The Catastrophist

Malcolm Bull

  • Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia by John Gray
    Allen Lane, 243 pp, £18.99, July 2007, ISBN 978 0 7139 9915 0

‘It is not too fanciful to suppose that “posterity”, in the year 2032, will be celebrating the events of November 1917 as a happy turning point in the history of human freedom, much as we celebrate the events of July 1789.’ Not too fanciful, in 1932, for Carl Becker, the American historian who first cast a quizzical eye over the utopian designs of the Enlightenment in The Heavenly City of the 18th-Century Philosophers. But surely too fanciful now, even for a reconstructed Leninist.

The cycle of pre-industrial revolutions that swept away the old order is over, if only because, with the possible exception of Nepal and Bhutan, there is nowhere left for one to happen. What a post-industrial revolution might be like, and whether such a thing will ever occur, is something we do not know. It is clear that, if only temporarily, the tide of history has ebbed away from the revolutionary tradition. Why this should be so is a complex and intriguing historical question.

Sometimes, however, there are simple explanations for complex events, and John Gray has one to offer: ‘Modern politics is a chapter in the history of religion.’ This might appear a sweeping generalisation, but, for Gray, seemingly diverse historical phenomena are manifestations of a single, heavily disguised and hydra-headed evil. Its current manifestations may be Islamic fundamentalism and the Republican administration in the United States, but we should not be deceived by appearances: ‘Radical Islam may be best described as Islamo-Jacobinism’; ‘neoconservatism originated on the left’; ‘neo-liberalism . . . has a close affinity with Marxism.’

Go back a little further and another layer of disguise is unveiled: Bolshevism itself was merely ‘a radical version of Enlightenment thinking’ and ‘Russia’s misfortune was not in failing to absorb the Enlightenment but in being exposed to the Enlightenment in one of its most virulent forms.’ Indeed, ‘the Cold War was a competition between two ideologies, Marxism and liberalism, that had a great deal in common . . . Both were Enlightenment ideologies’; so too was Nazism, in which ‘the Enlightenment played an indispensable role,’ given that ‘racism is a product of the Enlightenment.’

All this might superficially appear to undermine rather than substantiate the book’s central thesis. Not so: the philosophers of the Enlightenment aimed to supplant Christianity, and, as Becker – seemingly Gray’s only source on the topic – noted, their best hope of displacing it ‘lay in recasting it, and bringing it up to date’. So contemporary politics is rooted in Jacobinism, Jacobinism in the Enlightenment and the Enlightenment in Christianity.

The aspect of Christianity with which Gray is concerned is apocalypticism, within which he includes both ‘the belief that the world is about to end and belief in gradual progress’. This is the thread that links the failed political projects of modernity. From the Münster Anabaptists onwards, the leading protagonists all imagined they knew the plot:

John of Leyden believed God had called him to rule over the New Jerusalem. Lenin was sure he was expediting the laws of history. Hitler was certain the corrupt world of liberal democracy was doomed. True believers in the free market interpreted the collapse of Communism as a sign of an inexorable trend, and neoconservatives greeted the few years of American supremacy that seemed to follow as a new epoch in history.

In fact, all are ‘actors in a theatre of the absurd whose lines are given by chance’. Anyone who thinks that they can change the world for the better is deluded – a delusion for which apocalyptic religion is ultimately responsible.

There are two distinct claims here: that the idea of progress originated within the apocalyptic tradition, and that all theories of progress are necessarily ill-founded. In Black Mass, the persistent implication is that the former must make the latter true as well. However, there is no argument to this effect, and it would be absurd to suggest that concepts with a religious derivation were ipso facto unusable. Secular thought being of fairly recent origin, many working concepts in the humanities and social sciences have readily discernible religious precursors – canon, sovereignty, creation, pluralism, to name only a few.

Whether or not the idea of progress did originate within the apocalyptic tradition is a contested issue. The clearest statement of this view came from Karl Löwith, whose Meaning in History, first published in 1949, suggested that belief in progress was a secularised form of religion ‘derived from the Christian faith in a future goal’. But he was challenged by Hans Blumenberg, who argued that the idea of progress, which extrapolates from the present towards an increasingly stable and reliable future, could not have been derived from Christian theology, which posited ‘an event breaking into history’. Instead, he suggested that astronomy, which relied on observations that could be made only across centuries, might be the source of the idea, for it embodied precisely the ‘co-ordinative relation between quantum of time and the quality of achievement’ that ideas of progress logically presuppose.

Blumenberg may not have been wholly correct, but Gray seems to have learnt nothing from this debate. Had he done so, he might at least have clarified his terms, for Blumenberg introduced a useful distinction between the transposition of ideas from a religious to a secular context, the ‘reoccupation’ of religious positions by functionally equivalent secular thought, and a merely ‘linguistic secularisation’, where people go on using religious-sounding rhetoric simply because another, more appropriate vocabulary has yet to evolve. Gray consistently blurs these distinctions, treating ‘axis of evil’ as though it were a phrase with real theological content, and arguing that post-Enlightenment attempts to formulate secular answers to problems raised by the Christian philosophy of history must be ‘as far-fetched as anything believed in medieval times’.

Becker himself was more equivocal:

Are we to suppose that the Russian Revolution of the 20th century, like the French Revolution of the 18th, is but another stage in the progress of mankind towards perfection? Or should we think, with Marcus Aurelius, that ‘the man of forty years, if he have a grain of sense, in view of this sameness has seen all that has been and all that shall be’?

Gray would opt for the second alternative, but the way the question is posed suggests one reason why it might not be possible to dismiss the idea of progress as easily as he imagines. The implication of saying that ‘the man of forty years . . . has seen all that has been and all that shall be’ is that, before forty, he would not have been able to judge, whereas later, when he has had sufficient experience, he will be in a position to know. What is this if not precisely the type of relation between ‘time quantum and achievement quality’ that constitutes progress?

And if learning something you could not know beforehand represents progress, then there seems no reason why such progress should be limited to the lifetime of a single individual. Suppose that someone wants to know when a comet will return, or how long a book will stay in print. Having waited in vain for the answer to the question, why should they not pass on the relevant data to someone who will outlive them and stand a better chance of finding out? If, as Zhou Enlai supposedly said of the French Revolution, it is ‘too early to tell’ what the long-term effect of something has been, it is nevertheless progress when we can. And that would also be true if it meant discovering that it had been of no lasting benefit. It would be progress to know whether or not there had been progress.

Even if it is impossible to discount the idea of progress altogether, it may nevertheless be contingently improbable that progress occurs. Retrospectively, progress is change that no one wants to reverse. Over the past few centuries there have been rather a lot of changes that most people, including Gray, appear fairly comfortable with. So when he complains that ‘modern politics has been driven by the belief that humanity can be delivered from immemorial evils by the power of knowledge,’ it is difficult to see why this should be such an unreasonable assumption. Gray concedes that knowledge increases and that science is a cumulative activity, but maintains that with increased knowledge ‘humans do not become any more civilised’; that even if they did, ‘what is gained can always be lost,’ and that in any case ‘humanity cannot advance or retreat, for humanity cannot act: there is no collective entity with intentions or purposes.’

None of these claims is particularly persuasive. The idea that what human beings learn cannot benefit them, ethically or politically, is tantamount to saying that they can acquire no habits that will facilitate their living together. Yet most domestic animals are educable in this way, and humans are, if anything, more tractable still. It is absurd to claim that there are no lasting improvements in social organisation. Establishing the convention that motorists should all drive on the left or right is an unambiguously beneficial arrangement (notwithstanding its restriction of human freedom, and the increased potential for tailgating). Though subject to local variation, many such solutions to human problems last as long as the problems themselves, and it makes little sense to suggest that there is no collective subject that can meaningfully be said to be their beneficiary. On the contrary, it may be harder to identify individual than collective beneficiaries, for any one individual might plausibly be better off as a free rider (or driver).

The claim that there is no way of aggregating benefits experienced by individuals also seems too strong. Given the extreme complexity of the calculation, there may be no way to aggregate all the relevant benefits for the whole of humanity; but it does not follow that it is impossible to aggregate some benefits within some collectivities. Things like the Human Rights Index and Human Wellbeing Index are based on just this assumption, and, despite their flaws, they are not totally uninformative. Informal aggregative judgments of this kind (‘The country is going to the dogs’) have, of course, been made throughout history, often on the assumption that humanity was degenerating rather than improving. Indeed, theories of a lost golden age remained perhaps the predominant philosophy of history from classical antiquity until the early modern period. They were abandoned not so much because of an upsurge in apocalyptic thought (with whose pessimistic variant they had coexisted for centuries), but because they no longer appeared to accord with experience, in a world where new discoveries, both geographical and scientific, were becoming increasingly common.

Kant (who features twice in the book, as a pioneer of racist anthropology, and when quoted by Goebbels) pointed out that the human race must logically be either regressing, progressing or mired in stagnation. Gray is committed to the third alternative: ‘History is not progress or decline, but recurring gain and loss.’ At one level, this is obvious, but if Gray means ‘recurring gain and loss’ to preclude overall progress or decline, it is a claim of unwarranted precision, dependent on just the sort of aggregative calculus that Gray rejects, and committed to the improbable hypothesis that the sum of gains will precisely equal that of losses.

It is much more likely that gains and losses will be unequal. And given that most people are trying to make things better for themselves (and occasionally others) rather than worse, it would require quite strong evidence to show that they were, on aggregate, always disappointed, and subject to a complete illusion regarding the potential of human agency. Either way, claims about progress or regression are subject to empirical investigation. And given that, as Kant pointed out, constant regression should lead to the annihilation of the human race, the balance of the evidence is currently on the other side.

Black Mass may be a disappointing book, but it is the outcome of an intellectual journey of some interest and significance. For two decades, Gray has been a consistently original commentator on current affairs. Funny, incisive and provocative (qualities quite sparsely distributed among post-Rawlsian political theorists), Gray also has one very distinctive virtue: an uncanny ability to articulate a rising consensus while almost simultaneously viewing it, sub specie aeternitatis, as a symptom of some localised illusion. The delay between the two has been the interval of his various commitments – neoliberal, conservative, Blairite and Green. Sometimes uncharitably seen as a Vicar of Bray, Gray is actually someone who is receptive to new evidence and prepared to revise his views in the light of it. Other, more consistent ideologues have come and gone, consigned to irrelevance by their obvious intransigence in the face of events. Gray remains, a bellwether for Thatcher’s children.

This gives Black Mass a certain indicatory value. It was long a tenet of Cold War thinking that totalitarianism was the inevitable outcome of utopian philosophies of history: Karl Popper’s The Poverty of Historicism was dedicated to all those who ‘fell victim to the Fascist and Communist belief in Inexorable Laws of Historical Destiny’, and Hayek quoted Hölderlin’s dictum that ‘what has always made the state a hell on earth has been precisely that man has tried to make it his heaven.’ For Gray, however, the ‘Inexorable Laws of Historical Destiny’ have been replaced by ‘the belief in Manifest Destiny’, the ‘evil empire’ has become the United States, and ‘the neoconservative project’ is now the ‘classic example of the utopian mind at work’.

To find someone with a comparable trajectory you would probably have to go back to the Communist fellow-travellers of a previous generation. Gray’s version of The God That Failed was False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism (1998), one of the earliest popular anti-globalisation books. However, it was not until after 9/11 that his work touched a nerve in the collective psyche. Straw Dogs (2002), a collection of anti-humanist aphorisms, was daring and original, but it is difficult to separate its extraordinary success from the events of the previous year, for it seems to have articulated a despair that people had not known they felt.

Despair over what, exactly? According to Gray, 9/11 ‘destroyed an entire view of the world’. Everyone had believed that the world was becoming progressively more secular and more peaceful; now they discovered they were in the firing line in a new ‘war of religion’. In Al-Qaida and What It Means to Be Modern (2003), a brief sequel to Straw Dogs, the claim is pushed further: al-Qaida is said to have ‘destroyed the West’s ruling myth . . . that modernity is a single condition, everywhere the same and always benign’. The Lisbon earthquake had cured Voltaire of Leibniz’s theodicy; now al-Qaida had found the cure for secular doctrines of progress.

Yet, save for the unfortunate populations of Afghanistan and Iraq, the world post-9/11 has gone on much as before. Nothing comparable has happened since, and, were it to do so, it would still be as nothing compared with the prospect of full-scale nuclear exchange between the superpowers threatened by the Cold War. Gray is well aware of this, and elsewhere acknowledges that 9/11 represented ‘a challenge to global security incomparably less formidable than that posed by the former Soviet Union’. So why the insistence that 9/11 was a world-historical event?

Writing in 1995, in Enlightenment’s Wake, he offered a picture that was subtly different in emphasis. Here, the Enlightenment project had already clearly failed, but it was more explicitly identified with Westernisation, with Gray arguing that ‘the universalising project of Western cultures . . . must be surrendered, and replaced by a willingness to share the earth with radically different cultures,’ for ‘any prospect of cultural recovery from the nihilism that the Enlightenment has spawned may lie with non-Occidental peoples.’

From this perspective, it might appear that radical Islam is (as its proponents claim) the promised remedy for Enlightenment nihilism. On the contrary, Gray argues in both Al-Qaida and Black Mass, that ‘radical Islam is a hybrid of apocalyptic myth and utopian hope, and in this it is unmistakably Western’; indeed, it is a ‘product of the modern West’. Far from being a case of non-Occidental values triumphing over Western nihilism, 9/11 is cast as the latest in the West’s seemingly interminable catalogue of self-inflicted blows against its own dominant myth of progress.

The transposition is revealing, for it suggests that Gray writes from the assumption that, if there were progress, it would have taken the form of the universal adoption of either Communism or American-style neoliberalism, and that the failure of this to happen is conclusive evidence of its absence. Despite his ostentatious renunciation of every Western ideology, it does not occur to him that universal progress might consist in this very failure. Trapped in the ideology of the Cold War, he thinks the fact that neither side achieved lasting world domination is tantamount to the failure of humanity itself.

If Gray’s books since 9/11 are an elegy for the decline of the West disguised as an obituary for progress, it is because he imagines that the relationship between progress and knowledge must always be a positive one of the kind that would result in ‘a universal civilisation animated by a unified world-view’. He therefore writes as though progress must inevitably culminate in what Hayek termed the ‘synoptic delusion’, in which ‘all the relevant facts are known to some one mind and that it is possible to construct from this knowledge of the particulars a desirable social order.’

But, as Donald Rumsfeld reminded us, there are not only ‘known knowns’, but ‘known unknowns’ and ‘unknown unknowns’ as well. So the growth of knowledge may take the form not only of a transition from known unknown to known known, but also from unknown unknown to known unknown, and even from known known to known unknown. In the latter cases, our ignorance and our metaknowledge grow together. That is what many people would call nihilism. Yet Gray assumes an inverse relation between progress and nihilism, the very idea of which ‘has arisen only with the decline of secular surrogates for Western monotheism’.

In Enlightenment’s Wake, he characterised the historical moment as one in which ‘the hollowing out of Western civilisation by nihilism is virtually complete, and in which non-Occidental cultures are asserting themselves against the West.’ It is this conjunction that, for Gray, spells the failure of the idea of progress. But if we reject the equation of progress with the synoptic delusion, then the relative decline of the West, the growth of nihilism and non-Occidental assertion are all indicative of its successful realisation.

This, too, is a form of progress rooted in the Enlightenment. For as Gray points out, ‘our patrimony is the disenchantment which the Enlightenment has bequeathed to us – a disenchantment all the more profound since it encompasses the central illusions of the Enlightenment itself.’ And if progress is the enchantment of the disenchantment of the world then it should also be the last of our beliefs to be given up, in that it is only by giving up all the others, and seeing that there is no benefit in this, that we would ever be justified in renouncing it. If nothing else, 1789 and 1917 are turning points in the history of that enchantment, and, as such, dates that may resonate for a long time to come.