25 June 2016

For and against Milbank

The title of this post is not an accident. It deliberately references chapter titles in Milbank’s masterwork Theology and Social Theory: ‘For and against Hegel’ and ‘For and against Marx’. I confess to having a similar scepticism of Milbank now that he had of Hegel and Marx in 1990. It is indeed a sad thing to see such a respected scholar and social theorist as John Milbank of the University of Nottingham reduced to a state of entirely one-sided rage at the prospect of the British populace voting to leave the European Union. Considering his countrymen who fall into the like-minded ‘high Tory’, ‘red Tory’ and ‘blue Labour’ camps, who have already weighed in on this question with a far more Eurosceptic eye than Milbank himself has (people like Lord Maurice Glasman, Peter Hitchens, David Lindsay, Neil Clark, or on this side of the pond, John Médaille – none of whom are ‘dupes’, and certainly none of whom are even remotely ‘small-minded, bitter, puritanical, greedy’ or ‘Unitarian’), I think Milbank may want to reconsider his position on this particular issue once he’s sat down and gotten through a brandy-and-soda or two.

There were, and are, two kinds of protest against the European Union which were given voice on Thursday. The first one Milbank very correctly identifies, and scours with considerable justice. Farage and UKIP are indeed taking issue with the European Union for not being nearly Whiggish (or Reformed, Roundhead, Nonconformist, Puritan, capitalist or liberal) enough for their tastes. They detest the European Union for supposedly coddling immigrants from abroad, and for pushing regulations on Britain which hamper what they feel to be Britain’s business. Their ludicrous and craven actions in the wake of the referendum – reneging on their promises to the British public to refinance the NHS, whilst going back to Brussels with open hands for a new free trade agreement – indeed show that they are completely ‘deluded’, as Milbank claims. The casual racism (and no, I am not afraid to call it that), the bigotry against Eastern and Southern Europe, the nostalgia for Empire, the desire to drag Britain back to what it had been before the Wars of the 20th century (one presumes, in UKIP’s view, before Clement Attlee screwed everything up), these are all very ugly motivations which have fed into Brexit, and ought to be opposed with all due diligence.

Where I disagree with Milbank and other left-Remainers is that Brexit is not and never was a referendum on these particular issues, regardless of whatever other motivations people had for voting this way. Indeed, some Remainers themselves have been insistent on this purely-factual point, that the Leave campaign would have no impact on immigration from non-EU countries. And more to the point, other motivations for leaving have come to the fore. I myself have been a Eurosceptic of the Left for a long time, for economic, for geopolitical and even for theological reasons. My theological Euroscepticism, actually, should be readily apparent, and it ties in very closely with my economic Euroscepticism. Does a supranational polity driven by an ironclad, one-sided, nominalist logic which enforces austerity and punishment, and rigidly refuses to forgive debts even when doing so would be beneficial to both parties, indeed have anything in common with the theology of grace which prevails in the Christian East (or, indeed, among Latin Christians at their best)? Indeed, does the official policy of the European Union bureaucracy toward nations like Greece (or Italy, or Portugal, or Spain) not also recall certain Calvinist attitudes toward debt and judgement?

Keep in mind that this is not some ivory-tower academic argument. Structural long-term unemployment, cuts to social programmes, flight of the intellectuals, poverty, depression, drug use, suicide: these are the fruits of Eurozone recalcitrance and insistence on Greece being punished for what is actually the result of a trade imbalance with Germany. One can indeed chalk the utter disaster and failure that is the German and Eurozone approach to Greece (or half a dozen other countries facing disastrous austerity measures imposed from above) up to bad policy or bad planning. Orthodoxy should furnish the tools to understand the depth of the sin, both structural and personal, involved in the entire European Union economic project, that comes from an unwillingness to examine one’s own faults, and in typical Calvinist fashion ‘study to admonish’ others, and particularly those who are weaker, poorer and less powerful. Just as Saint John the Forerunner withdrew over the River Jordan to call the people of Judæa to repentance, so too some member of the European Union had to be the first to withdraw to call the rest of Europe to repent. In this case, that member was the United Kingdom.

I would indeed like to see the old Milbank return, the one who was far more careful about drawing out subtle philosophical distinctions often within the same academic or philosophcial movement (such as the Scholasticism of the Middle Ages). If he were more attuned to the breadth and depth of some of the alternative voices – with many of whom, as I have said before, he would find himself in broad agreement on a host of other issues – he might be far more careful about characterising this British revolt against the European superstate. A revolt which, I am pleased to note, is already kicking both British and German neoliberals and Whigs right where it counts, and making it easier for Eastern and Southern European voices to be heard without dismissal.


  1. I'll enter my comment on facebook. I certainly sympathize with your point of view, for the record.

  2. It's all well engaging in intellectual ponderings about Brexit when you don't have to live with the economic consequences of it.

    One can make a theoretical case for a progressive left-wing exit from the EU, but how such an idealized departure could work out in the realities of today's political and economic climate is another matter.

    Maybe I'm a too much of a realist, but I like to see the policy details. I've no time for dreaming about how things ought to be.

  3. Sovereignty, dear Matthew, is very much a realist concern - and unlike the Concert of Vienna, certain European federal institutions actively undermine the economic and fiscal sovereignty of their member-states. I'm actually still baffled by why Greece didn't take the option to cut herself loose from Germany when it was presented.

    And like I said, it's still my hope that Brexit emboldens the long-embattled and long-impoverished European East and South to show the Germans some backbone: either to get better trade deals, or debt relief, or greater fiscal sovereignty without EC/IMF strings attached - or leave.

    1. Can Greece ever be sovereign with all the debt they are in?

    2. Precisely my point. Predatory lending and unfair trade policies undermine the sovereignty of nations like Greece, for the sake of a handful of financiers and German corporate executives.

      The EU is mired in the sins which cry to heaven for vengeance, those decried with particular vehemence by the Cappadocian Fathers, and God will judge it accordingly.