New Times,
New Thinking.

Hobbes was wrong

John Gray’s latest book argues that the new Leviathans of liberalism have led to a war of all against all.

By Sohrab Ahmari

“Post-liberalism” is the inescapable watchword of our times. Turn to the comment section of any major English-language periodical, and chances are you will find at least one column, feature or review devoted to this phenomenon. Usually, the pieces in question concern a small coterie of mainly American and mainly Catholic writers who argue that many of today’s political, economic and cultural crises trace back to liberal ideology.

Atomisation, inequality, environmental degradation, identity warfare: these and related troubles, the post-liberals insist, aren’t distortions of the original liberal ideal, but its fulfilment. Liberalism’s irrepressible drive to maximise individual autonomy has paradoxically yielded hideous new tyrannies: from Big Tech and Wall Street despotism to the spread of involuntary suicide-by-doctor, and from widespread loneliness to declining life expectancy in once-dignified industrial places, such as the north of England and the American Midwest.

More often than not, mainstream publications highlight the post-liberal critique in order to refute it. Whether they emphasise market liberalism or the progressive variety, the common denominator is liberalism, which must be defended against all comers. Yet as the political scientist Gladden Pappin has argued, even for people of firm liberal conviction, post-liberalism supplies a powerful lens for seeing today’s world as it really is. You might reject post-liberalism as a normative matter – and still find yourself conceding that our century is, well, post-liberal.

For instance, consider how admitting China into the global free-trade regime didn’t result in the Middle Kingdom liberalising, but the West did become a bit more like China. The pandemic, the Ukraine war and the rise of Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) have cast into doubt the inevitability of Western-led globalisation. Meanwhile, in Western heartlands, ruling classes increasingly resort to illiberal and censorious means to uphold social consensus; the liberals themselves are no longer all that liberal.

Against this unsettled backdrop comes The New Leviathans by John Gray, Britain’s pre-eminent post-liberal thinker and a regular contributor to these pages. The book is a timely meditation on the passing of the liberal age, and on the life and afterlives of its grandfather, Thomas Hobbes. Composed with Gray’s characteristic erudition and taste for the ironies of intellectual history, The New Leviathans is a provocative delight, even as the author’s premonitions about the world to come are thoroughly discomfiting.

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Gray begins with a harsh judgement: that Hobbes was the first and last great liberal philosopher, “the only one, perhaps, still worth reading”. Other bold-face names in the liberal canon – not least John Locke and Hegel, but also more contemporary figures such as Ronald Dworkin and Francis Fukuyama – do occasionally crop up. But they are quickly, and sometimes brutally, dismissed.

While Machiavelli was the first political thinker to break with the moral certainties of the classical and medieval world, it was Hobbes who set out to establish modern politics on the basis of a liberal hope: the preservation and, indeed, the supremacy of the individual. Everything else was just the details. Thus, to understand “why liberal civilisation has passed away”, as Gray says, we would do well to return to its intellectual wellspring in the polymath English genius.

In a popular telling, Hobbes was a ruthlessly cynical thinker: the one who supposedly peered into his fellows’ souls and discovered not naturally social and political animals, but brutes thrown into a brutish world, prepared to subjugate and destroy each other unless they were restrained by the modern state – the Leviathan, the “mortal god” embodying the determination of our species to rise above a chaotic “state of nature”.

Hobbes was indeed a starkly modern thinker. He utterly scorned the ancient notion of a supreme good (often equated with God) that was legible and attainable for all human beings, supplying an endpoint for our development. “There is no finis ultimis [final aim],” he declared in Leviathan, “nor summum bonum [highest good] as is spoken of in the books of the old moral philosophers.” For Hobbes, talk of the highest good was just that: mere words mistaken for ultimate realities by the likes of Aristotle and Aquinas.

While he never explicitly admitted it, Hobbes’s denial of the classical picture of human beings – as purposive or end-directed creatures forming a part of an orderly cosmic whole – made him a practical atheist: if there was no higher law governing the creature, it followed that there is also no law-giving creator above.

Yet “if Hobbes was an atheist”, says Gray, “his atheism had little in common with later varieties”, which imagined that we could lift ourselves to divinity in the absence of the one God. Hobbes took a much dimmer view. In his telling, “human beings were like everything else, matter in motion”. Such creatures were, above all, vulnerable, ever fearful of decrepitude and violent death. In response, our ancestors formed social compacts resting upon their mutual fears – of each other. This was the “low but solid ground” (in Leo Strauss’s phrase) upon which liberals built social peace.

Yet for Gray, Hobbes’s hard-nosed “realism” was itself a veil covering up the philosopher’s own utopianism. Why, Gray wonders, should anyone in the state of nature have agreed to give up his freedom to commit violence in return for Leviathan protecting him? After all, the strong could get away with anything while the weak had no reason to trust anyone’s future promises. Hobbesian politics thus lacks a prime mover, and “the social contract of which Hobbes writes is a rationalist myth”. (Time and again, Gray dazzles the reader with such quick-fire, virtuoso moves.)

Hobbes’s faith in fear as a sufficient motive for the social compact was equally unfounded. It failed to take into account our capacity to defy fear of physical destruction for higher causes, or simply to fulfil a destructive impulse – the Freudian death wish – beyond all rational explanation. “When [Hobbes] asserts that self-preservation is the path to peace,” Gray concludes, “he writes not as a realist but as a utopian visionary.”

What follows is a tour of societies, both historical and contemporary, that have cashiered the impulse for self-preservation in favour of other goals, giving rise to what Gray calls “artificial states of nature” and monstrous new Leviathans, for whom the individual has counted for very little, if anything. Much of this history is told through the perspective of the new Leviathans’ victims, not a few of whom began their political journeys as perpetrators.

For Gray, the most striking and instructive of all of these new Leviathans was the early Bolshevik regime, to which he devotes much of the book. Marshalling familiar but still bone-chilling statistics – as well as crisply drawn mini-portraits of figures such as the repentant communist Arthur Koestler, and prophetic reactionaries such as Konstantin Leontiev and Vasily Rozanov – the author reminds us that “any utopia must be dystopian”, since the pursuit of rational emancipation can’t but result in the “death of the soul”. And yet people did pursue such visions, throwing away their own lives and those of many millions of others into the bargain. None of this should make sense from the point of view of classical Hobbesian theory.

The author sees a similarly mad impulse at work in post-Cold War progressive liberalism, what he calls “hyper-liberalism”. In the West, writes Gray, “the hyper-liberal goal 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 practice, the quest for limitless self-definition has generated another artificial state of nature, as individuals and sub-groups wage a war of all against all in defence of protected identity categories. Add the general scarcity and sense of precarity inherent to hyper-liberalism’s competitive economic model, and the stakes in these conflicts are very high indeed.

All of these developments, Gray suggests, give the lie to Hobbes’s utopian dream of establishing peace on the individual’s fear of violent death. Yet nearly four centuries after the publication of Leviathan, liberals are determined to impose a single, liberal form of rule on all nations. It’s a project made even more tenuous by their discarding of liberalism’s biblical roots: theirs is a universalism lacking universal moral coordinates.

The best that might be hoped for, Gray believes, is for the liberal West to abandon this folly, and learn to live with a world dominated by multiple regional governmental orders, each adapted to relative historical-cultural matrices – Roman Europe, theocratic Russia, capitalist America, Confucian-authoritarian China, and so on – with ungoverned or less-governed formations taking up the in-between spaces.

It’s a decidedly bleak vision. Yet if it means fewer catastrophic wars for democracy, we should readily accept it. One wonders, though, if it’s possible ever fully to repress the universalist impulse that not even cynical Hobbes could resist – and whether the real choice is always between better and worse universalisms.

The New Leviathans: Thoughts After Liberalism
John Gray
Allen Lane, 192pp, £20

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This article appears in the 13 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Revenge of the Trussites