Thursday, July 16, 2009

John Milbank on Socialism and Liberalism

I have not read much John Milbank except for a few scattered articles here and there and Theology and Social Theory twice (which is an insufficient number of times for anyone wishing to understand it).

However, I have been thinking about how Christians should think about contemporary politics for a while now and recently I noticed Halden Doerge worrying about Milbank's increasingly conservative position on sex, which some attribute to the influence of Pope Benedict XVI and others to growing up. Anyway, in the comment thread was a link to this Milbank essay "The Politics of Paradox" in Telos. In reading this essay I felt as though someone was reflecting back to me some of the thoughts I have recently written (some of which I have included in conference lectures that are to be published in a couple of upcoming books of essays).

It appears to me that Milbank is on a similar journey to the one I've been on for the past few years. I used to say that I was conservative in theology but liberal on social issues and I even got to the point of becoming slightly uncomfortable with the label "conservative." But over the past five years I have lost all confidence in anything leftwing at all and have come to view political and theological liberalism as two aspects of one reality. I have never been able to see that socialism and liberalism are really all that different from one another in their philosophical presuppositions, although many people view them as opposites. Socialism, insofar as it has anything to do with Marxist or other modern thinking, seems to me to be to share too many assusmptions with liberalism and can be subsumed under the heading "modernity" along with liberalism. (Pre-modern "socialism" seems to me to be a completely different animal and not usefully labelled "socialism" at all.) Contemporary Western democracies are moving toward an integration of the equality principle (Marxism) with the freedom principle (Liberalism) in a statist paradigm that I refer to as "soft totalitarianism."

Anyway, the only adequate label I have found to describe my political and theological stance is conservativism. The problem, of course, is that neo-conservativism,which is a form of classical liberalism, has been taken by many to be the only possible definition of conservativism. But I think this use of neo-conservative is a passing fad and will eventually be a footnote in history. Future historians will revert to more accurate terms like "capitalism" and "classical liberalism."

To be conservative is to be respectful of tradition, suspicious of all forms of utopianism, aware of the limits of politics, conscious of the effects of original sin and to know that ultimate hope for peace and justice lies beyond this world as it now is. Therefore, conservatism comports well with the Christian hope in the glorious second coming of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Chirst, which will usher in the radical transformation of both us and the world that is necessary for the kingdom of God to come in its fullness. The Hebrew prophets, Jesus and Paul were all conservatives in this sense. The Bible as a whole and creedal orthodoxy are also conservative in this sense.

Below is an extract from Milbank's article. I will put my comments in [bold and brackets].

"As Phillip Blond has suggested, there are now three crucial global forces in the world: capitalist rationality, Islam, and Christianity. [I mostly agree, but I would say "liberal modernity" instead of "capitalist rationality" because pure capitalism is pretty well non-existent in the 21st century. Big business and big government now cooperate and inter-penetrate in the bureaucratic micro-management of so much of modern life that freedom has been reduced to consumer choice rather than true moral freedom. If capitalism were triumphant, big government would be practically non-existent.] And of the latter two, the global reach of Christianity is far more serious and far more likely to prevail in the long term. This means that the anomaly pointed out almost a century ago by Hilaire Belloc is likely to pose its cultural contradiction ever more strongly upon the world stage. This is the manifest gap between the teachings of Christianity which still undergird Western morality, on the one hand, and the theory and practice of capitalism, on the other. [Agreed with one priviso - that we understand that even democratic socialist countries (which after all are supposedly alternatives to capitalism!) also share in the rational administration of life that is the bane of modernity. Is Sweden or Spain really not fully immersed in modernity's individualism, hedonism and rationalistic disdain for tradition, family and the sanctity of life?]

I believe, along with Radical Orthodoxy in general, that only the Church has the theoretical and practical power to challenge the global hegemony of capital and to create a viable politico-economic alternative. [Amen] I stand thereby in a long tradition of Anglican and Catholic Christian socialism, which has always insisted on the necessity of the "Christian" component for the "Socialist" one. In that sense I have always stood proudly amongst those who see themselves as "conservative theologically, radical politically." [The debatable point here is whether "Christian" and "socialist" in the modern sense can ever be reconciled.]

But over the years I have become more aware of the potential for smugness and inertia in that perspective. [Me too.] One can gently challenge it in three ways. First, there is a dimension that I have already hinted at. Can Christians really, fundamentally, categorize themselves as either left or right? [This is to rephrase my question at the end of the paragraph above.] Surely, as André de Muralt has argued, both the ideas of "the rule of One," of the sovereign center, and of the "rule of the Many," of individuals either in contracted dispersion or collective unity, are equally "nominalist"—both genealogically and ontologically? For both deny primary real relation, the real universal that is "the common good" and the role of "the few," whether that of the guiding virtuous elite or of the mediating institutions of civil society. But "right" and "left" define themselves variously in terms of either "the One" or the "the Many," both nominalistically construed. [Now we get to the heart of the issue! This is what I have been meaning all along by referring to socialism as "modern."]

Today, of course, what we really have is two versions of a "left" celebration of the "Many" either as individuals or as a democratically voting mass. For reasons still not yet sufficiently accounted for by historians and social theorists, we have a "liberal right," stressing economic negative liberty, and a "liberal left," stressing cultural and sexual negative liberty. In reality, of course, the two liberalisms are triumphing both at once and in secretly collusive harmony. [Yes, this is what I meant above when disussing the convergence of the equality principle and the freedom principle in contemporary politics. Western welfare states are merging Marxism and Capitalism into Statism.] So perhaps what still sustains party conflict is alternating anxieties among the populace about the inevitable insecurities generated by now economic and now cultural "freedom" in different temporal phases.

It follows that the very division of left and right assumes a nominalist social ontology, which of course I would reject. And it is also critically important to remind oneself that this division only postdates the French Revolution. [Right - it is modern.] This has created a curious historical delusion from which almost no one is really free. For we suppose that the premodern is somehow allied with "the right," just as barbarous journalists frequently imagine that the divine right of kings was a medieval theory, when it was in reality an early modern one. But pre-nominalist modernity was neither left nor right, neither "progressivist" nor "reactionary"—it was simply "other" to most of our assumed sociopolitical categories. [Exactly; this is what I have been trying to say for a year or more now on this blog. The reason we have to go back behind modernity is to get something that is not contaminated with dead-end dualisms. The idea that pre-modernity (i.e. Medieval Europe) was "right wing" is ludicrous.]

There is a further point to be made here. When the French revolutionaries invented "left" and "right," they arguably took us back to paganism and indeed they often explicitly supposed that they were doing so. [I have not encountered many writers who have had the insight and courage to say this - but any I have encountered (Lasch, Belloc, Chesterton, Kreeft, Kirk, etc.) have all been conservatives.] For characteristically, the ancient Greeks lined up philosophies of the spirit and of "ideal forms" with aristocracy and philosophies of matter with democracy. It is as if they assumed that the latter was always a matter of lowest common denominator and not of highest common factor. But as I have already suggested, the Christian revolution cuts right across this categorization. Instead of siding with "the noble" over against "the base," or inversely "the base" over against "the noble," it paradoxically democratizes the noble: hence Paul addresses his interlocutors as "all kings." [This is the reason why Paul's letters contain the Haustafeln, rather than radical manifestos for slaves and women to revolt. Paul is so radical on relationships in Christ that he can be conservative about secondary issues like social organization.] Yet at the same time, if there is now a new possibility of the spread of virtue (virtue being redefined as the more generally possible attitudes of love and trust, immune to the instance of "moral luck" as usually understood), there is still a political place for the superior role of the more virtuous and of those appointed to be the "guardians" of virtue, the virtuosos of charisma." [This need for virtue as the prerequisite for true freedom is the reason for Pope John Paul II's great disappointment with much of the consumerism and debauchery that followed the end of Communism in Eastern Europe. They became like Western Europe to a great extent, which was not John Paul's goal.]

You can read the whole article here. It is not a clearly thought out manifesto, but rather a slow-moving groping toward the light. If Milbank keeps reading Benedict XVI and John Paul II, he is bound to end up a conservative and that would be a very interesting development!

No comments: