Gray’s Anatomy

Gray’s Anatomy

We live, it has been said, in a postideological age. Ideologically confused might be more like it.


We live, it has been said, in a postideological age. Ideologically confused might be more like it. Either way, there is no question that since the fall of the Berlin wall the ideological sands have been shifting. A good deal of the political map has been reshaped, its intellectual coordinates recombined with results that are by turns welcome and horrifying, but almost always amusing–at least to me.

This post-cold war road is paved with the personal journeys of intellectual and political figures of various stripes, many of whom have crisscrossed one another along the postideological superhighway. Think of Pat Buchanan’s metamorphosis from conventional cold war Republican into paleocon populist and full-fledged anti-imperialist; Michael Lind’s long, strange trip “up from conservatism” to an idiosyncratic sort of social-democratic nationalism; Joschka Fischer’s voyage from revolutionary New Leftism to “realo” pragmatism to humanitarian interventionism; Harper’s editor Lewis Lapham’s drift from a hard-to-pin-down but more or less conservative centrism to a kind of undefined patrician left-liberalism and now militant anti-imperialism. And then, of course, there’s Christopher Hitchens, who is still building the road as he travels, but who blends elements of post-Trotskyism, liberal internationalism and what Ian Williams has cleverly labeled “neo-neo-conservatism.”

Among the most interesting of the postideological pilgrims is the British writer John Gray, a professor of European thought at the London School of Economics. Gray’s journey has taken him from championing the Thatcher revolution to becoming one of globalization’s most savage critics; from writing Hayek on Liberty, a 1984 paean to the Austrian sage of free-market economics, to penning False Dawn, a 1998 jeremiad about the “delusions of global capitalism”; from frequenting Washington’s right-wing think tanks to frequenting the pages of the Guardian and the New Statesman.

Straw Dogs represents yet another twist in Gray’s journey. He is now a convert to the worldview of “deep” ecology. No longer is it the excesses of the free market or corporate globalization that exercises Gray. He’s had it with the human race itself. “The destruction of the natural world is not the result of global capitalism, industrialisation, ‘Western civilisation’ or any flaw in human institutions.” Rather, he explains, it is “a consequence of the evolutionary success of an exceptionally rapacious primate.”

This will come as altogether welcome news to the captains of industry and the architects of the global economy; the ecological devastation they leave in their wake, according to Gray, has nothing to do with their exploits. And it will come as terribly disheartening news to anyone attempting to curb the more ferocious forms of environmental degradation. Kyoto Protocol–what’s the point? Alternative energy–why bother?

Gray has had it not only with humans but with their self-aggrandizing self-image, with the pernicious intellectual scheme that he sees as the animating force behind their ecocidal rampages: humanism. Humanism, for Gray, commits two unforgivable intellectual sins: It claims that humans possess the capacity to shape their own destinies and that humans are above other animals.

This second claim rests on a peculiar distortion of humanism, one Gray compounds by idiosyncratically positing an antagonism between humanism and science. While Darwin “showed that humans are like other animals,” humanists, he asserts, “claim they are not.” An odd reading of modern intellectual history, to be sure. The Darwinian revolution was, on the contrary, hailed by humanists from the beginning as one of the high-water marks in humanism’s struggle against religious irrationalism and superstition. Yet, in an odd reversal, Gray has turned humanists into enemies of science and evolution. Provided are no explanation, no argument, no reference to any specific humanists–just blanket assertion. This, I’m afraid, is all too characteristic of the method employed in Straw Dogs.

Even more consequential for Gray is the matter of shaping our destiny. Indeed, the essential conflict today, he maintains, is being “waged between humanists and the few who understand that humans can no more be masters of their destiny than any other animal.” It is paramount for Gray that we junk the voluntarist fantasy of controlling our fate. “Epidemiology and microbiology are better guides to our future,” he writes, “than any of our hopes or plans.” Gray is referring here to new patterns of disease that promise, in his words, to “trim the human population.” From the point of view of Gray’s newfound antihumanism, the specter of calamitous epidemics spreading across the planet is nothing alarming. On the contrary, the disappearance of vast numbers of “homo rapiens” (his term of endearment for the species) would be a healthy purge of the “plague of people” that has afflicted the overburdened earth, an act of self-equilibrating eco-cleansing.

Gray even rhapsodizes about the potential of new technologies of war as population-reduction devices. The impact of this development “could be considerable,” he writes. “It is not only that weapons of mass destruction–notably biological and (soon) genetic weapons–are more fearsome than before.” “More,” he enthuses, “their impact on the life-support systems of human society is likely to be greater.”

Gray takes the “plague of people” language from one of his new gurus, James Lovelock, the author of several books outlining the so-called Gaia hypothesis. As with many neophytes, Gray delved into his new Weltanschauung with intoxicated excitement and neglected to examine the quite voluminous critical literature within ecophilosophy. Had he done so, he would have learned that Lovelock’s work is almost universally regarded by green thinkers as a joke. Gaia-speak was dropped like a bad habit years ago in ecological circles.

Same for the neo-Malthusian persiflage about overpopulation. These sentiments have been around in the environmental movement for a long time–notably in the monkey-wrenching direct action group Earth First!, whose newsletter ran an article celebrating AIDS as Mother Nature’s punishment to humans for their destructiveness (as well as a carrying-capacity correcting mechanism). But those views were just as quickly attacked by others in the ecology movement, most prominently by Murray Bookchin. To his credit, Earth First! founder Dave Foreman engaged Bookchin’s criticisms productively and came to repudiate much of the misanthropy in his group’s outlook. Their dialogue, in fact, was published in book form in 1991 as Defending the Earth, a text Gray would have done well to consult.

It isn’t just intellectually shoddy for Gray to trot this stuff out now as if these debates had never taken place–it’s downright embarrassing. A better editor would have assigned him a little homework about the intellectual tradition he has come to embrace.

But Gray’s proclivity for notions like Gaia and his enthusiasm for apocalyptic scenarios aren’t ultimately about arguments or critical reflection–which are, after all, relics of the moribund project of humanism. He’s developed a visceral revulsion toward his fellow humans, a profoundly misanthropic impulse that he dresses up in the sonorous language of “biophilia.”

The task for Earth-lovers, writes Gray, is not to work toward a more ecologically balanced planet but rather to look forward to a time “when humans have ceased to matter.” Given this, there is no reason to dread the prospect of a posthuman future in which technology renders people obsolete. “Thinking of our bodies as natural and of our technologies as artificial gives too much importance to the accident of our origins. If we are replaced by machines, it will be in an evolutionary shift no different from that when bacteria combined to create our earliest ancestors.”

I don’t think I have to persuade Nation readers of the disturbing, and quite possibly disturbed, nature of this vision. Gray has outlined a program for complete political passivity. There is no point whatsoever in our attempting to make the world a less cruel or more livable place. Such matters are beyond our control–and to think otherwise is humanistic hubris. If war becomes even more ruinous, if new diseases kill unfathomable multitudes, if technology renders our bodies immaterial–so be it. The problem is not the unimaginable suffering such developments would cause, but the foolishness of humanists for thinking things could be otherwise.

Gray’s long and winding ideological road has thus taken him from free-market fanaticism to “center-left” anticapitalism and now to green antihumanism. This might seem a bizarre trajectory even in a postideological age. But there is, arguably, a method in Gray’s madness, a pattern to his restless shifting of intellectual gears. It could have something to do with what his old friend Norman Barry calls Gray’s “philosophical promiscuity.” Barry, a fellow traveler of Gray’s from the Thatcher years, told Lingua Franca magazine in 2001 that even in his days as an anarcho-capitalist, Gray “was always flitting from person to person, philosopher to philosopher…. He couldn’t form a steady relationship with any thinker.”

And even as a devotee of free-market capitalism–what Irving Kristol once called “the least romantic conception of a public order that the human mind has ever conceived”–Gray approached his politics with euphoria. Rather than designing rational-choice models, he composed prose poems to the gods of the market. Those gods, of course, failed him. So, we see, did the gods of the center-left. Might Gray in fact set himself up for perpetual disillusionment by plunging, again and again, into ideological flings?

While Gray has without a doubt traveled a long way to the intellectual terrain he currently occupies, I regard his current position as something of a return to familiar ground. Although he no longer exalts the magic of the free market or the human passions he believed it to unleash, there is something unmistakably conservative, I think, about antihumanism–whether in its religious, Heideggerian, Althusserian, poststructuralist or “biocentric” varieties. The humanist persuasion, at its best, is about possibilities. It is the belief, as Richard Rorty puts it, that “if we can work together, we can make ourselves into whatever we are clever and courageous enough to imagine ourselves becoming.” Hostility to that impulse emanates from what I can’t help but think of as a conservative place in the psyche, whatever philosophical attire one dresses it in.

In a sense, then, Gray has come full circle. But, in keeping with his intellectual restlessness, he has shuffled his theoretical deck yet again–somewhat. His latest effort, Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern, while not without problems, is chock-full of interesting observations and stimulating insights. While Gray presents this short book as something of a conceptual sequel to Straw Dogs, the new volume contains arguments that manage to emerge intact from the wreckage left behind by its predecessor.

Gray aims in Al Qaeda to disabuse us of the idea that the central drama of contemporary geopolitics is a confrontation between the forces of modern liberal democracy on one side and those of atavistic antimodernism on the other. He spurns the notion that modernization as such is the ticket to emancipation and happiness. Two of the most murderous political experiments in history, Nazism and Stalinism, were profoundly modern, he points out. While modernity saw liberal democracy and pluralism, it also saw the concentration camp and the gulag. Conversely, citing the tolerance practiced “in Buddhist India, in the Ottoman Empire and the Moorish kingdoms of medieval Spain, and in China,” he argues that there “is nothing peculiarly liberal, western or modern about the peaceful coexistence of communities having different values and beliefs.”

Al Qaeda is also in part a reprise of False Dawn. Gray is out to lambaste the fantasies of economic globalizers and liberal universalists alike. “Neo-liberal utopians expected that globalisation would fill the world with liberal republics, linked together in peace and trade.” Instead, Gray reports, “history is responding with a flowering of war, tyranny and empire.” In case the world needed reminding that the modernist vision of a future shaped by the spread of universal values was dangerously delusional, Gray contends, it got it on September 11–with a vengeance.

Al Qaeda, Gray argues, is a thoroughly modern organism. It is modern “not only in the fact that it uses satellite phones, laptop computers and encrypted websites” but in its predilection for “spectacular encounters in which dissemination of media images is a core strategy.” But, one might rejoin, these are purely technical appropriations, not ideological affinities; Al Qaeda makes pragmatic use of modern means but in pursuit of its decidedly antimodern ends. Gray’s response is that Al Qaeda’s ideology is a “typical modern hybrid,” mixing elements of tradition with the Bolshevik concept of the revolutionary vanguard. In the Taliban, he finds resonances not so much with medievalism as with that quintessentially twentieth-century creature, Pol Pot.

But even Al Qaeda’s arguably premodern features, Gray argues, enable the organization to operate effectively under the hypermodern complexity of globalization. With its “informal banking systems (hawala) that are global in their reach and whose operations are effectively untraceable,” and possessing the “cellular structures of drug cartels and the flattened networks of virtual business corporations,” Al Qaeda doesn’t resist the forces of globalization–it harnesses them. (A minor quibble: Conspicuously absent from this discussion is any mention of Benjamin Barber’s Jihad vs. McWorld, a work that effectively prefigured Gray’s formulation by nearly a decade. At least a passing reference might have been in order.)

Rejecting the modern/antimodern prism, Gray views the nature of global conflict today in terms of “population growth, shrinking energy supplies and irreversible climate change”; “ethnic and religious enmities and the collapse or corrosion of the state in many parts of the world”; the emergence of “political organizations, irregular militias and fundamentalist networks” made all the more ominous given the dissemination of highly lethal weapons. Taken together, Gray contends, these developments spell almost certain disaster.

Actually, you can drop the “almost.” There is a strikingly deterministic and fatalistic streak in Gray. Scattered throughout the book are formulations like: “The population of European Russia will be more than decimated”; “geopolitical upheaval is unavoidable”; “there is nothing to be done about this”; “a consequence of the universal fact of entropy.” Sound familiar? The tone of ironclad inevitability is one of the carry-overs from Straw Dogs. As Adair Turner recently pointed out in the English journal Prospect, Gray’s rigid determinism is more than a bit ironic given his ruthless critique of positivism for its insistence that the growth of scientific knowledge would inevitably lead to a utopian future–one of Gray’s central themes in Al Qaeda.

But this tension pales in comparison with a much more fundamental problem in Gray’s project. For all of his insights into our geopolitical situation and his monitions about the perilous path we’re on, when one reads the two books in tandem, the effect is one of moral numbness. If one follows the argument of Straw Dogs (as we can only assume Gray does), what difference does it make whether the human species avoids its collision course with doom? If we should look forward to a time “when humans have ceased to matter,” as Gray exhorts us to do in Straw Dogs, what’s the point of even considering the proposals he offers in Al Qaeda for fashioning a less calamitous future? How can the apocalyptic antihumanism of Straw Dogs be squared with the claim, in the concluding chapter of Al Qaeda, that “we need to think afresh about how regimes and ways of life that will always be different can come to coexist in peace”?

As one would expect, the political vision Gray offers in Al Qaeda is a complicated postideological jambalaya. (I generally distrust political visions that aren’t complicated and, in some sense, postideological.) Having said that, there are several hints of a pre-postideological form of conservatism in the book. He characterizes Robert Kaplan’s Warrior Politics as “brilliant.” “Even intolerable regimes,” he remarks, should be tolerated “so long as they posed no danger to others.” This superficially unobjectionable-sounding view happens to be rooted in a deeply conservative understanding of state sovereignty and global order–and one in which there’s no problem with genocidal tyrants and mass murderers so long as they’re only torturing and annihilating their own subjects.

Moreover, Gray’s rejection of liberal universalism itself is rooted in an archetypally conservative belief in essential human differences, a right-wing ontology of alterity. The particular expressions of liberal universalism Gray chooses to attack–positivism, free-market neoliberalism–are sufficiently loathsome to make his criticisms sting with ease. But Gray’s beef isn’t just with them. It’s with the very concept of universalism, or cosmopolitanism, or internationalism–ideas that conservatives have abhorred for centuries. Thus when Gray assails liberal modernists for the blindness to fundamental and immutable differences between cultures inherent in their universalizing schemes, it might sound as if he were speaking the anticapitalist language of the global justice movement or the anti-imperialist idiom of the antiwar movement. But that’s not where he’s coming from at all. He’s speaking the language of organicist conservatism–a credo of natural hierarchies and congenital cultural partitions. And pulsating through both books is another defining ingredient of the conservative mind: a profoundly dark, pessimistic view of human nature.

Gray’s conservative essentialism is cut from the same cloth as the Huntingtonian belief in the incommensurability of civilizations. “Can we not accept that human beings have divergent and conflicting values, and learn to live with this fact?” Gray bemoans. From this perspective it is a given that the world’s civilizations are monolithic, each speaking with a single voice. But they aren’t–they’re internally contested battlegrounds of opposing ideas, interests, classes, visions and possibilities. Think of Iran today, to take just one of myriad examples. It would be impossible to make head or tail of its internal situation in Gray’s monochromatic terms.

Gray is right when he argues that the vast majority of the world’s societies do not wish to have globalization in the form of American-style corporate neoliberalism visited upon them. But he transposes this into an argument against universalism as such, which it is not. Human rights activists across the planet are waging corresponding struggles. As the Egyptian sociologist and dissident Saad Eddin Ibrahim has noted, when human rights activists from different countries get together and exchange notes, they invariably find that, despite wide geographic, cultural and religious chasms, they share many of the same experiences and speak a remarkably common idiom. It’s not an accident that people in the international human rights movement tend to think of themselves, in this sense, as universalists.

Gray has not a word to say about this kind of universalism. Or, for that matter, about solidarity movements around the world that bring people of divergent societies and traditions together in common struggles for economic justice and resistance to domination–many of whom see themselves as acting in the name of universal principles.

Hegel admonished us to enter into the strengths, rather than the weaknesses, of our adversary’s arguments–something Gray resoundingly fails to do in these two books; attacking universalism by targeting positivism and neoliberalism is to score cheap points while avoiding more challenging questions.

Although Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern shows several signs of improvement over Straw Dogs, in the end it remains plagued by the underlying impulses that animate Gray’s work generally. As far as he has traveled, and as frequently as he has changed lanes, he’s still conservative after all these years.

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