Theorising socio-cultural change: a note on the casual contemptuousness of John Milbank and Adrian Pabst

I just stumbled across this extract I recorded from John Milbank and Adrian Pabst’s The Politics of Virtue. There’s a confident contemptuousness to this passage which unsettled me at the time, expressing a belief that they can read back the spiritual condition of people they encounter through a brief glance at them on the street. There’s a despair about what they experience as the fallen uniformity of the masses, in contrast to their elevated orientation to moral virtue:

No doubt this is why, today, a vast number of adults seem to spend much of their time off work out shopping in children’s shorts, trainers and slogan-covered tee-shirts, the speaking garments of the inarticulate. Only the multiple tattoos, in mockery of barbarian symbolic dignity, proclaim they have undergone an initiation to distinguish them by a skin-stamped particular expressive variant of universal fashion, from their equally half-clad offspring.

The Politics of Virtue, pg 17

There’s certainly hatred here, in the sense of dislike and disgust. They perceive these people as infantile, inarticulate and debased. The question I find myself wondering about is whether this is class hated. From a sociological perspective, the object of their scorn is the absence of valued distinction on the part of these faceless masses. They can’t see what really matters and this fact is expressed through how they dress, as Milbank and Pabst sneer at them on the street. However one would infer from their ‘Blue Labour’ affiliation that they would reject this accusation, perhaps suggesting that liberal individual and consumer capitalism have engendered the moral debasement they find so offputting.

The underlying motif here is a familiar one if we consider trends within post-1989 British Sociology where a theorist like Zygmunt Bauman has received tens of thousands of citations for an analysis of consumerism which sees individuals similarly locked within the compulsions of late capitalism, lacking the agency to find meaningful expression through them, let alone challenge them. In this sense, Milbank and Pabst are offering a problematically impressionistic supplement to a thrust of cultural criticism which is usually more refined and reticent in its judgement.

What’s striking about them is the micro-sociological contemptuousness which they attach to this analysis. There are obvious retorts which it invites: one wonders what they are doing on these (seemingly) frequent encounters with the “vast number of adults” who “spend much of their time off work out shopping”. Might they too be shopping but in a somehow more eudaemonic way? What is it that sets them apart from their fellow shoppers? What they’re purchasing? How they dress? The high mindedness of the scorn they feel for those they encounter on the street?

However the more important issue concerns the style of their analysis and how this leads them to assume moral decline at an a priori level in the face of social and cultural change i.e. they’re primed to see change as decline. Their inditement of liberalism is that free choices are uniformly validated given the valorisation of negative liberty, leading to ‘infantile’ choices going ‘unrebuked’. But what constitutes the adult or infantile choice will itself change as social and cultural circumstances do, inviting the reflexive challenge of what to do and who to be. While it is certainly plausible to assert the existence of unchanging facts about human nature, the intransitivity of such claims becomes difficult to sustain when we cash them out at the micro-social level.

For example we might claim the intransitive character of an impulse towards self-cultivation, maximising one’s potentialities in a eudaemonistic mode, but exactly what this means at the level of socio-cultural activity remains another question. The voluntary adornment of the body through tattooing is prima facie compatible with an impulse towards self-cultivation, in the mode of an aesthetically driven bodily project which seeks to signify the inner through the crafting of the outer, even if as an empirical matter particular instances of it might be little more than a “mockery of barbarian symbolic dignity”.

If we restrict in advance the socio-cultural expressions of intransitive human facts then, to use Pickering’s term, we ontologically veil reflexivity in the sense of rendering the varied expressions of human agency located within what is apparently the same practice. This matters because exactly which socio-cultural expressions come to predominate over time will be in part a matter of the operation of this reflexivity, leading to the performative contradiction that those diagnosing moral decline are at risk of bringing about exactly what they fear through their analytical inability to recognise an obvious truth: some things might be as bad as they fear, but not everything is likely to be.

The fact Millbank and Pabst so tightly attach the moral and the social leads them to be particularly vulnerable to this conceptual pathology, but the explanatory dilemma is far from restricted to them. It might seem unfair to pick upon the throwaway passage quoted above but my argument is that is is an expression of the analytical thrust of the book, as opposed to a prudish deviation from it: this unpleasant aside illustrates something about their analysis which is more difficult to see when it is clothed in sophisticated abstraction elsewhere. The point I am making is that the moral consequences of social and cultural change cannot be assumed in advance. If we take what Archer calls the reflexive imperative seriously then our analysis must recognise the variability concealed within apparently uniform phenomena, as well as what this might mean for how they change over time.

We can’t read back the moral life of others through impressionist judgements of others we encounter, even if it’s satisfying to experience our prejudices as reflected back to us by the social world. It’s an obnoxious tendency, which even those who reject liberalism (as I do myself, in a particular way, which is why I was reading their book) will often find morally repugnant. It’s also conceptual lazy, reflecting a tendency towards arm chair philosophising which refuses to deal with the empirical complexity of social and cultural change.

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