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The Economic Theology of Neoliberalism: Foucault and Agamben on the History of Governmentality

Book - Dissertation

Foucault's lectures on the emergence of neoliberal governmentality have been an influential source on the study of neoliberalism today. I argue that Foucault's approaches, however, also possesses some limits. It does not address why governmental rationalities display historical continuities, the mutual affinity between neoliberalism and Christian forms of thought, and how neoliberal regimes exclude surplus populations. I turn to Agamben's economico-theological rethinking of Foucault's genealogy of governmentality in order to complete Foucault's approach to neoliberalism. According to Agamben, historical continuities between governmental rationalities arise when discursive signatures move from one rationality to another. One such signature has been the word 'oikonomia:' for the Greeks, it meant the father's government of the household as a functional organization, but it was gradually detached from this context. For medieval theologians, it referred to God's providential government of world-history as a functional organization. It was this theological dimension that, according to Agamben, was transmitted to modern governmentality through liberal authors like Adam Smith. The aim was to use the medieval project of theodicy to justify the exclusion of the poor from the benefits of free market liberalism. Just like Christians have to accept their suffering in the name of God's final salvific plan, economic agents must supposedly accept their misery in the name of future prosperity. This discursive structure, in my view, still permeates neoliberal governmental rationality. I subsequently trace it in Hayek's theory of competition, the Beckerian theory of the homo oeconomicus, and Novak's theology of the corporation.
Publication year:2021