Political Myths

‘Progress is an Illusion: Today We are Faced With Ancient Evils Returning in Another Form.’

News | Dardis McNamee | December 2007 / January 2008

Photo: J. Novohradsky

John Gray can be a lot of work for an optimist: He finds democracy unreliable; he thinks progress is a myth, and unlike Anne Frank, he doesn’t believe "people are really good at heart."

Still, there is something profoundly reassuring about having the veil of cultural euphemisms pulled away from the confusions of political life, for someone to remind us that much of what we think we know just doesn’t make any sense.

Gray’s latest book, Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, takes this topic head on, and during a coffee break between sessions of the IWM 25th Anniversary conference, he was eager to talk about it.

"There is an idea that human societies can advance," Gray said, "that knowledge advances in a progression, that can’t easily be lost, or reversed, the idea that in Ethics and Politics, what has been achieved in one generation cannot be lost.

"I believe this is a myth."

The idea of progress, he thinks, is a reflection of our ideas about religion and its narratives of redemption and the perfectibility of man. We think of progress as an outgrowth of science that stands in opposition to religion; this, Gray thinks, has gotten us tangled up in false choices, and controversies where we should be seeing continuity.

"Far from being an alternative to western traditions of history," he said, "progress is consistent with these traditions; it is religious, not secular, and specifically Christian."

Gray is a tall, solidly built man, who talks with his hands, and whose enormous energy seems barely contained by his tailored clothes and good manners, Getting a cup of coffee from the urn, he carried it back to one of the standing tables, which seemed dwarfed by his presence, and leaned back on one elbow.  You sometimes get the feeling he is struggling not to scare everyone he talks to.

But the truth he sees is scary, and he doesn’t see any point in pretending otherwise.

"We face repeated instances of ancient evils returning in another form," he said.

"Trafficking, for example, is a kind of commodity slavery, chattel. It’s worse almost; the people are used up. The Chinese organ business is also a chattel business. It’s so dispiriting to liberals they don’t want to think about it.

So he has trouble trusting any human instinct for solidarity on an international scale.

"I’m skeptical about the very idea of international solidarity," he said, "and to what extent it might be rooted more deeply that the other human values, or human evils, that have extended from the Enlightenment. To what extent can we ever be protected from the worst evils, genocide, and torture?"

"We can perhaps achieve the minimum core of international solidarity, and then go on to the goals. But the trouble is, the minimum can conflict with the goals. Given the consequences of war, we end up tolerating governments who are far from meeting any minimum standard."

Many of these evils he finds depressingly predictable. In 2003, before the US invasion of Iraq, he published a satirical essay anticipating the use of torture that followed in Iraq. Called A Modest Proposal, it was a take off on the famous essay of Jonathan Swift in which he claims to suggest that the Irish poor might ease their plight by bearing children as a cash crop to be sold to the English for food. Gray adopts a similar ironic tone, facetiously suggesting the use of torture as a useful diplomatic tool.

"I was pretty sure torture would be used," Gray said. "What I expected was that after the initial shattering of the Iraqi military machine - which is something the Americans are good at - I thought, what happens next? They’ll start torturing."

Once a functioning government was destroyed, he was convinced all structures of national law and diplomacy would come apart.

"It had to become a guerilla war, and in the others, there was always torture: the French in Algeria, the Russians [in Afghanistan]," he said. "The Americans didn’t know how to do anything else."

Perhaps most tragic, torture became normalized through the U.S. behavior in Iraq and Guantanimo, which was not the case, for example in World War II.

"While there was undoubtedly torture in World War II, that torture was shameful; it didn’t corrupt the society, because it wasn’t legal," he said. Even when laws are not kept, the agreed upon standards matter; there is a different intention.

"I am convinced that [torture] should be clearly illegal," he said. It’s the same with genocide. "In the former Soviet Union there was something larger, that was close to genocide. But there were no extermination camps. It’s morally different. It depends on why you are doing it."

Back on stage after the break, Gray returned to the myth of progress, particularly in the aftermath of war; if you assume war involves massive human rights violations, preventing that can include working with an abusive regime.

"Once we have procured peace, things move in stages. But often these are not stages in a progression toward some idealized goal; you can have anarchy, or illiberal democracy."

"There are always unintended consequences."

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