Neoliberalism and Postmodernity: contextualizing for HJ quests

Thanks to the work of, among others, Casey, Marsh, Allison and Fernando Bermejo Rubio, it is near impossible to accept the classification of different historical Jesus sub-quests (e.g. Old Quest, No Quest, New Quest, Third Quest). But rather than throw out chronology it can be redone much more obviously: reading scholarship in historical and cultural contexts. Some examples should be obvious (e.g. C19 great men, Nazi quest for Jesus, Bornkamm attacking Bolsheviks in a book on Jesus etc), some, especially anything contemporary, have been often avoided or misinterpreted to make scholars look better (I’m thinking primarily about the triumphant scholarly narrative of the contemporary emphasis on the ‘Jewishness’ of Jesus but there are others). The major political trends involving the impact of understandings about the Middle East on Jesus and NT scholarship have been discussed before (Jesus in an Age of Terror) so time for arguably the most influential ideological trend in most aspects of certainly Anglo-American culture over the past 40 years: neoliberalism. And here is a very brief summary…

Generally put, neoliberalism is about advocating individual property rights and free trade, promoting the private sector over the public sector, supporting deregulation of the market, challenging traditional manifestations of state power, urging virtually every aspect of human existence to be brought into the market, encouraging individual responsibility, downplaying systemic problems as a cause of individual failure, and emphasizing the importance of the market for the common good, human freedom, elimination of poverty and creation of wealth (all of which generally complement the rise of postmodernism).

In many ways this context is important for understanding postmodernity and this has been argued in different, but complementary, language. To take arguably the most famous example, we might alternatively follow Jameson and talk about postmodernism (with its emphasis on contingency, diversity, instability, eclecticism,  indeterminacy etc) from the late 60s onwards being the cultural logic of late capitalism. David Harvey (sorry Roland), who is one of the key analysts of neoliberalism, likewise points out (in terms he would later tie in more specifically with neoliberalism) that the aesthetic and intellectual forms of postmodernity came to the fore in the context of the crisis of accumulation that began in the late 1960s and came to a head in 1973. This led to a significant surface-level shift in the appearance of capitalist accumulation and a shift from the economic rigidity of the post-war Fordist–Keynesian consensus to the rise of what we now call neoliberalism. Greater flexibility of accumulation and labour paralleled, Harvey famously argued and clearly echoing Jameson, a shift from high modernism to postmodernism and a shift in cultural attitudes, consumption and practices since 1970.

There are, however, many tensions and seeming contradictions within neoliberalism. Its form of individual freedom involves personal liberty and rights but little in the way of any real power. Key decision makers tend to be unelected (e.g. IMF) and state intervention continues to play a major role. Challenging market dominance tends to be a freedom not so readily entertained. Propaganda, surveillance and force are used to suppress opposition to the market: just think of the ‘kettling’ tactic used by British police in the 2009 G20 demonstrations and the 2010 student protests. Certain forms of collective actions and interventions have been encouraged: nationalism, jingoism, imperialism and war taken up by neoliberal states to promote or provoke, directly or indirectly, neoliberalism (think of the Chile, the Falklands and Thatcher’s rise, or the Iraq war). This tension helps explain, in part, the emergence of the seemingly contradictory neoconservatism. Neoliberal economics can, therefore, emerge alongside authoritarianism.

This is more or less the standard Harvey line and a relatively uncontroversial summary of neoliberalism. In Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism, there are areas of disagreement with parts of the standard narrative (e.g. over the upheavals and significance of 1968, Marxism and opposition). And there is also something worth adding to this narrative of the rise of neoliberalism: liberal masking, deflecting and/or justification of power. Here we might echo, among many others, Žižek’s critiques (sorry Roland) which partly function as an attack on a postmodern penchant for praising displacements, reapplications read as potentially ‘subversive’, and replicating ever more ‘sites of resistance’ where the old story is simply being repackaged for a new age but now with added credibility.

Thanks Roland

And the examples are endless (though the following are perhaps a little different to Žižek’s examples). E.g. in the shadow of the invasion of Iraq, Levi’s Europe decided to embrace the popular anti-war feeling by releasing a limited edition teddy bear with a peace symbol on its ear, hardly an effective form of protest but certainly one which might aid Levi’s profits and give them a distinctive image in a large anti-Iraq war market in Europe. One of the high profile individuals was none other than Steve Jobs and his iProducts (not the boring PCs and BlackBerrys of the suits! But remember by whom the products were made…). Credible liberal support matters.

Or look at Obama’s famous 2009 speech in Cairo where he addressed America’s relationship with Arabs and Muslims past and present, using the Bible, Talmud and Qur’an, effortlessly harmonizing the Abrahamic religions under the vague term ‘God’ and the one rule that apparently transcends all: that ‘we do unto others as we would have them do unto us’. This was carried out whilst still talking about the proper path to follow (compare ‘with us or against us’) and when a certain Hosni Mubarak (remember him?) was still ruling Egypt.

Overall, this is a dominant ideological context and can help us understand all sorts of aspects of contemporary culture. The history of recent scholarship on the historical Jesus is one aspect which (conveniently enough) needs much more analysis.

In the meantime, here’s a nice overview of neoliberalism.

UPDATE: Robert Myles gives his own neoliberal summary. Well worth reading.

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2 responses to “Neoliberalism and Postmodernity: contextualizing for HJ quests

  1. Pingback: Neoliberalism and scholarship | Auckland Theology, Biblical Studies, et al

  2. Pingback: A few good links | eChurch Blog

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