The concept of political theology describes the theological genealogy of political legitimacy, the validation or justification of power over others in the equitable establishment of order, and the protection of freedom. As an idea, it is associated with Carl Schmitt, one of what Yvonne Stewart called ‘Hitler’s Philosophers’, an intellectual inheritance tainted by his association with and support for the Nazi party. Nevertheless, as an abstract concept, political theology helps us to deconstruct the nature of power, and trace its origins in legitimacy and the development of political order. Because as we have seen technology embeds politics, particularly and more aggressively as automation and AI proliferate, it has become important to consider whether technology itself has some divine provenance in its human construction.
In trying to construct a progressive, positive view of the future, and design political structures that facilitate such outcomes, there are many ideas. These are the ideas of political philosophy, but they are also the ideas of sociology, economics, psychology, art and literature. When we think of writers like Karl Marx, Ayn Rand, Sigmund Freud, James Joyce – all of them could in some sense be considered to have made significant contributions in several of those fields. My own attempts to understand State Legitimacy, how the state’s claim to legitimacy can be established and maintained, is in truth a combination of those things as well. Ultimately, all of these pursuits fall back on critical theory: that field of study that attempts to understand who we are as peoples, as cultures. The Italian Futurists, from the first half of the twentieth century, and the (new) accelerationists, from the first fifteen or so years of the twenty-first century, each had a vision. And each was in some ways nasty.
Iván Szelényi’s course on the Foundations of Modern Social Theory is a fascinating trip through some key thinkers, from political philosophers to economists, psychologists and more broadly based social scientists. If anything, perhaps, it shows how blurred the lines are between the disciplines; linking Marx, Nietzsche, Freud and Weber to me at least was not clear: Marx was either a political scientist or an economist; Nietzsche was an existentialist philosopher; Freud was a psychologist; and Weber a sociologist. Where they coalesce, Szelényi suggests, is that they are all critical theorists. They are concerned with consciousness, with what is in the mind. Giving voice to their common purpose, he said they are suggesting that ‘[w]hat is in your mind is not necessarily what you think it is. Let’s subject your consciousness to critical scrutiny.’ His heavily accented presentation is both compelling and dramatic, and the course is to be recommended, as is the Open Yale program in general. A fabulous educational resource.
The question of technology and our relationship to it is one that has preoccupied me for some time now. It is separate from us as a concept – technology is not, so to speak, human – and yet it is deeply intimate in so many ways, so much as to make us think that our existence is dependent on it, as is our identity; Winner’s formulation of technology as a Wittgensteinian form of life (as I wrote about in my recent thesis) appears to me to be an appropriate joining of the human being and our technology, like Kevin Kelly’s ‘technium’, a kind of skin. But just as it becomes more deeply insinuated into our lives, there is something discomfiting about it, something unnatural, something foreign. Something alien, perhaps.
We live in a perpetual reckoning. It’s a strange place in some respects, and not very forgiving. It’s a place where everything is counted, everything is measured, billed, quantified. I’m talking, of course, about the digital space that we inhabit today, where our politics and our societies function and grow, where our families meet, our groceries are procured, and our priests broadcast Mass.