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18 October 2016

Liberalism and capitalism have hollowed out society – so where do we turn now?

John Milbank and Adrian Pabst's new book explores the "post-Liberal" moment, but leaves me wondering about the future.

By Rowan Williams

There are crises and there are “meta­crises”: a system may stagger from one crisis to another but never recognise the underlying mechanisms that subvert its own logic. We may never even get to the “final” crisis that some analysts predict; but so long as the inner contradictions are not named, the story will always be one of cyclical failure.

This is a book about metacrises. Capitalism, democracy, nation-state politics, modern culture and education – all of these are living out a metacrisis of some sort. All of them are grounded in illusion and contradiction, whether it be the simultaneous overproduction and under-provision that typifies the capitalist system, the symbiosis of oligarchy and majoritarianism that modern democracy exhibits, the nihilistic void at the centre of modern cultural life, or the mixture of nationalist rhetoric and globalist economic homogenisation on the chaotic stage of international relations.

But beneath all these continuing states of crisis and contradiction is the metacrisis that shapes them all, the crisis of “liberalism”. Since the early-modern period, the characteristically Western intellectual perspective has increasingly assumed a schism between a meaningless natural order and an abstract human will that imposes meaning on the environment. Technological advance is the (now highly sophisticated and flexible) tool for this imposition. And, given that nothing has intrinsic significance, value comes from exchange. So: what can be literally or metaphorically bought with something? What advantage will it offer in a world of shortage and competition? Thus, capitalism is the natural partner for “liberalism”; it embodies the endless negotiation of power in this cramped but essentially empty world, and the process by which we seek to create value by gaining leverage over others.

The actuality of the world – real relationships, real production, real social activity, even the reality of the physical environment – becomes malleable, because everything is a potential tool for bartering in the competition for control. No wonder we find ourselves in a position where, as John Milbank and Adrian Pabst write, our humanity seems to be balanced between “the purely animal and the purely and arbitrarily artificial”. From this flow all the ills of culture and politics in our world. What we are now refusing to grasp is that “liberalism” in fact undermines democracy, ethics, human respect, social justice, scientific creativity and pretty well everything else.

I have put “liberalism” in quotation marks, though the authors do not, because it is a word to which they give their own, uncompromisingly distinctive sense. In so far as the liberal world-view assumes that what is most basic in us is an ego with demands that need to be guaranteed satisfaction, there will be a fixed and fatal collusion between ideals of “negative liberty” (in Isaiah Berlin’s sense of what the state should preserve in order to permit the individual to flourish) and the universal commodification that goes with capitalism.

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The inevitable outcome of all this is the dramatic triumph of a kind of fleshless, bodiless process of wealth creation, which produced the 2007/2008 financial crash. So is the current corrosive muddle about the nature of democracy – the resurgence of a “plebiscite” ideal of democracy, the fantasy of politics as the direct expression of unmediated demands – with all the risks of majoritarian tyranny that go with it. The Brexit campaign and the nightmare phenomenon of Donald Trump’s electoral rhetoric show an assumption that democracy is merely “the will of the people” and that political leadership is essentially the skilful management of consumer demand. In this way, political power becomes a short-term exercise in appearing to satisfy popular feeling while leaving untouched the mechanisms of wealth acquisition that dictate the conditions in which those feelings are articulated.

This unsparing analysis is complemented by a set of bold and often startling recommendations for rescue. In welcome contrast to many jeremiads about the ills of market capitalism, the book contains very detailed proposals for the “civil economy” that a number of Italian writers on the subject (notably Luigino Bruni and Stefano Zamagni) have advanced in recent years. Companies should be freed from the unquestioned authority of short-term shareholder interest so as to be able to consider long-term public benefit; there should be a consensus about fair wages and fair prices, as well as a realistic regime of taxation on purely financial transactions. We need to reinvent a “guild” system for the self-regulation of businesses, creating a shared corporate ethos, and we need – in the proper sense of the word – a greater democracy in the managing of business, with a high degree of transparency and participation between employer and employee. Milbank and Pabst point to the way some elements of this are exemplified in German and Austrian business practice, but they consider the European “social market” model inadequate because it fails to ­secure a reasonable distribution of profits and to connect economic profit to genuinely shared social goods (as opposed to simply securing an acceptable but static level of economic comfort).

The same detail can be found in the discussions here of education and, to a lesser extent, international affairs. All these discussions are informed by a set of basic convictions that will surprise many leftish readers who might be sympathetic to much of the argument. Most basic of all is the religious commitment from which the authors write. Both would argue that the stand-off between empty and ravenous human will and the meaningless stuff out there in the world is the result of abandoning a sacred world-view in which meanings are not created, but given for discovery and exploration. Here the human subject is already involved in relationships with other subjects and with the material stuff of the world – and so also involved in securing the well-being of others and of the world.

Milbank and Pabst see the dissolution of this classical Christian picture by the individualism of the Reformation as a cardinal moment in the decay of the West. In other words, the very moment identified in conventional history as the birth of “Western” supremacy – the triumph of a notion of individual right, the recognition of the objective authority of scientific method – becomes the cradle of the metacrises through which we are now living.

Human survival, no less, depends on recovering a sacred cosmology, so that we learn again to value the material and the local, to affirm the solidity of “intermediate” communities that are neither private nor state-franchised (professional guilds, trade unions, religious associations, volunteer organisations and activist citizens’ networks) and to welcome the imaginative and ideological contribution of traditional religion to social cohesion and justice. Despite the immense acknowledged influence here of Catholic social teaching, the authors present the Church of England (unfashionably, to put it mildly) as a model for church-state symphonia, to borrow the Byzantine term; they defend the monarchy as a symbolic focus for a social order resistant to functional reduction and oligarchic absolutism; they identify “gender fluidity” as a contemporary instance of the victory of abstract will over mere physicality. And these are not the only points where the average left-leaning, right-thinking reader will raise his or her eyebrows – or just stop reading.

But before such a reader dismisses the whole book as an apology for theocracy by the back door, there is reason to pause. The analysis of the metacrises is in fact unfailingly detailed and acute, from the lucid argument that economic liberalism is inimical to sustainable democracy to the diagnosis of the universal commodification of culture – including culture that likes to present itself as critical, ironic or revolutionary.

Chapter after chapter insists on how ­important it is that we dissolve our self-deceptions about the kind of world we have allowed to develop. If we are now panicking about the triumph of a politics of resentment, fear and unchallengeable untruthfulness, we had better investigate what models of human identity we have been working with. Our prevailing notions of what counts as knowledge, our glib reduction of democracy to market terms, our inability to tackle the question of limits to growth – all these and more have brought us to the polarised, tribal politics of today and the thinning out of skill, tradition and the sense of rootedness. Treating these issues with intellectual honesty is not a sign of political regression but the exact opposite. And if that requires a different kind of engagement with religious and metaphysical traditions of understanding and an abandonment of the assumption that instrumental secularism is everyone’s proper default position, so be it.

At the very least there are three areas where this book’s analysis is about as timely as could be. First there is, as already implied, the neuralgic question of what makes a ­democracy legitimate. If the answer to this is more than a majority popular mandate, if it involves the rule of law being understood as a guarantee of universal access to justice or redress, we must think about what institutions we require to challenge majoritarianism in the name of non-negotiable human dignity (a dignity that is only partially captured in the discourse of “rights”, however much we may need that). Second, the reduction of all concepts of value to “market” value is – as Michael Sandel, Richard Sennett and others have been reminding us so forcefully for a good few years – corrosive for our whole understanding of social and educational process. How does our society today find language for those things that are to be sought for what they are, and not for their exchange value? And third, how do we break through the deadlock over the power and independence of intermediate communities between state and individual? That includes a rethinking of both industrial democracy and the possibilities of corporate formation, collaboration and development, as well as “the close alliance of local business and local government”.

Not all of the other solutions offered by Milbank and Pabst have the same degree of precision and practicality as those concerned with economics. The chapter on international affairs is the weakest analytically, and its proposals the vaguest. The rise of cities as global centres of power is much more problematic than the authors suggest: we are not seeing a revival of medieval Florence, nor even a set of variations on modern Singapore, but, in most of the “developing” world, a chaos of privation and high-risk living. The brief reference to new megacities ignores the extreme effects of deracination and economic helplessness, combined with vulnerability to disease and violence, which characterise Nairobi or Rio today.

Likewise, the somewhat disjointed argument about the possibly positive impact of “imperial” modes of political power on the international scene elides regional patterns of hegemony with imperial systems of a more conventional kind. And it has to be said that some of the historical discussion of empire is flawed: the idea that the Spanish and British empires continued until the 18th century to be extended versions of medieval monarchy with “a measure of continued commitment to the common good” is indefensible. That both empires grounded their prosperity in large part in the Atlantic slave trade, that the influx of bullion and goods into 16th-century Spain rapidly destroyed the indigenous economy of that kingdom, that the Asian territories of the British Crown were long administered by a purely commercial interest (the East India Company) – all this ought to reinforce the point that, as St Augustine recognised, “empire” is a morally dangerous enterprise, whether in its ancient, early-modern or revived contemporary forms. Even local hegemony spills over into neo-imperialism; our authors could have said a great deal more about Russian and Chinese territorial ambition. The book fails to examine the problems posed by governance in Russia and China, and the persistence or resurgence of absolutism and xenophobia, never mind the problematic presence of these powers within or behind tyrannical or dysfunctional ­regimes in Africa and the Middle East.

There are other eccentricities, often reflecting an almost Chestertonian enthusiasm about medieval polities and economies that a more sober history would want to qualify, and assuming a great “fall” with the advent of Protestantism. The impact of Calvinist thought, say, on European political ethics is by no means as straightforward as suggested here. And there is no attempt to engage with the sophisticated political theology of such writers as Oliver O’Donovan (mentioned once, in passing, but respectfully) or Jacques Ellul who have developed no less scarifying a critique of economic and cultural modernity on the basis of a clearly Protestant, indeed Calvinist, commitment.

This reflects a problem with the wider presentation of the book’s argument. The authors do not engage much directly with potential opponents. “Liberalism” is given a wholly negative sense throughout; but we seldom get clues as to what defenders of its integrity might say – whether they would accept the definitions offered here; whether the liberal sensibility is so completely inimical to any substantive view of human virtue or collective well-being; whether it is right to assume that liberal politics, working for a kind of procedural agnosticism in public affairs, thereby destroys any notion of the common good. These are questions worth exploring.

We need some attempt at building on whatever in liberal politics is not just about “negative” freedom or neutral procedures of abstract fairness. But Milbank and Pabst are surely right to say that this entails challenging the broader world of political discourse to say something about its positive conception of the human good. Much attention has lately been given to Yuval Harari’s extraordinary speculations in his Homo Deus about the triumph of data management/exploitation as the controlling factor in the next phase of human development: value redefined as sheer density of data. Whatever the defensibility of all this in philosophical terms (there are too many conceptual and logical loose ends), it does suggest that we are being pressed to decide what kind of thing humanity might and should be. The Politics of Virtue is going to be a vital contribution to that issue, as well as a crucial intervention in current political debate. It will infuriate as many as it will delight; but it is a monumental and un-ignorable diagnosis of a critical moment in our culture. It would be a bold reader who felt able simply to deny the reality of the metacrises so painstakingly excavated and itemised here.

Rowan Williams is a lead book reviewer for the New Statesman

The Politics of Virtue: Post-Liberalism and the Human Future by John Milbank and Adrian Pabst is published by Rowman & Littlefield International (£24.95, 418pp)

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This article appears in the 12 Oct 2016 issue of the New Statesman, England’s revenge