“Progress is a myth.” That is a central thesis in the work of John Gray, one of Britain’s leading philosophers. John Gray was the speaker at an ELP Leadership Update on February 12th. He is the author of about thirty books and hundreds of articles. Straw dogs, False dawn and Seven types of atheism are a few of his books. Gray was a professor at the London School of Economics and currently is an internationally acclaimed speaker and writer.

Gray likes to debunk popular myths by pointing at historical events and standing on the shoulders of aeons of philosophy before him. “Philosophy is the attempt to find good reasons for conventional beliefs”, he writes.

An important theme in his work is that “the universe is not evolving towards a higher level” as many humanists think. “Natural selection is a purposeless process.” He admits that there is progress in science and technology but says that belief in progress in politics or ethics is a superstition. “History was a series of cycles, with no overall meaning.” The chief lesson of history in his view is that nothing is ever learnt for long. “What is gained in one generation, may be lost in the next.” Humanism, he says, is a religion and a doctrine of salvation “for evangelical atheists”, a continuation of monotheism. “The good life is not found in dreams of progress, but in coping with tragic contingencies.”

A second theme of John Gray is the social cost of free markets. “The central dilemma of public policy today is how to reconcile the imperatives of deregulated markets with enduring human needs.” If markets are more free, social cohesion will go down, he says. As a consequence families fall apart and civic virtues are demolished. “Its social costs are such that it cannot for long be legitimated in any democracy,” he writes about laissez-faire markets. “The economy should serve the needs of society, not society the imperatives of the market.” The neglect of social cost is intolerable. “Maximal productivity achieved at the cost of social desolation and human misery is an anomalous and dangerous social ideal.”

“The free market cannot last in an age in which economic security for the majority of people is being reduced by the world economy. The regime of laissez-faire is bound to trigger counter-movements which reject its constraints. Such movements – whether populist and xenophobic, fundamentalist or neo-communist – can achieve few of their goals; but they can still rattle to pieces the brittle structures that support global laissez-faire.”

Even worse is that bad capitalism tends to drive out good capitalism. The worst system wins. “Sovereign states are waging a war of competitive deregulation, forced on them by the global free market. A mechanism of downwards harmonization is already in operation. In this contest the socially dislocated American free market possesses powerful advantages.” “The social market economies of Europe and Asia are at a systemic disadvantage.”

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