Thursday, 25 October 2007

black mass

John Gray's book, Black Mass, is an attempt to explain the world as one often shaped by apocalyptic religion.

(here's your soundtrack)

For Gray, linear-historical political theory is the same thing, in fact directly influenced by apocalyptic Christian belief.

So, from Francis Fukuyama to Marx, we are told their theses are essentially the same as Christianity. The idea of Utopia is the same as the Apocalypse.

This thrust of the book I find hard to swallow, and I'm not even sure what the point is. I'm not convinced that Utopian political theories are necessarily a direct descendant of apocalyptic religion - there's no reason why someone couldn't come up with the idea of remaking the world on their own - and I'm also not sure what the point is. If Utopian ideas are descended from religions, so what?

There's a lot of filler in this book, a lot of unnecessary repeating of the run up and execution of the Iraq war, although his criticism of that is fine, and in fact quite similar to mine (though he's not interested in Human costs, apparently). Certainly, it doesn't need to be repeated that Bush and Blair are, among other things, deluded idealogues, whose simplified world view has had extremely bad effects on the world, especially the Middle East.

Gray criticises heavily the idea that liberal democracy can be exported forcefully around the world. I agree.

But the last chapter, "Post Apocalypse", is where, as with his last book, I depart. He is a conservative realist to such an extent he can only treat humanity with pessimism. In Gray's world, history is a never ending cycle of order and anarchy, and any progressive gain humanity might make is countered by a slide towards anarchy somewhere else. Very gloomy.

But he seems to think it's a choice between destructive Utopian political projects, or a world filled with Religious myth... but it's a false dichotomy; there are middle ways. It is not necessary, nor has it always been so, for progressive ideas to be as extreme and Utopian as Stalinism or Neo-conservatism. It's possible for politics to be a gradual and subtle push in a direction that improves the general lot.

There is an implication that Liberalism is Utopian, which is misleading, as progressive is not the same as Utopian at all.
And his solution is "realism".

Realism in International Relations, academically, became unpopular basically because it's a bit crap. There are good points to it, mainly the one about "being realistic", which I would translate at keeping one's feet on the ground and head out of the clouds. But the main problem with it, and incredibly Gray makes no apology for this, is that it believes the world is static, unchanging. In a realist world view, there is no progress, and the world is in a cauldron of hot power-politics from which it will never escape. Realism cannot help.

For realists, self interest and power rule the world. Of course self interest impacts the decisions of nations etc, but OF COURSE that is not the only thing. To say, as realists do, that all decisions are self interested, and the outcomes a result of the relative power of the parties involved, is far too simplistic. Nations, like humans, are more complex than that, and we act for a variety of reasons, not only cold self interest. If that were true there would be no humanitarian movements in the world, no sympathy for the plight of other peoples.

It is realists like Grey that are the simpletons, and the extremists, as they don't accept the complexities and nuances of human existence and international relations. The evidence of genuine human moral progress (I accept not for everyone everywhere) runs counter to the Realist world. The best ethics today are better than those a millenia or more ago, I think we can be sure of that. That there are some whose behaviour comes up short of what we believe to be "good" in the 21st century does not mean we should give up trying to promote them.

I'm not writing a book, so I'm not going to go over point by point what's wrong with Black Mass. In terms of reading enjoyment, it's not as direct and infuriating as it's predecessor "Straw Dogs", but I enjoyed it none the less, as it refreshed my passions against Realist thought.

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