This is a punchy book, and its punches are meant for people like me: people who long to live in a society where lives are cherished, truth is revered, and everyone can speak their mind. John Gray calls us “liberals”, and relishes the fact that we once applauded faraway acts of resistance – from the Arab spring to the umbrella revolution in Hong Kong – which have turned out not too well. We ought to be ashamed of ourselves, he says: it is time to drop our “liberalism” and abandon hope.
Gray has been pushing this kind of argument for more than 40 years. His signature theme – which can be traced back to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) – is that when a belief in rational progress makes contact with reality it is liable to flare into delirium and terror. Gray’s variations on Burke’s theme have become more and more frenzied as time goes by, and he now tags all “liberals” with the conviction – demented indeed – that “humans can escape dependency on the natural world”.
Gray’s principal exhibit is the hullaballoo over the fall of the Soviet Union, which led, he says, to “an era of delusion in the west”, riddled with “millennial political fantasies”, in which China and Russia were going to convert to democracy and salute the “universal triumph of liberal values”. When we noticed that history had departed from our script we liberals embarked, according to Gray, on the “hyper-liberal project”, also known as “the woke movement”. Despite wallowing in self-ascribed “virtue”, we could not conceal the fact that we were nothing but a bunch of “redundant graduates” from the “professional bourgeoisie” who had fallen for a “cult of self-creation”. We turned against the western traditions that nurtured us and – in an orgy of “deconstruction” – called on everyone to sever their links with the past and “define their own identities” from scratch.
Gray defines his own “identity” as that of a “philosopher”, though he skimps on the sceptical circumspection usually associated with the word. He makes no attempt to weigh up arguments and counter-arguments, and never addresses the question why, if everyone else in “the west” has lost their mind, he has been able to keep his. Instead of examining statistics or historical evidence, he proceeds by way of biographical sketches depicting miscellaneous oddballs with endearing quirks whose lives bear witness, he believes, to the callous inanity of liberal thought. We are introduced, for example, to the Polish painter Józef Czapski, notable for “passionate attachments with women and men”, who had to live in exile in Paris, and to persecuted Russian writers such as Yevgeni Zamyatin, who went in for “tweedy suits”, and Vasily Rozanov, who “loved jam”. If the coverage seems haphazard, the reason is that most of these sketches are recycled verbatim (“thrift, thrift, Horatio!”) from book reviews in the New Statesman.
The selection is not completely random, however. With one exception – Nadezhda Teffi, who had “silver shoes”– Gray excludes the testimony of women. He thus manages to overlook the fact (or is it a woke delusion?) that the 20th century saw striking advances in the struggle against female oppression, some of which might even be chalked up to “liberalism”.
At one point, Gray attempts a direct takedown of liberalism. It occupies less than a page, and starts from a remark by the 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes who, we are told, “loved routine” and said that “words are wise men’s counters … but the money of fools”. Gray interprets this as an injunction against treating general terms as if they referred to some “general thing”, rather than to “particular individuals”. This is surely excessive: if Gray really wants to banish generalities he may find it hard to get away with his imprecations about “liberalism”, “hyper-liberals” and the “woke agenda”. He seems to think, however, that the point applies specifically to us “liberals”, who fondly think we are sticking up for something called “humanity”, whereas Hobbes has shown, according to Gray, that such entities are “inexistent”.
You might think that “inexistent” things would be harmless, but humanity is, according to Gray, a “dangerous fiction”, which leads (by some route he does not explain) to the doctrine that some humans are “less human” than others, from which it is “a small step to eliminating them”. (“The arrival of humanity is always preceded by mass killing,” he claims; but he is not an over-scrupulous writer and I think he means the opposite.) Readers will be pleased to learn that Gray is – as he professes on several occasions – an opponent of mass murder, but it is hard to see why that would be if he refuses to have any truck with humanity.
Gray thinks we need to grow up and recognise that the future does not belong to humanity. “There will be monarchies and republics, nations and empires, tyrannies and theocracies,” he says, “along with stateless zones where there is no government at all.” In short, we must prepare for “global anarchy”. He may be right, of course; but then again he may not. If the climate crisis destroys the human race, then his cherished dystopia will look rather starry-eyed. But if a better world is not inevitable, it is not impossible either: and that is where the hope comes in. “Humanity” may be “inexistent”, but so are efficient railways, net zero and cures for cancer – and all of them would be nice to have. Reasonable people can carry on hoping, against Gray and against hope, that things will eventually get better.
Jonathan Rée’s books include Witcraft: The Invention of Philosophy in English and A Schoolmaster’s War
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