Joshua Ramey, Politics of Divination: Neoliberal Endgame and the Religion of Contingency. London: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2016. 193 pp. ISBN: 978-1783485536.
Reviewed by Adam Kotsko, Shimer Great Books School, North Central College.
Critics of finance in the neoliberal age tend to take one of two approaches. The first, reformist approach emphasizes the elements of contemporary finance that are innovative and excessive with regard to previous, tamer eras—most notably the postwar era, whose stricter regimes of regulation are put forward as models to which we should return. The second, more radical critique, most often associated with Marxism, highlights the continuity between contemporary finance and capitalism in all its forms. Hence, the problem is not that neoliberal finance has deviated from the capitalist norm; the problem is the norm itself. For all of their profound differences, these two approaches are united in their focus on the modern West, which most authors take to be so self-evident a starting point that they almost never explicitly justify the framing.
In this context, Joshua Ramey’s Politics of Divination is a radical departure. Far from contextualizing neoliberalism as a deviation from the postwar norm or the logical outcome of the past several centuries of capitalist development, Ramey characterizes neoliberal ideology and contemporary financial practices “as rooted in the archaic and perennial problem of how to meaningfully interpreted the deliverances of chance.” More specifically, they represent “a perverse and disavowed colonization of archaic divination rites, the rituals through which human cultures, on the basis of chance, have perennially sought for more-than-human knowledge.” (vii) Far from being new or modern, then, neoliberal finance is a version—albeit a particularly destructive and undesirable one—of something that has been with us from time immemorial.
A recent point of comparison for Ramey’s approach is David Graeber’s Debt: The First Five-Thousand Years. Here again, we are dealing with a book that breaks with the debate between reformists, for whom the contemporary explosion of debt is a contingent deviation from the postwar norm, and radicals, who view the debt economy as intrinsic to the dynamics of capitalism. Graeber takes a broader perspective, which allows him, like Ramey, to interpret our contemporary experiences with debt as a variation on a perennial human theme. With this commonality in mind, however, the differences between the two works become all the more striking. First, and most obviously, Ramey’s slim volume does not attempt anything like Graeber’s encyclopedic, world-historical treatment of debt. Instead, we get brief, almost fragmentary vignettes from various cultures and times, all oriented toward the understanding of the neoliberal moment. Second, whereas Graeber has clear methodological commitments, approaching his topic from a broadly anthropological or history-of-religions perspective (including deployment of categories like the “Axial Age”), Ramey’s study is much more eclectic. Though one can detect a certain “center of gravity” in continental philosophy, he draws selectively on sources from a wide range of disciplines and periods.
After a brief preface, Ramey turns in his first chapter, “Within the Endgame,” to the complex relationship between knowledge and chance in a society where “markets have swallowed up more and more of social life” (1), but without delivering the promised benefits to the majority of the population. In an attempt to account for how the faith in markets can persist, Ramey turns to the “perennial and global” phenomenon of divination, which share with neoliberal markets the “attempt to access knowledge of the unknown.” From this perspective, “[t]he entrepreneur and the financial arbitrageur are those whose role has become that of our master diviners: our seers, oracles, and keepers of the keys to nonknowledge.” (5) This latter point is important, because as Ramey points out, the market runs precisely on risk, which is to say on the chances we take on outcomes that are not only unknown but unknowable by anyone. By claiming privileged access to the realm of the unknowable, neoliberal ideologues and financiers are unwittingly occupying the place of the diviner in traditional societies.
The second chapter, “We Have Always Been Giants,” aims to demonstrate that divination has always been a site of political contestation. Using Vico’s account of the conflicts in early Roman society, he argues that what is at stake in practices of divination is not only economic outcomes but power, authority, and prestige. In this narrative, the more powerful faction of nobles or “giants” developed divination to shore up their power, and the lower classes subsequently attempted to claim that cultural-religious authority for themselves. Though this chapter is a much-needed corrective to the widespread misconception that neoliberalism is a purely economic as opposed to political phenomenon (a view most stridently embraced by Wendy Brown in Undoing the Demos), the specific form it takes was surprising and even puzzling: why is a reading of an early modern writer’s speculations about Roman society the best way to get at this point? More importantly, why does it warrant such a large amount of space in a very short book—especially given that Ramey devotes virtually no space to contemporary anthropological accounts of divinatory practices?
Ramey begins his third chapter, “Divining Neoliberal Order,” with a brief overview of divination practices. After repeating his assertion that divination seems “to name some generic, even universal dimension of human culture, a tradition-bound mode of taking chance seriously” and that “it seems no culture on record has gone without some form of” divination” (49), he goes on to talk about the equally perennial qualms people have had with divination. There has always been a thin line between the diviner and the charlatan, between divining and gambling, between (meaningful) chance and (indifferent) probability. What Ramey suggests is that the neoliberal agenda of marketizing society has preempted all those debates through its authoritarian assertion of control over the unknown. No one but the market participant can meaningfully participate in paradoxical knowledge of the unknown that neoliberalism promises: “In fact the entire point of entrusting ourselves to markets, according to Hayek, is that the future cannot be predicted, let alone controlled. We need the God (or genie) of the Market to whom to entrust our fates.” (58) In this context, Ramey draws an intriguing connection with Schmitt’s theory of sovereignty (59) and the preemptive wars that it has underwritten (64), arguing—contrary to many analysts of neoliberalism, such as Brown and David Harvey—that such phenomena are natural outgrowths of neoliberal logic.
In the following chapter, “Random Chance Providential,” Ramey connects the dynamics of divination to theological concepts of providence, which are widely viewed as supplying the conceptual roots of modern economic thinking (as in Mark C. Taylor’s Confidence Games and Giorgio Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory). He emphasizes that even the most fully-developed theories of providence seemingly cannot dispense with chance, focusing on the specific case of rabbinic responses to the passages in the Torah that call for casting lots. This rabbinic stance provides a point of both comparison and contrast to the neoliberal order of chance, showing the latter’s hidden presuppositions while also showing it to be constricting and self-undermining.
The fifth chapter, “Risking Derivative Politics,” is among the most ambitious in a very ambitious book. After fleshing out his previous claim that the neoliberal approach to chance supplies the underlying logic for the national security state and aggressive policing, Ramey boldly dives into the weeds of concrete market practices, particularly the trading of derivatives. What emerges is a rich philosophical reflection on the paradoxical nature of prices, which are called upon to carry out the following duties within the market system:
Price is supposed to be both unforeseeable and dependent upon the previous price series. Prices have to both transcribe and create a conjunction between spontaneity and order. Price becomes the ultimate “index” of contingency, since prices simultaneously emerge from and produce evaluations. (119, original emphasis)
In this contradictory environment, market outcomes depend on daring and charisma, not on data and formulas. A genuine risk carries its own authority with it, and like an act of divination such an unexpectedly successful trade retrospectively creates the past that makes it appear necessary. (123)
The concluding chapter, “Decolonizing Divination,” revisits a number of themes from earlier in the book with the aim of exposing the unconscious “colonization” of the space of divination by neoliberalism. His most concrete gestures in this direction stem from an engagement with the work of Appadurai and Viveiros de Castro to suggest a new model of personhood centered not on the Western individual, but on what he calls the “dividual,” which results after we “creatively de-individuate.” (147) The bulk of the chapter, however, is devoted to a lengthy engagement with Wendy Brown’s Undoing the Demos, which castigates her for an insufficiently feminist approach to neoliberalism. Both the discussion of Brown and the specific form it takes appear to be a total non-sequitur relative to what had come before, blunting the impact of Ramey’s conclusion.
To be fair, however, Ramey is not really aiming at a conclusion in this book, at least not in any narrow sense. Politics of Divination clearly does not aspire to be a definitive treatise, but rather to open up a new and unforeseen path for research. I do have serious questions about Ramey’s approach even within these terms—above all his decision to forego any systematic exposition of divination practices and instead to treat them as somehow already known—but overall it is undeniably successful in its core aims. Ramey has discovered a research project that could be a genuine life’s work. We should all hope that he is able to continue down the path he has traced out here.