Mixed Polity

John Milbank argues (Crisis of Global Capitalism, 29) that societies tend to be mixed – combining a necessary hierarchical element with elements of democracy and oligarchy.

He begins from the Augustinian premise that “sort of human association defined by ‘the object of its love.’ This permits us to see (against the entire normal run of modern political theory) that any human association (including in reality the state and market) is always at once hierarchical and democratic, involving what antiquity referred to as a ‘mixed constitution’ of the one, the few, and the many. For initially an association is in some historical fashion ‘set up’ by the single force of one person or more likely many in combination. This single force must then hierarchically instill the principles of the logic of the operation of the association through a ‘teaching process’ that is the work of those ‘few’ (however many they may be in reality) who understand this logic. But right from the outset, the association can only exist at all if it enjoys the ‘democratic’ consent, however tacit or explicit, of the many who compose it.”

But social bodies are mixed in another sense. A mythic-religious element has to be brought in: “An association must ‘justify’ its existence in order that it have some principles of ‘just ordering’ which it can continuously effect. And most naturally and fundamentally, this justification must be in terms of how the association is supposed to reflect some ‘given’ cosmic order that precedes its composition.”

In sum: “any human association naturally has a hierarchic component insofar as it continuously remembers and repeats its origins. It has a democratic component insofar as it continuously assents to these origins, thereby perhaps also continuously modifying its own constitution. Together, these two components compose the association as ‘traditioned,’ as a passageway of ‘handing over’ through time. And any association also has a third, religious component insofar as it must ‘justify itself’ in order to achieve either initial establishment or continuing consent.”

On this point, liberal order is a historical outlier, a society that attempts “to evade this mode of justification and discover one that is purely immanent either to mere material nature or to the association itself.” Liberalism tells stories of democratic social contracts, but these only serve to conceal the hierarchical reality of the origin of all liberal orders.

Contrary to the common complaint, religion isn’t mystifying. Liberalism is: “it cannot tell the story of its own origins. The price of refusing religious justification because one pretends to non-hierarchy and formally immanent self-constitution is always subscription to a secular myth” (30).

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