TIt’s a hard-hitting book, and its punches are aimed at people like me: people who aspire to live in a society where life is cherished, truth is revered, and everyone can speak their mind. John Gray calls us “liberals” and gloats that we once cheered far-flung acts of resistance – from the Arab Spring to the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong – that didn’t turn out very well. We should be ashamed of ourselves, he says: it’s time to abandon our “liberalism” and abandon all hope.
Gray has been making this kind of argument for over 40 years. Its characteristic theme – which dates back to that of Edmund Burke Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) – is that when a belief in rational progress comes into contact with reality, it is liable to descend into delirium and terror. Gray’s variations on Burke’s theme have become more and more frenzied over time, and he now labels all “liberals” with the belief – even demented – that “humans can escape dependence on the natural world.” .
Gray’s main exposition is the brouhaha around the fall of the Soviet Union, which led, he says, to “an era of illusion in the West”, riddled with “thousand-year-old 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 moved away from our script, we liberals embarked, according to Gray, on the “hyper-liberal project,” also known as the “woke movement.” Even if we reveled in the “virtue” we attributed to ourselves, we could not hide the fact that we were nothing more than a bunch of “surplus graduates” from the “professional bourgeoisie” fallen into the “cult of self-creation. We turned against the Western traditions that nourished us and – in an orgy of “deconstruction” – called on everyone to sever their ties to the past and “define their own identity” from scratch.
Gray defines his own “identity” as that of a “philosopher,” although he skimps on the skeptical circumspection usually associated with that word. He makes no attempt to weigh the arguments and counter-arguments, and never addresses the question of why, if everyone in the “West” lost their minds, he was able to keep his own. Instead of examining statistics or historical evidence, he proceeds through biographical sketches describing various endearing oddities whose lives, he believes, testify to the insensitivity of liberal thought. We are introduced, for example, to the Polish painter Józef Czapski, known for his “passionate attachment to women and men,” who had to live in exile in Paris, and to persecuted Russian writers like Yevgeni Zamyatin, who was condemned for “ tweedy.” costumes”, and Vasily Rozanov, who “loved jam”. If the media coverage seems random, the reason is that most of these sketches are recycled verbatim (“thrifty, thrifty, Horatio!”) from book reviews in the New Statesman.
The selection is not completely random, however. With one exception – Nadejda Teffi, who wore “silver shoes” – Gray excluded the women’s testimony. He thus manages to neglect the fact (or is it a waking illusion?) that the 20th century was marked by spectacular advances in the fight against female oppression, some of which could even be attributed to “liberalism”.
At one point, Gray attempts to directly destroy liberalism. It takes up less than a page and is based on a remark by the 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes who, we are told, “loved routine” and said that “words are the tokens of wise men… but money of fools “. Gray interprets this as an injunction not to treat general terms as if they referred to a “general thing”, rather than to “particular individuals”. This is surely excessive: if Gray really wants to ban generalities, he might have a hard time getting away with his imprecations about “liberalism,” “hyper-liberals,” and the “woke agenda.” He seems, however, to think that this point applies specifically to us “liberals”, who affectionately think that we are defending so-called “mankind”, whereas Hobbes showed, according to Gray, that such entities are “non-existent”.
One might think that “non-existent” things would be harmless, but humanity is, according to Gray, a “dangerous fiction”, which leads (by a path he does not explain) to the doctrine that some humans are ” less human” than others. , which is “a small step towards their elimination”. (“The arrival of humanity is always preceded by a massacre,” he asserts; but he is not an overly scrupulous writer and I think he means the opposite.) Readers will be happy to learn that Gray is – as he repeatedly professes. on several occasions – an opponent of mass murder, but it is difficult to understand why this would be so if he refuses to engage with humanity.
Gray believes we need to grow up and recognize that the future does not belong to humanity. “There will be monarchies and republics, nations and empires, tyrannies and theocracies,” he says, “as well as stateless zones where there will be no government.” In short, we must prepare for “global anarchy”. He may be right, of course; but then again, this may not be the case. If the climate crisis destroys the human race, then its beloved dystopia will look pretty starry-eyed. But while a better world is not inevitable, it is not impossible either: and that is where hope comes in. “Humanity” may be “non-existent,” but the paths to Effective iron, net-zero emissions and cancer cures are too – and all of that too. it would be nice to have. Reasonable people can continue to hope, against Gray and against all hope, that things will eventually get better.
Jonathan Rée’s books include Witcraft: the invention of philosophy in English And A schoolmaster’s war