Cavanaugh and the Liberal Order

There is an interesting set of posts over at Political Theology between Bill Cavanaugh and Brad Littlejohn over a review Littlejohn gave of Cavanaugh’s body of work.  (The link takes you to the last post – work backwards from there if you’d like).  Littlejohn’s essential point is that Cavanaugh is overly critical of the modern liberal state and seems (though doesn’t quite come right out and say it) “invert” the modern political soteriology associated with liberalism (e.g. religion caused the terrible wars of the 16th and 17th century and secular liberalism saved us or just go read Stephen Pinker) and make the development of the modern state itself a kind of Fall that can 0nly be “saved” by the Church.  Cavanaugh’s response is to deny that the liberal state is all that it’s cracked up to be and also deny that he’s romanticizing the pre-modern West.

Of the two, I think Littlejohn’s got the better of the argument, quite honestly.  Canavaugh’s Myth of Religious Violence is indeed a nice effort at puncturing the idea that religion and religion alone was responsible for the terrible wars of the early modern period.  (Though he probably plays down too much the fact that the nationalizing princes who “used” religion could do so because there were plenty of people motivated by religion to do their bidding).  Where he goes wrong, I think, is the notion that there is something sui generis about the modern state, a point that Littlejohn seems to miss as well (or at least only gestures at at the end of his post).  Cavanaugh has this idea (one that I think John Milbank shares) that there is something utterly new in the modern idea of sovereignty.

Of course, there is something new in the Hobbesian idea of sovereignty, but as a practical matter, it hardly seems plausible to suggest that the late middle ages, with their overlapping spheres of authority, represented the norm.  Rather, it seems more plausible to think they are the exception.  Ancient city-states, empires, and the like were hardly models of shared or divided sovereignty, and while Hobbes may have pretended to do away with the conflict between the divine and the political, that conflict is (and until the eschaton always will be) with us.  The real problem with Cavanaugh’s work is that he thinks there is something unique and uniquely bad about the modern state.  That’s implausible and, in my view, makes serious criticisms of modern liberalism harder, not easier.

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5 responses to “Cavanaugh and the Liberal Order

  1. Shockingly, I agree with all this. I have thought about posting something on Cavanaugh’s borrowing MacIntryre’s “dying for the phone company” jab. I like to contrast the Cavanaugh view of the nation-state with Desmond Tutu’s view of it in No Future without Forgiveness. The nation-state is not a panacea, but I get the sense that many Christians raised in more difficult circumstances than typically found in the US have a greater appreciation for the limited goods supplied by it.

  2. I actually just finished reading Cavanaugh’s “Killing for the Telephone Company” yesterday (in “Migrations of the Holy”). He pretty clearly states that it does provide genuine and limited goods. (MacIntyre admits this as well but is pretty vague on precisely what they are.) Cavanaugh’s problem is with the sacralization of the state through nationalism, etc. That being said, I tend to think politics-as-the-struggle-for-power is a pretty consistent dominating factor in all polities in all times and in all places, while MacIntyre, Cavanaugh, etc, seem to think that pure power politics is more characteristic of modernity than past ages. Maybe they don’t think that, but I’m not sure they guard against that perception adequately.

    • Yes, Dan, he says that, but the whole thrust of the book really goes beyond it. It’s rather like his willingness to countenance the Just War tradition as something a Christian could genuinely endorse, only to to make its conditions so stringent as to make every plausible war unjust. I don’t doubt that the struggle-for-power is a part of every political order or even that it’s a part of every human relationship. But I think it’s a mistake to suppose that that is all it is – and to my mind, that’s where Cavanaugh heads on occasion.

  3. Thanks for the plug and the interaction, Bryan. Briefly, I would just say that I don’t miss the problematic point that Cavanaugh thinks there is something sui generis about the modern state—that just wasn’t the particular point I was making in this specific critique. I did in fact hint at it, though, in my first post, where I said,
    “Yes, modern states often demand a kind of idolatrous loyalty and sacrifice on the part of their citizens, but the same could be said of city-states, kingdoms, and empires at any point in world history (a point effectively demonstrated in Peter Leithart’s Between Babel and Beast). If the matter at hand is modernity-criticism, and the virtue, or vice, of the liberal state, then the question must be not whether the modern state was born out of violence (political institutions usually are), or whether it continues to practice, and feed on, violence (political institutions usually do), but whether it has been effective in minimizing violence relative to earlier eras of human history and previous socio-political arrangements.”

    This is all related to the problem of Cavanaugh’s misplaced Fall narrative, which I complained about in my second post. Cavanaugh’s narrative treats the Middle Ages as the Eden from which we can narrate decline, but of course, there were thousands of years of human history before the Middle Ages. How do those fit into the story. Cavanaugh is right on many of the points that he makes about the novelty of early modern political arrangements vis-a-vis Western European medieval ones (though even here, considerably overstated on some points), but when you compare the things he’s talking about to Byzantium or ancient Rome, the novelty does not appear nearly so striking. Sure, there are still differences, but are they of the fundamental and categorical kind he implies?

    He wants to say he’s not an anarchist, because he’s not critiquing political power as such, just peculiarly modern forms of it, but the things he identifies for criticism tend to look an awful lot like constant features of political power.

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