Friday 30 May 2008

Milbank and red Toryism: or, why it's right to be left

One of the fascinating features of the contemporary intellectual landscape is the appearance of surprising convergences between the political left and right. You can see it, for instance, in the retrieval of Carl Schmitt by contemporary leftist theorists; or you can see it in a conference like this one, where theologians and radical Marxist philosophers rally together around the Pope’s infamous Regensburg address.

In his delightful book on Paul, Jacob Taubes offers a humorous comment on this tendency in political theory. Referring to the fascist theorist Armin Mohler, he remarks (p. 99): “He was, so to speak, the right-wing extremist and I was the left extremist. Les extrèmes se touchent – in any event, we shared the same views about the middle.”

In the latest instance of “sharing the same views about the middle,” Dave Belcher refers us to John Milbank’s short piece in The Guardian. Milbank gets straight to the point, and calls for a “red Toryism”: “In the face of the secret alliance of cultural with economic liberalism, we need now to invent a new sort of politics which links egalitarianism to the pursuit of objective values and virtues: a ‘traditionalist socialism’ or a ‘red Toryism’. After all, what counts as radical is not the new, but the good.”

Dave has some further reflections on how this new statement fits into the trajectory of Milbank’s thought; and Phillip Blond also discusses red Toryism in today’s Guardian.


michael jensen said...

Milbank offers a very nostalgic vision in my view of a kind of green and pleasant England, divided neatly into rural parishes. Sometimes it is hard to believe he really means what he's fun, but is he serious?

Anonymous said...

Philip Blond explains "red tory" a little in an another article published today:

Ben Myers said...

Many thanks, Richard — I've added a link to Blond's article in the post.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure this supposed "convergence" is anything more than a commonly obscured fact coming to light: fascism is and always was a phenomenon of the left, a variety of socialism rebranded as "right wing" by other leftist movements so as to distance themselves from the crimes that came to be associated with it. Hitler and Mussolini were leftists; the mutual antipathy of communists and fascists was nothing more than a blood feud among different species of radical leftists.

So, yes, we should expect a certain common critique of the so-called "middle" (that is, the liberal). But I'm not really sure why I should find Milbank's proposal of fascism interesting, except as a sign of the intellectual rehabilitation of fascism. It certainly isn't appealing.

Anonymous said...

"So, because you are lukewarm — neither hot nor cold — I am about to spit you out of my mouth." (Rev 3:16)

This best summarizes my thoughts on the liberal Highway (to Hell), which includes fascism and communism. The paradoxical unity of an extremely cold and righteous mind and an extremely warm and forgiving heart in the same body is somewhat like an icecream with hot chocolate covering – delicious – while the lukewarm liberal cup of coffee is vile and disgusting.

Well, that's my rant for the day. ;)

Lord's Peace,

Anonymous said...

To be sure, New Labour is a political wasteland, but the idea that a neo-Etonian Tory Party under David Cameron might be an oasis in waiting is a Sahara of a mirage. Amos 5:19 about sums up this delusion.

I must say that for all Milbank's good intentions of "socialism by grace", and all the talk about "suspending the material", and about the eucharist, the body, and liturgical public spaces, the whole project of RO seems so ethereal, unearthed, almost docetic in its overestimation of ideas, and pelagian in its underestmation of the tragic (echoing the criticism of Rowan Williams, himself showing the influence of Donald MacKinnon).

Philosophically, I have always been troubled by RO's Platonism. Theologically, when ecclesiology trumps Christology, expect creeping mischief.

Shane said...

I agree with Kim. (Les extrèmes se touchent indeed.)

At any rate, just because a lunatic marxist finds something intriguing in fascism isn't very interesting.

What would be interesting (as Adam rightly noted above) is to inquire into the common root of fascism and socialism. (Hint: It's Hegel.) Here's the question: what is the philosophical anthropology that undergirds the political theories of modernity, left and right?

Here are some of my guesses. . .

(1) The unstable oscillation between a rabid individualism and a murderous collectivism. Although these two seem like contraries, the opposition betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of human community and the role of the individual as a citizen of a community.
(2) The commodification of human life and human productive activities, especially farming. The Left, no less than the Right, thinks of farming in the terms of agribusiness. So many hectares with so many tractors is nothing but so much food for a certain number of people. In thinking of farming in these bare economic terms, modern politicos are inevitably going to ignore things like proper care of the land and "the art of the common place". This kind of thinking seems to me to inevitably lead to precisely the sort of alienation from labor that Marx was trying to avoid.

Anonymous said...

Jeez, the next thing you know Shane and I will be having supper together. I shall bring a long spoon.

Dave Belcher said...

Ben, thanks for the link and the good discussion here. I've been out of town, so I guess I missed this one!


JKnott said...

The "extremes" (which, btw, always get defined by some so-called "middle" which sets itself up as the standard) may indeed agree to some extent on their views of this "middle," but if they cannot distinguish themselves from each other we get stuck in some sort of dualism.

For example, what we have in America is a dualism where "liberal" and "conservative" are really only two sorts of liberalism (i.e. capitalism), and "socialist" is only a disparaging term the "conservatives" use against "liberals." And those who think they are socialist or radicals or "the left" are, at best, liberals with a nasty attitude.

The real question is whether a truly distinctive third option can exist, a true socialism that isn't just a return to a kind of feudalism. And if so, I think it obvious that it will have to avoid the "traditionalism" Milbank seems here to equate with "the pursuit of objective values." But that's just the Barth and Badiou in me talking.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Adam, for reminding us that fascism is leftist.

Anonymous said...

Hey Ben,
Could you give a bit more info on Taubes book on Paul? I'm not familiar with it...

Ben Myers said...

Hi Sean. Taubes' book is largely responsible for the recent interest in St Paul among continental philosophers (e.g. Agamben, Badiou). It's a delightful, vigorous little book: I've posted some details about it here.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I understand what Adam is saying. Does he really believe that Milbank's comments represent a "proposal of fascism"? I've heard this sort of thing floated against JM before and have never understood it as it seems to me to miss his entire point (unless I'm mis-interpreting what you mean by fascism). Of course here in the States I'm used to hearing "fascist" tossed around like "Nazi" and applied to anybody whose agenda opposes one's own. Still, I assume the invective against Milbank has something to do with an assumption of a kind of imposed morality as determiner for social behavior. This is what I don't get as of course he values some attitudes over others but I've never sensed that his desire was to impose anything on anyone. By that standard couldn't we say the Franciscan Order was a fascist imposition? I associate Milbank with Alasdair Macintyre and his notions of accepting that sustaining and maintaining culture will always be left to a small group within the body politic--a candle kept in the darkness (Macintyre actually uses the monastic order as an example of this). I also think of Philip Sherrard's great exposition on Constantinople and the manner in which he argued for, not a theocracy, but rather a true polis which would allow a space for the development of just about every cultural attitude.

Also, I'd really like to hear kim expand on why he has problems with RO's platonism. I'm sure you've probably addressed this before elsewhere kim but I haven't seen it. For me that has never been a problem. And I'd love to hear more on why you think it's "pelagian in its underestmation of the tragic", especially with reference to RW. I'm not seeking to criticize here as I genuinely am not clear on your reasoning. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Hi Nathaniel,

Regarding Milbank's Platonism, I am with those sympathetic Reformed theologians (like James K. A. Smith) who want to affirm, with RO, materiality, embodiment, and the goodness of creation, but who doubt that a Platonic ontolgy can bear the weight of the matter (!). It is certainly the case that Milbank and Pickstock's monumental makeover of the traditional soma sema Platonism assumed by almost all pre-Deleuzean philosophers has stretched specialist and not just my own amateur credulity.

At a more demotic level, Milbank's platonic ecclesiology so idealises the church that it bears little resemblance to the church of sinners we all know, and it suggests an unrealistic church-light / world-darkness dualism, even though, of course, dualism is precisly what RO is out to overcome. (There is, I think, a connection here with my point about the collapse of Christology into ecclesiology).

Picking up on Williams, I feel uneasy that Milbank's ecclesiology is too immodest, that it claims too much for the church, indeed that it flirts with triumphalism. "My reservation about Radical Orthodoxy," Williams writes, "concerns the tragic... I think it's important to emphasise that the brokenness, the woundedness of the Christian body in history, at every level, just doesn't go away." So a Milbankian will be hard-pressed to admit or explain that, for example, on the issues of racism and sexism (and dare I mention homophobia?) the church has been part of the problem, not the solution. (And here I wonder if there is not a connection between RO's doctrines of sin and the atonement, both of which are rather thin.)

I hope that's helpful. I'm still trying to tease all this out myself.

Anonymous said...

Fair questions, Nathaniel. Yes, I think you aren't quite getting what I meant by fascism (probably my fault, as I know very well that's a loaded term). I don't mean it as a pejorative (though it's something to which I'm opposed), but as a more precise term of political ideology. No, I don't just mean "oppressive" by it, either. Instead, I mean something like a state socialism (not an international socialism--we must distinguish leftist ideologies) which operates not by radically overturning traditional structures but by subverting and restricting them to the interest of the collective.

That is, German National Socialism didn't abolish private property or private business ownership--it just restricted the use of private property and business until it was largely nominal. Hitler's "alliance" with private business was a matter of bringing it under state control, supposedly in the interest of the German people, and in conjunction with a strong labor movement.

Similarly, traditional social values were reinforced--the role of women, opposition to homosexuality, idealization of the German family, the virtues of the German peasant folk, the role of certain traditional elites in society, an idealization of nature--all in very romantic fashion, and in service to the larger project. This, I think, is quite similar to the "nostalgic" character of Milbank's vision that was mentioned in this thread.

Kim rightly notes the strange ordering of ecclesiology vs. christology. Follow this through and the church becomes just another political instrument attempting a reconfiguration of pieces in the present age, rather than that community constituted by the proclamation of the one who is to come. In fact, it sure looks as if Milbank's ideas, were they ever to touch the ground, would practically entail something like the union of church and state (and every other part of life) into a single entity for this purpose. The new, all-encompassing entity can achieve anything. Immodest indeed.

But would all this be oppressive? Of course! The Franciscan order was a voluntary association. If Milbank is talking about the state (and what else to conclude from his comments?), then he's not speaking of any such thing. You just try to opt out of the state you live in without actually fleeing it and see how well that works for you. Violence will be employed, one way or the other.

So, yes, I really do mean that Milbank's comments sound fascistic.

Daniel said...

Nathaniel, where does Sherrard discuss that?

Anonymous said...

It's in his book Constantinople:Iconography of a Sacred City. The comments I made about it above were, of course, somewhat generalized and I don't have the book here in front of me but to be a little more specific, Sherrard's monograph is basically a paean to Constantinople and he discusses the iconography in his typical learned fashion but he also posits the city as a representation of a kind of ideal. In the section I'm referring to he described the composite nature of the city's structure and the way in which pagan festivals would co-exist with very well represented monastic communities. Not that the one approved of the other of course but rather just that the ability to exist well represented in equal measure almost side by side within the larger community was a sign of the mature internal balance of the city; it gave citizens a genuine choice in other words. Seek that book out if you can. As with all Sherrard's work, it's simply excellent.

Anonymous said...

I suspect the way to track this fascist trend in Milbank will be to pay close attention to how he and his colleagues begin to speak about Islam. I suspect, in their European situation, these ideas will take a sharply anti-Muslim turn shortly.

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