A review of John Milbank and Adrian Pabst’s The Politics of Virtue: Post-Liberalism and the Human Future.
The afternoon that I began reading Milbank and Pabst’s Politics of Virtue, I happened to have lunch with one of the book’s endorsers, who had written a blurb for the back cover. I told this friend that I worried it would be Milbank in Grandpa Simpson mode. My students had sent me links to one or two of Milbank’s grumpier tweets that month, so I knew this was a real possibility. That is, I worried the book would be like Homer’s father from the TV series, who is endlessly afraid of the strange world outside his care home, nostalgic for a past that never existed, and complains about everything getting worse, especially young people.
His basic outlook is captured well in the scene in which, believing he is about to die, Grandpa Simpson asks to watch a video of “cops beating up hippies” to the sound of the Glen Miller Orchestra – so that he can die happy. Although my lunch mate assured me the book wasn’t like that, I was only five pages in before images of Grandpa Simpson returned.
Here is just some of what Grandpa Milbank says is wrong with the world nowadays, all taken directly from the pages of Politics of Virtue:
“slogan-covered tee-shirts, the speaking garments of the inarticulate”
“incest-marriage, consensual murder, cannibalism”
“post-hippy, beachcombing ‘capitalism philanthropy’”
“adults [who] seem to spend much of their time off work out shopping in children’s shorts … [and] their equally half-clad offspring”
“obese people demanding an end to all public campaigns against obesity … because they violate the sense of self-worth of obese people”
“the abolition of gender difference” which caused the “increasing endangerment of women (exposure to chances of rape and violence)”
Policies that “prevent the emergence of … unambiguously gendered women”
“the sartorial dignity of most classes up till the 1960s” has been replaced by a “cult of expressive ugliness”
“the obsession with perfect health and beauty of the few, alongside the careless despair as to dress and appearance of the many”
British authors satirizing their parents, even though their parents defeated the Nazis: “The hippies arrived not so long after”
We no longer have a “gendered division of labour”
We no longer use slide rules and abacuses
Depending on how you look at the world, you may resonate with Milbank’s complaints; you may even hope some cops arrive to beat up those ungrateful hippies. I do not resonate with this list. To me, it sounds like Grandpa Simpson, which is why, for the most part this is a very critical review.
What is odd, however, and what I try to explore amidst my criticisms, is that I am otherwise sympathetic to the basic posture of the critique of modernity that one finds in not only Milbank, but also his influences, like MacIntyre and Hauerwas. Where I think they are right is that we will understand today’s world better if we are attentive to how it is shaped, often without our notice, by theological failures originating in early modernity. (In brief: Christians never did figure out how to go on being eudaimonists after 1700.) My agreement with Milbank on this basic posture, not to mention my own personal regard for Pabst, who is one of the most interesting young political philosophers in Europe, means that my strong dislike for this book surprises even me.
The book is much more carefully structured and readable than Milbank’s previous efforts. Unfortunately, structural clarity is not the same as persuasive argumentation. If anything, the clarity serves to reveal how misguided many of its claims really are, more transparently than texts like The Word Made Strange and Being Reconciled, where the author’s obscurantism blocks not only the readers’ comprehension but also their ability to perceive the errors. Unlike those, The Politics of Virtue is lucid and helpfully arranged into five sections, each addressing one area of modern life: Politics, Economy, Polity, Culture, and World. Liberalism, they argue, ruins each of these, and only a post-liberal politics of virtue can save us.
This critique of liberalism is not partisan, as if they would defend standard right-wing liberalism against the left, or left-wing liberalism against the right. They pronounce a pox on both those houses. As they write, “the two liberalisms were always in tacit, secret alliance.” (Which means Milbank would be just as happy to watch the hippies beat up the cops). On this, the authors are surely right: Republicans and Democrats, especially politically partisan American Christians, are two sides to the same coin. (Was that ever a secret?)
What is especially frustrating about the book is that, at points, the authors are more careful, along the lines I am pressing for. Cracks appear in their oversimplified view, through which real nuance emerges. For example, sometimes they acknowledge that they are only targeting “pure” liberalism, or “atomistic” liberalism, “ultra-liberalism” or Hobbesian liberalism, before going back to their too-broad brush strokes. And sometimes they acknowledge that modern, liberal education is not all that bad, because it originates in a classical, humanist recovery. Encouragingly, they elsewhere write that they do not want to be nostalgic pre-liberals, trying to squeeze modernity back in the tube, as if we would return to the good old days of the medieval world (yet telling against this concession, their proposed solutions are pre-modern, or at least Victorian and earlier). They even at one point explicitly say that they do not think “that liberalism is all bad, but that it has inherent problems and deficiencies.” But these occasional nuances cannot be reconciled with their repeated, and much louder refrain, that “liberalism is incorrigibly atomistic,” that it is inherently nihilistic, that it is irredeemable, that it will “finally undo humanity,” and so on. This textual bipolar disorder may be a consequence of the co-authoring — I cannot tell.
Be that as it may, their thesis, taken at the level of abstraction, is not obviously wrong. Here is my best effort at a sympathetic paraphrase:
Just when we thought the end of history was upon us, and liberal, democratic capitalism would triumph once and for all, 9/11 and the global financial crisis proved us wrong. But this isn’t liberalism losing to its rivals. It is liberalism losing to itself because liberalism is [insert favourite epithet: incorrigible, parasitic, contradictory, self-defeating, nihilist, perverted, Hobbesian, Lockean, etc].
Not only has the end of history failed to arrive, we are very, very badly off, including financially, materially, and spiritually. Our condition nowadays is not just one of the regular ups and downs of politics. This is no regular crisis; this is a metacrisis: of liberalism, of capitalism, democracy, culture, and international relations. “Liberalism is on a path that will either undo itself or finally undo humanity. In this sense, liberalism faces a ‘metacrisis’ in contrast to a mere crisis.”
The remedy is an alternative politics that includes a true civil economy, values, honor among elites, and genuine social reciprocity, and possesses a concept of objective good within a common good. “Post-liberalism suggests that a more universal flourishing for all can be obtained when we continuously seek to define the goals of human society as a whole and then to discern the variously different and in themselves worthwhile roles that are required for the mutual achievement of these shared aims.”
As far as it goes, all of that sounds intriguing and maybe even worth pursuing. But here is where the book’s structural and argumentative clarity is its own undoing. The book takes in turn the five areas that comprise its chapters—Politics, Economy, Polity, Culture, and World—rehearsing the following argument for each:
1. Things in this area are bad, almost intolerable.
2. They are bad because of liberalism.
3. The only solutions come from outside liberalism, because they are incompatible with it.
None of these claims are persuasively supported in the book; nor could they be, for all three are probably false. In other words
1. Things nowadays are not that bad. Considering alternatives and how things used to be, things are pretty good.
2. Liberalism, as they imagine it, cannot be to blame, because that liberalism does not exist (outside the minds of, say, Žižek and Salon.com bloggers).
3. Liberalism, as it really exists, is not incompatible with the authors’ often quite-engaging solutions; instead liberal societies can welcome them, and in fact already frequently do.
In the remainder of my review, I take these claims in turn. Are things that bad? Is liberalism what they say it is? Are their conclusions really incompatible with liberalism?
Are Things That Bad?
One of the things the authors get right is that answering this question requires an objective account of the good for both the individual and the community. A subjectivist utilitarian account, whether Bentham’s pleasure or Singer’s preferences, is too thin to help us. So, what is the good life for humans? They never quite tell us, but I suppose it includes the following:
A place to live, reliable access to enough food to feed myself and those in my care, a basic measure of safety from crime and natural disaster, an opportunity for productive labour and exchange, time away from work to enjoy other goods including occasional holidays, friendships including ways to stay in contact with those distant, freedom to worship God, opportunities to express devotion (to one’s faith, people, and perhaps other objects of loyalty such as excellent athletes or artists), sufficient medical care to avoid an early death (ideally, living to see my children begin to raise their own), opportunity to appreciate the non-human world, living in a community that honors the above such as by esteeming faithfulness or diligence in the face of obstacles or by honoring excellent achievement in art, such as film or music.
You do not have to go full Steven Pinker to see that far more people in the world now lead lives resembling this than ever before, regardless of whether we count absolutely or proportionally.
Would things be better if more of my furniture was traditionally handcrafted rather than bought at Ikea? Sure, that would be great. Would the above-listed goods harmonize better within our lives if local, independent booksellers and grocers were not losing so much business to Amazon? Undoubtedly. (Maybe the cashier could even get back to using an abacus.) The point is that, accepting the authors’ rightful insistence that such questions must be evaluated in light of an objective concept of the human good, things are not bad.
Nor does it contradict this to point out that at any point in history, features of that age may create tension within and among these aspects of the good: for example, technology nowadays increases the time we have free from labor but may simultaneously make friendships more superficial because they can be virtual. There are sometimes unavoidable trade-offs and, often, unintended side-effects: what helps x go better may inhibit y in some way. But so what?
The portrait Milbank and Pabst offer of a “Western slide into theoretical nihilism and cultural despair” is not remotely reflective of reality. Where do they even get such a negative vision? Was it merely, as they say on page 1, the “challenge of Islamism after 2001” and the financial disruption of 2008? Just those two events? That seems unlikely. It is of course the case that Western nations have acted unjustly in consequence, by making, for example, irresponsible bank bailouts that let the guilty off the hook, and unjustly detaining suspected terrorists without trial. It is indeed the case that greater wealth for the many has arrived alongside inequality between the very rich and the many, including ongoing food shortages in Africa and workers condemned to near slavery in Bangladesh. So the comparatively better world that we have is far from a perfect world.
But if they really believe we need to be guided by an objective concept of the good, as any genuine politics of virtue must, they have to accept that, all things considered, more and more people’s lives resemble the good life described above. They may reply, “Sure, things are good now. It looks like the end of history. But it’s not. You just wait…” Point taken. We ought not be quietist in the face on ongoing injustice, such as in Guantanamo Bay, Syria, Sudan, and Bangladesh. And yes, Fortune 500 executives are still paid too much. But things nowadays are not that bad. Considering alternatives and how things used to be, things are pretty good.
Is Liberalism What They Say It Is?
As should now be obvious, liberalism is the undisputed villain of Milbank and Pabst’s account and, as in any good monster story, they personify their devil: “liberal forces favour” or “modernity speaks” and “modernity wishes us to think.” Who is this “modernity” that speaks and wishes? Is there really such a thing? I do not think so. In fact, I think the liberalism they have in mind is a phantom, which is why they find that they occasionally need to qualify it in the ways mentioned above (atomistic liberalism is the bad guy; pure liberalism is, etc).
Their conception of liberalism is an extreme and implausible one. In saying this, I am not joining the side of earlier liberal critics of Milbank, who view him as a dangerous anti-liberal. These critics are equally naive, with their optimistic story of early modern atheist scientists driving out superstition with their magic wands of Enlightenment, and founding the land of Rationalia, ruled by Neil deGrasse Tyson. In contrast, I am open even to Milbank and Pabst’s most superficially controversial claim, which is their appropriation of the Straussian trope that Locke is Hobbes in sheep’s clothing—against the standard reading, in which they are rivals.
The problem is that liberalism, real liberalism as it exists in the real world where Milbank and Pabst want their solutions to work, is muddy and messy. It is an amalgam of Hobbes, republicanism (classical, Florentine, and French), Locke, Mill, Scottish Enlightenment sentimentalism, Kant, Jefferson and Madison, and today even Rawls. To their credit, they address these various strands, but ultimately discard their relevance, in the case of republicanism concluding that its challenge to liberalism “evaporates.”
Their “pure” liberalism—the liberalism which is in metacrisis—is described as invariably atomistic and individualistic, invariably rooted in a competitive and scarce state of nature, and protecting only negative liberties. But there is no existing version of liberalism, nor any liberal thinker, of which that is simply true, not even Hobbes (whose influence is overstated in this book).
Milbank and Pabst claim that Locke thinks humans are, without qualification, self-owners and that he thinks the state of nature is representative of the human condition generally. On the contrary, for Locke, humans are co-owners, together with God, of themselves. (Is it possible there is some theological sleight of hand here on Locke’s part, garnering Christian support with attractively orthodox-sounding arguments? Probably.) Furthermore, the state of nature is used by Locke very carefully and narrowly as a thought experiment solely for the purpose of uncovering what he considers government’s proper telos, protecting rights. Is it true that those rights are negative? Yes, almost exclusively, though there are a few exceptions in Locke’s corpus. But it does not follow that he conceives of the world atomistically.
In short, liberalism, as they imagine it, cannot be to blame, because that liberalism does not exist.
Can Liberal Societies Assimilate Their Solutions?
The best part of the book is its wide-ranging and often attractive practical proposals, from advice about banking arrangements to school curricula to the idea that the British parliament’s expense scandal could be fixed by eliminating expense accounts and simply paying more in salary. That is a genuinely good idea. But why do we need a whole new politics of virtue, and a wholesale rejection of liberalism, to accept it?
Their eschatological age, their new kingdom, is already breaking in amongst us and everyone is forcing their way into it. Consider their hope for recovering a culture of honor, in which human excellences are rewarded with esteem and repugnant behaviour shamed. We already live in that world: not everywhere, to be sure, but that’s not the point. Thus the first U.S. state Supreme Court decision to allow same-sex marriage was not chiefly on the basis of equal negative rights, but because faithfulness in relationships is worthy of social honor (Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, 2003). Or consider how in medieval England, King Henry II could be forced to do public penance for his association with Thomas Becket’s murder. Is this lost to us? By no means, for this is precisely what Amnesty International does today. As the late Stephen Toulmin, who first made the Henry-Amnesty comparison, liked to point out, “One of the great virtues of nongovernmental organizations is that they are able, in a new kind of way, to practice the politics of shame rather than the politics of force.” The same is true of how British public figures have been chastised for using legal, but morally dubious, offshore-banking arrangements to avoid taxes, and Apple forced to cancel contracts with factories that mistreat workers, and Airbnb pressured to address racial bias by its hosts. Again, we already live in that world.
Consider the move to localism in craft and food production, rightly endorsed by Milbank and Pabst. We already have this: it is called the Slow Food and Slow Cities movement, originating in Italy. Consider their plea for the use of apprenticeships for training young people; there already is a significant movement, and it has been a longstanding practice in Germany. Are Italy and Germany somehow immune from liberalism’s metacrisis, or secretly practicing an anti-liberal politics of virtue?
Sometimes the authors explicitly acknowledge this is underway without them, such as their concession that “even large corporations are today sometimes ahead of most theory in some of their practices, which tacitly acknowledge the market limits of globalisation. Even firms as ruthless as … Wal-Mart in the United States are starting to see the economic costs of socially and ethically unsustainable action.”
This extraordinary concession to Wal-Mart initially appears to be another instance of textual bipolar disorder. (Liberalism is the end of politics / Liberalism merely has deficiencies.) On the contrary, the clue to what they are doing is the opening clause, where they contrast theory and practice. What they mean is, our society’s theory is atomistically, purely, nihilistically liberal but its practice is already partly a politics of virtue—because that would fit their story of a vicious and irredeemable liberalism, which makes our lives so miserable, and against which we need a postliberal revolution. But that is not how the world works. Theory and practice are not separable in that way. If in some places the practice of liberal politics is already a politics of virtue, then at least some versions of liberal political theory already have space for it. What we find in the real world is a complex amalgam of theories and practices from various traditions, including liberalism, republicanism, cultures of honor, natural law, the now much-maligned human rights tradition, Christian eudaimonism, and so on. We are, for good and for ill, the children of this twisting family tree.
Perhaps what Milbank and Pabst mean to say throughout is simply this: granting the advances afforded to the world by liberalism (with all its unintended side-effects and theological confusion), we would be better off if a new direction emerged in the future, one that draws on some of the valuable things lost along the way, especially classical and Christian eudaimonist politics. But how will we convey to our readers the essence of this new direction with sufficient clarity for it to become a movement? We need a brand. We will call it Politics of Virtue and, distinguishing it from the leading brand, market it as a completely different product.
Their concrete proposals are sensible, as far as they go, and the twin liberalisms of right and left well-deserve robust critique. Yet the authors’ cause would be advanced by making that critique with much greater nuance, not oversimplifying what liberalism really is, and, basically, not complaining so much.
John Perry is Senior Lecturer in Theological Ethics at the University of St Andrews and Project Director for the Initiative in Science-Engaged Theology.