Only a Leviathan can protect us from the state of nature: a “war of all against all” in which the life of man is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
So said Thomas Hobbes in his 1651 book of that name.
The Leviathan Hobbes had in mind was a sovereign with unfettered power ceded by individuals in exchange for protection. This ruler would create conditions in which industry, the arts and science could flourish.
It sounds like something from the middle ages. Surely we’ve evolved beyond it thanks to liberal democracy?
John Gray doesn’t think so. He opens his new book with the claim that “Twenty-first century states are becoming Leviathans”.
But unlike the sovereign envisioned by Hobbes, they don’t just want to protect us from external enemies. “As in the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century,” he writes, “the new Leviathans have become engineers of souls” that “aim to secure meaning in life for their subjects.”
It’s a return to a state of nature where a set of new Leviathans promise their citizens safety but foster insecurity. And so Russia uses food and energy as weapons of war, and China’s surveillance state exports technology laden with spyware to gullible global consumers.
But this totalizing vision isn’t just confined to the bleaker corners of the planet. It’s also making the West increasingly illiberal.
In an earlier book, Two Faces of Liberalism, Gray made the case that liberalism contains two contradictory philosophies.
One is framed in terms of peaceful coexistence between communities with different interests, convictions and lifestyles. In this version — a project of modus vivendi — consensus is sought through structures that help us ‘live and let live’ together as values and norms evolve and change.
The other version posits a universal rational consensus that tolerates diversity — but based on the faith that everyone will eventually evolve towards that same inevitable liberalism. This face takes a legalistic, rights-based approach in pursuing its aims. It believes there’s one “best” way of life for all humankind.
Here in the West, we have abandoned modus vivendi. Contentious issues which used to be adjudicated in the political arena are increasingly framed as fundamental ‘rights’ to be decided by the courts. But a bill of rights only works if the values it expresses are widely shared by that society.
When such battles are fought in the judiciary rather than in parliamentary halls of compromise, the way to win is to appoint the judges who will enshrine your preferred outcome as unchangeable law.
And so we find ourselves in a situation where “rival groups seek to capture the power of the state in a new war of all against all between self-defined collective identities”, politicizing the courts to subvert the democratic will, inculcating conformity through the schools and universities, and banishing dissidents who speak out against it to career and social oblivion.
It’s a recipe for ‘culture war’, and eventually, civil conflict.
But it’s worse than that.
Governments aren’t seeking to impose this bleak new order on us from above, as they did in the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and Maoist China. If they were, then getting rid of it would involve voting ideologically-possessed rulers out of office.
No, in today’s West, this self-contradictory set of illiberal demands is being formulated from the bottom-up, enforced by civil society and illiberal institutions:
“In schools and universities, education inculcates conformity with the ruling progressive ideology. The arts are judged by whether they serve approved political goals. Dissidents from orthodoxies on race, gender and empire find their careers terminated and their public lives erased. This repression is not the work of governments. The ruling catechisms are formulated and enforced by civil society. Libraries, galleries and museums exclude viewpoints that are condemned as reactionary. Powers of censorship are exercised by big hi-tech corporations. Illiberal institutions are policing society and themselves.”
The absurd claim that ‘words’ are actual violence holds a clue to how we got here, and it may have been anticipated by Thomas Hobbes in the mid-1600s.
Gray sees Hobbes’s account of language as the most overlooked aspect of his thought. Hobbes scorned Plato and Aristotle because they treated words as if they were things. “Imagining that abstractions conjured up by language were independently existing realities,” Gray writes, “they led the human mind into millennia of feeble self-deception.”
I can see how this delusion that words are things — and that changing words therefore changes things, morphing actual reality — has combined with what I see as the fatal flaw at the heart of liberalism: the pursuit of freedom from every constraint.
We all want freedom to “be ourselves”, freedom to follow the religion of our choice (or not to follow one), freedom to marry or sleep with who we want, to read what we want, to consume what we want, and to start a business or to starve.
Those freedoms helped the West to flourish. The thing is, it’s never enough. When that freedom from drive is taken to its ultimate end, every constraint imposed on us becomes an affront to our freedom — our liberty. Even those constraints which limit us simply by being part of the natural world.
The result of the pursuit of unfettered human autonomy is the absurd society we’re living in today.
Gray writes: “In its current and final phase, the liberal West is possessed by an idea of freedom. Any curb on human will is condemned as a mode of repression. If human beings inflict harm on others it is because society has injured them. When these injustices have been corrected everyone can live as they please, creating the world in which they wish to live.”
Unfortunately, it isn’t enough to believe oneself to have transcended biology. For the illusion to hold, others must be forced to go through intellectual contortions to play along with individual fantasies that assert someone’s freedom from genetics, physical death and other fundamental constraints.
“By a droll necessity,” Gray says, “this freedom requires that every aspect of life be monitored and controlled. Language must be purified of any traces of thought-crime. The mind must cease to be a private realm and come under scrutiny for its hidden biases and errors. As Dostoevsky anticipated in Demons, the logic of limitless freedom is unlimited despotism.”
“As Western societies have dismantled liberal freedoms,” Gray writes, “the destination towards which the world was supposedly evolving has disappeared in the societies where it originated.”
That’s the danger of letting an ideology determine our course. All answers have to conform to it — and if they don’t, they’ll have to anyway.
You’d think we’d learn our lesson by now. But ‘we’ is another illusion where words are mistaken for things. There is no ‘we’. The idea confuses a living creature — “a multitudinous human animal” — with a general thing without agency. Just try getting ‘humanity’ to do something and you’ll see how quickly the illusion crumbles.
As Gray points out in all of his books, we cannot overcome our own nature. Our knowledge and technological prowess grows, but the human animal stays the same.
History is not a tale of linear progress towards a better world — that idea of salvation originated with Christianity. No, history is a series of unending cycles where changing knowledge interacts with unchanging human drives. Genocide is just as much a product of science as antibiotics.
We can’t overcome our nature. But we can destroy the life we have and be left with nothing.
And that’s where I think we find ourselves now. The uneasy peace of the Cold War and its euphoric aftermath were the anomaly. Those of us who grew up in those years didn’t know how good we had it.
We’ve entered a cycle of dissolution, and Gray gives some clues as to what sort of world he thinks we’re moving into.
Locked on its present course of klepto-theocracy, Russia could become “a steampunk Byzantium with nukes”. America may fracture into “a florid hybrid of fundamentalist sects, woke cults and techno-futurist oligarchs”. China is already “a high-tech Panopticon”. And the European Union will likely become an “avatar of the Holy Roman Empire, a faded kaleidoscope of shifting principalities and powers”.
I can’t speak to the accuracy of this prediction, or say how much of it is tongue-in-cheek.
But I think we can expect resource wars, enthno-nationalist and religious conflicts, a breakdown in the supply chains and infrastructure that made our lives so comfortable, and more ungoverned zones of anarchy like we see today in Libya and much of Syria. It has already begun.
As Gray writes, “Enclaves of freedom persist, but a liberal civilization based on the practice of tolerance has passed into history.”
The world we knew —and the world I grew up in during the 1970s and 1980s — is gone and it isn’t coming back. Something else will replace it. Something that hasn’t yet fully taken shape.
So what can the individual do in such a world?
We can’t do much of anything to stop the tide of illiberalism. But Gray does offer one idea that’s worth considering.
In a recent interview for the UnHerd podcast, he said that perhaps the answer is to create enclaves of free thought, inquiry and tolerance, and make them difficult to attack. “Don’t calculate whether you’re going to win or lose,” he said. “Just live like this as long as you can.”
The New Leviathans is a fascinating and highly recommended read. I haven’t even scratched the surface of the stories, historical characters, dystopian fiction and forgotten thinkers Gray draws on to explore the work of England’s first political philosopher.
I’ll leave the last word to the author, who tells us Hobbes’s hidden message is that there is no deliverance from the state of nature:
“Hobbes’s account of absurdity is more than the recognition that human life is tragic. Tragedy occurs when human beings encounter situations in which every option involves irreparable loss. Hobbes acknowledges these situations, but his idea of absurdity teaches a harder truth. Where it can be achieved, peace is a truce, partial and temporary, between humankind and itself. The war of all against all begins in every human being, and it never ends.”
Get your copy today ==> The New Leviathans: Thoughts After Liberalism by John Gray