TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

The Politics of Paradox

This talk was presented at the 2009 Telos Conference.

In what follows, I summarize a fragmentary political theology, written from a British perspective, but one that opens itself out to Continental and North American intellectual influences, as well as to global concerns.

It was once said to me, by the late Texan theologian John Clayton, in Lancaster, that he had finally worked out what was “weird” about me: “Most of us, John, are trying to combine German theology with Anglo-Saxon philosophy. A few trendy people go for Continental philosophy as well. But you’re doing the opposite—with utter perversity you’re trying to combine British theology (of all things!) with Continental philosophy—and what is worse, with French stuff!”

This is by no means altogether true. But it contains a grain of truth. I have been consistently interested in the “minority report” of British intellectual history which resists reductive empiricism and utility in the name of what Coleridge called “the old, spiritual, Platonic England” as well as in the name of a more radical empiricism, open to the arrival of the strange and the unexpected. This is by no means simplistically linked to an “anti-science” stance. In the late seventeenth century, there was much fashionable discussion about the Scottish Highlands phenomenon of “second sight.” But the skeptics and the scoffers here were the “wits,” who were equally disdainful of the curious new things being revealed by natural philosophical “experiment.” The Royal Society, by contrast, remained rather agnostic, and took so seriously the initial interest of Robert Boyle in this phenomenon that the far north of Britain became for it for a while, as Michael Hunter puts it, “an occult laboratory.”[1] Of course this was to confuse what may be experienced with what can be reliably measured and repeated—but the instance does reveal a non-dogmatic dimension to the British empirical temperament which is not confined to an induction to conclusions from “atomic” items of sensory information. In the case of the nineteenth-century “sages” Coleridge, Newman, and Ruskin, whose perspectives figure strongly in what follows, one sees a particular insular blending of “the empirical” with “the Platonic.”

And though I have said that they represent “a minority report,” it is nonetheless the case that Anglicanism itself, from Hooker onward, remained closer in its “Toryism” and “metaphysical bent” to this “report” on English and British culture than the “mainline” Whig-utilitarian tradition, which was in reality of course the voice of aristocratic and bourgeois dissent, usurping this theoretically official one. Yet the latter, as the voices of William Cobbett, William Wordsworth, and John Clare reveal, is also the deepest tradition of the British populace and its various regional expressions.

My main concern, though, is with how this diffuse cultural current, at once theological and philosophical, as well as literary, has informed political thought and practice. Here I engage with a tradition of British political reflection, largely Anglo-Catholic and Catholic, which has a great deal in common with that of Catholic Social Teaching on the continent, and which, like that tradition, has been in continuous debate with secular socialism and Hegelianism-Marxism. I try to carry forward the thinking of both traditions in response to the circumstances of recent times. The scope of my theopolitical analyses extends to matters of culture and cultural pluralism, government, economics, history, ecclesiology, and pedagogy. My own thinking appears to combine opposite tendencies. There is both subtlety and brutality, just as there is both radicalism and conservatism. Only the “middle” of an anemic liberalism is consistently and relentlessly refused. I suspect that there will be many who will like the “subtle and radical,” on the one hand, but not the “brutal and conservative,” on the other, while there will be many others with exactly the reverse set of discriminations. However, for my own part, I consider that I am only understood and agreed with when the reader is prepared to endorse a “subtle brutality” that is a “brutal subtlety,” and a “radical conservatism” which is a “conservative radicalism.”

This paradoxicality, I believe, makes my political theology greatly relevant to the global juncture at which we now stand.

As Phillip Blond has suggested, there are now three crucial global forces in the world: capitalist rationality, Islam, and Christianity. And of the latter two, the global reach of Christianity is far more serious and far more likely to prevail in the long term. This means that the anomaly pointed out almost a century ago by Hilaire Belloc is likely to pose its cultural contradiction ever more strongly upon the world stage. This is the manifest gap between the teachings of Christianity which still undergird Western morality, on the one hand, and the theory and practice of capitalism, on the other.[2]

I believe, along with Radical Orthodoxy in general, that only the Church has the theoretical and practical power to challenge the global hegemony of capital and to create a viable politico-economic alternative. I stand thereby in a long tradition of Anglican and Catholic Christian socialism, which has always insisted on the necessity of the “Christian” component for the “Socialist” one. In that sense I have always stood proudly amongst those who see themselves as “conservative theologically, radical politically.”

But over the years I have become more aware of the potential for smugness and inertia in that perspective. One can gently challenge it in three ways. First, there is a dimension that I have already hinted at. Can Christians really, fundamentally, categorize themselves as either left or right? Surely, as André de Muralt has argued, both the ideas of “the rule of One,” of the sovereign center, and of the “rule of the Many,” of individuals either in contracted dispersion or collective unity, are equally “nominalist”—both genealogically and ontologically?[3] For both deny primary real relation, the real universal that is “the common good” and the role of “the few,” whether that of the guiding virtuous elite or of the mediating institutions of civil society. But “right” and “left” define themselves variously in terms of either “the One” or the “the Many,” both nominalistically construed.

Today, of course, what we really have is two versions of a “left” celebration of the “Many” either as individuals or as a democratically voting mass. For reasons still not yet sufficiently accounted for by historians and social theorists, we have a “liberal right,” stressing economic negative liberty, and a “liberal left,” stressing cultural and sexual negative liberty. In reality, of course, the two liberalisms are triumphing both at once and in secretly collusive harmony. So perhaps what still sustains party conflict is alternating anxieties among the populace about the inevitable insecurities generated by now economic and now cultural “freedom” in different temporal phases.

It follows that the very division of left and right assumes a nominalist social ontology, which of course I would reject. And it is also critically important to remind oneself that this division only postdates the French Revolution. This has created a curious historical delusion from which almost no one is really free. For we suppose that the premodern is somehow allied with “the right,” just as barbarous journalists frequently imagine that the divine right of kings was a medieval theory, when it was in reality an early modern one. But pre-nominalist modernity was neither left nor right, neither “progressivist” nor “reactionary”—it was simply “other” to most of our assumed sociopolitical categories.

There is a further point to be made here. When the French revolutionaries invented “left” and “right,” they arguably took us back to paganism and indeed they often explicitly supposed that they were doing so. For characteristically, the ancient Greeks lined up philosophies of the spirit and of “ideal forms” with aristocracy and philosophies of matter with democracy. It is as if they assumed that the latter was always a matter of lowest common denominator and not of highest common factor. But as I have already suggested, the Christian revolution cuts right across this categorization. Instead of siding with “the noble” over against “the base,” or inversely “the base” over against “the noble,” it paradoxically democratizes the noble: hence Paul addresses his interlocutors as “all kings.” Yet at the same time, if there is now a new possibility of the spread of virtue (virtue being redefined as the more generally possible attitudes of love and trust, immune to the instance of “moral luck” as usually understood), there is still a political place for the superior role of the more virtuous and of those appointed to be the “guardians” of virtue, the virtuosos of charisma.

But unlike those paradigms of virtue hitherto, “the heroes,” these Christian “pastors” (who are “shepherds” like Plato’s guardians) will frequently remain both mocked and invisible, since they may lack the glamour of obvious “honor,” and may need to retain a hidden “outlaw” status in order both to escape the need to appease the masses, upon whose adulation manifest power depends, and to directly execute a summary justice which the procedures of inevitably inflexible law might foil. This is the theme brilliantly explored in Christopher Nolan’s Batman film The Dark Knight, with its explicit Platonic resonances concerning the noble lie and so forth. But the film leaves us with the Platonic aporia of a division between the ignoble hero-ruler (a John F. Kennedy figure) whom the people must believe to be noble if they are to have any ideals and the genuinely noble outlaw-guardian who must pursue virtue in uncorrupted secrecy (thereby passing the test of Gyges ring).

The only dimension that can in part resolve this aporetic tension is the Christian one of sacramental ordination and anointed monarchy. The ideal symbolic dimension of the pastoral role implicitly corrects, with its equitable outlawry, any abuse of legal authority—it also to an extent permits the enactment of such equity to the degree that awe at sacred charisma can override the blandishments of popular concession to which mere democracy must remain prone. And yet—save for the example of Lear on the heath in the storm, or Walter Scott’s Richard the Lionheart in Sherwood Forest—the bishop-as-apostle rather than the monarch surpasses even this possibility of visible purity by stepping, like Paul, in and out of visibility, in alternation of command and vagabondage. Thus, likewise, there is still a monarch at the summit of the ecclesia—but it is the crucified, resurrected, ascended, and so apparently absent Jesus, who died as a king but had nowhere on earth to lay his head, and it is this pattern that is followed by the Church hierarchy which mediates his authority.

The politic-ecclesial pattern suggested by the New Testament therefore remains classically democratic/aristocratic/monarchic. Following the norms of antique political thought, this has often in Christian history implied that one or the other stress should dominate according to the prevalence or otherwise of virtue. One could nonetheless validly say that the ultimate bias of Christianity is democratic, because its aim is that all should love and trust, all should become virtuous. In this sense it has a populist bias “to the left.” But this is not exactly “the modern left,” because Christianity (unlike Bush and Blair) sees no automatic merit in democracy in all circumstances, nor any validity in the notion that the will of the majority should always prevail. Its reasons for favoring democracy are rather that the entire truth of Christianity exists in harmonious dispersal among the body of Christ (eschatologically the entire human race and the entire cosmos) and that agreement in the truth requires ideally a free consensus.

The post-revolutionary “left,” however, tends to revive a pagan sense of democracy as lowest common denominator: it links democracy to naturalistic materialism and to a sophistic individualism. I constantly contrast this with Ruskin’s genuinely Christian and explicitly at once “Tory” and “communist” desire to extend norms of nobility, of self-regulation of standards of behavior, work, outcomes, and protection of members from the “liberal” professions also to mercantile and artisanal pursuits.

It is mainly for this reason that “a Christian left” is not really situated within the same spectrum as the secular left—for it both aspires to democratize excellence and to grant an educative and political role to the exponents of excellence in order to balance out the verdict of the many. But this requirement does not compromise democracy—rather it enables it. For democracy is not an infinite regress—no one finally votes on the dominant options presented to people, and if these are not the work of disciplined elites, educated toward virtue as well as knowledge, then they will be the work of propagandists, of a corrupted elite, as now prevails.

The second reason for questioning an overly glib “conservative in theology/radical in politics” equation is that one has to integrate one’s politics with one’s ecclesiology. The Lamennaisian combination of hierarchy in metaphysical truth, democracy in pragmatic politics, will not quite do. Of course it is by no means entirely false: in Church affairs what matters is truth, not opinion, and so hierarchy must prevail. In secular affairs, though, a second-best pragmatic peace may usually be the priority, and therefore consensus must prevail at the cost otherwise of unacceptable violence and outright inhumanity.

Yet in the end there can be, for Christianity, no such absolute contrast. The earthly city is valid insofar as it serves the heavenly and from the outset Christianity has modified the role of the political ruler in a “pastoral” direction (sometimes for ill as well as good). He becomes more a kind of ecclesial pastor of material affairs—which always have an implication for our salvation.

Here we need to balance Western with Eastern Christian perspectives: the “monarch” may be properly subordinate to “the priest,” and his dealing in law and coercive violence is now (uniquely by Christianity) desacralized because of its ambivalence—and yet the “kingly” role remains Christological insofar as it foreshadows the integrity of the resurrected body, when the material will fully shine with the glory of the spiritual. In the end Christ’s priesthood fades, and his kingship remains. Perhaps, therefore, something authentically “Byzantine” has shone out in the Anglican stress upon the “incarnational” aspect of sociopolitical transformation—even if this has often been perverted by support for the modern absolutely sovereign and disciplinary State.

The sense that the secular arm is “within” as well as “outside” the Church accords then with the need also for secular hierarchy, for the reasons which I have explained. But inversely, one can also argue that we need more participatory (not formally representative) democracy inside the Church. This is because, as Newman pointed out, the “correctness” of doctrine must finally be tested in practice by the assent of all. For Christian truth abides more fundamentally in the entirety of liturgical and pastoral life than it does in abstract reflection.

Political theory and ecclesiology must finally then be of one piece. Both involve a classical mixture of democracy, aristocracy, and kingship, even if the Christian demos is paradoxically anointed and Christian “kingship” is paradoxically kenotic.

The third reason for questioning a facile Christian leftism is circumstantial. In the face of the ever-increasing triumph of capitalism in our times, secular socialism has all but vanished and the left increasingly understands itself as liberal, and frequently, in addition, as atheist and anti-religious. The minority who have continued seriously to question the free market have increasingly begun to realize that in some measure an opposition to this can only be “conservative”—and indeed I argue below (in an essay that dates from the 1980’s) that originally in France socialism itself was somewhat “counter-enlightenment” in character. This is because only what is “sacred,” what possesses a value that reason cannot fully fathom—that which, therefore, is validated only by modes of usually religious tradition—is truly immune from commodification. Equally, a non-nominalist politics, stressing the role of “the Few” both in the mode of mediating associations and of virtuous elites, must perforce appeal back to the Middle Ages and seek to re-commence what Belloc referred to as its unfinished project of freeing people from antique slavery by assuring the widest possible distribution of land and capital which will allow both individual creativity and collective sharing and conviviality. (The latter being something that Belloc’s overly modern liberal perspective—despite everything—failed properly to emphasize. It is for this reason that one can correct his “distributism” with the articulation of a “distributist socialism.”)

It is also the case that a secular liberal left is unable metaphysically to validate even its own liberalism, because its abandonment of any belief in the spiritual reality of “mind” or “soul” leaves it with only a sham belief in either freedom or ideals worth struggling for. Inevitably it plays more and more lip service to “scientific” diagnoses of human behavior and more and more favors a utilitarian state-plus-market control of human beings designed to facilitate their maximally efficient collective functioning. The danger of the current financial crisis is that the Keynesian measures to which we should properly for the moment return (and may have to return) will mutate into a new blending of market monopoly and state oligarchy, merely further politicizing the power of the very rich.

In the long term, to exit the Hayekian/Keynesian cycles that capitalism objectively imposes (as Marxists have correctly understood), we require the more stable dynamism of a genuinely collectivist (and so socialist) distributist/corporatist economy. This would be built upon a socially judged recognition of the inherent relative value of natural and produced things and the inherent relative needs and deserts of all human beings as all workers as well as consumers. Of course, only the general embrace of a realist metaphysics of transcendence can render this possible. The way forward, therefore, has to be thoroughly “paradoxical.”

With the above provisos, I stand on the whole within that tradition of non-statist Christian Socialism, which regards modern statism as involving the support of the very rich, a guarantee of their finances and an enabling additional support through “welfare” of their dispossessed workforce. However, one needs also to recognize a wider family resemblance with many variants of Christian social teaching that characteristically stress subsidiarity (the distribution of money and power to appropriate levels, not necessarily the lowest) and the break-up of central sovereignty through the operation of intermediary associations. These theories can appear as relatively more “left” or “right,” yet all in reality question the left/right distinction in its secular form. In relation to the latter, Christians must pursue a politics of seeming paradox from apparently “opposite” vantage points. Thus, some within Radical Orthodoxy may follow Phillip Blond in his espousal of a new British form of “Red Toryism.” Others, currently the majority, will follow my own brand of “Blue Socialism”—socialism with a Burkean tinge, now common to many of the more reflective on the left, including some within the center-left (anti–New Labour) British Labour party “Compass Group.”

But these differences may not be what matters. In either case the debate is about how one would bring about an “initially” just distribution that would render reactive State “re-distribution” mostly redundant and how this would be sustained. These debates concern the role of nuclear and extended families, of cooperatives, of trade guilds, of mutual banks, housing associations, and credit unions, and of the law in setting firewalls between business practices, defining the acceptable limit of usury and interest and the principles that must govern the fair setting of wages and prices. Above all perhaps they concern how we can turn all people into owners and joint-owners, abolishing the chasm between the mass who only earn or receive welfare and so are dependent and the minority who own in excess.

This abolition will then allow a more genuine, multi-stepped, and educationally dynamic hierarchy of virtue to operate. For in the economic sphere also there needs to be a mixture of the democratic and the paternalistically guided: some enterprises are adapted to the cooperative, others require more hierarchical corporations. But the corporation based upon Christian principles must, like the units of “feudalism” (though that is a mis-description) in the Middle Ages, combine political and economic functions, since the engineered indifference of these to each other is not a division of spheres preserving liberty, but rather an abuse that permits both “the purely economic” and the “purely political” to enjoy a nihilistic sway. For defined in purity apart from each other, they both cease to involve moral concern and oversight and instead come to have an exclusive regard for the positive power of money as such or the positive power of law as such. By contrast, exchange for the social good must also be “political” in character, while legislation for the social good has to have regard to the economic in all its aspects.

This mention of a “corporatist” aspect is bound of course to raise charges of fascism as are those paradoxical titles that seem to invoke a crossover of left and right. But this is ahistorical—the Christian Democratic parties at the end of the Second World War for a short time (before they succumbed to the lure of liberalism) sought to recapture from fascism principles of Catholic social teaching that it had perverted. For fascism involves a secular cult of state, race, or military power that really lines up with modern political nominalism: it is bound in reality (as experience has always proved) increasingly to eradicate the role of the few and so both to exalt the One at the sovereign center and to disguise, through ersatz paternalistic pretense, the market manipulation of the Many at the margins.

It should be added here that it is possibly only religion that can provide the element of tacit binding ethos that prevents both distributism and corporatism from drifting back toward the twin dominance of the State and monopoly capitalism. More specifically, one needs the Church as an organization in continuous excess of the State to coordinate without suppressing the diverse activities of intermediate associations. (Lack of this, as William Cavanaugh has argued, has often led to the perversion of Christian Democratic projects in Latin America.[4]) And when one asks, as one must, how is one initially to bring a radical distribution about, then the answer can only be through the bringing about of a new mass-cultural ethos, which will empower a new sort of elite who will win self-respect for their social generosity rather than their wealth (this will then be their “self-interest” and so will be able to ensure that governments will encourage through new legislation, tax structures, and regulation of banking that a radical distribution will occur. But perhaps it is only the Church that has the capacity to inspire and coordinate such a switch in ethos.

This ethos would be radically Catholic rather than radically Protestant. An aspect of the deadlock in British and American politics today is the way in which the hinterland of the left’s assumptions remains determinatively Protestant. Indeed its subjectivism, emotionalism, restrictive puritanism, iconoclasm, and opposition to high culture owe more in the end to the Reformation than they do to the Enlightenment. These attitudes are all powerless to resist capitalism and bureaucracy, because both are profoundly promoted by the mainstream Protestant legacy. Even the radical Protestant legacy is in the end unable to think beyond individualism, sectarian isolation, and collectivism—which is but individualism dialectically inverted or else writ large. Anabaptism also is usually mired in the social metaphysics of the via moderna, or else its anti-metaphysical perpetuation—though one can allow that certain British dissenting radicals, like Williams Blake (as Peter Ackroyd has suggested), were strangely echoing, in a newly creative way, the suppressed British Catholic past.

By contrast, it is only a “Catholic center” more extreme than either of the extremes, because it points metacritically to a different plane, that can think and act its way out of our current heretical, immoral, and neopagan political morass.


1. See The Occult Laboratory: Magic, Science, and Second Sight in Late Seventeenth-Century Scotland, ed. Michael Hunter (Rochester, NY: Boydell Press, 2001). This volume contains several original texts, including Robert Boyle’s An Interview with Lord Tarbat, 3 October 1678 and the Scottish Minister Robert Kirk’s later extraordinary neoplatonic defense of second sight and fairy belief, The Secret Commonwealth.

2. See for this and some of what follows, Hilaire Belloc, The Servile State (London and Edinburgh: T.N. Foulis, 1912)

3. André de Muralt, L’unité de la philosophie politique: De Scot, Occam et Suarez au libéralisme contemporain (Paris: J. Vrin, 2002).

4. William Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998).

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