Disembedding October 7, 2016

John Milbank and Adrian Pabst (Politics of Virtue, 47) observe that the liberal state claims to release “the economic and social spheres to be pre-politically themselves as natural, meaning true to human biological needs and inclinations.” In fact, however, it “politically produces this sphere of man as most basically pursuant of amour propre [Rousseau] and ‘trucking’ advantage [Adam Smith].” That is, the “natural” sphere where self-love and profit operate aren’t truly natural, but creations of the liberal state.

And the liberal state needs to populate these spheres with subjects whose pursuit of self-love and profit trumps their affection for family, local community, tradition. That is, the liberal state’s processes of formation intends to disembed citizens/subjects from their social networks. Liberalism “tries through the educative and cultural processes of ‘civil society’ . . . to create subjects who are negatively choosing and self-governing, relatively disembedded from family, locality, tradition and artisanal formation.” The corrosive effect of education on traditional beliefs and mores isn’t an accident. It’s the goal. It’s necessary to produce the kind of people who are “naturalized” as self-loving homines economici.

This disembedding makes economics seem to be the most basic realm of human existence: “As Polanyi argued, when the economic sphere is sequestered by this naturalising sleight of hand, it is bound to become fundamental, because it concerns our most vital human needs and functions. . . . once the managing of our material needs for production and exchange is sequestered from other aspects of social life—the symbolic, the ritual, the ethical and the political—then the unavoidability of material needs, including our mutual material reliance, tends to ensure that what is naturally basic now, indeed, becomes culturally fundamental. Yet only by cultural illusion do we imagine that this primacy of the spuriously ‘natural’ belongs naturally to, specifically, human nature.”

Eventually, the economic eats up all other areas of social life. Every other human activity, including religion, involves the predictable rough play of market forces.

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