Black Mass

By John Gray

Whatever else you want to say about British political philosopher John Gray, you can’t accuse him of thinking small. His Big Idea in Black Mass is that we live in a time of “apocalyptic politics.” What this means, in the first place, is that our modern political ideologies are revolutionary in nature, a tradition he sees as originating in early Christian eschatology, and proceeding through the Enlightenment, Jacobinism and Marxism, to current American foreign policy and the Islamist movement. In this regard at least politics can be thought of as “spilt theology,” with modern revolutionary movements being “a continuation of religion by other means.” His understanding of how this works is Freudian:

Those who demand that religion be exorcized from politics think this can be achieved by excluding traditional faiths from public institutions; but secular creeds are formed from religious concepts, and suppressing religion does not mean it ceases to control thinking and behaviour. Like repressed sexual desire, faith returns, often in grotesque forms, to govern the lives of those who deny it.

Such a faith-based, revolutionary politics is grounded in a mythic view of history, one that sees history as having both a direction (progress) and a purpose or ultimate goal (the perfection of human life, or Utopia). But calling it the product of mythic thinking doesn’t mean that it is religious, merely deluded. Utopia is, by definition, impossible to achieve (“A process is utopian if there are no circumstances under which it can be realized.”). This is because it denies the essence of the human condition, which is conflict. Similarly, there is no such thing as progress. “Progress,” however, is a large term that can mean many different things. When Gray uses it he seems to only have in mind political progress toward a vague Utopian goal. He isn’t talking about material progress, but rather movement toward a state of social harmony and perfected human nature, not to mention the final victory of Good over Evil.

You’ll have noticed that Gray is easy to quote. He doesn’t just have big ideas, he expresses them in bold, declarative language. And his historical analysis paints with broad strokes which, inevitably, make it hard to stay within the lines. Take his treatment of the Enlightenment. What the Enlightenment is reduced to here, for the purpose of Gray’s argument, is the notion (call it a belief) that knowledge can help overcome human error and build a better world. From such a benign basic principle, Enlightenment thinkers were forced to adopt the Christian myth that history has a direction when in reality it has no meaning or purpose, and the belief that evil (error, ignorance) can be overcome despite being inherent in human nature. This, in turn, opened the gates of hell. The Nazis, we learn, were “in some ways children of the Enlightenment” despite despising nearly everything it stood for. And so were the Bolsheviks, again calling for a bit of intellectual maneuvering:

A wide range of beliefs can be found among Enlightenment thinkers – atheist and Deist, liberal and anti-liberal, communist and pro-market, egalitarian and racist. Much of the Enlightenment’s history consists of rabid disputes among rival doctrinaires. Yet it cannot be denied that a radical version of Enlightenment thinking came to power with the Bolsheviks, which aimed to alter human life irrevocably.

The radical version of Enlightenment thinking Gray adverts to is his own construction: the faith-based, Utopian strand that he has cobbled together from various historical bits and pieces. And it is only that final point that is important: the aim to alter human life irrevocably. Political terror is both defined by and the product of its Utopian goals. This is what sets the apocalyptic politics of the twentieth century apart from earlier terrors (though its original was the Jacobinism of the French Revolution):

At its worst, twentieth-century terror was used with the aim of transforming human life. The peculiar quality of twentieth-century terror is not its scale – unprecedented though that was. It is that its goal was to perfect human life – an objective integral to totalitarianism.

But how seriously can we take these aims and goals? Or, to what extent might they have been merely rhetorical? Or the rationalizations of psychopaths? Moving into a discussion of the reasons for the American invasion and occupation of Iraq, I found the connections Gray was trying to make starting to snap.

As an alternative to twentieth-century terror Gray offers up King Leopold II’s rape of the Congo. “Though he justified his enterprise in terms of spreading progress and Christianity, Leopold’s goal was not ideological. It was his personal enrichment and that of his business associates.” Mutatis mutandis, much the same has been said of America’s involvement in Iraq. But for some reason Gray will have none of it, consigning such thinking to the usual bugaboo of conspiracy theory. No reason for this is given other than that it would upset his thesis that Iraq is “a twenty-first century Utopian experiment.” We simply must believe the Bush administration’s third or fourth justification for the war – the so-called “Bush Doctrine” of spreading democracy – despite the obvious fact that the U.S. does not support democratic Arab governments and would consider a democratic Iraq to be a catastrophe. Gray grants a “self-serving rationale” for America’s involvement, but

it would be wrong to dismiss Bush’s talk of universal democracy as mere hypocrisy. For a time American power became a vehicle for an attempt to remake the world. The disaster that continues to unfold in Iraq is not the result of policy being shaped by corporate interests, or of any conspiracy. It is a testimony to the power of faith.

Says who? Elsewhere Gray declares that “there is no reason to doubt the reality” of Bush’s (or Blair’s) faith. None? Is it being too obvious (or, as it is usually put, “easy” or “glib”) to point out that according to the most recent conservative estimates there are some 30 trillion reasons to doubt it?

To his credit, Gray does provide an occasionally provocative historical context for thinking about today’s world. But at bottom his analysis, meant as a critique of neocon fundamentalism, ends up being just another fancy intellectual apology for the same because he accepts at face value its most preposterous tenets. Do we really need recourse to the doctrines of Zoroastrianism in order to understand why America is in Iraq? Gray says that what makes “Western” apocalyptic politics distinctive (and in this regard radical Islam is “unmistakably western”) is the use of force and terror “to alter history and perfect humanity.” Is it too cynical to suggest that they use force and terror simply to get what they want? I would have thought it was just human nature.

Review first published online January 14, 2008.