Magazine article The Spectator

Old-Fashioned Rational Liberalism on the Ropes

Magazine article The Spectator

Old-Fashioned Rational Liberalism on the Ropes

Article excerpt

TWO FACES OF LIBERALISM by John Gray Polity Press, 108 Cowley Road, Oxford, Tel 01865 791100, 40, 12.99, pp. 161

John Gray's political philosophy has long demonstrated that consistency is not necessarily a virtue in his field of study. When I first encountered him in Oxford a decade ago, he was in the final phase of his troubled relationship with Thatcherism and the 'New Right'. Since then, he has turned his back on what he calls the 'neo-liberal hegemony' of the 1980s and embarked on a remarkable odyssey, taking in the 'communitarianism' of American thinkers, green politics and the strengths and limits of the Third Way. Although he was an early admirer of Tony Blair, I think he remains an independent at heart, and all the more formidable for that.

In this excellent, demanding book, Gray strives for a new synthesis, and returns to his old master, Thomas Hobbes, in search of an answer. There are, he suggests, two quite distinct strands in the liberal philosophical tradition. First, there is the belief that liberalism leads to 'a rational consensus on the best way of life', a philosophy embodied in different ways in the thought of Locke, Kant and Rawls. Second, says Gray, there is the liberalism of Hume, Hobbes (yes, Hobbes was a liberal after a fashion), and Berlin, which seeks peaceful coexistence rather than principled consensus. He rejects the 'Enlightenment project of a universal civilisation' and declares, provocatively, that, in its first form, liberalism mutated into 'a species of fundamentalism, not a remedy for it'.

Gray's solution is as intellectually subversive as it is practically limited. All claims about what constitutes 'the best life for the species' are pointless, since the modem world is becoming more rather than less fragmented and heterogeneous. The best we can hope for is modus vivendi, based upon 'value-pluralism': the recognition that values not only compete but are often completely incommensurable. Friendship and money cannot be compared in value; the courage of the Zulu warrior is different from the courage of the Quaker stretcherbearer; what is right for my family may not be right for yours. We must abandon the centuries-long quest for a final intellectual settlement underpinning democracy. 'The conflicts of value that rightly shape the agenda of political thought,' he writes, `come not from the divergent ideals of individuals but from the rival claims of life.'

Those who turn to political philosophy for romantic inspiration may be disappointed by Gray's refusal to make extravagant claims for his own field of thought. …

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