Tuesday, 9 July 2013


Does the Left Have a Post-Liberal future? I recently attended a conference at Nottingham University that examined the philosophy, theology and politics and the Blue Labour phenomenon; a broadly Aristotelian innovation within the Labour movement that promotes the values of (as its leader Maurice Glasman puts it) ‘vocation, virtue and value’. It is interesting that Blue Labour likes to think of politics in terms of trinities, because a significant element of Blue Labour thinking is post-secular in orientation. This was clearly reflected in John Milbank’s highly stimulating presentation where he argued that secularism is neither inevitable nor necessarily normative. In his view, secularism is a kind of Christian heresy and the intellectual legitimacy of its liberal forms is now increasingly challenged by a post-secular political philosophy that links the left’s traditional concern with greater economic justice with theologically inspired ideas of personal virtue and honour. Here, the capitalist mechanics of commodification are counterpoised with a ‘neo-Maussian’ economy of gift exchange. This in turn brings with it a mediaeval idea of politics of friendship and a Burkean problematic of community and the common good. The key philosophical issue here is ‘what constitutes a good?’ ‘What broad ends of flourishing should human beings pursue?’ For Milbank, the genuine good remains the good even if everyone votes to reject it. Drawing on Aristotle, Milbank claims that knowledge of the good is a kind of skill, a knowing how to behave and conduct oneself in appropriate ways in appropriate contexts; phroensis - a kind of moral art, or tact. This shows the extent to which ‘right and wrong’ cannot be precisely defined in the Aristotelian tradition. Aristotelian philosophy suggests that individuals are capable of participating in the good, and acting and reacting in ways that we recognise as good. This is the essence of post-liberalism. Milbank claims that it is now clich├ęd to claim that liberalism offers an optimistic view of human nature. However, in his view precisely the opposite is the case. In fact, liberalism assumes that human beings are greedy and selfish. Its roots lie in metaphysical dystopias of Hobbes and Locke. Also important in this context is Adam Smith’s Jansenism and Calvinism, where it is proposed that human beings are so depraved that public virtue becomes impossible (this, argues Milbank, is the ideological root of Adam Smith’s idea of the ‘hidden hand’). An optimistic strand of liberalism can be found in romantic liberalism – especially the ideas of Rousseau, where the solitary natural individual is good, and egoism emerges from rivalry and comparison – that is from society. Here the state becomes the mechanism that returns to us our natural isolated innocence that threatens to collapse the liberal ideal of the emancipated individual into a tyrannical collectivity (20th century statism being the most obvious pathological symptom of this tendency. Milbank then discussed the politics of the New Left – the politics of emancipation that became the fashion after May ’68. Milbank suggested that this politics cannot conform to s shared norm and misreads the necessity of hierarchically organised care. In so doing, as many have pointed out, it tacitly assists the cause of right wing liberalism that it seeks to oppose. The New Left, in this scheme, is left liberalism shorn of its socialist heritage; a liberalism that celebrates random individual desire. In Milbank’s view it ignores, trust, friendship, reciprocity and in this way cuts against the grain of human aspiration as most people pursue association. People are basically Hobbits in Milbank’s view. Overall, Milbank attacks the liberal idea of the priority of evil in human affairs. He accuses it of Catharism that denies the possibility of ‘higher happiness – eudaimonia. This, he believes, is the main aim of government – to increase human flourishing. However, this requires a commitment to metaphysical truth. In Milbank’s view, the lack of belief in metaphysical truth in contemporary liberalism engenders criminality and the breakdown of the social order. Human beings want recognition for excellence rather than a primal hording and this anthropology provides the basis for a co-operative civil economy socialism based around associationism and gift exchange. This is another politics of the third way – of the radical centre, that aims to expose the hidden collusion between two seemingly opposite political poles, what are in fact two versions of political liberalism Neil Turnbull

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