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The Politics of Virtue

by Barbara Ridpath

Posted: 26 Oct 2016

Adrian Pabst and John Millbank have tried, with their new book, The Politics of Virtue, to take on the entirety of post-liberalism from politics to economics to international relations. One can only admire the authors' attempt to take on such an enormous subject, so holistically. Increasingly, we are so specialized that we cannot even speak across disciplines, let alone look for solutions across disciplines, and yet such intersections are where most creative change emerges. Baran and Sweezy, writing in Monopoly Capitalism in the 1960s, hypothesized that we divide the social sciences into ever more specific disciplines in hopes of solving problems, without recognizing that systems need to be looked at as a whole to understand their interactions. Such systems thinking is used increasingly in social science problem-solving, which is a positive and constructive change.

Capitalism's Ills

The book is timely as people are increasingly questioning whether the marriage of liberal democracy with capitalism is headed for divorce. Some would argue both democracy and capitalism are being tried by globalisation, with its benefits for companies and global elites and its detriments for wage slaves, and found wanting. Dani Rodrik would argue we find ourselves in a trilemma, and cannot have democracy, national sovereignty and global economic integration at once.

However, the risk of taking on subjects beyond one's narrow expertise means the diagnosis and evidence can be a bit less than robust. Without questioning the value of their effort, nor their fundamental premise that current capitalism needs to change, I would take issue with four aspects of the authors' arguments.

First, they lay at capitalism's feet problems which are of very different causation. While the extremities of capitalism have been evident for at least 200 years, it is not a new system invented by Adam Smith. Aristotle talks about value in use vs. value in exchange, and the Old Testament spends a lot of time talking about excessive indebtedness, and profiteering, so over-indebtedness is not simply a problem of financialisation. The creeping vocabulary of value instead of values, as Michael Sandel puts it so well, is because we are frightened to talk about right and wrong in a multicultural, multi-faith world of moral relativism. We have opted to use exchange value and financial value to substitute, not because of some inevitable outcome of capitalism, but because it became expedient when we were no longer an homogenous community.

It is not clear that the fault lies with the excesses of capitalism, but rather with the fact that in much of the developed and emerging world, government and politicians have permitted business, business people, the rich and the elite, to have undue influence in the political process. To this we need to add the loosening of regulation that led up to the financial crisis, permitted and encouraged by government. The abuse of the rules by the few ruined the system for the many. Regulatory failures are a failure of politics and law resulting from regulatory capture.

Economists, from Smith to Keynes through Hayek and Friedman, all recognized the need for government to curb the monopolistic and accumulative tendencies of free markets and capitalism. The problem is with co-option and misunderstanding by government of business, more than it is with capitalism. The use of government as a tool of business is at the root of much of this.

Globalisation's Ills

Second, the authors pays insufficient attention to the link between globalisation and the problems they diagnose, considering globalisation to be an inevitable outgrowth of capitalism run wild. But the increased links among economies and the increasing synchronicity among national economies, has reduced domestic political (or monetary) power to influence.  This makes it much more difficult to experiment in an isolated way with different economic and political models without immediate financial repercussions of money moving around the world in response.

Globalisation is also linked to a much needed rethinking of 'Who is my neighbour?' Some of us might answer that the fellow down the street, or my fellow citizen, is my neighbour. However, some of us would answer that the Family of Man is my neighbour, in that we are all creatures of God, and made in his image, and as such, each of us has as much value as any of us.

Within international relations, this issue is often named as communitarianism vs. cosmopolitanism, which certainly resonates in post-referendum Britain. Catholic social teaching, using the principle of subsidiarity, would look to the most local level possible to resolve problems and create community, but many issues play out on a global game board: tax, trade, and terrorism to pick three. This is, at heart, a problem of globalisation and national boundaries and the lack of congruence between economic power and boundaries and political ones.

The increasingly interconnected world suggests that the nation state may no longer be the most appropriate unit of definition. It is not clear that the nation state is any longer the organ of politics best suited for the current global state of play, when so many of us, and so many corporate entities have multiple locations, identities and boundaries in our lives. 

Whose Values?

Third and most importantly, the book is silent on who gets to decide what our values are in a multicultural, multi-faith world, and how we define who is our community in such a world. How does such a system get negotiated? It requires a generalized community at whatever level it takes place and presumes we can all agree on 'right'. This is very difficult in a pluralist, multi-faith and multi-cultural society where good and bad are no longer normative, but individually or relatively defined. Previous civic bonds presumed homogenous society and values which were oppressive to many. Studies show that many values are common to many cultures and societies, but any system needs to make room for both freedom of religion, the freedom to have no religion and the freedom to disagree constructively. The book reminds me that what we really need is a public conversation on shared values.

Last of all, I would point to Johan Norberg's recent book Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the FutureHe is right to acknowledge that the world is better off in quantifiables and unquantifiables, including: medicine, an extra ten years of life expectancy, the internet, mass entertainment, and cleaner air and water than it has ever been.  Although there is certainly reason to be concerned about our common values, our common life, and indeed, the common good, it is vital to recognize that the liberal political and economic systems we inherited are responsible for what we have today, both what is good, and what is in need of repair.

So agree with the contents of this book, or disagree with them, but by all means, read it!

About this author

Barbara Ridpath is the Director of St Paul's Institute.


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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of St Paul's Institute or St Paul's Cathedral.