Rebuilding a world of relationships

Rebuilding a world of relationships John Milbank
The Church may hold the keys to reviving civic society, a top Anglican theologian tells Greg Daly


“Catholic social teaching,” wrote the Guardian columnist Andrew Brown some years ago, in a column otherwise largely critical of the Church, “and the attempts to produce an economics centred around the needs of humans, rather than of money, look like the only thought-through alternatives to unbridled market capitalism – and certainly the only ones which have a chance of widespread popular support.”

It’s an observation with which the Anglican theologian John Milbank would be very much in sympathy.

“I think both the strong state and the strong market are very modern phenomena, and they ignore the primacy of society,” he tells The Irish Catholic. “Human relationship is the important thing, and the idea that we need communities of reciprocity that involve both democracy and a certain kind of formation and leadership, rather than the sort of alien and automatic structures of the market and the state.

“I’ve learned also from a lot of Anglican social teaching, which I think is very, very similar – back in the 30s there was so much interaction, but I tend to stress Catholic Social Teaching because it’s more well known, and has more reach and more resonance,” he adds.

President of the University of Nottingham’s Centre of Theology and Philosophy, Prof. Milbank’s work has long crossed the boundaries between theology, philosophy, social science and political theory. Chair of the board of Res Publica, the thinktank headed by philosopher Phillip Blond, author of Red Tory: How Left and Right have broken Britain and how we can fix it, he has been prominently linked in recent years with the ‘Blue Labour’ attempt at a spiritual renewal of the British Labour Party.


“I think that in many ways subsidiarity, participatory democracy, these things are important, but also I think a recovery of a wider sense of citizenship,” he explains. “I think what we need to resist is what I call the bourgeois individual, in other words the person who says ‘I’m not political, I just do my job and do my best’. It sounds a bit cruel to say this, but I think this idea is completely wrong, I think that if you’re running a business or doing a public function you’re a political actor.”

This is an idea that goes back to ancient Athens, it was said that a man who takes no affairs in politics isn’t a man who minds his own business, but a man who has no business being there at all – the Greek word for a private person is, after all, the origin of our word ‘idiot’. Prof. Milbank says that he’s talking about a Christian and more democratic version of that classical idea, one that includes all citizens.

“Catholic Social Teaching is right to resist this idea of a separation between the political and the economic, and this is where – and I’m prepared to be controversial – corporatism is the right idea,” he says.

“What I mean by that is that we have to demand that businessmen and people running corporations run them like citizens,” he explains. “In other words that businesses exercise a social function which is not just about making profit. Legitimate profit, yes, and this is where Catholic social teaching is moderate: it talks about just prices, just wages, just amounts of profit. And also I think we need to get rid of most limited liability – shareholders and managers have to take responsibility for what they’re doing.”

In return, he says, publicly significant bodies like businesses and universities could have political roles at local and central levels, as appropriate. In Britain he thinks the House of Lords could effectively facilitate this, while he points out that Ireland’s Seanad at least in principle already allows for this to some degree.

“What I’m saying should not sound strange because de Valera, whom I’ve got an awful lot of time for, had a moderated form of corporatism in mind, and it was linked also to vocationalism and so on. In many ways, people have said, de Valera is almost the first person to have arrived at a mode of Christian Democracy.”

De Valera was working at a time when countries faced challenges of resisting the political lures of fascism, communism, and extreme modes of liberalism, Prof. Milbank notes.

“And I think we are seeing now is that once you get that kind of politics – we thought it was all over – we realise that we need an alternative to globalised liberalism or to national populism,” he says.

In some ways it sounds as though he is describing a kind of relationship between politics and economics not unlike the so-called ‘Rhenish’ or ‘Rhineland’ capitalism that has flourished in the Netherlands, parts of Belgium, Austria, and most famously Germany, entailing a decentralised state, consensual labour relations, and stakeholder rather than shareholder models of ownership.

“If we’re being technical I tend to say that I’m not a capitalist, but I do believe in markets,” he says. “I think of capitalism very simply as a system where capital has the dominance, and making a profit moves the whole system. If you have more a balance of interests between shareholders, managers, workers, and consumers, then to my mind it’s not really capitalism, it’s something more like social markets.

“But yes, many things in German capitalism are much better than in ours, though I would probably want to take it a bit further. I think to my mind Catholic Social Teaching is very suspicious of usury, but it accepts share ownership as long as share ownership takes responsibility. The trouble about a moneylender is that he’s taking no responsibility for the money he’s lending and what’s being done with it.”

Overall, he thinks, a shift away from finance capitalism to systems of responsible share ownership is a good idea, adding that this idea resonates with Islamic social teaching too, allowing for joint work with Muslims in this area.


One obvious problem with these kinds of stakeholder systems is that they can too easily become cases of ‘snouts at the trough’, as Ireland’s partnership systems were often seen as having become ahead of the national crash. Is it the case that rather than seeking to change systems, we should be trying to change mindsets and convert hearts as well as minds?

“It has to be about culture, it has to be something much more intangible,” he agrees, “because the problem is that human beings seek respect, and in our culture you get respect if you make a load of money and if you’re very famous and if you make a kind of spectacle of yourself”.

It doesn’t have to be this way, he says, pointing out that even in the recent past people have been respected for other things. “In  a word what we need is honour: we need to revive the sense of honour,  and then people don’t want to have no respect, they don’t want to be dishonoured, they don’t want to be ashamed, so in a sense we need more of an honour-shame culture.”

In some ways the desire for such a culture is built into us, he says, though it is currently manifesting itself in a distorted and unhealthy fashion.

“At the present it’s as if we know we need that, and it’s coming out in a really negative way,” he says. “Everybody’s trying to expose everybody else for something they’ve done wrong at some point in their private lives, and as everybody has done something wrong at some point this is a terrible game to play.”

Rather, he says, the demand should be that people live honourable lives on the whole, and not be judged for one-off foolish statements, he says, adding “But some people deserve to be ashamed – like Trump!”

Changes in culture are vital, he says, though the law has a role to play in this.

“If I’m saying we shouldn’t have this artificial separation of politics and law, a lot of things do need to be brought more within the scope of law. Things like lack of corporate responsibility, not paying your workers enough, all that sort of thing should be within the remit of courts, and adjudication about prices as well,” he says.

“People say that can’t work, that’s just hopeless state control, but that’s not true, because there existed pre-capitalist market economies in late medieval Europe that were incredibly successful: they were more guild-based, and more came within the scope of regulation of prices.”

The trick, he says, is to rethink the whole idea of exchanges and transactions, so they’re about justice and what’s fair. It’s about as far away as one can imagine from the dictums of Adam Smith, the Scottish Enlightenment ‘father of economics’, who argued that self-interested commerce creates a kind of ‘invisible hand’ that helps society in a broader sense.

“We think, because we’re too much in awe of Adam Smith, when we negotiate prices it’s simply about two completely separate interests coming together,” Prof. Milbank says, “but why shouldn’t the interests of the community that they both share or even a set of mutual concerns, why shouldn’t that come into the negotiation?”


Significant work has been done in this area by the Italian economists Luigino Bruni and Stefano Zemagni, Prof. Milbank says, identifying the two as probably the main authors under Pope Benedict XVI of the 2009 social encyclical Caritas in Veritate. “They have revived the ideas of so-called Italian civil economy which stretches back to a contemporary of Smith, Antonio Genovesi in Naples,” he says.

“There’s a very different kind of south European tradition of these things, where you’re much more thinking in interpersonal terms,” he says.  “I’ve got a Hungarian friend who’s working in Granada in Spain. He’d sent his car to be repaired and after weeks and weeks it hadn’t been repaired. He said to the mechanic, ‘why have you repaired all the cars of your friends before mine?’ and the mechanic said ‘All those people needed their cars more than you did’.”

The episode struck the Hungarian as almost like a Gospel parable, where he had assumed a corrupt favouritism was driving things, when in reality the priorities were based on knowledge and real need. “The mechanic was thinking ‘I know these people, and I know you, and I know who needs their car more’. I think this is a very interesting illustration of a gulf in mentality between the North and the South in Europe,” he says.

An interpersonal approach based on genuinely knowing people has underpinned cooperative movements and credit unions throughout the world, of course, but as people seem to have less and less time in their communities and with less energy or interest in volunteering, a sense of ownership of local communities is threatened.

“I think this is what we need to recover, and I think a lot of populism is about people wanting to take control over their lives,” Prof. Milbank says. “They don’t want the state to do it for them, they don’t want necessarily everybody to be the same, but they do want to be able to live decent lives and be involved in their own lives.”

Expressing concerns about huge divisions between rich and poor today, and a growing sense of alienation in working class and even middle class families, he stresses: “Somehow we’ve got to encourage a return to mutual and cooperative ventures of all kinds.”

“We need to focus on the fact that most people are living in normal marriages and relationships and having children and families, and the conditions for those people aren’t very good,” he says, adding that support for women, children, and family life is an important reason for the political success of Viktor Orban in Hungary.

“We’ve got to enable families, but we can do it in a modern way that allows the family and work, for both men and women, to mix. It’s possible, I think, for the Catholic Church to sort of seize the high ground on that.”


Similarly, he says, it is worth encouraging trade unions to be more robust and in some ways more like guilds, noting that the English economist and journalist Will Hutton has taken the line that they need to do more than simply represent workers against managers. “Even someone like Will Hutton is now saying this, that unions would be respected if they took more concern for vocational training, standards of work, standards of what’s produced, and if they’d be prepared to sit on boards and get rid of this oppositional culture.”

Part of the equation, he says, is rethinking the idea of vocation for a modern world where flexibility is necessary.

“I don’t know completely how to do that, though I think it’s allied to the question of what jobs are worth doing anyway,” he says, adding that people thinking about the basic meaning of what they’re doing is vital.

“I think probably you have to challenge people to think about the morality of their life and their job. This is very difficult because most of the time people are just up against hard necessity, basically,” he says, though opportunities to take part in things or work for organisations that have a moral purpose or even act in line with Christian norms should be encouraged.

“All I can say is that as far as possible you have to craft that kind of activity, and I think there are quite an increasing number of hybrids, things that are for profit and also for non-profit as well, and have that kind of aspect to them,” he says.

“It’s hard to get beyond mere virtue signalling, but in some ways I think perhaps the ecological issue can be the hinge of a change. When the damage becomes so palpably material, then maybe you can get people to think that we can only change that if we have a different set of social and spiritual priorities. And so trying to act in a more ecological way can often involve rethinking how we do things in other ways.”


He points out that as Pope Francis says in Laudato Si’, “everything is interrelated”, and says that at the most basic level being proud of the beauty of where we live can change how we act in a political way.

“Maybe one of the keys for our future politics is trying to marry this populist concern for local places, identity, and keeping local culture going with this more universal  concern for ecology and so on,” he continues.

“Instead of ecological concerns being sort of very remote and technical, if people thought what can I do in my neighbourhood to preserve the community not just with humans but with nature, how can we be proud of the beauty of our area? It’s almost like a politics of beauty could start to kick in. You can see with schoolchildren being concerned at these issues that there is scope for this to happen. You can’t just wait for the Government to do things.”