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.