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John Gray: liberal civilisation is finished Our reigning ideology has rotted from within

'It's not coming back.' (Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

'It's not coming back.' (Nathan Howard/Getty Images)


October 8, 2023   20 mins

John Gray recently visited the UnHerd Club. Below is an edited version of his conversation with Freddie Sayers. 

 

Freddie Sayers: Is it your view that liberal civilisation has passed into history? 

John Gray: Yes, and it’s not coming back. Something else might emerge — something which is new, which may revive or reinvent some elements of liberalism. I hope that’s the case; I hope that there can be something like the practice of tolerance again. But what I think has not been noticed by many commentators is that two things have undermined the post-Cold War model of convergence on a liberal civilisation.

One is that other models of society — not ones I would like very much, but the Chinese model is an example — have emerged, which clearly challenge the claims of liberal societies to be potentially universal. But perhaps the biggest change has been in liberal societies themselves, which is that both as economic models and as embodiments of tolerance, they’ve morphed out of existence. 

When people said back in the Nineties that liberalism would become universal, they assumed that the liberal societies that then existed would continue to exist and would extend their reach. But we all know now that practices of cancellation, practices of de-platforming, practices more recently of debanking, have developed whereby people with views that are regarded as beyond the progressive pale, which don’t conform to some progressive ideology — which doesn’t see itself as an ideology, just as diversity and inclusion. They can’t actually see that what they’re promoting is an ideology. Politics is something that goes on in a small way in Westminster. 

And there’s a rather crucial feature of this, which I think has to be taken fully on board. The restraints on freedom of speech and expression that exist in formally liberal societies are not imposed by a dictatorial or authoritarian government. On the whole, they’re imposed by civil institutions themselves. They’re imposed by universities, by arts associations, by museums. All the kinds of things that happen in China, because people are terrified to deviate from the government, happen by themselves spontaneously here. And that’s a profound metamorphosis. I can’t see how we can get back to a situation in which tolerance and freedom of speech and expression for some very wide range is taken for granted. Which it was — I’m old enough to remember the Seventies and Eighties, and even almost up to the Nineties, it was simply taken for granted that you could think and say what you like. 

I remember for example, one of my intellectual mentors was Isaiah Berlin, and he said, “Read this really good book, bit of a Nazi, but read it.” And it was a book by Wyndham Lewis called The Demon of Progress in the Arts. “Brilliant, brilliant, pity he was a Nazi.” Now, you couldn’t say that, couldn’t recommend a book by someone suspect. You could joke, you could talk, you could make references, you could say that people who were in general poisonous or toxic had important insights, you could discuss them and swap them. And that was all taken for granted. If it ever comes back, which I doubt, it will be as a result of a tremendous struggle. 

FS: Should we be trying to rescue that liberal settlement? Or should we just accept that it’s passed?

JG: One feature of earlier generations of liberals is that they understood that a liberal society needed to be maintained politically, that there had to be political action, political discussion and political compromise. Keynes understood that very well. He says somewhere that we can only keep this going by guileful compromises, devices, political stratagems, coalitions, that kind of thing. And one of the features of the liberalism that’s come to prominence in recent years, is that it’s wanted to take more and more issues out of politics, so that they can’t be contested at all. To establish them as rights, legal rights, or in some way whereby they’re just beyond contestation. And of course, the end of the road for that is visible to some extent in the United States.

I say this immodestly, but back in 1991, I said that I thought America would unravel around abortion, partly because there was no general consensus when the issue was constitutionalised — I’m pro-choice, but put that aside. And about a third of the society rejected that right and thought it should be curbed or even reduced to almost nothing. What then happened was a long process of 30 years of attempted political capture by conservatives of the Supreme Court. When I wrote that 30 years ago, people thought it was a sort of fantasy conspiracy theory. But that’s what happens. If you politicise the judicial institutions, if you extend rights, unconditional rights, further than they can be extended in terms of general welfare, or in terms of general ideas of what’s acceptable, then inevitably over time there’ll be an attempt by those who feel they’ve been excluded from this to capture the institutions. 

The stage after that, though, this is the stage we’re getting into. Politics becomes Schmittian — another Nazi, by the way. He developed this notion of politics, which I think is a terrible conception of politics, that it’s a matter of friends and enemies — not of opponents, but friends and enemies. So then it becomes a battle, politics becomes a war. The next stage in America will come probably after the next presidential election, in which whoever wins will not be accepted as illegitimate by about a quarter to a third of the population. That’s when you’ll have Schmittian politics. I’m not saying there will be a civil war, but there could be civil warfare

So these processes taking together have eclipsed liberal civilisation in a fairly conclusive way. I don’t see it coming back; I don’t think any of you in this room will see it come back. But what you might see are enclaves of it, enclaves which are hard to shut down. That’s what we should be thinking about: spaces where you can say what you think. 

FS: Could a major war — such as one between China and America — inspire some sort of revival? 

JG: War is not generally redemptive. We are a bit spoiled by the Second World War, which despite all the myths, I think, was a just war and which we didn’t lose. We didn’t have the experience of occupation, which is a very important point. If we’d had the experience of occupation, we would know that most people collaborate. Most of the authorities, most of the middle classes — which are now touted in liberal theory as the beacons of autonomy — they would collaborate as they did right across Europe. But on the whole, I don’t hold out any hope of redemption through war. 

FS: You’ve previously said though that you think war between America and China could come quite soon. 

JG: I did, and I still think it’s possible in the next 18 months. It’s not a firm prediction. It’s such an impenetrable regime, more impenetrable even than Russia. But one can easily imagine them seeing the next presidential election in America as a time of maximum uncertainty in America or maximum introversion in America and maximum distraction in America. So if they’re going to launch anything military, which I think is their second strategy, not their first, it might be then. Because they would say: “Will they react? Will they respond? Maybe they won’t.” 

There is another strategy which they might pursue after the elections in Taiwan. And they might want a way of setting in motion a process of unification without military action. I’m pretty sure that there have been some public hints to that effect from the leadership, that they would prefer that, but there are obstacles to it. And one obstacle is Hong Kong. If they’d respected “two systems, one country” when they took over Hong Kong, they’d be much more likely to succeed in a political strategy in Taiwan. But if people in Taiwan fear the lid coming down on all their freedoms, then they might not vote for it. 

In the slightly longer term, if I’m wrong about the next 18 months to two years, I see the absorption of Taiwan by China as practically inevitable, partly because a lot of Taiwanese business has interests on the mainland, but also because there are vast amounts of American capital in China. And what you should be aware of is when people talk of a “second Cold War” as some sort of natural continuation of the first, this is completely different. In the actual Cold War, the two main protagonists were not economically codependent. The Soviet Union had some impact on the oil price and various industries here and there, but nothing like this. Whereas, the West — America and Europe — are joined hip and thigh to China. But there’s no way Xi Jinping or any other post-Xi Jinping leader, will give up the claim on Taiwan. It’s the jewel in the crown for them, having been to China, having talked to various people, having heard them say what they do. 

FS: You’ve previously written a lot about the green movement, and in recent weeks there’s been a rolling back of the net zero plans. When we spoke before, you were saying you think that’s one of the big issues that is turning across Europe, and that in some years’ time, we might look back at the net zero era and almost laugh. Do you think that’s possible?

JG: I do. I think it’s more than possible. I should say, I’m not a climate sceptic. I’m a disciple in that regard of a great friend who died recently, James Lovelock. He used to say, climate science is inexact but if it has a bias it’s probably towards underestimating the speed of climate change. He thought that climate change would consist of sudden jumps and it could transform things quite quickly, in a couple of decades. We might be in the middle of it. That’s my view — I’m not a climate sceptic. What I am very sceptical about is net zero, and the kind of conventional green policies that are being launched, for a number of reasons. First of all, they were launched before the infrastructure was there. They were launched before the technology was developed that could make them work. No consideration was given to the fact that many of the raw materials that were needed for the inputs, the batteries and so on, were now substantially or even largely controlled by China in Africa and elsewhere. It’s in Africa that the Great Game of the 19th century is being refought.

Now, they might be found in other countries — in Sweden and America, various deposits have been found. But they’re not quickly developed. And in the meantime, these programmes can’t go ahead. Nor were the economic costs of these green programmes properly assessed. There was a constant insistence that they would be job-creative. Well, even in America, they haven’t been that job-creative, actually. And remember, America is very big, and they can throw very large amounts of money at these things — the Green New Deal is largely a protectionist scheme. So they can do it. We can’t do that because we’re too small, we’re too exposed to flows of international companies. So the idea that in Britain or in Europe these programmes could ever possibly work — it’s a bit like suffering from cancer and using candle therapy. That’s how it will be remembered — candle therapy. 

And then people might say, “But we’ve got to, we’ve got to show that we’re on the right side, we’ve got to accomplish it, even if other people don’t do it.” I think that’s the politics of narcissism: “I want to feel good.” But in the meantime, you’re wasting resources and you’re wasting time. There is a serious possibility that we’re now in the early stages of runaway climate change. We should be focusing everything we’ve got — not on having an infinitesimal impact on global carbon levels, which would be the case even if the whole programme was implemented — but on policies of adaptation. And adaptation is not going to be easy. Remember, most climate scientists agree that once human-induced climate change is in the works, it goes on for decades or even centuries. You can’t just stop it. There’s a general idea among environmentalists that we started this so we can stop it. No. We started it, probably, but we can’t stop it. 

Last time Freddie and I spoke, I said we were in an age of tragedy. I’m not too sure about that anymore. I think we’ve advanced further than tragedy. We’re entering an age of absurdity. An example of that would be German climate policy. Germany, as we know, is incomparably more adult, more advanced, more modern, and in every way superior to bungling Britain. But in Germany, the result of their closing down of nuclear and going for renewables has been an increased reliance on the dirtiest kind of coal. Well, that is tragic, but it’s even more than tragic. It’s completely absurd. The world is advancing rapidly, I think Western society particularly, into utter absurdity. That’s one of the things we’ve got to cope with. And if you put these arguments forward, it’s difficult to do because people start shouting at you or they start crying or they say they can’t get up in the morning. I rather brutally suggest: “Well don’t. Stay in bed till you get a better reason for getting up. And if you don’t, well, there we are. Progress always has casualties.” 

One of the great books of the last century in English was a book by the American scholar, Philip Rieff, called Freud: The Mind of the Moralist, in which he said Freud was a stoic moralist. He quoted a wonderful letter of Freud’s, where Freud said his aim in therapy was not to enable people to realise themselves or to achieve happiness, his aim was to change hysterical misery into the everyday suffering of normal human life. Now, that was somehow forgotten. And he wrote a later book called The Triumph of the Therapeutic, in which he said that a therapeutic model of behaviour was spreading in every part of society. Rather than using moral terms or even political terms, people started using psychoanalytical terms. “What do you want out of this? I want closure.” Well, the thing about Freud is there’s never any closure. Closure is impossible for Freud. We bear the scars as well as the good things from infancy, whatever we do. We can’t change ourselves in these fundamental respects, according to Freud. And so I think, climate policy, conventional climate policy, is for therapeutic people to feel good. They don’t want to feel powerless, so they deceive themselves. 

FS: If you’re right, at least, on the politics of that issue, what kind of collapse follows the descent into absurdity? 

JG: If there’s an optimistic scenario, which there may be, then it’s one that involves the rebirth of politics. Because the trouble with technocratic pragmatism is it doesn’t work. Because what technocratic pragmatism means is approaching what are carefully defined problems defined by conventional thinking, by groupthink, and applying some conventional medicine. That’s it. 

But there’s also the question of political legitimacy. And what’s being discovered now, is that there are limits to political legitimacy for policies that severely disrupt the practical lives and incomes of large numbers of people in society. So if you impose a Ulez scheme in an area where there’s practically no public transport, so most of Britain or large parts of Britain, or it’s unreliable or scarce, that has a severe impact on people trying to get to work. And there’s also the subjective feeling, which is very important, a feeling of being imprisoned in one of these 15-minute cities, of somebody doing something to you which you resist. 

In the taxi that brought me here, the taxi driver was saying that he knows that lots of people who are going round and smashing or disabling the Ulez cameras. And what will happen is the numbers build and the policy will eventually be overturned, or you’ll have a period of anarchy. I remember, when Thatcher having trialled and failed to impose the poll tax in Scotland, she did it in England. And this happens to all leaders, whether they be liberals or not. They tend to become anti-empirical. They double up instead of learning from their mistakes. And that resulted in riots and her being toppled. Something like that, I think, could happen in the case of these green policies. Because it’s a huge blow, not only to the faith, the worldview of the technocratic elites that support it, but also to the perception of them, as their competence hasn’t delivered any of the results it’s supposed to deliver. 

And people are supposedly converting to electric vehicles when there are hardly any charging points. By the way, someone who is an expert on this made a point to me, which I hadn’t thought of, he said one thing which is commonly neglected is that if these charging points were installed, they’d be very, very large, much larger than ordinary petrol stations, because it takes a long time to charge up. If each car in line charges up for half an hour, it’s going to be huge. So basically none of this is going to happen and enormous amounts of money will be wasted. People’s lives will be disrupted, and then it will be forgotten. It’s more like prohibition in America than it is like a rational solution. It’s the most nakedly irrational solution you can have to the growing danger of climate change. 

So what’s the solution? In Britain, I have a tiny sliver of hope. I’m hoping for a hung parliament, which might not happen because Labour has been rejuvenated in Scotland. But if it doesn’t get a working majority, there’s a realistic chance of electoral reform. The only way you can really have any new ideas filtering into politics is by creating new incentives, which involves the destruction of the existing party framework. The parties would split, they’ll split immediately. Perhaps two or three parts of Labour will split: you could have a real socialist party (hopefully non-Corbynite); you could have a green party but not a not a conventional green party; you could have a Liberal Party; you could have a Libertarian Party. You can have a variety of parties, and I think that would be a much healthier situation. There’s the sliver of hope.

*      *      *

FS: I think now is a great moment to open it up to our audience.

Question One: I understand you’re familiar with the work of Fritz Stern, particularly his essays and his books on the failure of liberalism in Germany pre-1933. He’s quite clear that for all the attraction of liberalism, there is in his words a terrifyingly large part of the population that is attracted to coercion, and ultimately it always fails. Ultimately, liberalism is the least worst of all outcomes. Do you agree with that? 

JG: I’ll answer your question with an historical example. If you thought that liberalism was the only thing — in my own view, this is slightly pessimistic — and everything else doesn’t work, the question is, at what cost does it not work? And how can you get the next best mix? Let me give you an example. Back in the early Nineties, I actually took part in a debate with Jeffrey Sachs, some of you will know who that is, who was tremendous advocate of radical market policies in post-communist Russia. I was a critic of radical market policies in post-communist Russia, because it had been communist for 70 years, and large parts of the Soviet economy were military-industrial Rust Belt, there was cataclysmic pollution practically everywhere, and the only entrepreneurship even before the communist collapse was often criminal. 

I thought an attempt to push a strong liberal line in Russia would — and you can read what I wrote in the early Nineties — lead to disaster. I thought the best thing in Russia was a hybrid, some elements of authoritarianism — after all, in its long history, it’s had practically no extended period of removal on freedom. A tiny little bit of anarchy under Yeltsin; a certain amount of feeble constitutionalism coming to nothing and then being withdrawn under the last tsars. But almost nothing. So the difference — by the way, any argument about Russia and fascism is too optimistic because actually during fascism in most of the European countries, even in Germany, there were institutions and civil society relics was still there that could be revived. There’s almost nothing in Russia. So I think the danger of saying only liberalism works is you focus everywhere on trying to get a liberal model, rather than getting something more mixed, and more realistic. So I disagree with him.

Question Two: I just wanted to go back to your point now about economics, and to understand what we’re experiencing now is that the development of capitalism is also having an impact on the decline of liberalism from a political point of view. Would one way to solve that be to act more on the economic structure?

Question Three: You talked about cancel culture in universities. And I understand that one university is running a programme called disagreeing well, with an attempt to develop what is known as epistemic humility. In other words, you don’t diss the other person because you think their data is rubbish immediately. And I wondered what you thought about it? Is this something that will work in restoring liberal and civil debate within universities?

JG: Well, any such initiative can be valuable. I’m glad there are such initiatives, but it tells you something that what used to be good manners and fair play and decency is now called “epistemic humility”. You haven’t got epistemic humility if you think I’m going to cancel you! I’m joking — I think they’re important. But it shows the difficulty that we have to somehow have a theory of what “disagree well” means in order to try and get back to what used to be an accepted practice of tolerance. But if you ask what the main problem is, I think the fundamental idea that reasonable people can have divergent beliefs and values has been lost. I noticed this in the Brexit debate (it wasn’t a debate; it was a hate-fest). Basically, my view — I was pro-Brexit — my view was that it was an issue that reasonable people could differ profoundly on. And by the way, the best argument against Brexit that was put by one of my friends turned out to be true. I said, “Why are you voting Remain?” He said, “Because I think the British political class simply isn’t up to making Brexit work. They’re hopeless.” I think that was a very powerful argument and a very perceptive argument.

FS: You’re still pro Brexit?

JG: It’s been botched and bungled, and aborted to the extent to which it’s hard to see how it can be saved. I don’t think we’ll go back into any complete EU. I don’t think we will rejoin. I don’t think that could be democratically legitimated. What we’ll end up with is in some halfway house, which is worse than being in or out. But every progressive opinion will be tremendously pleased by this, because the one thing that progressive opinion is not interested in is Europe. Europe is becoming a hard-Right bloc for various reasons, and you’ll never see this mentioned. People say, “We’ve got to get back into Europe; total disaster; leaving Europe was catastrophic…” It’s more illiberal than it was when we left. They’ll probably blame that on Brexit — they were very convoluted arguments. 

Where does economics fit in? I’m a bit of a dissident on this. I think that those of you who are market liberals or libertarians will find this really shocking. But I think there’s a good argument for renationalising, or taking back into some other kinds of public ownership, various public utilities. Because I think just looking empirically: it hasn’t worked in water; It hasn’t worked with the railways; it hasn’t worked on the whole with the banks. They’re very good at stripping people of their civil liberties, but they’re not so good at keeping their branches open, or giving people a decent return on their savings. They’re dreadful entities.

Question Four: In terms of the practices that we see in Canada around assisted suicide, or in the Benelux countries, would you see that as hyper-liberalism or post-liberalism? Particularly in relation to the idea that there’s something about faith, about Christianity, that’s welded into the human ethic and the ethic against killing in forms of enlightened liberalism. Do you think there’s a moment where society reverts to a sort of post-liberal paganism or is that not how you see it?

JG: No, I don’t see it quite like that. But I do agree with you on the earlier part of your question which is: what stopped? There are a lot of people who say, “This is a problem with the decadent liberalism or the hyperbolic liberalism we’ve got now, but if we get back to classical liberalism, everything will be alright.” But classical liberalism was an offshoot of Christianity. The roots of the early modern — the root of the practice of tolerance, of conscientious objection in the wars of religion, of the idea of an inner life in which people perceive the truth not obstructed by external authorities — wasn’t in the Enlightenment. Most of the Enlightenment thinkers — Voltaire might be an exception — were not that keen on freedom of thought and expression. Auguste Comte, a very influential later-19th century enlightenment thinker, said there’s no more reason for tolerance in ethics and politics than there is in physics or chemistry. You just have experts. If you want to know what to do, ask an expert. It’s ridiculous, because that’s the age of absurdity.

I was told this by a friend of mine who advised American governments — I think it might have been Libya — he raised an issue with some high-level American officials and said, “What shall we actually do about this?” They said, “Don’t worry, we’ll send out some experts, they’ll solve it.” So they destroy a dictatorship or tyranny, they destroy the Gaddafi tyranny, and it leads to a situation of anarchy in which there are two governments at least, i.e no government, under which it’s practically impossible to control the people smugglers because there’s no government to control them. The damage has been done. 

FS: And on euthanasia?

Well, is it hyper-liberalism, or repaganisation, a kind of post-liberal repaganisation? I don’t think it’s paganism because, as I say in my book, the extraordinary thing about paganism is its moral modesty. One of the advantages Christianity had over paganism in the ancient world, is that when there were plagues, the Christians didn’t all run away. That’s what the pagans did. The Christians bound themselves together. They thought it was something sent by God as a trial. They had to show their virtues to each other. The pagans just say, “It’s something meaningless; do what you can; run away.” So actually, Christianity had a kind of Darwinian advantage, you might almost say, over paganism at that time. I think one of the fundamentally mistaken views is that this is repaganisation. Actually what it is, is a corrupt and hyperbolic and hollowed out form of Christianity. The woke movement, the hyper-liberal movement is liberal, it comes from liberalism. But what restrained the matrix of theology and metaphysics and values beyond the human will, that restrained liberalism in an earlier period, has gone. So this kind of development is inevitable.

I’ll give you a different example. Once you get rid of this theological background — I’m not a Christian myself, I’m an atheist — but once you get rid of it, it’s very difficult to stop things emerging like the technological pursuit of immortality. Most, not all, but most of the billionaires, the American oligarchs, are deep into this. Because, after all, what could be more of a curb on human autonomy than mortality? Now, the euthanasia case is in a sense the obverse of that, where you turn death into a chosen choice. And I think that one of the key things that happens in a post-Christian society or a society which contains many people for whom Christianity means nothing, or even theism means nothing, is that suicide becomes an option. You can’t get away from that. And then you’ve got to consider how that can be contained within a legal and a moral and a social framework without really having a Canada-like result. Or you can take the view which Christians might take, which is it should be prohibited altogether. 

But I don’t actually think that’s sustainable in a modern society, or even in an ancient society, because the key thing that tolerance was a solution for was the fact that human experiences and human values have always been, are now, and will always be, dissonant. So we will always be living among others, some of whose values and beliefs we despise, and hate. That will always be the case. That’s why we need tolerance. But of course, we say, “The solution is that we get rid of people who don’t have the right opinions, or we gradually educate them out of their opinions, or any difference from the progressive incentive is a sign of stupidity, or wickedness.” That simply takes you down the road to the kind of soft totalitarianism that some people have complained about — although, once again, never underestimate the fumbling stupidity of the people who try and impose this.

Question Five: I just wanted to come back to your comments about universities, because when I joined the University of Sussex in 1991, as a teacher, the ideology at the time was poststructuralism, and the deconstruction of everything. And there was no such thing as truth, there was no such thing as a self, there was no such thing as an author, and it was quite a struggle to take an alternative view at the time. Now, it seems almost like a volte face, that maybe what post structuralism did is to create a philosophical vacuum where everything’s been deconstructed. And now we have the reaction to that, which is that we must have an ideology to replace all the ones we’ve deconstructed, and this one is not deconstructible. What’s your view?

JG: I remember myself when that was a strong influence in universities, but I don’t take the view that postmodernism and poststructuralism are at the back of what’s now called the woke movement. I think that suggests that if there hadn’t been postmodernism or poststructuralism — if there’d been no Derrida or Foucault — we’d be in a much better situation. I interpret hyper-liberalism, as the term suggests, as a metamorphosis within liberalism. Ask yourself a question: why is the woke movement strongest in the Anglosphere? They’re probably most strong of all in Canada now, then maybe America, thirdly, Britain. People interpret it as a universal movement, but it definitely isn’t when you talk about it to people in China. They regard it partly with contempt and partly with incredulous glee, because it means their chief rival is deconstructing itself before their very eyes. It’s not a universal, it’s something that has spread throughout the Anglosphere. 

But I’d say, having read Derrida and Foucault, that the playfulness of Derrida never comes through among any of these woke writers and the mordant wit, the almost cruel wit of Foucault, doesn’t come through. And equally it’s not Marxism — in fact it’s almost the opposite of Marxism because one of the things about hyper-liberalism is it doesn’t locate inequalities where they partly are, which is in what used to be called class, which affects different ethnicities. It locates them in microaggressions, in cultural things, in historical interpretations of what happened during colonialism. 

I interpret it in the book as partly a revolt of the professional bourgeoisie against their own superfluidity. They’re increasingly redundant. The cognitive elite doesn’t know anything, most of it. It knows a patois, a vernacular, that it learns at university, then it moves out into the world and finds that the opportunities for that are not infinite and they’re shrinking, shrinking for various reasons, one of which is now AI. So they’re all on the hiding to nowhere actually, those people. And therefore they get an idea: how can I possibly be safe; how can I get on a career ladder when most of the career ladders have been destroyed, or the rungs have been pulled out? Well, you can get a career if you’d like as a guardian of society, as an enlightened guardian of society. 

So there is an economic explanation for it, as well as a deep, spiritual, civilisational explanation of these movements, in terms of a narrative of meaning in life, a narrative of advance in history, like that in Christianity, in which, rather than a succession of events, history is an intelligible narrative of redemption. Although it’s not quite clear what redemption is in woke. Because one of the features of it is it doesn’t allow those who sinned very easily to stop sinning. But that was true in American puritanism. It was hard to get redemption from having been a witch. You were much more likely to be killed or subjected to various terrible trials. So I guess the answer is, I don’t believe it’s something extraneous like Marxism or postmodernism or poststructuralism. I think it’s internal to liberalism. 

And that’s why, to go back to our very start tonight, I do think that particular civilisation is over. The liberal-conservative strategy of saying: “Let’s find a form of liberalism which is pure and authentic; let’s find one which isn’t doesn’t have all these horrible intolerant, censorious elements.” I think it’s hopeless. You’ve got to do something new, something fresh, something which tries to recreate spaces of free thought and inquiry that are not late, faded copies of ones that might once have existed. And maybe some people — UnHerd and the New Statesman where I write — they’re practising this. So, my optimistic message is: don’t calculate whether you’re going to win or lose. Just live like this as long as you can.


John Gray is a political philosopher and author. His books include Seven Types of Atheism, False Dawn: the Delusions of Global Capitalism, and Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and The Death of Utopia.


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Fafa Fafa
Fafa Fafa
9 months ago

Sometime in the early 1990s the KKK decided to come to NYC and march down 125th Street, which (to the out-of-towners here) is the principal avenue of Harlem. Giuliani denied permit initially, it was the Amsterdam News, the major black newspaper in the city, that argued for allowing it to happen, in that name of freedom of speech. A few dozen KKKs came, marched, left, were dealt with with the requisite contempt, no one ever heard of them again. It was a splendid moment in the life of American democracy.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
9 months ago

So, after a long while opining on many things we already knew or suspected, Gray arrives at a useful conclusion: just live as long as you can according to your own conclusions, without trying to second-guess the outcome.

I can live with that, and as he has the decency to admit, he’s got a few things wrong. Par for the course for most of us, then.

Last edited 9 months ago by Steve Murray
Saul D
Saul D
9 months ago

Interesting discussion. Pity it popped out on Sunday, then disappeared from the Monday edition so few people will have seen it.

Waffles
Waffles
9 months ago

Ever fewer people have faith in democracy and state institutions.

Sooner or later (sooner in America, slightly later in the UK), the music will stop.

Let’s hope the right party is in power when that happens.

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
8 months ago
Reply to  Waffles

Very unlikely to be the right party in power.
“Ever fewer people have faith in democracy and state institutions”
That’s the problem with the fascination with what happened in Germany after 1933, we have forgotten about what came before.
We aren’t in a recreation of the Reich – yet, despite what lots of squeaking college grads claims. We are in a recreation of the Weimar republic.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
9 months ago

It seems an odd question because of the presumption that a global market economy requires a degree of liberal (democratic) consensus.
At the same time, the turn of younger Western generations to extreme left-wing politics suggests that the dead hand of the Chinese Communist Party everywhere, funding currents within cultural institutions that are sowing division anywhere.
Perhaps liberalism is being torn apart from within. But the Left will employ any number of weapons to defeat Christian conservatism as irrespective of China’s great interest, never have they had a greater opportunity to achieve cultural hegemony within a global economy possibly at the gates of tumultuous chain as the US conflict with Russia gives way to the new hegemon in 15-20 years.

David Hirst
David Hirst
9 months ago

Tiny thing – ‘superfluity’, not ‘superfluidity’.

Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
6 months ago

he is sogood, so cogent, so intelligent.