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Another Failed Utopia

In his Five Books interview on The Browser, ex-CIA agent Robert Baer leads by recommending John Gray’s 2007 book Black Mass, a  troubling examination of utopianism in contemporary Western thought. Excerpt: Let’s have a look at your book choices. First up is Black Mass by the British political theorist John Gray. That book accounts for a lot of […]

In his Five Books interview on The Browser, ex-CIA agent Robert Baer leads by recommending John Gray’s 2007 book Black Mass, a  troubling examination of utopianism in contemporary Western thought. Excerpt:

Let’s have a look at your book choices. First up is Black Mass by the British political theorist John Gray.

That book accounts for a lot of things for me. One is how the intelligence was manipulated when we went into Iraq. I used to run Iraqi operations. I knew what was going on there. A narrative was written in national intelligence estimates that justified the war, and that happened in Britain as well. It bled into the belief that we could change the Middle East – that you could speed up human progress there. There was this idea that if you just got rid of a couple of obstacles, then the Middle East would catch up with the vision the US and the UK had of the 21st century. Gray constantly comes back to this happy Christian narrative that humanity is perfectible, that at the end there is this city on the hill, and that man has a purpose. If you are in the intelligence world it is much easier to manipulate that narrative, because intelligence isn’t public.

What kind of intelligence did you see on the ground that was being manipulated?

We knew that Saddam Hussein had already destroyed his weapons of mass destruction, and that he was pretending to keep them in order to deter Iran.

In both the US and the UK there were protests against going to war, and a feeling that the intelligence didn’t stack up. So why do you think Bush and Blair still went ahead with it?

I don’t believe that it was for oil. I think Blair and Bush have a Christian foundation to their way of looking at the world which motivated them. They really thought that if they could just get rid of Saddam, it would help convert the unbelievers.

It sounds like a crusade.

Yes. There was the idea that you could tell a benign lie. You saw it in World War I when they talked about the Belgian nuns and the Huns – all that propaganda was to manipulate the US into getting involved. So there was this idea of misusing facts to achieve a higher good.

And how did you feel about what was going on, knowing the true evidence?

I went to the journalist Judith Miller and told her they don’t know these things, and thatThe New York Times shouldn’t be leading with front page stories saying there are weapons of mass destruction, or writing about “Al-Qaeda and Saddam” – it was just wrong. We sort of knew about that one meeting that happened between one of [Saddam Hussein’s] intelligence officers and Bin Laden in Khartoum, and nothing came of it. I think it is overly cynical to think that Bush was doing favours for his friends in the oil industry. That is just simplistic. I think the man was seriously flawed and was looking for a cause. It was this fascination with the Middle East, and with Christianity and Muslims and the rest of it, that drove him. Also he was just not very bright!

John Gray is very, very good. From Black Mass:

The central theme of Hobbes’s thought is the condition of humanity in a state of nature, where government is lacking.  … Hobbes was much concerned with taming fanaticism, which he recognized as the deadly enemy of civilization, but he hated fanatical belief too much to understand it and so failed to uncover its roots in the need for meaning. While he recognized the power of the passions, he believed reason could enable humanity to escape the state of nature — not forever, but at least for a time. …

Hobbes’s understanding of the dangers of anarchy resonates powerfully today. Liberal thinkers still see the unchecked power of the state as the chief danger to human freedom. Hobbes knew better: freedom’s worst enemy is anarchy, which is at its most destructive when it is a battleground of rival faiths. The sectarian death squads roaming Baghdad show that fundamentalism is a type of anarchy in which each prophet claims divine authority to rule. In well-governed societies, the power of faith is curbed. The state and the churches temper the claims or revelation and enforce peace. Where this kind is impossible, tyranny is better than being ruled by warring prophets. Hobbes is a more reliable guide to the present than the liberal thinkers who followed. Yet his view of human beings was too simple, and overly rationalistic. Assuming that humans dread violent death more than anything, he left out the most intractable sources of conflict. It is not always because human beings act irrationally that they fail to achieve peace. Sometimes it is because they do not want peace. They may want the victory of the One True Faith — whether a traditional religion or a secular successor such as communism, democracy or universal human rights. Or — like the young people who joined the far-Left terrorist groups in the 1970s, another generation of which is now joining Islamist networks — they may find in war a purpose that is lacking in peace. Nothing is more human than the readiness to kill and die in order to secure a meaning in life.

In the book, Gray is scathing about Bush and Blair and their belief that the Mideast could be freed of its demons if it were freed of its tyrannies (which is to say, their belief that the Mideast’s demons are their tyrants). But he says that the mistaken belief that human life is perfectible is a delusion nearly everyone in the West suffers from. Excerpt from his discussion of Baruch Spinoza:

Spinoza understood that humans are an integral part of the natural world, and so he never turned to the state for salvation. Anarchy could be overcome as evolving patterns of social cooperation crystallized into civil institutions; but the order in society that resulted would regularly break down, and when this happened no social contract could restore order. … As Spinoza recognized, there is no reason to think the cycle of order and anarchy will ever end.

Secular thinkers find this view of human affairs dispiriting, and most have retreated to some version fo the Christian view in which history is a narrative of redemption. The most common of these narratives are theories of progress, in which the growth of knowledge enables humanity to advance and improve its condition.  … Improvement in society is cumulative, they believe, so that the elimination of one evil can be followed by the removal of others in an open-ended process. But human affairs show no sign of being additive in this way: what is gained can always be lost, sometimes — as with the return of torture as an accepted technique in war and government — in the blink of an eye. Human knowledge tends to increase, but humans do not become any more civilized as a result. They remain prone to every kind of barbarism, and while the growth of knowledge allows them to improve their material conditions, it also increases the savagery of their conflicts.

If the political religions of the last century [e.g., fascism, Nazism, communism — RD] renewed Christian beliefs [by reifying them in secular forms — RD], secular humanism today is no different. Darwinist thinkers such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett are militant opponents of Christianity. Yet their atheism and humanism are versions of Christian concepts. … The chief significance of evangelical atheism is in demonstrating the unreality of secularization. Talk of secularism is meaningful when it refers to the weakness of traditional religious belief of the lack of power of churches and other religious bodies. That is what is meant when we say Britain is a more secular country than the United States, and in this sense secularism is an achievable condition. But if it means a type of society in which religion is absent, secularism is a kind of contradiction, for it is defined by what it excludes. Post-Christian secular societies are formed by the beliefs they reject, whereas a society that had truly left Christianity behind would lack the concepts that shape secular thoughts.

… Those who demand that religion be exorcised from politics think this can be achieved by excluding traditional faiths from public institutions; but secular creeds are formed from religious concepts, and suppressing religion does not mean it ceases to control thinking and behaviour. Like repressed sexual desire, faith returns, often in grotesque forms, to govern the lives of those who deny it.

More from Gray:

Liberal societies are worth defending, for they embody a type of civilized life in which rival beliefs can coexist in peace. When they become missionary regimes this achievement is put at risk. In waging war to promote their values actually existing liberal societies are corrupted. This is what happened when torture, whose prohibition was the result of an Enlightenment campaign that began in the eighteenth century, was used at the start of the twenty-first as a weapon in an Enlightenment crusade for universal democracy. Preserving the hard-won restraints of civilization is less exciting than throwing them away in order to realize impossible dreams. Barbarism has a certain charm, particularly when it comes clothed in virtue.