Politics after the gods died

John Gray’s intellectual journey has been a bit like a crazy ride on a roller coaster, speeding on unexpected curves and turns. But racing around too many turns can be a dangerous flirtation with derailment. To be sure, Gray has ridden a long way on the intellectual roller coaster. The one-time New Right cheerleader became a stern critic of free market globalization, a hard-to-pin-down post-modern liberal and, of late, something of a green anti-humanist. (Margaret Thatcher is said to have wondered: «Whatever became of John Gray? He used to be one of us.») For one thing, Gray, a professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics, has confused his readers. Some critics have gone so far as to (mis-) label him a misanthrope. That, of course, he is not, though he does seem to dislike a certain type of human: the deluded Enlightenment man and his descendants who are seen as the source of more or less everything that is wrong with the Western world today. Attacking Enlightenment liberalism has been one of Gray’s pet targets. In «Al Qaeda and What it Means to be Modern,» now published in a Greek translation (Metaichmio, 2004), he does it again. Only this time, the baggage of the Enlightenment has been – somewhat conveniently – inflated to encompass Islamic terrorism. So Gray warns us that appearances can be deceptive. Contrary to conventional wisdom, which tends to brand Islamic terrorism as an anti-modernist phenomenon, he says it is in fact an offshoot of Western Enlightenment. Its utopian drive to radically remake the world is the same as that which propelled the visions of a communist society and the liberal pipe dreams of a global, free market – each one advertised by their proponents as the end of history. After sorting out the ideological part, Gray gets on with his favorite pastime: throwing stones at the Enlightenment project. Following on from Nietzsche’s madman, Gray never tires of declaring that our gods are dead. Socialism and liberalism have failed us. (Religion, he says, may hold no more water than these ideologies but is still a necessary delusion, at least for some.) We late moderns, he says, must learn to live without the consolation of such big narratives and shed our positivist legacy, including our belief in historical progress, the universality of our values and human perfectibility. It is here that Gray is at his most powerful. Offering a cram course on Saint-Simon and Comte, who believed that science would cure all human ills, Gray argues that the positivist belief that scientific progress goes hand-in-hand with moral and political progress is an illusion. The fact that we have better knowledge of the world and state-of-the-art technologies does not make us better humans. Knowledge is power but it does not enhance our morality. In fact, it has opened the door to our most appalling desires. Gray debunks the notion that modernization is an essentially benign or liberating development. We have to knock down the popular myth that as societies become more modern, they also become more alike – and at the same time more like us – or better. Modernization, he reminds us, brought pluralism and liberal democracy but it also produced the concentration camp and the gulag. (The link is forcefully exposed in Zygmunt Bauman’s classic work «Modernity and the Holocaust.») «There are many ways to be modern,» Gray writes, «some of them monstrous.» Radical Islam is just another way of being modern. The problem with Gray’s argument is that it’s hard to see Marx, Hayek and bin Laden as members of the same big family. Notwithstanding some similarities, one would have to be looking from quite a distance to discern any common pattern among their creeds. By forcing them to fit the same pattern, Gray is himself introducing a big narrative – which is exactly what he set out to destroy. After all, the aim of Al Qaeda is to freeze or even reverse time by reinstating a unified caliphate throughout the Middle East – hardly a modernist vision. So what are we supposed to do now that our gods have failed us? All Gray offers is some vague talk about affirming diversity and reaching a modus vivendi based on tolerance. In fact, he points out, tolerance is not a liberal prerogative. Citing the tolerance practiced «in Buddhist India, in the Ottoman Empire and the Moorish kingdoms of medieval Spain, and in China,» Gray argues that there «is nothing particularly liberal, Western or modern about the peaceful coexistence of communities having different values and beliefs.» Liberal societies, he says, must learn to peacefully coexist with radically different cultures – even with non-liberal regimes to the extent that these do not pose a threat to others. Does that mean tolerating blatant tyrants in other countries? Gray keeps mum. Deep down, Gray is merely another liberal wrestling with the age-old liberal conundrum: How can we uphold liberalism without resorting to metaphysics? Gray gives up or evades, sliding into the dangerous territory of anything-goes relativism. Others, like the neo-pragmatist Richard Rorty, have fared better.