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Theology and Capitalism: An Interview with John Milbank

The Other Journal (TOJ): In our journal we’ve featured several theologians and their critiques of capitalism and Daniel Bell’s article has discussed how capitalism can’t really be judged empirically, that is, it can’t be judged on whether or not it works, for it may work all too well according to its vision of the good. You’ve made a similar point against the Frankfurt critique of capitalism as irrational, when in fact, according to its own contingent, ontological construal, it can be very rational. So I was wondering then if you could start out by laying out some of the salient problems with the rationality of capitalism, despite its alleged efficiency how it might possibly be a bad thing and how we may even say it is possibly irrational.

John Milbank (JM): Yes, that’s a very interesting question. I agree with what Bell said, and I think that one issue here is that possibly in the Marxist critique of capitalism it tended to be seen as manifestly irrational, in other words as conflicting with the mass of basic human needs. And there is a certain sense in which that may be true, but it ignores the question of what ends you actually elect, and that concerns questions about what ends you decide are desirable and worthy to pursue. There is more than an ethical question involved here than what Marxism tended to admit—or in other words, supposing everybody goes along with the idea that there is this endless kind of agonistic competition in the marketplace according to a set of rules, and this means that if you play the game, you can possibly win, even if you’re at the bottom of the pile you can possibly win. But there are going to be an awful lot of losers.

Now, it seems to me that it’s possible that people kind of fall in love with this game, if you like to put it that way, and there is a sense in which that’s not necessarily irrational; but purely from the point of view of most religious ethical visions, this seems to be a fundamentally false option. And I think it’s possible to point out that what’s being pursued here are sort of singularly empty, abstract kind of ends—simply you’re piling up a kind of a nominal wealth, and then if you have a lot of this nominal wealth, you are accorded respect. To some degree it allows you to have the goods you want, but it also allows you to have, if you’re successful, far more than anybody could really need, and above all it gives rather more control over this accumulation of abstract power; fundamentally what it’s delivering is this kind of nominal power in a sort of gigantic fiction that everybody is simply going along with. And I suppose in that sense you might say that it’s irrational because reason, or a practical reason, would surely opt for some particular substantive goal rather than simply a kind of empty goal. In other words, there is something nihilistic, I think, about capitalism.

And nihilism is not necessarily irrational, but it’s the rational denial of the ultimacy of reason, because in the end if there is nothing, there isn’t even reason. I think capitalism is deeply aligned with nihilism, in that kind of way, that if you’re insisting that we need to pursue substantive ends, what Marxists calls “use value,” yes there’s a sense in which capitalism is irrational. But I think that the problem with Marxism is that use value is not as transparent, as it tended to think; that we can have different accounts of what is useful, or most useful, or most worthy of human pursuit.

TOJ : Could you speak a little bit on the genealogy as far as the theological origins that you see—the heretical theology that you see conducive to the sprouting of capitalism?

JM: Yes, I think that has several origins. I think first of all perhaps extremely pessimistic strands of Augustinianism, not true to Augustine himself, but those within the Protestant Reformation and within the Counter Reformation, where you tend to despair altogether of human activity in this world, you just see it as the realm of Satan. So you come to the conclusion that the best you can do with that is some sort of very efficient regular organization but as it were disciplined vice by vice. You get this sort of thing said quite explicitly within certain Lutheran writers for example, and it’s a sort of very one-sided view of something that Augustine had to say—and I think it’s echoed today in the views of those pre-millenarian evangelicals who think there is no way at all in which you can build toward the coming of the Kingdom.

Again, this somehow just hands over the secular sphere to sin, and the idea that this sort of system of disciplining sin by sin. And it’s striking that if you look in the early 19th century often the most enthusiastic celebrations of the market are in fact evangelical both in England and the United States—that they tend to see the market mechanism quite literally as a providential mechanism, maybe more secularized like Adam Smith, who saw it half-heartedly as a providential mechanism. But it becomes quite explicitly a providential mechanism but, again, it is a way of disciplining sin, and also is a way of rewarding those who work hard in this world and in a disciplined fashion and it becomes something like a sign of election. And it’s extraordinary how distorted this system is, that you get it and these sort of success-orientated evangelical villages now permeating Latin America and Africa as well as the United States; and this question of why there is a symbiosis between a particular kind of theology on the one hand and the market on the other hand, is I think a very, very, crucial issue.

I think another theological root of it is an over-stress on the individual and the downplaying of the significance of the church as the body of Christ, as a community. And that can often go along with a stress on the idea that the crucial thing about the individual is his or her will—that God is thought of as supremely possessing an absolute will and then He accords certain rights to individuals who are supremely characterized by the possession of the will. And then you think of these individuals as coming together and contracting together, and you get a very unreal picture of society as built on contract between individuals. But I think it’s linked to a very unreal picture of the will as being a kind of pure act of choice rather than a kind of tendency of human desire that’s always linked to reason.

So I think another thing that feeds into this is a sort of element of a natural theology in the 18th-century sense, where you’re trying to read off the hidden hand of God’s design in the social world—you need the divine in nature and you get the divine in the social world. And it’s again the idea that God’s design is shown in the way somehow He coordinates the desires in individuals and in the way that He produces good out of bad. And the trouble is that bad here is often seen as necessary, a kind of ontologization of evil and of violence.

TOJ: And this is where you claim that political economy became a theodicy.

JM : Yes. The theodicy is one of the roots, in fact, of political economy. I think that’s very much the case. It comes to a head with somebody like Malthus. And so what you’re seeing often in the evangelical embrace of the market is the strange blend of these elements of theodicy that come from a natural theological discourse on the one hand, with a natural tendency based on economic metaphors that is somehow linked to the sociology of the attainment in the end, the idea that the unnecessary and inevitable price for everything is determined in a mechanical way as in the case of the market by supposedly the laws of supply and demand. I think you’d have to get an impression of the idea that people form society—it’s not the kind of completely planned—it’s the result of a lot of very long-term, habitual tendencies; but that’s not the same as saying the social upshot is the accidental outcome of the unconscious matching of supply and demand that’s going on. In fact, the market doesn’t really work like that at all; it works rather through a systematic and semi-deliberate economy of desire that’s deliberately engineered by social forces.

TOJ: We will have to flesh out your thoughts on the market or on the economy and how that possibly can be regulated from certain substantive visions of the good. Before we do move on to that I would like to ask you to maybe flesh out a little bit more—you mentioned evangelicalism as complicit with this sort of perverse theology and complicit with the market in general—celebrating the market, even as you say—you had also mentioned in other places that as evangelicalism is centered on an individualist practical reason and also had “kitsch-laden content” that was very much a part of marketing strategies and very much a part of legitimating and perpetuating capitalism. What are some very outstanding examples of this today in, say, American evangelicalism?

JM : Well, I don’t know an enormous amount about it, but I think that nowadays, almost deliberately even mission and evangelism are thought of in market terms of maximizing your product and that people will talk even of grace as being a commodity quite explicitly in the so-called free market theologies. But you mentioned that this is kitsch and I do think that is quite important because it is a tendency to see mediation as somehow dispensable, so that an analogy can be made here with the idea of the commodity, that capitalism is not interested in the product, the product is just a given and then it’s a question of how you sell it.

Obviously, in terms of religion, there is an interest in the product, but somehow the product is regarded in this very systematic way. You have a kind of bundle of doctrines that people tend to think they clearly understand. And you have a kind of literalism at the theological level, and an insufficient sense of mystery that God is an absolute mystery and that we grasp Him at best very, very, very partially. And I think that if I insist that our grasp of God is partial and inadequate, you realize that the knowledge we do have of God is already mediated, and that the way in which we transmit that knowledge, or the way in which we enact that knowledge liturgically, is a continuing part of that mediation that affects the very concept of this religious knowledge—so that aesthetic considerations are central, I think; but if you have banal modes of preaching or you use banal images or dreadful metaphors about car engines and that kind of thing, you’re actually betraying the content of what you’re talking about.

TOJ: Definitely.

JM : It’s because the medium is the message, as Marshall McLuhan put it, who not accidentally was a Catholic. And obviously I’m not saying this is true of all of the American Protestant tradition, it’s obviously not. And you know the very greatest thinkers like Jonathan Edwards did just the opposite, they made aesthetics the heart of what they were thinking about. But when the culture of the mega-church and the very anti-urban culture, people who really prefer to live in a kind of no-man’s land of shopping malls and that sort of thing; they’re suspicious of downtown because it’s too corrupt and they’re happy all the time with banal restaurants, fast food, very bland kind of architecture—and to my mind this betrays the Gospel, because I think how we treat space and time is central; the whole business of sacred time and sacred landscape is essential. And one of the things I’ve noticed strongly in America is that, I believe, up to the middle of the 20th century America was a sacred landscape in that I think it had its own quite austere but very beautiful aesthetic in its modes of building and things. And that very rapidly in the last part of the 20th century the rows of strip malls and this sort of thing has produced the most incredible uglification of the landscape; and in my mind I see this as spiritual deterioration—profound deterioration—and it seems to me that the kind of religion that is at ease with that is a very strange kind of religion, because it’s not really thinking about how we are trustees of God’s land and that the beauty of the creation is the divine call to us—that the divine demands from us an adequate response.

You know, there’s a sense in which the whole business of human beings is to worship and glorify God; indeed this is Calvinism, proper Calvinism—our business is to glorify God, is to worship God properly, and that has to extend through every aspect of life and I think it’s no good having a dualism where you’re kind of worshiping God on Sundays when you’re supposedly leading a very proper goody-goody, family lifestyle but outside that you’re behaving rapaciously, without concerns for the neighbor.

TOJ: Yes, definitely.

JM: That’s what worries me.

TOJ: It’s a privatized type of religion that is very concerned with the development of the soul but as far as excluding or objectifying certain social relationships outside of it, that’s not much of problem or an impingement on it.

JM: Yes. But you know you can’t develop your soul properly if you’re not concerned for all the relationship that you’re in—

TOJ: Exactly; the two are inextricably linked.

JM: Precisely.

TOJ: Well, I was wondering if you can now discuss the church as the body of Christ; and before we take up this idea of stewardship in making the public space more beautiful, trying to rectify some of the spiritual deterioration that you speak of, how do we understand the body of Christ in a more beautiful vision—in a more beautiful economic vision and practice that might be able to counter some of these tendencies?

JM: Well, you know, I think we’ve only just begun to think about this. But I think that the body of Christ is St. Paul’s image and I do think that in St. Paul the economy of grace and the real economy are really linked with each other and the church essentially is a community of gifts—it’s a community that is rooted in the Eucharist and in the reception of the life of God; and I think that when Paul characterizes the life of the church as a constant exchange of material gifts but also gifts in the sense of talents he insists these are for the up-building of the body. It seems to me that somehow what we fail often to think through is that grace is also material practice—or the mediation of grace is also a material practice—so that we’re constantly supposed to be bestowing grace on each other and our social relations are supposed to go beyond simply duty or what is demanded towards always doing something extra; but this is mutual, so it’s not a completely disinterested thing, it sort of goes beyond the contrast of disinterest and interest.

And I think this is why sometimes Paul can sound almost shockingly selfish. I think that’s the point—that he’s saying, well these are my needs, and I’m supplying your needs, and these are my needs of the church here and the church there and they have to constantly supplement each other. Then it’s as if he wants to have a new kind of community that’s not simply tribal, and yet it’s not simply a community of law on the other hand, a community of law in the city that would go beyond the tribe. But here he is inventing something more like a super-tribe, where the bonds are more familial and passive and not simply legal and political bonds, so that ecclesia is, if you like, the invention of a global community. And it does include an economic dimension, and I think that the key thing here is that we have to think of all exchanges in the end, though they will obviously involve contracts and money and all the rest of it, but in the end the standard is something like the exchange of gifts, a fair exchange of gifts toward a mutual up-building—even things like fair trade practices which, actually they are much more extensive in Europe than in America, but you can see in a way that is kind of a gift-exchange model where you’re buying a product from the third world that’s a good product, it’s organically grown, and then your giving a fair price that allows good conditions of production and support for workers and such; you can see that in a very small way as an exchange of gifts. And the question is, how do we build that on the larger kind of scale? It seems to me that people are often saying this, but I think it’s characteristic of Christian social thought, Catholic social thought also, and some Reformed social thought as well—it tends to insist on the intermediary associations between the market and the state, in other words, on bodies that are free associations that are not simply concerned with profits and yet are not simply concerned with law.

And neither market solutions nor state solutions are what Christian social thought should be favoring but on the contrary, entirely new modes of economico-cum-social-cum-educational practice; in other words, communities if you like of small communities, or interlocking communities of something like total formation, if you like to put it that way, where you’re concerned with producing material things but at the same time you’re trying to promote spiritual ends and ecological ends and educative ends. So in a way we need to abolish the idea that there is an economic realm—a pure, sheerly economic realm simply concerned with producing wealth. And this is an idea that very much was brought forward already in the 19th century in Britain by John Ruskin: the idea that the division of wealth that you get within capitalism is a false idea of wealth—it’s not real wealth in the sense of real flourishing, it’s something abstract, and we need an economy that’s concerned with real flourishing. And I refuse to think that it’s unrealistic or utopian. It’s silly to say that because certain areas of life, for example I think up till recently you could say education has not been concerned simply with profit is concerned with flourishing. And why does that work? It works because people are trained in a certain way and they’re taught certain codes of honor, so that success is measured in terms of whether you’re achieving these goals of flourishing. And if it’s a goal that you simply try to become rich you would lose honor, and you will probably be struck off the record—quite possibly, that could possibly happen to you—because it’s not true that self-interest means here you’re simply striving to be rich and powerful because the honor of what you’re involved in, which is a public thing, it’s a public reckoning of honor, you will simply lose face. I think probably we need new measurements of honor if we fear of life. So it’s not utopian I’m not asking people suddenly to be altruistic pure and simple.

TOJ: Now, it may not be utopian, but how do we deal with the complexity of just transferring this economic vision from the church to the organization of society and economy—specifically, how do we bring this into the heterogeneous, political context where we may be able to expose formal rights and market mechanisms but—

JM: Well you know, I don’t know. I don’t even know if anybody in advance will be able to work that out. I think we have to work on several fronts at once; I think we need to blur the boundaries between the church and other things; the church needs to penetrate other things, become the focus for lots of different things. Why shouldn’t the church, for example, get into banking is one question; why couldn’t we have church banks organized on a cooperative kind of basis? And I think consumer action is one thing and encouraging the growth of cooperatives is another other thing, but I think certain realist voices will say, “well yeah but the problem is the big corporations and all those sort of things” and I think it’s not stupid to work also on the business schools, and on the corporations themselves; maybe, I think, vestigially people always do want to do more than just produce profit; but one should always work on increasing that. It may possibly even be that ecological crisis will present people brutally with these kind of issues, but the danger there of course is that you may simply get a kind of techno-scientific, capitalist solution to that as well, which could lead to a more tyrannical kind of society; but it might at least present us with a certain window of opportunity. But the real problem is, and I don’t know that I have the answer to this, but in industrial capitalism there seemed to be a certain mode of activity—you had unions, you had strikes, you could work toward battling against capitalism, you could even have the idea of a revolution taking over the handles of the state. None of these models seem to be available any longer or plausible any longer, and so I’m not sure that we have a very clear plan. And I can only suggest that we have to work on a multiplicity of fronts and it just could be that at a certain point you cross a certain critical mass that has developed such that suddenly things have flipped over into something else.

TOJ: You say we don’t really have certain types of labor unions or certain means of resistance available like in the past to really counter capitalism and get the ball rolling on this; but how might your understanding of the Christian socialist legacy more specifically aide in some kind of transformation?

JM: Well, as I say, I think it’s so strongly linked—ideas about guilds and cooperatives—the idea that somehow you need professional associations at every level that are concerned with the quality of what’s being produced and the quality of labor, and not simply a matter of demanding labors. And how one reinvents those kinds of notions I’m not entirely sure. Also, I think there is a remaining role for the state—the state has set up a framework of laws that the framework of regulation of things like profits, very strict regulations to ensure that people aren’t simply making money for the sake of making money and to some extent the organization of an education and welfare state may have a role. There is a quite interesting division here, I think sometimes in the United States of America both the left and the right are very, very suspicious of the state; and I think in Europe there tends to be less suspicion of the state and you probably see that even in contemporary Christian thought, that probably people in Britain who don’t see the role of the state as fundamental nonetheless give it a slightly bigger role maybe than, say someone like Dan Bell would for example—there could be that kind of distinction possibly, I mean it’s still a small but a noticeable division I think.

TOJ: And that’s why I wanted you to speak a little bit more about some specifics of a Christian socialist legacy; because in America—especially in forms of evangelical Christianity, as we spoke about earlier—there is a very, very big suspicion of the state. And of course socialism immediately calls to mind central-state-planning socialism.

JM: Which isn’t of course what it means fundamentally; the main socialist tradition was not about that but was about spontaneous cooperation and so on; rather than the intervention of the state there are Fabian social democratic traditions, Marxist traditions, and so on but in some ways the more main line socialist tradition fit more with New England ideas about self help, Jeffersonian ideas about self help and small scale local organization and so on. And I think these terms are extremely slippery; I think between left-wing versions of Catholic social teaching on socialism of the cooperativist type there isn’t in any sense a huge distinction at all. And another important word here is “distributism,” and certainly in Britain many people who saw themselves as socialist sometimes also saw themselves as distributists—they weren’t always necessarily alternative terms. Eric Gill, for example, had these artistic socialist communities, he sometimes thought of himself as socialist and other times as a distributist. Distributism places a very big stress on as wide as possible distribution of property; it savors the idea that everyone should own real material things, the house, the tools of their trade, this kind of thing.

And it goes along also with the idea that as far as possible things should be produced at a local level, a kind of Wendell Berry sort of idea—that you exchange things when that’s necessary, not simply for the sake of it—and I think particularly that insofar as possible you try to be self sufficient in agricultural production, the idea that there is something fundamental about the agricultural economy because this is the production of food and clothing and so on, the basic fundamental needs of the human body, and the materials you need for building houses; but when you get away from the idea that that is the guiding basis of the economy, you’re into something decadent. I think the agrarian currents in American thought, that today would be represented by somebody like Wendell Berry, David Schindler, are very close to certain currents within European socialism of a certain kind. And of course they can be seen as romantic, but today in the face of this ecological crisis they can also be seen as realistic. I think Wendell Berry’s articles are particularly good in fact.

TOJ: Yes, he does have quite a bit to contribute to especially our ecological crisis and how to understand that from a more agrarian level, like you say.

JM: Which is not to say that all complicated technology is wrong. It’s a question of the use of appropriate technologies, and the use of advanced technologies to support human flourishing and creativity, rather than to suppress them.

TOJ: Yes, yes.

JM: But I think that’s a massive issue—how we stop being enslaved by technology—that, nobody has any really good answers to.

TOJ: I was wondering if we can ask a few more questions. One may be a question you’ve heard all too often. But when we speak about the ecclesia being a global community—and as we’ve just been talking about, trying to infuse the economy with a gift-type economy that would definitely require a substantive Christian vision of the good—how do we understand this as something other than a theocracy? And you have said before that a theocracy, a traditional notion of a theocracy, relies on the dualism between the sacral class monopolizing the divine over against the secular order. But could somebody argue that this is still a more subtle, maybe even more democratized, if you will, form of theocracy?

JM: Yes, well, actually they could. Yes they could, and maybe it is in a certain sense; I don’t know. I think the crucial point is that the power that is running the law and the system of punishments, these must not be things that are directly in the name of God, and there mustn’t be certainly a quasi-sacral caste that is performing these actions in any sense at all, for all of the Augustinian reasons that this is the city of this world and it’s a secondary good and the whole system of law and punishment is necessary because of sin and so on, and so it’s quite important that that area is distinguished from the church. But when it comes to special bodies that are to do with education or the economy and so on, it’s not so clear that these aren’t units of the church. I mean a monastery was an economic community, it was a farming community but it was fully part of the church and the guild organizations in the middle ages, they were also fraternal bodies that were part of the church; so yes in a sense I do sort of see the permeation of church into all these functions but they’re not strictly political functions or socio-economic. So if you were to say, “Well this is in a way a kind of democratized theocracy, a democratized, anarchic theocracy,” I suppose I couldn’t really deny that in the end—I guess Stanley Hauerwas would probably say something rather similar.

TOJ: And it would be a matter of really trying to expose other formal regulations and rights as themselves also adhering to some kind of metaphysical conception of the good.

JM: Well, and you said absolutely the right thing there—yes, that in a way they aren’t free of theocracy, and that in the end maybe all political notions are theological notions.

TOJ: And I guess for our closing question, how do we keep our theological vision—our community that’s based on a certain theological vision, in this case an economy of the gift—how do we keep that open? As you say, ‘it needs to be an exchange outside of itself with the infinite unknown; it needs to value encounter in meeting with the Other and different.’ How do we go about making sure it doesn’t enclose back on itself, how do we keep open the possibility of encounter with something other and different within this specific Christian vision?

JM: Well that’s a very, very important question; maybe it should be part of the logic of mission itself—that you are going to receive Christ in a different way from the people you’re communicating the Gospel to and also that even from right outside of Christianity you’re going to receive new insights; but I guess we need to keep a sense of eschatological reserve that the church is the body on pilgrimage, that it’s never fulfilled in time, it’s a process of ongoing discovery, and that we would only see the fullness of Christ when we see Christ reflected in every human person and so this must keep open to otherness; the sense of an otherness that we can’t master should be at the center of the Gospel, and certainly not something tacked onto the Gospel. But I think it’s a question of always discovering mediation—what William Desmond, who is a Christian philosopher, calls the sense of the ‘between’ that is not simply respecting the other as other in a kind of Levinasian sense, it’s a much more constant attempt to discover how we live with the other in a way that allows for differences, and yet allows those differences to blend and coexist and so on. It’s the question of a peaceful or harmonic difference that one is always struggling to bring about. But it’s always true that we need the other.

TOJ: Yes, and we need to think about the other, like you’ve said, in a way that we can understand some kind of reciprocal relation.

JM: Yes.

TOJ: Well, I really appreciate your time.

JM: No problem.

TOJ: Thank you for this gift of your time…and God bless.

JM: And you, and you. Thank you.

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Ben Suriano :
Ben Suriano is a theology editor of The Other Journal and studies theology and philosophy at Marquette University.
John Milbank :
John Milbank is currently Professor in Religion, Politics, and Ethics at the University of Nottingham. He was previously the Frances Myers Ball Professor of Philosophical Theology at the University of Virginia and a Reader in Philosophical Theology at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of, among other works, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason; The Word Made Strange: Theology, Language, Culture; Truth in Aquinas (with Catherine Pickstock); and Being Reconciled: Ontology and Pardon. Together with Catherine Pickstock and Graham Ward he is a coeditor of Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology, and of Routledge's Radical Orthodoxy series. He is an Anglo-Catholic dedicated to exposing modernity and post-modernity alike for their complicity with secularizing myths which operate by the repression of their own mythic or religious foundations.