Rowan Williams on the Easter complex:

The pivotal event [of Christianity] is the whole of that Easter complex, if you like, not just the resurrection, which is why a realistic representation of the crucifixion on it’s own won’t say what has to be said. And curiously, along the history of the church, the way it’s been done in the church’s liturgy and art very often doesn’t seem very realistic in that sense.

You walk through the experience of Holy Week from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday in a sort of ritual way: picking up a bit of the gospels here, a bit of the prophets and the psalms there; performing certain ritual acts (in the Catholic tradition particularly); watching through the night; participating in a very curious and distinctive liturgy for Good Friday, with the bare cross being brought in and unveiled. All of that is an attempt to say what a mere recitation of the story, or a mere photograph, couldn’t say.

I remember years ago somebody saying to me that, given the choice between having a video of the Sermon on the Mount, and having half an hour with St Peter after his betrayal, he’d go for the latter because you would see in the complexities, the changes, the tensions, that Peter had undergone, something you wouldn’t see just on a video of the sermon – which would land you back in all the problems of what would you really see there, what would you really hear.

Simply trying to uncover the kernel of historical truth fails to grasp the truth of the Gospel. It can’t, in Williams’s words, “say what has to be said.”

Williams goes to note the Eastern Orthodox tradition as a telling example. Rather than depicting life-like images of Christ rising from the tomb, Eastern Orthodoxy instead depicts the harrowing of hell, images of “Jesus in Hell rescuing Adam and Eve, standing astraddle over a great pit, and grabbing Adam and Eve, pulling them out of their tombs.”

America, left and right, remains in thrall to what Veblen called the “business metaphysic.” The market is not an impersonal, fallible mechanism for distributing resources. It’s a source of spiritual values, and it’s never wrong. The invisible hand distributes virtue and honor along with wealth. God wants you to be rich. But rich or poor, you have what you deserve. Such is their message in this time of despair. Which proves that orthodoxy in the service of business, and business armed with religious purpose, cannot be killed by ideas alone.

John Summers, “The Cult of the Boss: Why Do Americans Admire Businessmen?


Some note for an upcoming research project on the Anglo-Catholic Socialist movement. 

In a London Review of Books article, Terry Eagleton nicely summarizes the Anglo-Catholic Socialist critique of the Oxford movement:

Most other Victorian sages from Carlyle to Morris were keenly engaged with the Condition of England question, appalled by the predatory nature of industrial capitalism and unsparing in their moral denunciations of it. With Newman, by contrast, we find a mind loftily aloof from Chartism, bread riots and the Factory Acts, more preoccupied with the Arian heresy of the fourth century than with typhoid epidemics in English slums.

And as F.D. Maurice keenly observed about the Oxford Movement as a whole, “their error, I think, consists in opposing to the spirit of this present age, the spirit of a former age, instead of the ever-living and active Spirit of God” (quoted in Ramsey, 36).

In the eyes of the Anglo-Catholic Socialists, the Tractarians suffered from a severe bout of abstract theology. What they failed to emphasize was the sense that if Christ is lord of all, if the bread and the wine bind us to the commonalty of Christ, then church must take on a distinct political role: not only in combating the encroachment of the liberal state, as Pusey surely did, but in challenging the ascendancy of the capitalist economy.


Karl Polanyi on the Christian roots of socialism:

Socialism is, essentially, the tendency inherent in an industrial civilization to transcend the self-regulating market by consciously subordinating it to a democratic society. It is the solution natural to industrial workers who see no reason why production should not be regulated directly and why markets should be more than a useful but subordinate trait in a free society. From the point of view of the community as a whole, socialism is merely the continuation of that endeavor to make society a distinctly human relationship of persons which in Western Europe was always associated with Christian traditions.

Polayni, The Great Transformation, 242.

Ruined home in Youngstown, Ohio

One of the more astounding claims in John Milbank’s latest book, Beyond Secular Order, is that philosophical appeals to pre-modernity are in no way ‘conservative’ as opposed to ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive.’ According to Milbank’s reading, pre-modern ontology and its material correlate, Christian Socialism, short circuit these static and tired binaries. Both left and right, as the terms are overwhelming understood today, partake of the same liberal logic rooted in the High Middle Ages.

Following Jean-Claude Michéa, Milbank argues that the boilerplate left-right distinction is best understood as a product of French Revolution, and so to read the past as inherently ‘conservative’ is anachronistic. As Milbank states,

The meaning of the pre-modern for us today is not that of the ‘conservative’ or the ‘traditional’ – rather, it confronts us as an enigma, which challenges all our modern preconceptions. It requires us also to see that these preoccupations rest upon a new theological idiom born in the Middle Ages themselves – an idiom by no means obviously more ‘progressive’ than the via antiqua, but simply different (161-162).

Milbanks’ pre-modern past – an amalgamtion of the High Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Gothic – is not so much an anchor to be cast in a society set adrift by market-driven anarchy and nihilism, as much as it is a moral and social compass. The past is always stranger than we can image and always exceeds our ability to comprehend it.

But it’s not only the case that left and right partake of the same liberal logic. More troublesome for Milbank is the fact that both sides collude in a pernicious political and economic manner, whether by means of the state or the market, with each pole working to disenfranchise and subjugate social collectives. As an example, Milbank points to Johanna Bockman’s work (which is quickly becoming a must-read), arguing that “the recent unleashing of market forces belongs at least as much to the politics of the left as to that of the right; this is why it could so easily pass from the superintendence of Margaret Thatcher to the superintendence of Tony Blair” (169).

It should also be noted that this idea of “socialism beyond the left” is not limited to Milbank. To make his case, Milbank borrows extensively from Jean-Claude Michéa to show that the left is just as complicit in neoliberal capitalist logic as the right. By contrast, a true left rejects the instrumentalizing strand of the Enlightenment altogether, as Michéa writes in Impasse Adam Smith (which is becoming another must read). Interestingly, it appears that Michéa’s critique pulls extensively from Christopher Lash in order to make his own case for old-school socialism.

Like the early 20th century Anglo-Catholic Socialists’ battles with the Fabians, Milbank throws down a gauntlet to show that today’s left is incapable of “qualifying the sway of the free market unless it is prepared to decide upon what is objectively best for all people” (166). Milbank’s specific challenge is this:

For one can lay it down as an axiom that only where there is a tacit consensus as to virtue and goal, upheld and promoted by an educated elite, is there any ground for a relatively equal distribution of material and cultural goods. This is exactly why the ‘conservative’ 1950s exhibited for more economic equality and social mobility than the ‘liberated’ and ‘less deferential’ Britain of the early twenty-first century. Or to express the axiom more succinctly: one cannot have equal distribution without consensus upheld by all, including the powerful, as to the nature and desirability of ‘the goods’ to be distributed [for those paying attention, this is R.H. Tawney in nuce]. This consensus will tend to emerge from folk tradition, which more reflective deliberations need critically and yet not slavishly to respect if this entire consensus is not to be undermined (166).

There are problems here, to be sure. And this is why Milbank’s argument needs to be supplemented, if not corrected, by George Packer’s, The Unwinding. To narrate the past is to tell the story of waning social institutions before it is a story of isolated individuals. As Packer hammers home, there was no rosy past or golden age, but there were institutions in place that at least had the potential to correct social ills. As Packer writes about the so-called ‘conservative’ era, the social contract,

Came with a series of riders and clauses that left large numbers of Americans – black people and other minorities, women, gay people – out, or only halfway in. But the country had the tools to correct its own flaws, and it used them: healthy democratic institutions such as Congress, courts, churches, schools, news organizations, business-labor partnerships. The civil rights movement of the 1960s was a nonviolent mass uprising led by black southerners, but it drew essential support from all of these institutions, which recognized the moral and legal justice of its claims, or, at the very least, the need for social peace. The Roosevelt Republic had plenty of injustice, but it also had the power of self-correction.

It’s unlikely that Packer and Milbank would use the same language, but the general idea remains: both point to the eclipse of the social as something real, as something beyond nominalism. Also of note, Henry Giroux makes a similar point about the eclipse of the social in the age of neoliberalism (despite his blanket appeals to “democracy”).

To many Milbank’s claims will smack of paternalism and elitism of the right and Soviet style communism of the left. But as Milbank shows, broad appeals to the individual democratic impulse only creative new forms of hierarchy managed by “professional experts.” Indeed, we now have a far worse hierarchy than before. We have “a hierarchy of sheer money, force and spectacle; a hierarchy without even any pretensions to virtue” (167). The only way then to avoid paternalism or elitism on the left or right, according to Milbank, is to build objectively good from the ground up; in other words, by way old-school Christian Socialism.


“Many will come to Him at the last day — so we cannot but paraphrase his own words — with manifold pleas and excuse derived from the maxims of what is called the Christian world: ‘Lord, we never denied the Christian creed; nay, we had a zeal for orthodoxy, for churchmanship, for Bible distribution, but of course in our business we did as every one else did: we sold in the dearest and bought in the cheapest market; we did not, of course we did not, entertain any other consideration when we were investing our money, except whether the investments were safe; we never imagined that we could love our neighbors as ourselves in the competition of business, or that we could carry into commercial transactions the sort of strict righteousness that we knew to be obligatory in private life. Lord, in all these matters we went by commonly accepted standards; we never thought much about Christianity as a brotherhood.’

“Then he will protest unto them; ‘Did I not say to thee, in that written word wherein thou didst profess to have eternal life: A man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of things that he possesseth? Did I not warn thee: How hardly shall they who have riches enter into the kingdom of God? Did I not bid thee seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness? Did I not tell thee that except a man in spirit and in will, at least, forsook all that had, unless he took up his cross and followed Me, he could not be my disciple? Not every one that saith unto Me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of Heaven, but he that doeth, that hath done, the Will of my Father.

“Brethren, you may depend upon it, that you cannot be a Christian by mere tradition or respectability. You will have to choose to be Christians.”

Charles Gore, The Incarnation of The Son of God, 213-214






In his contribution to The Crisis of Global Capitalism: Pope Benedict XVI’s Social Encyclical and the Future of Political Economy, Eugene McCarraher looks to blow the dust off of R.H. Tawney’s legacy: “Often admired but now rarely consulted, Tawney’s work deserves a spiritual revival.” In Sublunary Sublime’s modest opinion, this has got to be one the great theological understatements of the decade.

McCarraher writes that Tawney’s work suggests “theological acuity and depth,” as can be seen from his Commonplace Book and other critical works. As McCarraher explains,

Tawney lauded the medieval economic imagination, in which work and goods were judged in the light of the beatific vision. Surveying the wisdom of scholastic philosophers and canon lawyers, Tawney reclaimed their conviction that “the ideal – if only man’s nature could rise to it – is communism,” since sharing in communion was the order of heaven. Seen in this light, corporate capitalist property and production were grotesque distortions of the divine economy. Against the corporate order which protected stockholders and other parasitic classes who merely owned and lived off the labor of others, modern Christian socialism would, Tawney hoped, revive and older conception of property as “an aid to creative work, not an alternative to it.” Artfully made and justly distributed, material goods could be tokens of beatitude, “aids to blessedness,” as Tawny put it (105).

We can see how Tawney’s theological acuity is demonstrated in his understanding of St. Thomas’s claim that “grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it”; his depth comes from grasping the material implications of this seemingly esoteric doctrine. In Religion and The Rise of Capitalism, Tawney writes,

The contrast between nature and grace, between human appetites and interests and religion, is not absolute, but relative. It is a contrast of matter and spirit informing it, of stages in a process, of preparation and fruition. Grace works on the unregenerate nature of man, not to destroy it, but to transform it. And what is true of the individual is true of society. An attempt is made to give it a new significance by relating it to the purpose of human life as known by revelation. In the words of a famous (or notorious) Bull: “The way of religion is to lead the things which are lower to the things which are higher through the things which are intermediate. According to the law of the universe all things are not reduced to order equally and immediately; but the lowest through the intermediate, the intermediate through the higher.” Thus social institutions assume a character which may almost be called sacramental, for they are the outward and imperfect expression of a supreme reality. Ideally conceived, society is an organism of different grades, and human activities form a hierarchy of functions, which differ in kind and in significance, but each of which is of value on its own plane, provided that it is governed, however remotely, by the end which is common to all (26).

As Tawney goes on to argue, in the absence of a common end the ideology of efficiency reigns supreme. The rejection of teleology birthed the market state and the market state in turn birthed the individual. “The concept of religion as a thing private and individual does not emerge until after a century in which religious freedom normally means the freedom of the State to prescribe religion, not the freedom of the individual to worship God as he pleases,” writes Tawney (Religion and The Rise of Capitalism, 149).

All in all, Tawney presents a sobering vision, one that appears to leave little wiggle room for the more liberally minded. It is, however, a sentiment shared by no less than Simone Weil and Alasdair MacIntyre:


On the whole, our present situation more or less resembles that of a party of absolutely ignorant travelers who find themselves in a motor-car launched at full speed and driverless across broken country (Weil, Oppression and Liberty, 114).


From an Aristotelian point of view a modern liberal political society can appear only as a collection of citizens from nowhere who have banded together for their common protection (MacIntyre, After Virtue, 156).

When business advice literature warmly embraces chaos, celebrates the collapsing of high and low, and heralds the demolition of intellectual order as a profit-maximizing opportunity, it’s time to dust off those much vilified meta-narratives. And when the partisans of corporate-sponsored transgression responded by labeling us both reactionary elitists and a bunch of Reds, we knew we had hit the interpretative jackpot. Yes, postmodernism is the cultural logic of late capitalism.

Thomas Frank and Matt Weiland, Commodify Your Dissent, 14-15.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton "G.K.C."

Speaking about the contradictions of capitalism, G.K. Chesterton observes the following in The Outline of Sanity:

When most men are wage earners, it is more and more difficult for most men to be customers. For the capitalist is always trying to cut down what his servant demands, and in doing so is cutting down what his customer can spend. As soon as his business is in any difficulties, as at present in the coal business, he tries to reduce what he has to spend on wages, and in doing so reduces what others have to spend on coal. He is wanting the same man to be rich and poor at the same time (43).

But is this still the case? Is there still a contradiction today, that of “keeping the same man rich and poor at the same time,” within the present iteration of financier capitalism?  Some on the left answer yes: given that 70% of the US economy is driven by consumer spending, it is therefore in the business class’s interest to seek a “middle out” rather than trickle-down solution. This point is made rather convincingly in Robert Reich’s excellent Inequality For All (watch the trailer!).

Top 1%

Though there might be a significant problem with such an outlook. Economists Richard Wolff and Gar Alperovitz offer a more robust analysis, pointing out that the nature of capitalism has drastically shifted, to say nothing of the class political winds. Although consumer spending still accounts for a large portion of growth, dependency on the US consumer is quickly dwindling. Hence the reason why we’ve seen a surplus in production but consistent, year over year stagnation in wages and massive unemployment. Economists now refer to the US economy as a “mature economy,” which, according to Wolff, is economist’s jargon for: no more growth here; move along.


As Alperovitz highlights, the solution offered by Reich and others relies too heavily upon political conditions that no longer exists, such as a strong labor movement and the prospect of war to stimulate growth. Lacking the confluence of these (and other factors), there simply is not enough brute political force to mount a traditional liberal or Keynesian solution. In short, the role of middle class’s spending power is undermined by deeper systematic problems. The middle class is a luxury capitalism can, or no longer needs, to afford, as John Gray writes.

Still, the solutions offered by Alperovitz and Wolff bear many similarities to Chesterton’s distributist ideals. Both figures advocate worker owned enterprises, ESOPs, municipal utilities, and traditional cooperative businesses. Alperovitz and Wolff are also fond of citing Mondragon, a large scale Spanish cooperative started by a Catholic priest – a point too easily glided over. What they offer is a bottom up solution rather than a middle out or trickle down. It’s no longer a question of left vs. right, but of something akin to communitarianism – small, decentralized communities – vs. libertarianism and it’s sickly mirror image, statism (watch the trailer!). One fundamental difference, however, is that Alperovitz and Wolff refuse to downplay class interest.

Gar Al

But can this really work outside a shared commitment to the common good and shared material values? R.H. Tawney reminds us in Religion and the Rise of Capitalism that it was the rejection of ends and values in the first place that created the conditions for what has become today’s rapacious capitalism. Trading one form of functionless economic efficiency for another leaves us right where we started.

We therefore need something more than appeals to self-interest in order for “New-Economy Movement” to get off the ground. So the next question is: what is the social glue or reciprocal bond that binds people together to form a worker-owned enterprise, as just one example? Further, in the absence of political moral commitments, rather than freely-contracting individuals, or as Rowan Williams describes it, a “picture is of atoms spinning apart in the dark,” what do we have left if not more capitalism?

"Whether it is an urban rioter, mindlessly burning down a small shop that serves his community, or a speculator turning his back on the question of who bears the ultimate cost for his acquisitive adventures in the virtual reality of today's financial world, the picture is of atoms spinning apart in the dark."

“Whether it is an urban rioter, mindlessly burning down a small shop that serves his community, or a speculator turning his back on the question of who bears the ultimate cost for his acquisitive adventures in the virtual reality of today’s financial world, the picture is of atoms spinning apart in the dark.”

More to come, but it seems clear that Tawney’s social vision offers one of the more fruitful ways forward – and one that critically engages today’s financierism.



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