Rise of the Realist


For someone whose work has been criticised for providing an overly bleak view of human nature, John Gray proves to be surprisingly engaging and cheerful company.

Gray has recently retired from his job as Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics in order to focus on his role as a public intellectual. His thoughts on some of the big issues of our time – for example, his denunciation of Richard Dawkins and other "evangelical atheists" – clearly strike a nerve. His columns in the Guardian and the Observer attract hundreds of comments to the Guardian website.

Gray’s most recent book, Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, claims that utopian projects are not only doomed to fail – they are the source of political oppression, chaos, and human misery on an unimaginable scale. Gray’s definition of utopianism includes both religious and secular projects, ranging from Christian and Islamic movements to communism and the neo-conservative drive for "regime change" in Iraq. Provocatively, he suggests that the "neo-atheism" of Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens has its intellectual origins in Christian utopianism.

Why does he think that issues surrounding God and utopia have returned to centre stage?

"The principle reason for the emergence of militant atheism is the slowdown – or even the reversal – of the tide of secularism. Social scientists used to think that religious practice would gradually die out. The fact that this has not happened – and is not going to happen – has given rise to a kind of evangelical atheism. Not all atheists are evangelical atheists. Evangelical atheists are those who have set themselves the project of eliminating religion from human life. They generally renounce the use of repression to achieve this – but they still want a world without religion."

"And this is impossible. Religion is inscribed in human nature. And now we see religion making a comeback in politics and in war. This was just not meant to happen. Religion was supposed to become a sort of hobby, to be practised only in private. Evangelical atheism has become very visible, but it’s a movement of panic and retreat."

Gray defines a project as utopian if "there are no circumstances under which it can be realised". By this definition, the neo-conservative commitment to the Iraq War was also utopian. Gray opposed the War from its outset on the basis that such interventions are inherently utopian, and end by having the opposite consequences to their intent.

"It is simply never going to happen that everyone in the world will sign up to liberal democracy. And in Iraq, we have a situation where instead of war being used as a last resort, it’s been used in an attempt to re-engineer society. People point to post-war Germany and Italy as an example of societies that became liberal democracies in the wake of conflict. But in those cases, the central State institutions were still intact."

"In Iraq, the entire State was destroyed. And if you destroy the State, then what comes to power are the sectarian militias, the great tribal families, the warlords. Because they are all that’s left."

Gray’s prescription against utopianism is "realism", based on the Machiavellian view that conflict is inevitable in a world that always teeters on the brink of anarchy. A realist approach would seek to contain such conflict by recognising what is and is not politically achievable.

Gray’s approach has been criticised on the grounds that it seems to deny the possibility of human progress, and that most reforms would have seemed "unachievable", and therefore "utopian", when they were first proposed. Gray acknowledges the difficulty in identifying which projects are achievable and which are utopian. A project is utopian if it requires a fundamental transformation of the human condition, but also (as in the case of the attempt to forcibly install liberal democracy in Iraq) if it is too far removed from the prevailing political conditions to be achievable under current circumstances.

Reflecting on Gray’s warning against utopianism, I remembered a quote from Milan Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting that as an overly earnest undergraduate, I scrawled across the cover of my ringbinder. "People have always aspired to an idyll, a garden where nightingales sing, a realm of harmony where the world does not rise up as a stranger against man nor man against other men, where the world and all its people are molded from a single stock and the fire lighting up the heavens is the fire burning in the hearts of men, where every man is a note in a magnificent Bach fugue and anyone who refuses his note is a mere black dot, useless and meaningless, easily caught and squashed between the fingers like an insect."

Kundera’s dysfunctional idyll was Czechoslovakia’s communist regime, but his description could equally well apply to Islamist utopias.

Much of the analysis of Islamist ideology focuses on its references to God and the hereafter, but Islamists also have a very clear idea of the social order that should govern the here-and-now. They don’t have much time for Bach, or indeed for any music, but they too dream of a human order in which everyone’s aspirations are in harmony with the world at large, and all are united by their commitment to a common good.

Gray has identified resonances between Islamist writing and the ideals of Marxist-Leninism, and these utopias certainly bear many similarities, not least their disdain for the dissonant little black dots, so easily caught and crushed between the fingers.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.