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Post-liberal rocket fuel

09 December 2016

Nick Spencer looks at an argument weighed down by its prose

The Politics of Virtue: Post-Liberalism and the human future
John Milbank and Adrian Pabst
Rowman & Littlefield £24.95
Church Times Bookshop £22.45



THERE are two ways one might review this book: one charitably, the other less so.The charitable review runs as follows.

Liberalism is the West’s ideological lodestar, and increasingly the world’s, pointing its economic, social, political and even cultural direction. That direction is, however, rock-bound. Milbank and Pabst show that this crisis is really a metacrisis, not simply a problem within liberalism which may be tinkered into health, but a problem with liberalism, with its very foundations. Only a root-and-branch reform can salvage our good, which is precisely what the authors attempt.

In ten erudite, closely argued, and wide-ranging chapters, they outline how this metacrisis manifests itself in politics, economics, constitutional affairs, culture, and international relations ,and then, with admirable boldness and detail, offer “alternatives” in each field.

The uncharitable review, by contrast, ventures that the authors are apparently motivated by a loathing of anything “liberal”, without seriously engaging with its most coherent defenders or acknowledging the undoubted good that it has done.

As a result, they vigorously denounce anyone or thing tainted by it, while fetishising medieval Christendom in a way that pays scant attention to the realities of life then. Worse, they seem keener to demonstrate their vast erudition than actually to illuminate their readers, the result being 400 pages of phrases many of which are better suited to Pseuds’ Corner.

Neither of these is the whole truth, but each bears its marks. The Politics of Virtue is a genuinely impressive attempt to set out a critique of the mistaken anthropology on which liberalism rests, and its deleterious consequences. Moreover, unlike so many books that diagnose the ailment with forensic specificity and then airily wave a few suggestions into the air, Milbank and Pabst are impressively concrete and coherent in their response, articulating solutions based on “association and mutualisation . . . a reciprocalism model of sharing risk, responsibilities and resources”.

They have clearly thought deeply about the problem, and, if their solutions feel more pre-political than political (they talk a lot of telos and tradition and cosmos and organic or cultural responses), that is precisely because it is a metacrisis

It is also a deeply learned book with recourse to an astonishingly wide range of ideas and sources, but that is also its greatest fault. The book’s arguments are needlessly complexified and often drowned out by the volume of intellectual chest-beating and the sound of “the transcendental straight vector of abstraction-spatialisation . . . [taking] a constant detour though the cycle of contradiction”, and other such gems. It is hard going and unnecessarily “clever”.

The cause of post-liberalism, to which this book is the most substantial contribution to date, has yet really to take off. The Politics of Virtue will give it fuel, but leave it firmly on the launch pad.


Nick Spencer is Research Director at Theos.

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