John Gray originally came to prominence in the 1980s as one of the most formidable and articulate defenders of the anti-rationalist tradition of liberalism which had been revived by Hayek and his associates in the Mont Pélerin Society after 1945 and had subsequently become an important intellectual strand in the New Right.footnote＊ Hayek himself provided an enthusiastic endorsement of Hayek on Liberty: ‘the first survey of my work which not only fully understands but is able to carry on my ideas beyond the point at which I left off’.footnote1 He would have been surprised to discover how far his disciple has since travelled. Gray’s most recent book, False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism is not quite the destination Hayek had in mind.footnote2
The signs had been accumulating for some time.footnote3 In the 1990s, Gray turned from castigating the rationalist flaws of Marxism and social democracy and began to examine those of the New Right itself. He quickly emerged as one of the New Right’s most trenchant critics, through a succession of major books and articles which ranged widely across the problems of contemporary political thought and established him as a leading advocate of value pluralism. He developed a devastating critique of Thatcherism and its consequences for Britain in general and the Conservative Party in particular.footnote4 As the 1997 election approached, he became identified with New Labour, and welcomed Labour’s victory.
His prolific output and his shifting political allegiance drew accusations of eclecticism and opportunism, not least from some of his former associates in the New Right. But his underlying intellectual position has not changed qualitatively. What has changed is his evaluation of the New Right and, specifically, of the neoliberal political project, which once he saw as a necessary corrective to the rationalist delusions of socialism and social democracy, but which he now sees as prey to a rationalist delusion of its own—the project to establish a universal free market.
False Dawn was a significant departure for Gray, despite many of its themes being foreshadowed in his earlier essays. It demonstrates more clearly than any of his previous writings his increasing desire to combine a critique of the logical structure of ideas, specifically of the ideas associated with the Enlightenment, westernization and modernity, with a searching analysis of their political and social consequences. As he writes in one of his earlier essays, ‘The Enlightenment project. . . is not only, or even mainly, a project of philosophers, but also, and chiefly, the project of modern liberal individualist society.’footnote5
This conflation of political ideas and historical realities is one of the hallmarks of False Dawn. It confirmed Gray as one of Britain’s leading public intellectuals, prepared to take up political stances and comment on contemporary political issues. Its manner of argument, its use of stylized facts, and its populist feel all recall Hayek’s own Road to Serfdom, published fifty years earlier. Both books are examples of public interventions by academics, straying beyond the confines of their professional expertise and, as a result, attracting criticism from some of their academic colleagues. They are written as polemics, designed to sound a warning and to persuade their readers of the danger they face before it is too late. Hayek dedicated his book to the socialists of all parties. Gray might well have dedicated his to the neoliberals of all parties. He identifies the neoliberal project as the greatest contemporary threat to human well-being. He does not equivocate. ‘The Utopia of the global free market,’ he writes, ‘has not incurred a human cost in the way that communism did. Yet over time it may come to rival it in the suffering that it inflicts.’footnote6
False Dawn was originally published in 1998 to a mixed reception. Gray was—predictably—attacked by those economists who actually read the book for not knowing anything about economics. Paul Krugman accused him of wanting to stop change and offering the same kind of conservative, protectionist programme as James
Gray’s argument in False Dawn develops two ideas originally associated with Karl Polanyi and Joseph Schumpeter. The first is that the modern idea of the self-standing free market is not a natural phenomenon or a spontaneous order, but a deliberate political construction, which is highly artificial, unnatural and fragile, and can only be introduced and sustained by political means. Laissez-faire has to be centrally planned.footnote11 It is a political project which engenders huge resistance because of the impoverishment, insecurity and dependency which it imposes on so many of those subject to it. The second idea, from Schumpeter, is that free-market capitalism is both the most dynamic and productive economic system which has ever existed, and a system which consumes itself by unleashing forces which undermine the institutional conditions for its survival.