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Who Are Ready to Rouse Up Leviathan?

John Gray’s Many Post-Liberalisms
A man holding a sword towers over a village.

The New Leviathans: Thoughts After Liberalism by John Gray. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 192 pages. 2023.

“AND because the condition of Man . . . is a condition of War of every one against every one.” —Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651)

Two years ago, in the last year of an ill-fated period of living in Washington, D.C., and pretending that I was interested in what lanyards had to say, I gave a talk about religion and journalism at one of those political magazines with an anodyne name. Founded by a philosopher whom you’ve all heard of (Google “end of history”), the assembled were broadly “centrists,” presumably an assortment of neoliberal Never Bernie Democrats and neoconservative Never Trump Republicans, all of whom I assumed were much further to the right than myself. Despite our obvious policy differences, I found the participants—Zoomed into the little squares arranged like the opening credits of The Brady Bunch on my laptop—to be unflaggingly polite, thoughtful, and intelligent. After all, we were all fundamentally liberals, even if I may define myself as a left-liberal (which is to say that between barbarism and socialism, I’m probably going to opt for the latter). Yet regardless of their commitments to the “free” market that is at best a chimera and at worst a fraud, we had a consensus on principles that can be traced back to the eighteenth-century, which is to say a belief in the dignity of individuals, the equality of all people, and the universality of these beliefs (that last one is more of a useful construct in my mind). The only tenet of liberalism on which we meaningfully differed was in their faith in the inevitability of reason to collectively improve the human condition. For me, that’s a quixotic faith with no empirical backing.

Central to my talk was the contention that religion—that is, transrational beliefs that serve to forge community and generate meaning—is inextricable from human culture, and that while secularism may be a useful political fiction, it’s still fundamentally a mirage. “Everything is a religion,” I suggested, and there are epistemic fallacies rendered when this is forgotten. Even more dangerous is the belief of any preordained rationality in the collective human animal, for as Thomas Hobbes noted in Leviathan, “And if this be Madness in the multitude, it is the same in every particular man.” Among the most disastrous of strategic errors when confronted with illiberalism is the failure to understand that ours is a war of religion. For those assembled, holy wars are something out of the medieval past or attributed to the machinations of black-clad Islamists in far-off sundry lands, they have nothing to do with American politics, even when confronted with obvious manifestations of religion in the ascendancy of the nativist, xenophobic, homophobic, racist, misogynistic alt-right. After speaking for an hour about the secular media’s blind spots when reporting on faith, a participant pushed back on my claim that religious sentiments define the wide spectrum of political beliefs. Why was that, given that the Black Death of the fourteenth century led to a spate of apocalyptic sects from the Flagellants to the Brethren of the Free Spirit, we saw no equivalent bubbling of the irrational today? Why had the chthonic not reared its fanged head in our liberal eden?

What has always made Gray such a provocative philosopher is that he’s not a critic of liberalism’s content per se, but of its analytical acumen and self-regard.

I asked my (perfectly pleasant) interlocutor what exactly he thought QAnon was. Here was a cult that affirms beliefs as bizarre and dangerous as those espoused by the medieval flagellants, yet the majority of the attendees laughed, as if I wasn’t being completely serious. But the tenor in the virtual room seemed to change as I talked about how some 20 percent of their fellow citizens believed in some aspect of the surreal, baroque, and authoritarian cult that has grown around an imaginary version of Donald Trump (though very much encouraged by the real man). Far from being merely the creed of basement dwellers and flyover white trash, here was an ideology that, seven months before my speaking engagement, had ascended the Capitol steps in an attempted coup. This was news to my incredulous audience of Beltway beau mondes. A common critical fallacy among liberals of most stripes is the affirmation that reasoned debate is the currency of politics. We want to believe that one simple Rachel Maddow or Jon Stewart video will convince people that Pizzagate isn’t real or that Hilary Clinton doesn’t drink the blood of infants. The problem is pretending that logic, evidence, or reason have anything to do with such beliefs. The situation is much more dire, what we’re up against far more insidious; don’t expect to use logic when you’re at a Black Mass. “Everything may be religion,” I said, “but not all religions are good.” Irrationality, superstition, the numinous, and the transcendent—for both good and bad—can never be definitively pruned from our garden. You may as well pretend that language could be abolished as imagine the taming of the religious impulse, even when the aromatic censers of the church have been replaced by some weirdo’s keyboard.

Thirty-one years ago, flush with the seeming victory of the Western order following the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union, the founder of the vanilla-sounding think tank I spoke at wrote in true Hegelian fashion that they were now in view of the “end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” Ideology (and theology) might endure as interesting exercises in the hinterlands, but nothing could stop the forward march of liberal democracy and free markets across the globe. Now, after the global war on terror, Afghanistan and Iraq, the rise of illiberal “democracy” from Budapest to Brasília, the obvious civil unravelling of the United States, and Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, it’s hard to imagine that this utopia is neigh. Still, in the heady days of the Velvet Revolution and the Solidarity Movement, such enthusiasms as those offered by Francis Fukuyama in his oft-quoted, little-read, and frequently overly-simplified The End of History and the Last Man can be forgivable, what with David Hasselhoff performing near Checkpoint Charlie et al. Forgivable but not admirable. By contrast, a far-less famous but more clear-eyed philosopher wrote a Cassandra-like response to Fukuyama where he argued that “what we are witnessing in the Soviet Union is not, then, the end of history, but instead its resumption . . . Ours is an era in which political ideology, liberal as much as Marxist, has a rapidly dwindling leverage on events, and more ancient, more primordial forces, nationalist and religious, fundamentalist and soon, perhaps, Malthusian, are contesting with each other.” The sentiment, ironically published in the conservative National Interest, was completely out of sync with the tenor of 1989 and yet in hindsight was absolutely correct.   

That philosopher is the former London School of Economics professor John Gray, among the most important of contemporary philosophers. Promiscuous in his partisan allegiances, at least compared to somebody like Terry Eagleton, the British thinker has moved from the new left to the Thatcherite Tory right, then to Blairite New Labour, before dabbling with a pragmatically anti-utopian eco-socialism and subscribing to a “tend to your own garden” variety of pessimistic English Taoism, increasingly journeying towards a curmudgeonly conservatism. Questioning technocratic optimism is the idée fixe of Gray’s career, astutely critiquing it in classics of contemporary political philosophy such as Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (2002), Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions (2004), and Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia (2007). There has been one motivating facet through Gray’s prodigious output—despite the criticism that he changes his mind from book to book—and that’s the irrationality of the human animal motivated by Dionysian impulse and often searching for meaning through apocalyptic methods. Gray writes in Seven Types of Atheism, the “belief that we live in a secular age is an illusion . . . [since] secular thought is mostly composed of repressed religion.” An atheist himself, Gray never countenances that imbecility which reduces religion to mere “belief,” rather understanding that the ghost in the machine is never totally exorcized and that secularism is a myth. What has consistently made Gray such a fascinating thinker is that, while clearly horrified by the barbarities of fascists, Stalinists, and religious fundamentalists, he also understands that the saccharine belief that the arc of history tends towards justice is an unproven doxology with no basis in empirical reality. For Gray, that seems to engender a kind of tweedy English existentialism. Even if he could be depressing, his interpretations always held up. What has always made Gray such a provocative philosopher is that he’s not a critic of liberalism’s content per se, but of its analytical acumen and self-regard that assumes some teleological certainty of its own victory.

The false repose of Joe Biden’s victory gave sanctuary to the return-to-brunch crowd, but the deep and foreboding feeling that something is happening seems intractable to the rest of us. “Today an Apollonian cult insists that chaos can be overcome through the advance of science,” writes Gray in his latest, The New Leviathans: Thoughts After Liberalism, but the “power of Dionysius increases with the growth of knowledge, and science is a servant of the reigning madness.” The United States is increasingly fractious. We face a neo-Confederate secession from gerrymandered red states whose leaders are beholden to the most authoritarian of beliefs. We might also be confronted, in the near future, with that very same assortment of blood-and-soil fascists—Proud Boys, Three Percenters, Patriot Prayer—returning to the Capitol not as marauders but as representatives, depending on next year’s national election between a four-time indicted gangster and an unpopular octogenarian. Russia’s assault on Kyiv is the most obvious example of chthonic authoritarianism, now grinding on into a horrific stalemate on the Ukrainian steppe. Cranks and grifters whisper into the ears of those with access to the red telephone. In the East, there is the Kremlin-court “philosopher” Aleksandr Dugin affecting the appearance of Rasputin and enthusing about the rise of a “genuine, true, radically revolutionary and consistent, fascist fascism.” In the West, the shit-posting, body-building, discount-Nietzsche who is the pseudonymous Bronze Age Pervert, popular among a worrying degree of former White House staffers, congressional Republicans (Senator J.D. Vance is a fan), and right-wing movement apparatchiks, gushes that “only the warrior is a free man. The only right government is military government.” Into this nightmarish milieu, this gloaming between the passing of worlds wherein monsters are ascendant, Gray would appear to be the ideal thinker to reactivate his divinatory talents from 1989. Unfortunately, The New Leviathans: Thoughts After Liberalism is not that book.

Occasionally perceptive, sometimes frustrating, and too-often ridiculous, there is a galling sense of disappointment at this missed opportunity. Ostensibly a reading of post-liberalism through the lens of the seventeenth-century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, Gray posits that contemporary state “Leviathans” offer not protection to their subjects but rather a sense of meaning once supplied by the Church. With a talent for the aphoristic, there remain instances in The New Leviathans worth the price of admission. “Neo-totalitarian states today aim to deliver their subjects from the burdens of freedom.” True. “The Earth treats human regimes with impartial indifference. It does not care whether they are capitalist or socialist, authoritarian or liberal. Only their material impact matters.” Absolutely. “In feudal societies, serfs were drugged into acquiescence by a spiritual opiate. In the most advanced liberal society, the underclass die of fentanyl.” Jesus, but accurate. “The inquisitions staged on Western campuses are a mark of advancing barbarism.” Say what? Lest you think that Gray has in mind the recent horrific budget cuts decimating West Virginia University (coming to a college near you!), Governor Ron DeSantis’ dismantling of Florida’s state educational system, the elevation of Svengali opportunists like Chris Rufo, or the widespread book-banning across the United States, you’d be wrong. He’s talking about exactly whom you’re afraid he’s talking about—the woke!

Like so many of the old, white, male, and tenured, Gray sees something insidiously nihilistic in what is, at worst, a phenomenon that is mostly just kind of obnoxious (Slavoj Žižek is a sweatily notable example of this brand of alarmism, Giorgio Agamben unforgivable with it). To be sure, Gray denounces the inanity of hucksters like Jordan Peterson—though Gray doesn’t name him—who proffer an invented Marxian genealogy for everything from Critical Race Theory to asking someone their preferred pronouns, rather accurately seeing “wokeism” as a form of secularized Great Awakening Protestantism. And he makes legitimate criticism of this movement’s tendency to interpret global history through a provincially American lens, as well as its cynical function in being the bourgeois engine of competition amongst squabbling members of the managerial class fighting over austerity’s scraps. But when he despairs that the “hyper-liberal goal is to enable human beings to define their own identities,” one wonders who all he has in mind (though as far as the TERF Island that is England is concerned, I don’t think it’s hard to figure out). Later, he complains about the woke desire to imprison people within their racial and gender categories. But which is it? Does this fatal contradiction exist in wokeism itself or merely in Gray’s interpretation of it? For an analytical philosopher, he’s woefully unclear on his terms. The sum of this section of The New Leviathans is less an argument than it is a grumpy disposition. Like all of those signatories of the inane Harper’s  “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” including his old adversary Fukuyama, Gray is caught up in fulminating about wokeism and cancel culture (though he doesn’t use that latter phrase). Wokeism is often just marketing; it simply doesn’t matter in the way that Gray thinks it does. He alludes to various unnamed ruined careers in academe, and yet the fact he’s making this argument in a book released by Farrar, Straus and Giroux means that his anxieties are misplaced. As with the famed Frankfurt School Marxist and perennial fuddy-duddy Theodor Adorno calling the cops on hippies protesting in his classroom, it’s a bit of a bummer. He begins to sound like Grampa Simpson shaking his fist at a cloud.

Getting the cold shoulder in the faculty lounge is not Bucha; being ratioed on X (formerly known as Twitter) isn’t the Uyghurs being put in concentration camps.

The actual problem with wokeism is that, despite its excessive preening, frequent anti-intellectualism, puritanical condescension, and cynical use by multinational corporations and their human relations departments in obscuring class issues, it’s fundamentally incommensurate with the actual threats we face. It’s deficiency is not a lapse of ethics but in strategy. Wokeism has abdicated any duty to confront the rise of fascism in an organized, pragmatic, analytical way. All of this tsuris is like being overly concerned about tabletop game enthusiasts or cosplayers, yet reading The New Leviathans you’d be forgiven for wondering if annoying Oberlin undergrads were the equivalent of the Wagner Group. Nobody of intellectual merit thinks that there’s much to recommend in comedian Hannah Gadsby’s “It’s Pablo-matic” exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, but it’s not the Cultural Revolution. Yet three years ago Gray opined in the Daily Mail that “it’s not an exaggeration to compare the methods used by the new ‘woke movement’ to those of Mao’s Red Guards.” Yes, John. It’s a fucking exaggeration, and a stupid one at that. Are you sick of the woke? Just wait until you meet the professionally anti-woke. If it’s true that wokeism is a form of secularized Puritanism, then the debates between them and adversaries like Gray are just religious disputation. But some of us aren’t even Protestants. The whole argument is boring.

In all fairness to Gray, the section in The New Leviathans where he rides that hobbyhorse is fairly short in what is already a short book. More time is spent on the dangers of neo-orthodox political theology in Russia, or the state capitalism of Xi Jinping (both of which he does well), than on “the woke,” yet it is foolish to spend any ink on a paper tiger when Panthera tigris is fogging up our glasses in Moscow, Beijing, and Washington. That Gray writes so perceptively and movingly about the experience of those imprisoned in gulags or murdered in concentration camps makes it all the more galling when he equates academics being required to write diversity statements to the inquisition. Getting the cold shoulder in the faculty lounge is not Bucha; being ratioed on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, isn’t the Uyghurs being put in concentration camps. Not that Gray says so outright, but to devote any space to the woke in what is ostensibly a book about the “New Leviathans” is a critical misstep at best and an obscenity at worst.

This is the problem—Gray never names names, other than decrying the faculty application process at Berkely, Ohio State, and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. A denouncement of austerity neoliberalism and the conservative threat to tenure would have been more welcome. To place the woke in the same category as Christian nationalists, National Conservatives, the New Apostolic Reformation, or QAnon in 2023 (none of whom Gray mentions) is like confusing the sanctimonious participants at a Unitarian potluck with the Waffen-SS or sensitivity training to Stalinist show trials. His screwy sense of proportion fatally mars a book with such instrumental potential. Before I stopped receiving newsletters from the director of the political magazine I spoke with, this supposed rash of wokeness endangering the body politic was a perennial obsession. Gray is right that there are new Leviathans, dangerous Leviathans, and a clear and obvious gathering cloud in which the victory of humanistic and liberal values aren’t just uncertain, but unlikely. Admirable pessimistic fatalist that he may be, Gray never offered prescriptions, but he used to know how to nail the diagnosis.