The New Leviathans by John Gray – the future is bleak. An obscure, random and dense examination of liberalism.
I chose to read this new book as I had read articles by John Gray, a professor and author, in the New Statesman that show real insight into politics. However, it came across as an obscure, random and dense examination of liberalism. It is a long rambling book that in the first half fails to crystallise its points instead becoming too dense in its detail, with an over-narrow focus on the Russian revolution.
Central to the book is the leviathan theme – the myth of the leviathan used to contextualise modern issues in society: The Leviathan is an embodiment of chaos and threatening to eat the damned after their life. In the end, it is annihilated. Gray links the leviathan to liberalism. He uses Russian history to explore his argument of how hyper-liberalism has enabled totalitarianism, but it didn’t click with me.
After a long introduction to Leviathans Gray then walks through Russian history, and I mean nineteenth and twentieth century. Interesting as they may be I never found the structure of the book taking me to any understandable conclusion.
Gray uses the seventeenth century philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, to explain the relevance of the return of the leviathans., through the latter’s book, Leviathan. His issue is with states behaving as leviathans. Gray talks about leviathan states “securing its subjects against one another and external enemies.” But modern states he argues have a greater purpose.
Having set out this thesis he then appears to go in another obscure direction by providing biographies of obscure figures in Russian history. First off there is the anit-liberal Leontiv. Leontiv is noted for arguing that socialism would replace Christianity with government and economics, but as a means of oppression, but actually China and Russia opted for an autocratic type of socialism.
Next up is Rozanov, a contradictory thinker with books full of random thoughts. Maybe Gray has included him in his book for his fondness of liberalism. Gray’s problem with this is how latter-day liberalism is eating its own tail.
Then there is Boldyrev and poets including Kharms, with the blockade of Leningrad. Followed by the painter Czapski., who spent time in the Gulag; and author Samyatin. Samyatin interests Gray for his masterpiece “We” – a reflection of early twentieth century Russia but also a foresight into the future – “the first fully developed dystopia.” Moving on, there is author, Bukharin, who was imprisoned, like many for alleged crimes against Russia.
Gray tries to knit all these figures with latter-day “New Leviathans,” who want to go much further, to “become engineers of souls.” The jump from early twentieth century to the early twenty first century is glaring in what it excludes.
What all this teaches us about modern liberalism is unclear to me, as Gray then moves on to discuss “hyper-liberal ideology “ as a vehicle for surplus elites to secure power in society” with universities inculcating their students conformity with this ideology – the woke movement. He argues that the woke ideology is a career for over production of elites, with the consequence of the loss of liberal freedoms, before moving on to woke’s troubled relationship with religion. However, these are never really proven, just given.
Gray concludes by proffering that “much of the world may consist of Leviathans surrounded by ungoverned zones.” He argues that the “US may drift on, a florid hybrid of fundamentalist sects, woke cults, and techno-futurist oligarchs.” As much as he wants to fight “into the storm” it is altogether a gloomy outlook, seeing any peace as a temporary truce.