Liberalism is in the throes of a profound crisis of legitimacy. It feels like only yesterday that it was able to bask casually in the triumph of the “end of history”, as Francis Fukuyama famously called it.
Yet today “the man who declared the ‘end of history’ fears for democracy’s future.” The political tumult of Brexit and Trumpism has unleashed recriminations, divisions and dysfunction that has the erstwhile faithful questioning liberal dogma. Things have become so bad that the beleaguered and much maligned “chattering class” (to which the author belongs) now boldly flirts with the idea of a post-liberal future for the West.
A seminal contribution to post-liberal rumination is John Milbank and Adrian Pabst’s The Politics of Virtue: Post-liberalism and the Human Future. The Politics of Virtue offers a withering and sobering critique of the “metacrises” besetting liberal politics, economy, polity and culture.
The book’s fundamental claim is that “liberalism as a philosophy and an ideology turns out to be contradictory, self-defeating and parasitic of the legacy of Greco-Roman civilization and the Judeo-Christian tradition” (p.2). Its fundamental insight is that the “social-cultural liberalism” of the left and the “economic-political liberalism” of the right have conspired to form a vapid centrist consensus committed to “limitless liberalization and mindless modernization”(1,13).
This unholy alliance represents the “victory of vice over virtue” and has bequeathed us with societies committed to “selfishness, greed, suspicion and coercion over common benefit, generosity, a measure of trust and persuasive power” (2). Note: throughout this post I use “liberalism” in the British sense in which Milbank and Pabst use it.
One may quibble here and there with the diagnostics, but Milbank and Pabst serve as compelling witnesses to the poor health of liberalism. The fundamental question, however, is whether the patient is ill or dying.
Milbank and Pabst suggest the latter, recommending a post-liberal alternative to liberalism cast as the “politics of virtue.” The politics of virtue “seeks to fuse greater economic justice with social reciprocity,” “proposes gift-exchange or social reciprocity as the ultimate principle to govern both the economic and the political realms [original emphasis],” and “propose[s] a reciprocalist model of sharing risk, responsibilities and resources wherein reward is reconnected to personal requirements both for varied self-fulfillment and for rendering a social contribution” (3). There is a lot to like about these and similar proposals that form part of Milbank and Pabst’s post-liberal vision.
However, political theologian Oliver O’Donovan in The Desire of the Nations has perceptively observed that “large moral disagreements all turn on competing descriptions,” and as such, “serious moral debate cannot avoid arbitrating questions of description and so enquiring into the structures of reality.”(14) It is the “structure of reality” underpinning Milbank and Pabst’s critique of liberalism’s metacrises that I wish to probe. For I believe that the descriptive realism of the book’s account of liberalism is determinative for the cogency of its proposed post-liberal alternative.
Milbank and Pabst provocatively claim that the structural reality of liberalism is “voluntary servitude and obsequiousness” (19). These are presented as the ineluctable ends of certain constitutive characteristics of liberalism, namely individualism, negative liberty, and anthropological pessimism.
The Politics of Virtue insists that liberalism and post-liberalism are qualitatively different and fundamentally incompatible. Take the issue of liberalism’s negative liberty, which is defined as “unfettered personal choice and freedom from constraint except the law and private conscience” (15). Our authors want to see negative liberty replaced with the post-liberal virtue of “positive liberty,” defined as “the self-release of people from debilitating passions and degrading choices, in favor of the more strenuous pursuit of human flourishing” (15). They contend that “a priority of positive freedom leaves no place for negative liberty whatsoever” (18).
But are they right to insist that negative liberty precludes positive liberty? Is it empirically convincing to claim that liberalism comprehensively negates the ability of human beings to conquer their passions and flourish? This is a verdict that will come as a surprise to many citizens of liberal societies, particularly women, racial minorities and members of the LGBTI community, for whom the “negative liberty” of “unfettered personal choice and freedom from constraint except the law and private conscience” has facilitated rather than diminished their flourishing.
No one, least of all minorities, is under any illusion that liberalism represents a bigotry-free nirvana. But on any objective measure, women and minorities have faired far better in contemporary liberal orders than any extant or historical alternative.
The dichotomy Milbank and Pabst paint between negative liberty and positive liberty is indicative of what I believe is larger false dichotomy between liberalism and post-liberalism that brings into question the descriptive realism of the book. We are given a long list of post-liberal virtues, many to which I find myself deeply sympathetic, that purportedly are required to free us from the tyranny of liberalism.
They include “mutual obligation,” “solidarity,” “pluralist organicism,” “constitutional corporatism,” “mixed government,” “personalism,” and “subsidiarity.” But are these really all non-existent in liberal democracies? And more to the point are they really only attainable by jettisoning liberalism? These virtues all exist to varying extents, albeit often imperfectly and inconsistently, in various places in the liberal world, as indeed Milbank and Pabst concede when they point to their existence as illustrative of what is required to replace liberalism.
Reading The Politics of Virtue, one is struck by just how little structural change is actually proposed to free us from our structural imprisonment to liberalism. We are told, for instance, that we need to show more “respect for the necessity of every role” in society, that we need “an alternative business ethos” that “would seek to instill the pursuit of self-worth,”(73-4) and that civil servants need to once again “mediate between elected powers and the more continuous powers and institutions” (224). As far as I can see, proposals of this nature, with which again I find myself in deep sympathy, seem to call for cultural and attitudinal change rather than radical or even substantive structural change.
I do not mean to suggest that such proposals are therefore unworthy, unnecessary or would not make a tangible difference. It is just that, if liberalism and a post-liberal politics of virtue really were fundamentally different and incompatible, then one might reasonably expect something more in the order of the Communist Manifesto – a complete redrawing of political and economic institutions and relationships.
Moreover, one could counter that many of the proposed post-liberal virtues appear to be logically dependent on the very structural obstacles that are said to negate their possibility in the first place. In what cogent sense can it be argued that the “satisfying and releasing of creative individuality” that is the goal of post-liberalism’s “positive liberty” is not dependent on the very “negative liberty” it is supposed to replace?
“Freedom of choice” might not be a sufficient condition for human flourishing, and if misused, as it all too often is in liberal societies, it undoubtedly can lead to human degeneration. But is it not a necessary condition for human flourishing? Can virtue and the good be realized by compulsion or coercion, or do they intrinsically require some degree of personal freedom, including freedom of choice? The obvious alternative would appear to be some form of coercive paternalism whereby the state, perhaps, forces people to pursue their own good by removing their freedom to make bad choices, the latter to be determined presumably by virtuous rulers.
Interestingly, Milbank and Pabst concede that the liberal ideology of servitude has, somewhat paradoxically, produced some very welcome and profound advancements towards human flourishing, such as the aforementioned emancipation of women and minorities. But these are only paradoxes if one accepts that liberalism leads to servitude, in which case the paradox, on the contrary, might prompt one to question the veracity of the description of liberalism at the heart of The Politics of Virtue.
I think the root cause of the false dichotomy Milbank and Pabst draw between liberalism and post-liberalism might stem from their contentious political anthropology. To add to O’Donovan’s maxim about competing descriptions in great moral debates, I submit that disagreements over political vision often turn on competing political anthropologies.
Milbank and Pabst claim that liberalism is founded on a pessimistic Hobbesian view of human nature characterized by “the war of all against all” (58). “Liberal ideas and institutions,” they contend, “rest on a violent ontology and a pessimistic anthropology that incentivize and reward bad behavior” (3). According to Milbank and Pabst, however, this pessimistic anthropology is an ontological fraud.
And yet, in another stroke of paradox, liberalism’s fraudulent anthropology has nevertheless come to define our actual existence. As they explain: “the supreme irony of liberal theory is that the pessimism and cynicism with regard to human nature, which it falsely assumes in theory, it truly delivers in practice over time” (78).
Conversely, our real, if historically illusive, anthropology is said to be the natural propensity towards virtue and an inherent desire and ability to pursue the good. The post-liberal virtuous anthropos simply needs to be freed from the shackles of liberalism’s false ontology of violence and unduly pessimistic anthropology in order to advance toward a more harmonious (and virtuous) destiny.
Utopian political anthropologies do not have a good track record when it comes to human flourishing. Tens of millions died in the twentieth century in the name of perfecting human nature. Milbank and Pabst categorically do not recommend anything akin to Stalin’s great terror in the name of engineering human progress.
But the question still remains: is their “optimistic” anthropology too optimistic? The great scandal of liberalism for post-liberals like Milbank and Pabst, it seems to me, is that their optimistic post-liberal political anthropology commits them to a violent view of liberalism when by every metric available liberal democracies are far more stable and less violent than their non-liberal contemporaries and predecessors. And yet everywhere one looks outside the liberal world one finds real structural violence.
It is autocratic Syria, not liberal Great Britain, that is most proximate to Hobbes’ “war of all against all.” The idea that Australians, for example, are chaffing under the oppression of liberalism’s structural violence while entire generations of Syrians have their lives and livelihoods destroyed by a contest between two murderous and illiberal forces makes one question whether Milbank and Pabst have got the political anthropology of liberalism accurate. One could pose a similar question with regard to the notion that liberalism produces “servitude” in a world containing North Korea.
Milbank and Pabst’s post-liberal politics of virtue seeks to retrieve and revive the best of the pre-liberal Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian traditions. But that which is most curiously absent from The Politics of Virtue is the foundational anthropology of the Bible, with its focus on the problem of sin.
The story of Scripture revolves around a good creation fallen and redeemed in Christ with the eschatological hope of a new creation. Sin is a feature of fallen human nature and the redeemed creation. There is dispute amongst Christian traditions and theologians about how far the good creation has fallen on account of sin and how high it has risen on account of redemption. But the presence and problematic of sin is a constant in all accounts.
So the Bible teaches that humans are a frustrating and paradoxical mix of good and evil. As Paul wrote to the church at Rome with confronting honesty: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do (Rom. 7:19 NRSV).” Furthermore, this Biblical anthropology finds support in the historical record and contemporary empirical experience. As G. K. Chesterton inimitably put it in Orthodoxy, sin is “a fact as practical as potatoes” (22).
There is a doctrine of liberal sin in The Politics of Virtue, but no doctrine of original sin. Milbank and Pabst may be right that liberalism’s anthropology is too pessimistic. But I confess to finding the anthropology of The Politics of Virtue weighted too far in the opposite direction.
My criticism is not that Milbank and Pabst have mistaken an angel for the devil. Liberalism is no angel, at least not in its current state. While I remain unconvinced that liberalism’s health is as terminal as Milbank and Pabst think it is, it is clear that the patient is sick. What is at stake is an accurate diagnosis and an effective treatment. The Politics of Virtue represents a substantive contribution to both and to that end deserves to be read and discussed widely.
I do, however, question whether Milbank and Pabst have correctly diagnosed the disease in this case. They describe the symptoms with great lucidity and perspicacity. But is liberalism itself the disease, as they contend, or is it rather infected with a disease? This is the pertinent question. There is a possibility that what Milbank and Pabst diagnose as liberal disease is actually early-onset post-liberalism.
There appears to be a consensus that illiberal (post-liberal?) forces are on the rise globally, whether in the form of “neo-fascism” – described by Milbank and Pabst as “travestied post-liberalism” – or the increasingly censorious authoritarianism of latter-day progressive identity politics. Are these the inevitable product of liberalism or the essence of what is killing liberalism?
Milbank and Pabst’s “post-liberal” politics offers many attractive and worthwhile proposals for making politics more humane. But I would feel much more comfortable if we strove towards infusing the existing liberal framework with a shot of virtue rather than placing all our faith the inevitable rise of the virtuous anthropos from the ashes.
Jonathan Cole is a research member of the Centre for Public and Contextual Theology, Charles Sturt University (CSU), Canberra, Australia, and a PhD candidate in Political Theology at St Mark’s National Theological Centre, CSU. He spent 14 years working in the Australian federal civil service in the areas of Immigration, Health and Intelligence. He spent seven of his 14 years working in two intelligence agencies as a Senior Terrorism Analyst. He has an MA specializing in Middle Eastern politics and Islamic theology from the Australian National University. He speaks Arabic and is an expert in Islamist terrorism. He also has a BA Honors in Modern Greek language and history. He wrote his honors thesis on the politics of linguistic nationalism in nineteenth century Greece.