John Gray Gray's Anatomy: Selected Writings

ISBN 13: 9780141039541

Gray's Anatomy: Selected Writings

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9780141039541: Gray's Anatomy: Selected Writings

From the author of Straw Dogs, John Gray's Gray's Anatomy is a pugnacious and brilliantly readable collection of essays from across his career. Why is progress a pernicious myth? Why do beliefs that humanity can be improved end in farce or horror? Is atheism a hangover from Christian faith? John Gray, one of the most iconoclastic thinkers of our time, smashes through civilization's most cherished beliefs, overturning our view of the world, and our place in it. 'The most prescient of British public intellectuals' Pankaj Mishra, Financial Times 'Gray has consistently anticipated the shape of things to come ...he teaches us that true humanism is to be found in uncertainty and doubt' Will Self 'Gray's dissection of modern delusion, cant and wishful thinking is to be welcomed in this moment of convulsion ...This is a book to learn from and argue with' Ben Wilson, Literary Review 'A thoroughly enjoyable book ...These essays cover a remarkable range of topics, from Isaiah Berlin to Damien Hirst, from torture to environmentalism. But their unifying theme is that our naive belief in the idea of progress has turned modern life into a constant round of shadow-boxing' David Runciman, Observer 'Demolishes the theory that we have reached the "end of history", the dogmas of secular liberalism, the weaknesses of financial casino capitalism and the limits of energy-intensive economic growth' Economist John Gray is most recently the acclaimed author of Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions, Al Qaeda and What It Means To Be Modern and Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia. He is Emeritus Professor of European Thought at the University of London.

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About the Author:

John Gray is most recently the acclaimed author of Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions, Al Qaeda and What It Means To Be Modern and Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia. He is Emeritus Professor of European Thought at the University of London.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Introduction


The law of chaos is the law of ideas,
Of improvisations and seasons of belief.

Wallace Stevens, ‘Extracts from Addresses to the Academy of Fine Ideas’

The world changed out of all recognition during the period in which the writings that are collected here were written. When the earliest of them appeared, over thirty years ago, the international scene was shaped by a struggle between two power blocs — a geopolitical freeze that was mirrored in the realm of ideas. Europe was divided along the boundaries established during the Second WorldWar, Russia was a Communist state and China ruled by Mao. The recent wave of globalization had hardly begun. The rise of Asia was yet to come, and America was by far the most powerful country. In Britain Labour was negotiating a bailout from national bankruptcy with the International Monetary Fund, and Margaret Thatcher was leader of the Opposition. The political classes took it as given that some version of the post-war consensus on the mixed economy would remain in place, while the intelligentsia were occupied in languid disputes over the varieties of Marxism.

Behind this shadow play there were beliefs no one doubted. Liberal democracy was spreading inexorably; the advance of science would enable the affluence of some countries to be enjoyed by all; religion was in irreversible retreat. The path might not be straight or easy, but humanity was moving towards a common destination. Nothing could stand in the way of a future in which ‘Western liberal values’ were accepted everywhere.

Not much more than thirty years later all these certainties have melted away. The Soviet state has ceased to exist and Europe has been reunified; but Russia has not adopted liberal democracy. In the years after his death in 1976 China shook off Mao’s inheritance and adopted a type of capitalism — without accepting any Western model of government or society. The advance of globalization continued, with the result that America has lost its central position. The US is in steep decline, its system of finance capitalism in a condition of collapse and its vast military machine effectively paid for by Chinese funding of the federal deficit. All mainstream parties in democratic countries converged on a free-market model at just the moment in history when that model definitively ceased to be viable. With the world’s financial system facing a crisis deeper than any since the 1930s, the advancing states are now authoritarian regimes. The bipolar world has not been followed by one ruled by ‘the last superpower’. Instead we have a world that nobody rules.

The growth of knowledge has continued and accelerated. At the same time economic expansion has come up against finite resources, with peaking energy supplies and accelerating climate change threatening industrial growth. Rival claims on scarce resources are inflaming wars around the world, and these resource wars are intertwined with wars of faith. Far from fading away religion is once again at the heart of human conflict.

If the global scene at the start of the twenty-first century is different from any that was commonly anticipated, this was only to be expected. A weakness for uplifting illusions has shaped opinion throughout this period. No doubt intolerance of reality is innate in the human mind. Every age has a hallucinatory image of itself, which persists until it is dispelled by events. Secular thinkers imagined they had left religion behind, when in truth they had only exchanged religion for a humanist faith in progress that was further from reality. There is nothing wrong in taking refuge in a comforting fantasy. Why deny rationalists the consolations of faith — however childish their faith may be? The pretence of reason is part of the human comedy. But the decline of religion that occurred in the twentieth century was accompanied by the rise of faith-based politics, a continuation of religion by other means that has proved as destructive as religion at its worst.

Lenin’s embalmed body and the saviour-cult orchestrated around Hitler are examples of the twentieth-century sanctification of power. Nazism and Communism were political religions, each with its ersatz shrines and rituals. The Nazi paradise was confined to a small section of the species, with the rest consigned to slavery or extermination, while that of the Bolsheviks was open to everyone — apart from those marked down for liquidation as remnants of the past, such as peasants and bourgeois intellectuals. In both cases terror was part of the programme from the start. Humans are violent animals; there is nothing new in their fondness for killing. The peculiar flavour of modern mass murder comes from the fact that it has so often been committed with the aim of creating a new world.

It is important to understand that faith-based violence has not been limited to totalitarian regimes. Starting with the French Jacobins, it has been a pervasive feature of modern democracy. It is not only revolutionaries that have turned politics into a crusade. Liberal humanists who say they aim for gradual improvement have done the same. Like the utopian projects of the far left and right, the liberal ideal of a world of self-governing democracies has spilt blood on a colossal scale.

Even in Britain — supposedly the home of a sceptical, pragmatic approach to government — politics has been understood in terms that derive from religion. The Thatcher experiment is an example. I cannot count the number of times people have asked why I ‘stopped believing’ in Thatcherism. The assumption is that there was once a body of thought that could be described as ‘Thatcherism’ — something I never encountered as a participant observer at the time. More to the point, the question assumes that politics is like religion — some parts of Western Christianity, at any rate — in requiring belief in a creed or doctrine. My view was quite different. Politics is the art of devising temporary remedies for recurring evils — a series of expedients, not a project of salvation. Thatcher was one of these expedients.

The Thatcher era began as a response to local difficulties, only to end by producing another political religion. To be sure, true believers gathered around Thatcher from the start. The right-wing think-tanks of London of the early 1970s were littered with former Communists and Trotskyites who had lost their belief in Marxism but not the need for a political faith. The trend was exemplified in figures such as Sir Alfred Sherman — a founder of the Centre for Policy Studies and an early adviser of Thatcher whose faith in the free market followed the same doctrinaire footsteps as the faith in central planning he had as a Communist in the 1930s. For Sherman and others like him the triumph of the free market was pre-ordained.

In the context of the Cold War these enthusiasts had their uses. Their doctrinal turn of mind offered clues to Soviet thinking, in which ideology was surprisingly persistent. The USSR contained fewer convinced Marxists than the average Western university. Even so Soviet perceptions of the world were heavily filtered by Leninist ideas, and ex-Communists who shared this framework were better guides to the Soviet mind than Western specialists. None of the Sovietologists grasped the illegitimacy of the Soviet system, or suspected it might suddenly implode. When the dissident writer Andrei Amalrik, author of Will the Soviet Union Survive until 1984? (1970), raised the prospect of its collapse his analysis was written off as wildly unrealistic. Yet he was closer to reality than the Western experts who were declaring the USSR unshakable right upto the moment when it collapsed.

As an anti-Communist I shared Amalrik’s belief that the Soviet state was not a permanent fixture. During the Cold War, respectable opinion viewed anti-Communism as a grubby and at times shady business, and there are many who still see it that way. I am unrepentant. The defeat of Communism was as worthwhile a goal as the destruction of Nazism. The predominant Western view of the Soviet system was a mix of progressive wishful thinking and cultural prejudice. Western opinion attributed the totalitarian character of the system to Stalin, and then to Russian traditions of tyranny. Lenin — the system’s true architect, and a faithful disciple of Marx — was absolved of responsibility. The fact that Soviet repression was from the beginning on a scale not dreamt of in the Russia of the tsars was never admitted. This was not a position confined to the far left. It was maintained throughout the intelligentsia, for whom the only permissible criticism of the Soviet system was that it was not authentically Marxian.

Western Marxism was the subject of the piece originally published in 1989 in the Royal Society of Philosophy journal Philosophy that is reprinted as Chapter 15 of the present volume. The Marxist linguist whose study of the labour theory of meaning the piece analyses is an invention, not a real figure. Revai’s account of the primitive accumulation and expropriation of meaning, of surplus meaning and the atom of meaning, the ergoneme, are also invented. These absurd notions were meant to mimic the mumbo-jumbo of Western Marxism, but the parody escaped many readers. (Amusingly, Richard Dawkins has long promoted a rather similar theory of the basic unit of meaning — the meme — and not as a joke.) Among the many people who commented on the piece to me, only one — the late Isaiah Berlin — immediately recognized it as a spoof. When I disclosed that the review was a fiction — as the title of the piece indicated — I was not believed. It is true the fiction contained some elements of fact. Stalin did publish a pamphlet on linguistics in which he considered the position of deaf mutes, concluding that they lack anything that might be called a language. It is also true — though this fact is not mentioned in the piece — that during the purges members of deaf-mute associations were arrested and shot, or sent to the Gulag, after being found guilty of engaging in anti-Soviet conspiracies through the use of sign language. Events such as these are too far-fetched to be included in a spoof.

Anti-Communism had the merit of being a response to actual conditions. Obviously, it was not free markets that brought Communism down. Nationalism and religion in the Baltic States, Poland and Afghanistan, along with Reagan’s technically flawed but politically effective Star Wars programme, destroyed the Soviet state. Equally, though the fact eluded most people at the time, a period of profound upheaval was bound to follow. As I wrote in October 1989, commenting on Francis Fukuyama’s announcement of the end of history in the neo-conservative journal National Interest in August of that year:

Ours is an era in which political ideology, liberal as much as Marxist, has a rapidly dwindling leverage on events, and more ancient, more primordial forces, nationalist and religious, and soon, perhaps, Malthusian, are contesting with each other . . . If the Soviet Union does indeed fall apart, that beneficent catastrophe will not inaugurate a new era of post-historical harmony, but instead a return to the classical terrain of history, a terrain of great-power rivalries, secret diplomacies, and irredentist claims and wars.

Inevitably, given the prevailing view of things, this diagnosis — which can be found here in Chapter 16 — was seen as doom-mongering. In a delicious inversion, the observation that history was continuing its course was dismissed as apocalyptic. The truly apocalyptic notion that history had ended was embraced as realism.

It was only after the fall of Thatcher that ‘Thatcherism’ appeared on the scene. In the early days one of her close advisers used to refer to her as ‘the reality principle in skirts’. Up to a point it was an apt description. Thatcher confronted the collapse of post-war British corporatism and imposed a new settlement on the country that would last a generation. Yet her initial programme was not devised in any right-wing academy of fine ideas. It was a succession of improvisations, whose aims were not much different from those that Labour had tried and failed to achieve in the late 1970s. Her first goal was curbing union power, with the defeat of inflation a close second.

Both were feasible objectives, and were in fact achieved. The semi-imaginary Britain Thatcher wanted to restore — a country of unshackled markets and conservative values — was further away than ever. Free markets overturn established ways of doing things, including traditional moralities. The revolution in the economy Thatcher wanted did take place, but the country it produced had no resemblance to the chintzy replica of 1950s Britain she had envisioned. Old hierarchies were dissolved, along with the monoculture of post-war Britain. Conservatism ceased to exist as a coherent political project, and the Conservative Party was forced to make peace with the society that, contrary to her intentions, Thatcher had helped bring into being. The pleasantly ironic upshot of her experiment was the liberal Britain that exists today — a country more diverse and more tolerant than in the past, if in some ways also more fragmented.

If Thatcher made Britain in some ways more liberal it was as an unintended consequence of pursuing other ends. The doctrinaires who invented ‘Thatcherism’ — the word, incidentally, was a coinage of the left — believed that free markets could be installed, throughout the world, by conscious design. Like Thatcher herself, they misread the fall of Communism. Certainly it was a major advance. In the authoritarian state established by Putin Russians are freer and living standards are higher than at any time in the history of the Soviet Union. That is why Putin is probably the most popular Russian leader since the last tsars. At the same time, however, the fall of Communism was also a defeat for the West.

Lenin and the Bolsheviks aimed to realize Marx’s utopian project, while turning Russia into a modernWestern state along the way. The neo-liberals who came to power under Yeltsin opted for a type of market Leninism rather than for central planning, but they toowanted to modernize Russia onWestern lines. Central planning was replaced, but not by the free market. A new type of command economy controlled by a shifting coalition of oligarchs and the intelligence services emerged instead. Putin’s Russia is not a regime committed to global expansion; it has abandoned the militant political religion that underpinned the former Soviet Union. Instead it is reasserting its claims over what it considers its historic sphere of influence, while using the energy resources it controls to promote its strategic interests. In geopolitical terms Russia is once again what it has been for most of its history, a Eurasian empire warily positioned between East and West.

The end of the Cold War was followed by a period of triumphal delusion, with the victorious powers acting as missionaries for their own version of political religion — a belief in democracy as a universal panacea. It was not the first time something like this had happened. A similar response underpinned the ill-fated European settlement that was put in place after the First World War. Woodrow Wilson welcomed the collapse of the Habsburg Empire as leading the way to a Europe of self-governing nations. What followed was an era of xenophobia, ethnic cleansing and ultimately genocide.

Many circumstances led to disaster in inter-war Europe, but the savage logic of national self-determin...

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