on 10 November 2004
This book compiles a collection of articles, authored by Gray, that have appeared in the New Statesman magazine over a number of years. An attempt has been made to arrange the articles into a coherent entity, with a degree of success. In common with Gray's previous publication, Straw Dogs, this book does not make comfortable reading.
The central hypothesis of the early chapters (Part 1) concerns the illusion of progress in society; Gray is utterly compelling here, bringing in environmental and technological evidence. The structure of our present society is examined and framed by history in Part 2 with references to Hobbes and Joseph Conrad. Gray forsees a bleak, but realistic, future in which the battle for global resources is exasipated by increasing global industrialisation. This, he predicts, will fuel natural resource wars. There are anomalies within this section, for example an essay concerning the legalisation of torture.
The '5 Star' standard of Parts 1 and 2 is not retained in Part 3. This final section concerns international politics of Europe, the USA and Britain. I found all but the last of these fanciful, particularly recommendations to the UK Conservative Party agenda. The final essay discusses the 'Society of the Spectacle Revisited' and the role of celebrity in today's society.
In summary, I greatly enjoyed the ideas that this book compiles. As ever, Gray is thought provoking and disturbing in equal measure. If you witnessed the TV series 'The Power of Nightmares' or are familiar with the concept of 'Luxury Fever' you will enjoy this immensely (I did!).
Gray's book, a collection of essays first published in the New Statesman offers a refreshingly different perspective on issues such as war, the environment, Europe, and Blair's leadership amongst other things. Gray uncompromisingly undermines and exposes the illusions which support liberal ideas and the stranglehold which these ideas have on western society. He is to the liberal establishment as a pin is to a baloon. The author's prose style is sharp and his arguments are delivered in a logical and accessible way.
'Heresies' is broken up into three parts: Part 1 is called 'The Illusion of Progress'. It is in this section that Gray expounds his thoughts on how 'Progress', in a technological sense, does not result in increased peace and stability or requisite 'progress' in human values. The human animal, the author explains, will always be infected by certain dersires, often negative, and 'progress' means only that those who benefit from better technology can pursue their desires with increased efficiency. Thus 'Progress', for Gray, leads to the ability to destroy the human species with nuclear weapons and the destruction of hundreds of other species. The modern faith in progress then, as something which will lead us towards a brighter, better future is horribly delusional.
In section 2 'War, Terrorism, and Iraq', Gray heralds the 'resumption of history' which began with 9/11 and the end of the dream of a peaceful, globalised world. He argues that we are seeing a return to a Westphalian inter-state world in which the competition for scarce resources is becoming ever more fierce. It is in this context that Gray places the US 'War on Terror'. Devastatingly accurate in his views on the debacle in Iraq, the author shatters the illusion that anything good could come from the invasion of that country.
In the third, and final, section 'Politics Without Illusions', Gray addresses issues such as the rise of the Far Right in Europe, the cult of celebrity, and Blair's Premiership. This part of the book does not see Gray at his strongest, however it's subject matter reveals the author's breadth of vision.
Gray is perhaps at his best when denouncing - and not without ample evidence - both market liberalism and Marxism as 'secular religions', whose belief in the possibility of a Utopian future is utterly misplaced. Understandably however, points that Gray makes in one essay are repeated later in others and while this is slightly annoying at times, this does not detract from the value of the book.
'Heresies' is not a book for those who are in need of an optimistic take on the prospects for improving the depressing state into which we humans have flung ourselves with such vigour. It is a candid, logical, and effortlessly elegant attempt to make us aware of the ways in which most people in the West have been deceived into thinking that 'free trade', 'liberal values' and their spread to the rest of the 'uncivilized' world will leave us better off. Even if one does not agree with Gray's arguments - something which is probably common - this collection of essays will encourage debate. Further, it is refreshing and necessary to lend an ear to the arguments of someone who is unafraid to go against the mainstream grain. Heresy is no bad thing.
on 6 May 2010
A collection of essays by the accomplished and sceptic Gray whose erudition is worn lightly and still leaves the reader feeling somewhat inadequate. Here he casts his deep and penetrative eye over such subjects as the war on terror, the illusions of progress and politics. For Gray Enlightenment succeeded in replacing one religion with another, where pie in the sky is exchanged for a pie that will be baked on earth, once all the ingredients have been collected, the utensils made and appliances engineered. Gray's beef isn't with science but with the cult of science. This cult sees the evolved primate progress inch by inch towards a paradise on the horizon. The savagely satirical Torture: A Modest Proposal is a highlight where he takes apart Dershowitz's position on torture with a Swiftian elegance. Gray is by turns provocative, disturbing, sensible and very funny but at all times he is cool and measured. Shrillness is something he is not acquainted with. This is a collection definitely worth investigating.
I imagine most people who buy this book will be readers of Gray's other works such as Straw Dogs and Black Mass who were impressed by his deep scepticism and deep analysis of many of the things that we (or our leaders) take for granted and allow to define our actions.
This book covers a wide range of subjects, but with many of his pet themes running through them. It is divided into three sections looking at Progress, War and Terror and Politics and Society. There are a handful of essays under each topic.
As can be expected from Gray's other works (and from the title of the book) his stance is often counter to conventional wisdom. This is often very refreshing and eye opening, but occasionally it leaves an uneasy (or even near sickening) feeling, for example with his views on torture. Here Gray believes that torture should be brought back within the legitimate tools of law enforcement and regulated (including having special solicitors to deal with the inevitable accidental deaths under torture). He believes that misguided and impractical ideals of human rights for terrorists prevent us from using all expedient means of preventing further acts of terror. I found this argument highly dubious as for a 'realist' Gray does not explain how these powers would be used in practical terms. Would a suspect be tortured for a confession? (i.e. a potentially innocent person), or would it only be applied to convicted people, making vulnerability to torture a part of their punishment? He also fails to mention the weight of evidence suggesting that torture is not a reliable way of gaining useful information anyway. And could torture, once sanctioned, be used in non-terrorist cases? We've already seen this happen with police using terror legislation on detaining suspects outside its original bounds.
I understand that torture is happening outside of the law at places like Guantanamo and through rendition, but its value appears very limited and perhaps the cost of eliminating torture from our law enforcement tools is a good than is greater than the benefits torture can bring us.
Sometimes Gray's stances counter to the morality of our times are exciting and perspective changing, but at others they can make you glad he doesn't run the country! However, his pre-invasion analysis of the problems that the US would face in trying to implement regime change were spot-on. On a lighter note, I really enjoyed the final chapter on the culture of celebrity and the 'dandifying' of western society.
Whether you agree with Gray or not, his ideas and analyses are always provocative and make you think in much greater depth about the important issues of our time. A great book to dip in and out of as the chapters are discreet and fairly brief (as they were once magazine articles).
According to Gray, the Enlightenment cast off the shackles of one religion, only to forge replacement fetters. The new religion, based on "humanism" is called "progress". This faith rests on the notion that the human condition can be constantly and continuously improved - forever. Instead of a metaphysical paradise, the new religion proposes one that can be achieved here and now. We act, he says, in the false belief that "science" is the new divinity. With so many problems having been solved through the application of science and technology, we've come to believe ALL obstacles can be overcome. What this faith ignores, Gray warns, is the finite supply of resources our planet has to sustain this programme.
In this collection of thought-provoking essays, Gray closely and critically scrutinises the new "faith" and explains its manifestations. In a trinity of themes, he looks at "progress", "terrorism" and "politics". The "scare quotes" are necessary here, because the reader may discover wholly new definitions of these terms within these pages. With incisive wit and deep insight, he examines the dedication to "progress" - where it came from and what it means now. A careful observer, he explains that "progress" is meaningful in the process of science. In the hands of politicians, industry and modern education, it is but a superstition. The world, he says, is "suffering from disseminated primatemaia - a plague of people." In his view "Homo sapiens" has evolved into "Homo rapiens", stripping the planet of resources with little idea of the impact it's having. The plague must be curtailed like any other infection. The first step in that therapy is shedding the belief that resources are limitless and technology can replace shortfalls.
He is scornful of the "war on terror", knowing that clumsy thinking followed by clumsy action easily creates more terrorists than it eliminates. The "crusade" now under way is simply generating fresh enemies. These antagonists are perhaps even more dedicated to destruction than those who launched the World Trade Center attacks. In "Washington's New Jacobins", Gray demonstrates the fallacies of using authority and military power to impart ideologies. It wasn't successful in the French or Communist revolutions, so there's little reason for thinking it will be accomplished by the Anglo-American Axis. The evangelists of the new faith are the neo-cons in Washington and their acolytes on Downing Street . "Dr Billy Graham has joined forces with Dr Strangelove", forging a bizarre and dangerous alliance.
As a heretic against the new orthodoxy, Gray seems to be standing alone. Heretics can be destructive, but they can also provide constructive pointers. Gray's approach isn't a hysterical rant - he's too knowledgeable for that. Instead of grand, sweeping and futile gestures such as Afghanistan and Iraq, Gray seeks a gradualist approach to issues. His method requires scrutiny and understanding of the underlying conditions of any issue. The approach requires work and people to perform the tasks. Read this and find out where you can make a contribution.
on 22 December 2012
There are two authors named John Gray. The more well-known is a trivial (and best-selling) U.S. writer on love and relationships. Yes, the guy with "Mars and Venus". And then there's the other John Gray, the Bad Cop John Gray, British professor and perennial pessimist who would give Hobbes, Schopenhauer and Spengler grey hairs. Or "gray" heirs?
"Heresies" is a book by that other John Gray. Don't expect this to be on the best-seller list of your local positive thinking new agey bookstore!
When I read this book the first time, I considered the author to be, if not barking mad, then at the very least mad as a hatter. I mean, "Heresies" couldn't be more bonkers if it was crawling with lizards! :D
Of course, what really rubbed my onion was Gray's claim that the idea of Progress is a modern, quasi-religious delusion ultimately based in a kind of mutated form of Christianity. As a progressive atheist (as I liked to style myself back then), you might very well imagine what I thought of *that* idea. Still, there was something fascinating about the book which made me read it as a kind of guilty pleasure. Gray's pessimism makes it possible for him to expose the hubris of the current establishment. And the current establishment is, of course, neo-liberal (or used to be). It, too, has certain traits of barking madness. Perhaps it takes a madman to expose our insanity?
"Heresies" consist of articles written by Gray for the New Statesman, published circa 1999-2003. They cover a lot of ground, but two issues stand out: Gray's increasing scepticism towards the US-British war in Iraq, and his general historical pessimism. In contrast to "Straw Dogs" (a somewhat earlier book), "Heresies" isn't completely dark, but whatever reforms Gray believe might be possible are tempered with a strong dose of political realism.
Thus, he points out that while terrorism might be beaten back, it can never be eradicated, and to beat it back requires a broad alliance of states, not all of whom will be democratic. Liberal and neo-liberal calls for "democracy" in Russia, China and the Muslim world are therefore utopian and, in the end, counter-productive. We have to accept that many peoples don't want democracy, or might not want to introduce neo-liberal market economies. I get the impression that Gray envisages a world in which the great powers (and many lesser ones) keep each other in check in a kind of balance of power. At least when he's most optimistic - at other times, the author suggests that this isn't really possible. Instead, we're moving toward a period of greater instability, resource wars and population collapse.
In the Middle East, democracy is impossible, and so are U.S. efforts to remake the region in an American image. Secular regimes in the Muslim world are always authoritarian, while "democracy" quickly morphs into a kind of popular theocracy, as in Iran. Here, Gray is prescient. Just look at the sorry aftermath of the "Arab spring", with Egypt fast becoming a Sunni version of Iran, Syria poised to go the same way in the event of a rebel victory, and Libya becoming a failed state. Ironically, *Iraq* is actually a (relatively!) stable state in the aftermath of the US withdrawal - but who knows for how long?
On a more philosophical note, Gray regards the Enlightenment idea of Progress as a warped form of Christianity. The positive insights of the Christian religion have been left out. Interestingly, the author explicitly says that the idea of the Fall and Original Sin are better expressions of the human condition than the more positive Greek vision. (It struck me when reading "Straw Dogs" that Gray really secularizes these Christian ideas.) Conversely, the worst aspects of Christianity have been kept by its unnatural secular children: the anthropocentrism and the idea that history is meaningful and therefore must culminate in some kind of foreordained goal. The end-result is a fanaticized creed which seeks to remake the world in its own utopian image by purely secular means, today usually those of science and technology. Gray considers Marxism, Nazism and neo-liberalism/neo-conservatism to be militant secular faiths. More in passing, he also mentions the "evangelical atheism" of Richard Dawkins, et al.
Gray admits that scientific knowledge is progressing in a cumulative fashion. However, he doesn't believe that politics, ethics and social relations are progressing in the same manner. Humans may get more and more knowledge, but they stay fundamentally the same. Often, they use their newly acquired knowledge to wreak death and destruction on Nature or on other humans. Knowledge doesn't always make us free! Understandably, Gray is worried about human cloning and other forms of genetic engineering. Human history is cyclical, with new civilizations often repeating the mistakes of the old (sometimes on a grander scale), only to disappear and be replaced by still newer ones. Free societies are rare - tyranny and anarchy is the human norm, and most people prefer security to "freedom".
Gray doesn't reject technological advance outright. Indeed, he says that it's impossible to do so in a world of seven billion people. However, he is pessimistic about the ability of modern governments to contain new technologies. Sooner or later, they will inevitably fall into the hands of terrorists or rogue states. Gray does propose a global program to fight population growth, including women's emancipation and wider access to contraceptives (is our author a closet feminist? That would be piquant!), but he is at bottom pessimistic about this as well, suggesting that perhaps war will bring down Earth's population instead. At one point, he tacitly suggests that the best option for our planet would be the complete disappearance of humanity ("Straw Dogs" again.)
Well, do you understand now why I considered Professor John N. Gray to be "bonkers" when I read him the first time? However, I did understand that his article on torture was irony... ;-)
John Gray doesn't really have any solutions to our predicament. However, it can hardly be denied that his diagnoses is largely correct (give or take a few items). I'm open to suggestions on the solution front, but at least we should be brave enough to admit what the problems are, or that we even have problems in the first place!
In that sense, "Heresies" could be a good read and deserves five stars. In my opinion, John Gray has successfully managed to disenchant the established system...what's left of it.
on 23 March 2011
Same old, same old. John Grey delineates and demolishes, with his usual eloquence, all our illusions about being modern, being on the cutting edge of history. We look to science and political action to redeem us from ourselves in the same way we used to demand of religion a certainty and a solace. All is doomed to failure as it doesn't address human frailites and foibles, especially the sin of hubris and self justification. Grey is one of the few writers to keep me interested in "current affairs" and indeed in humanity in general.
on 16 December 2015
I recently re-read this collection of essays to see how well they stood the test of time and the answer is: very well indeed. All the essays cover familiar Gray territory: political progress is temporary or illusory and new technologies will be used for both fair ends and foul, particularly in a continuing destructive wave of humanity's exploitation of the planet's environment; grandiose attempts to remake the world for the better will founder and violent conflict will not end; and the hubristic nature of Tony Blair's political projects (after 2000). Written in the period 2000-2003, the author was prescient, particularly in the form that the Middle East conflict would take as the Iraq conflict played out and the Arab Spring began and what fthe likely democratic forms in the Middle East would take as despotical regimes were deposed. It was also predictive of the fate of Tony Blair and his political projects, correctly noting that he had no support amongst his party at constituency level: the recent changes at the head of the Labour party being reflective of this truth.
The author is an excellent writer, always clear and lucid and accessible to anyone interested in the most pressing political concerns and the essays are almost all still relevant now. It is relatively un-partisan and I think that most readers could engage with his arguments.
on 17 September 2005
After reading Straw Dogs, this one was rather disappointing. There are some useful departing points for potentially fruitful discussions. However, there is nothing new and it is so obvious that the the book as a whole is a combination of newspaper articles. I think because of this, the book lacks an overall philosophical and of course theoritical basis. The depth-breadth balance is really poor in terms of the spread of the discussion topics. Furthermore, the discussions and arguments tend to repeat themselves and the previous ones from Straw Dogs. The author says "History resumes" at one stage in the book. The implications could be discussed differently i believe. And honestly, if you like to learn about war, terrorism, Iraq and politics there are many other useful sources around.
on 24 September 2012
Amongst my papers I have a magazine celebrating the coming-of-age of The Prince of Wales, wherein, Leon Petrulengro, the famed astrologer, predicts the course of the life of His Royal Highness: Petrulengro is most unlucky as he gets every thing wrong; even chance would have predicted some accuracy - but nothing. Reading Heresies reminded me of Petrulengro, for although Gray is a Philosopher rather than an Astrologer, he also seems (and this after only a decade) to be entirely wrong in his prophecies for the future of The Middle East (which is what the book, comprising essays reprinted from the New Statesman, is largely about).
I remember it well: Some two million of us on a chilly overcast Saturday in February decended - at our own expense - on London and marched; we passed the gates of 10 Downing Street - firmly closed and uninviting - and on to Hyde Park where Galloway and some pop-musician in the far distance performed. I could see little and heard less. I wended my way back to Charing Cross wondering rather what the point of it all had been, particularily as The Prime Minister had that day gone to Glasgow but leaving a message of insult for the marchers. Clearly we are democratic (although even Blair did not enjoy the popularity that Saddam had in Iraq) but democracy does not extend to Plebs either properly comprehending or constructing HMG's Foreign Policy.
I like Gray's Pessimism, but, on balance, Optimists seem to have the better of it: I am not sure how things are, now, in Iraq, but it has certainly passed out of the news; Afghanistan is where it is at; Syria may fall, but contrary to Gray's prediction, Saudi Arabia did not fall, and neither did Tony Blair. Gray however entirely fails to predict, The Arab Spring and fails to see that Al Queda far from being a powerful force is largely spectral. Making prophecy clearly makes one a hostage to fortune. Of course, given time, some of his predictions may, in one form or another, materialise, but I would not be impressed: I have a friend who predicted the crash of 2008 - he had been predicting it for almost twenty years as an event to happen soon.
As heresies go, Gray, is on fairly safe grounds; a lack of belief in the future success of the enlightenment does not result in banishment from Academia or Imprisonment for thought crimes. The horrors of Enlightenment delusions are however much closer to home and a few hours on the Net should bring Gray up to speed - it will be, I fear a steep learning curve.