'History goes on; human beings don't change very much'

John Gray says he is no despairing grump, just trying to help us by injecting realism into political thinking. To that end, he tells Matthew Reisz, his essays do not skirt the nasty, shabby sides of life

October 1, 2009

The political philosopher John Gray is often seen as a supreme pessimist, even a misanthrope, who delights in pouring cold water on our fondest hopes. For him, the Apocalypse is just round the corner and we're all pretty much doomed.

One can certainly find statements in his recent collection of essays, Gray's Anatomy, that support this image.

In 1983, Gray suspected that "the experience of an apparently inexorable drift to dissolution and barbarism in all the central institutions of society", which many Europeans lived through in the aftermath of the First World War, "may not be so far from our own".

"The real threats to (our) natural environment," he reported in 1993, "come from proliferating technologies of mass destruction, from farming and, above all, from the growing deadweight of human numbers."

The best achievable version of "the good life", he wrote in 2002, consisted in "seeking peace - without hoping for a world without war. It means cherishing freedom - in the knowledge that it's an interval between anarchy and tyranny."

It is clear that Gray enjoys crafting resonant phrases that puncture some of our comforting illusions. Yet he strongly disputes the idea that he is just a grump with a purely negative or even despairing message. Instead, he argues, a more disillusioned, realistic perspective could help us address today's immense political challenges: "Accepting that we are flawed and our problems not fully soluble need not be paralysing; it could make us more flexible and resourceful."

So how did he get to this political position? Gray studied at the University of Oxford and, after a spell at the University of Essex, eventually became professor of politics there. He has held visiting professorships at many American universities, including Harvard and Yale, and ended his career in 2008 as professor of European thought at the London School of Economics.

He is the author of Two Faces of Liberalism (2000) as well as more detailed studies of Voltaire, John Stuart Mill, Isaiah Berlin and Friedrich von Hayek. After making a substantial contribution to academic political philosophy and responding to his critics, however, Gray decided to produce a one-volume overview of his thinking through "a collection of predominantly non-academic writing that is more generally accessible".

One of the central themes of Gray's Anatomy, he says, is a "recurrent probing of ideas of progress ... A belief in progress is more than the commonsense observation that there are better and worse states for human beings. A believer in progress thinks that in ethics and politics, if you like in human affairs, there can be the same sort of cumulative and all-but-irreversible advance that happens in the growth of knowledge.

"It is different because real gains can and will be lost. My approach is the opposite of apocalyptic. I'm saying that history goes on; human beings don't change very much."

Yet, over and above questions of its accuracy, Gray contends that a belief in progress can be "dangerous nonsense, because it's a sort of narcotic that prevents you taking precautionary measures against dangers such as the collapse of the global economy or the rise of the far Right".

In the 1980s, he recalls, the conventional thinking was that communism would last for ever (and so the West was quite unprepared for its aftermath), whereas he was sure "the USSR would and should collapse", welcomed its demise as "a great advance" - and then "immediately started focusing on the problems".

In this, he was very much at odds with a mood of Western triumphalism exemplified by Francis Fukuyama's book The End of History and the Last Man (1992), which argued that the great ideological battles of the 20th century had ended with the victory of capitalism and liberal democracy. One of the results of the spread of that viewpoint, says Gray, is that "lots of foreign-policy programmes stopped receiving money from foundations - apparently we didn't need a foreign policy any more. We were moving into a world with no conflict."

False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism (1998), Gray's first book aimed at a general audience, was an effort to combat such claims, though it "fell dead from the press and was universally attacked until the post-communist government in Russia defaulted on sovereign debt".

Another strand in his thinking emerges in Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia (2007). Gray calls himself "an atheist - or rather a sceptic - who is friendly to religion and doesn't see any need for deconverting the world". Yet he believes that many politicos - communists, militant atheists who want to abolish religion, neoconservative enthusiasts for the pax Americana, Greens who want to take us back to nature - are peddling a kind of ersatz religion. Their new dawns will never arrive and can only lead us astray because "if you attempt the impossible, you have a bloody disaster most of the time".

Gray's Anatomy contains writing of many different kinds, including deliberately provocative aphorisms and parodies of old-style Marxist tracts, a genre he adopted "because it's very difficult to communicate the absurdity of an intellectual position or climate of opinion just by saying it's absurd". The longest piece in the book, written in 1993, sets out "an agenda for Green conservatism".

"I would still stand by most of it," Gray says now. "I see no reason why Green thinking should be anti-capitalist, since it contains elements that could appeal to the liberal or more moderate Right. I'm still committed to Green values, but more critical of the Greens as an organised movement.

"I now believe that high-tech fixes are not just useful but essential. You can't support the current population with no or almost no fossil fuels, no or almost no nuclear power, using traditional farming methods. The solution is not to live more naturally with a few extra things like wind turbines."

But although he makes a powerful argument, it seems fairly remote from the political tribalism that means Greens and conservatives are highly unlikely to join forces simply because their dress codes and table manners are so different. And this raises a more general point. Gray may not feel it's his job to tell us how to vote and he can come up with a sharp passing comment - he calls Tony Blair "an exceptionally gifted politician with the priceless gift of never doubting his own sincerity" - but doesn't he view the nitty-gritty of everyday party politics from a great and rather contemptuous height?

That is not how he sees it. "On the whole, I'm pro-politician," he responds, albeit in an interview conducted before the recent Parliamentary expenses scandal. "I have a passing acquaintance with some of them and, on the whole, I feel they are decent people who believe in what they are doing. Not many are cynical.

"I sometimes think of writing a book called 'In Defence of Shabbiness'. Politics is shabby. It should be shabby. Heroic politics is always dangerous. Shabbiness, for which politicians are constantly attacked and criticised, involves compromises, deals, negotiations ... I think that's good. The dirty parts of politics do most of the work."

For his own part, Gray aims "to inject a bit of realism into all parties' ways of thinking. If you remain fixed in a callow, unhistorical, parochial world view modelled on a highly selective history of a few countries like England, leaving out all the nasty stuff, then you'll get nowhere, and you'll waste the opportunities that you do have."

So it's a bit like conducting one's love life on the basis of romantic fiction?

"Yes," agrees Gray, "or planning your personal finances on the basis of how-to-get-rich books - or taking the advice of investment planners."

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