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Sovereign Power, Bare Life and Oikonomia
'I would suggest to anyone who really wants to understand what is happening today not to neglect theology.' This deals with Foucault, religion, economy, and the glorification of market mystery.

By Giorgio Agamben

Editor's Note: Below is a rough translation of an interview with Giorgio Agamben by Gianluca Sacco, translated by BMN from the Italian version. The ideas discussed here may have particular relevance for what at this website we call a "free society," a social space free from dominance by either government or modern mechanical economy, what Agamben may be pointing to here with the concept of oikonomia. The interview was conducted after a confernce on Walter Benjamin held in Rome at the end of last year during which Giorgio Agamben presented a paper that anticipates some results of his current research on ‘economic theology’. The interview took place at Agamben’s house in Rome on Monday, March 8, 2004.

See a discussion of Agamben's ideas related to the recent financial breakdown by Claudio Minca at a journal for Society and Space, which speaks about the invisible hand of market economics as an empty space of magic and mystery which is, though anarchic, never-the-less glorified as transcendent.


* Giorgio Agamben, your last book State of Exception, published less than a year ago, locates itself within the project of Homo Sacer, your work from the mid-1990s that deals with themes of ‘sovereign power’, ‘bare life’, and the ‘concentration camp’ as the nomos of the modern. A complex work that positions itself in the wake of the thematics and methodologies of Foucault. Does your new research on economic theology place itself on this same horizon?

I see my work as definitely close to Foucault. In my last two projects on the ‘state of exception’ and ‘economic theology,’ I sought to apply the same genealogical and paradigmatic method practiced by Foucault. On the other hand, Foucault worked in many areas, but the two that he left out were precisely the law and theology. It seemed natural for me to address my two latest studies in this direction.

* How then did you come to rediscover this ‘disavowed’ concept of economic theology and when did you decide to make it ‘paradigmatic’ for your research?

I found the impetus for the research in the studies I was doing for the last few years on Schmitt and his Political Theology and in particular in my exploration of the debate between Carl Schmitt and Erik Petersen, which took place more or less from 1935 through to 1970.

I was working on the same theologians (the early apologetics, Justinius, Ignatius, and Tertullian) that Petersen analysed in his book on monotheism (in order to redsicover the origins of the political theology that he wanted to criticise). I realised that at the centre of these texts were not only and not so much the concepts of monarchy and political theology that Petersen wanted to reconstruct but another concept: oikonomia. It was a curious fact that every time this concept appeared Petersen interrupted the citation. Rereading these texts, I asked myself why this concept was being removed. In this way, I realised that the concept of oikonomia was central for these authors and I tried to construct a genealogy for it.

Immediately it became clear to me that from christian theology there derive two political paradigms (in the wide sense): political theology, which locates in the one God the transcedence of sovereign power, and economic theology, which substitutes the idea of oikonomia, conceived as an immanent order—domestic and not political in the strict sense, as much a part of human as of divine life. From political theology derives the political philosophy and modern theory of sovereignty; from economic theology derives modern biopolitics, up until the current triumph of the economy over every aspect of social life.

The book I am writing was born with this realisation. I have tried to reconstruct the origin of the theological concept of oikonomia, and then, in the second part, to follow its disappearance and secularisation in the modern. It seems to me that at a certain point this concept disappeared and reemerged with the birth of animal economy and political economy in the 18th century.

* So you are in open disagreement with the univocal attention given by both Petersen and Schmitt to the connection between theology and politics. An attention so particular as to be suspect. But in your opinion were they aware of this removal of oikonomia from the theological horizon?

Undoubtedly! The theological culture of Petersen was vast and it is unthinkable that he would avoid the problem. He interrupts the citations, in Tertullian for example, exactly when the word oikonomia occurs. Schmitt, on his part, saw clearly what he called the triumph of the economy and the depoliticisation of the world that it implied in modernity; but for him it was strategically important to deny that this development had a theological aspect. Not only because this would have meant giving a license of theological nobility to economics, but also and above all because it would have put in question the very theological-political paradigm that was close to his heart.

* Let’s return to the beginning of your reconstructive research and to the concept of oikonomia censored by Petersen but used precisely in patristic theology. The natural reference would seem to be to Aristotle, even if his concept is very different from the current significance of economy. But what notion did the early church fathers have of it?

Obviously the term oikonomia used by these theologians was the same as Aristotle’s, which in Greek described first of all the administration of the household. But the oikos, the Greek household, was a complex organism with different interwined relations, stretching from family ties in the strictest sense to master-slave relations and the management of agricultural enterprises of often large dimensions. What holds these relations together is a paradigm that we can define as ‘managerial’: it is a system that is neither held down by a set of norms nor constitutes an episteme. It is a science in its own right but one that requires different decisions and dispositions to confront specific problems. In this sense, a correct translation of the term oikonomia would be, as Lidell-Scott suggests, management.

* But why did the early church fathers need this concept?

The need arose during the 2nd century with the emergence of what later (with the Councils of Nice and Constantinople) would become the dogma of the trinity. The fathers who began to elaborate the trinity had before them the so called monarchists, who held that God was one and that by introducing the other two divine figures there was a risk of falling into polytheism. The problem was how to reconcile the trinity, from which they could not back away, with monarchism or monotheism, which was also unrenouncable. Oikonomia was the concept, the instrument or organ that rendered possible this conception and transition. The reasoning is simple: as much as God is one in his essence and his nature, he can, in the management of his oikonomia, oikos or household, have a son and divide himself in three. The managerial paradigm of the oikos is what renders possible the reconcilation of the trinity and monotheism.

* What are the implications of this terminological choice?

For Aristotle oikos and polis are opposites and economy and politcs are separate like the house is distinct from the city, that is, in a substantial and not a quantitative way. In Xenophon it is already different. In the Stoics the two concepts tend to become indeterminate. What is interesting, from my point of view, is that the christian theologians make the concept of oikonomia the essential theological paradigm. The question that spontaneously sprung up at this point was: why do theologians understand divine life and the divine government of the earth as an economy and not as politics?

* You said before that at a certain point this economic reference disappears from the trinitarian concept, why?

The reasons are obvious even if they are never explicit. By the time of Nice and the grand councils, we see the development of a sophisticiated theological-philosophical vocabulary, like the concept of homoousia, the unity of substance. Oikonomia, which was the initial paradigm in which the trinity was thought, became a kind of pundenda origo that had to be put aside.

* What we are recovering then is a history of theological ideas that at a certain point abandons the clear reference to the oikonomia of the trinity. But when does it reemerge? Do we have to wait for Schelling, as you suggested briefly at the conference on Benjamin, or does it reappear, if only rhapsodically, in other periods and historical contexts?

Part of the work I want to do is to reconstruct this intermediate phase. Because what happens is that at a certain point the concept of oikonomia becomes confounded with that of pronoia or providence. With Clement of Alexandria the fusion has already taken place. Clement clearly says that oikonomia would be irrational and absurd if if did not take the form of a divine providence that guides history.

And here the discourse becomes, in my opinion, very interesting. It has been said many times that the ancients had a cyclical view of time, while the conception of history, philosopy and christian theology is linear. With Clement and Origen, when we see born the first embryo of a christian conception of history, it presents itself, with a singular reversal of a Pauline expression, as a ‘mystery of the economy’. History is thus a mysterious economy, a divine mystery that is the object of the christian revelation, and that man must therefore attempt to decipher. Hegel (and Marx after him) will not do anything but pick up this paradigm to definitively reveal the mystery.

* Have you already had the time to verify that in the texts of Hegel, for instance in the early theological writings, there is in some sense a reference to the theological-economic mystery of history?

I think you can say that the difference between Hegel and Schelling is two different ways of understanding the theological heritage of oikonomia.

* But to close the Hegelian parentheses, and returning to history as an economic mystery, what remains particularly interesting about this concept?

On the one hand, it is basically through this mystery of economy that the first embryo of a concept of the history of christianity appears. On the other hand, divine life as much as the divine governance of the world and the course of history reveal that this divine plan of the world is an economy and not a politics. As I said before, what is significant is that an economic theology and not a political theology derives from christian theology. Political theology can affirm itself only by suspending economic theology: thus the Schmittian doctrine of kat-echon, which is a suspension or dilation of the economic plane that rules the world. According to Schmitt, political theology can found itself only through a deferral or dilation of the economy.

* In this way we arrive at the modern concept of economy that Weber, in a certain sense, found to have a theological origin in his well-known work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. But before asking you about the century that has just passed, I want to ask if you have also confronted the relations between ethics, economy, and theology in Spinoza, particularly in Tracatatus theologico politico.

This is a problem that I haven’t yet confronted. What I am quite certain about, however, is that the economic paradigm, which continued in a subterranean way throughout the medieval period, reappears in the 17th century with Leibnizian debate on the theodicy and in the 18th century with the emergence of animal economy. In the Encylopedia of Diderot and D’Alambert there are two distinct entries: political economy and animal economy. These are two things that have nothing to do with each other, since animal economy refers to medicine and natural science while political economy is close to our own notion of political economy. I believe I can demonstrate that animal economy derives from the paradigm of economic theology. And if you consider that the 18th century authors (Quesnay and the other physiocrats) who are at the beginning of political economy also wrote tracts of animal economy, it is possible to advance the hypothesis of a theological genealogy for the modern economy.

* In the Schmittian phraseology could you say that the modern economy is a secularisation of economic theology?

I don’t think that’s exactly right. What I am proposing is rather to reconstruct the often forgotten history of economic theology and to identify marks and traces of its influence upon the birth of political economy. Adam Smith’s notion of the ‘invisible hand’ is definitely one of these traces.

* At this point, having just cited Smith on the invisible hand and following your interpretation of providence, there springs to mind the analogy between the state of exception and the concept of the theological miracle perceived by Schmitt and taken up by Benjamin. Isn’t there a relation between this reference to the miracle, the state of exception and the paradigm of economic theology that seems to traverse theology, economics, and the politics of right?

Certainly. One of the results of my research on the state of exception was precisely the idea of a double structure to the juridical-political order of the West, which seemed based on both a normative and juridical element and an anomic and extra-juridical element. Economic theology, insofar as it is essentially a managerial and non-normative paradigm, is certainly part of the state of exception.

In this way the economy would then show its true face: the political mask is removed and the government of economy (or more precisely economic theology) appears. Can we define this process, following Schmitt’s terminology, as desecularisation: from the economy to theology? Or do the terms stay the same, with the economy doing nothing but taking the place of law and politics, where at base it always was?

Let’s say that the current dominance of the economy already had its paradigm in oikonomia. It is true that rule and governance were always intertwined in the past and that history is nothing but their intertwining. But from the start, at least from the theological viewpoint, what was dominant was the paradigm of government, economy, and divine life.

In philosophical terms, this corresponds to the division between an ontological paradigm (being, divine substance) and an absolutely pragmatic paradigm. The dominance of ontology has hidden the presence of the economic-pragmatic element, which has been just as important and perhaps in the end more decisive. Today the situation is reversed. But both elements are necessary for the functioning of the system.

* Staying within philosophical terms and in particular with early philosophy, is this a reappearance of the dichotomy between Plato and Aristotle?

It’s always difficult to trace things back. You can find everything in anything. But I would say that Aristotle bequeathes to the West first philosophy, ontology, and the doctrine of being. Plato is rather the progenitor of the ethos, of that which goes beyond being, of the pragmatic-political element.

* Returning for the moment to the Aristotelean oikonomia, I detected in the brief intervention you made at the Benjamin conference, an attempt to interpret the essence of capitalism that, beginning with the concepts of master and slave in Aristotle’s Politics, finishes today with a kind of ‘immamentisation’ of this same economic theology.

To say that I am trying to reconstruct the essence of capitalism is definitely excessive. Certainly the idea of an immanent order is essential, and you find it also in ancient philosophy, from Aristotle to Xenophon. It is well known that the Greek economy was not an economy of production but the management of the household, of the order of things. The search for profit and earnings was outside of ancient economics. I think, though, that the idea of order that we are used to thinking of as secondary to the modern economy constitutes an essential presupposition that links ancient and modern economics. The theological paradigm respresents a kind of mediating element between them.

* To conclude, let’s reconsider the moniker of Gentili ‘Silete theologi munere alieno’ (theologians should mind their own business). At this point, should theology speak and in what regard?

I would suggest to anyone who really wants to understand what is happening today not to neglect theology.

One of the things that surprised me the most when I began to work on the problem of oikonomia is that I thought I could find volumes and volumes on the concept of economy in the theological libraries. But I found next to nothing. You need to read closely within the monographs on single authors to find the point analysed. It’s unbelievable but there is no global work on this concept.

In State of Exception, when I paraphrased the monkier of Alberico Gentili, I was provoking jurists to confront this juridical condition from their own viewpoint. Today I am inviting theologians to do the same, to confront as theologians the problem of oikonomia, the removal of which has had sinister consequences both in theology and politics.






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Date Added: 5/19/2010 Date Revised: 5/19/2010 2:28:22 PM

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