Book Review:

All Cats Are Grey

John Gray, Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia
(London: Penguin, 2008), 342pp.

Reviewed by Stephen Harper

‘What we call “Progress”’, Havelock Ellis once mused, ‘is the exchange of one nuisance for another nuisance’. In similarly peevish tones, John Gray, in his latest book, rails against universalism, ‘utopianism’ and all those political ideologies that he believes to be founded on a belief in rational progress. In place of such radical and missionary ideals – and in light of what he sees as their historical failure – Gray, drawing on Isaiah Berlin’s notion of value pluralism, advocates a certain ‘realism’: we should abandon entirely the notion of progress and indeed any project of social change, allowing the peoples of each part of the world to arrive at the form of government that suits them. For Gray, the world may be in a bad state, but further human intervention is only likely to lead to even more trouble. His is the classic, modest, conservative approach to political intervention: if it ain’t broke, we don’t need – and shouldn’t try – to fix it. Unfortunately, as communists of all stripes recognise, the time for such political modesty, if it ever existed at all, seems well and truly over. Quite simply, there is no comfortable political homeostasis to be maintained: state capitalism today is already a globe-encompassing monster whose pursuit of profits degrades and destroys human beings and now threatens the planetary basis of human life itself. Until destroyed by the working class, capitalism can only manage its crisis in more and more desperate ways, with increasingly savage attacks on living conditions and deadly imperialist warfare. Indeed, Rosa Luxemburg’s slogan of socialism or barbarism seems more relevant than ever; yet Gray, lacking any conceptual apparatus that would allow him to perceive the social classes and their struggle, sees no need for the former and no evidence of the latter.
One might almost leave it at that. After all, if Gray cannot acknowledge the evidence of capitalism’s depredations, then so be it. Yet the moral complacency of Gray’s book is not the least of its shortcomings. For one thing, Gray throws around the hackneyed accusation of ‘utopianism’ with abandon, yet he never clearly defines what he means by utopian politics; instead, he stuffs all liberal and radical political tendencies and parties into the utopian drawer. All cats are grey. All political philosophies, for example, are disguised forms of religious utopianism – a conflation which robs the terms ‘politics’ and ‘religion’ of all discriminatory force. This argumentational flattening allows Gray to make some very peculiar analogies. Gray draws a parallel, for example, between the terrorism of Al Qaeda and that of nineteenth-century anarchists – both, he explains, share a utopian impulse. The comparison undoubtedly carries a small measure of validity; yet it perversely ignores the more pertinent and immediate parallel between Al Qaeda’s brand of terrorism and the contemporary state terrorism against which it explicitly counterposes itself. Both ‘Islamic’ terrorists and capitalist states wield deadly force against the working class; moreover, both, as Terry Eagleton points out in his book Reason, Faith and Revolution, are profoundly anti-materialist, showing blatant disregard for human life and its creative potential. Indeed, contra Gray, it is not radicals who are utopian, but the ideologues of capitalism, in their treatment of human beings as mere objects to serve the ends of capital accumulation and in their belief that their degenerating system is the ultimate and unsurpassable mode of production. Radicals reject such abstractions. In a post-scarcity world, communism – a free and creative human society without classes, wage labour, starvation or warfare – is no longer just a dream, but a clear material possibility, as even many bourgeois economists have conceded.

Gray’s idealism throws up many other problems. In the absence of a materialist understanding of history, for example, it is difficult to see whence the utopian movements he describes arise. Some of the chiliastic movements Gray discusses as unpredictable outbreaks of enthusiasm, for example, are surely best seen as cultural epiphenomena of systems in decline: the rise of millenarianism at end of Middle Ages, or the revival of apocalyptic cults in the current period of capitalist decay are cases in point. Yet terms such as ‘decline’ and ‘progress’ are meaningless to Gray, whose conservative dogma blinds him to any sense of either forward movement or retrogression in history. Here Gray could learn a great deal from the international working class, the assault upon whose living conditions over the last thirty years has given it a very lucid understanding of the realities of capitalism’s senescence.

It is Gray’s crass evaluation of Marxism, however, that truly astounds. While Gray is quite right to identify a religious, millenarian current within Marxism, throughout Black Mass, Marxism and communism are simply conflated with eastern-bloc ‘Communism’. Gray does not even entertain the analysis of the USSR as state capitalist, instead parroting the crude anti-communist rhetoric of capitalism’s apologists in the media and the academy. Indeed, Gray’s view of Marxism as leading to dirigiste, bureaucratic, centralised and conformist politics (a reasonably accurate description of capitalism, in fact) is inherited from the cold war academic anti-Communist propagandists and here the ghost of Michael Oakeshott, Gray’s predecessor at the London School of Economics, hoves into view. But now that the cold war is over, Gray cuts a rather lonelier and more perplexing figure than Oakeshott. In 2008, what are we to make of a Professor of European Thought who cannot distinguish between Marxism and Stalinism?

Finally, Gray seems unable, or rather unwilling, to discriminate between the political rhetoric of capitalism and its systemic imperatives. Gray fears that without responsible and restrained leadership, humanity will suffer increasing barbarism at the hands of ideologues. Taking at face value the pious rhetoric of the Western leaders who sought to ‘bring democracy and freedom to Iraq’, Gray argues that the disaster of Iraq was underwritten by a well-meaning but quasi-religious vision of planting ‘democracy’ where it could not possibly take root. Yet Iraqi’s population was slaughtered, displaced or tortured, not as a result of a misguided utopian impulse to impose liberal democracy, but for standing in the path of the brutal and lunatic logic of imperialism. The battle for Iraq’s oilfields and political apparatus is only one of the most obvious expressions of this logic, as each nation scrabbles to gain economic and strategic advantage over its rivals. The barbarism of the post-Cold War period, from Yugoslavia to South Ossetia, is underpinned not by political idealism, but by the necessary contention of each state with every other, as the contemporary geopolitical landscape more and more fragments into a Hobbesian war of all against all. No state, however ‘responsible’ or ‘modest’ its leadership, can resist the imperatives of this new crisis-ridden order; each is compelled to defend and extend the interests of its ruling class with increasing savagery.

Perhaps the most interesting question raised by Black Mass is that of Gray’s reasons for writing it. Having abandoned the Conservatives when he perceived New Labour coming to power, Gray now seems to have nailed his colours to the Conservative mast again – how else to explain his excoriation of New Labour’s invasion of Iraq, when the Conservatives backed precisely the same policy?

It is difficult to understand how such an imaginative writer as Will Self could seriously call Gray, as the book’s cover puts it, ‘the most important living philosopher’, unless he was exercising the sly irony that has become his trademark. With its undiscriminating argumentation and idealist apologetics, this book will find its most appreciative readers among business-class airport lounge philosophers. Those more concerned with ending capitalism than finding their niche within it, however, will find little of value within its pages. As capitalism drags humanity into its increasingly frequent and irrational outbursts of violence and crisis, we need a little more, rather than less, of the ‘vision thing’.

5 September 2008

Stephen Harper lectures in Media Studies at the University of Portsmouth. His latest book, Madness and Popular Culture (Palgrave 2009), offers a Marxist analysis of the representation of mental distress in film, television and print media.