John Gray, philosopher and fellow son of the north-east of England, is probably best known for Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals. I confess to not yet having read it, despite (or perhaps because of) it being published in the same year I graduated from a degree in Philosophy 21 years ago.
This article by Nathan Gardels, editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine, is a review of Gray’s latest book, entitled The New Leviathans: Thoughts After Liberalism. Gray is a philosophical pessimist who argues against free markets and neoliberalism. In the book, which is another I’m yet to read, he argues for a return to pluralism, citing Thomas Hobbes’ idea that there is no ultimate aim or highest good.
Instead of one version of the good life, Gray suggests that liberalism must acknowledge that this is a contested notion. This has far-reaching implications, not least for current rhetoric around challenging the idea of universal human rights. I’ll have to get his book, it sounds like a challenging but important read.
The world Gray sees out there today is not a pretty one. He casts Russia as morphing into “a steampunk Byzantium with nukes.” Under Xi Jinping, China has become a “high-tech panopticon” that keeps the inmates under constant surveillance lest they fail to live up to the proscribed Confucian virtues of order and are tempted to step outside the “rule by law” imposed by the Communist Party.
Gray is especially withering in his critique of the sanctimonious posture of the U.S.-led West that still, to cite Reinhold Niebuhr, sees itself “as the tutor of mankind on its pilgrimage to perfection.” Indeed, the West these days seems to be turning Hobbes’ vision of a limited sovereign state necessary to protect the individual from the chaos and anarchy of nature on its head.
Paradoxically, Hobbes’ sovereign authority has transmuted, in America in particular, into an extreme regime of rights-based governance, which Gray calls “hyper-liberalism,” that has awakened the assaultive politics of identity. “The goal of hyper-liberalism,” writes Gray, “is to enable human beings to define their own identities. From one point of view this is the logical endpoint of individualism: each human being is sovereign in deciding who or what they want to be.” In short, a reversion toward the uncontained subjectivism of a de-socialized and unmediated state of nature that pits all against all.