Can Europe Make It?: Opinion

John Gray: the nationalist philosopher stoking ‘culture wars’ fires

“He and his cohort are today’s intellectual agent-provocateurs, laying booby-traps for progressives.“

Jon Bloomfield
19 October 2020, 11.58am
John Gray at Brainwash Festivaal 2015
Wikicommons/Vera de Kok. Some rights reserved.

There’s a battle under way at the heart of British politics and reactionaries are in the ascendancy. With the Brexit wind in their sails, when an issue of history or culture comes into prominence, they set the terms of the debate. Whether it is the singing of Land of Hope and Glory and Rule Britannia on the closing night of the Proms; history teaching in schools; statues in public spaces: the Right has a consistent story to tell and they find plenty of places to say it. Whether it is tub-thumpers like Richard Littlejohn, Rod Liddle and Toby Young; opportunist academics like Matthew Goodwin and Eric Kaufman; or Etonian intellectuals like Douglas Murray and David Goodhart, they tell a common story about Britain’s proud past that is now being trashed by ‘metropolitan liberal elitists’ and the ‘woke’ mob who are threatening our ancient liberties.

In response, progressives are allowing themselves to be distracted and pigeon-holed, ignoring the economic and social content of many women’s, race and environmental issues or paying excessive attention to relatively fringe topics. In the process, the traditional alliance between manual workers, the public sector and middle class intellectuals is being torn asunder to the delight of the cultural conservatives.

A pivotal but rarely discussed figure in this assault has been John Gray. He made his name as a philosopher and author but since his academic retirement has achieved wider prominence as a political commentator. He has been a regular contributor and main feature writer at the New Statesman for almost a decade and more recently a regular columnist for ‘Unherd’, the Conservative on-line web-site. His assessments and analyses are hostile to the left and overwhelmingly gloomy about the prospects for any progressive change, whether in Britain or across the world. A set of consistent themes run through his regular, lengthy essays. They have been uncontested within the New Statesman’s pages over the decade and have been instrumental in its shift away from being a heterogeneous – but confirmed – journal of the Left. Both here, and in his more apocalyptic columns in ‘Unherd’, Gray has been one of the intellectual leaders of the nationalist Right, where his academic record lends additional weight and gravitas to his writing.

‘Third Way’ paves the way

At the heart of Gray’s thinking lies the belief that there is no inevitable progress in history and that there are no universal liberal values. In the decades following the fall of communism in 1989, almost the entire Western political Establishment bought into the Fukayama thesis that this represented ‘the end of history’, that conflicts between contending classes and ideologies were over and that the whole world was set on a liberal, capitalist path. This view was most fervently promulgated by fundamentalist free marketeers – in the UK by Thatcherites and in the US by the neo-Conservatives of the Project for the New American Century – and they exported their ideas with zealous abandon – and considerable profit - into the old Soviet bloc. However, the general tenets of Fukayama’s thinking were also endorsed and amplified by the most senior politicians from the centre and social democratic Left.

The philosophy of former US president Bill Clinton and British ex-premier Tony Blair dominated the intellectual and political world of the 1990s. Blair’s ‘Third Way’ was not a new, more right-wing version of social democracy but, rather, a clean break from it. As Peter Mandelson saw it, the era of class conflict was over. For a period it was plausible to believe that capitalism had abolished its own contradictions; but the financial crisis of 2007-8 left this belief in tatters. It showed that Labour and its ‘third way’ European followers had got both the economics and sustainability of modern capitalism wrong, mistaking a temporary phenomenon for a permanent one. Many – but not all – have spent the next decade struggling to rectify their error.

The anti-globalisation backlash

The failings of neo-liberal triumphalism have rightly been grist to Gray’s mill. As popular discontents grew and with the mainstream left compromised, it has been primarily the nationalist Right that has benefited. Campaigning against unfettered, wholesale globalisation, they have shaped politics, above all by re-defining economic and social issues through the prism of nation, culture and identity.

The specifics have varied – from Donald Trump and Nigel Farage through Viktor Orban and Marine Le Pen to Matteo Salvini – but the core story has been the same. In the campaign for the 2017 French presidency, Le Pen styled the election as a battle of “patriots” on her side against “globalists” like Emmanuel Macron on the other. She said only she understood the “forgotten” peripheral France, hit by unemployment, fearing for the future and neglected by the “privileged elites” of cosmopolitan cities. The last decade has seen unparalleled successes for this nationalist Right across the West, while authoritarian nationalisms drawing on ancient, religious traditions have extended their influence elsewhere, as in Russia, India and Turkey.

What is surprising is the number of influential voices who have simply accepted this far-right model and adopted its language and terminology wholesale. Gray has been prominent among them. He had been a Thatcherite, but his brand of careful scepticism led him to distance himself from their post-89 triumphalism and to ‘get off the train’ at the peak of its power. He correctly believed that there remained many sources of conflict across the world and that such global triumphalism was misconceived.

Flowing from this disquiet at supposed western omnipotence, Gray strongly opposed the neo-Conservative war against Saddam Hussain in Iraq. This reinforced his belief in a simple binary divide: the global choice was either neo-liberal hyper-globalisation or a patriotic nationalism. The Brexit argument has served to crystallise and harden his thinking. He never considers that there might be different types of globalisation. He shows little interest or sympathy in movements of resistance from the Left. Rather, he has adopted a variant of the Thatcherite mantra: as there is no alternative to globalisation, the only option is to reject it. This binary world allows for no shades of grey.

Screenshot 2020-10-19 at 11.59.59.png
John Gray interviewed on Unherd, July 22, 2020. | Screenshot

The unchanging nation state

While Gray has no time for liberal universalism, he sees one institution as retaining eternal value and allegiance, the nation state, expressing “unchanging human needs for security and identity” (New Statesman 23 May 2018). Everything else is contingent and changeable, but the nation state and its core values are supposedly constant and immutable, and merit unreserved support: and nowhere more so than with the United Kingdom. He concludes his post-EU referendum essay by asserting that “the antiquated British state will still be standing after the EU has fallen apart.” (1 July 2016).

Without evidence, he claims that “liberal or socialist, the progressive mind detests national identity with passionate intensity” (3 April 2020). This fixation on the eternal values of the nation state remains, to use Gray’s own phrase, his “strange nostalgic vision.” But this focus is on national states that actually exist. The prospect of new ones that break the current mould has to be resisted. Thus, he confidently asserts that “once Britain has left the EU, Scottish independence ceases to be a credible option.” (8 July 2020).

However, the fast-changing characteristics of the modern world affect all institutions, including nation states. They have to adapt too, both by devolving power internally to their cities and regions – as has been increasingly happening across Europe – and cooperating externally. In the interdependent twenty-first century world, small and medium-sized countries need to work together. Gray simply doesn’t recognise this reality.

In his recent long TV interview with ‘Unherd’, Gray asserts that post-Brexit, the UK can and should “maximise its strategic freedom”. The protracted Brexit negotiations and in particular the UK’s tangled relationship with Ireland have shown how dated is the nineteenth century rhetoric of sovereignty, and how unable it is to cope with the economic and social interconnections of the twenty-first century world. Along with his nationalist co-thinkers like Brendan Simms – “the UK has reasserted complete sovereignty by leaving the EU” (8 July 2016) – Gray refuses to recognise that medium-sized countries have to combine together to have leverage in a globalising world. The recent episode with the Chinese telecoms company Huawei showed the limits of our sovereignty as US pressure explicitly forced the UK government to change its policy of allowing Huawei major access to the UK’s 5G network.

The economic blindspot

Such claims regarding national sovereignty go hand in hand with Gray saying so very little about economics. He rarely enquires about the processes of economic integration which prevent twenty-first century economies and ecologies from being put back into a national box. That is as true for Britain as it is for the rest of Europe. Modern economies have grown beyond the confines of the nation state. Economies of scale, cross-European supply chains and integrated production are the reality which Gray – along with a raft of Blue Labour pundits – has to deny. They are the reason 10,000 lorries a day pass through Dover.

Gray fails to acknowledge these processes. Hence, his delighted assertion in his assessment of the pandemic (NS 3 April 2020) that we are now in a period of ‘de-globalisation.’ “Globalisation begat the de-globalisation that is now under way” he asserts. In this he mirrors from the opposite end of the spectrum, The Economist – global cheerleader for neo-liberal, hyper-globalisation. It headlined its May 16 issue, ‘Goodbye globalisation’, its editorial warning that “a more nationalistic and self-sufficient era beckons.” Here we find the leading gurus feeding off each other in their simplistic, binary prognoses.

Much more likely is an acceleration of trends already happening, which will result in a more diverse globalisation, less uniquely dependent on cheap Chinese production. The changes under way with the neo-liberal model of hyper-globalisation will be accelerated after the pandemic, but cross-border trade will continue along with the common models and standards that underpin it. The fiasco of the stand-alone, British coronavirus app during the pandemic serves as a salutary reminder of the follies of isolation. After all the bravado about this world-beating innovation, it was realised that to be effective it would have to be inter-operable with other systems, otherwise it would be useless when Brits travel abroad. The UK app was quietly dropped. It has now re-emerged, no longer as a stand-alone but using Apple and Google’s technology which makes it compatible with similar apps operating across Europe.

The fiasco of the stand-alone, British coronavirus app during the pandemic serves as a salutary reminder of the follies of isolation.

Nothing beyond the nation

Like the vast majority of nationalists of both Right and Left, Gray reserves his greatest enmity and contempt for the European Union, delighting in its shortcomings – of which there are many – and minimising its successes. He mischaracterises it: it’s not a neo-liberal club, “structured to make social democracy impossible.” The EU spends over a third of its budget on addressing structural inequalities and promoting social cohesion, while its social chapter stipulates a maximum 48 hour working week that successive UK governments have refused to endorse. In the Jacques Delors era, the EU mantra was to combine economic efficiency with social justice. It’s been politics, with the hegemony of neo-liberalism, not its institutional structures, that has prevented the EU from continuing in this political direction in the post-Delors era.

Gray has long predicted the EU’s collapse. It is “clearly unreformable” and “can never change.” (13 Feb 2015). In July 2016 he wrote about its “accelerated unravelling” and called it a “failed experiment.” In April 2020 he is hedging his bets. Its disintegration is “not unrealistic” but now it may survive like the Holy Roman Empire as “a phantom that lingers on for generations while power is exercised elsewhere.” In response to the pandemic, the EU broke from the orthodoxies of Germanic ordo-liberalism and agreed to unprecedented borrowing on the capital markets and major financial transfers across the Union in a huge €750 billion green recovery programme. (Remarkable what can happen when the Brits aren’t in the room.)

Like Nigel Farage, Gray looks forward to the collapse of the EU. It is an outcome he would welcome. For an author given to broad historical sweep, what is amazing is that he remains silent on its likely consequences. The return to a Europe of nation states would only serve to benefit Russia and America in the short-term. However, given the economic strength and size of a unified Germany, over time it would mean the end of a European Germany and the return of a German Europe. That historical perspective should give Gray some pause for thought: but that type of reflection remains absent from his writings.

The political destination

The politics arising from Gray’s theoretical and philosophical framework unsurprisingly flows in just one direction, that of the hard, nationalist Right. Repeatedly, in his New Statesman writing, liberals and progressives of all kinds are branded as neo-liberals who wholeheartedly endorse hyper globalisation. We read about “the liberal political class”, “liberals in all parties”, the “liberal elites” (NS 14 August 2019). Furthermore, these politicians merit scorn and contempt. They are “the progressive thinkers in all the main parties”, “the advanced minds”, the “‘bienpensants’” (NS 1 July 2016). Their globalisation story is “the future to which progressive thinkers cling”, “the progressive mantra,” to which “higher minds” aspire (NS 3 April 2020). This is the rhetoric of an upmarket Farage.

In fact, there are countless progressive politicians, policy-makers and writers who are liberal and progressive on democratic and social issues but also oppose neo-liberalism and campaign for greater state intervention in the economy. I suspect that many New Statesman as well as openDemocracy readers fall within this category. Gray ignores political and social movements such as Syriza and Podemos, which have resisted the neo-liberal wave, or the European governments in Portugal and Spain that sought to temper it. With its Eurosceptic ‘socialism in one country’ Bennism, Corbyn Labour leadership thinking could have fitted the Gray template, but Gray treated this with utter contempt. Trade unionism barely features in his writings; nor women’s movements.

More recently he has been directing his fire at the new social movements in general, the ‘social justice warriors’. Although the ‘tribe’ is never clearly identified, with sweeping generalisation he writes that “the new tribe of alt-liberals reject the historic inheritance of liberalism as an obstacle to progress, with free expression attacked as a bulwark of oppression” (23 May 2018). A year later (14 August 2019) he castigates “The persecution of academics who depart from prevailing intellectual orthodoxies on race, gender and empire” and claims that “ultra-liberals often lead the Inquisition.”

Gray is making claims about persecution and inquisition that are historically preposterous and deeply insulting to their victims. He continues in similar vein more recently in Unherd (17 June 2020) claiming “woke insurgents aim to enforce a single worldview by the pedagogic use of fear. The rejection of liberal freedoms concludes with the tyranny of the righteous mob.” Here, Gray simply regurgitates the age-old fear of Burkean conservatives at the sight of large numbers of people campaigning openly against injustice. The inflammatory and intemperate language designed to instigate a cultural war against Black Lives Matter and other campaigners shows how swift is the descent from lofty intellectual perch down to the populist gutter.

Gray simply regurgitates the age-old fear of Burkean conservatives at the sight of large numbers of people campaigning openly against injustice.

Of course, there is a dangerous sectarianism within parts of these movements and the wider left that must be countered. Much of this venom is directed at other progressives, not at the Right. For example, the Labour Campaign for Trans Rights directs its activities against Women’s Place UK and other so-called ‘trans exclusionist hate groups’ and demands their expulsion from the Labour Party. Similarly, there are some within the Black Lives Matter movement who propose the narrowest kind of identity politics, where solidarity is impossible because only direct, personal experience counts. Then there is ultra-leftist posturing by those like Pankaj Mishra who claims that “opposition to Black Lives Matter is as deeply entrenched among liberals as well as white supremacists” (Guardian Review 24 July 2020). None of this means that these movements against women’s and racial oppression should be condemned, but rather that progressives within them need to argue and stand forcefully against sectarianism, dogmatism and crude identity politics.

Rupturing the left coalition

So why does all this matter? It’s because Gray’s apocalyptic politics fits a wider narrative and purpose. He wants to ensure the permanent rupture of Labour’s broad coalition. Attlee, Wilson and Blair led Labour to government through a policy platform that could appeal to the industrial working class, the public sector, the middle strata of society and the progressive, liberal-minded intelligentsia. This has become harder over the last forty years as the vast economic changes brought about by the IT revolution and accelerated by the ravages of Thatcherite de-industrialisation, have resulted in a shrinking of the traditional working class. Blair temporarily reconstructed that alliance in 1997 but his disdain for ‘Old Labour’ and the economic and social issues affecting working class areas perpetuated their structural decline. Mandelson and co. thought ‘Old Labour’ had nowhere else to go. It was no surprise that those sections of the UK electorate exacted their revenge in the 2016 EU referendum.

The task for Labour and indeed all progressives is how to put together a broad alliance fit for the conditions of the twenty-first century. There is a reform agenda that a broad spectrum of progressives – social democrats, democratic socialists, liberal pro-Europeans and greens – can develop. Many have shed the neo-liberal illusions of the Blair era, while the pandemic has reinforced the basic social democratic arguments for active government and public investment in the economy. The climate crisis gives added force to this narrative. There is significant scope to develop a pluralist, environmental social democratic framework that offers a way to apply progressive values in a twenty-first century setting and gather widespread electoral support.

There are a cohort of commentators and academics along with Gray – David Goodhart, Matthew Goodwin, Eric Kaufmann – for whom this is anathema. They want to prevent this, so they present Labour with a stark, binary choice. As Gray explains it, Starmer’s electoral imperative is to create “a value-based version of class politics” (8 July 2020). Decoded, that means ignoring the key economic and social issues but instead focusing on national identity, patriotism and culture; or, as the original Blue Labour slogan put it, ‘flag, faith and family.’ He claims the alternative is to pursue “the cultural warfare of identity politics” which he asserts is the goal of the majority of Labour party members, who come from the “progressive bourgeoisie” or as Kaufmann calls them, “the middle-class, elitist left.”

In fact, campaigning on green issues and for women’s, ethnic minority and civil rights is central to any modern, progressive agenda. The task for a modernised social democracy is how to combine them with core concerns of employment, poverty and inequality. In other words, how to create a politics that unifies and does not divide. Gray like his co-thinkers deliberately caricatures social movement activists as the “bourgeoisie” when the reality is that they are mainly office workers and professionals earning their living through paid labour or self-employment, students or pensioners – to coin a phrase ‘the squeezed middle.’ Tellingly, Gray never mentions the real bourgeoisie, the 1% of global movers and shakers, the media moguls, hedge fund managers and directors of the new commercial giants – Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft. But that’s because the purpose of this language is not to illuminate the class and power realities of today’s world but rather to use superficially socialist terminology in order to foster divisions in progressive ranks.

Bleak divisions

Gray still offers some acute observations on the state of the world although his belief in “universal human rights not as an ideal constitution.. but as a set of minimum standards for peaceful co-existence” (Two Faces of Liberalism) seems long forgotten. He used to be a sceptical voice for progressives to wrestle with but increasingly he is devoid of clear political propositions, other than a grim Hobbesian belief in the nation state. In his recent long interview with Unherd, even his sympathetic interviewer Freddie Sayers responds by sighing, “it’s all a bit bleak, John.”

Frequently, he resorts to shallow polemic and unsubstantiated diatribes underpinned by plenty of pessimism, of both the intellect and the will. He has helped turn the New Statesman into a sceptical, non-Labour journal, but the rest of the liberal, progressive and socialist world should resist the agenda he sets out. He and his cohort are today’s intellectual agent-provocateurs, laying booby-traps for progressives.

Instead of falling for the traps, progressives should expose the key arguments behind their thinking and pursue an agenda for broad social change. In this they would do well to follow the advice of the country’s most accomplished socialist intellectual, Stuart Hall, who wrote of the need for progressives to address the range of antagonisms within society and bring them together in a common project. Hall’s message from three decades ago still stands. Rather than confected cultural wars, the priority for liberals, progressives and socialists is to tackle the country’s profound economic, social and democratic shortcomings by promoting alliances that bring citizens together rather than drive them apart.

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