Black Mass

April 27, 2008


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As I mentioned some time ago, I planned to buy John Gray’s Black Mass when it came out in paperback. I came away from the book very disappointed.

I would guess the core of the book is the second half, which is a criticism of the Iraq war. This is a very strong attack on the overconfidence of the idea that a western democracy could be set up in Iraq, and on both the deception and self-delusion of the leading advocates of war.

That much is fine, but criticisms of the Iraq war are ten a penny. The book as a whole is an attempt to generalise from that to put neoconservatism in a tradition of rational utopianism starting with the enlightenment. Jacobinism, Marxism, Nazism, neo-liberalism and even Al-Quaeda itself are all described as incarnations of a single myth of an end time of perfect rule spread across the whole world by human rationality.

The problem with the thesis is that it proves too much. By the standards he sets, there’s hardly a movement imaginable that would not be able to qualify as utopian. If you imagine a better future than the present, you’re a utopian. If you rhetorically appeal to any religious or mythical glory, you’re a utopian (even if the rhetoric is obvious hyperbole). If you claim that something that worked in one country could work in another, you’re a utopian. If you exhibit undue confidence in the success of your current policy (such a rarity among politicians), you’re a utopian. I felt that the only movements that avoided being labelled as a utopian were those which, with hindsight, actually achieved durable success. Therefore Reagan, despite all his rhetoric, was no utopian, because communism was really defeated.

The book also suffers by the association of the Bush regime with actual evangelical Christianity. While this might casually appear to be consistent with the argument, every earlier version of the utopia myth Gray describes relies on actual human achievement without divine assistance. The accidental coalition between secular ex-Trotskyite empire-builders and devout backwoods millenarialists plays no part in his wider thesis.

Fundamentally, I think Gray is misunderstanding the importance of myth in politics. The point is not that people believe the utopian myth to be true, it’s that a narrative, whether an explanation of the past or a forecast for the future, feels subjectively more convincing if it accords with some myth than if it doesn’t. The follower of Marxism or neoconservatism or whatever would not say that the final victory was inevitable, but the theories of the leaders would feel more persuasive because they carried in them the essence of the myth. Some ideas are easier to get carried away by than others.

And then there’s the final chapter. Oh dear. I really don’t want Anomaly to become simply a climate denial blog, but there’s something overwhelmingly ridiculous about spending a whole book attacking political movements which you claim are apocalyptic religion in disguise, and then casually, in passing, signing up to the most alarmist of all climate change predictions in their entirety, and citing as scientific authority a book entitled “The Revenge of Gaia“. If someone could explain that level of blindness in otherwise highly intelligent commentators, and I certainly can’t, they would be making a real contribution to the understanding of political history.

The only slight indication of awareness of the contradiction in his position is the following feeble half-justification:

… In another sense the prospect is not apocalyptic at all. In wrecking the planetary environment humans are only doing what they have done innumerable times before on a local level …

In the end the point is that Gray is not against mythology, only against one particular myth:

Happily, humanity has other myths, which can help it see more clearly. In the Genesis story humans were banished from paradise after eating from the Tree of Knowledge and had to survive by their labours ever after. There is no promise here of any return to a state of primordial innocence. Once the fruit has been eaten there is no going back. The same truth is preserved in the Greek story of Prometheus, and in many other traditions. These ancient legends are better guides to the present than modern myths of progress and utopia.

NO! STOP! The problem is with mythology as a guide to policy, not with just one myth. Myths are bugs in the mind, nothing more. The answer to bad policy based on myths is not other myths, it’s accuracy and humility.

Of course, his own continuing preference for myth might explain the vehemence of the book. His claim that neo-liberals believed in their inevitable global dominance struck me as very strange: if neo-liberal means people like me, and I normally interpret it that way, we have always inclined more to pessimism and defeatism than triumphalism, even at the end of the eighties when a few of our ideas like privatisation were spreading across the world. But of course Gray himself was one of us at one time, and if he took a millenarian view of things at the time, then, like me sticking up for the Men in Skirts, he could be expected to turn against his old ideas violently. But his error was not his liberalism, it was his mythologising, and he has changed the myth instead of keeping the politics and rejecting myth.

Gray needs to put down Leo Strauss and the Bible, and read some Pratchett.

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