John Milbank and the tragic triumph of liberalism

It’s unfortunate that in much of the west today certain things are taken as axioms, for example it’s taken for granted that individual rights and private property are sacred untouchables, whereas the common good and moral obligations are secondary and at best individual choices. It’s also taken for granted that the realm of the sacred (beyond those axioms), or the realm of morality have no place in public life, “keep your morality to yourself,” is one of the mottos of today.

John Milbank’s (Anglican Theologian and founder of the Radical Orthodoxy Movement) article, How Liberalism Is Undoing Itself, is a wonderful short analysis on some of the ideological effects of liberalism (economic, social and cultural). He points out wonderfully that the 2 liberalisms (economic and social/cultural) although very often on different sides of the political table, share a common understanding:

In reality, we have witnessed two revolutions that are but one: the left has advanced a social-cultural liberalism that promotes individual rights and equality of opportunity for self-expression, while the right has advocated an economic-political liberalism that champions the free market liberated from the constricting shackles of the bureaucratic state. We have a “liberal right” celebrating economic and political negative liberty, and a “liberal left” celebrating cultural and sexual negative liberty.

The common understanding is negative liberty. I would also add that this negative liberty is brought along the axioms already mentioned. From the economic liberal side it’s the sacredness of private property, the sacredness of the pursuit of profit, and the infallibility of the market. From the social liberal side it’s the sacredness of self-identity, self-determination, and absolute autonomy.

A Society focused entirely on negative liberty, will end up with consequences that unfortunately many people ignore. Milbank explains:

Just as liberal thought redefined human nature as isolated individuals who enter into formal contractual ties with other individuals (instead of the ancient and Christian idea of social, political animals), so too liberal practice has replaced the quest for reciprocal recognition and mutual flourishing with the pursuit of wealth, power and pleasure.

When the institutions of society only value individual autonomy, as well as individual property, anything more, if it is to have any social/institutional significance is maintained only through market or legal contracts. Since there are no common values, goals or axioms (besides the individual ones of personal self-determination and private property and profit, which are assumed but generally not stated as what they are, untouchable axioms), what is left is what John Milbank points out:

the triumph of liberalism more and more brings about the “war of all against all” (Hobbes) and the idea of man as self-proprietary animal (Locke) that were its presuppositions.

It’s a self-fulfilling prophesy, a society that treats all men as purely egotistical, as well as a commodity (the concept self-ownership is nothing more than a thin veil for self- commodification), will end up with a society of egotistical human-commodities. Now clearly this is not an accurate picture of the human condition, men are not at war with men all the time, man is more than a self-owning animal. Relationships, community, spirituality and morality are all real phenomenons, and are all a deep part of the human existence. None of these aspects of human existence are individual; none of them are taken into account in the liberal ideology. This leads to a society that rewards ego, greed and isolation, and cuts out all the values that make us truly human, values that we cannot gain as individuals alone.

Milbank then goes on to point out a more concrete effect:

This double conception of wealth as aggregated calculable assets and as private consumption cuts out all the relational goods and the “commons” on which shared prosperity depends. In the long run, the tendency towards abstraction and materialization leads to destruction that is not creative — as growing economic financialization exacerbates social dislocation and ecological devastation.

Now we have a truth that has been understood for centuries, yet today is ignored as it conflicts with the sacred idols of liberal society (self-determination, autonomy, private property and profit). Liberal/Capitalist society depends on the very things it undermines. Capitalism depends on a social system that takes on the externalized economic costs of Capitalisms profit driven growth, it depends on relationships and communities to create social bonds on which to profit from (very few people go to restaurants all alone), and which maintain it’s workers/consumers, it depends on families to raise children, to care for those who need care. Capitalism depends on the state to protect it, it depends on culture to commodify (just look at what hip hop culture has become), it depends on creativity to commodify, it depends on education, and it depends on the commons. Capitalism depends on society to exist.

Along with economic liberalism, cultural liberalism has been its unwilling handmaiden for decades, as Milbank states:

Meanwhile, cultural liberalism, including some modes of middle-class feminism, has carelessly underwritten the new cult of market choice in default of its supposedly radical commitments. And, paradoxically, the two liberalisms have engendered a society that is not just more atomized but also more interdependent in the wrong way — too tied to global financial processes that leave far less scope for individual initiative and the ability to shape one’s own life.

Speaking specifically on some forms of Feminism, the redefinition of Justice as access to the market, as well as taking down barriers to the market place which are not internal to the market (gender for example), assumes the axioms of the market. If the Feminist fight is to have more women CEOs and less stay at home moms, what has been won? If not as strengthening of the ideological axiom that the only value that matters is market value. If one is to dare say “women have a role in the family,” a mortal sin has been committed against liberalism, how dare you say that anyone has any moral obligations. If the left doesn’t realize the implication that their embracing absolute liberalism on the cultural side-effects the rest of society they are fooling themselves. If you tell people “you are the master of your destiny, you create your own identity, you don’t answer to anyone but yourself” don’t be surprised when it turns out those people don’t want to share the resources and wealth built by society. Don’t be surprised when the values of Capitalism become their default value.

On the flip side of the coin economic liberals who thing think society can hold on to traditional values while denying all value (other than market value) in the economic sphere are fooling themselves. In a society where all value is measured by money and profit, is necessarily going to erode traditional values. Prostitution is something abhorrent to any morally minded Christian, yet once one has accepted that one can commodity anything, that anything can be bought and sold and owned, and that profit is the measure by which power is to be distributed, what argument is there against prostitution? You shouldn’t sell sex because sex is sacred? Ok, but can you really say that when you’re also willing to allow people to die because healthcare has been commodified? If prostitution is profitable, and you’ve already established that the market is infallible, why should society make an exception for this one thing? When you push for an economy where all the goods of society are distributed only on the basis of profit maximization, private accumulation, market value and private property, don’t be surprised if those values replace traditional values and virtue. An economy where “I gotta get mine, before you get yours,” will lead to people who think like that in every realm of life.

In the liberal world, the left with almost always win on cultural/social issues and the right will almost always win on economic issues, why? Because the left supports absolute cultural/social self-interest, and the right supports absolute economic self-interest, and the right will lose on social/cultural issues and the left will lose on economic issues, because those issues are communal, and communal issues have no value in a Market driven liberal society.

If we want to live in a community that values something more than individual autonomy, self-determination/love, and private profit and commodification, and actually has some values such as “the common good,” or “virtue,” we’re going to have to think about the effect Liberalism in both its cultural manifestation and its economic manifestation have.

Milbank wraps it up thus:

After all, the liberal focus on abstract, general standards (such as subjective rights, commercial contracts or formal, procedural justice) is parasitic upon a culture of universal principles and particular practices of virtue that this obsessive and rigid focus undermines, cutting off the branch on which it sits.


John Milbank and the tragic triumph of liberalism

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