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5.0 out of 5 stars Disenchanting the Machine, 22 Dec. 2012
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This review is from: Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions (Paperback)
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.
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