August 26, 2015 / Perspective
The best – or perhaps only – way for theology to be itself is to fail.
July 18, 2013
Kenneth Surin. Freedom Not Yet: Liberation and the Next World Order. New Slant Series: Religion, Politics, Ontology. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009.
Neoliberal capitalism is not working—at least not right now and not for many us. The golden age of capitalism—that period of growth between the end of World War II and the early 1970s during which advanced industrial economies experienced high employment, increased consumption, growing wages, and generally benign business cycles—has long been over. Attempts to gain theoretical purchase upon our current, post-golden age brand of capitalism are as varied as are the names we give it. Whether we call it late, disorganized, or deregulatory capitalism, describe ourselves as enmeshed in postindustrialization or post-Fordism, or speak of flexible accumulation or globalization, what stands out to Marxist social theorist Kenneth Surin is the unavoidable fact that world trade integration has failed to benefit the world’s poorest countries. Pointing to the increasing polarization between the wealthy West and the impoverished global South, and furthermore to the fact that “masses of human beings [are] now trapped in conditions of crushing poverty,” Surin gravely concludes, “there is now virtually incontrovertible evidence that this capitalist system has failed most of the world” (295, 296).
This insistent focus upon the situation of the world’s poorest countries focuses the energy of Freedom Not Yet, part of the New Slant: Religion, Politics, and Ontology series edited by Creston Davis, Philip Goodchild, and Kenneth Surin. In this book, Surin analyzes our current global economic order and explores the possibilities and conditions for birthing a new order. According to Surin’s diagnosis, most of the world needs an emancipation that is both economic and political:
What is desperately needed today . . . is a new sociopolitical settlement, at once practical and theoretical, that will reclaim the political for the project of a democracy that will always place the interests of the dispossessed at its heart. Given the present tarnished state of the political (to wit, the “media-theatricalized” politics referred to by Jacques Derrida) in Western Europe and the United States, this democratic project can advance itself only as a project of liberation, a liberation from the dispossession that is the fate of the overwhelming majority of children, women, and men on this planet. (11)
Surin is straightforward about how his argument stems directly from his philosophical commitments (“avowedly Marxist”) and his motivating convictions, above all the conviction that we are not OK: “the governing institutions and forces of our society are owned and managed by powerful elites, planetary in scale, paying lip service (if at all) to the veneer of accountability demanded by today’s ‘thin’ democracies” (14). Although these convictions occasionally lead Surin to indulge in snarky references to the likes of Sarah Palin and George W. Bush, references that already feel a bit outdated, the effect is to contextualize Surin’s claim that politics itself has become victim to the new global economic order. Moreover, they remind the reader that while Freedom Not Yet is a work of Marxian political economy, it is also a very practical conversation about the exact world that we live in right now.
A Marxist Perspective on Financialized Globalization
In good Marxist fashion, Surin starts his first section by investigating the economic power relations that undergird contemporary sociopolitical life. Armed with the truism that “those who wish to be free first have to produce knowledge of the things that stand in the way of their freedom” (32), Surin finds that “financialization on a largely global scale is now the chief instrument of subordination and dependency on the part of the poorer nations, and that our conceptions of a globalized political economy must be modified to take account of this momentous shift toward a highly mobile financial capital” (13). That is, global financial markets now dominate over traditional production economies, a fact that has had devastating effects upon the world’s least developed countries (LDCs). Surin expresses a perhaps not unjustifiably smug lament that this argument—which he has been making since the 1990s, he clarifies—is only now, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, being taken seriously. That is, according to Surin, our inability to recognize the way that financial markets threaten LDCs is at least in part because we have failed to update our accounts of how the world works; we have failed to factor in the structural shift in global economies toward speculative finance.
That capitalism has been devastating for poorer countries is not new: in the past, what Marx called primitive accumulation took place when capital moved into precapitalist areas, bringing them into the fold of a capitalist order of accumulation by exploiting newly proletarianized (and often politically oppressed or colonized) labor forces. This exploitation enabled these newly capitalist economies to yield enormous surplus value for those who “invested” in them. What’s new is that the regime of accumulation has been transformed by global finance: in the current order, countries that are already capitalist but that are located on the “semiperiphery” are encouraged to open up their economies to overseas financial markets that are based primarily in capitalist epicenters such as New York and London. Although those who arrive first at and “pioneer” new markets tend to accrue higher returns, this regime fails to benefit the LDCs themselves. Compliance with the neoliberal Washington consensus not only severely restricts the autonomy of local governance, but it also brings with it dramatic market instability, an instability that often leads to spiraling debt. Marshaling an impressive amount of data on continuing economic polarization, Surin makes a compelling case for why participation in internationally integrated financial markets is not in the best interest of LDCs, and he claims (along the lines of a modified Marxist dependency theory) that disparities in wealth between nations are due to asymmetries of economic and political power that are constitutive of world capitalism itself (97). In short, he finds that what is sold as a road out of poverty turns out to be nothing but a circular return to poverty, ensured by a capitalist operation of accumulation-by-dispossession.
In this section Surin turns his Marxist analytical gaze toward subjectivity as well. He finds that this neoliberal order effectively constructs its own kind of subjects: people who take the current order for granted and see it as the only possible order, and in doing so, make it possible. This subjectivity stretches to include both those who (consciously or unconsciously) benefit from this order and those who prop it up through their exploitation. Although Surin does not himself use the language of demystification, in a chapter titled “The Complementary Deaths of the Thinking Subject and the Citizen Subject,” he makes an argument about the emergence of this neoliberal subjectivity that reads like an attack on our false consciousness: the old liberal-democratic political system held the classical citizen subject as its ideal and made sense of this ideal with a particular conception of sovereignty through the principle of representation, but this sovereignty has been slowly eviscerated by the new capitalist dispensation we entered in around the 1960s and 1970s. “One does not have to be Naomi Klein or George Monbiot to acknowledge,” he writes, “that corporations and markets have gained hugely in legitimacy and power at the expense of the now deracinated Citizen Subject” (30). In its place now stands a new, rather more pathetic subject, “a consumer subject cajoled and tutored in this country by Disney, Fox News, and USA Today” (31). Duped into passivity, for this new consumer subject ‘the political’ is more about (manipulated) consumer choice than it is about genuinely constructive action.
Is Alternative Subjectivity Possible?
Fearing that the demise of the classical citizen subject brings with it the eclipse of our capacity to engage in truly political politics, Surin turns in his second section to an exploration of the possible constitution of subjectivity that would be required to sustain the project of liberation he desires. Here, Surin critically engages a number of philosophies that seem to offer models of liberation, taking up Jacques Derrida, Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, and John Milbank—students of Radical Orthodoxy may be particularly interested in Surin’s chapter on the religious transcendent as a potential mode of liberation, in which he reflects on the political possibilities provided by Milbank’s ontology of peace.1 In this section Surin also offers a helpful critique of identity politics, which offers itself as a tempting route for activism.
At some point, however, this section begins to feel a bit like an overly academic detour from the main event, as Surin introduces and explains theories and interlocutors, only to dismiss each in turn as incomplete before finally alighting on Deleuze and Guattari’s account of nomad politics. Given that these conversations lack the forceful momentum and devastating social and economic analyses of Surin’s opening chapters, less philosophically inclined readers could be forgiven for skimming over these somewhat donnish debates.
Such readers might also be forgiven for asking what it is that Surin hopes these chapters will do. The force of a materialist analysis of history is that consciousness follows material conditions, not the inverse. If a neoliberal order functions to create the neoliberal subjectivity, wouldn’t a new subjectivity be best sought by first pursuing the actual conditions necessary to birth a new order, rather than in metaphilosophical ratiocination? To invoke (the specter of!) Marx himself: “Liberation is a historical and not a mental act, and it is brought about by historical conditions.”2 Moreover, is it really useful to tell LDCs to look to Deleuze and Guattari in order to form their new subjectivities?
Well, to be fair, Surin seems alert to such concerns: in a section on how Marxist metatheory might develop a “‘grammar’ or ‘logic’ of liberation,” he admits that such theorizing may seem “problematically abstract” given that “marxism is of course a self-professed materialism with a built-in propensity to view any idealism as a pernicious vice” (63).3 In fact, Surin’s awareness of the tension between a commitment to an “always exploratory political materialism” and to reflecting on the constitution of “the political” itself runs like a thread throughout the entire work (43). As he explains, “This ontology of the political, and the human constitutive power that I view as the basis of the political, serves as the metatheory needed to connect marxism with its field, which is capitalism” (63). Here Surin seems to be joining step with neo-Marxists like Georg Lukacs, Louis Althusser, and Frederic Jameson in attending to the subjective side of capitalism; neo-Marxists of other stripes may or may not find Surin’s fixation on the ontology of the political to be warranted. I will only add that while Surin’s exploratory sketch of alternative agency and subjectivity is certainly interesting and suggestive, it lacks the compelling energy of both his materialist analyses in the opening chapters and his concrete political suggestions in the concluding chapters.
Structural Transformation: Getting to Heterotopia
Surin’s third and final section returns to practical questions about liberation, but not before embarking on one more meta-level philosophical reflection, this time on the language of liberation. Here Surin offers a compelling and interesting case for thinking of the necessary supersession of capitalism as movement toward a “heterotopia” rather than toward the utopia one might expect. Relying on Michel Foucault, Surin’s argument against utopia has everything to do with the word itself: the fact that utopia is literally no-place (or not-place) means that we understand what it means by way of negation of the currently existing place. This, he thinks, is a politically crippling way to think about the future we want to bring into being. Dipping briefly into mathematical, economic, and biological theories about reverse causation, Surin develops a narrative of reverse causation that suggests the necessary plausibility of an alternative future (and present) by revealing the way that the present order of reality is always and already actively suppressing this alternative order. That is to say, what the language of heterotopia (other-place) names and accordingly brings into view is that a real (if not actualized) state exists in which capitalism is overcome, because opposition to this state is in fact an integral part of the continued capitalist order: “The revolution, which is yet to occur, is already active as a reverse cause that already existing capitalism has to contend with, and dispel with some success, if capitalism is to continue to exist” (275). All we have to do now, then, is identify the key blockages that are keeping this alternative future at bay, and remove them.
Surin concludes Freedom Not Yet by sketching strategies he thinks will be necessary to remove these obstacles to the heterotopia of postcapitalism. Foremost among these, he advocates that less developed countries pursue selective strategies of economic delinking from globally integrated finance markets. He clarifies that this would not indicate wholesale autarky but rather “a judicious and piecemeal assessment of what works in a poor country’s economic interests,” carried out as a cost-versus-benefit analysis of each economic link between LDCs and global markets (286). Among other proposals, Surin also proposes the following: that poorer countries industrialize their agriculture (with the caveat that this is for moving beyond subsistence agriculture and not solely for export to advanced industrial economies); that the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency should be abolished, or at least that another currency should be set up as its competitor, given that the United States is currently able to maintain military hegemony by borrowing easily from external sources; and that other countries should hold the United States “accountable for the military impact of its geopolitical decisions by making any willingness to buy dollarized assets contingent on US compliance with international environmental treaties, international judicial accords and weapons conventions” (288).
Trying to square the unavoidable nowness of these proposals with the Foucauldian reflections of Surin’s penultimate chapter on heterotopia could present some work to the reader; set aside from these more practical calls for international justice, Surin’s excursus on the appropriate language with which to envision liberation is in danger of looking like just so much semantics. More charitably, however, heterotopia could be the key link that ties Surin’s more abstract philosophical second section to this, his hard-hitting conclusion: How are we to move into an alternative world order when we cannot yet imagine it? When we cannot yet imagine alternatives to the present order at all? And, if the reader agrees with Surin that imagining alternative forms of political agency is integral to this process, how are we to effect an emancipatory politics when we cannot yet imagine ourselves as truly political actors? If it gives us the confidence that the actual other place that we desire is contained already as a suppressed state of being within our current world order, Surin may be right that heterotopia better funds the genuinely political imagination than do the vagaries of not-place.
In its aim to enable the political imagination, Surin’s project holds much in common with those of other proponents of Marxian political economy and social theory, such as J. K. Gibson-Graham, whose The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It) claims that intellectually cutting capitalism down to size requires poking holes in its discursive hegemony and recognizing the many places where alternatives to capitalism already exist.4 Whereas Gibson-Graham’s deconstructive project is playful, lively, and even hopeful, however, Surin’s is more serious and omits any encouraging mention of where capitalism is already being overcome. What is more—and while I am cataloging what is absent from the pages of Freedom Not Yet—theological readers of Surin’s contribution to Theology and the Political: The New Debate will find that in this work he does not move forward the conversation about whether it is possible to develop a radical theological vision that incorporates a genuine materialism. Although Surin repeats here that Slavoj Žižek is “quite right to insist that Christianity and marxism are the only two real metaphysical alternatives to liberalism,” he does not here devote more than a few pages to the Christianity side of the equation, which is unfortunate, given his considerable theological acumen (232).
But to say that in this work Surin is neither playful nor hopeful nor theological is probably less helpful than to explain what Freedom Not Yet actually offers: a rather sober look at our current predicament through the lens of an updated Marxist political materialism. To be sure, the comic ridiculousness of media-theatricalized politics aside, it is no laughing matter that the present economic order is experienced by many as a source of immiseration. It is a good thing to have to have sober materialists like Surin help us make sense of this.
1. Surin asks whether a viable account of liberation can/must be grounded in an account of transcendence, and he concludes unsure/no, although for reasons that students of Radical Orthodoxy probably will find unsatisfactory.
2. Karl Marx, The German Ideology, in The Marx-Engels Reader, second edition, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978) 169 (see also 155).
3. Note that in these quotations I have maintained Surin’s lack of capitalization of the term Marxism.
4. J. K. Gibson-Graham, The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006). J. K. Gibson-Graham is actually the penname taken by feminist economic geographers Julie Graham and Katherine Gibson.)
Christina McRorie is a doctoral student in theology and ethics at the University of Virginia. Her research focuses on Christian theological ethics and political economy.