Rachel Morarjee writes on John Gray and his view of our time:
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.” …
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.
In the spirit of Peter Thiel, I’m enthusiastic about counter-intuitive ideas like this: the idea that Enlightenment values haven’t triumphed, but in fact are in the midst of a potentially long-drawn-out death. What might we be living through, at the dawn of a new way of thinking about human existence? That’s exciting—far more exciting than thinking we’re simply fulfilling the next phase of the quest toward an internationalist utopianism.
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.
Very important idea: that an increasingly (racially) diverse America probably cannot also be equally (culturally) diverse if it’s going to hold together as a single nation. Or if it’s going to, it will mean that the multiculturalists will likely have to slow their roll to some degree to allow enough time for peaceful and stable acculturation among citizens.