What Comes After Liberalism

Philosopher John Gray envisions a new Middle Ages where plural jurisdictions find a modus vivendi among clashing conceptions of the good life.

Ibrahim Rayintakath for Noema Magazine

Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

Philosophers are supposed to tell the hard and inconvenient truths about the foibles of humanity. The English thinker John Gray has done this throughout his career, and does so barring no holds in his latest book, “The New Leviathans: Thoughts After Liberalism.”

Gray’s provocative volume focuses on the diverse ways of ordering societies that have emerged out of the dispelled illusion that a liberal universalist consensus was bound to reign after the end of the Cold War.

As Gray once put it to me, “We are just returning to the pluralism that has characterized most of history.” He cites the dictum of the 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes as his guiding light.  “There is no finis ultimis [final aim],” Hobbes declared in “Leviathan,” “nor summum bonum [highest good] as is spoken of in the books of the old moral philosophers.”

The world Gray sees out there today is not a pretty one. He casts Russia as morphing into “a steampunk Byzantium with nukes.” Under Xi Jinping, China has become a “high-tech panopticon” that keeps the inmates under constant surveillance lest they fail to live up to the proscribed Confucian virtues of order and are tempted to step outside the “rule by law” imposed by the Communist Party.

Gray is especially withering in his critique of the sanctimonious posture of the U.S.-led West that still, to cite Reinhold Niebuhr, sees itself “as the tutor of mankind on its pilgrimage to perfection.” Indeed, the West these days seems to be turning Hobbes’ vision of a limited sovereign state necessary to protect the individual from the chaos and anarchy of nature on its head.  

Paradoxically, Hobbes’ sovereign authority has transmuted, in America in particular, into an extreme regime of rights-based governance, which Gray calls “hyper-liberalism,” that has awakened the assaultive politics of identity. “The goal of hyper-liberalism,” writes Gray, “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 short, a reversion toward the uncontained subjectivism of a de-socialized and unmediated state of nature that pits all against all.

The Illusion Of Universality

Gray has long been a discomfiting apostle of pluralism against the false idol of one-size-fits-all universalism under a liberal banner that fails to acknowledge the diverse disposition of humanity.

In a prescient conversation in London two decades ago, when the post-Cold War end of history was still on the horizon, we discussed how liberalism was bound to fail just as Marxism did, and for the same reason.

Marxism had no theory of politics among diverse constituencies because it assumed the universality of the interests of one class. Liberalism also has falsely assumed its own universality in the belief there can be a consensus on only one conception of “the good life.”

“It is an irony,” Gray said back then, “that Marxism’s defective understanding of the sources of politics both in theory and practice should be replaced by a form of liberalism that has an equally defective understanding of the sources of politics. … Liberalism has aimed at abolishing politics or removing from the political domain most of the controversial issues having to do with justice, the regulation of personal liberty and the clash of values, and placing them in the sphere of rights and the judiciary.

It is this disability of mainstream liberal theory … that seeks to derive something like an ideal constitution from a theory acceptable to all ‘reasonable’ persons. Within this ‘ideal constitution’ major issues of the regulation of liberty and of clashing ideas of the good life are resolved or privatized. This kind of liberalism is as utopian and perverse in its actual consequences as was Marxism.”

In theory, “the neutral state” seeks a framework of rights that is equally impartial among competing conceptions of the good life. Individuals and groups are left to pursue their own interests and values as long as they are consistent with the liberties of others. In reality, it is precisely the absence of any substantive content of the state that has invited the culture wars over contending visions of “the good life” raging across liberal societies today. The clash between so-called civilizational states such as China and Russia with the liberal rules-based order constructed by the West springs from the same dynamic.

For Gray, the presumed neutrality of “legalist liberalism” has two disabling flaws.

“The first flaw is that the rule of law is taken as an accomplished fact, which is not the case anywhere in the world. … The rule of law is not the precondition of politics, but is itself a political achievement. Unless you have a political settlement underpinning the rule of law, the rule of law will be insecure or contested.” 

The Trump trials, the U.S. Supreme Court rulings of late, the legal battles in American states over guns, abortion and LGBTQ issues all testify to the truth of this statement, as do questions over the rights of asylum and immigration in both the U.S. and Europe.

“The second flaw,” Gray argues, “is the expectation that issues which are politically intractable can become tractable by removing them from the political arena and enshrining a solution to them in terms of judgments about fundamental rights. … [But] attempting to remove highly controversial issues like abortion from the political domain and placing them in the sphere of rights only ends up politicizing the judiciary.

Further, this legalist approach casts in stone the resolution of conflicts that might best be resolved by legislative compromise, by a mixture of public discourse and political bargaining that yields a ‘modus vivendi’ that is renegotiable over time and which needn’t be the same in all jurisdictions or in all countries where changes in values — and even technology — can make a difference.”

Rights With Content Cause Contention

“Beyond all this,” Gray continued in our conversation 20 years ago that could have taken place today, “there is a deeper reason in philosophy itself that argues against the legalistic, rights approach to liberalism. The deeper reason is that there is no plausible or defensible theory of rights which doesn’t invoke a theory of human well-being and of human interests — and all such accounts are in some degree rationally disputable.

Accounts of human well-being and of human interests are contestable in two ways. One way is that different readings of the human good, different ideals of the good and different beliefs about human beings — their fate and destiny and the conditions under which they thrive — will map human interests differently. Thus, different conceptions of human well-being will generate different accounts of human rights.”

He went on: “Another [reason] is that even an agreed conception of human well-being will encompass a variety of interests that won’t always be harmonious. They won’t always make the same demands in practice. They won’t always dovetail. Quite commonly, they will make competing demands.

The underlying reality disguised by legalistic liberalism is that important liberties are endemically in conflict. The freedom of gays not to be discriminated against, not to have their sexuality disparaged, may conflict with the freedom of private or public schools — Orthodox Jewish schools, Muslim schools, Catholic schools and state schools — to hire whom they wish. That is a real conflict, a genuine deep conflict.”

Clearly this conundrum underlay the ferocious fights over the content of curriculum and parental control in American schools.

“To re-describe the liberties so that they cohere in a harmonious set eliminates or deletes some liberties from the equation. This is a mistake because if you delete some liberties you are disregarding underlying interests which actually are the justification for the liberties and which give them meaning and content. Rights have content only to the extent they embody definite human interests. But to the extent they have that content, they trigger conflicts among themselves.”

Back To The Middle Ages

If legalist liberalism that enshrines rights is the basis of its own undoing, what then is the alternative?

“Liberalism for the future,” says Gray, “must recognize that judgments about human rights and conceptions of human rights themselves embody conceptions of the good that are contested between different ways of life and even within them. … Any well-developed conception of the good must recognize not just one human interest, but a whole variety. And that means a negotiation between conflicting interests in the name of civil peace. A ‘modus vivendi’ is the liberalism now in order.”

For good and ill, we’ve seen in history how such a modus vivendi actually worked during the late Middle Ages in Europe, a time of plural jurisdictions, each with its own set of governing values, before the Treaty of Westphalia, when the absolutist claims of the modern state hadn’t yet been accepted.

“Despite the systematic inequalities of power and privilege, and systematic discrimination against minority religions and traditions,” Gray mused in our London talk, “I tend to share Isaiah Berlin’s judgment that in some respects the Middle Ages were more civilized and more peaceable than our time,” referring to two world wars and the nuclear devastation of Japanese cities. “And that is precisely because all those plural jurisdictions had to negotiate with each other over their powers and interests, none powerful enough to simply dominate the other.”

These competing, but often overlapping, jurisdictions and identities have a clear echo in the circumstances of our own time as the world once again splinters into civilizational realms and cultural tribes within societies. “The Middle Ages,” says Gray, “reminds us that there are many other ways in which human beings have arranged life other than under the nation-state and found a ‘modus vivendi.’”

At a time when the rule of law is being sacralized as one of the key pillars of democracy under threat from autocrats and populists, Gray’s “thoughts after liberalism” are deeply unsettling to ponder. But that does not make him wrong.