Live and Let Live

Two Faces of Liberalism

John Gray
New Press, 161 pp., $25.00

Philosophers enjoy simple oppositions. Locked in metaphysical combat, monism battles pluralism, and idealism struggles against materialism: the world is one or the world is many; the world is mental or the mind is material. Political philosophers share this liking, pitting order against liberty, conservatism against progressivism. Reality is complicated, but the philosopher simplifies it, or more usually oversimplifies it. Isaiah Berlin took the title of his famous essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox” from Archilochus—“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”—to warn his readers against the hedgehog’s passion for oversimplifications, but Berlin himself went on to write Two Concepts of Liberty. He subverted the tidy conclusions suggested by the title by writing about many more and much more various topics than that. Nonetheless, most of his readers thought he was saying that the one big thing about freedom was that negative liberty, the right not to be interfered with, was good, and positive liberty—the right, for example, to benefit from state-sponsored programs for self-improvement—could be bad.

John Gray’s Two Faces of Liberalism is squarely in the tradition of Isaiah Berlin’s inaugural lecture. Far from being concerned with two of anything, it is a series of reflections on an unresolved tension that marked Berlin’s writing on politics. On the one side was Berlin’s emphasis on the plurality—indeed the contradictoriness—of human goods. Berlin, famously, argued that not all good things can be had within one life, or within one society, or within one way of life. The military hero displays one set of virtues, the ascetic monk another. To emphasize this is not relativism, nor is it skepticism: the virtues of the military way of life are genuinely virtues, and so are the virtues of the monastic way of life, but they cannot be practiced together, even though a given person may be pulled toward both ways of life. “This,” Gray writes, “is not only because they involve the cultivation of attitudes and dispositions that do not coexist easily in the same person. It is because the virtues of some are the vices of others.” The psychological conflict faced by someone torn between two ways of life rises to the level of tragedy when each of them demands total commitment, and each also demands the suppression of something vital.

The same conflict is visible in politics. Did Athenian democracy depend on the existence of slavery, as Benjamin Constant thought?1 If so, would we rather that there had never been a democratic Athens? Does the relatively tranquil liberal democracy practiced in Britain and the United States create political apathy and a widespread inability to think seriously about public affairs? If so, would we willingly sacrifice peace and the rule of law for the sake of a more bracing intellectual and political life? What ought a liberal to think about such conflicts? These were the questions that Berlin asked, and that John Gray also asks.

On the other hand, Berlin himself was an unequivocal liberal. What sort of liberal he was is debatable: his heroes were Alexander Herzen and Ivan Turgenev, rather than John Locke and John Stuart Mill, and he wrote passionately and at length about cultural and intellectual liveliness and hardly at all about taxation and the welfare state. How were his pluralism and his liberalism connected? Many commentators on his work thought that his pluralism and liberalism were of a piece, and Berlin himself often said that he believed that the irreducible variety of human aspirations and values was an argument for allowing individual lives to blossom as best they could, and an argument against cramping them into one mold. It is easy to see how such an argument could also support a certain sort of liberalism in foreign relations: one society should not impose its way of life on another society, which means that self-defense is one thing, but spreading our values by force quite another.

More critical commentators have thought that Berlin’s emphasis on the plurality of values simply rules out any case for saying that liberal values trump all others. Indeed, one might think that a convinced pluralist would more consistently be a conservative practitioner of the politics of modus vivendi. If ways of life are irreducibly different and no argument can settle the superiority of one over another, should we not lower our sights and simply try to keep the peace between them? How the peace is best kept is a matter of political prudence. The greatest thinker to discuss this question with the seriousness it deserves was Thomas Hobbes, who was not a liberal but a defender of absolute monarchy. Hobbes argued that religious toleration was a good thing when it was practicable: writing in the aftermath of the wars of religion and the English Civil War, he approved of “the Independency of the Primitive Christians to follow Paul, or Cephas, or Apollo, every man as he liketh best. Which if it be done without Contention is perhaps the best.” But he also observed that where it was not practicable, the state must enforce uniformity for the sake of peace. The liberal idea of a right to free expression he repudiated as anarchic nonsense.

It is this second view that John Gray defends. Like Hobbes, he thinks that freedom to express ourselves in general is a good thing; but different freedoms conflict, and the idea that a First Amendment right to free expression is an absolute is, he thinks, an absurdity:

When free speech collides with other liberties, or with a weighty public interest, is it always wrong to restrict it? Let us be more specific. May not freedom of (political) speech be rightly curbed when it is used to promote racism?

It is a salient fact that Britain and most other European countries have legislated against racist speech. So has Canada. In none of these cases can the law be described as merely regulating freedom of speech. Curbs on racist speech do not regulate speech. They curb it.

Elsewhere he speaks well of Singapore’s treatment of religious liberty:

In Singapore there is full freedom of religious practice and belief, but proselytism is forbidden. In prohibiting missionary activity Singapore does not protect what in liberal societies is regarded as the unfettered exercise of the right to religious freedom. Yet, perhaps partly for that reason, Singapore has in recent times avoided religious strife better than have some liberal regimes.

But John Gray writes as something other than an academic philosopher, and what he writes is quite other than an exercise in philosophical clarification—though there is a good deal of conventional philosophical analysis in Two Faces of Liberalism as well. Gray occupies an interesting and unusual place in the British intellectual landscape. He was recently appointed Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics, whose director, the sociologist Anthony Giddens, has been trying to provide Tony Blair’s government with a theoretically coherent account of the “Third Way.” John Gray is thus one of those rare creatures, a “public intellectual.” In less picturesque terms, he is a professor of politics who is also a fluent polemical journalist, and whose career has taken him from one end of the intellectual spectrum to the other.

Gray began as something very like a disciple of John Stuart Mill, and wrote an interesting though difficult book defending the main arguments of Mill’s essay On Liberty.2 No sooner had he established a reputation as an expositor of Millian liberalism than he abandoned Mill for F.A. von Hayek; for some years he was regarded as an intellectual ornament of the New Right, and reckoned by Mrs. Thatcher to be “one of us.”3 Given the timing of this change of heart, some of his colleagues thought that he had traded in his allegiance to Mill in order to swear fealty to Mrs. Thatcher, and looked for an ulterior motive. More surprisingly, it seemed that he had at the same time abandoned the view that philosophers should be moved by argument, that he had ditched both Mill’s passion for independent thinking and his dislike for Victorian capitalism in favor of Mrs. Thatcher’s passion for capitalism and her contempt for discussion. But this was not the end of the road. Before Mrs. Thatcher was evicted from office by her Conservative Party colleagues in the autumn of 1990, Gray had decided that she was a menace to intellectual life, and more generally a menace to the sense of community of the British people.

Mrs. Thatcher made herself notorious by observing in her only excursion into political philosophy that “there is no such thing as society.” This was, of course, an exaggerated reformulation of Hayek’s insistence that one of the many things wrong with a centrally planned economy is that there is not, and cannot be, an entity called “society” whose welfare we should attend to. John Gray turned his back on that view, and in the 1990s seemed to have become something of a communitarian, arguing that you can share Hayek’s antipathy to central planning and still maintain that the free market may smash a community’s traditions, and undermine the social obligation to provide care for people in need.4 Once again, skeptical colleagues were inclined to say that he had found another bandwagon to climb aboard: this time the bandwagon on which Tony Blair and “New Labour” were soon to roll to power. Any suggestion that this is what he was doing runs into an obvious problem. Tony Blair and his “Third Way” allies are enthusiasts for some version of globalization, while John Gray is deeply and thoroughly hostile to globalization. Over the past few years he has earned the admiration of George Soros for his ferocious assaults on the light-minded optimism of the enthusiasts for globalizing tendencies.

In False Dawn,5 but also in the second edition of his Hayek on Liberty, John Gray explains what it is that he dislikes about the emerging global economy; unsurprisingly, it is the very same thing as the wrong sort of liberalism that he attacks in Two Faces of Liberalism. Many forms of globalization are inescapable and irreversible. The world has been linked by trading routes for many centuries. But until now, it has been taken for granted that the countries linked by trade will practice their own politics and their own economics; they will not necessarily be committed to the vision of the free market that animated Adam Smith, Victorian Englishmen, and post–cold war Americans.

Gray’s antipathy to globalization is an antipathy to the idea that we might create a “universal civilization” and that universal civilization will take the United States as its model. The antipathy is founded on at least three distinct thoughts. The first is that the United States is an unhappy and unsuccessful society, riddled with racial tensions, uncaring for its poor, incapable of sustaining stable families, and addicted to coping with its problems by incarceration and execution. As a model for other societies, it is, thinks Gray, a nonstarter. The second is that the ideal of a universal civilization as the Internet unites the globe and e-commerce flourishes is liberal utopianism; it is the liberal version of Marxian utopianism. Where Marx envisaged a universal utopia founded on the common ownership of the means of production and exchange, globalization in this sense imagines a utopia built around a free market. But the free market, Gray argues, is not a moral ideal; it is only a more or less successful institutional arrangement for producing and distributing what we need.

Lastly, and this is where John Gray’s rejection of Hayek comes together with his rejection of globalism, free markets do not arise spontaneously wherever bad and oppressive governments are removed. Remove the Soviet government, and we find mafia capitalism; give up Maoism, and we find a form of capitalism built around family ties and military power. Free markets are invariably imposed by tough political action; and the political reality behind globalism is that the United States is employing the IMF, the World Bank, and the WTO to Americanize the rest of the world. As to what will ensue, Gray has no doubt that the project is intrinsically impossible, and that all we will have is increasing economic and political instability.

Although John Gray has in some sense turned on his “New Right” mentors, there is a considerable degree of consistency in his views, and if he seems to be a follower of political fashion, appearances are deceptive. It is rather that ever since he abandoned his youthful enthusiasm for John Stuart Mill, he has been, to the extent that he has been a liberal at all, an “anti-Enlightenment” liberal. Such a position can seem simply incoherent. Who are our liberals if not children of the Enlightenment, and what was the political purpose of the Enlightenment if not to make the world safe for liberalism? And to what slogan do the children of the Enlightenment rally if not to Voltaire’s écrasez l’infâme?

John Gray’s view is that intelligent liberals do not, and need not, espouse either the Enlightenment or its values. He takes as his mentor Isaiah Berlin, who in Gray’s terms preached what Gray has baptized “agonistic liberalism.” It is a liberalism that has eschewed the idea that all rational beings will, even if only in the very long run and after exhaustive discussion, agree on the one true—liberal—faith. It has abandoned the rationalist belief that all intelligent beings can be brought by argument to agree on the most important individual virtues; the agonistic liberal denies that all rational people must be tolerant secularists who will agree on the ideals that permeate Mill’s essay On Liberty.

The so-called agonistic liberal is, of course, very likely in fact to be extremely sympathetic to the ideals that Mill puts forward; Gray himself says in the latest edition of Hayek on Liberty that Mill is a much better guide to how a liberal should conduct himself than Hayek is. The agonistic liberal may or may not think that in a particular society drug laws should be more or less relaxed; John Gray thinks that in the United States they should be and in Japan they should not. What the agonistic liberal must think is only that his or her reasons for coming down in favor of a particular policy are not the deliverances of Reason.

Anyone who insists on the impotence of moral argument with the energy that John Gray does can easily look like someone who has given up on argument altogether. The reality is more subtle. Subtlety is not John Gray’s forte, however, and his tub-thumping style does his argument few favors. He has never embraced Mill’s advice to construct on our opponents’ behalf the strongest arguments we can before we try to demolish them. Gray draws distinctions with a hatchet rather than a scalpel, and is entirely unpersuasive when he attributes most of the failings of the modern world to the Enlightenment. Like other critics in the same vein, he much exaggerates the degree to which the writers we group as “Enlightenment” thinkers actually held the same views, just as he exaggerates Isaiah Berlin’s hostility to the Enlightenment. Berlin himself was decidedly surprised to be cast in the role of the Nietzsche of All Souls in an earlier book of John Gray’s.6

Nonetheless his book is a pleasure to read. He writes with a noisy energy that would be tiring in large doses but it never comes in large doses, because one of Gray’s virtues is brevity; another is briskness, and a third is clarity. The fourth is that he picks large and interesting topics and says arresting things about them. If the detail is chaotic, Gray’s larger commitments are clear, many are entirely sensi-ble, and anyone who has ever taken pleasure in the tough-mindedness of Thomas Hobbes will enjoy Two Faces of Liberalism.

As we have seen, Professor Gray’s target is what he calls “the Enlightenment project,” that is, the wish to institute a single, worldwide civilization. If such an ambition was not shared by Enlightenment thinkers such as Montesquieu, Diderot, Voltaire, and Rousseau, something like it was made fashionable a dozen years ago by Francis Fukuyama in The End of History, and it provides Gray with something more than a straw man. Borrowing from Berlin, Gray argues that the belief in such a convergence is part of the optimistic but entirely erroneous view that just as physicists from throughout the world will converge on one and only one theory about quarks on the one hand and the first moments of the universe on the other, so all rational, clear-minded, and fully informed men and women will agree on the nature of individual happiness on the one hand and on the best constitutional, legal, and economic arrangements on the other.

This anti-Enlightenment line of argument can lead to the conservative view that morality is simply a question of community sentiment. If the members of a community agree on the appropriateness of the death penalty or on the primary importance of ethnic solidarity, their preference should be accepted as a valid moral attitude. But just as John Gray was never a card-carrying conservative, so he has never been an orthodox communitarian. Indeed, to the degree that he is a liberal, it is because he is energetically hostile to the communitarian obsession with “identity.” For the past twenty years, political theory in the American universities has devoted a vast amount of (largely wasted) energy to the so-called liberal–communitarian debate. It began with Michael Sandel’s criticism of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, but it picked up energy from two other and very different sources. One was the sentiment that the American obsession with individual rights had gone altogether too far, and that it was time to bring back a sense of responsibility to the wider society. The other was the demand by a larger number of racial, sexual, and other minorities for something they characterized as respect for their identity. John Gray has no time for the American obsession with rights, but he has even less time for the politics of identity.

There are two obvious objections to identity politics, and he makes both of them. The first is the way the politics of identity have worked out since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ethnic politics in the Balkans have been appalling in their destructiveness, and the intervention of the outside world has done little to improve matters. The allied intervention in Kosovo had some success in stopping the murder of Albanians by Serbs but has not been able to prevent the murder of Serbs and Macedonians by Albanians. One might, contemplating these horrors, hanker after the stability imposed by the Ottoman Empire. Momentarily, John Gray does so:

It would be far-fetched to think of the Ottoman Empire as a liberal regime. Its distinctive institution was the system of millets—religious communities that were recognized and protected by law, and which were granted jurisdiction over their own members. The millet system did not accord equality of status to non-Muslims or confer protection on non-monotheistic religions. Because it did not provide recognized rights of exit for individuals who wished to leave the communities of their birth, it failed to respect personal autonomy.

Though it disregarded some core liberal values, the Ottoman Empire was a regime of toleration. The system of millets protected a diversity of religions. Within a common framework, it enabled their practitioners to live under the legal jurisdiction of their own religious community. At its best, it was a system in which neither common identities nor ultimate loyalties were framed in ethnic terms.

Of course, there were aspects of the Ottoman Empire that remind us that the millet system was installed at a high price. Today, the Armenian genocide of 1915 is a subject of controversy, with the Turkish government doing its best to deny that an admitted massacre was in fact genocide. But the Ottoman Empire was sustained for centuries by brutality and torture; revolts in Greece, Albania, and Bulgaria were put down with the most disgusting cruelty, and the civil wars in the Balkans are at least partial evidence that the Ottoman system of keeping the peace among quarreling ethnicities was less than wholly successful. Still, John Gray himself acknowledges that where a state treats its own citizens with a sufficient degree of cruelty the case for intervention becomes hard to resist; he plainly does not mean to set up the Ottoman Empire as an example of anything more than one way of defusing religious strife.

The second objection to communitarianism, and the one that leads Gray in a liberal direction, is not these reflections on the conditions of peace among warring ethnicities but a fairly simple thought about individual identity. A man who thinks of himself as a Western European, with the tastes and intellectual interests of a professor of philosophy in Paris, and who remembers his Jewish grandmother with fondness, may, Gray observes, suddenly find himself treated by his Serbian or Croat neighbors as “really” a Bosnian Muslim after all. But he is no more a Bosnian Muslim than he is all the other things he values. To force one identity on him is an outrage to the reality of his condition; to demand that he should himself adopt some single identity is an outrage to his individuality. It may also be a way of getting him killed for reasons he has no say in. Since most of us have no choice about what communities we are born into,

belonging to a community is a matter of fate, not choice. A little thought on the history of the twentieth century should be enough to remind us that the ascription of community membership may be a matter of life and death. Any political ideal that neglects these realities can only be pernicious in its consequences.

At this point, Gray has to start siding with the Enlightenment against himself. He really holds two distinct views, both of which one can certainly find in Hobbes, and fragments of which one can certainly find in Isaiah Berlin—and perhaps in any writer who has an acute sense of the complexity of life. Only one of them, however, is the basis of a form of liberalism. The first applies to any pluralist society, whether that is a complicated modern society with a host of moral, religious, political, and social allegiances or the Roman Republic with a host of tribally organized peoples subjugated in war and governed more or less reluctantly. It is the view that peace is the fundamental value. Allowing different groups to pursue their own good in their own way is not a matter of principle but of prudence. Unoppressed and uninsulted, they will acquiesce in the authority of their rulers, and will not set about attacking their neighbors or causing other sorts of trouble.

This is the true politics of modus vivendi. It is a politics that sacrifices the desire to tell our neighbors how to live to the need for coexistence. The British do not need to harangue the Americans about their views on abortion, religion, monarchy, or the importance of worldly success in order to do business with them. As John Gray rightly says, what they need is common institutions that will settle the disagreements that need settling—commercial disputes, say, or the limits of extradition treaties; they do not need common values. Within a single society, the same thing is true; my neighbors and I do not need to worship one God, or to be of one mind about the doctrine of transubstantiation. What we do need to know is that neither of us will attempt to convert the other by force.

The rules that states must enforce are those that allow us to live with one another, knowing that the alternative is that we might kill one another instead. It is a view that promotes tolerance but not liberal toleration, since liberal toleration demands freedom of expression as a human right. But it makes a point that any sensible liberal will acknowledge very willingly: liberals need strong and efficient states, without which neither the rule of law nor mutual toleration is possible.

The second view is that human beings have multiple identities; they do not have to ask the state for permission to think their own thoughts and enjoy their own pleasures. They need to live in some sort of political system to survive, but they do not need the state in order to save their souls, refine their tastes, or establish their sexual allegiances. This is the view that the influential English political theorist Michael Oakeshott found in Hobbes, but that Gray, inexplicably, seems not to have found in Oakeshott—though he quotes Oakeshott with respect on other matters. The idea of multiple identities yields a disenchanted liberalism that many of us find very attractive; it emphasizes the self-reliance of the private self, and encourages an acceptance of the quirks and oddities of other people that may be a more solid foundation for toleration than any amount of legislation. Gray is quite right to see Oakeshott and Berlin as allies in espousing a liberalism of this sort.

Because Gray is eager to divide the world into two camps, himself in one and all misguided liberals in the other, he sometimes writes as though all the misguided liberals hold the same views—but he also attacks a sufficient variety of liberalisms to make it clear that he does not think anything of the sort. So it is worth noticing that many writers who share John Gray’s view that disagreement about the good life is simply inescapable come to drastically different conclusions about what follows from that disagreement. The most influential of these is John Rawls, who is often attacked by John Gray, both here and elsewhere.

Rawls holds that the existence of a variety of social groups, attached to very different conceptions of the meaning of life, is an inescapable fact of the modern world, and that whether or not it is true that there is no right answer to the old question “What is the best life for man?,” it is certainly true that none of us has the intellectual resources to persuade others that their ultimate commitments are just wrong. For Rawls, it follows that we should establish what he calls “political liberalism.” What political liberalism tries to imagine is the set of legal and political arrangements that will allow people who hold divergent comprehensive views to live together on mutually respectful terms. Unsurprisingly, these arrangements look remarkably like the basic provisions of the American Constitution.

But political liberalism involves more than the establishment of a peace treaty, and Rawls distinguishes it from the creation of a modus vivendi. Rawls thinks that in the modern world, we can rely on the religious and moral allegiances of the citizens of modern states to underpin a distinctively liberal state. To summarize brutally, he believes that both modern religions and secular moral beliefs share a concern for the individual’s conscience and for the integrity of the moral life that allows them to agree that whatever the truth about God, freedom, and immortality may be, we can all agree on the sanctity of conscience and the inviolability of the person, and these give us the structure of a system of rights within which our politics have to be practiced.7

It is this rights-based liberalism that John Gray dislikes. It is for him just one more version of the rationalist, Enlightenment optimism about the convergence of all sensible views. It is not that he has no time for human rights, and not that he has no time for the individual conscience. But rights, he thinks, are just the sort of thing that we must negotiate case by case and in particular situations; and which rights a given society needs—and can live with—is always up for discussion. In Britain, for instance, it is a legal requirement that schools hold during the school week some form of loosely religious “assembly” from which disbelievers may be exempt; in the United States, this would simply violate the accepted view of the separation of church and state. Britain is not a theocracy, indeed Britain is less religious and more generally secular in outlook than the United States, but British teachers and parents seem willing to tolerate a weekly session in which religious themes are discussed. Does Britain have more or less religious freedom than the United States? The question is unanswerable. They are, Gray would argue, simply two different societies taking two different approaches to religious liberty; and in his view there are no grounds for saying one is right and the other wrong.

All of which seems to me to be right, if a great deal less contentious than John Gray supposes, and perhaps less distant than he supposes from what an appreciative view of Rawls would lead to in practice. But in what sense he is offering a liberal view of his own remains somewhat unclear, just as his distaste for the Enlightenment is mysterious. It seems that he is in fact saying that in a modern society, we become the creatures that Hobbes and Oakeshott have described: people who are acutely aware of the contrast between our inner selves and our outer selves, and who hold slightly skeptical but not antisocial views about authority and legality.

In short, we are the sort of creatures that Enlightenment writers such as Montesquieu and Diderot said we were. We are not of one mind about the good life or the ideal society; but we are able with an effort to practice toleration and to treat each other with a certain respect for our differences. Notwithstanding Gray’s attempt to say otherwise, we are, that is, natural citizens of a liberal state.

  1. 1

    Benjamin Constant, De la liberté des anciens comparée à celle des modernes, in Political Writings (Cambridge University Press, 1998).

  2. 2

    Mill on Liberty: A Defence (London: Routledge, 1983).

  3. 3

    Hayek on Liberty (London: Routledge, third edition, 1983).

  4. 4

    Beyond the New Right: Markets, Government, and the Common Environment (London: Routledge, 1998).

  5. 5

    False Dawn (New Press, 1999).

  6. 6

    Isaiah Berlin (Princeton University Press, 1996).

  7. 7

    John Rawls, Political Liberalism (Columbia University Press, second edition, 1996).