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Un-realising a "perfect" world
on 29 December 2007
It's not easy categorising John Gray. He's generally listed as a "philosopher", but he rarely delves into the roots of human behaviour. His philosophy is founded on recorded history. Like most modern "philosophers", his arena is the canon of Western European tradition and practice. That approach, at least in Gray's hands, makes him more political commentator than philosopher. The shift of emphasis doesn't erode his thinking prowess nor his ability in expressing what he has derived from it. His prose is clean and unpretentious, almost hiding the power of the thinking behind it. In this exciting little work, Gray examines the history of modern "utopian" ideas - their misconceptions and their persistence.
The idea of utopias has long diverted us from confronting realities, Gray suggests. This self-generated departure tends to hide consequences of our acts until it's too late to deal with them successfully. Naturally, one of his glaring examples of this situation is the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq. Gray demonstrates how it was planned intentionally long before the causes were manufactured for it. The planning was clearly utopian in that the intentions were delusionary and inappropriate. Both governments declared their intention - based on false pretenses - to "extend democracy into the Middle East". This ambition was expressed without any perception of whether it would be welcomed. It's an underlying principle of utopian thinking, Gray observes, that a society can be re-created from within or imposed from the outside. The failure of such thinking is readily apparent in Iraq - a war that has lasted longer for the US than WWII. Utopian ideas have been seeded on infertile soil.
In explaining how the utopian idea arrived in the Middle East by way of the US-UK "special relationship", Gray skips lightly over Thomas More's original idea to the Enlightenment era. There is a link, however, in that while we are generally taught that the Enlightenment thinkers were building a secular world, they were relying on Christian precepts to expound their ideas. "Improvement" was the means of overcoming disparities in the human condition, and the State could replace the Church in making beneficial change. Among other virtues of this thinking was that it seemed realisable within human timespans. In the 20th Century, a wide variety of such proposals were tried, and Gray brings Marxism, the hippie communes of the 1960s and the Fascist-Nazi movements into the same paddock. Once thought as a "Leftist" ideal, Gray is unsurprised that it is now the policy of choice of the "neo-cons" and their supporters on the "Christian Right". Yet, it seems that no matter where on the political spectrum utopians arise, they continue to commit similar blunders. The goal blinds them to the perils of trying to achieve it and utopia becomes tragedy.
It's easy to peg Gray as grim or dismal. That's a common label pinned on those who seek to have us confront reality and think more deeply about our decisions. In this sense, Gray takes a long view of the role of Christianity in Western thinking. The shift of utopia from heaven to Earth, while seeming to provide improvement, was just as likely to introduce anarchy. He compares two contemporary thinkers, Thomas Hobbes and Baruch Spinoza, in their approach to this problem. Modern liberals declare the unrestrained State as the greatest threat to freedom. Hobbes understood that anarchy was an even greater threat and government was needed to quell it. Spinoza, on the other hand, while unwilling to grant the state power to stomp on emerging anarchy, had a different proposal. Humans are part of the natural world, and turning to the state for salvation of any kind was erroneous. His realistic view was that disorder and peace are natural cycles of the human condition. We must approach this situation realistically, without any fixed or unattainable goals to repress the one to gain the other. Such simplistic thinking can never succeed. Gray has offered an exceptionally rational set of pointers on avoiding such single-mindedness. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]