Notes from Talk on John Gray

Talk 12/3/13 Ruskin College, Oxford

 Ed Rooksby

John Gray: Prophet of Doom (or ‘of Straw Dogs and Straw Men’)

Context: work in progress. Book on the British conservative(ish) philosopher John Gray.

What I’m going to do here is outline some of the key arguments I’m going to make in this planned book – clearly I can’t go into all of this in great detail and I’m having to leave a lot out (both in terms of setting out what Gray argues and also in terms of setting out what I argue). Useful for me because it means that I get to test some of this out and see what people think about it.

I’m also aware that probably most of you won’t have read Gray and probably won’t know much, if anything about him, so I can’t just launch straight into a critique, I’m going to have to first outline the ideas that I’m going to take on. May have to rush over some of it and may have to leave some of it out.

I’m going to focus for the most part on two of Gray’s recent books, Straw Dogs: thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (2002) and Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia (2007) – these are the books in which Gray has the most interesting things to say and are also two of his best known.

Straw Dogs, I think, is pretty good and Black Mass is awful. But it’s worth pointing out that Black Mass is the book in which Gray tries to fill out in detail some of the rather aphoristic claims that he makes in Straw Dogs – the fact that the book where he tries to fill this stuff out is dreadful of course tells us something about the quality of argument in Straw Dogs once you get past the dazzling audacity of that book.

And Straw Dogs is an audacious and impressive book. I have a bit of a conflicted relationship with it. It’s one of the few books I’ve ever read which really shook me up and gave me a new perspective on things that I’d previously taken for granted. The term mind-blowing is a bit over-used, but if anything I’ve read recently comes close to that cliché it’s Straw Dogs. I recommend that everyone reads it if they can. It’s a very bleak book – a meditation on the tragic meaninglessness of human existence and the desperate illusions we cling to in order to trick ourselves that it does have meaning – and I first read it shortly after my dad died which may well have intensified the book’s effect on me. It is a very powerful book and it does confront questions which I think we all need to confront and which I think we’re being dreadful cowards if we don’t.

Having said that I think that pretty much everything Gray argues in Straw Dogs is wrong – some of it in fact is downright repellent and some of it too is, I think, politically dangerous stuff. It also veers close to comedy sometimes in terms of what Terry Eagleton has called his ‘lugubriously amusing’ ‘extravagant pessimism’. Indeed Eagleton says of Straw Dogs that for Gray ‘even nihilism implies too much hope.’

So who is John Gray?

A British philosopher/political theorist born in County Durham (to a working class family) in 1948. He taught at LSE and Oxford – now retired. Prolific writer of books – many of them written for a ‘popular’ market (one of his strengths in my view – too many academics write for a cloistered specialist academic community).

One of the things he’s famous or notorious for is his constantly shifting views. He takes up a political and philosophical position in one period only to ditch it in another and move on to something else Over the past 40 years he’s been, variously, a social democrat, a Thatcherite, he flirted with New Labour, an Oakeshottian conservative, a Berlinian liberal. More recently he’s taken what I call his ‘dark turn’ with Enlightenment’s Wake (1998) followed by Straw Dogs and Black Mass – which is a move into something like a default conservatism or ‘liberalism of fear’ rooted in a kind of despairing pessimism. Paul Kelly has described him as ‘an intellectual gadfly who never holds a position long enough to become a target for serious and sustained critical examination’.

But there are common themes running through much of Gray’s work and furthermore these themes become especially pronounced in his latest phase – the dark turn.

Among the most consistent elements of his thinking are scepticism in relation to ‘grand projects’ of social change, rejection and condemnation of the ‘utopian’ strands of thought he argues underpin most or maybe even all modern political ideologies (but particularly Marxism), belief in the ineradicability of human conflict, insistence that humans are bounded, limited and flawed creatures no different, essentially, from any other animal, and a general mood of political pessimism. Indeed all of these core beliefs flow from each other.

So let me outline – very roughly – Gray’s ideas in these areas as articulated in his most recent publications and also outline – again very roughly – the contours of the line of argument I want to take up against him. I’ll focus on three, interconnected things: what Gray has to say about ‘progress’, about ‘utopia’ and about what he has to say about the animal nature and being of humans. The being of human beings.

Grays’s Critique of Progress and Utopia

Gray is perhaps most famous or notorious for his arguments in relation to what he calls the ‘myth of progress’. According to Gray this myth animates most modern political ideologies. Post-Enlightenment thought is almost entirely utopian and premised, tacitly or not, on some form of historical teleology. That is the idea that human history has a semi-mystical goal toward which there is some sort of inexorable progression. It’s the idea that human history (and therefore human individual lives within this history) has a definite direction like a story and will reach some sort of culmination point – a climax toward which everything has been building.

According to Gray modern political ideologies are sublimated, secularised forms of apocalyptic Christianity. Modern political ideologies, that is, are the ‘continuation of religion by other means’. The notion of social ‘progress’ –making the world a better place – which  animates most of these pol ideologies, has its roots in the Christian narrative of sin and redemption and, more than this, in millenarian visions of the final defeat of evil and the coming of a kingdom of God on Earth.

All of them – but most notably and obviously for Gray, Marxism, – claim to be based on some understanding of the direction and thus the meaning of history (that there is some greater purpose and meaning to the chaos of everyday events) and that this will culminate in some final Armageddon-like show-down and then the coming of paradise on earth. So, for Gray, the revolutionary proletariat = Christ, the bourgeoisie = Satan, socialist revolution = the final battle of good and evil and communism = Heaven. The Communist Manifesto = the Bible.

Interestingly this is also true of other political ideologies – liberalism for example – which, for Gray, are similarly premised on the idea that human history is gradually converging on a single form of ‘universal civilisation’ – a way of life (democratic capitalism) which is right and just for all people and beyond which there can be no further progression. This is seen most clearly in Fukuyama’s End of History thesis.

This is similar to what Frank Kermode argued in his study of apocalyptic narrative The Sense of an Ending. Kermode argued that the notion of the end of the world performs a comforting psychological function.  As story-telling creatures humans crave narrative order — we want to identify a beginning, a middle and an end in (and to) our lives and the world around us.  Above all, we desire a sense of meaning which is dependent on this narrative coherence.  The idea of apocalypse — a literal end of history — for Kermode was one of the most ancient versions of these age-old attempts to construct a narrative coherence, and thus impose an apparent meaning, in relation to human existence.

Kermode’s argument suggests that since it helps to satisfy deep-rooted existential needs, apocalypticism is probably a permanent feature of the human psyche. And indeed that it keeps cropping up again and again – it has been transferred from its mystical religious beginnings into secularised political forms today.

Gray’s story, basically, is that apocalypticism (and ‘progress’ which is bound up with it) is specifically western and rooted in Christianity. Gray argues – rightly actually – that early Christianity was an apocalyptic cult which expected the imminent transformation of the world, the overthrow of worldly Roman power and the establishment of God’s Kingdom on Earth. The historical Jesus almost certainly believed that the end of the world would happen during or just after his lifetime – indeed Jesus and his disciples were probably a kind of political-religious revolutionary cult which combined political aims with religious ones. A bit like Al Qaeda – only a bit nicer and not premised on indiscriminate mass terrorism.

When the end of the world didn’t happen, Christianity gradually transformed itself. St Augustine’s contribution, according to Gray, was to reformulate Christian thinking so that the coming of the Kingdom of God is seen as a spiritual event rather than something that would happen in the material world. Heaven is shifted from the world – to some spiritual life after death. (This also made Christianity much less politically dangerous for Kings and rulers!).

But, Gray argues the original apocalypticism of Christianity lingered on in heretical cults like the Pelagian heresy (humans inherently good and evil can be eradicated from the world) and re-emerged powerfully in the middle ages in various peasant revolts – like the revolt led by Thomas Muntzer which was fired by the Millenarian belief that an uprising of the poor could bring on the apocalypse and create Heaven on Earth. It similarly inspired radical various movements in the English Civil War such as the Ranters and Diggers.

But it was the Jacobins in the French Revolution who converted Christian apocalypticism into a secularised ideology. It claimed to be based on science and reason, but argues Gray was, underneath it all simply a modernised form of the same old Christian apocalypticism. It was then taken up by Marx and then the Bolsheviks. These modern movements, Gray argues, were driven by the insane belief that a perfect utopia – a Heaven on Earth – could be built. A fanatically determined vanguard of warrior monks – the Jacobins, the Bolsheviks – would through heroic action be able to make a spark which would transform the world and finally banish evil and suffering from human existence.

Like Kermode, Gray argues that any attempt to realise paradise on earth – whether in a religious or secular form – is doomed to fail and is moreover incredibly dangerous. This is because the attempt to do so will always bring huge amounts of violence and suffering. Partly this is because the fanaticism of those trying to do this will only lead them to intensify their attempts when they see that Heaven on earth is not actually appearing. Their dogma drives them, not to give up or moderate their demands in the face of the evidence, but to blame ‘dark forces’ for the failure of heaven to materialise and move to more and more extreme violence to deal with imagined conspirators and traitors.

Although Marxists are clearly Gray’s main target here – he also applies this, interestingly to neoliberals. These, for Gray, are semi-theological dogmatists too whose response to the failure of neoliberal policy in say structural adjustment policies (or indeed austerity) is to prescribe more of the same medicine.

For Gray, then, we should give up on the idea of ‘progress’ which is just a bit of make-believe rooted in ancient religion and which has been responsible for most of the worst atrocities of the modern period. We should go instead for a form of neo-Hobbesian modus vivendi in which the main task of politics is simply to fend off the worst evils for as long as possible. A form of polity which seeks to manage and contain conflict rather than to achieve any sort of final settlement or perfection. Gray thinks of this as the authentic face of liberalism – a modest, live and let live tolerance. We should just give up on ‘grand projects’ to solve problems once and for all.

Human nature

The idea of progress in ethics and politics expresses a deep seated utopian conviction – fundamental to the modern age – that human beings can somehow transcend natural limits and become ‘masters of their own destiny’ and this, similarly, has Christian roots in the idea that humans are qualitatively distinct (since they are made in the image of God and possess souls) from other animals.

According to Gray we must give up these myths and instead accept that we are no different from other creatures – no more able to take charge of our own destiny or overcome the limits of our flawed and bounded natures than are other animal species.

Animals do not see themselves as having a purpose or causes – they don’t see life as having a meaning. They just exist. Why should it be any different for us? We must abandon ‘anthropocentrism’.

But this latter thought takes a particularly dark turn in Straw Dogs and another collected book (Heresies). Drawing on a dark form of ‘Gaia theory’, Gray describes humanity as a particularly hateful form of parasite – a grotesque sort of pestilence on the Earth. This ‘exceptionally rapacious primate’, ‘Homo rapiens’, is, for Gray, a species ‘not obviously worth preserving’.

Critique

The first thing to say is that while Gray presents himself as a radically iconoclastic thinker much of this isn’t really very new. Indeed Gray rehashes a lot very familiar tropes with quite a long history. I’ve already mentioned Kermode – who said a lot of this stuff before, but you can also see the influence of postmodernism, the new philosophers of the 1970s, Cold War anti-communism arguments about totalitarianism, the end of ideology thesis of the 1950s and indeed the idea that Marxism is just a dressed up form of religion which is probably as old as Marxism itself. He also rehashes some very familiar reactionary – literally reactionary I mean – arguments culled from Burke and de Maistre.

These sorts of accusations Gray levels at Marxism – allegations of millenarian utopianism, mad ‘perfectionism’ and self-deceiving refusal to accept the limits and flaws of human nature – are, of course, ten a penny when it comes to conservative and liberal criticism-by-way-of-caricature of Marxism and the far left. But unusually, for Gray, mainstream forms of liberalism and even traditional conservatism are also implicated in this critique. That’s perhaps the only real innovation here!

Naturalism

Gray’s argument in relation to humans’ place in the natural world is very slippery. Gray moves from the truism (with a characteristic sleight of hand) that humans are animals and that they are products of natural evolution like any other species to the falsehood that humans are no different from other animals. It is a non sequitur however to insist that because humans are animals, humans are therefore no different from other animals. It is like saying that because whales and centipedes are both animals, a whale is no different from a centipede. All animal species are appreciably different (otherwise we would not be able to categorise and group them into species in the first place) and these differences stem from their particular courses of evolutionary development. To argue that humans have a unique capacity to alter the conditions of their existence – to adapt their environment and in so doing to alter their own behaviours and forms of life – is not at all incompatible with observation that humanity is one species of animal amongst many. It is just that our particular trajectory of evolution – the development of our species-nature – has furnished us with the capacity to adapt our conditions of existence in a way that no other species is capable of doing. We are, in a sense, historical beings as well as simply biological beings in that our behaviour is shaped as much by our history as by our biology – but we are only the historical beings that we are because of the kind of biological beings that we are (the kinds of bodies and brains that we have evolved). We are the only creature that can make history and to say this is not at all to rely on some sort of metaphysical or mystical premise about humanity which runs counter to the theory of evolution.

It’s also worth saying that Gray uses the concept of nature in such an all-encompassing sense that it actually drains it of all meaning making it useless as a concept. One of Gray’s main arguments for example is to say that because humans are part of the natural world all of our behaviour is natural too – so for example because plastics manufacture is one way in which we behave, or the creation of the internet, both of these things manufactured synthetics and the internet are just as natural as a spider’s web or termites’ nest. In one sense, of course, this is perfectly true – but in another sense it makes the term nature meaningless because the logic of Gray’s argument is that absolutely everything – every conceivable thing – is natural. So if ‘the natural’ describes everything it also describes absolutely nothing since there’s nothing to contrast it with or judge it against.

In any sense in which the idea of ‘the natural’ makes any kind of sense, in fact, human behaviour and being is not entirely natural. In fact, in my view, what is at the root of the distinctiveness of the human is the kind of subjectivity we have which is based precisely on a kind of quasi-alienation from the physical world around us. Unlike most other creatures we are not really in and of the world – we do not simply do or simply exist – we critically reflect, we’re reflexive creatures able to reflect on the conditions of our existence and indeed to reflect on our own state of subjectivity.

Zizek describes this as a sort of void or tension at the heart of what it is to be human – we are always already at one remove from the world around us and so human consciousness is marked by a kind of perpetual melancholy – a sense of loss. We’re seeking something – which is to be reconciled with the (Lacanian) Real around us which can only come with non-existence or, in other words with death. Freud had a similar idea with his ‘death wish’.

But the main point here is that although we are animals we are different from other animals and that this difference is paradoxically rooted in the trajectory of evolution of our species in which again, paradoxically, our evolutionary development enabled us to step outside of the natural selection process and exert a conscious control over our collective lives.

Progress

Gray’s assertion that modern political ideologies are simply forms of secularized Christianity remains just that – a sheer assertion which is never convincingly demonstrated. He never provides any strong reasons for us to accept his argument that any politics of significant reform or change must necessarily depend on some sort of tacit historical teleology. Gray performs a kind of sleight of hand trick in which all movements for reform are assimilated into a self-evidently mad form of ‘end of history’ ‘perfectionism’ – and then he sets about savaging the straw man he’s set up.  As Blackburn notes ‘[n]early all human action, including political action, goes on without paying even lip service to any gospel of Progress in the abstract’. ‘We face’, Blackburn continues, ‘individual problems, some of them urgent, and one at a time try to do something about them’. This is just as applicable to most radical and revolutionary political projects of social change as it is to any other.

Of course it’s true that modern Western political ideologies bear the stamps and traces in many ways of Christian thought – but this is because they have grown up in contexts in which Christianity provided much of the intellectual, ethical and institutional framework for thought in politics, philosophy and ethics. But so did modern science. If science can have attained some sort of autonomy from its early religious roots there’s no reason to think that politics could not have either. It’s also true that the forms of thought Gray favours – Berlin, Machiavelli, Burke – also grew up in this context and yet Gray seem to believe that these are not tainted by Christian apocalypticism.

In fact it is just true that history is precisely a story of people collectively transforming the world – sometimes for the better and sometimes not. In fact you can imagine Gray’s equivalents in the 18th and 19th centuries arguing that the abolition of slavery was a utopian project and that it was just the way things where – you can imagine it because they did argue this. But slavery was abolished. Working class men and women did win the vote. Ordinary people did struggle for and win reforms from the state. All of these struggles depended on the belief that these things were possible and that the present state of things could be reformed or abolished.

Of course Gray doesn’t deny that these things happened or that these things weren’t good things. And this is one area in which his argument runs into big trouble – trying to account for this and to explain it away. Addressing the fact of the abolition of slavery directly Gray is forced to state explicitly a definition of utopianism (ie millennial type political projects depending on the idea of progress) which he avoids up to that point. His definition is this:

‘A project is utopian if there are no circumstances under which it can be realised’ – but this seems to rest on a tautological process of reasoning whereby the test of whether something is impossible or not is whether or not it is impossible. But the question of the possibility/impossibility of a particular political project – socialist revolution say – is exactly what’s in dispute. It can’t be settled simply by verbal assertion one way or the other – but that’s effectively what Gray tries to do.

Utopia

Gray simply asserts the absurdly caricatured view that Marxism is inherently utopian – that it’s interested in a perfect society of ‘ultimate harmony’ being ‘parachuted into the present from some metaphysical outer space’ (Eagleton). If this was what any serious Marxist, let alone Marx, has ever said (or anything like it) this would be a good criticism – but of course no serious Marxist thinker has ever said such a silly thing.

In fact famously Marx was hostile to utopian visions of the future and Marxism has traditionally set its face against utopian thought. Marx’s approach was ‘to seek to discern the outlines of an alternative already implicit within present society’ – not to imagine some blueprint of a perfect future – and seek to ‘unlock the contradictions which forestall its historical emergence’ (Eagleton).

Marx’s definition of communism as ‘the real movement which abolishes the present state of things’ is precisely anti-utopian and situates it in the here and now in concrete struggles. It is an existing process and something which unfolds dialectically rather than a fixed, abstract vision of the future.

So socialism isn’t simply thought up in theory and then imposed on reality. It is something which is already implicit in the fabric of the current order. It has already sunk roots. It already has some kind of embryonic existence.

Further, most radical, revolutionary movements are not driven by dreams and visions of a future society – most of them are driven, in fact by immediate and relatively modest problem solving concerns. In my view socialist change, including the process of revolution itself, is best conceived as a series of practical responses to concrete problems and pressures – even if these practical and immediate measures add up to far-reaching social change and even if they are implemented rapidly.

Secondly no Marxist has ever thought that such a thing as a perfect society could ever exist. All they have argued is that the main sources of some of the worst features of human society hitherto can be done away with. But there will still be conflict, antagonism, disagreement, personal tragedy, accidents, illness, unhappiness…. How could there not be?

Far from demanding paradise on Earth, socialist aspirations are actually rather modest.  They are that everyone should have enough to eat, and have access to decent housing, healthcare and education; that people should exert democratic control over the workplace and the economy as a whole; that everyone should have access to the resources they need in order to live fulfilling lives and that the economy should be geared towards human wellbeing rather than the unsustainable pursuit of infinite accumulation.  These aren’t outlandish, utopian aims.  They’re perfectly sensible.

The final thing to say here is that there are two kinds of utopian. The first believes in a perfect society. The second believes that the future will be pretty much like the present. John Gray is the second kind of utopian. There is nothing more utopian than imagining that the current way we live will carry on for ever. ‘This pays an extravagant compliment to one of the most sickeningly fragile systems ever’ (Eagleton). Capitalism is deeply unstable and carries with it a sort of destructive impulse – it continually undermines and subverts itself. The idea that it is a permanent fixture is a joke.

Apocalypse Now

Just to return to the idea of apocalypse to finish off with, though, in some ways apocalyptic thought – ironically perhaps – is, in a sense, perfectly legitimate today. We do face an imminent apocalypse of a sort.

In the last few decades it has become increasingly clear that we are heading toward an ecological disaster.  We could say, in fact, that belief in impending apocalypse has today become perfectly rational.  The scientific consensus on climate change is a consensus on the imminence of global catastrophe.

You don’t need to go to any crazed, wild-eyed mystic these days to encounter apocalyptic visions.  You can get them from impeccably mainstream organisations such as the World Bank.  Given the scientific consensus on climate change and the threats it poses, the most irresponsible fantasists today are not those predicting catastrophe, but climate change deniers and, equally, the neoliberal faithful confidently expecting market forces, left to their own devices, to come up with some last minute ‘technological fix’.

But the incompatibility of capitalism with environmental sustainability is clear.  Capitalism is driven by an insatiable need for growth.  The logic of perpetual accumulation for accumulation’s sake compels capitalism to plunder more and more of the planet’s resources, burn greater quantities of fossil fuels and fill the atmosphere with more and more CO2.  The ecological crisis stems from the contradiction between, on the one hand, a system predicated on the logic of perpetual and infinite growth and, on the other, a planet with finite resources and a finite ‘carrying capacity’ in terms of the amount of consumption it can support, and the amount of greenhouse gases and other forms of pollution it can absorb.

Many people today have no faith in the idea of an alternative – and this is, at least partially, because their understanding of what a socialist alternative might be is coloured by the caricatures put about by people like John Gray. Indeed we live in the era of what the theorist Mark Fisher terms ‘capitalist realism’ — ‘the widespread idea that capitalism is the only “realistic” political economic system’.  Indeed we live at a time in which (in Žižek’s phrase) ‘it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism’.

But while it may be easier for now to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, we must accept and act on the truth that if we don’t put an end to capitalism, capitalism will eventually put an end to us.

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  1. #1 by Charley Uzzell Edwards on March 25, 2013 - 10:50 am

    I diagree, I think Black Mass is an amazing book. it blew my mind..

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