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The post-liberal views shaping our political landscape

There is no dispute that the past 15 years have seen some of the biggest changes to the global political landscape in modern times.

From Brexit to the success of Trump in the United States, voters have shown their dissatisfaction with existing systems, expressing a desire for something different.

Professor John Milbank’s research argues that we have seen a rejection of liberalism – in both an economic and social sense – whose views were no longer serving people in the way they required, resulting in, as he puts it “a widespread breakdown of trust in established institutions and a searching for alternatives, some of them extreme.”

He adds: “Despite its many undoubted gains, liberalism is now recognised as coming with a heavy price tag. In the name of negative freedom, it hollowed out many of the conditions of human flourishing: the solidarity of community, the importance of place and roots, spirituality and religion, the family, the nation state.”

He argues that we are now in a post-liberal age, and that a new way of thinking is needed – dominated by a move away from the individual towards a collective responsibility for the greater good, where politics, economics and religion do not exist as separate entities but where elements of each become intertwined.

In his book The Politics of Virtue: Post Liberalism and the Human Future, written with Adrian Pabst, he sets out a new order focused on human relationships, not market forces, and argues that politics should reflect that.

"Despite its many undoubted gains, liberalism is now recognised as coming with a heavy price tag"
Professor John Milbank

Crossing the boundaries between theology, philosophy, social science and political theory, his work is concerned with what he describes as “a recovery of a wider sense of citizenship.”

He adds: “We have to demand that businessmen and people running corporations run them like citizens. In other words that businesses exercise a social function which is not just about making profit.”

Milbank and Pabst believe their post-liberal politics of the common good, can help to address the deep divisions of our age. Their research offers a novel critique of the limits of contemporary liberalism and is the only post-liberal critique to outline available alternatives, with a focus on virtue and mutual flourishing.

It has received widespread media coverage and informed the direction of travel for political institutions the church and theological organisations across the globe.

Immediately after its publication in September 2016, the Politics of Virtue received extensive discussion in mainstream media, including The Guardian, The Spectator and The New Statesman. Writing about the book in The New Statesman, the former Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams said: “The Politics of Virtue is going to be a crucial intervention in current political debate. It is a monumental and un-ignorable diagnosis of a critical moment in our culture.”

While political journalist Giles Fraser said: “Neither left nor right, his critique of secular liberalism continues to resonate through the world of politics and economics.”

The book was also mentioned in Germany’s biggest daily newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeiner Zeitung, in the run-up to the June 2017 election, where the coverage explained the attempts by both the Conservatives and Labour to offer a post-liberal political platform in their respective party election manifesto. This resulted in Milbank being invited, in January 2020, to address a private meeting of post-liberal media and political activists and thinkers from both parties, on the way forward for these ideas after Brexit.

The political impact of the book has been widespread, with it helping to shape the policies of parties, policy institutes and think tanks in the UK, Europe, Latin America, Israel and Australia.

"The Politics of Virtue is [..] a monumental and un-ignorable diagnosis of a critical moment in our culture"
Dr Rowan Williams

In the UK MPs from across the political spectrum have drawn on the research for speeches and essays, and since 2017 Professor Milbank has worked closely with the Labour party on a new initiative called Labour Together.

In France the research has ‘had a significant impact’ on Refondation, a new left-wing post liberal political party, with the 2018 French translation of The Politics of Virtue credited by the party leadership as the single most important statement of the post-liberal turn of French politics

In Mexico, Jose Alberto Garibaldi, director of Energeia, a policy research institute in the field of climate change prediction, has been greatly influenced by Milbank’s research, which he has taken into climate change negotiations.

In Australia, the Head of the Paul Ramsay Foundation in Sydney, Australia’s largest philanthropic organization, said she has found Milbank’s work “pivotal to her thinking”, while in Israel his research has been used by the Citizens Accord Forum which seeks to engage Jews and Muslims in building a shared society following the guiding principles in his work.

Milbank’s research has also influenced the activity and policies of diverse church bodies and charities. The ideas were disseminated in a pamphlet, with a foreword by MP Rachel Reeves, at a public event at St Paul’s Cathedral in 2018, while in Spain the Archbishop of Granada has used Milbank’s research on reciprocity and the gift economy as a basis for some of his social outreach projects.

John Milbank

John Milbank is an Emeritus Professor and former Research Professor of Religion, Politics and Ethics at the University of Nottingham and Director of the Centre of Theology and Philosophy. 

Further reading

Milbank, John and Pabst, Adrian (2016) The Politics of Virtue: PostLiberalism and the Human Future, (POV) Rowman & Littlefield International Ltd,

The International Review of Economics, Milbank, John and Pabst, Adrian, ‘The Meta-crisis of Secular Capitalism’

The New Statesman, Liberalism and capitalism have hollowed out society – so where do we turn now?

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