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A post-liberal program: Milbank, Pabst, the human future

By Charles Pinches

Review: John Milbank and Adrian Pabst, The Politics of Virtue: Post-Liberalism and the Human Future (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016)

For 20 years, John Milbank’s voice has sounded powerfully in academic theology. His radical orthodoxy has reoriented theological discussion, partly because his learning spans so many disciplines that he is able to venture and defend comprehensive, theologically informed claims about our postmodern condition. This book, written with Adrian Pabst, further expands the scope of these claims.

Milbank and Pabst argue that liberalism — which is, in effect, the dominant modern anthropology that defines human nature as “fundamentally individual existence abstracted from social embeddedness” — has in all its spheres led, in Thomas Hobbes’s phrase, to a “war of all against all.” The recent rise of radical Islam and the financial breakdown of 2008 help bring a “metacrisis” of liberalism into view. The book names four faces of the metacrisis: capitalism, democracy, culture, and the nations. It moves successively through a description of each crisis in one chapter to a post-liberal alternative in the next.

For Milbank and Pabst, liberalism’s fundamental atomism entails that individuals “freely” make their own morality rather than being formed in one, from which it follows that there is no real moral training in liberalism; and so it requires a strong nation-state to protect freedom and resist anarchy. The space between individual and state, lacking in genuine sociality and community, is the playground of capitalism. Yet — and here is the crisis — as liberalism proclaims that we are nothing more than self-interested individuals, it loses any possibility of instruction from nature and culture about how to live. It follows a secular logic that commodifies as it desacralizes nature and life. “The destination of production is always consumption, which means a final destruction” (p. 97). For the authors, the alternative resides in receiving life as gift, which is also to acknowledge meaning in nature, from which we can learn. “Gift” thinking is stubbornly theological, and for Christians it is eucharistic: daily we receive the gifts of God for the people of God.

It follows that the crisis of liberalism resides in its implied secularism, its willful ignorance of the transcendent. Famously summed up by Dostoevsky, “without God everything is permitted.” Yet this simple diagnosis does not belie the complex way in which liberal, secular thinking has woven its way through modern life. This is the great contribution of The Politics of Virtue: its point-by-point analysis of how liberal thinking, with its secular and capitalist logic, has led to crises in civic, cultural, and national life.

A key theme in this detailed analysis is how education has lost its soul. The book’s title is a reminder of the classical assumption that politics is for formation in virtue. The formation we experience in liberal regimes, however, “dehumanizes” since it imagines the “spiritual” to be a merely private matter, and reduces the bodily to mere wanting and acquiring and controlling (p. 283). Education helps us get what we want, which also serves the state since it needs “educated” workers to sustain its economic life and its place among the nations.

The heart of the authors’ discussion of education comes in “Culture as Formation,” their eighth chapter, which responds to liberalism’s cultural metacrisis. It is among their best; not only is its critique of current educational practices stingingly accurate but its suggestions for reform are interesting and concrete. For instance, they suggest coupling distinguished universities with regional technical colleges, encouraging the extension of the guilds in the latter, and the common commitment of both kinds of institutions to character formation.

The book is weakest in its final section, in which it explores the metacrisis of the nations. Here difficulties emerge. Their earlier well-defended disdain for capitalism is extended in this section by the assertion that “the worst of the West,” i.e., capitalism, which is spreading worldwide, should be counteracted by “the best of the West,” which is for the authors the traditions bequeathed from Rome and Christendom on how to run an empire, with “good order” and “mixed government” (i.e., where governance is spread among smaller formative communities such as family and guild). Indeed, for them the British Empire was perhaps the best modern exemplar of these traditions. The authors go so far as to favor a kind of European empire, with Britain and perhaps Germany in the lead (here Brexit is a complication, which the authors flag but cannot discuss at length).

With talk of empire the authors intend to suggest an alternative to the sovereign nation-state that liberalism has so accented, and clearly in our time nationalism threatens. Yet the history is too palpable. How might Africans, for instance, take to calls for a revival of European imperialism? But more importantly, it is difficult to reconcile praise for Roman imperialism with a theology that genuinely emerges in the community that worships Jesus Christ, crucified under Pontius Pilate. Indeed, while Milbank and Pabst occasionally extol the Church as a potential leader in cultural education, their book is principally interested in a new (post-liberal) world order, which might incorporate certain “Christian ideas” but is not, and cannot be, the Church. Unless chastened by an ecclesiology that remembers Jesus’ teaching to his disciples about a world that will hate as it hated him, or even by an Augustinian suspicion of an earthly peace that can be used by Christians but never fully embraced, Milbank and Pabst risk squandering their many blazing insights about the modern liberal predicament on a parallel post-liberal program to run the world.

Charles Pinches is professor of theology and religious studies at the University of Scranton


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