September 1, 1996
From time immemorial the prime agency of individual and social reproduction has been inertia, the biological form of which is instinct and the cultural form, tradition. That is to say, things were done because they had been done before— an efficient, though not infallible, way to achieve organismic and societal stability. Modernity is, in one of its numerous definitions, the progressive attenuation of inertia by consciousness. Where tradition was, there shall reason be.
In the classical account, science, democracy, market relations, and ethical individualism were born and grew up together, the offspring of modernity. The first modern generations looked upon what these phenomena had wrought, pronounced them good, and called for their indefinite continuation and extension. But subsequent developments have not been altogether satisfactory, notably environmental spoliation, advanced weaponry, totalitarian social organization, the destruction of peasant societies and folk cultures, widespread anomie, and an altered rhythm of daily life that has arguably produced toxic levels of stress and epidemic psychopathology. Many writers, from Pascal to Lasch, have rehearsed these ills and proposed that modernity be reconsidered. “Enlightenment’s Wake”, a collection of recent writings by English political philosopher John Gray, takes its place in this antimodemist tradition.
Gray defines the Enlightenment project as a combination of rationalism, or the criticism and reconstruction of morality and politics by means of reason alone; universalism, or the supercession of fundamental cultural differences, which will eventually dwindle and disappear: humanism, or the technological subjugation of nature for human purposes; and scientism, the neglect or disparagement of informal, tacit knowledge. Each of these beliefs or hopes is, he argues, an illusion. Reason cannot resolve fundamental conflicts among values. It cannot define a universal human identity, or specify a universally valid set of rights, or formalize all local knowledge. Following Michael Oakeshott and Isaiah Berlin, Gray maintains that rights and values are frequently incompatible, even incommensurable. Our identities are inherited rather than created, the product of contingency and circumstance rather than choice. Much of our knowledge is embedded in traditions, in whole ways of life, and cannot be judged or even understood apart from them. This pluralism, powerfully and insistently stated, frames Gray’s historical and political arguments. In particular, it motivates his rejection of contemporary liberalism, especially the Rawlsian, rights-based variety predominant in the United States:
“Because political philosophy in the Anglo-American mode remains for the most part animated by the hopes of the Enlightenment, above all by the hope that human beings will shed their traditional allegiances and their local identities and unite in a universal civilization grounded in generic humanity and a rational morality, it cannot even begin to grapple with the political dilemmas of an age in which political life is dominated by renascent particularisms, militant religions and resurgent ethnicities.”
So far we may imagine Gertrude Himmelfarb and Irving Kristol nodding approvingly, perhaps with a murmured reservation or two. What lifts Gray’s work far above neoconservatism in intellectual and moral seriousness is his forthright acknowledgment that unregulated market relations may ultimately be destructive of everything worth conserving. It is not that Gray underrates the merits of the free market. On the contrary, his previous book, “Beyond the New Right”, contained a strongly affirmative account of the moral foundations of market institutions; and his essay in “Enlightenment’s Wake” on “Post-Communist Societies in Transition” is withering in its depiction of the legacy of central planning. But Gray understands, as many British and American conservatives do not, that the market is merely a means of promoting human welfare, one that must be adapted and modified by each community, not an immutable ordinance of suprahistorical Reason. It is true that self-reliance, self-restraint, and the other virtues fostered by market relations are indispensable; and that markets are far superior epistemically to any alternative yet proposed. It is also true that humans flourish only in the shelter of families, neighborhoods, tribes, traditions, and well- known and -loved places, and only with a mini mum of economic security; and that all these things are threatened by the spread of market relations. To hold these discordant truths in tension, as Gray does, is an uncommon and valuable achievement.
In opposition to “market fundamentalism,” which countenances levels of unemployment, forced mobility, deskilling, urban real-estate speculation, and so on, that are destructive of stable, healthy communities, Gray proposes a “social market” perspective. First elaborated in post-World War II Germany, social market theory views the market not as an ideal type that each society should strive to approximate but as one element in a society’s ensemble of institutions and folkways, which it is policy’s job to harmonize. The market should not command automatic legitimacy. Instead, as Gray puts it in a formulation that discloses vast common ground with democratic socialists: “In all those cultures where democratic institutions are themselves elements in the common conception of legitimacy, market institutions will be stable and flourishing only in so far as their forms and workings are acceptable, ethically, culturally and economically, to the underlying population.”
What’s heartening about this proclaimed subordination of abstract economic efficiency to actual human well-being is that he means it. In “Enlightenment’s Wake” and in even more detail in “Beyond the New Right”, Gray argues that although competition, risk, and inequality are inevitable and in fact desirable, many people will nonetheless be entitled to public help. He proposes an “enabling welfare state”—a happy phrase, which strikes exactly the right note. His principle is that those who have fallen out of the market economy or never been part of it should be helped to enter it, and that such assistance should, whenever feasible, be provided through the market (though funded publicly, for example, with vouchers). Education, health care, day care, job training are all on the table and must, he insists, be funded not grudgingly but generously. Moreover, “enablement” (a decided terminological advance over “empowerment”) mandates not only individual entitlements but also public goods (again, provided to the extent feasible through a market): clean streets, parks, urban transport, the arts, noncommercial scientific research, and so on. With gratifying impatience Gray waves aside objections from the doctrinaire libertarian right. The proper goal of policy is to preserve healthy—according to our admit tedly fallible and changeable contemporary judgment—communities, not to maximize economic freedom and economic growth, abstractly conceived.
(On similar grounds Gray waves aside objections from the doctrinaire libertarian left to state action in defense of traditional morality. Although a self-described “ultra-liberal” in this area, he is scathing about the invention of “fundamental rights” by defenders of abortion, homosexuality, and pornography. All such controversies should be resolved through debate, negotiation, compromise—in short, politics—rather than by defining new and presumably unalterable constitutional rights. In the essay “Toleration: A Post-Liberal Perspective,” Gray argues persuasively that the core proposition of rights-based liberalism—that the state should be neutral among all ways of life or ideas of the good—is incoherent. The right attitude for the majority in a morally divided community is tolerance, which is a solicitude for social peace arising in equal measure from self-confidence and self-doubt. Peaceableness and humility are not, however, the same thing as a refusal to make moral judgments.)
In “The Undoing of Conservatism” Gray mounts a harsh critique of free-market extremism—from the right. The post-World War II social compact in Britain and America provided for full employment and a welfare state financed by the proceeds of economic growth. Faced with stagflation in the late l970s, conservative parties scrapped the social compact but retained the assumption that political legitimacy depends on economic growth. The resulting feverish pursuit of growth has, predictably, generated social in stability. Now, Gray writes, “the dystopian prospect—not so far, perhaps, from the present reality—is of a highly dynamic but low-growth economy in which a permanent revolution in technologies and productive arrangements yields large-scale structural unemployment and pervasive job insecurity.” The stability of communities and families—the highest conservative value, one would have thought—has been sacrificed to “microeconomic flexibility, productivity, and low labour costs.” GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) and global free trade are pernicious policies, likely to entail “costs in human suffering that may come to rival those of twentieth-century experiments in central economic planning.” Gray’s summary indictment should be tattooed on Newt Gingrich’s forehead:
“The social and cultural effects of market liberalism are, virtually without exception, inimical to the values that traditional conservatives hold dear. Communities are scattered to the winds by the gale of creative destruction. Endless “downsizing” and “flattening” of enterprises fosters ubiquitous insecurity and makes loyalty to the company a cruel joke. The celebration of consumer choice, as the only undisputed value in market societies, devalues commitment and stability in personal relationships and encourages the view of marriage and the family as vehicles of self-realization. The dynamism of market processes dissolves social hierarchies and overturns established expectations. Status is ephemeral, trust frail and contract sovereign. The dissolution of communities weakens, where it does not entirely destroy, the informal social monitoring of behavior which is the most effective preventive measure against crime. [Gertrude Himmelfarb, please note.] . . . The incessant change promoted and demanded by market processes nullifies the significance of precedent and destroys the authority of the past. Indeed it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that market liberal policy delivers the coup de grace to practices of authority and of subscription to tradition already severely weakened during the modem period.”
Burke, thou should’st be living at this hour!
“Enlightenment’s Wake,” the book’s last and longest essay, is a masterly attempt to think through the problem of modernity. The problem is that critical rationality, as propagated by the Enlightenment and modeled on the natural sciences, has (along with market rationality) undermined the cultural authority of virtually all moral values, norms, customs, and beliefs in virtually all modern societies. The moral foundations of Western culture have been hollowed out. To the question “why be good?” there is now no philosophically compelling answer, even if most people don’t know it yet. The name of this condition is nihilism: the eventual result may be spiritual paralysis or, worse, a war of all against all and of all against nature.
Trenchantly and (for the most part) lucidly, Gray canvasses our alternatives. One course, advocated uncritically by religious fundamentalists and with great subtlety and rigor by Alasdair MacIntyre, is to return to premodernity. The Enlightenment, according to Macintyre, was not merely a misfortune but a mistake: about moral theory, Aristotle and Aquinas were right all along. Gray disagrees and argues cogently that modernity represents not the abandonment but the consummation of classical and Christian thought. Together they form one tradition, which is now exhausted; no return is possible.
It is not, of course, everyone’s tradition. Gray alludes frequently to the East Asian industrial nations, especially Japan, who appear to have achieved economic modernization with out undergoing cultural Westernization. He hopes fervently that they never do Westernize, lest they suffer our nihilist fate. I think he underestimates the vulnerability of East Asian cultural traditions to the inroads of individualism and the blandishments of consumer culture. To paraphrase Freud: the voice of appetite is a soft one, but it does not rest till it has gained a hearing. In any case, as Gray recognizes, Western liberal societies can no more import the Confucian ethos than they can recreate the Christian one.
Perhaps we can muddle through? Why not retain liberal values but abandon the hope of giving them a philosophical justification? Why not, as Richard Rorty has suggested, affirm “Enlightenment humanism without Enlightenment rationalism”? That makes good sense to me, and Gray allows that Rorty’s is “perhaps the most powerful attempt we are likely to see to reformulate liberalism in explicitly post-Enlightenment terms.” Nevertheless, he rejects it as parochial and excessively sanguine. Public and private cannot be kept separate, as Rorty recommends. Political institutions are the expression of a culture and a cosmology. The institutions of bourgeois liberal democracy are no exception, and the culture they express is, Gray repeats, ephemeral and exhausted.
Well then. . . what? Gray’s reply is unflinching and not in the least melodramatic: the human race, he concludes, may very well destroy itself or suffer increasing, and finally irreversible, cultural entropy. Even more likely, and no less tragic, we may deplete and disfigure the nonhuman world beyond recovery.
Unless…Here Gray’s accustomed lucidity fails him, or at any rate fails me. He finds some saving intimations in the later Heidegger, particularly the notion of Gelassenheit or “releasement,” derived from Meister Eckhart and other German mystics. “Releasement,” according to Gray, is a disposition to “wean ourselves from willing and open ourselves to letting things be”; to attend calmly “to beings, to the things of the earth, in all their contingency and mortality”; to embrace “the groundless contingency that makes and unmakes the world.” In Heidegger’s words: “Releasement toward things and openness to the mystery belong together. They grant us the possibility of dwelling in the world in a totally different way. They promise us a new ground and foundation upon which we can stand and endure in the world of technology without being imperiled by it.”
Out of respect for Gray, I will suppress my usual shallow, logocentric exasperation with Heidegger and merely observe that I don’t find the above very helpful. I wish that Gray had, at the crucial juncture, not ascended into philosophical mysticism but instead descended into social criticism. I wish he had gotten down to cases, had said to his readers, humbly and prosaically, citizen to citizen: “Look, we can’t all— all human beings, that is—have air conditioning, safari vacations, automatic dishwashers, cars that go faster than forty or fifty miles an hour, meat every day (or every week), high-definition television with scores of channels, and bulgeless, odorless, wrinkle-free bodies. We’ll spoil the planet if we try; and besides, those things are not all that important. What’s important is [my own list follows; I would have liked to see Gray’s]: singing in harmony at least once a week; having a body practiced in graceful movement; taking part in frequent and lively political (or aesthetic or metaphysical) argument; knowing many poems and prose passages by heart; having wilderness nearby or at a moderate distance; and above all, having useful and (at least part of the time) stimulating work. What’s more, every one could have all these things without spoiling the planet.”
There’s something to “releasement”; I don’t deny it. But I suspect we’ll get a better sense of it by hearkening to Wallace Stegner, Wendell Berry, or Seamus Heaney than to Heidegger. Philosophy as practiced by Gray and Rorty can lead us out of the modern wilderness; but only imagination and social criticism can lead us (if anything can) into the postmodern promised land.