Rodney Clapp. Naming Neo-Liberalism: Exposing the Spirit of Our Age. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2021. 250 pp, $24.00
In recent years liberalism has been on the ropes. Not the liberalism of the Democratic Party, where the L-word means “left of center.” Liberalism in the classical philosophical sense: the animating (if not always governing) ideology of the Western world for the last two centuries or more. This liberalism imagines a neutral public sphere defined by competitive interests whose intrinsic antagonism is either mitigated or sublimated by state power, individual rights, and a host of negative freedoms, underwritten by the principle of noninterference: you will be left alone if you leave others well enough alone. The advent of liberalism has been a revolutionary and, wedded to capitalism, productive force in human moral, social, religious, familial, and technological life. Liberalism presupposes, or at least tends toward, a radical leveling of society; its individualism bends communities around an egalitarian arc. The liberty for which it is named invades and disrupts long-standing traditions and settled hierarchies.
If you’ve been paying attention, then you know that some see the inexorable power of regnant liberalism to unsettle and reorder social and civic relations as a happy arrangement for which to be grateful; others, as an invisible but insidious hegemon whose shackles we should throw off. It is important to see, though, that members of the latter group are not united in their resistance, or at least, not in their reasons for resistance. They include reactionaries and communists, Christians and atheists, Catholics and Anabaptists, communitarians and anarchists. Even when they agree about the evils and perils of liberalism, they never agree on what should replace it. Some postliberals, moreover, think talking about liberalism is a distraction. For the problem is not liberalism, but something else. That something else they call neoliberalism.
What is neoliberalism? Think of it as the latest mutation of liberalism. For liberalism has never been one thing; it can be symbiotic with a range of social forms and civic regimes. It adapts in response to its host organism. American liberalism has, at various times, incorporated — or tolerated — an extraordinary range of policies, practices, and institutions: official civic religion, chattel slavery, industrialization, imperial war, mandatory public school, a vast middle class, women’s disenfranchisement, women’s enfranchisement, prohibition, rapid technological innovation, racial apartheid, civil rights, a military draft, anti-sodomy laws, state-sponsored secularization, major improvements in health and medical care, high rates of immigration, anti-poverty welfare, no-fault divorce, abortion on demand, mass incarceration, mass gun ownership, expanding inequality, carbon-based energy systems, and gay marriage — to name only a few.
How one views these phenomena and their relationship to liberalism marks one out, more or less, as a liberal or non-liberal. Which of them, for example, are of the “essence” of liberalism? Which of them, if any, are unavoidable way-stations on the path to ever greater individual freedom? Which of them, if any, reveal the harsh truth about liberalism — namely, that it is fundamentally hollow, a mere skeleton or frame to be possessed by spirits stronger than itself?
Neoliberalism is one such spirit, or parasite. Or, to switch metaphors one more time, it is liberalism on steroids. Neoliberalism is what results when the various factors that once leavened and humanized liberal society — strong churches, powerful unions, intact marriages, thick kin networks, tight neighborhoods, the proverbial bowling leagues of yore — are all either dead or dying. What is left is the market. The market alone remains as the last thriving institution uniting our far-flung lives, because, in a sense, all other institutions have become subject to it, or subjects of it. The market has colonized each and every one of them, whether they be political, religious, educational, or organs of entertainment. Here is how Rodney Clapp puts it in his new book (quoting Julie Wilson):
The face and substance of politics change under neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is a panoply of cultural and political-economic practices that sets marketized competition at the center of social life — even as the sole ruler of social life. It aims to create a society that does not merely include markets but is based on the market and where there are, right down to the dirt under the fingernails of flesh-and-blood individuals, only agonizing private enterprise.
“In neoliberal society, the capitalist market is no longer imagined as a distinct arena where goods are valued and exchanged; rather, the market is, or ideally should be, the basis for all of a society.” Politics is no longer primarily a negotiation of where the line between public and private falls, for neoliberalism “works to erase this line between public and private and to create an entire society — in fact, an entire world — based on private, market competition. . . . Consequently, contemporary politics take shape around questions of how best to promote competition.”
Clapp’s book is titled Naming Neoliberalism: Exposing the Spirit of Our Age. But you might imagine it renamed, à la Patrick Deneen’s bestseller, Why Neoliberalism Failed. Like Deneen, Clapp wants to draw critical attention to what is hiding in plain sight. “What goes unnamed” in such circumstances “is the neoliberal framework that entraps us all.” Entrapment is the proper image for Clapp’s view: we are seduced and deceived by neoliberalism’s lure, but once we fall for the trick, we’re stuck. And the consequences are comprehensive: “Neoliberalism has transformed us — heart, body, and soul.”
Clapp is uninterested, however, in merely naming neoliberalism: many writers and scholars have already done that. He wants to name it as a Christian. That is, he wants to reveal neoliberalism for what it is in theological perspective, and to propose a specifically theological alternative. He thinks this task crucial because neoliberalism can be neither fully understood nor adequately opposed without reference to God, specifically the gospel of the incarnate God, Jesus Christ, and his people, the church.
Here Clapp makes an important decision. The exposure of neoliberalism he undertakes is quite literal: it is an apocalypse. That word is a transliteration of the Greek term meaning “revelation” or “unveiling.” It is native, in other words, to Christian faith and theology. And it works in both directions. It is a negative move on the part of Christian prophets and teachers by which the wickedness of the world is unmasked, seen and named for what it is. Thus St. John speaks not of Nero but of the Beast, not of Rome but of the Whore of Babylon (Rev 13; 17–19). In this the Seer is in good company; such symbolics place him in the line of prophets like Daniel.
Likewise, though in a different register, St. Paul speaks not of Pontius Pilate or Emperor Claudius, but of “the rulers of this age” (1 Cor 2:6, 8) and, perhaps most influentially, of the “elemental spirits” (4:3, 9; Col 2:8, 20), the “principalities and powers” (cf. Rom 8:38; Eph 3:10; 6:12; Col 1:16; 2:15) that govern and structure the fallen world as we know it. This is apocalyptic speech. It pulls back the curtain to show the believer the truth of things — what is really going on behind the artifice of mere flesh and blood, laws and nations. But it is also a positive move, telling us of the ways and works of the Lord in history. Within and behind and above the earthly there is simultaneously a heavenly war being waged against the forces of Satan. And in Christ the battle is joined by God himself.
Such, at any rate, is the imagery and idiom of apocalyptic. Contemporary biblical scholars and theologians like J. Louis Martyn, Douglas Campbell, Cyril O’Regan, and Philip Ziegler have found in apocalyptic an energizing and useful reservoir of language and concepts with which to describe the gospel, the church, and their vocation in the world. Clapp follows their lead by deploying apocalyptic in laser-like fashion against the principality and power that is neoliberalism. His hope is at once modest and audacious: to open our eyes, and thereby (in a Pauline paraphrase) to “be transformed by the renewing of [our] imaginations.” For “[i]t is only by such transformation that we may escape the suffocation, the drowning of neoliberalism, which surrounds and interpenetrates the workings of our present world like an amorphous and enormous octopus.”
The plan of the book is straightforward. The first three chapters introduce the reader to liberalism, neoliberalism, and apocalyptic, respectively. The remaining four chapters proceed as a series of contrasts, framed by a formula: “Freed from . . ., Freed for . . .” The contrast is between the economy of the market and the economy of grace; whereas the former only, or ostensibly, supplies negative freedoms (the government, as we say, “can’t tell me” how to worship, where to live, whom to marry, or what to think), the latter both liberates from evil and imparts the good. Think of the Lord’s message to Pharaoh through Moses: “Let me people go” — where we usually end the quote — “so that they may worship me” (Exod 8:1). Israel is delivered from slavery and thereupon conducted to Sinai, where they covenant with YHWH and receive the Law, before marching to Zion, to receive the gift of the promised land. The same dynamic obtains in the new covenant. The baptized are saved from the tyranny of sin and death for life in the Spirit, the righteousness of faith, and discipleship to Christ. Or in the words of Colossians 1:13-14: “He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”
Clapp offers four emancipatory contrasts: from the market, for covenant; from nationalism, for catholicity; from the exploitation of nature, for solidarity with creation; from the fear of death, for life as gift. He concludes with an extended epilogue reflecting on what this vision entails for daily life in the church, referring the reader to the riches of the church’s tradition and suggesting tangible practices of worship, service, and beauty for implementation in a time of societal crisis and polarization.
Considering what Clapp has done in this book, I must admit that I am of two minds. It is a truly impressive achievement. Across the last thirty years there may be no popular Christian writer as accessible, winsome, and attuned to the latest in theological scholarship as Clapp, certainly among those who are neither academics nor pastors. He is light on his feet but never unclear and always substantive. Though he can spit fire when he wants to, he rarely picks fights for the fun of it. He’s a pop culture–friendly Hauerwasian Episcopalian who loves the American church, yearns to see it follow Christ, and pitches as big a tent as he can to see the job done. If the public-spirited Protestant mainline is a thing of the past, Clapp is a welcome throwback.
All his typical virtues are on display in Naming Neoliberalism. His command of the relevant literature is confident but unshowy; his prose is crisp even when speaking of dense subject matter. Here he is glossing Pauline apocalyptic:
“The economy or plan of history shows and is enacted in the great ministry of Jesus Christ, by God’s timing. History spikes and, as if under a flash X-ray, displays its defining skeletal outline via the overcoming light of Christ. History’s consummation has arrived and will be completed at the parousia.”
This is writing of and for the church; it’s something pastors can sink their teeth into. God knows this country is full of Christian ministers who could use a guide to thinking about political economy and, within that economy, how to shepherd their flocks into evangelical fidelity.
And yet. The book doesn’t quite work for me. Let me explain why that is.
To begin, I am less enamored of apocalyptic than is Clapp. The particular construal of the gospel at work in Clapp’s argument comes from Galatians, Ephesians, and parts of Colossians, Romans, and 1 Corinthians. That’s about it. There’s no denying that those texts are apocalyptic, in multiple respects, and that their apocalypticism has something significant to contribute to Christian understanding of and speech about God and the gospel of God. But when I read apocalyptic theology, it invariably crowds out, rather than welcomes, other modalities, other idioms, other ways of portraying the work of God in Christ — even other books of the Bible. Apocalyptic is a master discourse. It subsumes and overwhelms all other biblical, moral, and theological approaches, for the simple reason that it sees them as rivals rather than partners in articulating the good news. In this masterful mode, however, apocalyptic macerates rather than enriches faith and theology. It shrinks them down to size, even as it claims a cosmic scale. As a result, while granting its many virtues and the good uses to which Clapp puts them, I nevertheless regret his singular reliance on apocalyptic.
This overdetermination lends itself, in any case, to a kind of rhetorical sleight of hand. Is it really fair to compare and contrast the market economy with the divine economy? By “fair” I don’t mean that Clapp should take it easy on neoliberalism. I mean: Neoliberalism is a human social arrangement. The economy of salvation enacted in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection is very much not a human social arrangement. If the gospel is true, then in every possible comparison between it and anything made by humans, not least under conditions of sin, the latter is going to look laughably meager, not to say wicked. All political economy is unjust in some form or fashion; this side of the kingdom, we can speak only of degrees of less or more injustice, not of a difference in kind between what is Unjust and what is Just. Shouldn’t we compare like with like?
By way of response, perhaps Clapp would say the following. First, that the apocalypse of God in Christ does reveal all human structures condemned, but that we need to hear this indictment as a precondition of our seeing the world (including neoliberalism) for what it is: judged and found wanting. Second, that the comparison is not wholly like with unlike, for the unlikeness of the kingdom is found, however proleptically, in the likeness of the church. Agreed on both counts. But the problem here, as Clapp well knows, is just how short the actual church falls before its calling as a sacrament of God’s reign. Clapp sometimes partakes of a certain Hauerwasian grammar, whereby the indicative is used to describe what the church ought to be but is not (yet). Call it the eschatological indicative. Such language can function prophetically, calling the church to enact its baptismal and pentecostal identity, whatever its past or present failings. But it can also mystify the facts on the ground. Those facts are plainly put: The American church is in tatters. Our witness is shredded, our integrity a joke, our children bereft of a heritage and leaving the faith in droves. Reading Clapp’s book, at least until I reached the restraint of the epilogue, I simply did not recognize in his rhetoric the church as it currently exists. The rot, neoliberal and otherwise, runs deep. I want to amen the confidence of Clapp’s homiletic. But mostly I just find myself sighing in lament and anguish.
Part of that resignation comes from a lacuna in Clapp’s argument. For him, the four horsemen of the neoliberal apocalypse are the unrestrained market, the despoliation of the environment, the fever of nationalism, and the denial of death. The spheres of life in which neoliberalism holds sway, in other words, are economic, ecological, political, and medical. Clapp is surely right about that. But I was surprised by those issues that did not feature in the book: digital technology, surrogacy, abortion, euthanasia, suicide, drug addiction, loneliness, pornography. I don’t mean to imply that Clapp should have made sure to shovel into the book every social problem under the sun. I mean that the book gives the impression of confronting only one-half of the crisis facing the church. Progressives will nod along with most everything Clapp writes, while conservatives will nod at some and not at others, wondering where the rest is. But if neoliberalism is an octopus, its tentacles reach across party lines. Its genius is keeping us divided, even as it corrupts whatever it touches, on both sides. Until we can see that, there will be no escaping its grasp.
Perhaps the most curious aspect of the book is its silence about natural law. That silence is neither curious nor surprising, I should say, given the priority of apocalyptic to the argument. Apocalyptic is ordinarily a supercharged Protestant project, with Luther and Barth as exemplars. It attends exclusively to revelation, that is, the person of Christ attested in the book of Scripture, not in the book of nature. For apocalyptic presupposes a corruption of our minds and wills as well as of the wider creation so extensive that none of them can be trusted apart from the light of God’s grace— a light that illumines but also shatters, remaking the whole from top to bottom.
So far, so coherent. The curious part is enlisting apocalyptic in the service of ecology. In particular, Clapp wants us not only to appreciate the cosmic scope of the redemption wrought in Christ but to “relearn how to hear creation’s voice,” that is, to begin again to listen to nature speak. Well, the church has a long tradition of doing just that, observing the intrinsic and rational order of God’s good creation, which includes ourselves, and drawing moral and theological conclusions for our common life, both civic and ecclesial. But so far as I can tell, apocalyptic in general and in Clapp’s hands believes, as Martyn puts it, that “the structure of the original creation has been set aside.” This amounts to a “cosmic refashioning,” in the words of John Barclay, with human beings (and presumably others) “forged ex nihilo” as new creatures. Clapp draws the logical conclusion: “The apocalyptic new creation is no mere adjustment or enhancement of preexisting life. It has been called into being out of nothing with no precedent.”
What to say in reply? I have never been able to make heads or tails of this analogous deployment of “ex nihilo” language. The very phrase means absolute discontinuity: God created the world from nothing, which is to say, not from anything at all; God is the sole antecedent condition of the existence of all that is not God. (That is just what it means to be a creature.) Yet when this language is repurposed in apocalyptic discursive contexts, as here, it is always followed by the caveat that there is continuity between our old and new selves and between the fallen and the redeemed creation. Perhaps I am missing something, but my suspicion is that this is overheated rhetoric in search of a stable concept.
But never mind that. I want to know: What does it mean to “listen to nature” according to this perspective? Is creation fallen or unfallen, set aside or restored, partially redeemed or entirely new? Are rocks and trees, gravity and atoms, insects and viruses different today, in light of Christ’s work, compared to, say, the time of Socrates? Are they different in empirically measurable ways? Or are they unchanged, while we (now, having been changed in Christ) are able to “listen” to them? If so, is the Christian natural law tradition thus a valid way — perhaps one among many such ways, not least the scientific — to go about that task of listening? Is listening to creation, anyway, a specifically Christian practice or merely a human one?
In my judgment, apocalyptic rhetoric is over its skis on this topic. The point remains that God’s creation is good, that it is included in God’s saving work in Christ by the Spirit, and that Christians ought to find concrete means of improving their relationships with their fellow creatures, whether those be non-human animals, the land, air, and sea, or the wider habitat as a whole. I wonder, though, what apocalyptic adds to this picture. In fact, I sometimes wonder what Christians uniquely have to add to projects and theories of environmental health and repair.
Be that as it may. These questions and criticisms are not meant to overshadow what Clapp has accomplished in this work. He has put his finger on the problem, or rather his whole hand, and ripped the mask off the monster. He has named the thing for what it is. The result is a wonderfully engaging and vital read for pastors and Christian scholars looking for direction in a politically fraught time. As I have said more than once, the epilogue to the book is a sober, realistic appraisal of and exhortation to the church as it is, in the world as it is. Clapp writes there that, “[i]f neoliberalism continues unnamed and unimpeded, the future holds gross inequality and precarity for more and more of the population.” But it also “holds a Christianity that exists in increasingly commodified and distorted forms as a capitalistic parasite.” In this admirable ecclesial realism, Clapp follows Hauerwas once again, this time out of lofty rhetoric into the quotidian realities of Christian life. As Hauerwas himself once remarked, “in a hundred years, if Christians are known as a strange group of people who don’t kill their children and don’t kill the elderly, we will have done a great thing. I mean, that may not sound like much, but I think it is the ultimate politic.” Such a vision is far from triumphalist. But it is achievable, by grace. Might Christians also be known in centuries to come as a people in peculiar solidarity with the widow, the orphan, the stranger — even the earth? Clapp is right to hope so. If his book induces the church to pray for that future, who knows? The Spirit just might answer.
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- For a more detailed but equally sympathetic critique of apocalyptic, see Robert Jenson’s essay “On Dogmatic/Systematic Appropriation of Paul-According-to-Martyn,” originally published in Apocalyptic and the Future of Theology: With and Beyond J. Louis Martyn, ed. Joshua B. Davis and Douglas Harink (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2012), 154–61; the piece is now gathered in Jenson, The Triune Story: Collected Essays on Scripture, ed. Brad East (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), 335–41. ↑