After Corbyn, Before Virtue: Moral Markets and the Prospect of a Renewed Socialism

By John Milbank, ABC Religion and Ethics, September 16, 2015

Renewed socialism would need to rearticulate the various anti-liberal discontents and offer a solution in terms of the common good that might bring people together and overcome their false divisions.

 
Since no one anticipated the astonishing election to the Labour leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, any claims to understand the sudden hard-left takeover of the British Labour Party must be treated with caution.

To some degree this has come about as an accident.

If there are doubts about Corbyn's fitness to be Prime Minister, there were still more valid doubts about the capacity to fulfil this role on the part of his competitors. They fought singularly lacklustre, uninspiring campaigns - thin to transparent on policy content.

By comparison, Corbyn appeared sincere and committed to certain clear ideals and policy approaches. And on these criteria he quite simply deserved to win because he was the best available candidate.

Equally important was the way in which a newly instituted one member, one vote system worked in his favour. One can argue that its adoption was mistaken, since in a representative system the majority assent of MP's to the leadership is crucial to the leaderships's authority and practical functioning.

Moreover, a special category of supporter granting full voting rights was offered for the price of only 3 pounds. This encouraged a wider participation that was really only participation-lite, permitting the expression of decisive opinion to be unyoked from consistent loyalty and commitment. On one reading, this permitted a minority of disaffected radicals to become an only apparent majority within the body of Labour sympathisers.

On the other hand, Corbyn in the end commanded a majority among all three voting groups: regular party members, trade union affiliates and the 3-pound supporters. And the latter were so numerous that the Labour party has massively increased its size and looks once more capable of becoming a mass movement - if participation-lite can be converted into participation in depth. The numbers are far too many to be ascribed to far-left entryism and are much more likely attributable to the enthusiasm of alienated youth, as was also witnessed at the jam-packed rallies which Corbyn held in both England and (notably) disaffected Scotland.

The thesis of pure accident is also contradicted by the parallel between Corbynism and developments in other countries. Even in the United States, Bernie Sanders - a self-proclaimed socialist - is doing surprisingly well in the Presidential primaries. Meanwhile across Europe, for some time now social democratic parties have been declining in favour of the rise of hard-left protest parties like Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece.

Thus one way of interpreting Corbynism is to say that the British Labour Party - always fluid and never exactly social democratic - has contrived to make this transition within its own body. So in this view, what looks to many like a suicidal gesture could, on the contrary, prove a precondition of its long-term survival.

Corbynism does appear to be mired in nostalgia - not so much in the discontents it articulates, as in the solutions it offers.

It would be wrong, therefore, to characterize Corbynism as either accident or manifest disaster. It is no mere attempt to resurrect a defunct left politics of the 1980s but rather articulates a new discontent with neoliberalism that has failed to redress inequality or poverty, has favoured abstract financial over concrete wealth, and has then made ordinary people pay, in concrete terms, for the inevitable crises of an unreal, over-financialised economy. In the United States, it is clear that Sanders is appealing to a middle-class - never mind a working-class - sense of stagnation. In the UK, albeit less acutely than in southern Europe, young people are facing a future of lack of housing, few or poorly-paid jobs, environmental decline and ecological dereliction.

Nevertheless, this is not to offer Corbynism unqualified praise. Alongside the other new populist left movements, it does appear to be mired to some extent in nostalgia - not so much in the discontents it articulates, as in the solutions it offers. And this is nostalgia for a mode of socialism that was never adequate in the first place, nor adequately socialist. Not adequate because it failed sufficiently to realise that opposition to the ravages of capitalism involves a certain "conservative" defence of the non-cashable values, loyalties and attachments that capitalism undermines - loyalties to tradition, to family, to place, to specific beauty, to religion and to inherited wisdom as often articulated by older people, whose genuine truths may be irreducible to abstract and rational formulation.

Far too often the socialist left has merely offered its own statist version of this same ravaging, desiring to communicate, just like the capitalist market, only with the isolated, self-serving individual rent away by the state from her more immediate social attachments.

This mode of statist socialism has then tended to "emancipate" only certain more successful and aspiring individuals, but above all to increase the power of bureaucratic and technocratic forces. The real possibility of popular involvement and control has thereby been removed, as one can see in the case of the British NHS. This process has extended now far beyond the working-classes to ensure that even relatively secure and high-paid professional groups have been instrumentalised, with their solidarity and group-honour destroyed in favour of internal competition and endless central surveillance.

For these reasons, the backlash we are now witnessing is not just against capitalism, but against liberal individualism in all its forms, some of which have been more promoted by the left than by the right. Just for this reason, alongside left-populism we also see, and perhaps more powerfully, a new right-populism focussed around local, national and religious identity. This right-populism, as represented in the UK by UKIP, tends to worry about the erosion of identity through immigration, of economic stability through debt and of mutual responsibility through an over-compensation of a poorly organised labour-market by welfare.

It can here be argued that a successfully re-thought and revived socialism would need to articulate all these various anti-liberal discontents and offer a solution in terms of the common good that might genuinely bring people together and overcome their false divisions and partial solutions. As with the ideas of Blue Labour - in particular, of Maurice Glasman and Jon Cruddas, whom Ed Miliband foolishly shunted to one side - this solution would focus on social reciprocity and market justice rather than on either a supposedly free market or a large and redistributory state.

By contrast, the mere articulation of youth anxiety and the concerns of a unionised and public sector rump of workers, however valid in itself, cannot be sufficient. In the case of all the new popular leftist movements, including Corbynism, this limitation tends to be linked to an equal limitation of ideological stance.

Insofar as this is coherent at all, then it looks like a mode of liberalism and leftist social democracy. Cultural liberalism - as pertains to sexual, life and death issues - tends to be uncritically embraced and its tension with socialist objectives ignored. Access to health, education and employment are typically regarded as matters of rights, rather than distributive aspiration.

This makes no sense because universal healthcare, for example, depends not on imaginary human rights, but on our preparedness to fund health-workers and health-processes, in such a manner that health workers will be prepared to offer their services to all. It is a matter of a mutual pact and not of individual demands from a state that must in consequence be perceived as godlike. Failure to see this then prevents a rational debate as to whether, for example, the better-funded French national insurance-based health system may not actually be more socialist than the British tax-funded one.

The backlash we are now witnessing is not just against capitalism, but against liberal individualism in all its forms, some of which have been more promoted by the left than by the right.

The same liberalism is evident in the Corbynite approach to foreign policy which is more indebted to the antiseptically purist and slightly priggish quasi-pacifism of the British religious or secularised nonconformist tradition than to anything authentically socialist - as articulated, for example, in the early twentieth century by that enemy of nonconformity and its denial of "merrie England," the great socialist journalist, Robert Blatchford.

From this outlook, war is simply an anomaly that can plausibly be abolished in time. Its minimal plausibility depends upon the idea that "naturally" there exist self-determining nation-states that should never militarily interfere with each other. But quite manifestly, this does no justice to the complexities of past political formations, nor to those of the present, in which the nation-state is often coming unstuck.

One can agree that the cruel folly of the Iraq war helped to instigate Islamic State, but that should not blind us to its equal origins in the contemporary crisis of Islam. Nor should it allow us, through an excess of liberal-leftist guilt to equate, as Corbyn is inclined to do, the deliberate barbarities of Islamist terrorists with the random cruelties of American airstrikes, however abhorrent we may rightly deem the latter to be.

The same wooden template requires Corbyn and his allies to see the IRA as essentially "in the right" as freedom-fighters, ignoring their ambivalently criminal and self-seeking aspects. As if it were just "obvious" and more obviously "left-wing" that the Irish are better-off within their supposedly "own" state (without any NHS, BBC, London subsidies or influence) rather than within a reformed British federal state. Inconsistently, Corbyn seems chary of Scottish home rule, despite the greater (as compared with Ireland) independence and antiquity of the Scottish parliament, Crown and legal system.

It is also an unbending liberalism which leads Corbyn to give unqualified carte blanche to the movement of peoples and not to respect those popular voices who rightly point out that free immigration can disrupt community identity, solidarity and fair wages. The socialist starting-point here should be that people are pressurised to migrate by political tyranny at home and economic exploitation abroad. One can warm to the very courageous note of unabashed humanitarian internationalism which Corbyn struck in his acceptance speech and yet still worry that internationalist solutions rather than aspirations have to reckon with and not evade the contingent realities of power.

In the short term, the nations of the EU must cooperate to welcome refugees. But the long-term solution to Germany's declining birth rate is to recover its Christian and European self-confidence. And the long-term solution to the drift from the global south and east is to resolve those areas' ecological and political problems. It is almost impossible to escape the conclusion that this will require a better, deeper and more long-term cultural, legal and military involvement of the Western powers throughout the world. One cannot, then, at the present juncture claim at once to will global social justice and desire to further wind down the British army.

New left movements seem to be mainly about restricting the market at the hands of the state and not about transforming the market itself. Yet the latter is the more fundamental socialist perquisite.

Still more strikingly, the new movements seem wedded to a kind of illogical "permanent Keynesianism" in economics, rather than to a truly socialist approach. Illogical because the Keynesian state priming of infrastructure and demand was seen as a cyclically applied remedy for one phase of capitalist crisis. Thought of as a permanent remedy, it must inevitably encourage continued state subsidising of basically capitalist and so selfish and profit-seeking enterprises, not intrinsically pursuant of the common good - even if Corbyn rightly wishes in principle to end all such "business welfare" support.

Equally, a perpetual boosting of demand in the absence of periodic growth must ultimately - even if Corbyn's desire to put more printed money into people's pockets can be justified as a short-term measure - shore up the growth of private debt which is indissolubly linked to corporate and national debt: the latter being, from the outset, the very prime motor of capitalism.

For this reason the new left movements seem to be mainly about "restricting" the market at the hands of the state and not about transforming the market itself. Yet the latter is the more fundamental socialist perquisite. Ironically, despite its continued and often dire promotion of neoliberalism, the current Conservative government is torn between this objective and the chance to undercut Labour once and for all by itself embracing certain elements of both right- and left-wing new populism. Thus it has already broken with pure Thatcherism by moving to tax more heavily unoccupied property, by imposing an apprenticeship levy on firms that do not provide vocational training and by adopting (however meagrely, but the erection of the principle is what counts) the principle of the living wage. This demands that work already pay properly and therefore does not require supplementation by government welfare, such as Gordon Brown's tax breaks.

Understandably, neoliberal purists like Charles Moore rage at this obeisance to a notion of the "just wage" which must logically allow admittance also to the "just price" and "just profits" and "justifiable returns on interest." The Catholic, but essentially Whiggish Moore apparently thinks such rational Aristotelianism and Thomism is more "mystical" than the distorted Jansenist theology of the eighteenth century political economy. George Osborne is in this respect being much more genuinely Tory - and is, in a way, even opening a path towards socialism more authentically than some of the approaches of Jeremy Corbyn.

This is not to say that Corbyn is wrong that some things like transport and the utilities should properly come under direct state ownership, or that we need a greater state involvement in infrastructure, training and pooling of information. Though "society" is indeed primary for socialism, any notion that civil society does not include the state is a total illusion. I am at one with Corbyn at this point, just as I support his victory of socialism over social democracy within the Labour Party and hope (against hope) that this may prove permanent.

Equally and inversely, I salute Corbyn's openness to a more decentralised forms of nationalisation and to mutualisation, stakeholding and worker participation as valid expressions of public ownership. Yet, for the reasons set out above, I fear that his desire to break with an essentially liberal statism is not strong enough. Corbyn has nonetheless said that he wants a genuine open debate - and it is essentially about this issue that all claiming to be "socialists" need now to talk.

Can markets be moral? A genealogy

The main question that needs to be addressed by the new left populist movements remains, as I have argued: To what extent can the market be held at bay? This is, of course, a valid question. There is something inherently dangerous about money, and intrinsically contaminating about the impersonality of commercial exchange. To some degree, the economy is a kind of feral monster that needs to be kept at bay from wider society - from health, education, sport, the arts and political practice.

Nonetheless, I think there is another, more fundamental question to be asked. Once we begin to reflect on the extent to which the market is a monster that can plausibly be restrained, given that it tends to be all-ravening, this can quickly lead to a kind of pessimistic despair. But maybe this despair can only be overcome by entertaining a far bolder optimistic hope which is enshrined in another question.

This other question is, very simply, can you have moral markets? Can the monster be not just re-trained or semi-tamed, but altogether domesticated? And would such domestication in fact better fulfil the very essence of market-exchange itself, which is not really a kind of pure ferality - animality in a city-suit, so to speak - but rather a natural part of human culture, embedded in naturally cultural practices of reciprocity and mutually beneficial closure around the human circle?

I want to address this question by asking it the other way around. Why have we got the idea that somehow the economy and morality are properly averse to each other? For in terms of the whole gamut of human history this looks like an extremely peculiar view. It is useful to start by distinguishing between the marketplace, on the one hand, and the market, on the other.

By marketplace, I mean any kind of process of exchange, which, as the postfix "place" might suggest, is typically in terms of quite stable moral values and firmly fixed understandings of people's place in the social order - however relatively hierarchical or egalitarian that may be - and what they can expect.

We should distinguish marketplace exchanges in this sense from market exchanges in the modern capitalist sense, where what we mean by a market is that contractual exchanges undergo clearance in terms of the matching of supply with demand. This understanding of the market is unusual. It has characterised the West increasingly only since the eighteenth century, and there is therefore no reason to see it as something given and natural.

We ought rather to see the market, in Karl Polanyi's terms, as being both socially embedded and politically instituted. Polanyi rightly said that today we perversely think that the society is embedded in the economy rather than the other way round. However, he also indicated that this is something of an illusion even for our modern, capitalist situation. Thus he additionally claimed that even a capitalist economy is in fact embedded in a certain anthropology - a certain notion of the human being, a certain sense of society and a certain sense of what the business of political legislation ought to be.

Why have we got the idea that the economy and morality are properly averse to each other? In terms of the whole gamut of human history this looks like an extremely peculiar view.

If the modern market, rather than marketplace, remains in this way socially embedded, then one can equally say that it has been politically instituted. Just because the supply and demand mechanism seems to work automatically, we have the illusion that it is a purely natural function and not actually situated within a set of political preferences that privilege aggregate economic growth over a wider definition of human flourishing. Likewise, we fail to realise that the modern "free" market is designed by a set of legislative measures that render ownership and contract absolute and separate from custom, inheritance and duty, while progressively distinguishing an absolutely reserved private sphere of landed reward and income from licensed corporate responsibility.

In these ways, then, the modern market is not natural but instituted, and its reverse embedding of the social conceals its continued embedding in a certain revised social conception that tries, rather bizarrely, to distil social consensus from canonised individual autonomy. If anything it would seem that it is the traditional market place that is natural, since it has nearly always prevailed.

However, the marketplace is also and more directly socially embedded and always upheld in some sense by a political-legal order - even if, for tribal societies, this is sometimes entirely distributed, decentred and unconsciously exercised through rigid ritual practice. So if the marketplace is natural, this is only in the somewhat mysterious sense that most human beings for most of their history seem as it were "naturally" to have elected for the same basic underlying cultural option.

What then are the big economic differences between the market and the marketplace? First of all, as Polanyi and many others have stressed, some things were sacred; some things were not exchanged; some things could not even enter into processes of gift-exchange. In particular, as Polanyi emphasised, people, land and money itself were regarded as things which should not be exchanged or speculated upon. People and land because they were sacred; money for the mostly reverse reason that it was a mere medium of exchange and therefore should not be fetishised or idolised. Money was only sacred insofar as coins bore the head of the King and themselves mediated his justice in transactional terms.

We can usefully ask ourselves how far today we still respect these sacralities in a highly secularised world. To some extent we must still do so, at pain of loss of our humanity altogether. Even today we do not readily treat people as commodities, or see all space as equal: people live in homes they see as inviolable; many buildings and terrains are protected as being of special significance. And yet incrementally terrain is further and further quantified, and treated at one and the same time as a post-Cartesian sheer geometric magnitude and also as an arithmetic multitude than can be reconfigured, parcelled-up and assigned a primarily abstract value.

Equally, people-trafficking is on the rise in both criminal and more disguised legal idioms, in a world where populaces can readily be shunted about. Meanwhile the capitalist reduction of people's labour-power or their bodies to commodity status now extends also to their minds and their leisure time, ensuring a proletarianisation of intellectual labour and the commercialisation of all self-cultivation and ease. Moreover, both state and market conspire to remove human procreation from the risky and messy sphere of interpersonal heterosexual relationships and to subject it to both market exchange and bureaucratic management.

But beyond this point, in the case of the traditional marketplace we can also say that, even where things were exchanged, they were mainly exchanged in terms of reciprocal benefit (however hierarchically construed) and respect for preceding social roles, as in the case of Aristotle's account of proper commercial practice.

It follows that things that were exchanged in the marketplace were not commodities in Karl Marx's sense. Exchange constantly took place, but did not automatically involve the subordination of use value to exchange value. This was because it did not break with, but rather sustained a socially constitutive process of, mutual recognition - a mutual acknowledgment of respective honour, trade and educational or formative requirements.

For this reason one could say that in most societies, for most of human history, people have been hobbits. They simply want respectability in the Shire, which may involve much despicable petty backbiting and rancour, but relatively little overweening ambition. But equally all societies have known that there are always going to be some maniacs - incredibly dangerous people, who would like to go off and work for Saruman, for example. Most societies have therefore supplemented processes of mutual recognition with mechanisms for warding off the dangers posed by the unfunny human jokers, besides the threats from nature, other tribes and empires.

In most societies, for most of human history, people have been hobbits.

Hence perhaps the strangest thing about our modern society, as the anthropologist Mary Douglas and others have argued, is that we have not only abolished these mechanisms, but even come to regard the egoistic social menace as the model, exemplary citizen. As Robert and Edward Skidelsky have written, it would seem that our modern society, reversely embedded in the economy, has made a Faustian pact with the devil - relying on the technical balance of demonic forces, rather than on intrinsic justice, to deliver a simulacrum of order.

What is most important is to undercut any sense of historical inevitability about this process. Here also we are bedevilled into thinking that technocratic bedevilment is simply fated, through a sort of reversal of trust in a providential history.

Therefore, we should today attend to the evidence of some recent medieval and early modern historians who suggest that, in the initial phase of the development of Western technology, the growth of an urban and a monetary economy was not necessarily going in a capitalist direction. To the contrary, right up to the time of early modernity, primordially-derived processes of reciprocity and economic gift-exchange were being reinforced through this urban economy and remained to some degree its real basis, especially in the Italian city states who were the initial motor of take-off, and yet whose bounded locality ensured a certain re-cycling of wealth within the commune and so a constant reconstitution of social exchange within which the marketplace remained embedded.

One cannot then account for the emergence of capitalism simply in terms of industrial and communicative progress, or even in terms of the expansion of the monetary economy. And here both liberals and Marxists are often equally guilty of simply not historicising enough, and not seeing the sheer contingency of the eventual Western development. For it is certainly not the case that the West was the first to get to capitalism, as if everybody was bound to get there in the end. The issue is far rather, how on earth did the West come to bend urban, technological and economic development in a capitalist direction?

Here I would argue that the High-Church Anglican and socialist historian R.H. Tawney was after all essentially right: the process has to do with religion - with Christianity and late medieval and early modern developments within Christian theology and practice. Tawney rather than Max Weber (whom Tawney had not read before he developed his own thesis about Protestantism and Capitalism, though the issue is broader than this conjunction) because the German agnostic sociologist focussed too narrowly on Puritan psychology, whereas the Tawney focussed on an entire reconstruction of theological anthropology and the doctrines of creation and salvation.

In keeping with, but in considerable extension of Tawney, one can say that Protestant theology inherited and developed a dis-connection of reality - a nominalist denial that all effects analogically echo their causes in a great chain of being leading back to God. In consequence, for this analogical and participatory vision we live in a naturally just cosmos where all eventually returns to its source and in due measure. Crucially, subjects and objects both belong in this single continuum, such that if things also unconsciously praise their maker, subjects also have their natural and objective place in a given cultural order, however variously this may be construed with legitimate cultural variation. The cosmos is an organism, suffused with life in various degrees.

It was not, as is frequently supposed, scientific and critical objectivity which led to the rejection of this inherited assumption. Rather, it was a misguided and priggish pietism, informed by a poor reading of the Bible, which saw in it an excessive paganism and wished rather to celebrate an entirely inscrutable, self-willed God who has created the world as an arbitrary set of disconnected things, linked only by mechanism. Human beings are then thought to operate on this natural order, no longer in the first place with respect to justice towards all creatures, including human beings, but in the image of a self-willed God as mere dominators and manipulators of dead, meaningless processes.

Furthermore, because for much Protestantism and distorted Catholic versions of Augustinianism, human beings are totally or near-totally depraved after the Fall, society cannot be governed at the most basic level by appeal to a lost sense of intrinsic justice. Instead, order must either be imposed by an absolute ruler, or distilled from the balancing of vice with vice. Inherent justice therefore vanishes in favour of technological procedures for coordinating and turning into profit or political power our worst human instincts, the lowest common human denominators.

One cannot then account for the emergence of capitalism simply in terms of industrial and communicative progress, or even in terms of the expansion of the monetary economy.

This genealogical picture can be in various significant ways supplemented. First of all, as the late Ivan Illich liked to point out, the story of the Good Samaritan is uniquely significant for Christian social history. In Jesus's parable, we have a case of somebody exercising friendship totally outside national and cultural boundaries and yet in terms of proximity: the Samaritan from afar comes to be the robbed man's neighbour. What that did was to set up a dynamic of free association in the West, of newly contrived conviviality, a kind of oxymoronic crafted and extended organicism. Thus from the outset Christian people founded monasteries, and later formed friaries, guilds, universities, chivalric orders, hospices for the infirm and widowed and many forms of lay association. This process was way in excess of anything similar that had occurred in the antique city.

The second socially-relevant thing that is specific to Christianity, as has recently been discussed by the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben and rather more sympathetically by the Jewish philosopher Dotan Leshem, is the extraordinary way in which Christianity extended the oikos, the household - the fundamental unit of material succour, besides the basic "cash group" - to the political sphere. The Church thought of itself as an oikos; but still more strikingly the divine providential government of the world was described as an oikonomia more fundamentally than as a politeia. An oikonomia implies that an overseer possesses the very detailed concern for everybody's very specific wellbeing that a father would have for his family. Michel Foucault's explanation of the rise of "pastoral rule" and the "bio-political" clearly concerns this epistemic space also, though he regarded it, like Agamben in his wake, with rather too much suspicion.

What is most extraordinary about the Christian sense of oikonomia is that it is grounded in the view that there is an abundance of divine grace that is adapting itself to our finite needs. This is exactly the opposite of what we have come to think of as the economic, where we have infinite needs but the resources are scarce, as I will shortly elaborate. This debased conception is precisely an inversion of the original meaning, in theology, of oikonomia.

The continuity between the original Christian and the modern sense of "the economic" resides in the sense of a single process that is yet infinitely malleable or adaptable to different people's precise needs, wants, inclinations, circumstances and capacities. Yet, in the original case, this extreme adaptability was performed by a directly pastoral and fraternal attentiveness. By contrast, in the modern case, this adaptability occurs, as it would seem, "automatically" in terms of indifferent substantive contrivances always fulfilling the one constant exigency of making money - even if it is still mediating persons who must embrace and enact this logic. Thus where economic adaptability once denoted the interpersonal, in time it was inverted to denote the opposite: the impersonal and machine-like.

In this light, the contingent displacement of the marketplace by the market in the Christian West can be described as a kind of twisting of this Christian legacy. Ivan Illich talked about the institutionalisation of charity which has evolved either into bureaucracy, or alternatively into contractual relations at a distance, in which dealings with a stranger become completely indifferent to charity altogether. On the one hand, there is a very strict and smotheringly nanny-like kind of bureaucracy; on the other hand, a totally indifferent, totally amoral market. In either case, mechanism has displaced the just pursuit of the common good - in the one case by centralised deliberate control, in the other indirectly by an apparently automatic but equally mechanical and impersonal process.

The contingent displacement of the marketplace by the market in the Christian West can be described as a kind of twisting of this Christian legacy.

Today, in an extraordinary fashion, these two processes often coalesce: thus in Britain and elsewhere governments impose bureaucratic systems that enforce an internal market on universities, hospitals and schools. Instead of being encouraged to collaborate, individuals are set at each other's throat, with the resulting anarchy then justifying an ever increased culture of digital surveillance. Inevitably, the erstwhile professional worker within these systems comes to regard his employers and employment cynically, and seeks to manipulate and evade a series of extrinsic restrictions. No longer, increasingly, do these institutions work through an inculcation of vocation, or the expectation that the employee will have tacitly internalised the just goals which these institutions exist to pursue.

But we really only arrived at the modern sense of the economic, as Jean-Claude Michea and other French researchers have shown, through the influence of the Catholic Augustinian extremists known as the Jansenists. They considered that lapsed human beings are almost as entirely depraved, as did the Calvinists, so that it is impossible to produce a human society on the basis of morality. In consequence, they more explicitly promoted the idea that divine "economic" government works through our vices, distilling a serviceable if not good or just order out of the selfish or even the outright perverse.

This is characteristic also of some French Huguenot thought; it is no accident that Bernard de Mandeville was a Huguenot in exile. Thus one gets his famous nostrum: Private Vices, Public Benefits. In this manner the model of the hidden hand that is transposed in more naturalistic terms by Adam Smith is crucially theological: it is a theory about how divine government construed as an "economising" works.

And just this moral indirectness tends to support also an economic and political indirectness which encourages the notion that the primary way of driving the real economy is to increase speculative wealth and the national debt, just as the primary way of securing order is for individuals - including erstwhile ruling aristocrats - to stick to selfish, economic goals and hand over all actual ruling and judicial procedure to professional political classes.

Thus the eighteenth century triumph of liberalism means the rise of both the financier and the politician at the double expense of both a socially-embedded economy and a socially-embedded politics. Instead of a virtuous intermingling of economic and political practice with substantive social flourishing, individuals are now "freed" to be amoral infants (in an anticipation already of Huxley's Brave New World) while the financial and political "adults" exercise, not an instructive and communicative parentage, but rather a patronising, manipulative and increasingly utilitarian one.

This is the heart of all Whiggery. But ultimately, as eventually the Whig Edmund Burke realised, it is a moral abomination and not just a moral evasion, because monetary speculation will start to be pursued for its own sake and become destructive of the concrete, while political control will be pursued for its own sake and become terroristically destructive of the human.

What is really peculiar about the legacy derived from this ultimately heterodox theological economy is that it provides, in one sense, a very hedonistic social norm - we just deal with people's material desires - yet this very norm is also most originally sustained by a gloomy kind of piety. The British Conservative Party is in consequence still to this day to some degree an alliance between a certain puritanical caste of mainly Evangelical Christians on the one hand, and cynical City hedonists on the other hand. So we are still living out this strangely two-faced legacy.

The eighteenth century triumph of liberalism means the rise of both the financier and the politician at the double expense of both a socially-embedded economy and a socially-embedded politics.

Yet despite this genealogy it would be true to say that political economy did not get totally amoralised until we get to the phenomenon of marginalism in the late nineteenth century. For all the appeal to morally neutral or even bad instincts in, say, Adam Smith or David Ricardo, the ultimate goals of policy retained with them some sort of humanly substantive character - national well-being, rural and urban flourishing and so forth.

The difference with marginalism is that it does not assume any objective teleology whatsoever. It is a rational choice theory, which primarily assumes only that human beings are faced with all sorts of choices that they pursue according to a utilitarian calculation and mechanical instrumentality. Its second assumption is one of scarcity, in a particular form and on a particular basis. Just as its utilitarianism implies a loss of belief in cosmic teleology, so also its assumption of scarcity implies a loss of belief in the superabundant God of creation or of redeeming grace.

However, it is essentially the loss of teleology that entails the rise of scarcity. This arises because, if there are no longer any intrinsically appropriate human ends, then our desires must be both various and infinite, and in either case amorally legitimate. But such anarchic desire must put a strain even upon divine plenitude, which, though inexhaustible, always reaches us through time and place in a measured, economic and ecological form.

Thus we face the benign paradox that if we treat nature as in limited supply in any given particular place and for any particular stretch of time, then we guarantee its real and eternal immanent inexhaustibility. The superabundant fontal provision of a living cosmic organism, suffused by divine wisdom - the co-working of Lady Sophia - and not the bounded dead mechanism of modern theological imagining, doomed in the end to wind down like a clock, or to meet with eventual physical and Malthusian entropy.

But if, by contrast, as with marginalism, one assumes the anarchically infinite variety of proper desire, then this false infinity effectively denies the real immanent infinity and non-scarcity of nature, if treated in due measure and in observance of reasonable and truly desirable ends. It should be that it is our desires for our share of temporal (rather than eternal) things that is restricted, in contrast to nature's inexhaustible provision for all. But within the marginalist purview, this priority, by a further extension of reversed embedding, is turned upside down: now our finite desires for finite things are regarded as infinite, and equivalently nature is fantasised as scarce.

So, instead of desire being seen in connected continuity with natural essences and their graded modes of return to their true selves and so to God, which reaches a culmination in spiritual creatures (ourselves and the angels), nature is inversely and perversely located within our desiring purview. Then, by a final twist of irony, the fantasy of a scarce nature proves a self-fulfilling prophecy, since unleashed anarchic desire, failing to observe due measure, times and seasons in justice to the surrounding natural world, indeed ensures that its real underlying meta-physical inexhaustibility is occluded by a man-made blight of really experienced ecological scarcity.

Have we ever been fully capitalist, any more than we have ever been fully modern? Surely not, just to the measure that we retain some sense, however minimal, of human decency.

The opposite of this, as the Skidelskys and the British Catholic Labour MP Jon Cruddas have so cogently argued, has to be some kind of re-invocation of eudaimonia in the Aristotelian sense; some sense of objective human flourishing. In other words, if there is an objective scale of values, a shared sense of relatively worthwhile ends (however subject, as for Aristotle and Plato, to constant civic debate) then there can be something more like temporary and emplaced sufficiency. For the really worthwhile goods like marriage and children, and a fulfilling task you have to perform, and enjoying where you live and feel at home - these are obviously not so subject to these marginalist criteria, or finally not so subject at all.

For this reason, and because we can perhaps never quite surrender our humanity which is linked to these goods, without ceasing to live and breathe altogether, it may be that one problem with modern economics is that it mis-describes even what is going on nowadays. Perhaps, even today, more of a marketplace alongside the market remains than we think, however much it is being ceaselessly displaced from the centre of our lives. Have we ever been fully capitalist, any more than we have ever been fully modern? Surely not, just to the measure that we retain some sense, however minimal, of human decency.

Thus even today, as with the considerable growth of hybrid business-cum-charities that pursue also social purpose and businesses clumping together under guaranteed charters of good practice (especially in northern and central Italy), people naturally find ways to re-infuse the economy both with a properly parentalist care and a gift-exchanging reciprocity. We have not entirely lost contact with the seemingly universal basis of all human society, nor with the specific Christian irruption of charity which, as I have argued, first bent society and politics in an "economic" direction - a turn that was eventually grossly transfigured.

In this sense there is hope: neither in revolution, nor in mere centrally imposed "reform," but rather in a diverse "doing differently" that requires a cultural transformation and perhaps a religious revival if it is to be aggregated to the point of general take-off.

Before virtue

What, today, would an alternative to the justice-bracketing mechanisms of both market and bureaucracy really mean? Any re-embedding of the economy and the polity in social reciprocity implies "socialism," in a generic sense of the priority of the associative over the economic and the political, that may have little to do with what we have usually take socialism to mean. I want therefore to conclude with a very brief account of the history of socialism in relation to economics.

Socialism, it can be claimed, has, as a historical doctrine, basically exhibited three stages. To begin with socialism was a profoundly anti-economic doctrine, precisely because it assumed that the economic was defined in the way that the political economists had defined it as a distilling of order out of self-centred disorder. The early socialists tended therefore to see socialism and cooperation in production as alternatives to any kind of economic exchange, because they assumed that that was an amoral sphere. Even Marx, in a sense, is imagining a future in which exchange will have ceased - exchange with nature or exchange with other human beings - and there will be a pure utopia of productivity.

But after 1890, we witness the birth of a second kind of novel economistic socialism, in which overwhelmingly the Left - whether we are talking about Fabians in England, or eventually the leaders behind the Iron Curtain - accept the precepts of marginalism, and so accept the logic of rational calculation and assumed, but actually contrived scarcity. Thus many researchers have pointed out that the invisible hand of the market or the visible hand of the state can both operate in terms of rational technocratic utility. Indeed, sometimes when neoliberals like Friedrich Hayek were modelling the perfect market they used the socialist state as an example to model what it would be like, because in a sense the state is like God and it is a certain imagined God or nature that stands behind the idea of the invisible hand. Hence when "market socialism" arose in the former Yugoslavia, sometimes this was presented in terms of "this will better realise a perfect Smithean free market in terms of goods other than labour if you leave labour as a fixed and pre-priced entity."

Any re-embedding of the economy and the polity in social reciprocity implies socialism, in a generic sense of the priority of the associative over the economic and the political.

The dominance on the political Left since the 1990s of this second kind of socialism means that we have inherited, largely unquestioned, a dreadful failure on all sides of the political spectrum to challenge the idea that the economy and the market are necessarily amoral.

But there exists a big historical contrast to this assumption, as has been narrated by the renowned Italian economists, Luigino Bruni and Stefano Zamagni. They have argued that the Italian tradition of civil economy never quite accepted the French and then Anglo-Saxon pietistically gloomy yet hedonistic way of looking at things. The crucial thinker here is Smith's immediate predecessor, Antonio Genovesi, who when he was young heard the philosopher Giambattista Vico lecture in Naples, to which city both thinkers were native.

The decisive point of contrast with Smith is that whereas Smith insists strongly on the role of mutual sympathy in the social realm, he does not allow sympathy inside the economic contract itself. Very simply, and famously, for Smith you and your butcher do not care about each other's welfare when you are making a transaction. That is the exact point of difference with the Italian civic economic tradition: they think that, because the butcher is also your neighbour upon whose skills you rely, just as he reciprocally relies upon your custom in order to keep going, you do care and for conjoined ethical and realistic reasons.

One can think today in a relatively trivial but illustrative way of shopping at your local butchers rather than at your local supermarket even though the latter is cheaper, in order to keep him, his livelihood, convenience and better practice in existence. Of course, such an instance occurs today rarely and not sufficiently to make an aggregative difference, but this is only because the market pressures are so massively stacked against it, and especially such that moral qualms become a middle-class luxury. Yet the possibility remains that in a more locally collective mode, combinations that pursue economically better practice can eventually accrue even a market advantage, since they will be offering a manifestly more desirable service.

This feasible prospect can be connected with my earlier point that we have never become quite as capitalist as we imagine. Even now, today in the Britain, as in the rest of Europe and frequently more so, familial, neighbourly, local and regional social transactions may involve an economic element, but the two are interwoven with each other. This connection can also operate the other way round as with the considerable success of the "Bristol pound," where usage of a strictly local currency in this city-region of the South-West of England has helped to keep wealth and resources within an area, and so both to recycle it and sustain it within what must ultimately be a circle of reciprocal benefit.

This kind of practice has been more consistently exemplified within the Italian tradition, where the city-state legacy of the commune has combined with Aristotelian, humanist and Catholic legacies to encourage also in practice Genovesi's sense that the economic contract itself can be a site of social negotiation.

In other words, on this assumption, the cultural template for any economic engagement assumes that you are not just going for what independently you want, but you are also trying to work out what would be fair between you and your neighbour and for the wider community. Such a model only appears unrealistic because we have so constructed our social codes as to make purely selfish economic behaviour seem something other than dishonourable - which it surely is, in intrinsic terms. Human beings by their very social nature first of all seek social recognition and they only pursue personal gain as a primary goal if, thereby, as in the United States supremely, social recognition thereby accrues to you.

If we are to re-embed the economic in the social and restore morality to the market, we need to work at the level of cultural ethos and at the level of legislation - from below and above at the same time.

What I want to recommend is a third kind of socialism, which would be a civil economy socialism - if socialism is exactly the right word. That would be a socialism that would see the economy as fully part of civil society and would try to redesign the economic contract itself. It would be a socialism less inimical to the co-priority with production of exchange. A socialism still suspicious of usury like Thomas Aquinas, but also accepting, like Aquinas and unlike most classic socialisms, of returns on shares, if real risks have been undergone and real responsibilities co-shouldered.

This would be a new mode of modern market as still marketplace, but not, technically, a mode of modified capitalism, because any system of contract dominated by ethical justice rather than a machinic coordination of egotisms could no longer be a system in which the accumulation of capital rather than the general pursuit of human flourishing is the dominating factor. Such a third socialism - economic like the second, but ethical like the first - would bring (following Polanyi) Maussian perspectives on gift-exchange as socially constitutive into dialogue with Marx's reflections on production and exchange, and with Catholic and Anglican social teaching's demand for a guiding architectonic justice in both the economic and the political spheres.

This returns us to the entire question of who can be the agents of such transformation in practice, and how. I do not know of any full answer here, but I think that what the recent slogans of so-called "postliberalism" in British politics like "Red Tory" (Phillip Blond), "Blue Labour" (Maurice Glasman), "the big society" (David Cameron), "predistribution" and "One Nation Labour" (Ed Miliband - for a time, at least) were all groping towards in a new paradoxical fusion (though very much in the traditions ultimately of Cobbett, Carlyle and Ruskin, of whose radical Toryism nearly all Anglican Christian socialism was, if we are honest, usually a development) of a greater participatory democracy on the one hand, with some elements of high Tory parentalism on the other.

In other words, they suggest that we need to break with the paradigms of the past by combining in a paradoxical co-belonging a practice of honourable leadership and a more participatory democracy, in order to supplement representational democracy which is now so corrupted by propaganda and the decline of party membership that it no longer allows anyone to make the real, decisive choices.

A simultaneous restoration of virtuous ethos to both elites and popular forces through a wholesale renewal of education that must largely, perhaps, be undertaken by faith movements, combined with the social and political encouragement of ethical business, is surely needed if we are to re-embed the economic in the social and restore morality to the market.

Therefore, we need to work at the level of cultural ethos and at the same time at the level of legislation - from below and above at the same time. We need, for example, a change in company law that would insist that every company pursues a social purpose. If you are making cars, to choose an instance, then you are making cars and not just making money; you are making money, but you are also making cars and they should be well crafted by fairly rewarded workers.

We need vocational entry requirements for almost every profession and trade and therefore some kind of restoration of a guild process as still exists in Germany. We need a sharing of risk and responsibilities between investors and owners, shareholders and managers, lenders and borrowers, and employers and employees. If we are going to have a market exchange, then let us have genuinely fair market exchange and competition. We also need, besides the participation of workers in businesses, a certain backing-up by courts of law of the questions of prices, wages and interest on loans. They have to be able to lay down certain boundaries.

Now all this may seem well-nigh impossible in the current circumstances, and it may indeed lamentably prove so. Yet without this sort of agenda we may well face multiple atavistic and quasi-fascistic backlashes against neoliberalism. And, one can plausibly argue, that an ethical economy would be a more stable and more viable economy for two reasons.

First, a lot of firms - even ones like Walmart in the United States - are discovering that if you are too uprooted and do not care about your communities at all, in the long term that has a negative business consequence. But the paradox of such "social benefit" thinking is that you have to pursue it sincerely, not as a ruse of an ultimately utilitarian calculation, as business thinkers often recommend. For if people do not really want to pursue social benefit they will cut corners and undermine the whole procedure. Nonetheless, if you sincerely pursue social benefit as well as economic benefit (like the Quaker industrialists of old) it will deliver a more stable, long-term economic advantage.

Turning from the impersonal machine to the living social organism of interlinked personal relations in continuity with the organism of created nature is not merely a necessity of justice, but also of future world peace.

The big question then is: how can good practice drive out bad practice? Sometimes bad practice is advantageous in terms of our current capitalist market; sometimes practice delivers a clear short-term benefit by undercutting more scrupulous rivals. Yet in the long term, good practice is more stable even in current market terms, unless the racketeers so slant the entire economic stage as to render this impossible - as may now, unfortunately, be in danger of occurring.

The other reason why an ethical economy is more stable and beneficial is that it can alone bring to an end the conflict identified by Marx between labour and capital, between supply and demand - that is to say, between a situation where employees will endlessly demand more wages on one side, and on the other side the owners of capital and wealthier managers are endlessly pursuing as much profit as they can extract. Of course, it is precisely this that still helps to produce endemic crises and cycles, reinforced by the tensions between political blocks and between those and corporations and both with the interests of ethnic groups and regions. The unjust supposedly auto-correcting machine keeps grinding to a near halt and so its works have to be oiled by the equally mechanical interventions of state interests concerned at best only with conglomerated power and at worse, increasingly, with the private interests of political leaders.

So we can only mend the economic and political technology if we end the inherently aporetic contradictions between interest and interest - it is for these reason that the relatively more social market of Germany has better weathered all the post-war economic fluctuations. And that can only be done where all concerned - workers, owners, consumers, investors, regions, nations and quasi-empires - can accept that they are receiving relatively fair shares in a just system of distribution.

Turning from the impersonal machine to the living but crafted social organism of interlinked personal relations in connected continuity with the organism of created nature is not merely a necessity of justice, but also of future world peace.

***

In an inchoate fashion, the new populist movements of both right and left, but especially the left, are reaching out towards this kind of agenda. Yet so far they do not quite know it - nor what they exactly want, nor how exactly too proceed. The question is, can they come to know it? To this end, Corbynites need urgently to talk with Blue Labourites, else their final end may well prove but more disappointment and a spurious discrediting of all opposition to liberalism's intensified reign.

John Milbank is Research Professor of Politics, Religion and Ethics at the University of Nottingham. His most recent book is Beyond Secular Order: The Representation of Being and the Representation of the People.

Source: http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2015/09/16/4313429.htm