John Gray on ‘Progressivism’ and Why Labour Lost

Philosopher, writer and critic of Progressivism and Labour, John Gray, being 'photobombed' at the 2015 Edinburgh International Book Festival.
‘Bombing’ John Gray. Photo: Sandra Wilson

I admire John Gray and his somewhat cynical writing on political philosophy. Having heard him speak and briefly spoken to him he is evidently a man of erudition and humanity. But when he writes on ‘Progressivism’ and Labour’s election defeat in his January New Statesman essay ‘Why the left keeps losing’ something seems to have gone wrong. If one of his students had presented this to him a few years ago for assessment, it is difficult to imagine that it would have passed muster as an example of effective reasoning.

Gray’s Attack on ‘Progressivism’ and Labour

John has shifted the focus of his recent attacks on ‘liberalism’ to something that seems broader and vaguer: ‘progressivism’. It’s never entirely clear what defines this evil for him, but apparently British institutions outside government, including schools and universities, are its vehicles. ‘Progressivism’ can evidently encompass both ‘liberal centrism’ and ‘Corbynite leftism’ in the Labour Party.

One immediately feels some contradiction here and this sensation is magnified when it Professor Gray accuses these institutions and their ideology or ideologies of the idea that ‘the West is uniquely malignant, the ultimate source of injustice and oppression throughout the world’. Indeed, they apparently believe that ‘the values that have guided human civilisation to date, especially in the West, need to be junked’. Do the British establishment and ‘millions of graduates’ really will the destruction of their own society and values, or has John found himself an enormous straw man to set alight?

So what should we make of this ‘progressivism’? Most straightforwardly it is the opposite of ‘conservatism’, but both sticking with the old for the sake of it and forging ahead with the new for no better justification are equally incoherent. Human society and the world around us are constantly changing – with global warming making this more dramatically and significantly true than ever before.

An old model applied to a new problem cannot produce the same result as before, yet the outcomes of old plans applied to old problems are all we have to go on. We rely on intelligent extrapolation and adaptation from the evidence we have. Since this is not a strictly scientific exercise, John is right to say that ‘values are plural and contending’. But is progress not in large part defined by how we manage this reality and seek common ground. Is not liberal democracy intended to achieve this management? What alternative would John seek or, as I suspect, has he allowed himself the luxury of no longer seeking?

Straw Men, Denialism and Hostages to Fortune

More specifically, Gray charges that in its embrace of ‘progressivism’ Labour ‘had set itself against patriotism and moral decency’ with respect to ‘law and order and immigration issues’. Does John regard more frequent imprisonment and harsher sentences along with greater intolerance of foreigners, as patriotic and morally decent, when none of these have been shown to enhance the lives of citizens? At one point in his essay it seems that the ‘neoliberal hegemony’ in economic policy is also to be subsumed within the ‘progressive ideology’ of British institutions. But maybe this is just an artefact of John’s unfocussed writing here.

The piece is littered with straw men, denialism and hostages to fortune. In the first category Gray asks us to believe that ‘the attempt to impose political choices by legal fiat… has become entrenched in sections of the judiciary’; ‘parties of the right set the political agenda… throughout the continent’; ‘delusions of conspiracy are part of the mass psychology of progressivism’; ‘avowed liberals carry on attempting to thwart the results of democratic choices’ ; ‘New Labour had an unthinking embrace of globalisation and open borders’; ‘the EU has long been a neoliberal construction’; ‘universities [are] centres of censorship and indoctrination’. These unsupported claims are either flat wrong on the evidence at worst or highly arguable at best.

John is in denial over the well-documented ‘conspiracies’ or at any rate co-ordinated actions, of dark money and bad actors in attempts to manipulate public opinion and elections both in the United Kingdom and in the United States. The evidence for these take them well-beyond ‘theories’. In fact, conspiracy theories and a willingness to believe them are far more a feature of right-wing media and politics than of John’s ‘progressivists’. And a UK Supreme Court was hardly ‘conjured up… one wet afternoon’ as described, but became essential once the separate judicial systems of Scotland and Northern Ireland became subject to their own independent democratic accountability as a result of devolution.

It is not the judiciary themselves that have driven ostensibly political issues to the courts. It is the increasingly authoritarian streak in governments, leading to their willingness to test rights and constitutional norms. John tells us that Johnson’s withdrawal deal ‘removes the most disruptive risks of Brexit’, but with no comprehensive trade deal it is only the most immediate risks, rather than the most disruptive over the long-run, that have been averted.

Where Gray discerns the Johnson government’s likelihood of ‘occupying a new centre ground’ other rather than from Johnson’s own unreliable assertions, only he can answer. Accordingly, claims that a newly ‘unified Conservative Party’ has been created, and that ‘Britain is moving rapidly toward a new economic regime’ involving a ‘more interventionist model of capitalism’ – when Germany and France have always surpassed Britain in this within the EU – are likely to join John’s other assertions in a morass of future embarrassment. This of course assumes that anyone should care to revisit his unsatisfactory piece in the future.

So Why Does the Left Really Keep Losing?

As it happens Gray identifies the core issue, but passes over it, without seemingly realising that he has essentially rendered his whole argument, such as it is, moot. ‘Large numbers saw [Labour’s] spending pledges as impractical, if not fraudulent, [but]… it spoke to concerns about a dysfunctional economy that much of the electorate shares.’ The much derided ‘experts’, as one of whom Gray writes, certainly did not regard Labour as ‘fraudulent’ in its spending proposals and many of them were regarded as not only practical, but essential to the fabric of our national infrastructure. We will be able to confirm this for ourselves as the Conservative government fails to match those ‘progressive’ pledges, particularly now as we attempt to extract ourselves from the Coronavirus recession.

As John suggests, without those false notions Labour would surely have polled much more heavily. So where do these false notions come from? Who is propounding, amplifying, and believing them, and why? Why are the Conservatives’ vaguer and much more duplicitous claims more likely to lead them to government under our system? Liberal democracy may not achieve the utopia John sees ‘progressives’ as yearning for, but in Britain ‘it hasn’t been properly tried yet’, and unless these questions are addressed it never will be.

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