Blast from the Past: Sean Gabb on John Gray

From Free Life, Issue 25, May 1996
ISSN: 0260 5112

After Social Democracy: Politics, Capitalism and the Common Life
John Gray
Demos, 9 Bridewell Place, London, EC4V 6AP, 1996, 62pp, £5.95 (pbk)
ISBN 1 898309 52 3I reached the middle of this pamphlet hoping it was a cry for help. Perhaps John Gray had not become a lefty, but was in fact being held prisoner in the Demos headquarters. Perhaps the odd construction of his pamphlet was a result of the messages concealed within it. I fantasised how Mr Tame and I, alerted by these messages, could dress in black sweaters and break into Demos. We could knock out a few of the sinister, thick-set researchers, untie Dr Gray, and sweep him off to address some Hayek conference in the Bahamas.

Nice fantasy – but I found no messages. I finished the pamphlet convinced that it was all meant to be taken seriously. Its author has reached a new stage in his intellectual wanderings. He has lost not merely his old principles, but also any regard for the rules of composition and good faith.

For example, take, this:

…[M]arket institutions are not freestanding but come embedded in the matrices of particular cultures and their histories. [p.18]

And this:

…'[T]he market’ is not a freestanding institution, the expression of unrestricted freedom and human rationality in the economic realm, but instead an abstraction from an enormous miscellany of practices and institutions having deep roots in social life…. [pp.34-35]

And this:

Market institutions, like political ones, are not detachable from their histories and parent cultures. [p.35]

And this:

…[T]he neoliberal canard that markets are freestanding social relationships, embodying individual freedom and the human propensity to trade to mutual advantage. [p.42]

Or take this:

…[T]he new global freedom of financial capital so hems in national governments as to limit severely… traditional social-democratic full- employment policies. [p.13]

And this:

…[T]he power of the international currency and bond markets is now sufficient to interdict… expansionist policies. [p.25]

And this:

At the century’s end, the global mobility of capital and its power to constrain the freedom of action of sovereign states in economic policy, is vastly greater. [p.28]

And this:

Full employment cannot be promoted by aggressive deficit financing because that is now being interdicted by global bond markets…. [p.32]

And this:

…[G]lobal freedom of capital, and to an increasing degree, of labour, [Dr Gray’s punctuation] restricts radically the leverage of sovereign governments in pursuing social- democratic egalitarian goals. [p.44]

These may be good points. But – as Dr Gray must have told his undergraduate students – they are not demonstrated by being thrown over and over again into a rambling stream of consciousness. All else aside, to do so invites the kind of attack that damages without needing to address any substantive issues.

The same is true with bad scholarship. Take, for example:

Macaulay’s observation that the gallows and the hangman stand at the back of James Mill’s utilitarian state… [p.31]

Now, this “observation” is not footnoted. I am not surprised, since I doubt it was ever made; and I am reasonably familiar with the three Edinburgh Review articles that Macaulay gave to the elder Mill’s Essay on Government. But I do know this famous passage in Burke:

On the scheme of this barbarous philosophy, which is the offspring of cold hearts and muddy understandings, and which is as void of solid wisdom as it is destitute of all taste and elegance, laws are to be supported only by their own terrors, and by the concern which each individual may find in them from his own private speculations, or can spare to them from his own private interests. In the groves of their academy, at the end of every vista, you see nothing but the gallows. Nothing is left which engages the affections on the part of the commonwealth.[1]

Though I might have, I do not think I have overlooked something in Macaulay. I have read his entire published works more than once; and I have a memory that seldom lets me down. I simply believe that Dr Gray had Burke in mind, but could not be bothered to check.2

Enough of this, however. I have shown that Dr Gray needs more editorial assistance than Demos is able or willing to provide. But I prefer to concentrate on what he has to say, rather than on how badly he says it. His substantive faults are that he accepts every absurdity that has appeared in The Guardian, and that he systematically – and perhaps deliberately – confuses the meaning of words.

The first of these faults I will not discuss at length. The failure of demand management is the effect of much more than disobedient bond markets. Anyone who cannot now accept this never will. It is the second fault that most interests me. In an earlier work that I reviewed in these pages, I noted how Dr Gray claimed to be attacking the “New Right” but discussed only anarcho-capitalism. In many cases, he took arguments from Hayek without credit and used them against positions that, by default, he alleged were Hayekian.3 This time, he reverses the process. He takes almost every new right argument, and ascribes the lot to every member of the new right. This allows him to describe what are actually differences within a broad coalition as contradictions within a single philosophy. Thus, he can make fun of “us”:

…[T]here arose the familiar paradox of market libertarianism, in which it generated a species of authoritarian individualism resting on the political foundations of a centralist state. [p.31]

Were we governed by market libertarians, this would be more than a stale soundbite. But we are not; and for all he denounces the “unrestrained market individualism of the 1980s” [p.14], Dr Gray is unable to argue otherwise. He ignores the Financial Services Act 1986, and the companies and money laundering legislation of that decade, and the increasing size and sophistication of the welfare state, and levels of personal taxation that no Labour Government had ever dared impose. He ignores that plain fact that, whatever their rhetoric, the Thatcher and Major Governments have been far less concerned with liberating individuals than with stopping the collapse of the corporate state they inherited in 1979. To be sure, some of their measures – ending exchange control, for instance, or deregulating the spectacle market – were libertarian. But that no more makes them into libertarians than a farmer who, for marketing reasons, closes his battery and lets his hens run free becomes a vegan.

It may be pardonable for Andrew Gamble to put out this “free market and strong state” nonsense. But he has the excuse of having been a communist all his adult life. Dr Gray, however, has written for the Libertarian Alliance, and ought to be at least aware of the savage attacks its other writers have made on things like video censorship, Clause 28, the Poll Tax, gun control, the war on drugs, identity cards, and the general shredding of the Common Law. He knows that there are libertarians who believe in free markets and fear a strong state, and that there are tories who believe in a strong state and fear free markets, and that there are others who believe something in between. To obscure this, to conflate wildly different schools of thought into one, is culpable misrepresentation.

As for his repetitive talk of “freestanding institutions”, this also is delusive. If we take all his above statements – if we regard them as “freestanding” – they are plainly true. Actual markets are not separable from the societies in which they exist, but are things that arise from particular moral outlooks – these being varying degrees of respect for life, liberty and justly-acquired property. It is also true that one set of market institutions cannot be copied unchanged between societies with different moral outlooks. But this is the libertarian consensus. It is what Hayek says, and Rothbard, and both Friedmans, to name just a few. So what is Dr Gray trying to prove? That markets are inherently undesirable? He might as well use the fact that the Rhine flows west and the Danube east to disprove that water runs downhill. To argue against market reforms, it is not good enough to show that different societies have different market institutions. It is necessary to show that there are not certain regularities of human conduct that governments ignore to the disadvantage of those they rule.

Dr Gray does not show this, because it would require more ability to reason than he has lately been able to show. But he does try; and it is one of his assumptions. Look at page 48, where he deplores “those liberalisms” which

foster a legalist and constitutionalist mirage, in which the delusive certainty of legal principles is preferred to the contingencies and compromises of political practice, where a settlement among communities and ways of life, always temporary, can alone be found.

There is a tendency for these soft, Latinate words to drift through the mind without registering. But they are an argument for politicising justice – to let fewer disputes go before the judges to be decided by due process of law, and to give more discretion to people like Michael Howard. Beyond this, they show that Dr Gray has fallen into a moral nihilism that does not allow different ways of life to be compared even on instrumental grounds. For him, there are no regularities of conduct, nor universal standards of well-being. He cannot denounce female circumcision as a barbarous act, or praise limited government as a benefit to which all peoples should aspire. His view of humanity is one without any common standards of right and wrong, in which strength alone determines what rules are to be followed.

This pamphlet is formally about what social democrats should be thinking in the 1990s. All it really shows is that, having taken a stand in every other part of the political spectrum, Dr Gray is now drifting towards the “third way” national socialists. In a sense, he is already there, with his earth-worshipping mysticism. Is Demos happy about this? Are Marks and Spencer and Sainsbury’s happy to continue funding an organisation that is?

To conclude, After Social Democracy is in every sense a regrettable pamphlet. It succeeds only in illustrating the cultural decline that it often laments. There was a time, I believe, when an undergraduate at Oxford would have been sent down for producing something so incoherent and feeble. Today, it seems, any tenured academic there can get it published by Demos, and have it cried up as the last thing in political wisdom.

Sean Gabb


1. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), “Everyman” edition, J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, London, 1910, pp. 74-75.

2. I believe this partly because Burke expresses so well the charge that Dr Gray is trying to make – and partly for reasons very flattering to me. I quoted the above passage in a review of another of Dr Gray’s works [Beyond the New Right: Market, Government and the Common Environment, Routledge, London, 1993, reviewed in Free Life, No.20, August 1994]. As is my custom, I sent him a copy of the review. As seems to be his custom, he ignored my invitation to reply. I now think, however, that he did read it. For I also quoted Macaulay there; and it may be that, writing in haste, Dr Gray garbled the names and quotations into the wrong order. Of course, I hope that I am wrong. Though flattering to me if true, this would be quite damning to his scholarly reputation.

3. For details, see note 1. above.


  1. Sean:

    I have great resp0ect for John Gray. He was one of my educators, who advised me not to waste my time going to University if what I was really interested in was the development of ideas, and critical rational discourse.

    I’m surprised that you didn’t spot the reference or _James_ Mill, and not _John Stuart_ Mill. The nearest I could find in Macauley is:

    But this doesn’t matter. The truth (or otherwise) of a proposition is independent of who asserts it. The “Mania for footnotes” is a relic of pre-Internet days, and appeals to the supposed authority of ‘great reputations.’

    I think that the point John Gray is seeking to make is that — in Austrian terms — there are a myriad catallaxies, configurations of markets. Depending on the initial conditions and embedded practices, almost any kind of “market” can be arrived at. Thus, to talk of “departures from the market” is to miss the point. There are a host of State-like behaviours, by no means all of them confined to State officialdom. And it is by no means clear where the demarcation lines are to be found between State and Market, due to the longstanding practice of Government agencies inserting themselves into markets. Microsoft; the transnational drug cartels; Air France bugging the headrests of their First Class seats to gather marketable intelligence, the list is endless.

    The point I would wish to make (and which I believe John Gray seeks to make) is that we are unavoidably confronted with _a choice between different, alternative catallaxies_. There is no single “market solution.”

    John Gray was one of our brightest stars. As I recall, it was his encounter with Thatcher and Thatcherism which drove him away from the sort of “libertarianism” which was all too prevalent in those days. The spectacle of Tory Party Chairman Norman Tebbitt (a political thug) describing himself as a “political and economic liberal” was quite enough for me.

    Try reading Brian Crozier’s “The Minimal State” and you see quite clearly the combination of Pinochet-style authoritarianism coupled with a garbled, crude version of Chicago-School economics which Milton Friedman promptly disowned..

    Let us not forget that it was the infamous “Poll Tax” of Douglas Mason’s devising which brought down Thatcher and her rotten crowd, with the delicate irony of John Selwyn Gummer’s tearfully begging her not to run in the Leadership election because her losing would be such an unbearable humiliation. Two (or three) more political thugs.




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