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Prophet of the end of liberalism

John Gray at 75

Artillery Row

On 17 April John Gray celebrates his 75th birthday. He is one of the most original thinkers of his generation, covering political philosophy from Mill and Hayek to Isaiah Berlin, and writers from Simenon and JG Ballard to John Cowper Powys and Mick Herron (“the foremost living spy novelist in the English language”). Over the years his friends have included an unlikely group of maverick thinkers, including the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, the European historian Norman Stone, and James Lovelock — the man behind the Gaia Hypothesis. 

His books are just as unpredictable. He has written more than twenty books on subjects as varied as Post-Liberalism and False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism, Al Qaeda and What It Means to be Modern, The Immortalization Commission and Seven Types of Atheism. At a time when so many have clung to a succession of different orthodoxies, Gray is hard to pigeonhole. He has always kept on the move, both in terms of the range of his interests and his political positions. 

Gray was born in 1948. He grew up in a working-class family in South Shields and attended a local grammar school before studying PPE at Oxford. He briefly lectured in political theory at Essex in the early 1970s, then taught politics for more than twenty years at Oxford, before going on to become Professor of Politics. It was at Oxford that he encountered Isaiah Berlin whose darker, more agonistic kind of liberalism influenced him enormously. 

He published his first book, Mill on Liberty: A Defence, in 1983 and through the 1980s and early 1990s produced a stream of books on liberal political thought: Conceptions of Liberty in Political Philosophy (edited with Zbigniew Pelczynski, 1984), Hayek on Liberty (1984), Liberalism (1986), Liberalisms: Essays in Political Philosophy (1989), J.S. Mill, “On Liberty”: In Focus (edited with G.W. Smith, 1991), JS Mill, On Liberty, and Other Essays (edited, 1991), Post-Liberalism: Studies in Political Thought (1993) and the Fontana Modern Master on Isaiah Berlin (1995). 

Gray was more at home with pessimistic European thinkers like Freud

In the mid-1990s his career went through a number of important changes. First, in 1998, he left Oxford to become Professor of European Thought at the LSE until his retirement from academic life almost ten years later. This was part of a bigger move from academic political philosophy to the life of a freelance writer and essayist. He began writing for David Goodhart, another contrarian, at Prospect. He started writing polemical pieces on contemporary thinkers like Fukuyama, John Rawls and Steven Pinker. At a time when these American thinkers were flying high, Gray was a dissenting voice. He disagreed with the blithe optimism of Pinker and Fukuyama (giving a series of talks in 1999 on Radio 4 called, “Now that History Hasn’t Ended”) and the “American legal liberalism” of Rawls. He was more at home with pessimistic European thinkers like Berlin and Freud (one of his essays on Freud was subtitled, “The Last Great Enlightenment Thinker”). 

Perhaps the most interesting change in his writing was a growing disillusion with academic liberal political philosophy. He began to think it had gone in the wrong direction. It had become too obsessed with rights. “Liberal political philosophy has become a branch of jurisprudence,” he once said, particularly in American universities. Reviewing Joel Feinberg’s The Moral Limits of the Criminal Law in The TLS in 1990 (significantly called “An epitaph for liberalism”), he wrote: 

If there is a single characteristic that typifies liberal political philosophy in the United States over the past quarter of a century, it is its domination by a jurisprudential paradigm … The model of reasoning presupposed in this turn to legalism in recent American theory is that of the judicial interpretation of constitutional rights rather than of the formulation of public policy in public discourse.

There was a second problem with liberalism which he increasingly felt extended to the Left in general. It had become too indifferent to the kinds of people he grew up with, northern working-class people who supported Brexit in 2016 and then Boris Johnson in 2019. This wasn’t “a revolt of the ignorant masses against enlightened elites”, he wrote, but “the result of the follies of the elites themselves”. “All that seemed solid in liberalism is melting into air,” he wrote in The New Statesman at the end of 2017. “Why do liberals keep misreading the present?” he wrote in May 2018. It was “a post-liberal moment. For Gray, Labour under Corbyn was never a serious alternative. He was a consistent and passionate critic of the Far Left, especially Corbyn. 

He also broke with Thatcherite free-market conservatism in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Thatcherism had let the market trip through countless communities. It wasn’t just northern working-class families like his own parents who had suffered. Many middle class families also lost any sense of economic security. In an article for The Guardian called “Testing market for the middle classes” (17 April 1996) he wrote: 

jobs are not what they used to be. The sense that most of us have that our economic lives are riskier than they were in the past is not simply worry about the prospect of unemployment. … It is the dim perception that the middle classes as a whole are being casualised.

More and more people — “schoolteachers, prison officers, social workers, civil servants, people in the armed services and many others” were finding that “they cannot easily save, take out a mortgage or plan for a pension”. Almost twenty years of Conservatism had wreaked havoc on working- and middle-class people alike. 

He wrote in The Guardian in 1996:

The party that first formulates a post-Thatcherite project for Britain will set the political agenda for a generation. … The task facing Labour is not to salvage what it can from the wreckage. It is to shape an effective successor to Thatcherism and forge a new political settlement in Britain.

A few months later, in September 1997, he authored a long piece for The New Statesman called “Conservatism R.I.P”. 

He was swiftly disillusioned with New Labour, however. First, it failed to provide such “a new political settlement”. Already in 1998, just a year after Blair and Brown came to power, he was writing about how “a centre-left government loses control of events by clinging to a defunct economic consensus”, in a repeat performance of Ramsay Macdonald in 1931. Then came Iraq. In 2014 he wrote a piece for Prospect on the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, subtitled “25 years of liberal delusion”.

Perhaps this explains the success of Gray’s three breakthrough books at the turn of the century: False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism (1998), Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (2002) and Al Qaeda and What it Means to be Modern (2003). Unlike earlier academic books, these had catchy titles, took on big contemporary subjects, were published by mainstream publishers and broke through to a general audience. They were shorter and more polemical. Above all, he seemed to have his finger on the pulse at a time when readers were not only becoming disillusioned with both Thatcherism and New Labour, just as he had been, but with the larger consensus about globalisation and the free market. The title of his next book, Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions (2004), summed up the new direction in his thinking: unorthodox, happy to criticise the pieties of the age, political and intellectual. This would define his political position in the twenty years since. 

His range of cultural interests have also continued to grow. Gray became ever more unpredictable in his politics but unlike most political commentators he also became a first-rate writer about film, television and literature. His reviews spanned Mr Jones, Agnieszka Holland’s superb film about Stalin’s famine in the Ukraine; Adam Curtis’s series, Russia 1985-1999: TraumaZone; the recent spy series, Slow Horses and Bad Actors; and writers like Len Deighton and Mervyn Peake. He became a surprising fan of spy and detective fiction. When he appeared on Desert Island Discs in 2018, one of his choices was the main theme from Get Carter (1971). 

It is hard to think of a contemporary with tastes more off the beaten track

Increasingly, the people he most admired were not political thinkers at all, perhaps except for Berlin, but writers like Conrad, Ballard and Powys, and mavericks like Adam Phillips, Norman Cohn and James Lovelock. It is hard to think of a contemporary public intellectual whose tastes are more off the beaten track. 

In his more recent writing, especially at The New Statesman where he has been given freedom to develop his full range of interests, Gray has returned again and again to the dark side, preferring pessimism to optimism. He always emphasises human fragility and complexity and scorns easy solutions. At the end of 2020, he wrote about Covid, “The pandemic is not a once-in-a-century traumatic event, but a revelation of the fragility that lies at the bottom of our way of life.” He went on, “The pandemic will not be the last assault on human health to originate in the way we treat our animal kin as if they were insentient resources.” His response to the invasion of Ukraine was just as damning: “Putin represents a world the Western mind can no longer comprehend. The belief that liberalism will inevitably prevail is an illusion that Europe must abandon if it is to win a war of his creation.” The language is classic Gray: “fragility” and “illusion”. 

Back in 2008, he wrote a piece about Russia for The Guardian. The title is typical: “Folly of the progressive fairytale”. He writes:

Nothing is more misguided than talk of a new cold war. What we are seeing is the end of the post cold war era, and a renewal of geopolitical conflicts of the sort that occurred during the late 19th century. Their minds befogged by fashionable nonsense about globalisation, western leaders believe liberal democracy is spreading unstoppably. The reality is continuing political diversity. Republics, empires, liberal and illiberal democracies, and a wide variety of authoritarian regimes will be with us for the foreseeable future.

When ISIS was on the march, he wrote:

The group’s advance confounds the predominant Western view of the world. For the current generation of liberal thinkers, modern history is a story of the march of civilization. There have been moments of regression, some of them atrocious, but these are only relapses into the barbarism of the past, interrupting a course of development that is essentially benign. For anyone who thinks in this way, ISIS can only be a mysterious and disastrous anomaly.

Gray has no time for the intellectual cheerleaders of our time, for most political orthodoxies (whether Remainers or New Labour) or for that matter for most politicians. It’s hard to think of a single leading British or American politician he admires. Keir Starmer, he wrote last September, “remains a politician manqué, a passionless barrister in a trade that requires a killer instinct”. He called Boris Johnson, “the hollow man”. “In his downfall,” he continued, “the emptiness of his politics was revealed.” “None of the emperors has any clothes so far as John is concerned,” the journalist Peter Wilby told The Guardian back in 2005. He hasn’t changed in almost twenty years.

It’s not just about the flaws of individuals; there’s always the bigger picture. Reviewing Ed Miliband’s memoir, he wrote, “Miliband’s new book and the sad comedy of his career explain the rout of centre-left progressivism.” Trump, he wrote in November 2020, “was a symptom rather than the cause of the nation’s discontents and the forces he has unlocked are here to stay”. He went on, “The clear message is that there is no way back to a pre-Trump order. Rather than ending in a restoration of the liberal ancient regime, the election marks the next phase of a chronic American legitimation crisis.” Left or Right, our politicians always get it wrong and fail to grasp the changing world around them. 

In his regular contributions to The New Statesman, where the editor Jason Cowley has long been an admirer, Gray writes punchy pieces on national and international politics. He has never been insular and has written some of the best pieces on Russia and China in recent years. Perhaps his most interesting writing now is on literature, where he goes his own way. In recent years he has turned increasingly to central and east European writers: Shalamov’s stories of the Gulag, the Polish writer and artist Józef Czapski, and the Jewish-Romanian diarist Mihail Sebastian. Their dark writings seem to fit his view of the world. Another unlikely hero is the 19th century Italian poet and philosopher, Giacomo Leopardi, another writer from the margins of Europe (more of Berlin’s influence, perhaps). His review of Leopardi’s notebooks in 2013 captures many of his most important themes:

With astonishing prescience, he diagnosed the sickness of our time: a dangerous intoxication with the knowledge and power given by science, mixed with an inability to accept the humanly meaningless world that science has revealed. Faced with emptiness, modern humanity has taken refuge in schemes of world improvement, which all too often — as in the savage revolutions of the 20th century and the no less savage humanitarian warfare of the 21st — involve mass slaughter. The irrationalities of earlier times have been replaced by what Leopardi calls “the barbarism of reason.”

“The barbarism of reason” is one phrase that sums up much of John Gray’s writing. “Lost illusions” might be another. 

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