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: