John Gray is the Lady Gaga of Political Philosophy


Review of The New Leviathans: Thoughts After Liberalism by John Gray

John Gray is the Lady Gaga of political philosophy going through more phases than a pop diva. Beginning as a socialist Gray transitioned to becoming an adamant classical liberal and Thatcherite, before abandoning classical liberalism right in its end of history moment of triumph and variably arguing for environmentalism, against woke culture, and now apparently becoming a Hobbesian. This has led some to accuse Gray of inconstancy, though I’d see it more as a kind of curious open-mindedness. I say curious because it’d be less frustrating if Gray didn’t adopt whatever his new philosophy is with the same convert’s zeal as the last one. None the less he’s always maddeningly thoughtful which makes tracking the toos and fros of Gray’s work fun if occasionally bemusing.

Gray’s latest book The New Leviathan’s is like a microcosm of his entire oeuvre. He is well past being systematic or even particularly academic. While nominally the book is “about” the decline of the global liberal order, really it’s a stream of consciousness intellectual journey through the aftermath of the past 150 years. Some critics have complained that it’s a mess, and they’re right. Ironically anyone looking for the systematicity or careful deductive reason of a Thomas Hobbes (the book’s “hero,” who in 1651 wrote Levithan, a key text in founding modern political philosophy) will want to throw the book against the wall. It could be that at 76 Gray is just over organizing the range of his thoughts and has decided to present them ala spontaneous prose.  But saying it’s a mess isn’t saying its thoughtless. Gray’s main muses outside the fearful Englishman are a series of pessimistic absurdists and artists whose main inspiration was visceral and intuitive, united above all else by their conviction that liberalism, socialism, and much else about the modern world is rubbish.

A Book for Who?

The New Leviathans is more a haunted than haunting book since the long ideological shadow of the long 20th century weighs like a nightmare on Gray’s brain. He spends an enormous amount of time relitigating these ideological disputes, no longer as a partisan but instead to see why every single one of the partisan ideologies failed and left us with this 21st century mess. Liberalism, as it turns out, is “self undermining” through its own radicality, leading to a farcical implosion. In particular because it turns into various forms of “wokeness” which “operates as a rationale for a failing variety of capitalism, and a vehicle through which surplus elites struggle to secure a position of power in society. Insofar as it expresses a coherent system of ideas, it is the anti-Western creed of an antinomian intelligentsia that is ineffably Western.” On Gray’s telling wokeness is a kind of “hyperliberalism” in its insistence on questions of identity, continuously insisting that any given lifestyle or form of selfhood be not only tolerated but insulated from any kind of external criticism.

One might think on this telling that Gray is going full Jordan Peterson, and there is undoubtedly a strong conservative streak to the book. But Gray is far too smart and erudite to insist that a bunch of angry French intellectuals who no one reads are in fact responsible for the end of Western civilization. Even Robin D’Angelo bestsellers are just a symptom. Indeed Gray points out that “contrary to its right-wing critics, woke thinking is not a variant of Marxism. No woke ideologue comes anywhere close to Karl Marx in rigour, breadth, and depth of thought.” Indeed one “function of woke movements is to deflect attention from the destructive impact on society of market capitalism” since when “questions of identity become central in politic, conflicts of economic interests can be disregarded.” Its also not the fault of “post-modernism” since wokeness has little of “Jacques Derrida’s playful subtlety or Michel Foucault’s mordant wit.” In the end just as “fascism debased Nietzsche’s thinking, hyper-liberalism vulgarizes post-modern philosophy.”

As one can see here New Leviathans truly is a book for everyone and no one. Most of the time when someone claims to have gone beyond “left” and “right” they’re usually just right wing. Appropriately Hobbes, like Arendt and a few others, is one of the few thinkers who genuinely is appealed to across the political spectrum. But Gray may actually have pulled it off, though I’m not sure the results are uniformly impressive. One of the problems with this “everything and more is always more” style is Gray will make enormous claims which sound appealing until you stop to ponder them. If woke culture is a kind of “hyperliberalism” that is sufficiently threatening that we should take it seriously, then why is it also a symptom of the “decay of liberalism?” Is the liberalism we are talking about just the neoliberalism Gray once successfully defended and now rejects, or does it include the liberal socialism of John Stuart Mill which Gray always rejected. If so why are they all of a piece given such dramatic difference? Gray is contemptuous of Mill’s arguments for experiments in living, describing them as fundamentally theistic-a kind of self-generation from nothing. He criticizes Mill for a lack of empirical consistence on these points, since he ignored the physicality of the self. But of course Mill had a deep understanding of the way material factors shape life, and appealed to them in his arguments for socialism. In his Socialism book Mill noted that “virtue and intelligence” play a role in shaping life outcomes, but “far less than many other things.” The most powerful of these “determining circumstances is birth. The great majority are what they were born to be. Some are born rich without work, other born to a position in which they can become rich by work, the great majority are born to hard work and poverty throughout life, numbers to indigence.” If Gray is really concerned to save some of the freedoms of liberalism from its hyper-liberal, capitalism fueled wokism then ironically Mill might be a good source to return to.

Conclusion: Hobbes as the First and Last Liberal?

It is telling that near the end of a long career perhaps the last figure in whom Gray vests his convictions is Hobbes. In Gray’s hands Hobbes becomes the first liberal who is now the last liberal. Paradoxical to the last its revealing that the first and last liberal becomes the Beckettian hero in a book that is nominally an epitaph to liberalism: a larger than life Godot we can’t be sure will fix everything, but even if it hurts to hope we should. What Gray admires in Hobbes is the latter’s proto-Nietzschean willingness to take a hammer to idols, his need to cut down all the vainglorious abstractions human beings constructed with words to convince themselves their lives were anything more than matter in motion. Whether these “words” were “nation” or “people” or “workers of the world” didn’t matter.  But unlike Nietzsche, Hobbes wanted the deconstruction of our vainglorious abstractions to pave the way for a recognition of our fundamental equality and animality. Upon recognizing we were little more than matter in motion with one short (but potentially less short, brutal and solitary) life to live, we’d be less willing to risk it for ballooned up ideals. And like Hobbes, Gray sometimes hopes that such a deflation will pave the way for peace as we all realize the amusing tragedy of killing ourselves over our battling nouns. But he doesn’t count on it, since while our inclination to survival is very strong at his darkest Hobbes, as Gray notes, intimated that our vanity could be stronger still.  The book heavily suggests and at times even seems to accept that if humanity blows itself up such a tragedy would at least be an appropriate end to our nonsense. A rationally predictable end to such a comically and determinately irrational and stupid species, who couldn’t but find a kind of schadenfreude in the spectacle of our own annihilation.  

“The earth treats human regimes with impartial indifference. It does not care whether they are capitalist or socialist, authoritarian or liberal. Only their material impact matters. Only their material impact matters. Societies that treat climate change as a morality tale in which they are the villains will disappear, or be absorbed by others that are more pragmatic and resilient. Those that survive will understand that climate change is a shift that humans have caused but are unable to arrest. The only practical response is to adjust to it. Conceivably, global warming may occur at a rate that makes adaptation impossible. While the Earth functions as a system, there is no comparable coordination in the human world. In that case the planet will impose the necessary adjustment, regardless of humankind, and rewild itself.”

But like all undialectical positions Gray’s Hobbesian realism very quickly becomes, as Nietzsche would call it, a kind of quasi-cynical aestheticism. It is a stripping away of illusions to obtain it own kind of spartan puritanism; a bonfire not of the vanities, but of all the kinds of vainglory Hobbes took such delight in deflating. The last of these kinds of vainglorious idols winds up being liberalism itself, which started as a modest kind of bourgeois centrism before inflating itself into a universalistic creed and is now having to resign itself to a more modest corner of the world once again. But in the end while Gray has drank sufficiently deep of the illiberal chalice to recognize its faults, he cannot but turn to the primordial version of it in the end. To the extent there is a political program in Gray’s book it isn’t to call for any of the illiberal, post-liberal, or reactionary Edens projected by De Maistre, Dostoevsky1, or Schmitt. It is to settle for the Hobbesian wisdom of accepting peace and life over vainglorious utopias of any sort: conservative and far right, left, and even hyper-liberal. Ironically there are few things that come across as more classically bourgeois that such an outlook. 

This ambivalence about what is worth saving and what needs to be abandoned in liberalism is characteristic of the post-liberal movement which has claimed Gray as an influence and member. Fundamentally what is missing is a dialectical approach which recognizes that any ideology as powerful as liberalism, and indeed any mode of production as transformative as capitalism, will throw up countervailing and self-reinforcing tendencies by necessity. The way to resolve these is not to embrace a pre-liberal past which was abandoned for very good reasons some time ago. Hegelians have long noted that the most dangerous ideology in any society is always its own, since at some point the ruling elites might be called upon to walk the walk of their fatuously aggrandizing talk.  The solution to our current woes it to make good the promises of liberalism for everyone in a way current material circumstances make very difficult, but not impossible. Not yet.

1. Here’s a key paragraph that conveys the anti-liberal reactionary spirit of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground 

“And why are you so firmly, so triumphantly, convinced that only the normal and the positive—in other words, only what is conducive to welfare—is for the advantage of man? Is not reason in error as regards advantage? Does not man, perhaps, love something besides well-being? Perhaps he is just as fond of suffering? Perhaps suffering is just as great a benefit to him as well-being? Man is sometimes extraordinarily, passionately, in love with suffering, and that is a fact. There is no need to appeal to universal history to prove that; only ask yourself, if you are a man and have lived at all. As far as my personal opinion is concerned, to care only for well-being seems to me positively ill-bred. Whether it’s good or bad, it is sometimes very pleasant, too, to smash things. I hold no brief for suffering nor for well-being either. I am standing for … my caprice, and for its being guaranteed to me when necessary. Suffering would be out of place in vaudevilles, for instance; I know that. In the “Palace of Crystal” it is unthinkable; suffering means doubt, negation, and what would be the good of a “palace of crystal” if there could be any doubt about it? And yet I think man will never renounce real suffering, that is, destruction and chaos. Why, suffering is the sole origin of consciousness.”