Politics after Liberalism

By Blond, Phillip | First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, December 2017 | Go to article overview

Politics after Liberalism


Blond, Phillip, First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life


POLITICS AFTER LIBERALISM 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. …

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