Gray … has written several influential books on political theory, including Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (2003), an attack on humanism, a worldview which he sees as originating in religious ideologies. Gray sees volition, and hence morality, as an illusion, and portrays humanity as a ravenous species engaged in wiping out other forms of life while destroying its natural environment.
An advocate for the New Right in the 1980s, and then of New Labour in the 1990s, Gray now sees the conventional (left-wing/right-wing) political spectrum of conservatism and social democracy as no longer viable.
Gray has perhaps become best known for his work, since the 1990s, on the uneasy relationship between the value-pluralism and liberalism of Isaiah Berlin, which has ignited considerable controversy, and for his strong criticism of neoliberalism and of the global free market. More recently, he has criticised some of the central currents in Western thinking, such as humanism, and has tended towards Green thought. He has drawn from the “Gaia theory” of James Lovelock, among others, but he is very pessimistic about human behaviour changing to prevent environmental decay, and he predicts that the 21st century will be full of wars as natural resources become increasingly scarce.
I nearly classified him as another left-leaning idiot, but hesitated, probably because of my own pessimism. And read a couple of his articles in the Guardian – this–
It is not necessary to believe in any narrative of progress to think liberal societies are worth resolutely defending. No one can doubt that they are superior to the tyranny imposed by the Taliban on Afghanistan, for example. The issue is one of proportion. Ridden with conflicts and lacking the industrial base of communism and nazism, Islamism is nowhere near a danger of the magnitude of those that were faced down in the 20th century. A greater menace is posed by North Korea, which far surpasses any Islamist regime in its record of repression and clearly does possess some kind of nuclear capability. Evangelical atheists rarely mention it. Hitchens is an exception, but when he describes his visit to the country, it is only to conclude that the regime embodies “a debased yet refined form of Confucianism and ancestor worship”. As in Russia and China, the noble humanist philosophy of Marxist-Leninism is innocent of any responsibility.
Writing of the Trotskyite-Luxemburgist sect to which he once belonged, Hitchens confesses sadly: “There are days when I miss my old convictions as if they were an amputated limb.” He need not worry. His record on Iraq shows he has not lost the will to believe. The effect of the American-led invasion has been to deliver most of the country outside the Kurdish zone into the hands of an Islamist elective theocracy, in which women, gays and religious minorities are more oppressed than at any time in Iraq’s history. The idea that Iraq could become a secular democracy – which Hitchens ardently promoted – was possible only as an act of faith.
In The Second Plane, Martin Amis writes: “Opposition to religion already occupies the high ground, intellectually and morally.” Amis is sure religion is a bad thing, and that it has no future in the west. In the author of Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million – a forensic examination of self-delusion in the pro-Soviet western intelligentsia – such confidence is surprising. The intellectuals whose folly Amis dissects turned to communism in some sense as a surrogate for religion, and ended up making excuses for Stalin. Are there really no comparable follies today? Some neocons – such as Tony Blair, who will soon be teaching religion and politics at Yale – combine their belligerent progressivism with religious belief, though of a kind Augustine and Pascal might find hard to recognise. Most are secular utopians, who justify pre-emptive war and excuse torture as leading to a radiant future in which democracy will be adopted universally. Even on the high ground of the west, messianic politics has not lost its dangerous appeal.
Religion has not gone away. Repressing it is like repressing sex, a self-defeating enterprise. In the 20th century, when it commanded powerful states and mass movements, it helped engender totalitarianism. Today, the result is a climate of hysteria. Not everything in religion is precious or deserving of reverence. There is an inheritance of anthropocentrism, the ugly fantasy that the Earth exists to serve humans, which most secular humanists share. There is the claim of religious authorities, also made by atheist regimes, to decide how people can express their sexuality, control their fertility and end their lives, which should be rejected categorically. Nobody should be allowed to curtail freedom in these ways, and no religion has the right to break the peace.
There can be no doubt that fortunes have been reaped from the Iraq war as they have been from other experiments in disaster capitalism. Yet I remain unconvinced that the corporations Klein berates throughout the book understand, let alone control, the anarchic global capitalism that has been allowed to develop over the past couple of decades – any more than the neo-liberal ideologues who helped create it foresaw where it would lead. Rightly, Klein insists that free market ideology must bear responsibility for the crimes committed on its behalf – just as Marxist ideology must be held to account for the crimes of communism. But she says remarkably little about the illusions by which neo-liberal ideologues were themselves blinded. Milton Friedman and his disciples believed a western-style free market would spring up spontaneously in post-communist Russia. They were left gawping when central planning was followed by the criminalised free-for-all of the 90s, and were unprepared for the rise of Putin’s resource-based state capitalism. These ideologues were not the sinister, Dr Strangelove-like figures of the anti-capitalist imagination. They were comically deluded bien-pensants, who promoted their utopian schemes with messianic fervour and have been left stranded by history, as the radiant future they confidently predicted has failed to arrive.
The neo-liberal order is already facing intractable problems. The Iraq war may have allowed another experiment in shock therapy, but a failed state has been created as a result of which Gulf oil – which a former chair of the US joint chiefs of staff accurately described as “the jugular vein of global capitalism” – is less secure than before. Faced with defeat in Iraq, the Bush administration seems to be gearing up for an assault on Iran – a desperate move that would magnify the existing catastrophe many times over. At the same time financial crisis has reached into the American heartland as an implosion in speculation-driven credit markets has started to spread throughout the system. It is impossible to know how these crises will develop, but it is hard to resist the suspicion that disaster capitalism is now creating disasters larger than it can handle.
And I found that the Mises blog had reviewed one of his books – favorably–
Has John Gray come back? Once a classical liberal admired by Murray Rothbard, Gray many years ago abandoned the defense of the free market. Herbert Spencer, he now claimed, was a precursor of fascism; and Friedrich Hayek, no longer in his view a great thinker, was now just another ideologue. To pin down Gray’s ever-changing views was no easy task. When one did manage to understand him, the result hardly repaid the effort. His latest book, though, is in parts much better.
In Black Mass, he has not repented and returned to the classical liberal fold. But he applies his principal criticism of the free market to a much worthier target: the war policy of the Bush administration, aided and abetted by neoconservative ideologues. According to Gray, “[m]odern politics is a chapter in the history of religion” (p. 1). Revolutionary movements such as fascism and communism were not, as their proponents thought, the outcome of modern science:
At its height twentieth-century communism replicated many of the features of the millenarian movements that rocked Europe in late medieval times. Soviet communism was a modern millenarian revolution, and so — though the vision of the future that animated many Nazis was in some ways more negative — was Nazism. (p.4)
And then came to a conclusion that he is no idiot but someone who’s straddling the fence probably because of his disenchantment. If I were to talk about his two articles, I don’t think I disagree too much with him – except on his blaming the free market and “disaster capitalism” (that’s Klein’s epithet) and his distaste for “anthropocentrism” – even when he writes about “secular fundamentalists” because atheism is not something I want to see “imposed” on everyone, regardless of my views on religion.
This is not about Gray, but he does make a good starting point (actually it was Mill) for the post. I have often wondered how is it that people are unable to understand that liberalism – classical liberalism – as a political system appeals to one’s sense of justice. And wondered if it will ever take root. Though I criticize authoritarian tendencies of government and various other groups regularly, I have never ignored the present state of affairs in which liberalism in all its forms, and all liberal philosophers and economists, are politically irrelevant. People like Gray, and Mill, only underscore the point. Understand that they are not born egalitarians or nihilists, unlike most intellectuals. They either subscribed to and then moved away, or subscribed to in an inconsistent manner, the liberal philosophy. When seemingly intelligent people are not swayed by liberalism, what are the chances that seven billion ordinary men – most of them living in a state of illiteracy and poverty – will somehow grasp it?
When the “New World” – particularly North America – was discovered, all kinds of people, especially those who were persecuted in Europe left their homes and risked their lives to go there. They worked in relative freedom and created one of the freest societies in the world in two thousand years. Unfortunately, the experiment didn’t last long, and the Statists took over. The way the world is structured today, I don’t think liberalism will take root – it has too many enemies. In one of my post-US election rants, I wrote–
A country where sacrifice is considered to be a virtue is a dangerous place for individuals and their rights. Unfortunately, if we want to live in one where this is not the case, we will have to look for another planet. The witch-doctors have taken over planet Earth. Its a bad bad world.
Further, a year back, I commented on one blog about my fear of those of dream of Utopia; they have always left a trail of destruction behind them – Soviet Russia and Communist China are examples. Karl Popper has an interesting view on Utopia–
The belief in a political Utopia is especially dangerous. This is possibly connected with the fact that the search for a better world, like the investigation of our environment, is (if I am correct) one of the oldest and most important of all the instincts of life. We are right to believe that we can and should contribute to the improvement of our world. But we must not imagine that we can foresee the consequences of our plans and actions. Above all we must not sacrifice any human life (except perhaps our own if the worst comes to the worst). Nor do we have the right to persuade or even to encourage others to sacrifice themselves – not even for an idea, for a theory that has completely convinced us (probably unreasonably, because of our ignorance).
In any case, one part of our search for a better world must consist in the search for a world in which others are not forced to sacrifice their lives for the sake of an idea.
Is liberalism a Utopian idea? I think not. But again, the best one can hope for in the present circumstance is a “mixed economy,” and that things don’t deteriorate further.
If I put all this together, I can say that those who want to live in a free society, will either have to “compromise” or find another “New World” because converting people to the liberal viewpoint is a Herculean+Sisyphean task (it might happen, but you will have better luck playing the lottery). The best part is, those who blame every disaster on liberalism can then live in peace – the liberals won’t bother them anymore. And since only those who truly believe in the idea will move to the “New World,” the Popperian warning against sacrificing people for an idea – as the Russians and Chinese did – will be heeded. While I talked of “look[ing] for another planet” in my rant, such escapist fantasies might not be necessary. If land is a problem, there is the sea (both K.M. and “The Austrian Economists” linked to the website over the last week). I have my reservations about the experiment (I think I commented on Abhishek’s blog last year) – it is nothing but, at present – but it is worth trying; if it gets the government off people’s backs, any idea is.
As for Popper, I don’t know if he realized it, but he was echoing John Galt on sacrifice-
“I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”
“It is as simple as that,” Cline says. It really is.