Thomas Hobbes was one of the most clear-eyed and therefore one of the bleakest of social philosophers. He had no illusions about the innate goodness of humankind in its primal form. Indeed, left to their own devices, in the state of nature and “without a common Power to keep them all in awe,” he wrote in Leviathan (1651), people will exist “in that condition which is called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man”—the English version of the famous formulation that every schoolboy used to know: Bellum omnium contra omnes. And in this drear condition, the life of man will be “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.”
It may seem strange to someone who “has not well weighed these things” that nature should “render men apt to invade, and destroy one another,” and it is true that this lamentable state of affairs, which can come about at any time, is not inevitable but is consequent on the lack of a supreme ruler:
The Desires, and other Passions of man, are in themselves no Sin. No more are the Actions, that proceed from those Passions, till they know a Law that forbids them: which till Lawes be made they cannot know: nor can any Law be made, till they have agreed upon the Person that shall make it. [Italics added.]
And to arrive at that agreement, the people must coalesce into a kind of unitary being, to which Hobbes gave the name Leviathan—after the mysterious beast mentioned half a dozen times in the Old Testament—and submit wholly to a sovereign power. In The New Leviathans, John Gray, former professor at Oxford and the London School of Economics and a visiting professor at Harvard and Yale, explains, “It [does] not matter whether the sovereign [is] a king or a president, a parliament or a tyrant.” What is required is a state with unfettered powers that will “secure a condition of ‘commodious living’ in which industry, science and the arts could flourish in peace.”
Hobbes was born in 1588, the son of a vicar, in Malmesbury, in the southwest of England. His was a premature birth: his mother, according to John Aubrey in his Brief Lives (1669–1696), “fell in labour with him upon the fright of the Invasion of the Spaniards,” a reference to the Spanish Armada. In an autobiographical poem, Hobbes described himself as a “poor worm” and wrote, “My mother dear did bring forth twins at once, both me and fear.” He was for many years in the service of the wealthy and powerful Cavendish family at Chatsworth, their great house in Derbyshire. He then was tutor to the Prince of Wales, the future Charles II, who, according to Aubrey, delighted in the philosopher’s “witt and smart repartees” and at the Restoration, in 1660, granted him a pension of £100 a year but conveniently sometimes forgot to pay it.
In 1640, feeling that his philosophical stance had put him in danger of his life with the English authorities, Hobbes moved to Paris, where he remained for eleven years. It was in France that he began work on Leviathan, at least partly in response to the civil war at home between the royalists and the parliamentarians that broke out in 1642. The book is certainly much concerned with “a time of Warre, where every man is Enemy to every man.”
Gray aptly appends the passages quoted above about war and the mean life of man as an epigraph to the first chapter of The New Leviathans. The overall premise of the book is that while in the centuries after Hobbes’s death it seemed that he had been mistaken about the necessity for absolute state power, since states emerged in which power was curbed by laws, “today, states have cast off many of the restraints of the liberal era.” The “new Leviathans,” such as China and Russia, are not ones that Hobbes would recognize, however:
The goals of Hobbes’s Leviathan were strictly limited. Beyond securing its subjects against one another and external enemies, it had no remit. The purposes of the new Leviathans are more far-reaching. In a time when the future seems profoundly uncertain, they aim to secure meaning in life for their subjects. Like the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century, the new Leviathans are engineers of souls.
The result has been “the return of the state of nature in artificial forms,” that state in which Hobbes in Leviathan saw men endlessly at one another’s throats, in “continuall feare, and danger of violent death.” This is the case not only in the East, Gray writes: in the West, too, “rival groups seek to capture the power of the state in a new war of all against all between self-defined collective identities.” The result is that “a liberal civilization based on the practice of tolerance has passed into history”:
In schools and universities, education inculcates conformity with the ruling progressive ideology. The arts are judged by whether they serve approved political goals. Dissidents from orthodoxies on race, gender and empire find their careers terminated and their public lives erased. This repression is not the work of governments. The ruling catechisms are formulated and enforced by civil society.
Numerous factors contributed to our present predicament, but Gray traces it back to what seemed to so many the dawn of a new and genuinely liberal era: the collapse of the Soviet Union, which began in 1989 and continued over the decade or so that followed. During this post–cold war period, the likes of Francis Fukuyama were predicting the “end of history” and the triumph of Western liberal democracy. Ah, yes, those were the days, we say now; but they were not the days we thought they were.
Hobbes, despite the bleakness of his doctrines, was a liberal, Gray reminds us, “the only one, perhaps, still worth reading,” and the only one who “can explain why the liberal experiment came to an end.” While Hobbes insisted that society is made up of individuals who can assert themselves against the state; that no one has a divine right to rule over others; that human nature is universal and differences of cultural identity are insignificant; that government can be improved and human beings, as Gray writes, “can overcome their conflicts, and learn to live in peace,” at the same time the author of Leviathan “put for a generall inclination of all mankind, a perpetuall and restlesse desire of Power after power, that ceaseth onely in Death.”
Gray does not quite agree. Echoing Nietzsche, he suggests that “not love of power but fear was the primordial human passion.” And certainly the instilling of fear is one of the main strategies of the new Leviathans, whether in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Xi Jinping’s China, Donald Trump’s America, or the classrooms and common rooms of many of the West’s educational institutions of the present day.
Hobbes’s prose, Gray observes, “has a lapidary finality that reflects his decisive turn of mind”; he might be describing his own writing style in The New Leviathans. His is a calm, exacting voice, which does not rise above its measured tone even when he is relating the most egregious excesses of the past or delivering the direst predictions for the future. No Cassandra has ever spoken with such studied reserve, which makes his message all the more persuasive.
One part of that message is that the Fukuyamaists’ belief that history would end, indeed had already ended, in peaceful and universal democracy, was as ill-founded as Marx’s prediction of the inevitable collapse of capitalism and the triumph of international communism.* On the contrary, Gray writes, there is no prospect of one form of government replacing all others. The politics of the future will be much as politics has always been:
There will be monarchies and republics, nations and empires, tyrannies and theocracies, along with many mixed regimes and stateless zones where there is no government at all. The world of the future will be like that of the past, with disparate regimes interacting with one another in a condition of global anarchy.
Gray displays his accustomed mastery in the examples he adduces in support of his contentions. One of the not inconsiderable pleasures to be derived from this, as from all his books, is in following him along the obscure pathways he traverses, in the course of which he encounters all manner of curious characters and offers all sorts of fascinating and often terrifying statistics.
He notes, for instance, that in Russia in 1895 the Okhrana, the tsarist secret police, had 161 operatives; by 1916 the number had increased to 15,000. This figure may seem large, but not in comparison with the ever-burgeoning ranks of Lenin’s postrevolutionary secret police, which had 23 agents in 1917, 37,000 in 1919, and in 1921 “around a quarter of a million.” Then there are the deaths. Between 1867 and 1917, some 25,000 people in the tsarist empire died in pogroms or were executed; by contrast, “in the first five years of the Soviet state’s existence, there were around 200,000 executions by the Cheka,” as well as countless fatalities in the civil war between the Reds and the Whites and in prison and labor camps. Confronted with such numbers, the mind reels.
Gray provides these estimates in the course of a consideration of the legacy Putin inherited from the days of the Soviet Union. “The FSB,” he writes, “the successor to the KGB and the Cheka, forms the skeleton of the twenty-first-century Russian state.” This is hardly a startling assertion, but what will impress and surely shock many readers is the account Gray gives of the highly significant influence of the Orthodox Church in contemporary Russia, which Putin has defined as a “third Rome.”
The notion of the Russian state as the last bastion of Christian virtue in the face of a corrupt and iniquitous West is not new. Gray quotes the Russian philosopher Nicolai Berdyaev’s assertion in 1937 that “the doctrine of Moscow the Third Rome became the basic idea on which the Muscovite state was formed,” while a commentator in the 1990s suggested that “the Russian Orthodox Church has of late come to occupy the ideological niche filled until recently by the Communist Party.” Religion is pervasive in Putin’s domain: according to a source cited by Gray, “mobile temples accompany intercontinental ballistic missiles, and nuclear submarines have their portable churches.”
One of the numerous figures whom Gray plucks from relative obscurity is Konstantin Leontiev, who as well as being a journalist and a novelist—and an energetic bisexual—was “a censor in the service of the tsarist state.” He was an avowed antiliberal, yet he repudiated nationalism and race-based politics and “proposed that the tsarist system should impose an autocratic socialism, which would be the new feudalism of which he dreamt.” Leontiev believed, as did his near contemporary Nietzsche, that life has meaning only as an aesthetic enterprise. Above all he loathed the bourgeoisie, and wrote that “the tail-coat is the mourning dress the West has adopted out of grief for her magnificent, religious, aristocratic and artistic past.” Of course, Leontiev’s dream of a feudalist-socialist Muscovite state was not to be; as Gray writes, “Russia became an impoverished version of the bourgeois world Leontiev despised.”
In contrast to Putin’s historical mythologizing, the Chinese president Xi Jinping’s “project of nation-building originates in the illiberal West.” One of the unlikely-seeming thinkers whose work, Gray tells us, has influenced China’s social strategists of today is the German jurist and unrepentant Nazi Carl Schmitt. While Western thinkers such as Hobbes and Leo Strauss are closely studied in China, “Schmitt is seen by many Chinese intellectuals as having most to teach.” In 2020 a Chinese law professor, Chen Duanhong, invoked him in a speech in Hong Kong, “arguing that exercising China’s sovereign authority to extinguish liberal freedoms in the former British colony was no more than the state securing its own future.”
Schmitt, like Hobbes, believed that “law is made by the sovereign,” Gray writes, but while Hobbes held that the purpose of the state is the protection of the individual from harm, “Schmitt tasked the state with the protection of a unified people”—and if Xi has one aim, it is the welding of the Chinese people into, well, a Leviathan, with him as its head.
However, Gray writes, whether or not Chinese scholars have read Jeremy Bentham—and surely they have—his doctrines could be the model for Xi’s aim of total control over the populace:
If anyone can be said to have originated the project of a surveillance society, it was Jeremy Bentham. The Panopticon was not only an ideal prison designed to keep inmates under observation at all times. It was intended for many other institutions—factories, workhouses, school, hospitals and asylums—in fact, all of society.
Xi’s project, Hobbesian and Benthamite to the core, may succeed, Gray suggests, by “using illiberal Western ideas to bury the remains of the liberal West.” However, that will depend not least on whether the earth retains at least some environmental stability. In a section entitled “The Passing of the Anthropocene,” he indulges in some of his most chilling speculations on the future of the world and human survival.
It is all very well to prate about the need to move from fossil fuels to sustainable energy, but as Gray notes, the former account today for 80 percent of the world’s energy supply, and “phasing them out completely would ruin states that rely on them for revenues.” These states include, for instance, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Russia: should they go broke, “the upshot would be anarchy,” with ethnic and sectarian groups “contending for whatever resources remained of marketable value.”
Hobbes, Gray tells us, though “soaked in the classics,” scorned philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, because they mistook words for things. “Imagining that abstractions conjured up by language were independently existing realities,” Gray writes, “they led the human mind into millennia of feeble self-deception.” In the last of a list of seven ways by which we allow language to topple us into absurdity, Hobbes in Leviathan writes of the “names that signifie nothing; but are taken up, and learned by rote from the Schooles, as hypostatical, transubstantiate, consubstantiate, eternal-Now, and the like canting of Schoolemen.” We now are again at the mercy of those who confuse word with thing, polemic with action.
Gray heads the section “Words and Demons” with a quotation from Hobbes that is trenchantly apposite to our times: “The universities have been to the nation, as the wooden horse was to the Trojans.” Discerning similarities between prerevolutionary tsarist Russia and the twenty-first century, Gray lists one of these as “the rise of an antinomian intelligentsia, which professes to instruct society by deconstructing its institutions and values”—what Julien Benda in his prophetic 1927 book of the same name defined as la trahison des clercs, the betrayal by the intellectuals of their duty to probity and authenticity. Gray writes:
In the history of religion, antinomians assert that salvation can be achieved only by rejecting rules imposed by the Church and obeying the voice of the spirit….
There are parallels between medieval millenarian and modern revolutionary movements. Millenarians believed the new age would be ushered in by God, modern revolutionaries by “humanity.”
As Gray notes elsewhere in the book, the very notion of “humanity,” or “Humanity,” is a category error: “The idea of ‘humanity’ confuses ‘a living creature’—the multitudinous human animal—with ‘a general thing.’” The “we” implicit in our use of the term “humanity” does not exist. “God is also inexistent, but no more so than Humanity. Both can only be defined by their absence.” The very notion of Humanity is “a dangerous fiction,” as Hobbes and also Spinoza noted—the latter “rejected Aristotle’s idea that human beings could be better or worse exemplars of humanness,” Gray writes, and continues: “When some human beings are identified as being less human than others, it is a small step to eliminating them.”
Gray’s new Leviathans are not all coherent, centralized political regimes. In the book’s final chapter, “Mortal Gods,” he tackles, with a keen focus, the thorny topic of what has come to be known under the general heading of “woke.” Gray sees this movement—if so diverse and heterogeneous a phenomenon can be called a movement—which has been dreamed up and promoted by “hyper-liberals” who constitute the present-day “antinomian intelligentsia,” as providing “an ersatz faith for those who cannot live without the hope of universal salvation inculcated by Christianity.” It is also, however, on the secular level, “a revolt of the professional bourgeoisie.” As late capitalism delivers more and more of the world’s wealth into the hands of a very few plutocrats, many middle-class professionals—“university professors, media figures, lawyers, charity workers, community activists and officers in non-governmental organizations”—find their earnings dwindling and their status in society deteriorating.
The result of this crisis is a scramble for the positions and powers that used to be the birthright of an educated elite. Now there are more elites than Western economies can cope with, absorb, or sufficiently reward. In this milieu, being woke is a wise career move: “By advertising their virtue, redundant graduates hope to gain a foothold on the crumbling ladder that leads to safety as one of society’s guardians.”
In particular, Gray observes, “the university campus is the model for an inquisitorial regime that has extended its reach throughout society”—resorting to some of the same inquisitorial and dictatorial measures employed by the totalitarian regimes that most of the self-professed “woke” would vigorously deplore. He cites the University of California at Berkeley’s Rubric for Assessing Candidate Contributions to Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging, which stipulates that a low score will be allotted to any job applicant who “states the intention of ignoring the varying backgrounds of their students and ‘treating everyone the same.’” And this, mark you, is Berkeley, which used to see itself as the very foundry of democratic liberal values.
As Gray points out, those who consider themselves “woke” imagine the movement they promote to be a global phenomenon, a sort of stateless state with coercive and disciplinary powers. However, “beyond the Anglosphere, in China, the Middle East, India, Africa and most of continental Europe, it is regarded with indifference, bemusement or contempt.” Nor does the woke phenomenon itself have a global outlook. In its strictures on racism, for instance, it “provincialize[s] a universal evil”:
A critique of racism cannot be based on twenty-first-century American theories of “whiteness.” The Holocaust has not ceased to be an unparalleled crime because those who were murdered in it were “white.” The Rwandan genocide of 1994 and massacres of Muslims in the Balkan wars after the breakup of Yugoslavia were racist atrocities. The Russian attempt to eradicate Ukrainian culture in occupied territories is a racist enterprise, as is the Chinese attempt to obliterate the Tibetans, the Uighurs and other minority peoples.
Evil speaks in many tongues other than English.
The New Leviathans is a sober and sobering reminder of what we lose when we abandon traditional liberalism in favor of new and exclusive certainties that are based on nothing certain.
Measured though he may be, Gray on occasion makes a viperish pounce: “The problem with Hegel’s interpretation of history is not that it is not true but that its prognostications are consistent with almost any turn of events. Fukuyama’s have at least the virtue of being false.” Yet he grants, if with palpable condescension, that Fukuyama’s thinking does produce “occasional insights.” ↩