TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

An Economy of Sacred Ends?

On Tuesdays at the TELOSscope blog, we reach back into the archives and highlight an article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Francisco Unger looks at John Milbank’s “Liberality versus Liberalism,” from Telos 134 (Spring 2006).

John Milbank’s article “Liberality and Liberalism,” as evidenced by its suggestive title, pulls some of the conventional punches. There is a dichotomy between the values of the Enlightenment-affected liberal mindset and the real turnout of liberal institutions. Crass egotism in the market, chilled international relations, and a profaned life for the individual are the fruits of a social model that bases itself on supposedly “natural” conditions of humanity and utility. The unconventional part of Milbank’s critique rests precisely in his religious foundations. He wants a revival, or perhaps the birth, of radical social criticism based on Catholic theology. There is probably some ire to Milbank’s voice, because he is challenging a liberalism that thought it had put such religious dissidence to rest—therein the “liberality” of the marketplace, in which all are accommodated and all space is taken over. But Milbank believes post-Enlightenment efforts for reform based on secular grounds have mostly come to naught. Looking around in the present day, the reader is likely sympathetic. The entrance of divine grace into human life, the Christian guiding light of charity, and the notion of an exchange of gifts as the only fair exchange (non-exploitative), are all solutions to our unhappy liberal aporia. At least that is Milbank’s story.

There is a potential utopianism to Milbank’s notion that Catholic doctrine can revitalize social criticism. Haven’t we been down that road before?—says the naysayer. And isn’t what we really need a cogent and practical new set of economic practices and institutions, not a repetition of the Christian complaint against secular modernity? One figures that when it comes to the criticism of, say, the American bank bailout, the type of reason embodied in the Enlightenment is as up to the task as any Augustinian or Neo-Platonic ethics. Furthermore, even Milbank recognizes that it is hard to find a place to implement the Catholic versions of charity, grace, and gift-exchange that will not come across as farcically meager. Milbank suggests “fair exchange” coffee-consumption in the West as an example of Catholic-style gift exchange, but he acknowledges that this would be social change on a “pathetic” scope.

Why, then, Milbank’s acerbic take on non-religious challenges to our liberal daze? This may have to do with Milbank’s sense of desperation. He is quick to blame all of the modern conditions on the enabling ideology. Rather than looking for contradictions in the theory (as a thinker with a rosier view of the Enlightenment might try to do) that could then be improved upon, Milbank holds “liberal democracy” guilty for all the dirty work done under its watch:

In the face of the crisis of liberal democracy, Catholic Christian thought (including Roman Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, and even some Reformed strands) needs to return to certain older themes of its critique of liberalism—but for radical and not conservative reasons. The “modernity” of liberalism has only delivered mass poverty, inequality, erosion of freely associating bodies beneath the level of the State, and ecological dereliction of the earth. And now, without the compensating threat of communism, it has abolished the rights and dignity of the worker, ensured that women are workplace as well as domestic and erotic slaves, and even started to remove the ancient rights of the individual, which long precede the creed of liberalism itself (for example, habeas corpus in Anglo-Saxon law) and are grounded in the dignity of the person rather than the “selfownership” of autonomous liberal man (sic).

This style of criticism—emblematic of Milbank’s article—is consoling, but I’m not sure how much it can help us to redirect our modern economies. Milbank speaks further on of “ecstasizing” virtue, of the deification of the worshiper, and of the process of the Holy Spirit. For most of us, these words will be either arcane or beside the point. Treating liberalism as a mythically coherent system of values, a virtual bogeyman, stalking behind our frustration with contemporary injustice, trivializes the difficulty to comprehend how it can be fixed. Critics like Milbank argue in favor of a turn (in this case a turn back) to other sets of values. But most people engaged in the search for an alternative social reality find that most of the struggle is left once you’ve found your alternate values and inspiration. If Milbank’s best example for Catholic gift-exchange is a “fair-trade” coffee cup,” then it appears that he belongs to the same problematic.

Read the full version of John Milbank’s “Liberality versus Liberalism” at the TELOS Online website. If you are affiliated with an institution that is an online subscriber to Telos, you have free access to our complete online archive. If not, you can purchase 24-hour access to this and other Telos articles at the low rate of $5/article.

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