Edit: I removed some of the more vitriolic language from this piece. While I find Milbank's reading of Church history and theology extremely problematic, it doesn't deserve ad hominem. To the contrary, while I think he misunderstand the mechanisms of society, I agree with his criticism of Capitalism and his attempt to rethink forms of society away, though I think it would not be as he'd hope.
This post is responding to a recent Leithart blogpost: here
This is less about Leithart, but his interaction with John Milbank, the doyen of Radical Orthodoxy.
Milbank's essay about a decade ago predicted, yea prophesied(!), the "dark" side of Liberalism, namely Populism and the politicization of truth. Leithart finds this interesting because it predates Brexit, Trump, and Madame Le Pen, the rainbow Hitlerista who got close to the French presidency. But it's not ground-breaking, at least if you know anything about global politics.
Pim Fortyn, and his new brand of European conservatism, appeared in European politics in the early 2000s, before his untimely assassination in 2002. His own, personality-based, party threatened to send a shock-wave through the Dutch political establishment. Fortyn was a political conservative, but he was gay, and wanted to include feminism, philo-semitic, homosexual equality/protection, and a socially libertine/permissive platform. For Fortyn and his cronies, this was nationalist patriotism for the Dutch way of life, outstripping the older conservative nationalists that remained vaguely, if not openly, anti-semitic, pro-Christian (the variety depending on the national church), and hostile to changes in Europe in the second half of the 20th century. This was the conservatism that Le Pen's father embodied, and National Front was the party of grumblers, the weak, but constant, undercurrent of French peasants who were upset with libertinage and communism. This new conservatism stirred up the growing rift between European nationals and generally Muslim immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East who struggled to integrate. There was antagonism on both sides, and Fortyn sought to whip this up into a new political platform. The alien Muslim was a threat to a Western way of life, and needed to be policed, whether through forced assimilation, immigration restrictions, or even deportation.
Fortyn's brand of conservatism has lived, rather than died, throughout diverse Western European countries. The obvious case is that Muslim immigration increased, integration has become even more antagonistic, and fear is palpably growing. This is on both sides. As Muslim ghettos increase, in size and population, the potential for conflict grows. Muslims are torn between interest and disgust with Western European ways, it can be seen as liberating or as rank sleaze. Public castigation of the Burka as bondage miss the point. It can be really pathetic to hear Christians mock and insult the burka or the hijab without, for a second, considering the point. Whatever happened to the virtue of modesty or humility? Some Muslim women openly embrace the burka, or some sort of headcovering, because they do not want to appear as a whore in public, which is what they (and most of the world) would think about Western dress norms, especially for the female.
However, all of that aside, Milbank intones that this new reactionary populism is the downfall of liberalism. The values Liberalism tries to maintain, because it maintains them in an absolute way, opens the door to their challenge from below. But, of course, there is much confusion with these definitions. Populist uprisings, where mobs of peasants or traders seek a radical redirection of public policy, have existed for millennia. The amount of examples one could cite beggar the imagination, so I won't even begin. Instead, Liberalism sets itself up for becoming the worst of all tyrannies, as these uprisings now become conflicts for the Ultimate.
This narrative is not convincing. The rise of "liberalism" was a part of the Enlightenment reaction against religious violence. Cavanaugh's thesis about religious violence is mostly garbage. Statesmen and policy shapers, including ecclesiastics(!), sought to restrain Christian apocalypticism from the political. The nation-state built up as a means to contain, through force if necessary, a fenced area of public discussion. The growth of civic religion increased as well, it was a secularized set of values to govern the masses. The aftermath of the 30 Years War saw the rise of the Dutch trading company and the Baroque monarchy. The English Civil Wars saw a Parliament-Church alliance dominate the country, through a resurgent, and aggressive Anglicanism. Archbishop Laud was a vile persecutor, but he was of an older kind. The Restoration Church of England utilize diverse tactics to craft an English civic space that broke the back of any future Puritan uprising. The question is not whether there would've been another apocalyptic International Protestantism under a neo-messianic Gustavus Adolphus or a Puritan Revolution with a Cromwell. Rather, it was the fear that drove many to reimagine the nation-state.
It was, in fact, Liberalism that sought to create, in itself, a penultimate state. As I've said elsewhere, it attempted to bracket the "decision", it tried to close up a conflation of the political with the theological. This was, in fact, a theological move, but it was one that tried to do as Milbank suggested. Liberalism and Milbanks neo-Tory political Augustinianism are in the same boat. His theo-politics are equally capable of devolution and breakdown. This was no different than the Popery that brought about the French Babylonian Captivity of the Church and the resultant war of three popes. The Imperial Papacy, especially Julian II, il papa terrible, was a political juggernaut, capable of waging wars, commanding princes as vassal lords, and collecting taxes. Wycliffe and Luther were very different figures, from very different times, but they both began their controversial careers attacking the actions of an Imperial papacy.
And, more importantly, the function of society was to safeguard the Church's sacramental system, which was very much the means to Heaven. Thus, encased in the penultimate order of the temporal sword was the spiritual sword of the Church. Does Milbank not realize that the Interdict was basically a suspension of salvation for a region? Like this model, Liberalism has its own penultimate politics as an encasing for the ultimate. However, in our Bourgeois Constitutional government, the ultimate is no less spiritual, even if it is a much flatter horizon. The sirens' call of Progress, Science, Growth, Economy, Happiness are the Liberal set of Universals. There is a genealogy between the Medieval and the Modern, between the Church and Liberalism, and both have failed at times to keep the penultimate zone from being polluted by the Ultimate. Both ended in failure, though perhaps the former is worse because it wore the name of Christ on its sleeve. Did not the Prophet say, "The Gentiles will blaspheme Me on account of you?"
Having said all of this, I am not a fan of the Liberal project, and it has been a bearer of truly evil and diabolic fruit. As much as I disagree with Milbank, I am in agreement that Liberalism is a failure and a kind of waking nightmare. Rather than Milbank's theory, Christians must understand the times wisely and work to keep peace in Babylon. For those Christians cursed with temporal public responsibilities, may we remember that holy man of God, Roger Williams, and believe that there may be pockets of decency amidst cruelty and villainy. For the rest of us, may we work with our hands quietly and proclaim the Gospel of Christ loudly.