chapter  3
18 Pages

The Social Theory of Anti-Liberalism

WithPaul Kelly

Political liberals tend to dismiss John Gray as an intellectual gadfly who never holds a position long enough to become a target for serious and sustained critical examination. He has apparently, taken up and subsequently abandoned Millian, Hayekian Oakeshottian variants of political theory; he is now currently working through an ambiguous relationship with Isaiah Berlin, as he also flirts with Heideggerian antihumanism and an increasingly radical version of Green political thought. Such an interpretation, which I have myself endorsed in the past (Kelly 2000: 225-241), is both uncharitable and mistaken, for beneath Gray’s intellectual agility in moving from one theory or guru to the next, there is a surprising consistency of purpose.1 It would be a mistake to describe this consistency as an unfolding theory, for the underlying vision animating Gray’s work is an anti-theoretical one, but there is nevertheless such a vision. This vision has become increasingly clear in his most recent work and might be described as a combination of scepticism and pessimism, or to follow up a quasi-theological metaphor from one of his most recent books, it might be described as a secular Augustinianism (Gray 2004: 127). Basically this

view recognises the ineradicability of conflict and violence as central to the human condition. Unlike the Augustianian doctrine of the fall, there is for Gray no corresponding doctrine of redemption, hence Gray’s pessimism. This is an agonistic vision of politics.