Oikonomia Leaves Home: Theology, Politics, and Governance in the History of the West

Is there any genealogical connection between Christian oikonomia and modern political economy? Originally the turning of polity into household and interpersonal “pastoral” rule was not sinister but an advance. Likewise the Christian doctrines of Trinity and Incarnation resolved rather than sustained aporias of the reserved versus the economizing deity. However, later developments with the Franciscans, Palamites, and Jansenists effectively undid this resolution, producing a new “gnostic” duality. Economic rule was now sundered from ethics in a fallen world seen as utterly depraved. The heterodox discourse and practice of political economy resulted.

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Sklar: Left and Right

This is the fifth—and last—in a series of posts that introduce the thought of historian Martin J. Sklar, as a prelude to a print symposium on his life and work in a future issue of Telos. For a fuller introduction, refer to the head note to the first TELOSscope post. On the basis of his understanding of political economy (see the third post) and international relations (see the fourth post), and building on his longstanding critique of sectarianism and vanguardism in left-wing politics, in his last decade Sklar argued that U.S. politics were undergoing what he termed a “transvestiture of left and right,” whereby each side of the political spectrum was (however unwittingly) adopting positions that are historically more in tune with the other end of the spectrum. Sklar’s argument will be more fully articulated in the posthumously forthcoming book American Century and World Revolution. For now, the following selections provide a window onto his evolving thinking.

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Self Interest, Virtue, and the Dilemma of the American Political Economy: Toward a Renewal of Ethical Care in American Civilization

This article argues that after more than two centuries, our system of justice is no longer functioning as intended by its founders. I argue that this breakdown can be ultimately traced to a philosophical dilemma at the heart of American civilization: the assumption that economic self-interest can by itself sustain ethical care for a common good. In treating economic freedom as a moral absolute, the American right has misconstrued the practical purpose of freedom and undermined justice and equality for all. In contrast to the ahistorical claim of libertarians that economic freedom should be treated as a moral value, the goal of the founders of the United States was very concrete: enabling most citizens to get basic economic needs met in peace and security. Free and open elections and a system of checks and balances would motivate the naturally more powerful to manage their own passions in ways that contributed to a common good. By contrast, in unchecked political systems that arose by the struggle for dominance among the powerful few, the de facto rulers lacked any motive to act in ways that were consistent with the interests of the average citizen. As Thrasymachus claims in Plato’s Republic, they habitually wrote laws that benefited themselves at the expense of everyone else.

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“Something in all men profoundly rejoices at seeing a car burn”: Pure Expenditure against Production

This is the second of two blog posts by Frederick H. Pitts that reassess the importance and impact of Jean Baudrillard’s The Mirror of Production. Read the first post here. Where the first post dealt with Baudrillard’s criticism of the productivism of political economy and its Marxist critique, the second deals with the implications of Baudrillard’s critical analysis for any radical alternative to production.

In the first post, we explored Baudrillard’s critique of productivism. The attributing of some kind of essential humanity to labor is identified by Baudrillard as one of the most pernicious effects of the productivism in political economy, Marx included. Indeed, humanism itself can be seen as the “product” of political economy (Baudrillard, 22). Taking over the “phantasm” of “labor as the human essence” from political economy, Baudrillard suggests Marx projected this understanding upon the working class as “their central means of self-comprehension.” Rather than maintaining a narrow fixation on the condition of one’s exploitation as labor as the means by which this exploitation can be transcended, Baudrillard argues that workers must liberate themselves from the status of “labor-power,” and “think themselves under another sign than that of production” (Poster, 3).

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Neither Marx nor Smith: Baudrillard’s Critique of Productivism

It seems an apt time to reassess the importance and impact of Jean Baudrillard’s The Mirror of Production. Several reasons spring to mind. We are approaching, in 2013, the 40th anniversary of the original French publication. Since the publication of the translated version in 1975 by Telos Press, the themes presented in the book have gained increasing contemporary currency, not least in popular critiques of production such as Kathi Weeks’s recent The Problem With Work (2012) and the growing literature on Italian autonomist theory. Finally, the passing in October 2012 of Mark Poster, responsible for the book’s translation into English, invites us to consider his excellent introduction and condensation of Baudrillard’s complex and challenging argument. In two blog posts, appearing today and next week, I will discuss some of the central themes of The Mirror of Production and attempt to relate them to broader intellectual currents and issues. Today’s post deals with the critical analysis that Baudrillard offers of the perceived “productivism” of both political economy and its Marxist critique.

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Moralizing the Market? Economies of Gift in an Age of Global Finance

This paper was presented at the 2011 Telos Conference, “Rituals of Exchange and States of Exception: Continuity and Crisis in Politics and Economics.”

For Max Weber, the spirit of capitalism is best understood in terms of Calvinist divine predestination. But by focusing on the Protestant work ethic, Weber’s thesis about the origins of modern capitalism is at once too broad and too narrow. Too narrow because he neglects the counter-Reformation Baroque scholasticism of influential Catholic theologians like Francisco Suárez that sunders “pure nature” from the supernatural and thus divorces man’s natural end from his supernatural finality. As a result, human activity in the economy is separated from divine deification and the market is seen as increasingly autonomous. In short, human contract is severed from divine gift.

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