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Milbank Interview

Sorry about the dearth of posts lately. Real life is real life.

In the meantime here’s a lively interview with John Milbank at The Immanent Frame. Definitely worth a read.


  1. Gene McCarraher wrote:

    Thanks for this, Halden.

    I was with Milbank until he got to the part about political economy: Red Tories, Blue Labourites, etc. Whatever the current color scheme of British political culture, I can’t help but think that, despite his frequent use of the term “Christian socialist” to name his position. Milbank can’t really be considered any longer a “socialist” in any meaningful sense for two important reasons. First, genuine socialists recognize the necessity of class conflict. Class conflict is not an unfortunate “row” but an endemic feature of any class society; it’s just there. Milbank and Blond appear to have fallen for the traditional Catholic view of class conflict as either a Big Misunderstanding or a plot by envious proles. How, exactly, does Milbank think his “associationalist communitarian” society will come about — through the legislation of enlightened elites? Apparently, yes — note the fondness for hierarchies and “virtue.” Why am I suspecting that both Red Toryism and Blue Labourism are kinder, gentler forms of capitalism? Indeed, having read a bit of Maurice Glasman, Blue Labourism strikes me as the British version of Obamaism.

    Second, and perhaps more fundamental, Milbank’s comment about firms run by “owners, workers, and customers” is pure moonshine. Why should there be owners distinct from workers? Isn’t the whole point of socialism to abolish the distinction? Call me old-fashioned, but I still think that things like “alienation” still mean something more than psychological estrangement. Alienation means separation from the means and ends of production, and it’s constituted by capitalist property relations. Milbank seems to forget that capitalism is first and foremost a system of property relations, not just avarice writ large. You can’t have “moral markets” unless and until you destroy capitalist property relations because property relations are part of any morality. Which takes us back to class struggle, that allegedly antiquarian idea.

    Wednesday, March 17, 2010 at 7:13 pm | Permalink
  2. Theophilus wrote:

    The label “Red Tory” sticks to Milbank much better than “Blue Labourite”, I think, simply because as you said, he’s not a socialist because he sees socialism as liberal and therefore bad. What I actually found much more helpful in terms of explaining why such a non-liberal politic may be advisable and how one might be carried out is the work of Phillip Blond, who Milbank refers to extensively in the interview. A good summary of Blond’s work (he is now reportedly rather influential within the British Conservative party) can be found here. Quite frankly, if I had to pick an academic theologian to influence political leaders, I would pick Blond over, say, Niebuhr.

    Wednesday, March 17, 2010 at 9:55 pm | Permalink
  3. “Quite frankly, if I had to pick an academic theologian to influence political leaders, I would pick Blond over, say, Niebuhr.”

    Sure, if you don’t believe in equality or you think that the British state should be more interventionist and culturally colonial in its outlook, or you agree that women’s right were a mistake and that homosexuals shouldn’t be allowed to adopt.

    Blond has hardly published and what he has is completely derivative theologically. Niebuhr, despite being the boogieman of Hauerwasians and the In Ecclesia Solo crowd at least, you know, wasn’t lazy or completely evil.

    Thursday, March 18, 2010 at 4:25 am | Permalink
  4. Gene McCarraher wrote:

    Theophilus and Anthony — I wouldn’t choose either Blond or Niebuhr. Niebuhr was the pontifex maximus of Cold War interventionists, and a theologian of American imperialism to boot. The book to which neo-Niebuhrians such as David Brooks always refer — The Irony of American History — is full of sonorous Augustinian tautologies about the Tragedy and Necessity of American imperial hegemony. (The fact that Brooks is such a fan of Niebuhr should give everyone pause.) Niebuhr was certainly in favor of women’s suffrage, but I might add that Niebuhr initially advised Martin Luther King to “take it slowly.” And I rather doubt that he’d favor gay adoption.

    Theophilus — socialism is both liberal and not liberal. It’s liberal in so far as it seeks to preserve the real historical gains of capitalism and liberalism: the erosion of patriarchy, the destruction of feudalism, the possibility of democracy. It’s not liberal in that it seeks to eradicate the capitalist property relations that both inhibit the promise of democracy and foster an acquisitive form of individuality — the “individualism” rightly decried by Milbank, et. al. I read the Blond piece to which you refer a while ago — it’s basically a statement of a neo-Chesterbellocian distributism, which to me is little more than petty-bourgeois capitalism.

    The adoption of Red Toryism by the Conservatives is cynical anyway, I think. If he becomes Prime Minister — and that’s not at all assured, as Labour has been gaining on the Conservatives recently — Cameron will kick Blond and his friends to the curb. Bush did the same thing with John Di Iulio, David Kuo, and the “compassionate conservatives” here.

    Thursday, March 18, 2010 at 7:28 am | Permalink
  5. My mocking of Blond wasn’t meant to be an endorsement of Niebuhr. Just pointing out that at least one of them had finished their PhD before using the title Dr (or rather letting other people assume that was their title while not correcting them).

    Thursday, March 18, 2010 at 8:03 am | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    Gene, I think your diagnosis of Blond/Milbank’s manifold problems is spot on. For Milbank to call himself a Christian Socialist in any meaningful sense is utterly laughable at this point (and probably always was).

    Thursday, March 18, 2010 at 9:45 am | Permalink
  7. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    “[I]t’s basically a statement of a neo-Chesterbellocian distributism, which to me is little more than petty-bourgeois capitalism.” Yes. Unfortunately, sometimes a worry that Cavanaugh has a tendency to adopt this position as well.

    Thursday, March 18, 2010 at 9:58 am | Permalink
  8. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    It should be pointed out that Niebuhr never earned a PhD either.

    Thursday, March 18, 2010 at 10:01 am | Permalink
  9. Halden wrote:

    I do need to read more of the Chesterbelloc stuff before I go around running my mouth about it too freely, but I have really come to think that its a proposal that is ultimately just soft facism/feudalism.

    Anything it gives to us with the one hand it immediately takes away with the other, especially in its delight in hierarchy and aristocracy.

    Thursday, March 18, 2010 at 10:04 am | Permalink
  10. Mea culpa.

    Thursday, March 18, 2010 at 10:10 am | Permalink
  11. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    I think the worry for many Catholic theologians (including Cavanaugh) is that the moment we start talking about the abolition of private property we depart from a foundation of Catholic social thought. Unfortunately, from my reading of (official) Catholic social thought there is some truth to this concern. How would you respond to this Gene?

    Thursday, March 18, 2010 at 10:13 am | Permalink
  12. Gene McCarraher wrote:

    I would respond by saying that the defense of private property should not be a foundation of Catholic social thought, official or otherwise. But to nuance even that, I think that the term “private property” is itself an obfuscation. Socialists oppose *capitalist* property relations in which access to the means and ends of production are determined by a market whose axial principle is the accumulation of capital. (Yes, that’s a Marxist account, but I still think that old Karl has a lot of kick in him.) Chesterbellocians, neo- or otherwise (and I do agree that Cavanaugh sometimes sounds this way) contend that distributist property is private but not capitalist because it is (allegedly) about provision for a family and a local community. I agree with Halden that this would end up either as soft fascism or a reversion to feudalism. So Cavanaugh’s worry is, actually, well-founded, but I just don’t share it. If Cavanaugh worries that we might lose the right to, say, our own private toothbrushes or books or things like that, then I think he has a legitimate worry. But that’s not capitalist property.

    Thursday, March 18, 2010 at 10:55 am | Permalink
  13. Nate Kerr wrote:

    Ry (or Gene):

    Can you point me to where you are reading this worry in Cavanaugh, and where you find him to be talking at his most Chesterbellocian?


    Thursday, March 18, 2010 at 1:16 pm | Permalink
  14. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    He refers to Belloc and the distributism positively in his article “The Unfreedom of Free Market” which is available online here:

    I think his latest little book (written for a popular audience) Being Consumed also tends in this direction. I know that Cavanaugh opposes capitalist property relations (I have no doubt about this), but I do wonder if the kind of “third way” economics he tends to propose isn’t in the end what Gene calls “petty-bourgeois capitalism.” I actually think that D. Stephen Long’s Divine Economy tends more in the direction of distributism than Cavanaugh.

    Thursday, March 18, 2010 at 1:34 pm | Permalink
  15. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    Anthony: out of curiosity, have you earned your PhD? If not, then you might want to reconsider allowing Continuum to state that “Anthony Paul Smith received his doctorate from the University of Nottingham.” Correcting Continuum on this score would probably lend more weight to your quip against Blond. Just sayin.

    Thursday, March 18, 2010 at 1:49 pm | Permalink
  16. You mean the thing that goes on the back of the book when it’s published 8 months after I’ve received my doctorate? If I fail obviously I’ll have it changed! They ask for information that will be accurate at the time of publication, not at the time you sign the contract (which was a year into my PhD). You really don’t see a difference between using people’s assumptions about you to cynically move ahead? Or are you just mad that I don’t know enough about Neibuhr? In the future I’ll stick to just saying that Phillip Blond is a cynical man who is using some buzzwords to attract people to a political party that is not progressive, that is not pro-worker, that is more, not less, neo-liberal than the Labour party and that ultimately will increase some of the deplorable aspects of English society (like their racism and homophobia). I’m not OK with that. Sorry.

    Thursday, March 18, 2010 at 1:56 pm | Permalink
  17. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    No defense of Blond or Niebuhr intended here, just trying to keep you grounded, Anthony.

    Thursday, March 18, 2010 at 2:14 pm | Permalink
  18. Theophilus wrote:

    Except that that’s not what he said. Part of his complaint, for instance, is that the liberal British state is overweeningly interventionist, and is instead proposing a devolution of social structures to a more local and accountable level, so unless there’s something you know of Blond that you’re not sharing here, you completely missed the point on that one. I’d also be interested to hear why you think Blond is opposed to women’s rights, equality or homosexual adoption.

    I’m perfectly comfortable with Blond not being a terribly innovative thinker. But I guess I don’t share your fetish for individuality. People who do a good job of communicating other people’s ideas aren’t worthless – and judging by the hearing Blond has been given in political contexts, he may well be an important thinker even if he’s not really original.

    Thursday, March 18, 2010 at 3:45 pm | Permalink
  19. Halden wrote:

    That same article also serves as chapter 1 in Being Consumed.

    Thursday, March 18, 2010 at 3:51 pm | Permalink
  20. Yeah, he told me. He’s talked about gay adoption and women’s rights in the newspapers in the UK as well. I think you’re misunderstanding what I mean by interventionist, he’s all for cultural colonialism and thinks that the British empire was a good thing for the world, but yes he’s anti-State. How these two things are held together I don’t know, I suppose he has some notion of a localist national army, who knows. I don’t have a fetish for originality, but I think it’s disingenuous to claim that your ideas are original when they are not. If you support this kind of politics then Blond is probably your man, though he’s not an important thinker. He’s certainly not in line with the politics I support, I’m not a conservative, but if you are then he’s probably your man. I think the UK will be worse off under a Tory government, that racism is going to rise and turn into more incidents of violence, that localism will be a buzzword disguising more neoliberalism policies, and pro-family will be a buzzword for cuts in welfare. Again, I don’t understand how anyone who claims they are for radical equality or progressive values can support that in good faith.

    Thursday, March 18, 2010 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

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