Wednesday, June 15, 2005

John Milbank's Theological Politics

Next up: John Milbank.

A few weeks ago, Jim Faulconer (an old professor of mine, one of my co-bloggers at Times and Seasons, and a good friend) pointed out to several of us an essay by the theologian John Milbank, titled "Liberality versus Liberalism" (found here). Milbank is one of the major figures in a movement its advocates have described as "radical orthodoxy," and for one reason or another Jim finds much of what they have to say appealing; I do too. Jim's idea was to try to get several bloggers to read and comment at length on the essay, and see where the discussion took us. My comments are appended to Jim's original Times and Seasons post; I'd strongly recommend reading his post if you want a good introduction to radical orthodoxy, as well as preview of the essay itself (which is dense, fairly exploratory, and not always well-argued). As for my comments, they're pretty lengthy, and partly discuss matters pertinent only to Mormons like myself approaching the project of political theology, so I'm only going to excerpt them here.


Christianity proposes that God has revealed His will and love to humankind in a particularly interruptive way--namely, through the birth, teachings, atonement and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ. This revelatory act puts all of history, and everything that happens in history, in "the shadow of the cross," to use an old Christian phrase. But that shadow is all we have; we know that everything is different once we accept that Christ is not just our God but also our King, but what are the specifics of those differences? In practice, one finds a large amount of relatively empty "space" between the revelatory event at the center of history and ordinary political life. And so the tradition of "political theology" emerges as a way to philosophically connect the nature and needs of political life with that absolute standard which shapes and bounds it, but does not explicate all its details.

Theologians like John Milbank want to upset this tradition; they are trying to re-assert the primacy of the Christian revelation, and the community of believers it calls into being, to our assessment of every moment, including every political moment. This is not simply the personal "what would Jesus do?"-type questions every Christian child gets taught at one point or another in Sunday school; this is an attempt to instantiate a Christian reality in the places we are, rather than bracketing it as something which shapes and guides our otherwise secular places and perspectives in a background fashion. One might call it a shift from "political theology" to "theological politics," wherein the church--the body of believers--is itself understood to be the primary polis of everyday life. There isn't anything explicitly original about this task; there have been "holiness" movements that have sought to create their own Christian polities since the very beginning, the Anabaptist movement being the most diverse and well-known. But the theologians of this "emergent" school of theological politics, as it has come to be called--people like Stanley Hauerwas, Oliver O'Donovan, John Howard Yoder, and others--eschew rejectionist approaches; instead, they seek to confront the task of coming up with an overarching alternative to the secular liberal political and economic principles so entwined with the dominant tradition of Christian theological speculation in the Western world.

In the essay in question, Milbank suggests that the solution is to be found in "liberality" rather than "liberalism." What he means by liberality is perhaps better captured in a phrase he uses in other, similar essays of his: "socialism by grace." His aim in this phrase is to pry egalitarian and socialist concepts away from, as he puts it, "materialism and the State," and instead argue that it is not implausible to imagine a socio-economic arrangement, a polity, wherein interactions between persons were governed by principles of grace and "the gift," rather than interest and advantage. The neutral, liberal space of the modern West is, according to many theorists (and certainly Milbank), the inevitable result of a theory of the human person which posited the ability to think, act, earn and exchange with other persons as being wholly internal to the human mind: we are born to be rational, self-revising, calculators. That no reputable liberal philosopher ever believed this to be entirely the case is, in a sense, irrelevant; by putting the critical individual first, we cannot avoid making it imperative that politics attend to the division between what is "private" and what is "public," and restrict collective action to the latter. As it is in the public interest that individuals be able to peaceably pursue their private aims, but it is decidedly not in the public interest to determine what those private ought or ought not be (outside of materially harmful aims, of course), the best polity will be one that imposes only a minimal structure upon socio-economic activity: people can trade or save, worship or sleep in, teach their children poetry or pushpin, as they will. The better liberal thinkers have always recognized that all this activity, if it is not to break down into vapid majoritarianism or, worse, anarchic nihilism, will have to have some sort foundation in truths larger than individual desire. The question is whether that foundation is strong enough to endure the irreligious practices which liberal theory holds it to, rightly, make possible. Milbank is one of those who does not, and his rejection of the liberalism is grounded in his belief that the liberal achievement fundamentally misunderstands the nature of sin:

[T]he central premises of liberalism . . . are based in Manichean fashion upon the ontological primacy of evil and violence: at the beginning is a threatened individual, piece of property or racial terrain. This is not the same as an Augustianian acknowledgment of original sin . . . [which is] a hopeful doctrine, since it affirms that all-pervasive evil for which we cannot really account . . . is yet all the same a contingent intrusion upon reality, which can one day be fully overcome through the lure of the truly desirable which is transcendent goodness . . . Liberalism instead begins with a disguised naturalization of original sin as original egotism: our own egotism which we seek to nurture, and still more the egotism of the other against which we need protection.

Let me attempt an unpacking of that condemnation. Liberalism begins with a theory of the self which assumes the existence of an ego that is, in the end, fully its own; I'm me, and never, ultimately, after all is said and done, anyone else's. Similarly, God is God, and what is God's is His and no one else's. If this is taken to be the field wherein which all possible behavior is construed, then "sin" is a violation of space; it is a matter of damage to that which belongs to someone else, or infringement upon the authority that someone else possesses. It's an egotism, in other words; it makes the mine and matters of right essential to all forms of consciousness. (And, perhaps not coincidentally, makes God over into very much the despot which Hobbes imagined Him to be: a God whose right to be treated as God flows from His power to make us acknowledge Him as such.) Liberalism takes this twisting of a fundamental theological concept, and applies to political existence: any prudent politics will respond to sin (or "human nature") by thinking in terms of how to establish both limits and incentives in regards to the actions of individuals. Since the individual is essentially understood through ownership, the problems of politics are matters who determining who owns what and that is owed to the owners of this thing or that thing, etc. The traditional liniments of sovereignty, citizenship, justice and so forth all follow in line from this determination. Milbank, however, insists that this displaces our attention, which should be on the constitution of the individual. Ownership, sovereignty, and so forth all flow from an original egotistical assumption which is itself sinful--a perversion of the essentially selfless world which Christ calls us to. The real world is not a world that can be parceled out, Milbank is saying; the real world is a gift. Thus does Milbank point us towards a socialism of grace--an egalitarian economic arrangement of mutual work and gift-giving that recognizes the irreducibly "social" nature of all things and endeavors, but does not plug that sociality, as Marx did, into a dialectic contingent upon a history of capitalism. Milbank is, of course, a Marxist in perhaps the most important sense: as he writes, "humans identity themselves through the production and exchange of things." Our love for one another, and our love for God, is instantiated through material work; the reality of "welfare," "generosity," and "charity" is found in goods and labor, not in intent. (That's not an invitations to "works righteousness," but rather an insistence that a loving will, one that has submitted to God, will apply its own expression to material objects; it will not be a free-floating, professed ideological sentiment.) So a Christian polity must be one which attempts to create an environment where "contract is subordinated to gift," where our everyday lives--as students, friends, spouses, teachers, builders, farmers, children, parents, etc.--is wholly and totally given over to a collective, social awareness of what we freely receive and what we freely impart, not how we, as individual selves, relate to power or satisfy personal interests.

What on earth would be the temporal requirements of such a socialist polity? Well, socio-economically speaking what is necessary is a far wider and more equitable distribution of land, the empowerment of local craft-making and industries over larger and impersonal commercial interests, an immediate retreat from the homogenizing effects of global trade, and a whole raft of proposals that Milbank in this essay barely hints at, but which are probably familiar to anyone who has read much agrarian, populist, or early (as opposed to Marxist-Leninist) socialist literature. This is an important point to emphasize, for Milbank is neither a progressive Christian hoping to guilt other Christians into ameliorating the alienating consequences of modern life, nor a liberation theologist who has been caught up in a dream of revolution. On the contrary, he sounds about as conservative (and hence as radical) as the Kentucky farmer and essayist (and perennial trouble-maker) Wendell Berry when he writes that:

[An] economy of fair-traded food-items may not sound dramatic or decisive, and indeed they remain pathetically marginal and often compromised, but nevertheless the extension of such gift-exchange bit by bit is the sure way forward rather than revolution, government action alone, or else capitalistic solutions. . . . We need once again to form systematic links between producer and consumer co-operatives and we need to see an emergence of cooperative banking (perhaps supervised by Church, Islamic and Jewish bodies) to regulate and adjudicate the interactions between many different modes of cooperative endeavor. Only this will correct the mistake of all our current politics: namely, to suppose that the "free market" is a given which should be either extended or inhibited and balanced. For if the upshots of the free market are intrinsically unjust, then "correcting" this through another welfare economy is only a mode of resignation; moreover Sisyphean, and periodically doomed to go under with every economic downturn.

The more explicitly political aspects of this essay deal with how such a socio-economic arrangement is to be preserved in the modern world; as experience teaches us, cooperative arrangements tend to lack in staying power when arrayed against the temptations of the universally liberated human self. Milbank plainly doesn't think liberal, representative democracy is adequate, preferring something more participatory. I agree with him--and yet it is here that I think Milbank's essay shows the most weakness. The logical connection between Milbank's theological agenda and the socio-economic reforms he thinks implied by such is strong; to deny his critique of capitalism requires, I think, nothing less than to engage and critique the fundamentals of his religious ontology. But when he turns to the constitutional requirements of a polity which could provide a literal as well as an ideological defense against the secular world, Milbank's ideas become, I think, rather hackneyed.

Consider his contempt for both populism and nationalism as, apparently, nothing other than instances of either mobocratic relativism, elite manipulation, or both. Yet far from being enemies of the sort of reciprocal communitarianism he has in mind, both phenomena are fundamentally about developing and expressing affective attachments between persons; neither necessarily have anything to with majoritarianism or contractarianism, but rather are expressions of, and arguments for, participatory civic identities and economic arrangements that empower those most responsible for producing the conditions which sustain the possibility of participation in the first place. To give credit to one's own nation or vocation is to connect one's own identity to a larger, communal project, thereby both drawing from it as well as contributing to it--in other words, it is a context for reciprocation. Milbank, recognizing that there has to be some criteria for situating the polity he desires, talks in the essay about how Christianity looks to "natural pre-given 'regions,'" as well as "metiers, local cultures, religious bodies, etc." Well, what does he imagine nations are built out of, and what does he imagine populist political movements are trying to defend, except exactly all of these? An important argument can be made to the effect that national bodies formed--around shared mores, histories, cultural practices, religious commitments, and most importantly language groups--primarily so as to maintain some sort of continuity with the "pre-given" socio-economic communities in which the lives of the people who lived there were embedded; nationality, according to this theory, emerged as part of a "call to difference" experienced by individuals who recognized that their ability to fully and reciprocally relate to their fellow man was being diluted by an expansion of the public sphere (driven by innovations in technology, travel, administration, trade, and so forth), and who over a period of generations drew out from that expansion a new "social imaginary," one which preserved the essence of the sort of (potentially) loving and reciprocal relationships which existed beforehand. Obviously, only a truly deluded nationalist would believe that modern relationships have perfectly superceded all prior forms of association; what is needed (and which conservative critics of liberal triumphalism have always insisted) is various levels of attachment, ranging from the local on upwards, each contributing to a rich social existence (and thus, from a Milbankian perspective, the means for a truly theological politics). There seems to be no good reason for Milbank to insist that only a certain category of bodies (either intimately local or transcendentally cosmopolitan) can serve to situate gift-giving, and dismissing without argument a whole range of similar bodies that have emerged over the past few centuries as somehow essentially tainted by the liberal virus. (Note that I am not saying that there may not be good communitarian--not to mention liberal!--arguments against granting legitimacy to any number of different orders of popular and national collective expressions; I am simply saying that there seems no reason to ignore the possible legitimacy of any such from Milbank's point of view. Certainly it can't be that modern nationalist and populist movements are automatically capitalist; if anything, today's liberal globalist elites--the visionaries of a flat, homogenized, single-jurisdiction, automatic, atemporal world--for whom Milbank has such obvious contempt are exactly the people who see socialist, nationalist, and populist movements as near-identical threats to their dream of a borderless market polity, which really ought to get him thinking about who his allies actually are.)

Milbank ought to investigate the work of those political scientists and economists who talk about the globe's "new medievalist" future, wherein sovereign power will be so dispersed along disparate economic, political, cultural and religious bodies that the world will begin to resemble the feudal arrangements of the high Middle Ages. This, of course, is not guarantee that such an arrangement will involve great socio-economic participation, cooperation, and reciprocity; it may instead result in the proliferations of ever-more fractured and thus ever-more tyrannically impersonal bureaucracies. But, properly constituted, one could see the eclipse of state power--which, of course, could happen both within states as well as between them, depending on how reforms towards greater socio-economic equality and participatory democracy proceed--as introducing a vacuum into which religious and cultural bodies could step, therefore allowing for the development of polities which recognize religious and transcendent claims as part of their multifaceted constitutional structure(s). This, of course, will not be possible in a world in which a Manichean political conception of the individual against all, with the state as both absolute power and absolute threat, and all other elements of civil association marginalized as mere "private" helps to individuals, reigns supreme; in focusing our attention on this, the crucial obstacle to an economy of gifts becoming the socially transformative and politically necessary complement to a Christian polity, Milbank's essay, whatever its flaws, serves an important purpose. But what is even more important is to recognize that there are tools available to work towards the theological politics which Milbank assumes (rightly, I think) a belief in the Kingship of Christ to make incumbent upon Christians like myself.

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