John Gray was the prophet of the postliberal age, describing global capitalism as a false utopia as early as 1998. In his most recent writing, he has returned to geopolitics, and has described the populist moment, the pandemic, and the growing threat of superpower conflict as existential threats to the liberal, technocratic order.
Amid this chaos, Rishi Sunak — former Goldman Sachs banker — has become Britain’s new prime minister. Has the technocratic order of the 2010s returned? Or has the modern world moved beyond its reach? Read Gray’s diagnosis, as well as his interview with Freddie Sayers, below.
The revenge of the technocrats
The point about these people is they’ve learned nothing. There’s no practical way of going back to before 2016. Already in 2016, the world hadn’t fully recovered from a near catastrophic financial crisis which these adults in the room, these extremely intelligent men and women, had given us. The halcyon period of technocratic competence included, going back to the start, long-term capital management melting down in 1998, after Russia defaulted on its debt. That was patched up but it also began what later was called quantitative easing … You then had the 2007-2008 crash. And you also had gruesome sideshows like 20 years in Afghanistan. This is what the adults in the room, this is what the technocrats, the people who are now coming back as safe hands, as competent administrators, this is what they did. So their record is not at all one of competence. It’s one of repeated near-disaster.
They think of themselves as the way of the future. But the future has melted down. It’s not there anymore; their future’s gone. Their future was one in which the whole world would marketise, in which geopolitics would surrender to geoeconomics, global markets. All the states that were emerging, China, Russia and others, would see that their advantage lay with integrating into the global market. Geopolitical struggles would attenuate. They would still be there, but would become less important over time. The opposite has happened. The global market doesn’t exist the way it seemed to exist then and it’s certainly not evolving towards this global market stability that they expected. So, the fundamental problem in this nostalgia, this Osbornist technocratic project, is that they’re adapting to a world that no longer exists, and isn’t coming back. It is a hopeless nostalgia.
What the Tories get wrong about Brexit
Insofar as Brexit’s a Tory project, it is: Global Britain, supply-side reforms, free market, open the British economy even more to the buffeting of the world. Whereas what people wanted in the North and the Midlands, and other parts of the country, from Brexit, I think, was some shelter from those storms. They wanted not a smaller state, a state that had retreated even further. They wanted actually, maybe not a bigger state, although most of them I think probably did, but one which was more protective of them and more concerned with their wellbeing and more active. So the majority of those who voted for Brexit did not vote — perhaps the overwhelming majority — for the reasons that the Tory Brexiteers thought. And that, of course, introduced a contradiction in the whole Tory Brexit project, which meant it couldn’t work.
Why the technocrats don’t get populism
The only way they could understand these movements, what they called populism, was to say that these are stupid, ignorant people. If they merit any sympathy, it’s that they’re being misled by demagogues. But there can be no real merit, no logic, no justice to their claims. And so that itself was a failure of intelligence. I think populism is a term liberals apply to the political blowback of their policies that they fail to comprehend. It was caused by them…
But I think apart from anything else, apart from the morally, profoundly repellent and even abhorrent attitude these technocrats, these liberals, these progressives, technocratic and otherwise, had for their fellow citizens — apart from that — it’s a failure of understanding. Where did it come from? The devil? Where did this strange sort of diabolical combination of demagoguery and mass stupidity suddenly emerge from? It’s a tremendous failure of intelligence and it’s being repeated.
The technocrats now believe they’ve got a second chance and they’re back in the seats of power. They haven’t got the conceptual equipment to understand that forces other than those that fit into their largely economic view of the world — and of human beings themselves and of human action, it’s an economic view of human action — isn’t realistic and doesn’t really work and they can’t acquire the skills without taking too much out of their worldview.
Why Rishi will fail
Anyone who thinks Rishi Sunak is going to be able to stabilise the boat of the British economy to the point at which growth can resume in a few years — they’ve only got two years more in office — is completely delusional. Because the recessionary forces — put aside even war — in the world economy are very, very strong. And the combination of tightening monetary policies with tightening fiscal policies, with higher taxes, lower spending, and cutting back on quantitative easing, can only exacerbate all kinds of painful trends for the general population. So it’s not going to be politically stable. I’m not convinced that the internal cannibalism of the Conservative Party will permit Rishi to even last to January 2025. There could be another cycle of regicide and folly. But then Labour come in, and then what do they do? Because they are actually also committed to Osborne’s vision.
Why Labour will fail
They’ve joined the critique that the Tories were being fiscally irresponsible, and that the responsible thing is to obey the markets… But where’s the money going to come from? If they do shut down remaining forms of energy production, which they regard as damaging, where are the workers going to go? What will happen to Labour when it stops working, when the mixture of Osbornism and green utopianism breaks down, is that the party will internally fracture. I don’t necessarily mean a revival of the Corbynites but there are lots of people within Labour who are prepared to accept the bland neo-technocratic ideology of Starmerism because they think it’s a winning one. And it is a winning one, if only because the Conservatives have made such a mess of things.
Why the far-Right might rise
Mosley didn’t get very far in the Thirties. There wasn’t a single fascist MP in the Commons. We’ve remained, actually, relatively untouched by that. But one of the reasons we’ve remained, not untouched, but where we’ve been able to fend off those dangerously anti-liberal movements, is that the Conservative Party actually was able to moderate them and incorporate them within a broader political project that included social democracy, that included a paternalistic High Toryism, which included various strands. If the Conservative Party is going to melt down, which I think it’s in the process of doing now, then there are obviously risks, even in Britain, of something like that. I don’t know if people really, 10 or 15 years ago, thought that in Sweden there would be a government which depended for its support on having more or less a de facto coalition with the far-Right. But that’s the case now, is it not?
Why we need Proportional Representation
The best outcome would be a change in the electoral system. I’ve not always accepted first-past-the-post. I used to support, 20 or 30 years ago, changes like the Alternative Vote. I think the only way that we’re going to get fresh thinking and a way through the intractable conjunctions that we face — the failure of the Global Britain Brexit, and the almost non-attempt at the more protective and state-centred Brexit that people really wanted — is by breaking up the existing party system and having a wider variety of parties and ideas.