The New Leviathans: Thoughts After Liberalism
By John Gray.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2023.
Hardcover, 192 pages, $27.

Reviewed by Gene Callahan.

Reviewing one of John Gray’s recent books is an adventurous undertaking. Rather than straightforward histories, or philosophical or political arguments, or personal reminiscences, Gray seems to have adopted the approach to his non-fiction work that Milan Kundera took to his novels. They are meditations on a topic, approaching it through a variety of vantage points: some anecdotes, some historical episodes briefly narrated, a few interesting (and sometimes horrifying) statistics, a witty or trenchant aperçu here, a brief argument there. It worked for Kundera’s novels, and it also works for Gray’s books. But it does not confront the humble reviewer with a simple undertaking.

His newest book highlights the nature of the work right in the sub-title: “Thoughts after Liberalism.” This is not an argument that liberalism has failed (such as Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed—Gray takes its failure largely as a given), or a program for what should come after liberalism (like the recent work of Curtis Yarvin), or a philosophical critique of liberalism (which Gray himself has offered in earlier works). Instead, it is as though the reader has been invited to eavesdrop on Gray’s inner dialogues as he mulls over a post-liberal world.

While it might be possible to review this work in the same style in which it was written, that would be like putting hot sauce on a dish of chili peppers: a bit much. Instead, I will organize this review around several of the themes that are important in the book, and offer a sample of what Gray has to say about each one.

In a book the title of which contains the word “Leviathan,” we naturally would expect Thomas Hobbes to play an important role, and indeed he does. Throughout his meditations, Gray brings up Hobbes again and again. In fact, if one were to be so bold and foolish enough to offer a “central message” of the book, it might be that the circumstances that prompted Hobbes to write Leviathan have again become salient in our time. The liberal world order that prevailed for some years after the fall of the Soviet Union is collapsing around us.

Gray first addresses Hobbes by noting that: “Hobbes was a liberal – the only one, perhaps, still worth reading.” In defense of the first half of this claim, he presents the four characteristics of liberalism provided in his own book, Liberalism, to wit, liberalism is:

  1. individualist
  2. egalitarian
  3. universalist
  4. meliorist

And he goes on to argue that the above key liberal ideas are present in Hobbes in that, for him:

  1. “Society is made up of individuals…”
  2. “[each] equal in being exposed to death at each other’s hands…”
  3. “Human nature is universal in its needs…”
  4. “With the application of reason, government can be improved…”

Thus Hobbes is “the” proto-liberal. However, as Gray explains, “Each of these [liberal] ideas is a half-truth”:

  1. Individuals are the basis of society, but “self-preservation is only one of their needs: bare life is not enough.”
  2. Human beings “regularly give up peace and security in order to defend a form of life…”
  3. “The most basic human goods may be universal but they are often sacrificed…”
  4. “Society and government can be improved, but what is gained can always be lost… There is no complete or final exit from the state of nature.”

Gray’s claim that Hobbes was a liberal may disconcert some who have interpreted him as a totalitarian. But here Gray makes a crucial, often overlooked, point about Hobbes, “Hobbes’s was a state whose powers were unchecked, but its goals were strictly limited. Beyond securing its subjects against one another and external enemies, it had no remit.” 

Or, as Michael Oakeshott (whom Gray refers to as one of Hobbes’s “best interpreters”) put it, “Hobbes is not an absolutist precisely because he is an authoritarian…” In other words, Hobbes’s state existed to keep its citizens from going to war with each other, and had whatever power it needed to meet that task. But its area of authority did not include stopping them from smoking, or encouraging them to save prudently for retirement, or urging them to approve of homosexuality, or prompting them to better appreciate high culture.

While Gray appreciates Hobbes, the appreciation is not unadulterated; he notes:

  • “The social contract of which Hobbes writes is a rationalist myth.” 
  • “Hobbes’s pessimism is only seeming. When he asserts that self-preservation is the path to peace, he writes not as a realist but as a utopian visionary.” 
  • “Hobbes believed humankind could escape the spell of language by constructing clear definitions of words. Here he was misled by rationalism.” 

Beyond these points, Hobbes makes many more appearances, including epigraphs from Leviathan (or occasionally another work) that head each chapter and sub-chapter.

Gray has much more to say about liberalism than what is mentioned above. For example, he notes a similarity between contemporary liberals and other recent ideologies:

The psychology of the political believer is not confined to interwar communists and fellow travelers. The same mixture of self deception and adamant certainty can be observed in post-Cold War liberals. They, too, cannot admit the demise of the faith that has given meaning to their lives.”

Gray understands that the whole liberal project is based upon a metaphysics that modern liberals either ignore or completely reject:

Liberalism was a creation of Western monotheism and liberal freedoms are part of the civilization that monotheism engendered. Twenty-first-century liberals reject this civilization, while continuing to assert the universal authority of a hollowed-out version of its values. In this hyper-liberal vision all societies are destined to undergo the deconstruction that is underway in the West.”

“Populism” is a current bogeyman of contemporary liberals. But, as Gray points out, “populism… has no clear meaning, but it is used by liberals to refer to political blowback against the social disruption produced by their own policies.” In the end, Gray contends, “If liberalism has a future, it will be as therapy against fear of the dark.” 

The nature of history is another theme that runs throughout this book. Given that Gray regards history as an essentially undirected process, it is unsurprising that he is not kind to Francis Fukuyama’s thesis that we have reached “The End of History”. He notes that Fukuyama’s announcement of “game over” for history is remarkably similar to Sidney and Beatrice Webb’s 1936 claim that Stalin’s USSR was the “end of history,” and a “New Civilization” would be built on Stalin’s totalitarian model.

Gray examines the Hegelian roots of Fukuyama’s work, “in which history showed one idea following another in dialectical succession.” But, he contends, “In reality, no such history ever transpired. History with a capital letter is like Humanity, an iridescent operation.” Gray argues that world history since Fukuyama’s book was published contradicts the latter’s thesis:

All the evidence suggests that we are moving back into an epoch that is classically historical, and not forward into the empty, hallucinatory post-historical era projected in Fukuyama’s article… The grotesque notion that history was coming to an end in a universal convergence on American-style democracy was feted as realism.”

Gray claims that “While history is not the unfolding of reason, there can be logic in particular situations.” But he does not provide any argument for believing that a process that is irrational should present us with “particular situations” that are amenable to logical analysis: How could such situations arise? How can we identify them? The repeated rolling of dice is certainly not “the unfolding of reason,” but we would never suspect that certain sub-sequences of rolls would exhibit “logic.”

Gray also offers an important insight on the difference between the Russian tsarist regime and the Soviet Union:

Whereas the Romanov empire was a traditional despotism, the Soviet state was a new Leviathan… aiming to fashion a new humanity… In the fifty years from 1867 to 1917, there were around 25,000 deaths from executions and pogroms. In the first five years of the Soviet state’s existence, there were around 200,000 executions…”

And this ignores deaths in camps: so the Soviet Union was killing its citizens at roughly 100 times the rate of the tsars.

Gray writes: “Fukuyama departs from the most important discovery in modern science. As understood by Charles Darwin, evolution has no destination.” But this is not something Darwin “discovered”: how could it be? We would need a perspective looking backward from the end of time to “discover” whether evolution has a destination. What Darwin did was pre-suppose that evolution proceeds via random mutations, and then tried to explain the origin of species employing that presupposition. The fact that his theory does not contain a telos for evolution is hardly surprising, since that was the assumption made in order to formulate the theory.

Gray follows this up by claiming, “Natural selection of genes is a purposeless process that is going nowhere.” His forwarding of this as a bald fact is particularly surprising, given two later statements he makes. In the first, he admits that “The accidental origins of Christianity, of course, prove nothing. For a believer, chance is the work of providence.” (This would be better stated as, “For the believer, what may appear to us as chance is actually the workings of an infinite mind.”) So the fact that John Gray sees no purpose to evolution hardly shows that it has no purpose. And in another passage, Gray notes that “the physical sciences may contain myths of their own.” 

Gray is not pleased with “what has come to be called the woke movement,” declaring that its “origins… are in the decay of liberalism.” He writes: “If Western capitalism creates an expanding underclass without any productive function, it also produces a lumpen intelligentsia that is economically superfluous.” In other words, in societies that are in serious need of more auto mechanics and carpenters and plumbers, we are instead producing far more doctors of gender studies and queer theory and post-colonialism than are actually demanded: so what can these “superfluous” individuals do to make a living? Well, they fight for jobs based on who is “most woke,” which is a “vehicle through which surplus elites struggle to secure a position of power in society.” Or, as Gray also puts it, “In their economic aspects, woke movements are a revolt of the professional bourgeoisie.”

Gray quite correctly debunks the claim that the woke movement is accurately described as “cultural Marxism.” “Contrary to its right wing critics, woke thinking is not a variety of Marxism. No woke ideologue comes anywhere close to Karl Marx in rigour, breadth and depth of thought.” In fact, “Once questions of identity become central in politics, conflicts of economic interest can be disregarded. Idle chatter of micro-aggression screens out class hierarchy and the abandonment of large sections of society to idleness and destitution.” In other words, identity politics, far from being “Marxist,” is actually a way to divert attention away from class issues towards relative trivialities.

This book is a fascinating exploration of Gray’s thoughts on a post-liberal world. Given the style of the work, it is often hard to say when Gray is presenting “something interesting to think about” and when he is presenting “here’s what I think.” So often it is not clear whether to critique some notion as Gray’s own or not.

Nevertheless, there is a clear thread running throughout the work, one asserting that human life is a chance emergence from the random movements of matter in a universe lacking any purpose. As such, Gray, in spite of his own views, shows the importance of faith. He is an intelligent and perceptive observer of “the world of the flesh,” and is honest enough that he cannot hide from the fact that, on its own grounds, it is meaninglessness. The result, as Gray so ably demonstrates, is bleak, but the bleakness only arises from his rejection of the world of the spirit.

Gene Callahan is the author of Economics for Real People and Oakeshott on Rome and America, and co-editor of the books Tradition vs. Rationalism, Critics of Enlightenment Rationalism, and Critics of Enlightenment Rationalism Revisited. He has a PhD in political theory from Cardiff University, and teaches at NYU.

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