Thursday, 17 May 2012

He's got the whole world in his (invisible) hands

Chapter 2 of Theology and Social Theory is titled 'Political Economy as Theodicy and Agonistics'. Having dealt with some of the earliest 'political' thinkers – people like Hobbes, Locke, and Machiavelli – Milbank moves on to the thinkers of 'political economy', by which he seems (correct me if I'm wrong) to be primarily referring to 18th century political thinkers, primarily from Scotland or Great Britain more generally: Adam Smith, David Hume, James Stewart. These are the people who start to grapple with one of the fundamental problems of political philosophy: how it is that lots of individual people, acting apparently independently, give rise to a system which is ordered and regular: 'the market'. Faced with this problem, political economists drew on the theological notion of providence – the idea that God is at work in the world, making sure that everything that happens fits into the big Divine Plan for history.

Unlike Hobbes, the Scottish political theorists didn't assume that everyone acted purely selfishly; they included an account of virtue in their discussion of politics. But they didn't ground it in the traditional 'virtue ethics' idea that all human action should be directed towards some clearly defined notion of the human good. Hume argues that morality arises from our innate emotional responses to things like justice and injustice and our ability to empathise with other people. There's no agreed standard of goodness that we agree to work towards; instead, over time, political institutions emerge and slowly train us, like Pavlov's dogs, into having a conscience, a sense of right and wrong. Adam Smith doesn't think we rationally figure out that we'll be better off in a society where law and order is enforced; we get sucked into it because we're naturally inclined to be cross about injustice (and to not really care when people fail to be kind to one another as long as they don't break the law). There's a moral aspect to political life, but it's nothing to do with any absolute standards of good and bad, right and wrong, it's just that nature happens to have equipped us with certain 'moral emotions'. When these ideas about virtue are translated into politics, they tend to go in one of two directions:

Machiavellian Political Economy: Once upon a time, Milbank thinks, the aristocracy operated according to a strict code of aristocratic ethics: things like courage and magnanimity (ah, the good old days). But at some point there was a shift, and aristocratic honour was no longer about their adherence to a code of gentlemanly behaviour but became a sort of social capital that you could use to gain influence, wealth or property; that was all about reputation, appearances, and changing fashions. Machiavelli had a conundrum: he wanted to make sure that war was about countries rationally fighting with one another for sensible reasons, rather than internal conflicts for silly reasons like religion. But because Machiavelli also valued a particular sort of heroism, it was important for there to be some way for people to prove their heroism within their own country. The market was the perfect opportunity for people (well, men) to prove how noble and heroic they were without all the wastefulness of war. But war wasn't going to end: in fact, for many of the Scottish thinkers, the best thing about a market economy was the way it generated a surplus which could be used to build up the nation's military power. James Stewart talked about ancient Sparta as a model for the ideal society: a society divided between a slave class generating a surplus and another class of politician-warriors. And in the absence of slaves, the next best thing was wage-labourers, who could be progressively impoverished and disempowered until they were completely under the thumb of the state. This political philosophy laid the groundwork for the emergence of capitalism, but Milbank stresses that it didn't have to be this way. This Machiavellian version of political economy is, Milbank argues, neo-pagan: it basically celebrates the will to power that Christian theology rejected. Fair enough; but then, weirdly, he suggests that this somehow undermines secular reason's claims to autonomy. I mean, surely if you want to get away from Christian theology, it makes perfect sense to draw on pre-Christian political philosophy? Anyway, there was an alternative to this Machiavellian vision:

Providential political economy: This is was more explicitly theological, and, Milbank argues, basically a heretical theodicy (theodicy being the attempt to answer the question, 'How can there be a good God when there is so much evil in the world?'). Once you assume that people are basically acting independently and selfishly, unless you're an anarchist you have to identify some principle which means that society won't just descend into chaos. Welcome, Adam Smith's 'invisible hand of the market' theory. The providential political economists appeal to some figure of God or providence or nature, working away behind the scenes of history, making sure that everyone's selfish short term decisions are somehow worked into an effective society. Various people made various arguments about why things that look either selfish or actively bad – market behaviour, crime – all work together for the good of the whole. God/Nature has wisely made individuals self-interested in such a way that, by acting for themselves, they benefit everybody. And this idea of underlying omnipotent forces holding heterogeneous individuals together should, Milbank argues, make us question the whole idea of heterogeneous individuals: the idea that people make decisions without reference to the social whole is, he says, nonsensical. Individuals are inevitably shaped by the society in which they live; choice isn't a feature of isolated individuals but is deeply embedded in society. Next up, Milbank says, comes post-Malthusian political economy. Once providence gets into the game, ethics becomes less important: if everything fits together in a harmonious whole, then there's no need to worry about right and wrong because even the bad things are valuable. Malthus, who thinks that eventually humanity will run out of resources, says that if we didn't fear for our survival, there would be no incentive to virtue. Thomas Chalmers says that the distinctively Christian virtues aren't charity or forgiveness but the virtues associated with self-interest: sexual continence, sobriety, punctiliousness, discipline and Sabbath observance. He says that the market economy is great because it encourages us to nurture those virtues; which in turn providentially are precisely the virtues we need to sustain the market economy. Everyone wins!

Milbank, understandably, thinks that all of this – the Protestant work ethic, the market economy, the death of charity, the redefinition of virtue – is Very Bad. Unsurprisingly, thought, he wants to argue that the problem isn't secularism but bad theology. Sure, theology has screwed things up before, but Milbank's theology will save us.

Photo by prayerfriends.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Once, there was no secular

Say what you like about Milbank, that's a killer opening line (and possibly an allusion to John 1, so make of that what you will). Chapter 1 of Theology and Social Theory argues that the idea of a 'secular' political space, where everyone lays aside their religious affiliations to meet on some sort of neutral territory is a recent invention, the sad consequence of bad theology (by which Milbank means either any theology that came after Aquinas and/or Protestant theology. One of the enduring puzzles of Milbank's work, for me, is that he keeps saying how awesome Catholicism is and how much Protestantism sucks BUT HE ISN'T A EVEN A CATHOLIC HE'S A PROTESTANT). Theology made 'the secular' possible by going wrong in three ways: in the way it thought about God, in its reading of the Bible, and in its understanding of time.

Bad God
First, then, theology screwed up by forgetting to think about God in trinitarian terms. If you remember that God is a trinity, you think of God in terms of relationships, mutuality, giving and receiving, of action as essentially love ordered to the good of others. And that translates into a particular way of thinking about people and about property: people are complicated, trying to get a handle on the different aspects of their personhood so that they can direct their whole selves towards God; and people own property, but the whole point of owning property is so that they can use it for the good of others: if you don't look after your stuff in a way that acknowledges it's really meant as a way of helping you and others towards God, you don't have the right to keep owning it any more. But if you start to forget about God as three and only think about God as one, then personhood becomes about being completely self-contained, about having complete control over one's own self and also over one's property. Not only does this mean that there's no ethical obligation on me to direct myself and my possessions towards God and the good of the community I belong to, there's also no way of thinking what it means to think and act as a community: society is just a collection of disconnected individuals, who relate to each other only insofar as they can exercise power over one another, and can only agree to act together if they are forced to by contracts they have signed with one another. What's gone wrong, says Milbank, is that we've lost sight of God as Trinity in favour of God as self-contained One. Instead of the world as a complicated networks of interconnected, mutual relationships of give and take, the secular is a world of isolated points, all fighting with each other for power and control.

Bad Bible
All of this required a new way of reading the Bible. Again, before It All Went Wrong, the Bible was seen in the context of a complicated set of relationships: to read the Bible, you needed to belong in the community of the Church, to draw on the traditions of reading that had been passed down, to assume it was still related to the world in all sorts of ways, and to listen to the monks: a special category of people whose whole lives were dedicated to living in a community which got its authority not from money or power, but from being the place where people spent time reading. What could possibly do away with such a delightful arrangement of things? Hello, Protestantism. Luther's sola scriptura (only the Bible is authoritative, so you don't need to read theology or even talk to other Christians to understand what it's saying) meant that the Bible lost its place in community and became a thing read by individuals on their own. Revelation came to be understood as something which was private; and getting rid of allegorical readings of the Bible meant that all that Old Testament stuff, which had traditionally been read as spiritually significant (God wants us to fight spiritual enemies rather than killing actual people) became straightforwardly political: God is on the side of the nation state – go national sovereignty!

Bad Times
In a trinitarian account of the world, time itself is complexly related to God. God is at work in and through time, for all that sin means that bad things happen. Time is ordered towards God and so towards good. Theology loses this sense of time in two ways: first, when it reverts to the pagan idea that reality is basically a chaos out of which we briefly emerge, struggle, and then return to in death: this is Machiavellianism, which values heroes, Real Men, and war (Victorian Christianity?) Second, theological time goes off the rails when when it descends into a fatalistic or stoical hopelessness about the possibility of really transforming the world: we can't make things better, so we just need to cling on tight and wait for the Rapture/Second Coming etc. God isn't present in time, except in moments of dramatic and slightly random intervention (hello, Calvinism). This, for reasons I don't quite understand, is the 'natural rights legacy of liberalism'. Both are bad, because both envision time as existing pretty much independently of God, and as involving not gradual transformation towards goodness, but power, conflict, and violence.

All of this means that Christianity should not acknowledge the existence of any sort of 'secular' space. Secularism has little or nothing to teach Christianity because it's either a reversion to pre-Christian paganism or a degeneration into Christian heresy.

At this point, there are two things that seem particularly obviously problematic. First is this idea that society has degenerated, that secularisation is terrible from a Christian perspective, that it all went wrong with Aquinas. You don't need to believe in uncomplicated historical progress or a cheerleader for capitalism to see lots of reasons to be glad about modernity, the Enlightenment, etc., especially as compared to what went before. And second, surely (surely!) if Milbank's right, and God interpenetrates the whole of human history, and the kingdom of God is growing, then how does it make sense to adopt a narrative of progressive degeneration from Aquinas onwards? Shouldn't things be getting, well, better? Shouldn't God be at work even (the horror!) in Protestantism?

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Theology Wins

Theology and Social Theory is probably one of the most important theological texts of the last 50 years or so. It established John Milbank as one of the big names in theology, and it's basically the founding text of the Radical Orthodoxy movement, which for a while looked like the great hope of Western theology. The lustre has worn off a little in recent years, as people have become increasingly critical of its founding ideas, as the movement itself has become more conservative, as Milbank's protégé Philip Blond founded the increasingly scandal-ridden think-tank Res Publica (fathering Red Toryism and the not-particularly-beloved notion of the Big Society), and as Milbank himself became embroiled in various fights on the internet.

So, both Milbank himself and Theology and Social Theory are controversial but game-changing; and I recently decided, after reading various other bits and bobs by Milbank, that it was time to take on the big 'un. I'll be reading through the whole book with some friends and colleagues at Durham, and my plan is to try and blog it as we go. You'll get two posts this week, lucky things, as I've been slow to get my ass in gear and need to have chapter one done by Friday; hopefully from now on I'll be blogging roughly once a week till it's done, and if you're really lucky, the regularity will prompt me to blog other things too. We'll see!

First up, then, is the introduction, which sets out the overarching argument of the book. Theology and Social Theory, Milbank says, has a dual purpose. First, he is setting out to prove to social theorists that only theology can save them; second, he wants to tell theologians that they should stop being so impressed by social theorists and realise that theology really is the Queen of the Sciences, the basic framework within which all other disciplines belong (These claims are, for obvious reasons, quite appealing to theologians, but perhaps less so to social theorists). Sure, theologians are constrained by their historical and social context, but theology is still More Right than any other discipline. Even social theorists are, Milbank argues, increasingly aware of this fact. There are two ways in which social theory screws up: either it reverts to a sort of neo-paganism, or it degenerates into heretical theology. Either way, only theology can save the day! Theology and Social Theory explains why four different types of social theory are wrong. Firstly, liberalism tends to assume that human culture is fundamentally about power and violence; theology can explain why, actually, culture should point us towards the transcendence of God. Second, positivism is basically a fake theology and a fake church: there's some good stuff there, but it's all been stolen from Christian orthodoxy and made a bit less good. Third, dialectics has some good ideas, but goes wrong when (can you guess?) it deviates from Christian orthodoxy. Finally, secular social theory suggests a vision of the world aa world in which difference always means conflict and violence; only Christianity is able to imagine an infinitely varied world as peaceful and harmonious, where we can't ever fully understand the world (except for the fact that THEOLOGY WINS) but that's OK.

Theology is better than social theory; in fact, it is social theory, only better; and as such it must prove that it's better than social theory by living out the truths it proclaims, by showing (not just telling) that the Church makes the world better. Sure, Christians and Christianity aren't perfect, but they're still our only hope.
'This is why it is so important to reassert theology as a master-discourse; theology, alone, remains the discourse of non-mastery.'
Coming soon: chapter 1.