Political scientist John Gray (Photo by In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images)

Liberalism’s obituarist

John Gray extends his dark critique of the modern world

Artillery Row Books

English Philosopher John Gray’s challenging new book, The New Leviathans: Thoughts After Liberalism uses the thinking of philosopher Thomas Hobbes to examine what Gray believes are the death-throes of the dominant political idea since the end of the Cold War: Western liberalism.

One of the founders of modern political philosophy, Thomas Hobbes was born in 1588 in Malmesbury, England. He claims in his autobiography that his mother went into early labour when she heard of the approaching Spanish Armada and “gave birth to twins: myself and fear”. After attending Oxford University, Hobbes took part in a grand tour of Europe. He was exposed to European scientific and critical methods, which contrasted with the scholastic philosophy that he had been taught at Oxford. In 1640, as tensions between King Charles I and the English Parliament were rising, Hobbes released a translation of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War with the intention of warning his countrymen against the follies of democracy and the violent chaos of civil war. When the English Civil War then started, Hobbes publicly supported the authority of the king. Soon after, fearing persecution by the parliamentarians, Hobbes fled to Paris where in 1651 he wrote his most famous work, Leviathan.

The New Leviathans, John Gray (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27)

In Leviathan he argues that human beings are governed by both involuntary passions and deliberate reason. He claims that a man’s power is nothing more than his ability to acquire what he deems good and evade what he deems bad; with good and bad equating to things we like or dislike. His fundamental principle of human nature is that each of us is in a relentless quest for domination over others, in what Hobbes calls a “war of all against all”. We are each seeking only to further our own ability to have the power to do what we like and avoid doing what we don’t like. This is a recipe for endless conflict, driven by competition, distrust and the attainment of glory or status. In this state, it can be rational to kill others before they kill you. This forever war is known as the Hobbesian “state of nature”, the ubiquitous and inescapable basic state of humankind. Hobbes claims that in this state, life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.

Gray asserts that Hobbes was a liberal and “the only one, perhaps, still worth reading”. Gray puts forward four ideas that define liberalism. Firstly, it is individualist in that it asserts the moral primacy of the individual against the claims of any social collective. Secondly, it is egalitarian inasmuch as it confers on all men the same moral status. Thirdly, it is universalist in affirming the moral unity of the human species and according a secondary importance to specific historic associations and cultural forms. Lastly, it is meliorist in its belief of the improvability of social institutions and political arrangements.

He believes that Hobbes’ political theory features all these ideas. For Hobbes, society is made up of individuals, who can assert their claim to self-preservation against any demand by the state; if a ruler fails to protect them, they can be disobeyed or overthrown. Hobbes believed that human beings are equal to being exposed to death at each other’s hands. Human nature is universal in its needs, and divergent cultural identities are superficial. Lastly, Hobbes also believed that, with the application of reason, government could be improved and human beings could overcome conflict.

Gray thinks these are half-truths. Individuals may be the basis of society, but self-preservation is only one of their needs: bare life is not enough; we need meaning, belonging and purpose. Human beings may be equal in needing protection from each other, but they regularly give up peace and security in order to defend a form of life they believe to be superior to another. The most basic human goods may be universal, but they are often sacrificed in order to fight for values specific to particular ways of living. Society and government can always be improved, but what is gained can be lost. There is no final exit from the state of nature. Gray believes that Hobbes, known for his pessimistic views on human nature, was ultimately an optimist, whose belief in the meliorist potential of reason mirrors many similarly over-optimistic liberals today.

Hobbes’ political theory is achieved through a Leviathan: a state with unfettered power necessary to protect people from one another and external enemies. Hobbes’ Leviathan is an artificial animal that humans create to escape the state of nature. He did not anticipate that, through their attempts to remodel humanity, totalitarian regimes would create artificial states of nature. For Hobbes, state powers were unchecked, but the state’s goals were strictly limited. Beyond securing its subjects against one one another and external enemies, it had no remit. In a time when the future seems profoundly uncertain, Gray’s New Leviathans aim to secure meaning in life for their subjects. As in the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century they have become “engineers of souls”.

Xi’s social credit merges the Panoptican and Fa concepts of merit

We are taken on a journey back to those totalitarian regimes, to the most extreme attempts to remodel humanity: Nazi Germany and Stalin’s USSR. Along the way we meet a cast of characters who have moved through history’s margins, witnessing what we would rather forget, or at least simplify to cautionary fairy tales. These characters with firsthand experience of totalitarianism include Russian nihilist Vasily Rozanov, who wrote of humankind being crushed under the weight of books, producing “a strange groaning civilization”. He wanted to push the bookcase aside and start the whole business over again. Then there was Russian author Yvegeny Zamyatin, whose book We was the inspiration for George Orwell’s 1984. Polish painter and then soldier Jozef Czapski, after time in the gulag where he taught Proust to other prisoners, travelled Europe trying to unearth the truth around the Katyn massacre of Polish officers by Soviet forces.

Gray examines the New Leviathans constructed in Russia and in China. Gray sees Russia as a quasi-theocracy, but also a full-blown kleptocracy, with the potential to morph into “a steampunk Byzantium with nukes”. He rubbishes the idea held by some in the European right and amongst American conservative culture warriors that Russia is ethically superior to the West as “a decadent fever-dream” — highlighting that family breakdown, drug addiction, suicide and anomie run at higher levels than in most Western countries. He also warns those wishing for the fall of Putin to be careful what they are wishing for. As Gray has written elsewhere, “For all its cultural achievements, this vast country has never enjoyed an extended period of freedom — only interludes of chaos in immemorial despotism.” Scenarios for what comes after Putin include a version of the horrifically brutal 1917–23 Russian Civil War and a version of the ethnic mayhem that followed the break-up of Yugoslavia, intensified by fights over the unevenly distributed natural resources. Outside of Yevgeny Prizoghin’s Wagner Group, the oligarchs and intelligence operators are growing their private armies for the coming struggle.

China is described as a high-tech Panopticon, influenced as much by the interwar German Jurist Carl Schmitt as Mao and Confucius. Xi’s attempts to unify the Chinese people in a single national culture echoes Schmitt more than Hobbes, whilst his system of government by surveillance seems inspired by the Panopticon, the ideal prison designed by philosopher Jeremy Bentham to keep its inmates under observation at all times. Schmitt argued that law was made by the decision of the sovereign, whilst politics was a struggle between enemies. He tasked the state with the protection of a unified people. Any influence by Schmitt is laid down on top of a long history of legalism, which was synthesised by Han Fei, a 3rd century Chinese philosopher of the “Legalist” (Fa-jia) school. Fei’s Fa includes explicit, publicly promulgated standards of conduct — encompassing laws, standards for job performance, criteria for military and bureaucratic promotion, and regulation of the general population. Xi’s social credit system is a modern merging of the Panoptican and Fa concepts of merit.

Gray questions the narrative of the inevitable rise of China, asking whether China’s one nation approach to governance will survive the ageing Xi’s succession and its economic and demographic challenges. The breakup of the country into warring states, or a more traditional empire of multiple fiefdoms with their own cultures and allegiances, are both possible future outcomes.

Gray then turns to what he believes are the death throes of Western liberalism. Gray believes that liberalism was a creation of Western monotheism, and liberal freedoms are part of a civilization that monotheism engendered. Yet 21st century liberals reject this civilization whilst continuing to claim the universalism of its values — in particular, the values of individualization and freedom.

One point of view suggests that this is now being taken to its logical endpoint, in what Gray calls hyper-liberalism, with each human being sovereign in deciding who or what they want to be. Another point of view is that it is a project of forging new collectives and the prelude to a state of chronic conflict amongst the identities they embody. Gray points out that human beings can never be wholly self-defined. If their identity is to be more than private fantasy, they must somehow induce others to accept it. Self-definition has become “a battle for power in which words are the weapons of choice”. For Gray, this hyper-liberal ideology plays a number of roles — it operates as a rationale or distraction for a failing variety of capitalism and (drawing on Peter Turchin’s work) a vehicle through which surplus elites struggle to secure a position of power in society.

We struggle with the idea that there’s no deeper meaning to find

In what is likely to be the most provocative section of the book, Gray dismisses the notion that hyper-liberalism is Marxist or post-modern. He criticises its role in placing identity at the centre of politics, however, as this results in conflicts of economic interest being disregarded. Identity politics consigns to obloquy and oblivion those who suffer most from current economic systems. Gray believes it also provincialises the universal evil of racism, as it projects a particularly American history onto all of humankind. Gray cites the massacres of Muslims in the Balkan Wars, the Rwandan genocide, and the Chinese attempts to obliterate Tibetan and Uighurs as examples of racist atrocities that cannot be properly understood through the lens of American racism. Gray at no point denies the existence of racism, stating that racial oppression of black people in America is “stark, extreme and enduring”. Instead, Gray levels the same criticism against the hyper-liberalists as he has against the neocons behind Iraq and Afghanistan. After the Cold War, they believed they had found the one right way of living that was universal for all humankind, then attempted to force their template for living onto profoundly different cultures, with incompatible social, political and economic structures developed over millennia.

Gray sees a West where any curb on human will is now condemned as a mode of repression. By a droll necessity, this freedom demands that every aspect of life be monitored and controlled. As Fyodor Dostoevsky anticipated in Demons, the logic of limitless freedom is ultimately despotic. Gray sees this new despotism controlling language and even the private realm of the mind, which comes under scrutiny for hidden biases and errors. Hobbes believed that humans needed limitation as much as they needed freedom, but his limitations were on actual violence rather than on the psychological violence we are told we now need to be protected from.

These criticisms are not those used by sections of the right who cry “woke” at anything they do not like or understand; they are serious challenges from a sincere actor with a long history of considering these issues. Gray, writing in 1989, highlighted the dangers of where the American experiment in rights-based liberalism was heading, anticipating the 2022 ruling on abortion in the US. “In the US … every moral and political dispute is cast in the legalistic idiom of the rights discourse. Accordingly, the courts, and for that matter the entire procedure of judicial review, have become theatres of doctrinal conflict.” Gray again highlights the challenges with the uniquely American branch of liberal legalism that aims to replace politics by the adjudication of rights, making law a branch of politics. Conflicts of rights reflect divergent understandings of the human good, which cannot be resolved by legal arbitration. In the US, different understandings of human good are getting further apart. Trying to arbitrate the law is becoming increasingly politicised, which does not bode well for a potentially tight and tense election cycle in 2024, the results of which could profoundly influence the trajectory of the Chinese and Russian Leviathans.

New Leviathans are fostering uncertainty rather than creating security. By deploying food and energy supplies as weapons of war, Russia has projected famine and poverty across the globe. A Chinese invasion of Taiwan could impact the global supply of microprocessors, impacting the way of life of nearly everyone who lives in the West. According to Gray, the task of the age is bringing the New Leviathans closest to what Hobbes believed they could be: vessels of peaceful co-existence. Building on the work of one of his key influences, Isaiah Berlin, Gray proposes that we should aspire to an approach of modus vivendi. This recognises that there is a plurality of human values that determines many ways of living, and these values — and those that hold them — will inevitably clash. Modus vivendi is the search for a way of living together despite this, embracing the multiple forms of human life as a good thing in itself. In recognising that peace can be achieved in many kinds of regime, Hobbes was a truer liberal than those who came after him. The belief that a single form of rule is best for everyone is itself a form of tyranny.

Gray offers no easy solutions. In this, he is consistent. In the last chapter of the book, he tells us that the real Leviathan is the human animal. He ends the book with a similar message to his seminal Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (2003). There is a personal realism to accompany the political realism. We need to recognise that our lot is no different from the other animals, even if we are alone amongst living creatures in knowing that our lives are bounded by death. This awareness impels us to seek immortality in ideas. Killing for the sake of words gives meaning to our lives. In so doing, we exercise what Hobbes described as the “privilege of absurdity”. The search for meaning is now so hardwired into us that we struggle with the idea that there’s no deeper meaning to find. We should struggle on, though, and attempt to return to the contentment that animals find so easily in just being.

As Gray concludes, “If we go on, it is because we cannot do otherwise. It is life that pulls on, against the tide, life that steers us into the storm.” The contemplation Gray advocates across all his work isn’t a turning away from the world, like those of some Eastern philosophies, but one that allows us to turn back to it and embrace its folly. Grace is accepting our flaws and limitations, working with them rather than retreating to fantasies or destroying lives in Quixotic attempts to change the unchangeable. Author J G Ballard claimed that Straw Dogs challenges assumptions and exposes delusions. With his latest book, Gray continues to do both these things. Those who hold the delusions that he exposes may not welcome the challenge.

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