The end was nigh

August 31, 2007

The US-led 'liberation' of Iraq was neither politically nor economically inspired, insists John Gray, but rather a messianic experiment driven by Christian millenarianism

Towards the end of the past century, the Utopian impulse in politics, which until then had its home mainly on the far Left, migrated to the Right. The vision of a world without power or conflict that found expression in Marx's ideal of communism did not lose its sway over opinion or cease to delude political leaders when the regimes that had been established to embody that fantasy crumbled into dust. Utopianism lived on in the neo- liberal project of a global free market and later in the neoconservative crusade to instal an idealised version of American democracy in the Middle East by militarily enforced regime change. Especially in the US, it came to be believed - not only on the neoconservative Right but also among many liberals - that war could be a legitimate instrument of human progress. If tyranny were eradicated and all states were democracies, a radiant future would open up. War would be unknown, and humanity would advance to unprecedented heights of freedom and prosperity.

In the neoliberal and neoconservative ideologies that have shaped politics in many countries over the past two decades, the Utopia envisaged is "global democratic capitalism" rather than communism. The type of thinking has been much the same, and the results in practice have not been dissimilar.

The attempt to instal a Western-style free market in post-communist Russia did not result in tens of millions of deaths as had the attempt to establish central planning in the time of Lenin and Stalin; but it produced a demographic collapse unprecedented in peacetime, the impoverishment of much of the population, rampant criminality and the emergence under Vladimir Putin of a new type of authoritarianism.

The forcible democratisation of Iraq has destroyed one of the most highly developed societies in the Middle East, with more than 600,000 dead and about 2 million refugees fleeing the country. Saddam Hussein's tyranny - a secular despotism on the model of the former Soviet Union - has been overthrown, only to be replaced by a mix of anarchy and Iranian-style popular theocracy. To see the Iraq war as a flawed exercise in rational policy-making is to miss its most important feature, which is that it was based on faith - including what has aptly been called "faith-based intelligence". In both the US and the UK, the war was launched against a background of disinformation, but those who engineered the invasion deceived themselves as much as they did others. George Bush and Tony Blair felt no need to be familiar with the history of the country they proposed to liberate, for in comparison with the glorious future they would create the past counted for nothing. The preordained result of their messianic certainty was the gruesome fiasco that continues to unfold today. The forcible democratisation of Iraq was the first Utopian experiment of the new century, and it could well be the last.

There are many who believe that the war was launched in the service of American geopolitical interests rather than any ideological goals, and it is true that securing control of Iraqi oil was a major strategic objective of regime change. Like Britain before it, the US has long framed its policies in the Gulf in geopolitical terms. In 1953, the two countries mounted a coup in Iran with the aim of controlling its natural resources, and this will be one of the goals of any future US assault on Iran. Even so, it is wrong to interpret the Bush Administration's talk of exporting American-style democracy as sheer hypocrisy. Not only neocon ideologues but also a large section of American liberal opinion genuinely believed post-Saddam Iraq could become a democratic state - a delusion that Gertrude Bell, the British political officer who more than anyone else constructed the state of Iraq in the 1920s and who founded the Baghdad Archaeological Museum that was looted in the course of the American-led invasion, did not share. Bell was clear that if Iraq achieved majority rule it would fragment, with the Kurds hiving off, savage sectarian conflict and a Shia theocracy coming into being throughout much of the country - as has in fact occurred. Contrary to a ubiquitous cliche, it was not lack of planning for the aftermath of the war that produced the current chaos. If there had been proper forethought, the invasion would not have been launched. There was never any realistic possibility of a liberal democratic regime and, given the likelihood of state collapse, there was no prospect of the stability required if the US was to benefit from control of the country's oil. Even as an exercise in realpolitik, regime change in Iraq was a Utopian venture.

Utopianism means not only the pursuit of ends that are inherently impossible - such as Marxian communism - but also the pursuit of aims that are unrealisable in any circumstances that can be reasonably foreseen. Exporting liberal democracy to Iraq belongs in the latter category, and there were many in American government who understood the unreality of the Bush Administration's hopes. The war was resisted in every institution of American government - not least by the uniformed military in the Pentagon. The invasion went ahead anyway, and it was the disturbed condition of American politics after 9/11 that made this possible.

The terrorist attacks on New York and Washington brought apocalyptic myth, which has been a recurring feature of American life since the country's foundation, into the heart of politics. Ronald Reagan talked of the USSR as an "evil empire" and America as a divinely chosen "city on a hill", and Woodrow Wilson viewed America in messianic terms as a redeemer-nation, but in the aftermath of 9/11, political discourse acquired a demonological flavour. Bush's Under-Secretary of Defence, Lieutenant-General William Boykin, declared that America's enemy was "the principality of darkness - a guy called Satan", and by 2004 a Homeland Security planning document was describing the terrorist threat to America as "the Universal Adversary". To some degree, this use of the language of Apocalypse reflected the power of born-again Christians, who more than any other electoral grouping accounted for Bush's re-election. Many fundamentalists live in daily expectation of Armageddon - a brief, titanic conflict occurring in biblical lands, after which evil will be destroyed and a new world will come into being.

There can be little doubt that Bush shares this theology, which, in terms of the Christian tradition that was established by Augustine, is highly unorthodox. There is a venerable academic cliche according to which American politicians are prone to a Manichean view of things.

In truth, Bush's talk of "defeating evil" is no more Manichean than it is Augustinian. The Persian prophet Mani and his followers were subtle thinkers who accepted that evil could never be eradicated from human life (a belief shared by Augustine who, before his conversion to Christianity, had himself been a Manichean). Bush's apocalyptic world-view is an expression of Christian post-millennialism - the faith that human action can hasten the arrival of the "End Time" and thereby of a perfect world. Significantly, a similar mind-set prevailed among secular neoconservatives. Seeing the "War on Terror" in chiliastic terms - the leading neocon Richard Perle co-authored a book on terrorism titled An End to Evil - they viewed deposing Saddam as the start of a "global democratic revolution" in which tyranny would be toppled everywhere. The goal of American foreign policy should not be stability, but "creative destruction" - an idea that derives not from any conservative thinker but from the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, and which Trotsky later deployed in his theory of permanent revolution. Some of the older generation of neocons had been Trotskyites in their youth - Irving Kristol, the political godfather of the movement, wrote an autobiographical essay called Memoirs of a Trotskyist - and retained much of Trotsky's intensely ideological style of thinking, though not his broad knowledge of history. For them, as for the British-born ex Trotskyist Christopher Hitchens, the invasion of Iraq was a "revolutionary war", an epochal conflict that would inaugurate a new era of human progress.

From the early Nineties onwards, American neoconservatives were busy forging an alliance with Christian fundamentalism. The alliance had many advantages for the neocons, but it was more than a tactical accommodation. The two groups had a genuine affinity in world-views. If Armageddonite Christians believed divine intervention could bring an end to history, so did American neoconservatives, who were heirs to the Utopian strand of Enlightenment thinking that runs from the French Jacobins to the Bolsheviks. In this as in other respects, neoconservatives are far removed from Leo Strauss, who is commonly identified as their chief intellectual inspiration. Strauss, a counter-Enlightenment thinker whose outlook was moulded by the collapse of the Weimar Republic, could have had nothing but scorn for the neoconservative notion that liberal democracy could be installed throughout the world.

The fusion of Christian millennialism with Enlightenment Utopianism in the Bush Administration illustrates a truth that the secular academy, whose established creed remains a type of humanist progressivism, continues to deny: modern revolutionary politics - of which American neoconservatism is a late variant - is a Utopian reincarnation of apocalyptic myth. The secularisation of politics, which is an article of faith in mainstream social science, has not occurred. As Norman Cohn argued in his seminal 1957 study The Pursuit of the Millennium , the revolutionary mass movements of the past century reproduced, in cod-scientific forms, the eschatological myths of late-medieval millenarians. While they were mostly virulently hostile to religion, these Utopian projects were in reality a continuation of religion by other means.

Nowadays liberal progressives are adamant that they have nothing in common with Utopianism or with apocalyptic myth. They are meliorists, they insist, who believe in incremental improvement - a belief they claim owes nothing to religion. Yet the Enlightenment faith in progress can be shown to have developed from early modern post-millennial beliefs, and derives from a view of history as a redemptive process that is not found outside cultures shaped by Christianity.

Not all Enlightenment thinkers have subscribed to this redemptive myth - David Hume held to a cyclical view of history, for example, much like that which prevailed in pre-Christian Europe. In contrast, liberal meliorists think of history as a march from darkness to light in which immemorial evils such as war and tyranny are relegated to the past. Human advance may not be inevitable - there will be periods of regression, and some societies may be laggards - but the overall direction of history is progressive. There can be no doubt of the emotional power of this meliorist faith - like the redemption myths of religion, though lacking their subtlety and depth, it gives meaning to the lives of those who surrender to it. But it is dangerous in politics, where it blocks out the realistic perception that evils are never overcome, only contained or mitigated for a time, while quite often one evil is exchanged for another.

Liberal interventionists who supported the Iraq war illustrate this danger. They took for granted that when Saddam's tyranny was overthrown liberal democracy would replace it. They forgot the type of democracy theorised by Rousseau, which aims to embody popular will. An Islamist version of Rousseau's illiberal dream now rules most of Iraq, and the freedoms of women, gays and religious minorities are more completely extinguished than they were under Saddam. At the same time, in the world's leading liberal regime habeas corpus has been dismantled and the practice of torture rehabilitated. Instead of the glorious future that was envisaged, old evils have reappeared, some more malignant than ever. There is a lesson here for liberals, but it is unlikely to be learnt. It involves relinquishing the faith they live by - a faith more absurd than traditional religion, if only because it claims to be based on reason.

John Gray is professor of European thought at the London School of Economics and author of Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia , published by Allen Lane, £18.99.

Please login or register to read this article.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Most commented

Recent controversy over the future directions of both Stanford and Melbourne university presses have raised questions about the role of in-house publishing arms in a world of commercialisation, impact agendas, alternative facts – and ever-diminishing monograph sales. Anna McKie reports

3 October


Featured jobs

Senior Lecturer in Law

University Of The West Of England (uwe)

Lecturer in Marketing

Edinburgh Napier University

Resource Planner

Bpp University

Waste and Recycling/Grounds Operative

St Marys University, Twickenham

Faculty, English

Khalifa University