Is liberalism dead? Has that dewy-eyed, woke, overly optimistic beast of limited eyesight, enlarged heart, and dangerously underdeveloped brain, this Jabberwocky of the geopolitical wood finally been slain? More to the point, can we at last acknowledge that there are no such things as universal values, no inherently reliable truth to language, and that the world is patently, unchangeably unfair and forever doomed to remain as such? Better yet, as Thomas Hobbes wrote in 1651, that man’s life is and ever shall be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” in its never-changing, always current state of war?
John Gray’s new book, The New Leviathans, a blessedly slim 200-odd pages, touts as its subtitle, “Thoughts After Liberalism,” which lets you know right away that the bête noir of the conservative order has been consigned to the evidently moldy closet of the twentieth-century. But oddly enough, Gray argues liberalism does still live among us, shambling beside more enlightened people like one of the undead—for it is liberalism, he proclaims, that is still responsible for most, if not all, of the ills of modern society. The nice thing about creating a straw man is that you can whack it whenever you want, while still decrying its frightful lack of humanity.
John Gray, author of many critically acclaimed books, is a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books, professor of politics at Oxford as well as professor of European thought at the London School of Economics. What does this eminent thinker get more wrong, liberalism or crowning his new intellectual hero Hobbes? It may be a toss-up. The central thesis of The New Leviathans may be readily guessed at: nation-states of the twenty-first century are becoming the sea-monsters of the seventeenth-century English philosopher’s imaginings. Instead of providing protection from harm and opportunity for liberty, these behemoths “have become engineers of souls […] Even as they promise safety, they promote insecurity. By deploying food and energy supplies as weapons of war, Russia has projected famine and poverty across the globe. China has established a surveillance regime which through exports of technology threatens freedom in the West.” As for Western society, “rival groups seek to capture the power of the state in a new war of all against all between self-defined collective identities. There is an unrelenting struggle for the control of thought and language. [A] liberal civilization based on the practice of tolerance has passed into history.” This liberal clampdown is actually not the work of governments, Gray insists. It is the work of civil society, excluding viewpoints it does not agree with, policing and censoring in an outrage of incivility. Socialists, students, universities themselves, the strident left, Democrats, all joining arms to block from view, and from progress, the clear-thinking from their rightful power.
When we talk about the death of liberalism, it’s imperative we establish terms. What do we actually mean by the word? Distinguishing between the ‘left,’ with its often disdainful attitude towards traditional routes to improvement, and classical liberalism is the first step. Adam Gopnik defines it in A Thousand Small Sanities as “an evolving political practice.” That word is key: liberalism is a process, a never-ending process, and one admittedly full of difficulties. Gray, by the end of his book, assures us this is not possible. Human nature is so irreparably selfish, so full of moral darkness, that “the real Leviathan is the human animal,” not in fact the nation-state, he declares in a dramatic villain-unmasking. “Nothing is more real than the nothingness within human beings […] Awareness of their mortality impels them to seek immortality in ideas.” Culling choice selections from Nietzsche and Beckett, among other absurdist writers, Gray closes his jeremiad with a declaration as fatuous as it is, conceivably, irresponsible: “It is life that pulls us on, against the tide, life that steers us into the storm.” Gray is not necessarily wrong; he is merely a fatalist, one who sees no point in betterment, the attempt at higher level equality. Irresponsible, because it is a statement that purports to be the final word on things, thus offering despair instead of hope, do-nothing negativity instead of the possibility of genuine improvement, however slight.
Gray is not wrong either about our century being a world of bubbling horrors and disappointments. The West is a boat drifting perilously close to raging seas. The failings of neoliberalism, the rise of the nationalist right, the hegemonies of global capitalist networks, all have helped to morph the Americas and Western Europe into a bubbling witch’s brew of national, cultural, and identity issues. Deep fissures across the aisles have stymied attempts to promote material social and economic solutions. Liberalism is not unaware of this. But liberalism is not the root cause, nor is it the brick wall blocking the betterment of our social systems. Liberalism believes precisely in this potential; conservatism believes inherently in its opposite. One cannot hold onto the past while embracing the future, and the future is as inevitable as the past is past, despite what William Faulkner believed. In fact, the hope lies in Gray’s supposedly uncivil civil society, similar to Jürgen Habermas’s ‘public sphere,’ that balance of civil society and state in which the people’s voice creates the need as well as the direction of transformation. These are the arenas in which thought percolates, as in coffee houses and restaurants, offers itself up for discussion, as in museums and theaters, and for debate, as in town hall meetings and chat rooms. Yet, these are the same arenas Gray decries as liberalism run amuck, as fascistic in their impetus, he attempts to argue, as any grim-faced tyrant of the twentieth-century.
When Thomas Hobbes released Leviathan, like the Kraken, onto an unsuspecting European public in 1651 (the first philosopher to write a “major book of philosophy in English,” according to the author), he was as straightforward as he believed he could be, as rationally-grounded, about what after long thought and research he felt to be the truth of things, the “state of nature” lying at the core of human relations. Pessimistic? Yes, but it was a level, honest pessimism, carefully thought out, disguising nothing of which he was also contrarily aware. Gray, for his part, desires to have his cake and to eat it; he demands consideration as a sharp-eyed realist, but really writes polemic under the guise of political philosophy. Like the Greeks’ gift of the Trojan Horse, Gray’s arguments are not what they seem. Arguments from reason do not necessarily proceed from, nor mask, conservative–certainly right-wing–sentiment. The truth of the matter is that brute selfishness does exist; however, untruth proclaims this is all we have, all we are and all we can ever be. Any sharp-eyed consideration of the spectrum of human activity inarguably can only register profound admiration at mankind’s ability, despite its predilections for irrationality, violence, and injustice, nevertheless to activate and promote concepts of goodness, fairness, and measured discourse. To see only half of human actuality, even putting to the side our potential, is to choose willingly to see nothing.
The New Leviathans: Thoughts After Liberalism
By John Gray
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published November 7, 2023
RYAN ASMUSSEN is a writer and educator who works as a Visiting Lecturer in English at the University of Illinois at Chicago and writes for Chicago Review of Books and Kirkus Reviews. A member of the National Book Critics Circle, he has published criticism in Creative Nonfiction, The Review Review, and the film journal Kabinet, journalism in Bostonia and other Boston University publications, and fiction in the Harvard Summer Review. His poetry has been published in The Newport Review, The Broad River Review, Pirene’s Fountain, Compass Rose, and Mandala Journal. Twitter: @RyanAsmussen. Website: www.ryanasmussen.com.