Liberalism Realised?

The Politics of Virtue
John Milbank & Adrian Pabdst, Rowman & Littlefield, 2016

Bleak Liberalism
Amanda Anderson, University of Chicago Press, 2016


There are crises and there are ‘metacrises’: a system may stagger from one crisis to another whilst the mechanisms that subvert its own logic go unrecognised. We may never even get to the ‘final’ crisis that some analysts predict. So long as the inner contradictions are not acknowledged, the story will be one of cyclical failure.

John Milbank and Adrian Pabst’s The Politics of Virtue (2016) attempts to name, acknowledge and pick apart various metacrises. Capitalism, democracy, nation-state politics, modern culture and education – all are living out a metacrisis of some sort. All are grounded in illusion and contradiction, whether that be the simultaneous overproduction and under-provision that typifies capitalism, the symbiosis of oligarchy and majoritarianism exhibited by modern democracy, the nihilistic void at the centre of modern cultural life, or the mixture of nationalist rhetoric and globalist economic homogenisation on the chaotic international stage. Milbank and Pabdst trace all this illusion and contradiction back to a body of ideas about human identity and society that emerged in the seventeenth century, with thinkers such as Groitus, Hobbes and Locke. They (somewhat anachronistically) call this intellectual perspective ‘liberalism’. Their book encourages us to see ‘liberalism’ as one might a Shakespearean villain whose devious plotting derails the West, causing everything to collapse into chaos and misery.

The first chapter examines this coup in detail. ‘Liberalism’ abandons the idea of an ordered cosmos and instead assumes a schism between a meaningless natural order and an abstract human will that imposes meaning on the environment. And, given that nothing has intrinsic significance – ‘liberalism’, the authors say, precludes notions of substantive truth or goodness from public discussion – value comes only from exchange between atomised individuals. So: what can I literally or metaphorically buy with something? What advantage will it bring in a world of shortage and competition? Insofar as ‘liberalism’ assumes that what is most basic in us is an ego with demands that need to be guaranteed satisfaction, there will be fatal collusion between ideals of ‘negative liberty’ (the absence of constraints on individuals) and the universal commodification that goes with capitalism. Capitalism and ‘liberalism’ are partners in crime, together promoting an endless negotiation of power in this cramped but essentially empty world – the process by which we seek to create value by gaining leverage over others.

The inevitable outcome of all this is the triumph of a kind of fleshless, bodiless process of wealth creation, which produced the 2008 financial crash. In many ways, then, The Politics of Virtue is of the moment, echoing recent editorials declaring that the surge in populism constitutes a ‘crisis for liberalism’. Indeed, for Milbank and Pabdst, liberalism’s inability to recognise as politically relevant anything other than the isolated subjective individual on the one hand and the artificially supposed collective unity of ‘the people’ on the other, is to blame for the current corrosive muddle about the nature of democracy. It is to blame for the resurgence of a ‘plebiscite’ ideal, and fantasies of politics as the direct expression of unmediated demands, with all the risks of majoritarian tyranny that go with that.

The book’s talk of the ‘meta-crisis of liberalism’, however, stresses that the problems of today’s liberalism will only be solved by wholesale rejection of centuries worth of intellectual assumptions. The authors tell the narrative of liberalism’s rise to demonstrate that notions we take as unquestionable are actually historically contingent and dubious. If the book is at times disturbing, it is also compelling in staunch advocacy of the road-not-taken. Milbank and Pabdst write as committed Christians whose desired ‘post-liberal’ future depends on the retrieval of long-discarded theological ideas about human identity and society. These ideas belong to a sacred, medieval worldview in which meanings are given by God for our discovery and exploration. For the modern secular liberal, meanwhile, the starting position for human identity is a solitary, speechless individual, who moves out from primitive isolation to negotiate with others, and learns language to label objects to be managed and utilised. For the Christian post-liberal, however, the human subject is already in relation with other subjects and the world – and so is also involved in securing the wellbeing of others and of the world. How others speak to us, imagine us, nurture or fail to nurture us, does not exceed a sense of who or what we are, but is woven into the very idea of being a self.

The Politics of Virtue, however, has a theory and practice problem. Milbank and Pabdst claim that ‘the triumph of liberalism today more and more brings about the ‘war of all against all’ (Hobbes) and the idea of man as self-owning animal (Locke) that were its presuppositions.’ Practice flows neatly from theory, creating in the reality of competitive and greedy behaviour ‘illusory proof’ for its theoretical presuppositions.

But can we really blame philosophers for so much? Cynics might accuse Milbank and Pabdst of inflating their own importance as thinkers by claiming that academic culture thought its way into the dilemmas of modernity. Might we be better served by a more complex narrative that includes, in addition to ideas, the imponderable complexity of natural and social forces, and the relationship between these forces and ideas?

Another way of putting it would be to ask how a liberal would react to the book’s characterisation of ‘liberalism’. I put ‘liberalism’ in quotation marks, yet the authors do not, seemingly unaware that they have given their own, uncompromisingly negative sense. We seldom get clues about what defenders of its integrity might say – whether they would accept the definitions offered here, or whether the liberal sensibility is so completely hostile to any substantive view of human virtue or collective wellbeing. This raises the issue of theory and practice in a different way. If you ask someone to explain their political philosophy, you will learn both about ideas and their lived commitment to those ideas – the difficulty of trying to practise them in certain historical conditions. Milbank and Pabdst treat ‘liberalism’ as an independent actor in human history, but the real actors are those who call themselves liberals and work to put liberal ideals into practice. Considering how these actors give it life, we may learn that liberalism, often accused of having ‘thin’ or ‘illusory’ values, in fact displays a thick array of attitudes and dispositions.

This is one argument made in a recent book by literary scholar Amanda Anderson, intriguingly titled Bleak Liberalism (2016). Anderson is unhappy with the bad press that liberalism is receiving, and mounts a novel defence by way of literature. Anderson seeks to reframe liberalism as not only a body of thought, but also a lived political commitment and a distinctive literary aesthetic. She hopes we might thereby discover its human side. Analyse a liberal novel, she says, and you will encounter ‘complexity, difficulty, variousness, ambiguity, undecidability, hermeneutic open-endedness’. Above all, you will find a pessimism or bleakness of attitude, driven by ‘awareness of all those forces and conditions that threaten the realisation of liberal ambitions’. The liberal tradition, she seeks to prove, is not as prosaic, rule-governed and naively hopeful as its critics suppose.

A problem. Novels rarely endorse a political philosophy, and if they do, it is likely to be couched in reservation. Anderson’s approach risks forcing a variety of imaginative productions which happen to be written by authors who call themselves liberals into the straightjacket of a ‘liberal aesthetic’. Her treatment of E. M. Forster’s 1911 novel, Howards End, is a case in point. For Anderson, the novel’s hero is undoubtedly Margaret Schlegel, whose forthright argumentation against her husband’s prejudice helps establish the liberal community of the novel’s end. This utopia of two sisters happily raising an illegitimate child comes about, Anderson rightly insists, thanks to Margaret’s ‘liberal critique’, modelled on deliberative democracy.

Anderson doesn’t consider the possibility, however, that this non-traditional farmhouse family might not be as rosy and humane as it first appears. If Forster’s ending appears to invoke the genre of utopia, its concealed Blakean ‘contrary’ is tragedy. Howards End is far bleaker than Anderson acknowledges. In the final sentence the fertility of nature is asserted when Helen celebrates ‘such a crop of hay as never!’ But Forster’s colloquial shortening of ‘as there never was’ to ‘as never’ – so that the novel ends with the word ‘never’ – undercuts optimistic feeling. It recalls words that have recurred throughout – emptiness, abyss, darkness, panic, death – words which have been as conspicuous as the vocabulary of connection: proportion, wholeness, the light within. For all the championing of non-traditional family structures, and of differences over sameness, there are significant absences in the new familial grouping situated at the novel’s end. The crushed Leonard is all but forgotten and his wife goes unmentioned, Henry has collapsed, and his son Charles has been convicted of manslaughter. All the people the Schlegel sisters connected with in the course of the story are maimed, imprisoned or dead. Does the final sentence’s bumper ‘crop of hay’ really compensate for what has had to be scythed down on the way?

Why is Anderson silent about the novel’s insistent pessimistic throb? After all, the major thesis of her book is that the liberal aesthetic is characterised by a ‘dialectic of scepticism and hope’. Why not claim the bleak diagnosis of Howards End as a sign of liberalism’s textured complexity, as she does of the 19th-century novels Bleak House, Middlemarch and The Way We Live Now? Perhaps she recognises that the pessimism in Howards End is too devastating for her argument to contain. Forster’s bleakness derives not only from ‘an awareness of all those forces and conditions that threaten the realisation of liberal ambitions’, but from an awareness of the ultimate undesirability, and even danger, of those ambitions. The liberalism of the Schlegel sisters, however superficially appealing its talk of ‘connection’ and ‘tolerance’, in reality privileges the use of emotional, legal and even physical power to gain leverage over others. Insofar as Howards End endorses any point of view, it is Milbank and Pabdst’s claim that liberalism is founded on an ‘ontology of violence’.

Anderson is therefore mistaken to celebrate liberalism’s bleakness. In fact, at the heart of Milbank and Pabdst’s searching critique of liberalism lies the argument that it is ‘a far too gloomy political philosophy’. Liberalism assumes that we are basically self-interested, fearful, greedy and egoistic creatures, unable to see beyond our own selfish needs and, therefore, prone to violent conflict. Even the Rousseauian inversion of Hobbes, which insists that the natural human individual, lost in contemplative delight at the surrounding world, is ‘good’, undermines its optimism with a pessimism about what happens when that individual enters society, becoming vicious from rivalry and comparison. Recourse to literature, in this case at least, does not refute but justifies Milbank and Pabdst’s claim that liberalism in practice fulfils the worst assumptions of liberal philosophy.

Are all novels as slippery as Forster’s? Do literary creations by their nature betray the politics they supposedly endorse? Or is it a special characteristic of liberal novels, liberal values being in some way antagonistic to literary values? Anderson’s book declares itself a continuation of some influential observations made nearly 70 years ago by American critic Lionel Trilling in his bestselling The Liberal Imagination (1950). The observations, for example, that ideology and character are inseparable, and that literature is uniquely capable of expressing the tragic dimensions of life. Yet, Trilling’s vision differs remarkably from Anderson’s in its conception of liberalism’s peculiar relationship with literature. Anderson is tellingly silent on this disjunction. Trilling, unlike Anderson, does not think there is a distinct ‘liberal aesthetic’. He observes that readers in liberal democratic cultures like his own most value writers who are actually antagonistic to their cultures’ social and political ideals (he offers, as examples, Yeats, Eliot, Proust, Joyce, Lawrence and Gide). In fact, his argument is that these writers’ commitments to the aesthetic values of difficulty, ambiguity, complexity and open-endedness might be able to disrupt and ultimately correct the overweening rationalism and ‘organisational impulse’ of the liberal mind. Trilling’s project is thus an internal critique of liberalism that would ‘recall liberalism to its first essential imagination of variousness and possibility’.

The difference is between seeing literature as medicine for liberalism (Trilling) and as flag waver for liberalism (Anderson). For Trilling, liberalism and literature will never be friends – at best, only reluctant allies. Trilling is stuck in the middle of this unhappy marriage, which is why The Liberal Imagination in so many places reads like a guide for a self-hating liberal. Trilling reserves his greatest scorn for liberals untouched by this immobilising self-awareness, which perhaps accounts for his ambivalence towards Forster’s Margaret Schlegel. Margaret is of the same species as the overzealously moral type of liberal Trilling so eloquently rebukes in The Liberal Imagination. Trilling is intensely aware of the dangers posed by the ‘moral passions,’ which he says are ‘even more wilful and imperious and impatient than the self-seeking passion’. The progressive liberal who chooses, like Margaret, to act against social injustice ‘does not settle all moral problems but on the contrary generates new ones of an especially difficult sort’. In Howards End Margaret’s moral tirade generates the problem of her husband’s despondence and subsequent nervous breakdown: Henry turns himself over to her ‘to do what she could with him’. Margaret dismisses him dryly: ‘He has worked very hard all his life, and noticed nothing. Those are the people who collapse when they do notice a thing’. Is there any love in that remark? Is hers a moral response to tragic difficulty?

In The Liberal Imagination Trilling advocates a literary form – ‘moral realism’ – that will reflect an understanding of how blinding moral or ideological passions can be. Those in thrall to ideology – in particular liberal ideology, with its simplifying, abstracting impulse – are stumped by the difficulty and recalcitrance of tragedy. Perhaps the reason for which Trilling so valued Howards End is that it subtly exemplifies ‘moral realism’, because it encourages the reader to react to tragedy with more moral strenuousness than Margaret is able to. Indeed, Trilling’s own remarkable 1947 novel The Middle of the Journey, in many ways modelled on Howards End, repeatedly shows up the inability of liberal progressive ideologues to appreciate tragic complexity and respond morally to illness and death. The novel memorably shows us a man, recovering from a near-fatal illness, who realises that his devoted and courageous liberal friends see him and his experience as a threat: death is reactionary.

We only have to tweak Trilling’s argument to come to the conclusion that reading literature, and in particular tragic literature, has the power to reveal what we know but do not acknowledge – that we are always already involved in relation with our fellow human beings in the sheer process of self-awareness, that the other is never distinct or separate but bound up with the self. If the much talked-about ‘crisis’ of liberalism is to become the ‘meta-crisis’ Milbank and Pabdst diagnose, we need to acknowledge our true nature as relational animals and reject deeply ingrained liberal habits of thought. Perhaps only literature can reach so far into the crypt, but it is neither flag-waver nor medicine for liberalism: it performs liberalism’s post-mortem.

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