he New Leviathans:
Thoughts After Liberalism
M. P. Ross 11-7-2023
“Son…anything that’ll eat [feces] and [consort with] its own mother is liable to do anything.”
Thomas McGuane, “A Man in Louisiana”
A junior executive, special assistant to the president of an oil exploration company, stays in a less than ideal situation working to learn the oil lease business in order to one day strike out on his own. His responsibilities include running a variety of personal errands for his boss. On the last of these he is tasked with picking up a dog at its trainer’s deep in the Mississippi countryside and delivering it as a gift to a business associate in Louisiana.
Old Bandit, a pointer, is realized virtue. He achieves the ideal of bird dog. It is inferred that Bandit’s owner is a wealthy landowner, and that the old man who trained him made a pittance for his noble labor, lamenting he would never have another dog like Bandit. The dog is brought to the car on a lead, with the admonition he would run off on a fool. Tempting fate after driving away, our young man cannot resist testing Bandit, to witness for himself the virtue thus far contained between nose and tail. The dog takes off, dragging its courier’s career with him. He is finally found back at the trainer’s cabin.
An Aesop’s fable for our time, McGuane’s story suggests that humans are not so very different from any other animal. As with Old Bandit, no Straw Dog, himself, even the most virtuous in the Aristotelian sense, best at what they do, are not exempt from the glitches apparently characteristic of the species, let alone the legacy of nature. Government is a human institution, created, interpreted, and implemented by people. However well-conceived and executed, the workings and failings of society come down to people problems. And people, as we know, are “liable to do anything.”
John Gray, the English academic and political philosopher, is abundantly qualified to take on the subject matter of his most recent book, The New Leviathans: Thoughts After Liberalism. Hobbes’ Leviathan provides the point of departure and frame of reference for considering the fate of the liberal society it helped create. The Leviathan has not aged well. It strayed in its old age, and its offspring—the New Leviathans—are a disgrace. The liberalism it fostered has likewise grown misshapen, absurd if not grotesque.
The book is structured in three chapters: The return of Leviathan, Artificial states of nature, and Mortal Gods. The New Leviathans of the former Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China retained the absolute power of the sovereign, but destroyed the individuals whose consent in Hobbes’ version created it. They posited their own states of nature to justify the necessity of state control. The concept of an immortal God has been replaced by ideological gods, doctrines created to suit what has devolved to become today’s liberalism.
Cheer up, old boy. Is it really as bad as all that? Well, yes it is. Gray’s knowledge of the facts is unassailable. One can find neither fault nor fissure in his foundation in the canon of political theory, certainly not his grasp of Hobbes. His portrayals of the Soviet and Chinese Leviathans are supported not just by his examples but are by now long since exposed to history. That the Leviathan of the U.S., and other western liberal democracies, is not faithful to a pure Hobbesian model is also evident. And the further left of the Left (as is also the case with the further right of the Right) are wont to chase their tails to absurd conclusions.
All true, and variously noted in other books reviewed on this website (Fukuyama, Liberalism and its Discontents; Gat, Ideological Fixation; and Pettit, The State). However, there are true statements and there are whole truths. While not contradictory, they also may not represent the exact same thing at the same time. The New Leviathans is not political theory; it has no such intentions. It is the musings of its author, supported by a career of scholarship and observation, who has earned the space between two hard covers in which to express his thoughts. It is important that the reader understands that the book offers one well-considered point of view. Likely, not even the author’s complete thoughts and assessments. Gray understands and communicates this throughout with qualifications.
This is mentioned because we live in highly polarized times. Gray is exercising informed grousing and venting. It is almost certain that if he chose he could argue the opposite and everything in between. Public discourse has sadly and often shed even the hint of nuance. Resolving our social conflicts requires thinkers with the skill of a Coltrane or Miles, able to take a popular melody and play the notes all around and inside and out of it, rather than the discordant blasts to which we have become accustomed.
The goal of applied political theory is deriving practical benefit from abstract concepts to solve real world problems. First we must come to terms so that we may finally agree to them. A little perspective is called for. Consider levels of abstraction or, for the glass is half full folks, degrees of specificity. Hobbes’ construction of the Leviathan begins with laying down a progression of definitions, in a manner commonly employed in works of philosophy. He is working from a particular perspective, and must be understood at the appropriate of levels of abstraction. With a solid grounding in the original text, it is then possible to approach it from other perspectives and at other levels of abstraction to uncover meanings perhaps not considered by the author. Joyce and Hegel walk into a bar: “To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life.”
Hobbes is clear on what he means by Leviathan; it is the commonwealth. In other words, Leviathan is the body politic, a republic, quite literally the res publica. The Leviathan is made up of all its individual members who, for their own and the collective benefit to secure their lives and property, invest the Leviathan, personified by the sovereign, with absolute power. The sovereign in turn must exercise that power in the best interests of the Leviathan. The alternative is a return to the state of nature where it is war of every man against the other.
As Gray correctly notes, the New Leviathans have fallen woefully short of that ideal. The Soviet and Chinese models are failures in all respects but absolute power, and fell short even there in actuality. Regarding the model found in Western liberal democracies, it has long ceded not just power, but sovereignty, to competing estates. First, to the pluralism inherent in democracy, then to powerful private corporations.
Hobbes’ innovation to the political theory of his contemporary Europe was not the absolute sovereign. This concept having long been in practice, attainable through force of arms. It was opening the door to modern democracy, shifting the origin of power from divine right to the will of the people. This yet may have been true at the creation of the New Leviathans had not individuals been compressed into the masses. Still Leviathans, if corrupt forms.
This would not be news to Aristotle. Three forms of government are recognized in the Politics, each in their proper and their corrupt forms. Government by one person, aptly named monarchy, in its corrupt form is tyranny. Government by several people, aristocracy and oligarchy. And by the many, polity, which corrupts to democracy, which we might revise to democracy and anarchy, rule by no one. Monarchy was not necessarily hereditary; the monarch could be chosen by a small body or elected by the citizens. Further, the Politics discusses the desirability of a mixed constitution, suited to its particular state, which would blend any and all of the three forms. Contemporary examples would be the UK, with a monarch and a parliament; in the US we have the three branches of government. These are complemented by diverse and active civil societies, commercial sectors, and the estates of the press and religious institutions.
There would be, nor should there be, one pure Hobbesian Leviathan. Aristotle would have agreed with Gray, the New Leviathans he criticizes are tyrannies, though failures more of execution—if you’ll pardon use of that word—than form. An ideal is only pure and perfect in concept, inevitably reshaped if not corrupted however actualized. Practical application benefits from a sense of balance, of certainty with subtlety, flexibility with resilience; vigilance against committing the folly of the pure model.
The Folly of the Pure Model presents as “a kind of intellectual tribalism, where a particular frame of reference, world view, or school of thought is adhered to as unbreachable orthodoxy, uniformly applied to each and every situation or problem. However valid any single approach, it is just that, and risks omission of crucial insights to be gained by study from other perspectives; rigidly linear thinking plowing a deep furrow straight ahead, ignoring the need to first gain an understanding of a complex, multi-faceted, field.”
The remedy is to examine the matter at hand, such as the nature of the state, or a particular state in the example of the Chinese New Leviathan under Xi’s leadership, from the perspective not just of Hobbes, but Aristotle, Marx, the rules governing Major League Baseball, or from observations of the family dog. Applying alternative models, even those that either do not seem relevant or are outright wrong, can reveal useful insights both by what is found as well as what is absent. We would find Marx no less than Hobbes aghast at the New Leviathans’ misappropriations of their theories.
Gray has noted that liberalism is meliorist–that as society progresses its general condition improves. In The New Leviathans he laments that this progress is cyclical not linear. We are a species of backsliders. Perhaps. At a higher level of abstraction the progress of humanity is plainly evident. Billions of people live in ordered societies, with greater mobility, higher rates of literacy and lower infant mortality, to say nothing of technology that sends us video from Mars. This progress can be clearly displayed, plotted graphically using the appropriate model.
The Conical Helix Model of History is ideal for this task. A conical helix is formed by a line that traces the outline of a cone, in our example from a small circle at its base, expanding outward as the cone rises. Time is plotted on the vertical axis, scope on the horizontal axis. Events alike in kind—migrations, wars, technological innovations—but of increasing scope and scale can identified on parallel horizontal lines and compared with others over history, moving up and down the vertical axis. At higher levels of abstraction, this is as near a perfect model as one could hope for or imagine.
At greater degrees of specificity—lower levels of abstraction—this model loses the perfection it presented viewed from a distance. A true conical helix progresses in predictable intervals, history does not. This model is an exercise in deductive Platonic reasoning; we start with the model, filling it in with history. And again, at the proper level of abstraction it functions quite well, and can be a very useful analytic and educational tool. A model created with inductive Aristotelian reasoning would shape the cone from a line plotted with actual events. It would not be so perfect. The distance between rising horizontal lines would likely shrink, as the velocity of history reflects increasing change over shorter periods of time. The cone itself would not only expand as expected, but would also contract during periods of lesser activity—such as stable technology or declining population.
It is this revised conical model that would represent the historical progress and regression of society described by Gray. Both versions of the model deliver a true statement, though neither a whole truth. Both are built with verifiable, historically accurate facts. Each is useful when applied in the context of a defined level of abstraction. If the goal is crafting sound policy, not manipulating public opinion, taking commentary and opinion into account benefits from a sense of time, place, scope, and scale, as well as the degree of abstraction from which they are best understood.
Was there ever a Hobbes’ Leviathan, any more than a Plato’s Republic? What state functions in practice down to the letter of its constitutional ideal? States are the great Leviathan described by Hobbes. States, which we should take pains to distinguish from pre-state entities—family, band, clan, and tribe–composed of all the individuals within its jurisdiction, citizen or not, ruled by consent, whether free or coerced. States and their societies are living entities that require ongoing attention and care to maintain good health, and are otherwise susceptible to illness and infirmity, cancer and collapse. Mere neglect and indifference expose the state to catastrophic consequences. We should not be surprised.
Upon further reflection, Gray may have been too generous, too optimistic. The world is a mess. It has always been a mess, at some time or place. What seems different is the dysfunction in modern liberal democracies. A Soviet-like inversion of truth runs through society and up to the highest level of government. Election denial? A key feature of the state is at risk, that of the monopoly of legal violence. Even frontier town during the 19th century had laws prohibiting the carrying of firearms within municipal limits. Today, state and local governments are loosening the restrictions on both concealed and open carry, while a growing minority of the population expresses openness to vigilantism and civil war. In need of sane company, we might best turn to the family dog.