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

by john milbank and adrian pabst
rowman and littlefield, 
418 pages, $39.95

Among the ideas that compete to determine the world’s future, one can count Catholicism, Islam, and (until recently) Marxism. But only one is dominant, hegemonic, and all-pervasive—liberalism. Even though its ascendancy is relatively recent, we regard its precepts as if they were Platonic archetypes, both self-evident and manifestly good. Even those who do not consider themselves liberals unthinkingly repeat liberal platitudes. Any attempt not to be liberal seems to descend into something more primitive and dangerous, thereby confirming in the eyes of many the rightness and righteousness of liberal belief. 

These thoughts came to me while reading the reviews of The Politics of Virtue, by John Milbank and Adrian Pabst. By and large it hasn’t been a well-reviewed book, and by that I do not mean that the reviews were negative. They were in fact (as with all good books) mixed, some laudatory and others declamatory. No, I mean that the reviews themselves have often failed to recognize the main purpose of The Politics of Virtue, which is to challenge the ascendancy of liberalism and recommend a humane post-liberalism that can succeed it. 

For some reviewers, the fact that the book dares to question liberalism is reason enough to dismiss it. In the Times Literary Supplement, Albert Weale rejects the idea of post-liberalism, arguing in effect that since liberalism says it is committed to an open and tolerant society, it can’t be accused of not being open or tolerant. Meanwhile, Clifford Longley in The Tablet states that there are many liberalisms and thinks it odd to try to offer a unified definition since he himself (bizarrely, for a Catholic thinker) sees no link between the social liberalism of the left and the economic liberalism of the right.

Other reviewers have better grasped the book. As Stanley Hauerwas put it in his review for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, “Milbank and Pabst will be dismissed for having a far too strong position by liberals who in principle dismiss strong positions yet cannot recognize that they have a strong position.” In the Review of Politics, Fred Dallmayr notes that the book’s position is strong indeed. It “charges modern ‘liberalism’ tout court with the ‘atomization’ of society coupled with authoritarian interventions from above.” As Milbank and Pabst write, “The triumph of liberalism today more and more brings about the ‘war of all against all.’” Liberalism brings about the very thing, a universal civil war, from which it initially promised deliverance. It also brings about what has never existed before, but what it claims was there in the beginning: an isolated individual abstracted from all social ties and duties. Thus what liberalism claims to base itself upon, and escape from, is what it both constructs and ensures.

Liberalism finds its quintessential form in a market state that enforces individualism. The market state must abolish anything that stands in the way of unconstrained freedom; it must eliminate solidarity or shared associations with other people, places, or things. This gives liberalism a curious Maoist cast, as it seeks to dispel our settled notions, be they sexual, biological, or even of who counts as human. In the late twentieth century, this process happened in two waves: social liberalization in the ’60s and ’70s followed by economic liberalization in the ’80s and ’90s. Social liberalism (left-inspired) was necessary to take apart social solidarity in order to make possible its (right-inspired) economic correlate: economic liberalism. And it is economic liberalism in its current form that has led to the new oligopolistic and even monopolistic capture of the economy and to the stagnation of income that we now see in the West.

Milbank and Pabst see the liberal social and economic revolutions as outworkings of the concept of negative liberty, which they define, following Isaiah Berlin, as “unfettered personal choice and freedom from constraint except the law and private conscience.” Every freedom is granted except “the liberty to search for objective truth and the substantive good.” To take a collective stand on anything becomes a discrimination against its contrary and a limit on freedom. The all-powerful market state then functions to enforce whatever desire or taboo-breaking practice the cosmopolitan elite wishes to follow, whatever the popular collective resistance against it may be.

Right-wing liberalism began with theological pessimism about man’s ability to cooperate with divine grace. Jansenist and Calvinist theology suggested that any good in the affairs of men derives from an absent God who despite our terrible natures conspires to bring about the good. He redeems the rapacious egoism of the self-interested by his invisible hand. This trust in invisible formalisms migrates into Adam Smith.

An equally misplaced theological optimism gave birth to the liberal left. Milbank and Pabst show that Rousseau inverted Hobbes in arguing that the state of nature was not a war of all against all but rather the original sphere of innocence, arguing instead that rivalry and competition emerge only when individuals are brought together in antagonistic society. But he also confirmed Hobbes in arguing that peace was indeed secured through the state in the form of the general will. If individual desire is what is most thwarted by society, then Rousseau’s state must first release desire and then unify it so that conflict does not arise and genuine rather than fictive unity results. This is the creed of the contemporary left. All desire is regarded as legitimate, but the state dictates what path desire must take: You must be fluid in gender. You must accumulate wealth.

None of the goods claimed for liberalism emerged with, or belong to, it. Freedom, equality, toleration, individual rights, rule of law, limits on state and market power, fair trial, habeas corpus—all these precede liberalism, as Milbank and Pabst rightly argue. They are present in different forms in antiquity, the classical and medieval periods, and the Renaissance. Communal accounts of the good uphold all these things better than does liberal autonomy. This is in part because liberalism’s lack of concrete instantiation, and its reliance on the imaginary community of aggregated or subsumed wills, condemns it to both representing the interests of an already dominant class (in the absence of the good, might will rule) and erasing what already exists in the name of something entirely fictional.

As is possibly unsurprising, I agree with all the above. Milbank and Pabst are to be congratulated for producing the best clarification and refutation of liberal metaphysics in English—if a rather knotted version of it. They bring a wonderful sense of outrage and humor to arguing against all the pallid shibboleths of the age—violating both leftist (by rightly endorsing Empire as a model for civic governance that can transcend narrow nationalism) and rightist convention (showing that an extreme embrace of markets conserves nothing at all). I deeply enjoyed the initial assumption rather than the usual belabored demonstration that unrestrained liberalism is evil and should be an anathema.

Yet if this is how liberalism now appears, from whence did it come and what did it replace? This is perhaps the most unsatisfying element of the book. Liberalism appears as a disaster that has inexplicably fallen upon humanity, the singular product of vested rather than popular interest. There is no real explanation of why this ideology would prove so popular and successful nor of why the ancien régime proved so unable to resist it. If liberalism were just in the interests of Whig oligarchs, then why would large numbers support and back it?

In this regard, it is useful to read Jean-Claude Michéa alongside The Politics of Virtue, which he clearly influenced. Michéa believes that the origins of liberalism lie in fear of war and a concomitant desire to limit “the desire for glory on the part of the Great and the pretensions of people to know the truth about Goodness (the source of all civil wars).” One learns something deceptively simple here, but it does set in sharp relief why a Hobbesian solution might have seemed attractive at the time. Indeed, most men are not converted from their ruling principles by ideas, but by the practices that result from them, just as Catholicism lost much of Northern Europe not only because of Protestant ideas but also because the European princes saw it as a chance to escape papal authority and become popes in their own countries. Unless we understand why something like liberalism succeeded and the (putative) goods that it delivered, we can never hope to dethrone it.

One would think that as the carnage of liberalism accumulates, alternatives to it would be attracting support. And in one sense they are. How else to understand Trump and Brexit and the National Front (FN) in France except as in part post-liberal? These populisms are all in their various ways protesting against the mass movement of people and goods and its impact on local labor and production. Quite apart from the economic costs to the poor from globalization there is a significant cultural component of this resistance to liberalism. The new post-liberal populists recognize, at least at an intuitive level, that there is also a cultural danger with mass Islamic migration and the potential long-term threat this poses to societies sprung from Christendom. Yet these nationalist responses to international liberalism dangerously and unknowingly recapitulate various liberal aspects of what they purport to counter. Trump offers protectionism and nationalism abroad but ever more rampant neoliberalism at home. Brexit promised us rescue from the consequences of free trade with Europe, so we can trade ever more freely with the world (which will only further depress the incomes and living standards of the low-skilled working poor). Remove the antagonism to Islam from the FN, and it is just liberal welfarism all over again. The post-liberal offers we have are almost all regressive.

We need to ask why post-liberals cannot propose anything better than modern liberalism. The closest we have come, I think, in recent times to a genuine post-liberal offer was Theresa May’s government before the UK election in 2017. At least the advisers around her were genuine Red Tories, people like Nick Timothy, her chief of staff, who believes that extreme liberalism is the source of Britain’s problems. But May was unable to challenge austerity or to conceive of any policy changes that might help right the many wrongs of modern liberalism in Britain. And the election itself was a disaster. Her failure to develop an ambitious array of policy ideas to reset the national course, especially after the momentous vote to do just that in Brexit, remains both tragic and culpable.

Why, if liberalism is so dreadful, are the post-liberalisms that we have seemingly worse? Milbank and Pabst fear that in the absence of a “democracy of the psyche, it is all too possible that quasi-fascist tendencies will increase their appeal and eventually seize power across Europe, and even, in the United States.” They call fascism “travestied post-liberalism,” and rightly so. Fascism is liberalism followed to its logical conclusion, combining a worship of the state and the collective will embodied in the dear leader.

If post-liberals are to avoid fascism, they must cease to be secular. It is here that Milbank and Pabst advance virtue theory beyond where its secular advocates have left it. The problem with secular virtue theory is that it remains too subjective. Despite its claims, it too often accepts that it is just one moral option among others. It had clear realist implications in MacIntyre, but they were never followed through. If virtue theory has nothing objective or “realist” attached to it, why would it appeal? It must explain why reality would care for human beings, why it would disclose their proper path or “ought” to them. Only Christianity or some other loving monotheism can do this.

So it is fitting that Milbank and Pabst issue an implicit call to realism and an explicit call to Christianity. A just politics requires “the weight of objectivity and the glimpsed seriousness of the Good.” We cannot have this without a “new irruption of a communicable ethical and probably religious vision, genuinely able to move people.” Unfortunately, the institutions that could advance this are in disarray. Christian shepherds are distracted by their own liberal dreams; their flocks are scattered.

Nonetheless, many people see our crisis. They are appalled by the culture of death represented by the mass slaughter of the unborn and state euthanasia in the Netherlands, where the killing of the depressed, the old, and the ill has become epidemic. And, of course, many young people remain idealistic, or else they would not be persuaded by the extreme and dangerous politics they often endorse.

So there is a world to win, but we are still very far from fighting liberalism on a unified front. Too few recognize that social and economic liberalism are one. Too many movements only tackle one face of liberalism and not the other. This is the current fate of American Catholicism, the body that could and should save America. Its social conservatism is the most advanced in the Western world, but it is wholly captive to the most extreme economic liberalism and so has very little, almost nothing, to say about the class segregation that capitalism imposes on Americans, in which the poverty of the bottom third is compounded and made all the more hopeless by drugs and crime.

The Catholic Church must reenter the political fray, not as a chaplain to left or right but as the herald of a new order. Though Pope Francis is an eloquent critic of economic liberalism, he has undermined that witness by softening the Church’s opposition to social liberalism. Libertine leftism has not halted the advance of the market despite being advocated by some of our most brilliant minds and able politicians. It will not prove any more effective when preached by a pope. That is because the market state does not mind the sternest declarations of “no” so long as one’s actions indicate consent.

Our only immediate hope, then, is in converting young idealists to the post-liberal cause. Where should we look for those new leaders and this new unified idealism? I confess that, outside of black Pentecostal churches and a few glorious Anglicans and Evangelicals, I have largely given up on Protestantism as offering an institutional alternative. I suspect that the answer has to lie within the Catholic tradition and the generation of new genuinely post-liberal Catholic leaders.

Yet every young (and old) religious idealist I meet in England is unfortunately alone and fearful of being hammered by the new aggressive and extremist politics of gender. Idealism only flourishes where there is joy and institutions that can transmit and shape that response into higher order and high culture, and I no longer see that in Britain. But I have seen it in traditional Catholic movements, where a whole civic pathway exists to form Christian youth.

What is most lacking from the point of view of politics is a charismatic leader that can personify all that might be good in post-liberalism. My bet is that if this occurs anywhere, it will be in France, whose Catholic political culture is the most advanced in the West. Despite the fracturing of Le Manif pour Tous, and the success of both Macron and the FN, the French know better than anyone else how much they have to lose from extreme liberalism and from the nationalism and racism that threaten to replace it. They more than anyone else see both social and economic liberalism as enemies of the common good. If they can generate a new charismatic leader, there is a chance that world history will turn once more in France.

Phillip Blond is the author of Red Tory: How Left and Right Have Broken Britain and How We Can Fix It.

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