- Challenging the Terms of Liberalism:On The Politics of Virtue
With their recent book The Politics of Virtue,1 John Milbank and Adrian Pabst take a decisive step in the ongoing critique of liberalism. Not only do they articulate in a compelling way why the current crises of liberal institutions (which only those blinded by ideology can still deny) were all but inevitable given the founding principles of liberalism, but they also show, in relentlessly concrete terms, what a “post-liberal” alternative might look like. This latter contribution is something quite new, and quite helpful.
The fundamental significance of this contribution ought not to be overlooked, and reflecting on it gets us immediately to the heart of the matter. One of the primary reasons for the triumph of liberalism in the West—and indeed, at this point, arguably in the world simply—is that it changed the very terms of the debate, so to speak, and did so in such a way as to make its triumph inevitable. To put the matter somewhat oversimply, it deposed truth as the standard by which reality is measured and, in a certain sense, replaced it with nothing at all, insofar as having a standard of any genuinely transcendent sort inevitably brings one back inside a horizon set by truth (as Plato showed over and over again). Radically new approaches to theology, metaphysics, anthropology, and physics are entailed by this shift that may, on the surface, appear to be little more than a new [End Page 1353] approach to politics and economics. This shift is a disruption of the previous tradition that is more radically new, at least in a certain respect, than even God’s self-revelation in Christ, since the latter is the revelation of the God who created all things, including the nature presupposed and perfected by the gift of grace.2 Ultimately, liberalism is in this sense a breaking of the analogy of being, and if there is a metaphysical equivalent of the sin against the Holy Spirit, the destruction of the analogy of being would be it, insofar as it finally renders metaphysics itself impossible. Because the shifting of terms entails a new theology and metaphysics, a critique of liberalism must address it at this level. But because liberalism is most directly a political philosophy, the critique has to be carried through to the level of prudential judgments concerning concrete matters. There are few who can do both, and the present authors are among those few.
According to the authors, liberalism is a kind of absolutizing of the individual: “Liberalism … exhibits in all its variants an individualist consistency” (45). And, as we see clearly in Hobbes, Spinoza, Harrington, and Locke, it is committed to a reductive rationalism in politics that coincides with its ontological individualism: “A reigning individualism is inseparable from this rationalism and from opposition to any Catholic conception of the role of the Church” (46). This ontological individualism relentlessly undermines any gathering up of genuine unities, genuinely cohesive wholes, whether this be understood at the level of social or political order, culture, economics, philosophy, or others. It is just this fragmentation that ensures the victory of liberalism: it no longer needs to give reasons for its superiority, for reason itself has been emptied of substance. The only thing left is effective force in its various manifestations, above all technology, majority opinion, the machinery of state, and the movement of history, which gets dubbed “inevitable.” Liberalism wins because it has always neutralized in advance any competitor.
It is in relation to this point that the authors’ achievement stands out so brilliantly. By introducing a concrete alternative to liberalism, they not only provide a competitor, or at least outline in plausible terms what a competitor might look like, but even more fundamentally, in doing so, they reinstate, at least in principle, the classical terms of the debate, terms that are necessary for there even to be any [End Page 1354] kind of debate in the first place. In impressive detail, Milbank and Pabst show that the liberal institutions that we have come to take for granted—capitalism, democracy, and so forth—were far from eternally...