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The Past is Always Better


John Gray’s The New Leviathans

British philosopher John Gray has a long and protean history of political commitments.

Fodder for nostalgia. Brixton High Street, 2011 London riots.

Beginning on the left, he shifted in later life to the New Right and dabbled in New Labour before settling back into an environmentally tinged iconoclasm.

The direction of his latest inclinations can be seen from the fawning interview he recently did with far-right tech bro Peter Thiel in The New Statesman.

Given the title of his latest book, The New Leviathans: Thoughts After Liberalism, one would hope Gray would have relied on his knowledge of philosophy to understand contemporary politics.

But he did not.

The primary virtue of this book is its brevity, although many readers will find its 160-odd pages unduly extensive.

The New Leviathans comprises three essays, two of which are more or less laundry lists of things Gray dislikes.

In between is a sixty-page-long meditation on various Russian writers, most of whom came to a bad end. There doesn’t seem to be a coherent theme to this discussion.

The horrors of Bolshevism are the main candidate, but this is only touched upon in a fleeting manner. Stalinism sucked, and there’s nothing new here.

In trying to figure out what this book is actually about, it helps to look at the things that Gray dislikes.

These include Putin’s Russia and Chinese communism, both of which are described in terms of Hobbes’ Leviathan. That much is straightforward.

For Gray, Thomas Hobbes was a species of liberal individualist

The philosopher holds Hobbes in high regard, using quotes from his writings as epigrams for practically every section of the book (sometimes quite effectively).

Hobbes’ main virtue is that he envisioned a government that viewed its remit as limited to keeping citizens from killing each other and taking each other’s stuff.

But there are Leviathans, and then there are Leviathans, and those of the Putin and Xi variety lack the virtues of the original.

Having made that point, much of the non-Russian content in the book is devoted to an extensive and unsympathetic critique of modern liberalism.

Liberalism is “a footnote to Christianity”, a doctrine of improvement without mercy that allows one to live with people with whom we disagree.

This merciless liberalism is borne on by so-called surplus elites, a term comprising “university professors, media figures, lawyers, charity workers, community activists, and officers in non-governmental organisations”.

For a philosopher not into the USSR, it’s not hard to think Gray would make an exception for the Gulags here.

Indeed, the anti-radical chic bit gets worse.

With wealth concentrating at the extreme tip of the income distribution, these groups have experienced “increasing competition, falling incomes and dwindling status”.

They are also being produced in ever-greater numbers.

This “lumpen intelligentsia” is too numerous for society to “absorb”, and its members thus try to compensate for their disempowerment by deploying political correctness tactically.

The rise of these surplus elites is, so Gray would have it, driving liberalism’s self-consumption.

In times past, liberalism allowed for a healthy degree of difference and conflict.

Nowadays, hyper-liberals are busy destroying the decent drapery of life by turning every criticism, legitimate or not, into a categorical (and thus universal) imperative.

It is for this reason that we now find ourselves confronting the current wave of right-wing populism.

Populism, Gray claims, “has no clear meaning, but it is used by liberals to refer to political blowback against the social disruption produced by their own policies”.

This is simply laziness.

There is an extensive literature on populism, and if there isn’t a single, unambiguous, and all-encompassing definition, that’s still a long way from the term having “no clear meaning”.

Liberalism, conservatism, and fascism, just to take some obvious examples, similarly lack precise definitions. That hardly makes them meaningless.

Woke, on the other hand, fits into this quite nicely. Gray devotes the bulk of the third essay to a root and branch critique of the “woke movement” (whatever that is).

To his credit, he distinguishes it from both Marxism and postmodernism, which a large proportion of right-wing pundits conflate woke with.

In Gray’s crotchety conservatism, the history of what society was like before the rise of the “surplus elites” is simply dropped into the memory hole.

He seems particularly upset about cancel culture.

Gray decries the range of indignities suffered by those who drop an ill-considered racist remark or voice determination to be “colourblind”.

Looked at charitably, this seems like a bigger deal to the philosopher since academia is one of the most profound points of sensitivity to ethnic and gender discrimination.

With alarming frequency, the horror stories of good people getting gunned down by wokeness turn out to be massively overblown.

This is not to say that it never happens, just that it also pays to read to the end of the article.

Moreover, the people who get agitated about wokeness seem either unconcerned or unaware of the cancellation visited upon nonconformists before 1968.

McCarthyism, anyone? How about the Salem Witch Trials?

In Gray’s good old days, minorities, women, LGBTQ+ persons, and others got a much sharper end of the stick.

In the face of this easily accessible history, the obligation not to say racist things hardly seems catastrophic.

There is more to criticise about The New Leviathans, but it’s so disorganised that it’s not worth it.

The only thing holding the book together is its nostalgia.

Whether that means for pre-war Britain or the 19th century is irrelevant. The past John Gray misses never really existed.

Call it Victorian, and leave it at that.

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.