Detail from Abraham Bosse’s frontispiece for “Leviathan” by Thomas Hobbes, 1651. Image: Stefano Bianchetti / Bridgeman Images

John Gray’s challenge to liberals

Channelling Thomas Hobbes, he raises deep questions that we must seek to answer
October 4, 2023
The New Leviathans: Thoughts After Liberalism
John Gray (RRP: £20)
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In his long and compelling expedition of the mind, John Gray’s constant companion has been Thomas Hobbes. In his new book, Gray takes Leviathan (1651), the work with which the 17th-century political philosopher is most closely associated, and explores its relevance to the statecraft, ideologies and authoritarian regimes of recent times.

Hobbes was, as Gray notes correctly, a liberal (“the only one, perhaps, still worth reading”). Mindful of humanity’s default “state of nature”—a life that would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”—he envisaged a hypothetical social contract in which all people transfer their rights of self-governance to a mighty sovereign that provides safety and the prospect of “commodious living”.

Yet the sheer ontological ambition of today’s Leviathans, Gray argues, would baffle him. These mighty states “aim to secure meaning in life for their subjects”; are “engineers of souls”; have become embroiled in “an unrelenting struggle for the control of thought and language”; and “offer meaning in material progress, the security of belonging in imaginary communities and the pleasures of persecution”.

At the heart of his story is the persistence of what he regards as one of the great human delusions, whereby the religious notion of providence has been replaced by a secular faith in the ultimately benign trajectory of history. “In John Stuart Mill,” Gray writes, “liberalism became a separate religion, with humankind serving as the Supreme Being, while hyper-liberals have made liberalism into a cult of self-creation.” By “hyper-liberals”, he means the apostles of the “woke movements” that he scorns as “a revolt of the professional bourgeoisie”.

This is too dismissive of, say, the activists of Black Lives Matter or the women who have come forward in the #MeToo uprising. But Gray is right that “One function of woke movements is to deflect attention from the destructive impact on society of market capitalism. Once questions of identity become central in politics, conflicts of economic interest can be disregarded. Idle chatter of micro-aggression screens out class hierarchy…”

For the record: in their excellent study, Identity Economics (2010), George A Akerlof and Rachel E Kranton do seek to correct this “screening out” and to reconcile identity politics with economic analysis. But Gray’s point stands. Thirteen years on, their book is the exception that proves the rule.

As those familiar with his work will know, Gray is an instinctively aphoristic writer, who owes more stylistically to Pascal or Cyril Connolly than to Mill or John Rawls. Though The New Leviathans clocks in at under 160 pages, it is densely packed with ideas, provocations and pensées, and repays a second reading.

When Gray declares that “There is no arc of history, short or long”, or that “Woke is a career as much as a cult”, or that “the moth-eaten musical brocade of progressive hope has been rolled out again”, he knows perfectly well that his reader will sit up and pay attention. The sage is also a trickster. Though his conclusions are often bleak, one can tell that he writes with a twinkle in his eye, frequently goading his reader into amused self-reflection.

Alongside his aphoristic style, Gray has a gift for anecdotage and pen-portraits. Hence, among the discussion of abstract political principles, we are introduced to characters such as the Tsarist socialist Konstantin Leontiev (1831–1891) who longed for a new feudalism in which tradition and Byzantine civilisation would be saved from the baleful influence of universal individualism and mass society.

Less obscure figures who pop up in these pages include Nikolai Bukharin (1888–1938), a leader of the Russian Revolution who died in Stalin’s purges; Arthur Koestler (1905–1983), whose great novel Darkness at Noon features a fictional rendering of Bukharin as Nikolai Salmanovich Rubashov; and the horror, fantasy and science fiction writer HP Lovecraft (1890–1937) who wrote that “all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interest and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large.”

This intertwining of argument with historical flourishes may cause some academic philosophers to wince. If so, that is a point in the book’s favour. In his travels as a scholarly Time Lord, Gray keeps in mind that the flesh and folly of human experience are essential to any understanding of grand themes and lofty ideals. In this sense, the medium is the message. No theory or blueprint can compete with Kant’s crooked timber of humanity.

Though Gray’s conclusions are often bleak, one can tell that he writes with a twinkle in his eye

Indeed, this message has been essential to Gray’s writing for many years. When I first encountered him in the early 1990s, he was signing the intellectual divorce papers that completed his sundering from the Thatcherite New Right. While others enthused over Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” thesis and the notion that the combination of free market capitalism and liberal democracy represented humanity’s logical terminus, Gray was already confronting the “hollowing out” of institutions by market forces and the structural flaws embedded in neoliberalism. His book False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism was published in 1998, a decade before the financial crash that proved him right.

Yet it was two subsequent books that formed the twin peaks of Gray’s thinking. In Two Faces of Liberalism (2000), he drew an all-important distinction between those liberals who sought “a rational consensus on the best way of life” and those who would settle for a “modus vivendi” based on “value-pluralism”. There is, he concluded, “no alternative to the long haul of politics”.

In Straw Dogs (2002), perhaps his most influential book to date (and especially dear to the late JG Ballard), he described human beings as “deluded animals” who “cannot live without illusions” and invest absurd hopes in utopian ideas and in science: “Most people today think they belong to a species that can be master of its destiny. This is faith, not science. We do not speak of a time when whales or gorillas will be masters of their destinies. Why then humans?”

Though The New Leviathans is a free-standing work, it echoes both of these books in every chapter. Gray comes to bury liberalism, not to praise it. “The seeming triumph of liberalism and the free market,” he writes “was not an evolutionary trend but a political experiment, which has run its course.”

In which context he relishes the irony that “Instead of China becoming more like the West, the West has become more like China. In both, the ruling economic system is a version of state capitalism. In each, wealth is heavily concentrated in small groups with powerful political leverage.” He is also amused that Xi Jinping’s China owes more to Bentham’s panopticon than to Confucianism and rightly points out that the “continuing power of illiberal Western ideas is a neglected feature of the contemporary scene.”

It is hard not to love a book that so effortlessly skewers the in-flight philosopher of the Davos classes, Steven Pinker, and his “vapid brand of nihilism”. Less cheerful is Gray’s response to efforts to avert environmental disaster. “Those that survive,” he writes, “will understand that climate change is a shift that humans have caused but are unable to arrest.”

As for AI, Gray does not side with those who, like the tech investor Marc Andreessen, believe in the saving power of the new technology, or with scientists such as Geoffrey Hinton, who fear it will bring catastrophe. “We are now preparing to hand the gift of knowing on to new forms of intelligent beings,” he writes. “Humankind is ceasing to be central in the life of the planet, so that life itself may go on.” We should be bracing ourselves not for extinction, but for irrelevance.

The Russian state, he speculates “may morph into a steampunk Byzantium with nukes.” The United States, meanwhile, might simply “drift on, a florid hybrid of fundamentalist sects, woke cults and techno-futurist oligarchs.” It is intrinsic to Gray’s philosophy that we accept anti-climax and fall as the natural order of things; that we set aside the dramatic delusions and narrative arcs of our collective imagination.

Given this gloomy prospectus, what (if anything) is to be done? Back to “the long haul of politics”. According to Gray, “The regimes that prevail will be those that best adapt to the random walk of history. Not the most productive societies but those that best exploit opportunities thrown up by chance are the fittest.” In other words, best of British luck; you’ll need it, folks.

Gray is often named as one of the leading lights of contemporary “post-liberalism”, but I think this is a mistake. Beyond his disavowal of liberalism, he has little or nothing in common with polemicists such as Patrick J Deneen, Rod Dreher and Sohrab Ahmari. Deneen’s recent book Regime Change: Towards a Postliberal Future makes a rather fevered case for “aristopopulism”, “the raw assertion of political power by a new generation of political actors inspired by an ethos of common-good conservatism”, and the “renewal of the Christian roots of our civilization”. Gray would chuckle at the folly of this quest to build Gilead-lite in contemporary America.

For those of us who still feel what GK Chesterton would call “a twitch upon the thread” and are not quite ready to give up on the Enlightenment, Gray’s writings are an astringent medicine. (The fact that I have to invoke a Father Brown story to explain my continued attachment to such ideas would, I’m sure, bolster his opinion that 21st-century liberals are essentially the last members of a fading religious order.)

Yet the medicine is, or should be, welcome. Liberalism and centrism are, as I argued in the October issue of Prospect, in desperate need of renewal and renovation. Gray’s insistence that renovation is pointless and that the building is doomed is the challenge that liberals must answer in word and deed. Liberalism remains, to adapt Churchill, the worst system of political organisation, except for all the others. But that alone is a feeble basis upon which to proceed and Gray’s case is one that demands a practical answer: a radical adaptation of liberalism to the huge challenges of the 21st century (climate change, inequality, AI, pandemics, longevity and social care). We have to acknowledge that this future-facing renewal may indeed, as Gray firmly believes, prove impossible.

Perhaps the most admirable feature of The New Leviathans is Gray’s refusal to act as a therapist to his readers, or to condescend to them with bullet points of phoney hope or “meaning”. The advent of “Smart Thinking” sections in bookshops has driven some philosophers to rebrand themselves as highbrow self-help gurus. But this is not what philosophy is for.

Hobbes and Gray: what a great title that would make for a detective show, and one that Gray, a lover of film noir, would surely enjoy. We should be grateful that we have this intrepid duo to keep us intellectually honest.