John Gray’s Postliberal Prophecies
The atheist philosopher ends up making a strange case for Christianity en passant.
The New Leviathans: Thoughts After Liberalism, by John Gray, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 192 pages
In his Four Quartets, T. S. Eliot observes that “human kind cannot bear very much reality.” The British philosopher John Gray would concur; but for him, that’s no reason not to give it to them good and hard. The author of such works as Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths, and False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism, Gray is a remorseless puncturer of the comforting fairy tales man tells himself, offering much wisdom but little solace. But he does it in such bracing style that reading him becomes not a morose slog, but an invigorating quest for the truth. In this respect, Gray’s writing calls to mind Joseph Conrad, whose outlook he commends in his Seven Types of Atheism. With his newest book, Gray invites comparison to another dour Brit: Thomas Hobbes.
The New Leviathans: Thoughts After Liberalism seeks to understand today’s tumult—Antonio Gramsci’s “time of monsters”—by considering Hobbes’s midwifing of his own beast, the modern state. For Hobbes, whose Leviathan appeared in 1651 amid the English Civil War, the state allows us to put aside both the constant war of all against all over life’s basic necessities and conflicts over higher things, such as the best way to live, in favor of a new equilibrium of compromise. Every man can go about his business in safety, as long as he does not tamper with anyone else’s. This peaceful tension, however, is only made possible by the existence of the all-powerful state—the Leviathan—which keeps its subjects in check and holds back the state of nature.
Today’s Leviathans—Putin’s Russia, Xi’s China, and the progressive mob’s America—have eagerly kept all the power that Hobbes claimed for the state, but have done away with his strict boundaries around the state’s proper authority. Instead of securing the most basic liberties so that we can pursue our individual ends, the new Leviathans wage the very moral crusades Hobbes aimed to end and mean to force us into the collective ends our rulers have selected for us. This puts us in the worst of all possible worlds: We already gave up a more primitive freedom in return for the state’s provision of public order and safety; now, we risk losing our other freedoms as well, as tyrants seek to use that state for the perfection of man. Hobbes insisted there was no highest good, no summum bonum; today’s leaders confidently say that there is, that they know it, and that they’ll make sure you know it, too.
With the new Leviathans cutting up Hobbes’s cordon around the state and venturing out beyond his boundaries, into the territory of “the curing of souls,” we have reached “the return of the state of nature in artificial forms” and the replacement of liberalism with something else. “Postliberalism” has become fashionable, but Gray has been thinking about politics’ expansive possibilities for decades—his Post-Liberalism: Studies in Political Thought appeared in 1993—and he saw before most that the institutions of modernity which we took for granted were not the culmination of some grand historical scheme, but a fragile anomaly in history’s drift.
Gray’s assessment of liberalism’s demise mirrors one gaining credence on the Right today, although Gray is no conservative. As he sees it, the madness and wreckage of contemporary politics are the result, not so much of rejecting liberalism, as of realizing it more fully, exposing liberalism’s self-defeating nature: “Liberalism has once again become a creature eating its own tail.” Gray notes our predicament’s resemblance to the plot of Dostoyevsky’s Demons, in which an older generation of liberals, who love to condemn their society while enjoying its blessings, are aghast when their children take those criticisms seriously and decide to burn it all down. What we are seeing is not a deviation from liberalism, but its culmination in a frenzied “hyper-liberalism.”
At other times, though, Gray resembles those conservatives’ favorite punching bag, the liberals who exhort us to return to the true, “rightly understood” liberalism: “The task of the age is…to bring [the new Leviathans] closer to what Hobbes believed Leviathan could be – a vessel of peaceful co-existence.… Hobbes was a truer liberal than those that came after him.” But as Lenin wrote, “He who says A must say B.” What good is it to look upon B in horror, and then wish for a return to A—the very conditions from which the problem emerged? If there is a contradiction in Gray’s prognosis here, it is at least a fruitful one: as with his other works, what makes The New Leviathans worth reading is not some ersatz syllogistic deduction, but a horizon-expanding invitation to cut through our illusions and see, for once, clearly.
And to this end, Gray as usual puts his erudition to full effect, discussing, besides Hobbes, such figures as Freud, Arthur Koestler, and Samuel Beckett—fellow thinkers of good cheer and joie de vivre—as well as more obscure philosophers, such as the Russian pre-revolutionary writer Konstantin Leontiev and Hobbes’s contemporary, Arnold Geulincx. One always comes away from Gray’s historical and literary considerations with much to ponder—and with a longer reading list—although one cannot help at times asking whether it wouldn’t be better to go straight to the primary sources themselves. You probably already know that you should get around to reading Proust—or, indeed, Leviathan itself.
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Throughout, Gray is scathing in his demolition of our many modern fictions, fictions that the new Leviathans seek to prop up—free markets’ miracle of never-ending growth, democratic capitalism’s status as the final form of government, Russia’s messianic mission to redeem the West’s sins, and so on. (Gray does not criticize any distinctly Chinese myths, though; his objection to Xi is less about the promotion of false beliefs than about the spread of a homogenous surveillance state.) Still, if it’s myths all the way down, one wonders whether Gray is really justified in his own moral judgments, or whether he has fallen for what he should consider one more myth. He has no problem calling the Holocaust an “unparalleled crime,” or condemning genocide and injustice. But on what grounds? In his The Immortalization Commission, Gray writes of another philosopher who “argued that morality was impossible without theism, and if morality means categorical principles of right and wrong he was correct.” But Gray, an atheist, would be the last one to fall for that most enduring of myths: the myth of God. So it seems that when Gray here considers the tortures and show trials of the Soviet Union, the most he can really say is that, should the Bolshevik project of “God-building” be renewed, its subjects will likely find it highly unpleasant.
A related sawing off of the branch one is sitting on is also apparent in Gray’s incisive consideration of liberalism’s relationship to Christianity. As Gray notes, “In both its canonical and hyperbolic forms, liberalism is a footnote to Christianity.” The modern recognition of the equality of all persons, and our concern for the victim, would not have come into existence without the Beatitudes. As the West de-Christianizes, we should hardly be surprised that liberalism, Christianity’s secular offspring, struggles to survive. In Gray’s reading, Hobbes, typically seen as the anti-Christian philosopher par excellence, perhaps unknowingly endorsed Christian truths: “Human beings need limitations as much as they need freedom. This was the message of Christianity… Often interpreted as a prototypically modern thinker, Hobbes reaffirmed this ancient orthodoxy.” But then surely any attempt to show liberalism’s value, while also casting the Christian myth to the flames, must fail. Is Gray rejecting A, while thinking he can still cling to B? To do so is, at best, merely to forestall the arrival of whatever comes next.
And what is it that will come next? Gray is a prophet, but of the Old Testament breed; his purpose is not to proclaim the future with certainty, but only to warn of what will happen if we do not change our ways: “If the process continues, liberal freedoms will soon be forgotten, along with the world in which they were practised.” Perhaps, then, we should take Hobbes’s own words to heart: “things to come have no being at all, the future being but a fiction of the mind.” The consolation, and the terror, is that anything is possible.