Posted by: rogermitchell | April 21, 2017

economic theology or political theology (7)

In Chapter Five of his book The Kingdom and the Glory “The Providential Machine,” Agamben adopts the word archaeology to describe the deep-structural task of exposing the genealogy of political concepts and institutions. As he puts it: “archaeology is a science of signatures (segnatur), and we need to be able to follow the signatures that displace the concepts and orient their interpretation towards different fields” (p. 112). This encapsulates what it is about Agamben’s methodology that I find so helpful. We inhabit a western world  system in which a seemingly opaque constructed imaginary presents itself as unchangeable reality. Unless we can expose the concepts and interpretations of past thought and practice that have brought us to this point there is little hope of finding faith to configure a more loving, kenarchic alternative.

Agamben begins this chapter by explaining why he thinks Foucault failed to follow the signatures properly and as a result inadequately exposed the providential machine of contemporary government. Quoting Foucault’s Security, Territory, Population. Lectures at the College de France 1977-1978 (pp. 234-5), Agamben shows that according to Foucault, the continuum from sovereignty to government was translated from God to men in a ‘political order’ rooted in the ecclesiastical pastorate that was broken for the first time in the sixteenth century. At this point a series of new paradigms, from Copernicus’s and Kepler’s astronomy to Galileo’s physics, from John Ray’s natural history to the Grammar of Port-Royal, demonstrated that God “only rules the world through general, immutable, universal, simple and intelligible laws” and so “does not govern it in the pastoral sense [but] reigns over the world in a sovereign manner through principles.” Agamben however has shown “that the first seed of the division between the Kingdom and the Government is to be found in the Trinitarian oikonomia, which introduces a fracture between being and praxis in the deity himself” back in the first centuries of church history (p. 111).

The current technique of government that Foucault terms biopower is summarised by Agamben on the first page of The Kingdom and the Glory (see Post 1 below) as “the current triumph of economy and government over every other aspect of social life.” This is the commodification of life itself that is the current fulness of capitalism and variously described by Agamben elsewhere as “bare life,” by Walter Benjamin as “mere life” and by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri as “naked life.” In my view this biopower is legitimated par excellence by all the offices, ceremonies, architectures, social symbols, monarchs, aristocrats, celebrities and massively differentiated wage structures that affirm the established western status quo where wealth and status reigns while all manner of so-called democratic government whether relatively good or bad continues. (Which is why, unfortunately, general elections don’t really change things). Agamben, as I read him, is arguing that this legitimation is rooted in the mystified notion of divine providence, itself rooted in the inversion of Paul’s mystery of the oikonomia. This is the bipolar providential machine that drives the western world, not the supposed separation of powers between religious and secular but rather the legitimated separation between the rich establishment and the multitude.

Agamben states: “If the Kingdom and the Government are separated in God by a clear opposition, then no government of the world is actually possible: we would have on the one hand an impotent sovereignty and, on the other, the infinite and chaotic series of particular (and violent) acts of providence” (p. 114). It is the notion of divine providence that attempts to hold together God’s rule as separate but not absolutely divided from his government. Agamben tracks this development of the theology of divine providence, with its differentiation of rule to legitimate the practice of government, via the 3rd century BCE Stoic philosopher Chrysippus’s Peri pronias (On Providence), the late 2nd century Alexander of Aphrodisias’s La Providenza, Plutarch’s treatise On Fate, the 5th century Questions on Providence attributed to Proclus, Boethius’s 6th century De consolatione philosophiae, back to the 5th century bishop Salvian of Marseille’s De gubernatione Dei and finally on to Thomas Aquinas’s De gubernatione mundi. He concludes that “the economic-governmental vocation of contemporary democracies is not something that has happened accidentally, but is a constitutive part of the theological legacy of which they are the depositaries” (p. (143).

In conclusion he sets out seven characteristics of “a kind of ontology of the acts of government.” Briefly put, these can be summarised as i) Government as we experience it in the west has developed from the attempt to reconcile a separation between divine being and behaviour (in my terms caused by assuming God had to be separate from or above incarnation as a result of the subsumption of transcendence by sovereignty); ii) This resulted in a paradoxical ‘Christian’ understanding of government which assumes “an imminent government of the world that is and needs to remain extraneous.” For Agamben this is exemplified in the “great western powers” and particularly the USA “where a country – and even the entire world – is being governed by remaining completely extraneous to it.” In this context the tourist “is the planetary figure of this irreducible extraneousness;” iii) The two separate elements of being and practice, rule and government legitimate each other; iv) In our western system this is all that acts of government are: collateral effect, mutual legitimation that doesn’t really change anything; v) The division of powers is necessary to this mutual legitimation; vi) The ontology of the acts of government is vicarious, each deputises for the other. So there is no substance to power, only an economy or an operation of it; vii) There is some freedom in this in as much as the separation of the first and second causes presupposes the freedom of the governed to act “through the works of the second causes” (pp. 140-141). However this is not a freedom to change the prevailing ontology.

In this way the contemporary western bipolar providential machine of government legitimates the status quo and precludes the good news of a trinitarian incarnational oikonomia and thereby the politics of love. We need an unsubsumed economic and political theology to dismantle this machine.



  1. Roger – I am really enjoying this series. Its a challenge and an encouragement all at the same time.

  2. It’s good to hear from you and to know that the series is proving both a challenge and encouragement. I guess that’s the overall intention and it’s always good to get positive feedback. The first part of the series had some good comments, but it’s been a bit quiet of late. I was beginning to think that tracking Agamben’s painstaking investigations into the roots of the concepts and institutions behind our contemporary western deadlock, what he refers to as his “archaeological research,” was only for my own benefit!

    • The summary is good. It is always helpful to get pushed on our thinking. I suspect many of us find some sort of origin for our current malaise and some sort of date for it. And of course, your own books discuss the imperialism that invaded the church. But this discussion of how it involves our understanding of the Trinity and oikonomia is really helpful. It shifts our whole understanding of God and of our relationship to the earth and one another. That is critical right now. There are many voices crying out for a shift in those areas but a lot of the church is still either on the sidelines or actively hostile.

      Since we are in a great shift right now, we need all hands on deck to help define the way forward. I appreciate any discussion that is grounded and useful and deeply thought out. It is important that the shift be real and not some surface rebranding.

  3. Hi Roger, your summary of Agamben’s archaeology of past political thought and practice is very exciting. (Incidentally it also describes one of the processes we/I could go through when attempting to become more whole and capable of functioning correctly in a new society.) But returning to the political situation. Along with looking at the twisted routes taken and that got us to where we are now I wonder if a description of where we are heading would also help the process. Robert Banks says that in the Greek-Roman world of the 1st Century the polis and the oikos were both showing limitations for the general population. Political power was, in the main, only open to an established rich elite. The oikos was limited in what it could achieve in the wider society. Increasing numbers of people ‘wrote or dreamt of a universal commonwealth, an international brotherhood.’ You may well have written about this already but if not a description of the type of society we could aim for would be great.

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