Two fascinating books: They’re wonderfully short and easy to read (if a bit repetitive).
One is “Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern.” The
other is “Straw
Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals” (with a terrific
bibliography). They’re both by John Gray, professor of European thought at the London School of
Economics and formerly professor of politics at Oxford University.
Both offer what seem like simplifications of more complex ideas written for general readers,
but they are provocative. Here’s an informative if scathing review, a bare minimum of which I
agree with. It begins accurately:
John Gray has a bone to pick. His latest book, Straw Dogs, takes aim
at a host of targets in what appears to be a wholesale deconstruction of human thought. Religion,
humanism, philosophy, belief in progress (indeed, belief in anything), industrialization, even
civilization itself has, according to Gray, kept us from realizing our true nature: that we are just
one more species of animal.
Gray turns everything on its head, claiming for example that Al Qaeda, far from being a
reversion to medieval thinking, is peculiarly rooted in the Enlightenment not unlike such
diametrically opposed Western ideologies as Marxism and humanism. The main culprit for what’s
wrong with humanism (as we’ve come to understand it) is, in his view, the Positivism of
Auguste Comte, a philosophy derived via Saint-Simon. I take Gray’s seeming
pessimism for well-substantiated realism.
Gray, you should know, is a former conservative who did a one-eighty. (“To the right, he is
an apostate; to the left, a sinner who repented,” says the British magazine Prospect. To Anthony Dworkin “he is a progressive
who does not believe in progress.”)
Here’s a chapter from
Gray’s 1998 book “False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism,”
which George Soros has described as “a powerful analysis of the deepening instability of global
capitalism.” And here’s Gray writing in the New
Statesman two weeks after 9/11 about the impact of the attacks in
New York and Washington on the idea of globalization:
[They] inflicted a grievous blow to the beliefs that underpin the global market.
In the past, it was taken for granted that the world will always be a dangerous place. Investors
knew that war and revolution could wipe out their profits at any time. Over the past decade,
under the influence of ludicrous theories about new paradigms and the end of history, they came
to believe that the worldwide advance of commercial liberalism was irresistible.
Financial markets came to price assets accordingly. The effect of the attack on the World
Trade Center may be to do what none of the crises of the past few years — the Asian crisis, the
Russian default of 1998 and the collapse of Long Term Capital Management, an over-leveraged
hedge fund — was able to do. It may shatter the markets’ own faith in
It is worth reminding ourselves how grandiose were the dreams of the
globalisers. The entire world was to be remade as a universal free market. No matter how
different their histories and values, however deep their differences or bitter their conflicts, all
cultures everywhere were to be corralled into a universal civilisation.
What is striking is how closely the market liberal philosophy that underpins globalisation
resembles Marxism. Both are essentially secular religions, in which the eschatological hopes and
fantasies of Christianity are given an Enlightenment twist. In both, history is understood as the
progress of the species, powered by growing knowledge and wealth, and culminating in a
universal civilisation. Human beings are viewed primarily in economic terms, as producers or
consumers, with — at bottom — the same values and needs.
Postscript: In yesterday’s New Statesman Gray
critiqued the latest book by Francis (“the end of history”) Fukuyama, “State Building: Governance and World Order in the 21st
century.” Read the
review and see how persuasive Gray is. He takes Fukuyama apart,
drawing a conclusion especially pertinent to Iraq.