John Gray, the gadfly of liberalism

This is one for Don Arthur, maybe you can help to work out where John Gray is coming from these days and what happened since the time he was a fan of Thatcherism and the New Right. Somewhere along the road he decided that he could no longer support liberalism because it provided no rational grounds for its fundamental principles.

This raises a number of questions, like, what kind of liberal was he and where did he go from there?

Tracking his major publications.

1983 Mill on Liberty
1984 Hayek on Liberty
1986 Liberalism
1995 Liberalism, Second edition
1995 Isiah Berlin
1995 Enlightenment’s Wake
1997 Endgames
1998 On Liberty and other essays
1998 False Dawn: the delusions of global capitalism
2000 Two Faces of Liberalism
2002 Straw Dogs
2007 Black Mass

From Wikipidia.
“An advocate for the New Right in the 1980s, and then of New Labour in the 1990s, Gray now sees the conventional (left-wing/right-wing) political spectrum of conservatism and social democracy as no longer viable.”

“Gray has perhaps become best known for his work, since the 1990s, on the uneasy relationship between the value-pluralism and liberalism Isiah Berlin, which has ignited considerable controversy, and for his strong criticism of neoliberalism and of the global free market. More recently, he has criticised some of the central currents in Western thinking, such as humanism, and has tended towards Green thought. He has drawn from the “Gaia theory” of James Lovelock, among others, but he is very pessimistic about human behaviour changing to prevent environmental decay, and he predicts that the 21st century will be full of wars as natural resources become increasingly scarce.”

As for his criticism of humanism, the book “Straw Dogs” is a real dog, at least according to this Amazon review!

Clearly a crucial period in Gray’s development occurred between the first and second editions of his small book on Liberalism (between 1986 and 1995). The Gray of 1986 was a friend of Thatcherism and free markets, with an excellent book on Hayek under his belt. The second edition has the original text intact between a new Preface and a Conclusion which announced Gray’s change of ground.

“I now think that the search for foundations for liberal practice is both futile and unnecessary…” Well I agree with that, but it does not constitute a reason for giving up on liberalism, at least the minimum state liberalism which I consider to be robust.

“Two Faces of Liberalism” proposes a doctrine that he calls “modus vivendi” where different ways of life can co-exist in a framework that permits different conceptions of the good life to be lived without making war on each other. I could have sworn that was classical liberalism!

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15 years ago

Yes, he’s a strange character, Rafe. I quite enjoyed his recent LNL interview and thought his critique of “proselytising atheism” was rather good. “Straw Dogs”, on the other hand, from the few chapters I’ve read so far, strikes me as almost embarrassingly bad; simplistic, chaotic and full of unsubstantiated and often radical assertions. Very odd.

How a man steeped in Berlin can be so apparently scatty is a true puzzle.

Andrew Norton
15 years ago

I track 4 stages of Gray’s thought here. Of ythe books since I agree that Two Faces of Liberalism was ok; the rest seemed loopy from the reviews so I did not bother reading them.

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
15 years ago

Rafe – Andrew’s obviously read more of Gray’s work than I have.

The first book of his I read was Beyond the New Right (1993). This covers the period when Gray positions himself to move from the New Right think tanks to the Guardian.

The collection begins with a 1989 paper he wrote for the IEA – ‘Limited Government: A Positive Agenda’.

1989 is the year Margaret Thatcher faced her first leadership challenge. And by the end of 1990 she was gone. In other words, it the perfect time to sketch out a conservative alternative to Thatcherism.

And Gray didn’t have to move far from his starting point to provide one. If you read his much older essay on Hayek, you see him reading Hayek through thinkers like Oakeshott and Polanyi. It’s Hayek’s ideas about tacit knowledge that get his attention.

There are at least two ways to read Hayek. One is to focus on his discussion of economics and procedural rules and use his work to inspire a rationalist project of liberal reform.

But a second way to read him focuses on what Gray focused on — tacit knowledge, cultural norms and traditions. Focusing on these leads to scepticism about top-down reform and a fear that rationalist reform might start to eat away at the foundations of liberal society.

Gray increasingly chose to read Hayek as a rationalist and cast his own project as one of Oakeshottian conservatism.

There’s a way of unfolding this story that can appeal to leftists disillusioned with socialism (the Berlin Wall fell in Nov 1989). The last essay in Beyond the New Right sketches out ‘An Agenda for Green Conservatism.’ Here you have an environmental critique of socialism. This is just the kind of thing a New Labour thinker might find stimulating.

By 1994 Anthony Giddens is appropriating Oakeshott to make his ‘Beyond Left and Right’ arguments and Gray is arguing that Labour “can rightly and properly affirm those decent conservative values of community and family which the Tories have abandoned in their conversion to unfettered liberal individualism.” What New Labourite wouldn’t want to read about how Thatcher’s neo-liberalism destroyed family and community?

It seems to me that Gray has always looked for a way to develop his ideas that will fill an emerging niche. It’s like watching McDonalds or Levis — there’s always continuity but also the constant looking out to sea to spot the next wave before it rises up and breaks.

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
15 years ago

His book on Berlin was one of his best but at the same time may also have marked his transition.

15 years ago

I’ve just read Black Mass. It’s bad – at least in part because it’s nigh on impossible to figure out what he’s getting at. That said, there are some beautiful one-liners in there.

John Greenfield
John Greenfield
15 years ago

I think y’all are being a bit hard on Gray – though not TOO hard. Firstly, Blairism was just an extension of Thatcherism and secondly as a wise man once said “when the facts change I change my mind, why what do you do, sir”? ;)

I am deeply suspicious of people who hold the same political views they did decades ago. For example, whenever John Quiggin comes out with one of his frequent dummy spits about Keith Windschuttle, he usually leads with KW’s apostasy. My question to JQ is how can a grown man NOT change his views from the 1970s, particularly how can he still be a statist collectivist?

John Greenfield
John Greenfield
15 years ago

Gray is a particular type of atheist academic who has the platform to play out his existential angst and spiritual quests on the global stage. Judith Butler is another.