John Gray: the poster boy for misanthropy

He thinks there are too many humans and we’ve become a plague on the planet. How does he get out of bed every morning?

Tim Black

Tim Black
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This article is republished from the May 2009 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

If, like writer Will Self, you loved every misanthropic moment of Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, or like novelist AS Byatt you gleefully devoured the equally cheery Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, then John Gray’s latest, Gray’s Anatomy, a selection of his articles and essays published over the past 30 years, will once again leave you poised, noose in hand, excitedly contemplating the sheer wretchedness of human existence.

All the classic Gray components are here: the contrived aphoristic wisdom; the tedious, derivative anti-Enlightenment riffs; and, knitting it all together, the pompous insistence that humans, forever deluded by a mistaken, Christian-inspired sense of their uniqueness, will, in striving to shape the world in their image, only bring misery upon not just themselves but every living thing on Earth. ‘The peculiar flavour of modern mass murder’, Gray trills, ‘comes from the fact that it has so often been committed in the name of creating a new world’.

For those less willing to embrace Gray’s one-sided vision of human history, in which barbarism eclipses civilisation at every point, his lugubrious disdain for all things Homo sapiens might seem a little absurd. After all, John Gray is to all intents and purposes a human being himself; he’s not, despite his namesake’s claim, from Mars. All of which raises the question: knowing what he knows of the absurd futility of existence, literally how does he live with himself?

One can only assume that, given the depth of his inhuman insight, he’s somehow exempt from the charges he levels at his kind. And what charges they are. In a typical formulation, he writes, ‘Knowledge advances while the human animal stays the same’, before concluding ‘Homo rapiens will not cease to be predatory and destructive, nor will Homo religious cease to pursue the intimations of faith’. Or as he proudly puts it elsewhere, ‘human history is a succession of catastrophes and occasional lapses into peace and civilisation’.

Unfortunately, despite his Swiftian pretensions, Gray’s intent is not comic; he is deadly – in every sense – serious. What the range of writings contained in Gray’s Anatomy reveal is a thinker with a consistent target: human hubris; that is, the delusional belief held by humans that we are progressing towards a society in which reason, in all its universality, prevails. Or in the words of Straw Dogs, the ‘post-Christian faith that humans can make a world better than any in which they have so far lived’ (1).

The terms of Gray’s critique are familiar. The Enlightenment, the crucible of universalist, rationalist aspirations, he counters, neither emancipated humanity from religious myths, nor overthrew divine subservience in favour of a sovereign humanity. It simply substituted the terms of the old myth for those of the new secular one. Where God once was, so humanity shall be; where salvation once loomed, now stands the ideal form of human society, not to be redeemed by God but governed by the universal aspirations of human reason. And underpinning it all was Gray’s old friend, that ‘exceptionally rapacious primate’ (2) sustained by ‘a secular religion thrown together from decaying scraps of Christian myth’ (3). In other words, humans.

What is revealing is that such a supposed unmasking of the structurally identical teleology of religious and political narratives has always been itself politically motivated. Reducing political demands to the level of subjective fantasy serves reactionary ends, simultaneously defending how things are while denigrating, indeed mocking, the interests of those struggling for how they ought to be. Writing in 1950s France, a time and place in which Communism was seen as a palpable threat to the existing order, social theorist Raymond Aron penned his critique of Marxism, The Opium of the Intellectuals, in terms which prefigure those of Gray:

‘The Marxist prophetism… conforms to the typical pattern of the Judeo-Christian prophetism. Every prophetism condemns what is and sketches an outline of what will be; it chooses an individual or a group to cleave a path across the no-man’s land which separates the unworthy present from the radiant future. The classless society which will bring social progress without political revolution is comparable to the dreams of the millennium.’ (4)

What both this caricatured version of a voluntarist, dualistic Marxism and Judeo-Christian eschatology share, argues Aron, pace Gray, is a philosophy of history that imagines human activity to be inherently meaningful, a progressive movement towards an ultimate end whether other-worldly or this-worldly. All political faiths have this characteristic, Aron suggests; Marxism was simply the most modish: ‘Left, Revolution, Proletariat, these fashionable concepts are the latter-day counterparts of the great myths which once inspired political optimism: Progress, Reason, the People.’ (5)

If Gray’s Anatomy is indicative, Gray is, if anything, a more virulent anti-communist than even Aron. His antagonism towards communism is not confined solely to his writings of the 1970s and 80s; the C-word and its various metonyms erupt throughout his oeuvre, regardless of context, like a form of McCarthyist Tourette’s syndrome. ‘Nazism and Communism were political religions’, he will blurt, ‘each with its ersatz shrines and rituals’. But what’s interesting is that this constant assault on communism and socialism, even post-1989, had always drawn on a long-standing critique of politically-directed, human striving per se, and the idea that human struggle of a political nature always carries within itself a theological, indeed theodictic vision of history.

So, when Gray, as he has done recently, turns his fire on the triumphal delusions of so-called neo-liberalism, this was not the unexpected volte face of a disillusioned Thatcherite, but the logic of a thought opposed to all kinds of transformative possibilities, as if the struggle for something, the notion of a political end, was automatically delusional. Hence, for Gray, Francis Fukuyama’s contention that liberal capitalism, ‘the end of history’, had proven itself the best form of society ‘stand[s] as a contribution to the project of a secular theodicy first undertaken by the philosophes of the French Enlightenment, but most notably and energetically pursued in the Marxian system of thought which he correctly perceives to be now in terminal decline’.

While some, such as political theorist David Runciman, or Booker-winning novelist John Banville, see fit to praise Gray as some sort of radical because he criticises ‘neo-liberalism’ alongside what now seems a rather moth-eaten faith in global capitalism, they also miss his reason for doing so: his belief that the struggle for the Good life is intrinsically delusional.

If all political struggle is underpinned by myth, if all progress is theological residue, what does Gray suggest in its stead? ‘[W]e need an ideal based not on the best way of life, nor on reasonable disagreement about it, but instead on the truth that humans will always have reason to live differently. Modus Vivendi [way of living together] is such an ideal. It embodies an older current of liberal thought about toleration, and applies it to our own new circumstances.’ This notion of toleration amounts to what he calls ‘value pluralism’, an acceptance that people will pursue their own versions of the good life.

As opposed to classical liberalism, which, maintaining a belief in the truth, conceived of toleration in terms of tolerating the false, value pluralism possesses no such judgement. It is inimical to all strains of ‘fundamentalism’. ‘The ideal of Modus Vivendi is not based on the vain hope that human beings will cease to make universal claims for their ways of life. It regards such claims with indifference – except where they endanger peaceful coexistence’. Or as he writes in a 2006 article on Isaiah Berlin: ‘Liberty is one thing, the good life another.’

Yet this is an end-of-history position more stultifying and more degraded than anything Gray imagines for his opponents. Simply recognising that different sets of people within a society have differing, incompatible notions of the best way to live, whether born of religion, ethnic-cultural or economic differences, is to elevate the present itself into the political end-point. For such differences are not refutations of universalism; they are simply what is. This is presentism as political project. It is a thoroughly disillusioned, intellectually bereft gesture which, in its aversion to history as process, instead brings history to a perpetual standstill.

‘[Value pluralism] embodies the truth that humans have reason to live differently.’ Indeed. But reasons to live differently are rarely indifferent to one another. One person’s luxury might depend on another’s suffering: the latter’s pursuit of the good life is necessarily intolerant of the former’s. More pertinently, fighting to realise the good life, if it is to have any meaning as the Good Life, ought to be good for all, humanity as a whole, unless one accepts differences as immutable rather than historically transitory. To use a refrain of Georg Lukács, ‘reality is not, it becomes’. Reasons to live differently do not begin as readymade universals, they become so. Moreover, through struggle, many human qualities beyond Gray’s gloomy ken, such as courage and self-sacrifice, come into being. Writing in defence of human as opposed to animal being, French philosopher Alain Badiou argued: ‘To forbid him to imagine the Good, to devote his collective powers to it, to work towards the realisation of unknown possibilities, to think what might be in terms that break radically with what is, is quite simply to forbid him his humanity as such.’ (6)

But Gray, as we have seen, is not much interested in humanity, that plague on the planet as he calls us. ‘The single greatest threat to global ecological stability comes from human population growth’, he writes in ‘An Agenda for Green Conservatism’ (1992). A ‘crowded world choked with noise and filth’, he continues, will not only lead to ecological collapse but will deny ‘the human need for solitude and wilderness’. Quoting EO Wilson, he says: ‘“Population growth can justly be called the monster on the land”’. Gray’s neo-Malthusianism is as evident as it is strident.

The belief of people like ‘Marx or Herbert Spencer’ that we would adjust as population grows gets short shrift: ‘Such technological hubris – advocated, or presupposed, in our own time by thinkers such as Julian Simon and, in some of his later writings, by FA Hayek – is objectionable, in the first place, because of its overestimation of human inventiveness and its underestimation of the fragility of any natural or Gaian order that has a place in it for humans. It is to be resisted, secondly, because, even if human technology had the virtuosity attributed to it by these forms of Positivism and scientism, human institutions would break down long before technology could develop to such levels of virtuosity, or be applied in practice.’

For Gray, it would seem there is nothing to live for. Amidst the wreckage of political, social ideals, he eagerly foresees the end of human striving, and revels in it.

In this regard, Gray’s closing tribute to Joseph Conrad, ‘our contemporary’, is apt. For in the figure of Kurtz, the amoral centre of Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness we perhaps have our fictional John Gray. Like Gray, Kurtz was possessed of ‘the power of eloquence – of words’. But this was only the mask of civilisation. That scribbled post scriptum note in Kurtz’s report to his Belgian trading company, ‘luminous and terrifying, like a flash of lightening in a serene sky’, captured Kurtz’s unravelling moral sentiment: ‘“Exterminate all the brutes!”’. This is surely a sentiment with which the neo-Malthusian, human-hating Gray would sympathise. Living through and seeing through the bankruptcy of political visions for the future, capitalist, communist or otherwise, he embraces political and economic exhaustion, with a little too much readiness. ‘The horror, the horror’, he is no doubt a little too fond of saying, with a smug grin.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Gray’s Anatomy: Selected Writings by John Gray is published by Allen Lane. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

This article is republished from the May 2009 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

(1) p.xII, Straw Dogs, John Gray, Granta, 2002

(2) p.7, Straw Dogs, John Gray, Granta, 2002

(3) p.38, Straw Dogs, John Gray, Granta, 2002

(4) p.267, The Opium of the Intellectuals, Raymond Aron, Secker and Warburg, 1957

(5) p.94, The Opium of the Intellectuals, Raymond Aron, Secker and Warburg, 1957

(6) p.14, Ethics: An Essay on the understanding of evil, Alain Badiou, Verso, 2000

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