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John Gray

"After Laissez-faire"



The world-historical movement we call globalisation has momentum that is inexorable. We are not masters of the technologies that drive the global economy: they condition us in many ways we have not begun to understand. Institutions that could monitor or counteract their dangerous side effects are lacking. It is more than doubtful now whether any late modern society can restrain technological development even if its consequences are injurious to vital human needs. Such societies are too uncertain of their values, and too wedded to an understanding of the earth as a resource to be consumed in the service of unlimited human wants, to attempt such an heroic task.

Luddites and fundamentalists who seek to turn back the tide of invention and scientific knowledge exhibit one of the chief traits of the modern world they claim to reject - the conviction that humankind's ills can be cured by an act of will.

The flood of invention which drives the world economy cannot be controlled so that we are touched a only by its benefits. The evils of new technologies are often inseparable from the good they make possible. But we can hope to tilt the balance, so that the effects of technology are less injurious to human well-being.

Science and technology form a common human inheritance. To imagine that they might be used to make (in the words of Isaiah Berlin) "a reasonably peaceful coat of many colours", a plural world in which diverse cultures can live together, is not to envision and ideals that can never be realised. It is to voice a hope that Enlightenment thinkers have in common with all those religions and philosophies, ancient and modern, that recognise the ideal of toleration. The prospect of a single, self- regulating global free market has made this vision of a peaceful modus vivendi itself Utopian.

As a result we stand on the brink not of the era of plenty that freemarketeers project, but a tragic epoch, in which anarchic market forces and shrinking natural resources drag sovereign states into ever more dangerous rivalries.

The lesson is clear. As it is presently organised, global capitalism is supremely ill-suited to cope with the risk of geo-political conflict that is endemic in a world of worsening scarcities. Yet a regulatory framework for coexistence and co-operation among the world's diverse economies figures on no historical or political agenda.

Global market competition and technological innovation have interacted to give us an anarchic world economy. Such an economy is bound to be a site for major geo-political conflict. Thomas Hobbes and Thomas Mathus are better guides to the world that global laissez-faire has created than Adam Smith or Frederick von Hayek: a world of war and scarcity at least as much as the benevolent harmonies of competition.

The likelihood must be that the laissez-faire regime will not be reformed. Instead it will fracture and fragment, but mounting scarcity of resources and conflict of interest among the world's great powers make international co-operation even more difficult. A deepening international anarchy is the human prospect.

Will the resources of critical rationality which we have inherited from the Enlightenment enable us to cope with the disorder that its most recent project has created or compounded? Or is the global anarchy in which we find ourselves an historical fate against which we are bound to struggle, but which we are powerless to overcome? It would surely be one of history's darkest ironies if the Enlightenment project of a world civilisation ends in the chaos of sovereign states and stateless peoples struggling for the necessities of survival.

The spread of new technologies throughout the world is not working to advance human freedom. Instead, it has resulted in the emancipation of market forces from social and political control. By allowing that freedom to world markets we ensure that the age of globalisation will be remembered as another turn in history of servitude.


John Gray is a professor of politics at Oxford University. This extract is from his book False Dawn (1998).