The Politics of Virtue: Post-Liberalism and the Human Future

The Politics of Virtue: Post-Liberalism and the Human Future

by John Milbank, Adrian Pabst


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Contemporary politics is dominated by a liberal creed that champions ‘negative liberty’ and individual happiness. This creed undergirds positions on both the right and the left – free-market capitalism, state bureaucracy and individualism in social life. The triumph of liberalism has had the effect of subordinating human association and the common good to narrow self-interest and short-term utility. By contrast, post-liberalism promotes individual fulfilment and mutual flourishing based on shared goals that have more substantive content than the formal abstractions of liberal law and contract, and yet are also adaptable to different cultural and local traditions.

In this important book, John Milbank and Adrian Pabst apply this analysis to the economy, politics, culture, and international affairs. In each case, having diagnosed the crisis of liberalism, they propose post-liberal alternatives, notably new concepts and fresh policy ideas. They demonstrate that, amid the current crisis, post-liberalism is a programme that could define a new politics of virtue and the common good.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783486496
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date: 09/09/2016
Series: Future Perfect: Images of the Time to Come in Philosophy, Politics and Cultural Studies Series
Pages: 418
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.80(h) x 1.20(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

John Milbank is Professor of Religion, Politics and Ethics at the University of Nottingham and Director of the Centre of Theology and Philosophy.

Adrian Pabst is Reader in Politics at the University of Kent and Visiting Professor at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Lille.

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The Politics of Virtue

Post-Liberalism and the Human Future

By John Milbank, Adrian Pabst

Rowman & Littlefield International Ltd.

Copyright © 2016 John Milbank and Adrian Pabst
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78348-650-2


The Metacrisis of Liberalism


The last century in Western politics can be read in terms of the ever-increasing triumph of liberalism. After the First World War, the 1920s inaugurated the elite influence of an avant-garde that for both good and ill eventually spread its libertarian revolt to mass culture, thereby often debasing its bohemian critical edge during the 1950s to 1960s. Amid economic stagnation and a post-colonial hangover, the 'embedded liberalism' of the post-war trentes glorieuses gave way to the ultra-liberalism of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan that has defined politics and the economy since the 1980s. Over the last fifty years, 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. For some time now, we have had a 'liberal right' celebrating economic and political negative liberty, and a 'liberal left' celebrating cultural and sexual negative liberty.

In reality, of course, the two liberalisms have triumphed both at once and in secretly collusive harmony, despite their twin and symmetrical residues of shame about a consistent espousal of either full economic or full personal ruthlessness. And starting with Bill Clinton's politics of the 'new center', both liberalisms shamelessly converged – and with them the mainstream left and right. The result was a new, scarcely questionable consensus masquerading as a pragmatic centrism that concealed its ideological commitment to limitless liberalisation and mindless modernisation. The notion of emancipation has thereby become debased to mean liberation not simply from the prejudiced social exclusion of certain groups and from arbitrary inequalities, but also from almost all and every restriction on individual choice. As the unleashing of choice always involves new restrictions of the choices of some by the choices of others, it quickly and contradictorily leads to new and draconian restrictions on citizens' freedoms. Since rival rights and freedoms collide, power decides, such that ultra-liberalism results in a hysterical oscillation between release and control. For merely negative liberty lacks positive criteria for discriminating between what should be allowed and encouraged and what should not.

Both the liberal right and the liberal left have also privileged blind progress (understood as growth in technology, wealth and private autonomy) over tradition and a sense of mutual obligation. The twin triumph of the two liberalisms has thereby reinforced the continual convergence of the strong state and the free market. By celebrating individual choice and dismissing reciprocal responsibility, the liberal 'market-state' disembeds the economy from society and at the same time re-embeds social relations in a transactional, economistic and utilitarian culture that only state-power can coordinate. From this perspective, the post-war and the 1980s settlements represent two sides of the same coin. Each has favoured processes of uniform, legally guaranteed transaction over interpersonal relationship. By venerating an increasingly positivistic, amoral and supposedly neutral law, liberalism has reduced politics to little more than managerial and technocratic bureaucracy – a neoliberal variant of the Communist nightmare that sought to replace 'the government of people' with 'the administration of things'.

Both settlements have, accordingly, combined to fuse the visible hand of the state with the invisible hand of the market at the expense of intermediary institutions and popular participation. To this end, liberalism has undermined the civic bonds upon which a vibrant democracy and a productive market economy depend. It has further fragmented mutual organisation and undermined the pursuit of reciprocal benefit based on contribution and appropriate reward.

But the joint failure of the post-war and 1980s settlements is now becoming evermore apparent: neither remote bureaucratic control nor commercial competition has worked for the mutual benefit of all, while when conjoined they have led to a new oligarchy. Nor is there any pragmatic justification for this. On the contrary, it has presided in many countries over economic breakdown that was later thinly disguised by a financial surge, which has often blinded elites to the need to regenerate a beneficial agriculture, manufacturing and industry, and to better deploy human inventiveness.

Before returning to the crisis of liberalism, we will first of all, in the following sections, (a) further define liberalism as individualism, negative liberty, pessimism and apparent optimism; (b) deal with objections to this characterisation; (c) discuss objections to our thesis that liberalism is the ideology of modern times; and (d) review the objection that our tracing of 'liberalism' to early modernity is anachronistic. Then we will show (e) how pessimistic political liberalism is also, and ineluctably, capitalism; and (f) how apparently optimistic liberalism automatically involves state technocratic control. In conclusion we will explain how all these features finally engender a metacrisis.


Historically, each face of liberalism seems to be the opposite of the other: the liberal left appeals to the state to protect the people from the forces of market fundamentalism that the liberal right champions, while the liberal right defends conservative values of family and the nation against the multiculturalism and emancipation that the liberal left celebrates. But far from representing genuine alternatives to one another, the two liberalisms are mutually reinforcing in the way we have just described. Thus we have entered a new era in which the seamless fusion of both reveals liberalism's hidden nature: the primacy of politics and the economy over society, which brings about a centralisation of power, a concentration of wealth and a commodification of life.

Nor is this fusion limited to party politics. In business and the 'culture industry', figures like Richard Branson, Bono, Bob Geldof or Bill Gates, who simultaneously pose as free-market champions and liberal humanitarians, embody a post-hippy, beach-combing 'capitalist philanthropy'. The merging of social with economic liberalisation has produced a new form of liberal imperialism that extends state and market power to conflict-zones by commodifying access to suffering populations – a multi-billion business that benefits not just predatory belligerents and for-profit military/security companies, but also donor countries that pursue their geo-political self-interest and NGOs that promote their liberal ideology.

In broader conceptual terms, the two liberal revolutions are one because both champion 'negative liberty', that is to say, unfettered personal choice and freedom from constraint except the law and private conscience. This is to be contrasted with the promotion of 'positive liberty', or the self-release of people from debilitating passions and degrading choices, in favour of the more strenuous pursuit of human flourishing. To believe in the primacy of positive liberty is to take the view natural to every parent that what is most freely chosen is genuinely attractive in its own right and most satisfying and releasing of creative individuality in the long run. By comparison, the apparently free choice of false goods always involves a succumbing to false blandishments that conceal a hidden and, thereby, all the more insidious coercion. Just as children deserve nurture and so our protection from disguised violence and subtle domination, so also all citizens have the genuine right to expect that their leaders will encourage their true creative development and (often surprising) fulfilment, rather than their covert frustration.

And here it should be noted that, to the instance of the thwarting of people's nobler natures and aspirations, can be added a much more recognised and conscious frustration at the inevitable inability of liberal society to offer anything like the same degree of the release of negative liberty for all. Liberalism legitimates the limitless expansion of the power of the more skilled, opportunistic and ruthless, so long as this proceeds in accordance with contractual agreement and the supposedly neutral expansion of one's 'own' domain. And yet the expansion of private resources of all kinds in reality affects through influence of usage the environment and scope for free action of others.

In this way, the produced inequity of liberalism gives rise to endless discontents, which today, once more, are spilling over into atavistic assertions of absolute identities – of race, nation, religion, gender, sexuality, disability, etc. Such identities are often in hybrid association with liberal goals of egotistic increase, which are, after all, but half-spurned. In direct contrast, an initial admission of the inequality, though equal importance of the many different and necessary social roles – which form an organic unity and which all bear different inherent inflections of the goals of positive freedom – is far more likely to engender relative social contentment. This is particularly true if people are encouraged to seek fulfilment more through excellence in their specific vocations rather than in unending material competition. And where liberalism yields ever-greater actual inequality in the name of formal equality, a politics of virtue can exhibit just the reverse tendency. Respect for the necessity of every role, however humble, is more likely to encourage a relative parity of material rewards, where the 'professional' architectonic functions are pursued more for their own sake and accorded a high degree of social honouring.

Beyond the vocational dimension of our lives, the pursuit of positive liberty also encourages the living of rounded lives with time and space for the leisure pursuit of other creative talents and of religious or cosmic contemplation tending to genuine (as the reverse of complacent) tranquillity and contentment. At this most crucial level of all, the politics of virtue pursues a more substantive equality. It follows that the espousal of egalitarianism and democracy by liberalism is a deception. By contrast, the support of these things by a politics of virtue is more modest and cautious, since it will not surrender the priority of excellence to a formalist obliteration of real differences in capacity. Yet, just on account of this more balanced and realist axiology, it has a greater tendency to foment greater equity and inclusion in practice.

For this reason, politics should revert to its ancient character as a 'politics of the soul', concerned above all to nurture virtuous citizens, just as parents are concerned above all with the character of their children, precisely because they are also primarily concerned with their happiness.

Of course, the liberal riposte to this deliberate and unavoidable post-liberal provocation is that it is wholly unacceptable to treat citizens as children and for government to assume any kind of parental cast. Yet this trite liberal truism about government for and by autonomous adults is also the ultimate liberal delusion, and on two counts. First, liberal government is inevitably involved in just the most patronising mode of parenting, since the alternative to treating citizens as souls is to treat them as mere bodies to be endlessly and externally managed and manipulated. This is done through the bypassing of all dialectical, Socratic persuasion and with a requirement from their minds only of assent to prevailing mass opinion, propaganda and fashion. For that is all that the shadow of the publicly psychic can consist in, if it is thought that there are no souls and no objective truths to be discerned by them.

Secondly, and most crucially, adulthood is never achieved all at once, is never fully achieved at all and yet is already partially entered into in the course of childhood itself. Over the span of 'adult' life, it is forever being further entered into, including by leaders and educators of all kinds themselves – the very precondition for whose leadership should be their (always relative) maturity. Where this reality is half-suppressed, as by liberalism, and it is officially supposed that adulthood is a matter of absolute metaphysical status and not of degree, then, ironically, all citizens are trapped within the worst sort of perpetual, self-congratulatory infancy. They live in denial of their need to grow in their most essential humanity, which is not already given as a matter of both inalienable fact and right. No doubt this is why, today, a vast number of adults seem to spend much of their time off work out shopping in children's shorts, trainers and slogan-covered tee-shirts, the speaking garments of the inarticulate. Only the multiple tattoos, in mockery of 'barbarian' symbolic dignity, proclaim that they have undergone an initiation to distinguish them, by a skin-stamped particular expressive variant of universal fashion, from their equally half-clad offspring.

Where all free choices are validated in the name of negative liberty, then infantile options go unrebuked, just to the degree that these adults are in reality the victims of coercive and abusive economic and political processes. These processes subvert their humanity by appealing to their lower and distorted instincts, including, now, a blatant advertisement of contempt for aesthetic standards in the name of comfort and grotesque singularity. Bound by concealed chains, such citizens become less and less capable of creative autonomy and active participation, though they may in extremis fall prey to nihilistic and atavistic cults of ressentiment.

In this way, the characteristic liberal ignoring of the primacy of time, tradition, habit and formation, together with the gradualness and unfinished character of human growth, ensures that its formal claim to treat all equally as autonomous adults, bearers of natural rights, reverts inevitably to a real infantilisation of most. Increasingly, we are subjected to a rationalising, utilitarian calculus, which barely conceals the usage of people for mass ends as a substitute for a care and cure of their souls. By contrast, the apparently unacceptable 'parentalism' of the politics of virtue in reality nurtures both freedom and independence, since it is only the truth that can possibly set us free. If there is no truth, then the realm of the spirit must also be an illusion, a mere phantom of material processes to which governments should more honestly attend. And if no spirit, then no freedom, only the unblocking of the path of atoms for a more coordinated articulation (after Hobbes) and the smoother securing of social permissions via better educative manipulation (after Locke).

All this is not to say that a priority of positive freedom leaves no place for negative liberty whatsoever. On the contrary, to begin with, in the history of modern times, the release of individual negative freedom removed many forms of oppression and allowed for new manifestations of political liberty and creative talent. But in the long run, by virtue of that excess which attends any partial good, it too much stifles the exercise of trust that is crucial to all human association. It also erodes the belief in the objective values that liberty and creativity might seek ceaselessly to discern and instantiate. A lack of trust and belief in objective truth and goodness (however hard to fully disclose – it is the work of centuries) then favours the growth of high-level criminality. For a legality founded in egotism is scarcely morally distinguishable for the individual from evasion of the law when she can get away with it. This but reinforces inequality and fear-driven rivalry.

Such an atmosphere actually starts to inhibit people's inventiveness and, therefore, their capacity for freedom – even for freedom of choice. The liberal defence of exclusively negative liberty therefore ends up undermining all modes of freedom, because it produces the very effects that liberalism wrongly associates with positive liberty – ideological supremacy, the closing down of debate about substantive ends and the hollowing out of plurality. Thus liberal politics brings about exactly the kind of intolerant illiberalism that it ascribes to all non-liberal positions.

Liberalism's conception of negative liberty rests on two pillars: a procedural, formalistic conception of justice and an instrumental notion of reason. The former articulates in practice the classical liberal argument that any notion of substantive, objective truth engenders a 'tyranny of the Good' and that justice is best seen as a form of procedural fairness (on a Rawlsian model). The latter – instrumental reason – reflects the liberal tendency to replace social solidarity that seeks mutual benefit with a calculative rationality that maximises enlightened self-interest (on a Weberian model). In this manner, individuals are proclaimed 'autonomous' when all the while they are subjected to the instrumental logic of bureaucratic control and commercial exchange. The more they are deemed negatively 'free', the more their freedom can only be cashed out in a public, measurable currency of degrees of force and lack of self-constraint. Thus the scale of self-worth that the individual is encouraged to adopt is the very same scale by which she is subjected to mass manipulation. Furthermore, it is only this manipulation – through the continuous removal of traditional barriers and the proffering of opportunities for endless consumer and investment growth – that offers the individual the possibility of liberal 'autonomy' at all. Such a logic locks human beings into a vicious circle of ever-greater voluntary servitude and obsequiousness.


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Table of Contents

Introduction / Part One: Politics / 1. The Metacrisis of Liberalism / 2. The Post-liberal Alternative / Part Two: Economy / 3. The Metacrisis of Capitalism / 4. The Civil Economy Alternative / Part Three: Polity / 5. The Metacrisis of Democracy / 6. The Mixed Constitution Alternative / Part Four: Culture / 7. The Metacrisis of Culture / 8. Culture as Formation / Part Five: World / 9. The Metacrisis of the Nations / 10. Commonwealth, Culture and Covenant / Conclusion / Index

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