There’s little worse than being right at the wrong time. Back in 1995, John Gray predicted the rise of Donald Trump. Communism had crumbled, democracy was spreading and globalisation looked unstoppable. But in “Enlightenment’s Wake” the political philosopher argued that the Western-led global order had already sown the seeds of its destruction. His newly-relevant book holds lessons for today’s despairing liberals.
Gray predicted that, despite advances in science and technology, the 21st century would see the return of ethnic and religious conflict, authoritarian regimes and great power rivalries. The growth of knowledge advances human power, but leaves men as they always were: “weak, savage and in thrall to every kind of fantasy and delusion.”
This insight spawned an uncanny series of forecasts. Gray foresaw the destruction of the middle class as global trade and capital flows tore apart stable communities and opened a schism between voters and governing elites. The rise of political correctness would provoke a violent backlash, while the return of fascism would threaten liberal values.
Meanwhile in Russia, an authoritarian leader would emerge from the brutal privatisation imposed on the country by the West. Gray even spotted the obscure philosophy the ruler would use to give his power legitimacy: a little-known idea called Eurasianism. All that was missing was Vladimir Putin’s name.
Gray’s prophetic powers had their limits. Though he predicted the resurgence of religion as a potent political force, he did not foresee the rise of Islamic extremism or war in the Middle East. Nevertheless, the book is more than a historical curiosity. The fact that a professor at the London School of Economics used philosophy as a crystal ball offers a guide to some of the challenges facing the west today.
Fans of Gray’s more popular recent work may struggle with this book, which bristles with obscure names and ideas. He devotes an entire chapter to the “definition of the political thought of Tlon”. Nevertheless, his arguments are worth revisiting.
The book explains how, far from marking the triumph of enlightenment values, the fall of the Soviet Union actually signaled their demise. Marxism was never a brand of oriental despotism – the “evil empire” of media myth. Marx was an enlightenment philosopher on a par with John Stuart Mill, Voltaire and Hume. For all their many differences, these thinkers shared the conviction that local customs, traditional moralities and all forms of transcendental faith would be displaced by critical and rational thought that would form the basis of a universal civilisation.
Communism’s collapse heralded the end of these utopian ideas. It removed the common enemy that had shaped the post-war global order of trade and security. The triumph of market forces swept away the inherited traditions and institutions which gave traditional conservatism its force. However, once governments and societies staked their stability on continuous growth, they imperiled liberal civilisation. When the economic cycle turned, a window opened for the far right.
Free-market liberalism proved superior to central planning and left-wing corporatism, but markets and democracy are only useful if they improve the lives of the majority. Culture, history and community are just as important. For all its benefits, global trade left vast reservoirs of unemployment and discontent.
The challenge is now for each country to craft a national narrative that the majority can subscribe to. In the United Kingdom, with its long legal and democratic tradition, political freedom will probably survive. But there is no historical reason why the same should be true for parts of eastern Europe and Asia.
Gray’s chapter on tolerance makes for particularly depressing reading. Minorities that ask for special rights denied to the broader majority, such as affirmative action, will face a conservative backlash. Some of his arguments – for instance, the idea that gay marriage will lead to Muslim demands for polygamy – would not look out of place on the websites of the Trump-supporting far right.
Gray’s contention that a stable, multiracial society which grants freedom, property rights and safety from harm to all of its citizens and renews itself down the generations cannot be multicultural is unsettling. However, in the wake of Trump’s victory it is an idea we disregard at our peril. It may be hard to know where to start building a common culture in increasingly divided Western societies. But failure to do so risks handing power to demagogues and despots.
The book also offers clues to the future balance of power. Gray argues that if a new global order emerges it will likely be led by one of the Asian countries whose traditional culture has not been destroyed by the enlightenment. Though seven decades of Communist Party rule have erased many Chinese traditions, it may be too early to dismiss the idea of a Pacific century. The traditional argument against Chinese global hegemony is that the People’s Republic has no big ideas to export. Then again, that may be no bad thing.