alternative turned out to be.

Why does liberal democracy progressively degenerate into an economy of resentment, and what is the alternative, save a new authoritarianism, or even a new totalitarianism?  It was Kant, referring to epistemology, who famously said perceptions without conceptions are blind, and conceptions without perceptions are empty.  We might adapt this precept to the questions of political theology and observe that sovereignty without economy is violent, whereas economy without sovereignty is “decadent” (Nietzsche’s word).  With a nod to Edwards, we can also say that when the “grace” of a divine economy is reduced, as in our ideological militantly secularist space, to nothing more than a flawed, “democratic” sense of personal political entitlement (which it is very much today) as well as rage against the lavishly refined sense of the “other”, there can be no “glory begun,” only resentment seeded.  Can economy recover its own “glory,” corresponding to divine glory,  a glory without sovereignty?  In short, can the “glory of god” radiate in a democracy?

It was Alexis DeTocqueville, perhaps the most perceptive “political theologian” of the modern epoch, who provides a clue.  DeTocqueville, the majority of whose family was guillotined during the French Revolution, was  suspicious of the very principle of “sovereignty”, be it monarchial or democratic.  The danger of sovereignty, he argued in Democracy in America, is that its inherent principle of “exception” entails the assumption of omnipotence.   Only God can be “sovereign” and thus “omnipotent without danger” because “His wisdom and justice are always equal to His power”.  Since glory is necessarily attached to sovereignty, any pretension to the “sovereignty of the people” must be subordinate to the sovereignty of the Singularity that we identify as divine.   The only true economy is God’s economy.  Democracy requires, according to De Tocqueville, not only “virtue” to survive, but a virtue rooted in an acknowledgment of this divine sovereignty and economy.   That is the only possible meaning of Derrida’s “democracy to come.”

One of the reason the very idea of a “political theology, especially a “global political theology”, makes us uncomfortable is that we are virtually hypnotized these days, particularly in America, to think – politically – solely in terms of an economy of entitlement and resentment, which we mistakenly associated with some vague idea of “justice.”   Agamben, without making heavy-handed theological moves, has forced us decisively into rethinking our  “economic”  and “ecumenical”  models of the new global-political as ultimately the “God” question.  We are all now political theologians, mainly because all theology is political and all politics is theological.

We might therefore ultimately rephrase Schmidt as our final meditation as we enter holy week:  sovereign is HE who wills the singular/exceptional event that fructifies in the entire economy of history that is designed ultimately for his glory.

Carl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver and author among other books of  GloboChrist (Baker Academic, 2008) and Postmodernism and The Revolution in Religious Theory:  A Semiotics of the Event (University of Virgina Press, Fall 2012).