This piece was originally published in the American Conservative.
In his Four Quartets, T. S. Eliot observes that “human kind cannot bear very much reality.” The British philosopher John Gray would concur; but for him, that’s no reason not to give it to them good and hard. The author of such works as Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths, and False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism, Gray is a remorseless puncturer of the comforting fairy tales man tells himself, offering much wisdom but little solace. But he does it in such bracing style that reading him becomes not a morose slog, but an invigorating quest for the truth. In this respect, Gray’s writing calls to mind Joseph Conrad, whose outlook he commends in his Seven Types of Atheism. With his newest book, Gray invites comparison to another dour Brit: Thomas Hobbes.
The New Leviathans: Thoughts After Liberalism seeks to understand today’s tumult—Antonio Gramsci’s “time of monsters”—by considering Hobbes’s midwifing of his own beast, the modern state. For Hobbes, whose Leviathan appeared in 1651 amid the English Civil War, the state allows us to put aside both the constant war of all against all over life’s basic necessities and conflicts over higher things, such as the best way to live, in favor of a new equilibrium of compromise. Every man can go about his business in safety, as long as he does not tamper with anyone else’s. This peaceful tension, however, is only made possible by the existence of the all-powerful state—the Leviathan—which keeps its subjects in check and holds back the state of nature.
Today’s Leviathans—Putin’s Russia, Xi’s China, and the progressive mob’s America—have eagerly kept all the power that Hobbes claimed for the state, but have done away with his strict boundaries around the state’s proper authority. Instead of securing the most basic liberties so that we can pursue our individual ends, the new Leviathans wage the very moral crusades Hobbes aimed to end and mean to force us into the collective ends our rulers have selected for us. This puts us in the worst of all possible worlds: We already gave up a more primitive freedom in return for the state’s provision of public order and safety; now, we risk losing our other freedoms as well, as tyrants seek to use that state for the perfection of man. Hobbes insisted there was no highest good, no summum bonum; today’s leaders confidently say that there is, that they know it, and that they’ll make sure you know it, too.