In Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty claims that his work is as much that of history as it is of economics. He considers Capital a call for the field to “get over its childish passion for mathematics,” and reengage more broadly with the social sciences.[1] He hopes for a return to the more expansive work of classical economic theory, where science, history, and moral philosophy were spun together, lending striking new conceptions of human society and possibility. Piketty’s project, however, only gestures in that direction; it adds a measure of history to economic study but stays largely on familiar ground. Still those questions—of the meaningfulness of history, of the potential for hope, of the limits and possibilities of human society—peek through the seams of Piketty’s text.

Contemporary political theology begins with a genealogy, a historical journey that traces how theological concepts and commitments lie under the surface of our secular institutions and cultures. The nation state, for example, secularized the medieval mystical body of Christ, forming an organic (hierarchical) social whole, with the state claiming the mantle of headship once borne by the monarch. Today it is (arguably) the market which claims our most absolute devotion; Smith’s invisible hand secularizes the providential hand of God, granting prosperity through its inscrutable methods, which we must take on faith. As Joreg Rieger traces in No Rising Tide, today’s neoliberal capitalism stands on robust faith commitments. Like any religion, it carries strong anthropological claims—homo economicus, the rational, self-interested, utility-maximizing model of humanity. The specific tenets of this faith are familiar: that economic deregulations promote growth, that tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy spur the economy, and that wealth gathered at the top eventually trickles down. While Piketty takes aim at some of these tenets (e.g. the rising tide of economic inequality, now become a violent wave because of r > g), he ignores others; the tacit theological commitments of neoliberal capitalism are carried over, maintained—twisted—in Piketty’s own constructive vision.

We see hints of a secular theology throughout Piketty’s work. For instance, he claims that he “would like to see justice achieved effectively and efficiently under the rule of law, which should apply equally to all and derive from universally understood statutes subject to democratic debate.”[2] Likewise, Piketty’s desire to bring about wealth convergence through a global tax on capital is theological and ethical, a claim about value. Yet this theology, while challenging the distribution of wealth does not question the telos of wealth, the goals of such accumulation. In other words, Piketty critiques our decisions to value or not value certain people, but does not address the critical importance of one’s abstract values and how they might undergird ethical economic decisions at the level of the particular.

 

If we turn to utopian visions grounded in the particular, animated by a theology “from below,” quotidian life becomes a crucial site for the experimental play of alternate socioeconomic possibilities.

 

Recognizing the unspoken, and thereby unexamined, theological content of Capital presses us to more boldly ask theological questions. Piketty’s proposals contain a kind of utopian hope, a seemingly impossible reworking of global institutional power. This is not necessarily problematic; utopian dreaming is theologically and politically crucial. But a theological vision critical of a transcendent, omnipotent, and dominating God-construct—and thus a politics orchestrated from on high—opens us up to new questions and possibilities. Piketty’s utopian visions follow an historical instinct in political theology and philosophy to respond to lived injustice through universal and universalizing solutions. But if we turn to utopian visions grounded in the particular, animated by a theology “from below,” quotidian life becomes a crucial site for the experimental play of alternate socioeconomic possibilities. Helpful here is the queer utopianism proposed by the late José Muñoz. According to Muñoz, “Queerness is essentially about the rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality or concrete possibility for another world.”[3] In other words, queerness is the demand that things might be otherwise (a reevaluation of the value of values), but it is also an embodied practice in which this ‘otherwise’ can be made manifest in the present. This utopian vision undergirds a queer refusal to accept life as it is currently defined by heteronormative society. Additionally, drawing on Ernst Bloch’s concept of “concrete utopias,” Muñoz insisted on the quotidian performance of the utopian sensibility, one lived out in communities such the queer punk scene, in which artists like Vaginal Davis perform another world.

Hence, this queer utopia asks us to go beyond, beside, and around state-sponsored policy changes so that utopianism may retain its critical potential. It questions the worship of (re)productivity which animates both capitalist and many socialist faiths. It is a practice resonant with the anti-work politics of Kathi Weeks, who has sought to divorce worth from work, value from efficiency.[4] This critique of productivism can be a source of a radical economic dream that seeks not only greater access to work, but also our freedom from work. A post-work imaginary demands that attention be paid and worth assigned to the needs, agencies, and bodies of all people regardless of their productivity, or the efficiency of their labor. Concrete utopias can loose the value of our flesh and blood from the demand for efficiency, and entangle us in a counter-capitalist, queer relationality. Hence a post-work ethic is a source for a universalist theology from below, one which holds the inherent worth of all beings at the core of its rationale. Flesh and blood in and of themselves contain ultimate value. This is a theology lived out in Muñoz’s utopian performances, in that they proclaim that worth need not be found merely at the barista counter or in the boardroom, but can be shaped in arenas temporally and spatially divorced from the daily grind of capitalist living.

 

I agree that Piketty’s model is not enough—it is not utopian enough.

 

Concrete “post-work” policy proposals, like Weeks’ call for a thirty-hour work-week and a guaranteed income, may be just as impractical as Piketty’s global tax. But, as Muñoz has reminded us, truly radical utopianism is not about practicality, but rather practices of dreaming and refusal in the face of the despair of the present. Whether this is the dream of a universalist God or one nurtured on the ground by queer subcultures, it must be lived out through a life of faith, through concrete utopian actors, who in refusing to go with the neoliberal flow perform economic alternatives that help us to move past a redistribution of wealth and into a revolution of value.

In his recent critique of Capital, David Harvey has noted that Piketty’s remedies are “naive if not utopian,” and argues that if we are to produce a working model of capital we will need Marx or his modern-day equal. I agree that Piketty’s model is not enough—it is not utopian enough. Piketty’s model fails to abandon monetary wealth as the value of values, and so traps us in what Philip Goodchild has called the ‘eschatological judgment of money.’ If we are to break free of this trap, we will have to loose our value from what we might have in the future, in order to embrace who we might be if we dare to live in the present: to live as though this world could be otherwise.


Karen Bray is a doctoral candidate at Drew University and an adjunct professor at the New School. Her research concerns postsecular theology, affect theory, and queer temporality.

 

[1] Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2014), 32.

[2] Ibid., 31.

[3] José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press, 2009).

[4] Kathi Weeks, The Problem of Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).

Image from Flickr via vijarvinen.

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