Radical ideas furnished an entertaining social pastime for the aristocracy, but neither they nor anyone else discerned that all of France’s institutions as well as its social fabric would face a devastating assault. When he finished compiling a list of the grievances contained in the Caheirs de doléances (the 60,000 pamphlets written in response to the king’s request for comments on the state of the nation), Tocqueville was thunderstruck. “I realize with a kind of terror that what is being demanded,” he wrote with stupefaction, “is the simultaneous and systematic abolition of all the laws and customs of the country. I see that it will be a question of one of the most dangerous revolutions that ever took place in the world.”
And yet the proponents of this radical change, who would be its unwitting future victims, had no notion of the violence that would accompany such a total and sudden transformation of French society. They naïvely thought that the whole process could be carried out through “reason” alone.
This is the point Gray elects to miss and has elected to miss many times before. Human beings are social creatures whose sociability manifests itself in feelings of empathy and altruism. But these feelings are not always in evidence and sometimes they give way to hatred and to violence. Hatred and violence are not exceptional. History, as Gray never tires of reminding us, is strewn with the corpses of the murdered and maimed. But nor are hatred and violence the rule. And when we encounter them – sometimes, not always – our better selves are mobilised. Moreover, it is in this spirit – and not in any post-Christian attempt to take a lathe to the crooked timber of humanity – that we try to improve the lot of our species: so that Mary Turner’s descendants are not strung up and emptied of their progeny; so that orphans with tears in their unseeing eyes are taken in and given a bowl of soup; and so that our own children can have a decent education and the chance of a job at the end of it. Is this a hubristic belief in progress? The very suggestion dies on the lips.
Human beings may not develop but human institutions do. Sometimes they develop in good ways and sometimes they develop in bad ones, and whether the development is good or bad it is never irreversible. Of course such freedoms and rights and securities as we have won could all be swept away if another Hitler came to power. That is what makes the fight for justice not just worthwhile but necessary. Gray wants us to believe that this fight is no different from the one waged by Christians and communists alike. He is wrong. To seek to make things better is not the same as thinking that they can be made perfect. The problem we face – that humanity faces – is not faith in the future but indifference to it. Resource wars are already in progress and population growth is out of control. A catastrophic change in our climate, growing inequality, the prospect of a nuclearised Middle East: these problems are not on the horizon – they are upon us. In The Silence of Animals, Gray talks about the ‘current fad for evolutionary theories of society’. I don’t know what theories he means. But there is one thing I do know, or think I do: without a little ‘evolution’ or ‘progress’ in the political sphere our flawed and wonderful species is doomed.
First of all, let me just say that this article was a delight to read. Critical yet fair, it’s an engrossing overview of Gray’s recent ouevre as well as a specific review of his latest book. I wish that sort of thing didn’t deserve special mention, but there you go.
Now, then, let me suggest that, rather than seeking to make anyone “believe” anything, what Gray is doing is giving book-length exposition to the thinking of the Chinese farmer:
The situation we always live in is like the wise Chinese farmer whose horse ran off. When his neighbor came to console him the farmer said, “Who knows what’s good or bad?”
When his horse returned the next day with a herd of horses following her, the foolish neighbor came to congratulate him on his good fortune.
“Who knows what’s good or bad?” said the farmer.
Then, when the farmer’s son broke his leg trying to ride one of the new horses, the foolish neighbor came to console him again.
“Who knows what’s good or bad?” said the farmer.
When the army passed through, conscripting men for war, they passed over the farmer’s son because of his broken leg. When the foolish man came to congratulate the farmer that his son would be spared, again the farmer said, “Who knows what’s good or bad?”
Ad infinitum. Like waves, the events of our lives have no true essence of their own; they simply ebb and flow. If that thought depresses you, then you might just share a little more of that faith in perfectibility than you think.
People are very good at identifying specific things that need to be made “better”. Often, though, they lack broader perspective, and so the improvements they make in one area give rise to new problems in a different area, and off we go again. Like Todd Anderson in Dead Poets Society, no matter how they pull and stretch the blanket, some other part of their body is left exposed and cold. However much weight you want to give to humankind’s sociable nature, we can at least agree that humans are certainly pattern-seeking animals, and with that in mind, it’s not perverse to recognize a certain disheartening pattern in the efforts people make to control and optimize their world. No, hatred and violence are not the rule. But neither are empathy and altruism. There is no “rule”, only endless give-and-take. Perhaps that’s what Nietzsche was driving at in his conception of the Eternal Recurrence — is humanity capable of accepting such nullifying insights that make a mockery of all they hold dear? Are people capable of unhumanizing their views a little along with Robinson Jeffers?
Almost certainly not. A perspective like this inhabits a forbidding perch; the intellectual air is cold and thin. And humans in general are social enough that they will happily stick together on more hospitable terrain, continuing to dream of a blanket big enough.
That final line is the weakest point of the whole essay. The entire species, doomed? You mean every single last one of us? How likely is that? Human culture, as we understand it today, may not last much longer, but even if a mutated supervirus, an asteroid, a murderously enraged Gaia or all-out nuclear holocaust reduced humans to a few million post-apocalyptic hunter-gatherers scattered in isolated bands, the species would likely continue in some form. Even the dinosaurs are still with us in the form of birds, after all. And perhaps that thought scares us even more — even our dethronement as the dominant species on Earth wouldn’t rate a Götterdämmerung of significance. It would just be one more wave in the endless flow of history.
But this brings me to the more fundamental issue. Theology and texts have far less power over shaping a religion’s lived experience than intellectuals would like to credit. This is a difficult issue to approach, because even believers who are vague on peculiarities of the details of theology (i.e., nearly all of them!) nevertheless espouse that theology as true. Very few Christians that I have spoken to actually understand the substance of the elements of the Athanasian Creed, though they accept it on faith. Similarly, very few Sunni Muslims could explain with any level of coherency why al-Ghazali‘s refutation of the Hellenistic tendency within early Islam shaped their own theology (if they are Sunni it by definition does!). Conversely, very few Shia could explain why their own tradition retains within its intellectual toolkit the esoteric Hellenistic philosophy which the Sunni have rejected. That’s because almost no believers actually make recourse to their own religion’s intellectual toolkit.
This is the hard part for many intellectuals, religious or irreligious, to understand. For intellectuals ideas have consequences, and they shape their lives. Their religious world view is naturally inflected by this. And most importantly they confuse their own comprehension of religious life, the profession of creeds rationally understand and mystical reflection viscerally experienced, with modal religiosity. This has important consequences, because intellectuals write, and writing is permanent. It echoes down through the ages. Therefore our understanding of the broad scope of religious history is naturally shaped by how intellectuals view religion. In a superficial sense the history of religion is the history of theology, because theology is so amenable to preservation.
Like the old joke about the drunk, we look for the keys to understanding religion in theology because the light’s better there. I think this is clearly true, and it also underlies why I think it’s so ridiculous to hear atheists talk about forming a world without religion, as if it would simply be a matter of convincing people to reject certain logical propositions through argument, as opposed to a complete remaking of human psychology and culture along rational lines, which, of course, worked so well for the Jacobins and their offspring.
To be sure, the power of crowdsourcing has given us gifts both precious (like Wikipedia) and picayune (the cover design of Elizabeth Gilbert’s next book), but it is a legitimate achievement of the digital age, one that proves that the internet is capable of transforming the way we interact collectively. Prior to vilifying Tripathi, for example, Reddit users had been helpfully sifting for leads amid the enormous amount of footage taken at the Boston Marathon. Nevertheless, the reflexivity with which we invoke the “wisdom of crowds” seems to suggest less that we think crowds are truly wise and more that we understand — if only dimly — their undeniable potency. The fact is that the digital age has yet to really countenance the cultural anxieties produced by the new invisible crowd.
In this regard, the jitters of the internet era bear an almost comic resemblance to a central disquietude of the august, and apparently closed, epoch we call modernity. For just as the increasing institutionalization and regulation of the internet seem to be attended by the lurking possibility that everything could crumble from one cyber attack unleashed by a handful of anonymous malcontents, so too did the project of modernity grapple with the contradiction that even as its liberal institutions grew more powerful, its stability became more dependent on the whims of the crowd. The French Revolution and its aftershocks are the textbook examples here, providing the archetypal images of the crowd in all its revolutionary splendor and violence. Now clearly, the works of Anonymous or 4chan don’t quite match the grisly proceedings of the Jacobins, but one can detect definite recursive qualities between them — namely excessive zeal, indiscriminateness, feverishness. And if history insists on recursion, there’s no reason not to learn from its lessons.
There’s little diversity and independence: Twitter and Facebook mostly show you people who are like you and things your social group is into. And social media is becoming ever more centralized: Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Medium, Pinterest, etc. instead of a decentralized network of independent blogs. In fact, the nature of social media is to be centralized, peer-dependent, and homogeneous because that’s how people naturally group themselves together. It’s a wonder the social media crowd ever gets anything right.
The dream of a new humanity dies hard. Formerly, the post-Enlightenment project to create one was understood as being political and cultural in nature. In the last couple decades, there’s been some half-hearted gestures in the direction of the old socialist ideals, but the focus mostly seems to have shifted to technology. The Internet and all its gadget offspring have given us one more sugar rush of belief in transformative potential, but it turns out that a bajillion monkeys still don’t produce Shakespearean-quality art even after you replace their typewriters with MacBook Pros. Perhaps we could say that our love affair with all things digital was a rebound relationship after our breakup with socialist utopianism, a torrid, escapist fantasy to avoid coming to terms with the limitations of our nature. Somewhere in the back of our mind, we knew that we weren’t seriously going to reinvent the human animal simply by the use of incredible new tools, but those winking screens and sleek designs were just too tempting, and besides, it was good for our self-esteem as we slowly processed what we’d lost.
It is something fun to wonder about, in my vague, uninformed way. Are we starting to bump up against the edge of our petri dish in more ways than one? If political, cultural and technological attempts to progressively alter human nature toward some nebulous betterment all fail, what then? Will we retreat into some kind of mystical inwardness, experiencing life on a level plateau instead of a sharp incline, realizing that wherever we went, there we were?
Less well known are Marx’s deep differences with Darwin. If Marx viewed Trémaux’s work as “a very important improvement on Darwin,” it was because “progress, which in Darwin is purely accidental, is here necessary on the basis of the periods of development of the body of the earth.” Virtually every follower of Darwin at the time believed he had given a scientific demonstration of progress in nature; but though Darwin himself sometimes wavered on the point, that was never his fundamental view. Darwin’s theory of natural selection says nothing about any kind of betterment—as Darwin once noted, when judged from their own standpoint bees are an improvement on human beings—and it is testimony to Marx’s penetrating intelligence that, unlike the great majority of those who promoted the idea of evolution, he understood this absence of the idea of progress in Darwinism. Yet he was just as emotionally incapable as they were of accepting the contingent world that Darwin had uncovered.
As the late Leszek Kołakowski used to put it in conversation, “Marx was a German philosopher.” Marx’s interpretation of history derived not from science but from Hegel’s metaphysical account of the unfolding of spirit (Geist) in the world. Asserting the material basis of the realm of ideas, Marx famously turned Hegel’s philosophy on its head; but in the course of this reversal Hegel’s belief that history is essentially a process of rational evolution reappeared as Marx’s conception of a succession of progressive revolutionary transformations. This process might not be strictly inevitable; relapse into barbarism was a permanent possibility. But the full development of human powers was still for Marx the end point of history. What Marx and so many others wanted from the theory of evolution was an underpinning for their belief in progress toward a better world; but Darwin’s achievement was in showing how evolution operated without reference to any direction or end state. Refusing to accept Darwin’s discovery, Marx turned instead to Trémaux’s far-fetched and now deservedly forgotten theories.
The whole essay is very interesting. And it makes it even funnier to then go back and read this kind of wishful wanking. We must not reverse the idea of historical necessity, comrades! Have, uh, faith!
Now, I have to admit that fantasy is probably truer to the actual sweep of human history. We know many cultures view of history as an endlessly repeating cycle. This view is more common than the modern secular notion that history has progress and a meaningful direction. And we also know from the archaeological record that most assemblages of human beings have been remarkably culturally static. Ancient Meso-Americans had the wheel, but used it as a toy. The ancient Greeks had a steam engine, but also only as an ornamental curiosity. For all their roads and bathhouses and architecture, the Romans never thought to invent the stirrup. In the 18th century, the industrial revolution took hold only in one tiny corner of a populous planet.
The belief that technological improvement is inevitable or constant is a myth. The fact that it happened at all may well be a lucky accident. It seems to me likely that most of the human race has lived its real, non-fantasy life in a Game of Thrones world—where knowledge was static and scarce, and change unknown. And that’s the saddest thought of all. When I have to pick my genre, I’ll take a dream world of starships over that any day of the week.
That’s interesting, because I am firmly in the fantasy camp myself. Never been into science fiction. I prefer sending my imagination backward to pseudo-medieval times. Yet, of course, that doesn’t translate in my lived life to a yearning for rural, small-town existence or anything like that. I wouldn’t choose to live anywhere, anytime else (I’d just like to take some time-travelling vacations, if that’s all right).
But in saying that, don’t I simply mean that I wouldn’t want to have to make a sudden transition to the living conditions of another time and place? That is, assuming for the sake of this thought experiment that it makes sense to imagine “me” somehow living in Jazz Age America or T’ang Dynasty China or some D&D-style medieval Europe, isn’t the problem the fact that I can only do so by bringing along a bunch of luggage containing my experience and understanding as a 21st-century American? Not to put too banal a point on it, but I can never truly know what it was like to actually live back then and truly inhabit the moment. I can only imagine what it would be like to be there as my homesick self.
And so, then, does it make any sense to project our own conception of purposeless stagnation back onto pre-industrial societies, as if they lived with a conscious awareness of how tedious their lives would look in comparison to ours? Did they sit around unhappily bemoaning their lack of technological invention and supporting infrastructure, or did they just live their lives, loving and hating within their given parameters? Does the average American sit around in a library today joyfully enthusing about the wonders of science and progressive knowledge, or do we complain about our shitty cellphone reception and seek out porn and reality TV to pass the time? Human nature only changes very slowly, if at all. Perhaps the biggest difference between us and people of bygone ages is the way we’ve become addicted to novelty and customized individual choice.
My own attitude toward all this is one of jaded-but-indulgent acceptance; I’m one of Montaigne’s spectators of life. I try to be consciously grateful for the amazing things unique to my day and age, but I also recognize that the mystics are right when they say wherever we go, there we are.
Gray has been labelled as a cantankerous-doomsday-know-all in many intellectual circles. His critics point out that while he does not subscribe to any dogmatic ideology per se, he contends that history is essentially a series of accidents, with no trajectory as such. Human beings, in Gray’s worldview, can never really progress beyond their primordial, animalistic, selfish instincts, particularly when factors beyond their control make them more fearful. The central argument in most of his books refutes the idea – that has been put forward by ideologues on both the left and the right – that history is a series of stages that will incrementally lead to a better outcome for humanity.
As Gray sees it this optimism is simply giving people false hope. There has been no utopian society as Marx or Lenin foresaw; nor has the neo-conservative doctrine of universal American global capitalism, as envisioned by Francis Fukuyama in his book The End of History, come about. The progressive rationalist society that atheists like Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker predict is on the way, once we all stop believing in God and discover the true merits of science, is, for Gray, yet another illusion.
Progressive-minded people predictably tend to interpret this as nihilism. But it’s not that nothing ever changes, or that nothing is ever worth doing, it’s just that even beneficial changes tend to quickly become the status quo, which no one is ever content with, seemingly as a psychological rule. It’s closer to what Theodore Dalrymple called “existential pessimism“. Anyone who’s lived to adulthood should have experienced this. As an adolescent, I used to imagine that being a musician would be the ultimate dream job, but it was impossible to ignore that the seeming-awesomeness of what I imagined it to be didn’t square with the fact that many people who were actually living the life were still confused, miserable and self-destructive. Every consumer product that provided me with the thrills of anticipation and novelty quickly became taken for granted. My life is, in many respects, much improved over the last couple of years alone, but I still fret about the bills, lose my temper over annoyances, and intuitively feel like things overall are pretty evenly split between enjoyable and problematic. We don’t exist in gratitude for everything we have; we acknowledge it when prompted and quickly get back to business.
As with individuals, so with societies. I’m sure that if progressive activists got even half of what they’re currently agitating for, people would still be complaining like this soon thereafter:
Take drugs for example. It’s high on the libertarian list of things they want legalized. I say no way in hell. Now yes, I do say that I want personal responsibility, but what I really mean by that is I want every person to act responsibly and if you have to inject or ingest, snort or smoke something to feel good about yourself, you are not acting responsibly. And for you people who say you’re just doing it to “feel good”, too bad. If you have to resort to some form of artificial stimulation to get your jollies, just for the sake of having your jollies, you’re an idiot.
The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that a large portion of the libertarian population is just delusional. They clearly don’t understand human nature, they think mankind can live without government, will automatically do the right thing and that there are magical rights floating around out there that they cannot explain how they came to be, but they can sure tell you what they are. Maybe worse yet, so many of them are absurdly cocksure of themselves, like they’re coming down from the mountain bearing stone tablets. I keep making references to people’s political beliefs being far too similar to religious beliefs for my liking, I think libertarians, at least some of the most vocal of them, just have too much faith. I don’t assent to faith in religion, I sure won’t do it in my politics.
Archaeologists have uncovered widespread evidence of drug consumption in ancient communities across the globe. The oldest evidence of beer consumption dates back to around 5000 BCE in what is now Iran, while wine consumption goes back even further, to about 6000 BCE. The consumption of betel nut, the fourth-most used drug in the world after nicotine, alcohol, and caffeine, dates back 13,000 years ago in Timor, and 10,700 years ago in Thailand. Coca was domesticated in the western Andes close to 7,000 years ago, and the consumption of tobacco in the Americas, pituri in Australia, and khat in Eastern Africa already represented ancient practices when European colonists made first contact, perhaps dating back 40,000 years or more. Most anthropologists agree that human drug consumption predates human civilization.
Bolded parts mine. I trust the jokes are obvious enough that I don’t have to bother typing them.
Jonathan Haidt, following Jerry Muller’s lead, distinguishes conservatism from orthodoxy:
Orthodoxy is the view that there exists a “transcendant moral order, to which we ought to try to conform the ways of society.” Christians who look to the Bible as a guide for legislation, like Muslims who want to live under sharia, are examples of orthodoxy. They want their society to match an externally ordained moral order, so they advocate change, sometimes radical change. This can put them at odds with true conservatives, who see radical change as dangerous.
Muller next distinguished conservatism from the counter-Enlightenment. It is true that most resistance to the Enlightenment can be said to have been conservative, by definition (i.e., clerics and aristocrats were trying to conserve the old order.) But modern conservatism, Muller asserts, finds its origins within the main currents of Enlightenment thinking, when men such as David Hume and Edmund Burke tried to develop a reasoned, pragmatic and essentially utilitarian critique of the Enlightenment project.
…Muller went through a series of claims about human nature and institutions, which he said are the core beliefs of conservatism. Conservatives believe that people are inherently imperfect and prone to act badly when all constraints and accountability are removed. Our reasoning is flawed and prone to overconfidence, so it’s dangerous to construct theories based on pure reason, unconstrained by intuition and historical experience.
A similar theme which I heard years ago differentiated conservative from radical, not from liberal. Liberal is rather the opposite of authoritarian. Others have juxtaposed empiricism and rationalism in a similar manner. And this theme is also characteristic of the thinking of John Gray and Isaiah Berlin, two of my favorite authors:
Gray, like his friend and mentor Isaiah Berlin, sets himself against all proponents of the grand idea – of progress, of perfectibility, of the right and only way to live. He would, one suspects, champion the bureaucrat over the ideologue any day. We love to castigate bureaucracies – look what a hate-word “Brussels” has become for our latter-day Jacobins of right and left – but consider the alternative. People who kiss their spouses goodbye in the morning, stick from nine-to-five at their humdrum desks, and come home in the evening looking forward to a nice dinner and something on the telly, are surely to be preferred to those cold-eyed demagogues, “the prophets with armies at their backs”, as Isaiah Berlin has it, who conceive a burning vision of exactly how the world should work and are prepared to spill the blood of millions to ensure the imposition of their system.
JC: When people write about situational depression, they tend to mean if you’re in a bad job or a bad relationship or unemployed, and yet you go further to, what is this system that we’re all living in that is causing an epidemic of depression and anxiety. And speaking of the despair of capitalism, I was last month forced to undergo an audit by two different agencies to prove my worth to the German government, so they could decide whether or not to renew my visa. And as a writer, having to prove my worth through a dollar (sorry — Euro) figure was utterly sick-making. What is the artist or writer to do to stave off depression in an age when a) you are expected to bring your whole self to the medium you work in, becoming a publicity-generating, socially accessible machine, and b) there is so much emphasis in our capitalist society on income? Both seem antithetical to the role of the artist.
AC: Well, you’ve just put your finger on one of the key arguments of my book, and it sounds like your own case history would be a good way to exemplify that argument! Indeed, there are so many aspects of ordinary life under capitalism, including both work life and personal life, that are depression inducing. This is not just true for artists, but for everyone trying to eke out not just a living wage but to do so via work that is creative and life-affirming. Capitalism sucks the life blood out of people in a range of class positions — high-flying professionals who are stressed out and over-worked, working class people who do society’s shit work, and, yes, the artists who are trying to figure out how to either live on less or turn their creative work into a revenue stream.
I realize that it’s unrealistic to think that sanghas will start Marxist study groups to actually try to understand capitalism, understand the misery and suffering that systemically result from capital, or to use his ideas on issues of identity, attachment, subjectivity, consciousness, materialism, alienation, and happiness to inspire alternative modes of living in the world. For those who are interested, the Dalai Lama’s half-Marxism seems like a good place to start, and if somebody finds his stance confusing or misguided, that seems like a good reason to take another look at Marx. But the charm of capital remains so great that I doubt Buddhists will be any less seduced by it than other groups.
…Buddhism and America should enter the movement of the real and be engaged with the struggle to end suffering, and man’s inhumanity to man. The movement of the real is emotionally tough, because its first move is to reveal error. But it also appears in the emerging sangha, an invisisble movement of unification that appears in the action of the collective. The action of the collective is to be collected, to come together and deal with whatever arises from this being together. In the decline of capital, the saving power of the collective might appear in new and unexpected forms. Buddhist insurgency might look like a shift to a new leaderless sangha, or a new type of leader and teacher who discovers and understands the vast unrecognized potential of the collective movement of the real.
Reading both of these pieces actually reminded me of something I read by Stephen Kinzer a few years ago:
The other theme I heard time and again here is that political change takes time. Perhaps because they have such a long history – 10 times longer than the history of the United States – many Iranians seem ready to wait patiently for change rather than risk plunging their country into upheaval by demanding it immediately.
“Nobody can prevent us from having democracy in our country,” a merchant in the Shiraz bazaar told me. “It is our wish and our right. But it will take time. You cannot change a very strong government in a few months.”
A middle-aged man in Isfahan who sympathized with the post-election protests said he was glad they have ended. “They were not going to achieve anything, and continuing them would just mean more people hurt or killed or put in jail,” he reasoned. “What is the point of that?”
…In Iran, as in other countries with long histories, many people believe that not all problems have quick solutions, and that some have no solution at all. “In our history we have had many periods that were sad, and other periods that were happy,” a woman at an internet cafe in Isfahan told me. “You cannot rush things. What is important is to live.”
I’m aware that most Westerners who fancy themselves to be politically sophisticated and aware would condemn such attitudes as quietist. But when I read excerpts like the ones above, I can’t help but laugh a little at the presumption, the firm conviction that, well, of course there must be an alternative economic system in which man’s inhumanity to man will be eradicated, or, less ambitiously, one where writers and other struggling artists will at least be guaranteed a comfortable existence in which to pursue their vision without being defined by their income! And if there isn’t one already, surely we can will one into existence! Stranger things have happened, I suppose, but I just wonder how much of that idealism is the product of our brief historical memory.