Another good Rundle essay

A while back I posted a brief endorsement of a Guy Rundle piece, which brought forth a reference to another essay by Rundle. I disagree – sometimes to the point of strong irritation with some of the things he says, especially in the last half of the piece, but I recommend it to all comers nevertheless.  What Rundle has to say is very interesting, as are the three books his review essay is about.

Here’s a nice passage:

Gray’s extended and devastating assault on the latest and possibly last stage of political religion in the current cycle: the virtual quadripartite symmetry of al-Qa’da’s “Islamo-Jacobinism”, American Christian fundamentalism, the transmogrified Trotskyism of neo-conservatism, and the smooth and lethal market evangelising of neo-liberalism.

They meet in the 9/11 years, in “my god is bigger than your god”; in 23-year-old interns running the Baghdad stock exchange; in Mark Steyn’s belief that Iraq would look like the American midwest in the space of 18 months; in the serial foolishness of Francis Fukuyama, a Saturday morning cartoon Hegel; in the immense suffering caused by the doctrinaire imposition of the Washington consensus; even in, especially in, the neo-atheists, such as Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, whose idea of a post-religious humanity is so shot through with monotheistic categories that it becomes a carrier of all the conceptions it seeks to oppose.

A nice mixture of on the money hits and unreasonable assertions – but I guess readers would disagree about what fits in what category.  The essay is fun to read in any event. And I’m afraid I couldn’t work out what this sentence meant.

To suggest that it would never be possible to separate religious from transformational processes and that Gray’s work might be a part of that process is, in the last analysis, an argument from precedent.

But it’s well worth a read.

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Ken Parish
16 years ago

I couldn’t disagree more. I was going to write a post about this Rundle essay/review; a commenter to one of your earlier posts commended it, so I went and read it.

Rundle’s essay is just an uncritical rehash of the pretentious, nonsensically nihilist ideas in Gray’s two recent books Straw Dogs and Black Mass. Rundle purports to review two other books as well, by Terry Eagleton and Eric Hobsbawm, but only manages to mention them in passing. The vast majority of his essay, as I say, concentrates on Gray’s book.

Rundle’s essay/review would be impressive in a confused, depressing polymath kind of way if the thoughts in it were actually Rundle’s own. In fact he is simply uncritically paraphrasing Gray. Troppo readers interested in more clear-thinking reviews of Gray’s two recent books would be well advised to read this review of Black Mass titled The Triumph of Smugism by Carlin Romano or this one by A.C. Grayling or this review of his 2003 book Straw Dogs by Terry Eagleton (NB marginal disclaimer – I’ve read Straw Dogs but not Black Mass, however judging by all the reviews the latter is merely a rehash of the former combined with a slagging of the Bush administration).

Here’s a little of what Grayling has to say about Gray’s recent work. The criticisms apply even more so to Gray’s uncritical admirer Rundle, it takes rather less ingenuity to swallow silly ideas whole than to invent them in the first place:

John Gray is a curious figure whose habitual assaults on humanism are all carried along with such breezy assertion and generalisation that his underlying bitter pessimism is cloaked in motley. For hes a Harlequin: everything is either black or white in his writings, and moreover when it is black it is white, and vice versa.

In his latest book, aptly titled Black Mass, things are appropriately dark. It tells us that the world is in a bad way and that there is nothing we can do about it. Perhaps we can infer from this that his aim is to keep us informed of the true state of affairs, so that we have a reason to feel depressed if depressed we feel. In a nutshell the book consists in the repeated assertion that modern secularist thinking is utopian in aspiration, has inherited this aspiration from Christianity, has failed because its belief in progress is false and has in fact been violently regressive. The only thing that will replace it is more apocalyptic religion-inspired conflict, and this with an Eeyore relish all is therefore doom and gloom.

Actually one must suppose that there are further points than mere iteration of pessimism and negativism, which is Grays preferred (see Straw Dogs) and here iterated pose. The chief of them is that he is against the progressivist ambitions of the secular Enlightenment, and he hopes to annoy its proponents by giving it Christianity for a father and that weary old canard Nazism and Stalinism for offspring. His case for this is so massively wrong in its premises and so contradictory in its details that, alas, I should need as much paper to correct the mistakes as he consumes in making them. So what follows goes to certain main points only.

In order to establish that secular Whiggish Enlightenment-derived aspirations are the child of Christianity, Gray begins by calling any view or outlook a religion. Everything is a religion: Torquemadas Catholicism, the pluralism and empiricism of 18th-century philosophers, liberalism, Stalinism. He speaks of secular religion and political religion. This empties the word religion of any meaning, making it a neutral portmanteau expression like view or outlook. He can therefore premise a gigantic fallacy of equivocation, and assimilate secular Enlightenment values to the Christian narrative of reformation aimed at bringing about a golden age.

For starters this misreads Christianity, for which truths are eternal and the narrative is a very short story indeed (obey, get to heaven; disobey, do not get to heaven); but more to the point, it utterly misreads the secular view. The secular view is a true narrative of incremental improvement in the human condition through education and political action. Gray thinks that such a view must of necessity be utopian, as if everyone simplistically thought that making things better (in dentistry, in the rule of law, in child health, in international mechanisms for reducing conflict, and so forth for many things) absolutely had to be aimed at realising an ideal golden age to have any meaning. But it does not: trying to make things better is not the same as believing that they can be made perfect. That is a point Gray completely fails to grasp, and it vitiates his case. Since that is so, the point bears repeating: meliorism is not perfectibilism.

But in making a nonsense of the word religion Gray blurs and blends just where important distinctions are required. A religion is a view which essentially premises commitment to belief in the existence of supernatural agencies in the universe, almost always conceived as having intentions and expectations regarding human beings. Such is the myth derived from humankinds infancy, a myth that survives for both institutional and psychological reasons, largely to the detriment of human affairs. Most religions, especially if given the chance, share the totalitarian impulses of Stalinism and Nazism (think Torquemada and the Taliban) for a simple reason: all such are monolithic ideologies demanding subservience to a supposed ideal, on pain of punishment for non-conformity.

Now let us ask whether secular Enlightenment values of pluralism, democracy, the rule of independently and impartially administered law, freedom of thought, enquiry and expression, and liberty of the individual conform to the model of a monolithic ideology such as Catholicism, Islam or Stalinism. Let us further ask how Gray imagines that these values are direct inheritances from Christianity the Christianity of the Inquisition, which burned to death any who sought to assert just such values. Indeed, the history of the modern European and Europe-derived world is precisely the history of liberation from the hegemony of Christianity.

Now Grayling overstates his case here and is far more scathingly critical of Christianity than I think can be justified. By characterising the Inquisition as the archetypal example of Christianity and ignoring its many more beneficent intentions, teachings and outcomes, Grayling builds a straw man every bit as silly and misleading as Gray’s own efforts under review. I much prefer Terry Eagleton’s nuanced take on Christianity, which I recall Nicholas has previously posted about. Nevertheless, Grayling and Eagleton are rightly united in their scathing condemnation of John Gray’s nonsense.

Ken Parish
16 years ago


Read this article by Terry Eagleton. He explains it far more eloquently than I could.

James Farrell
James Farrell
16 years ago

I’m with Grayling. What a treasure that man is.

He’s not saying that the Inquisition embodies the essence of Christianity; rather that it’s the form of Christianity that preceded the Enlightenment in time.

If Philly liked Eagleton, he might like to read Nicholas’s post on it, along with some of the extraordinarily astute comments that followed.

Simon Smith
Simon Smith
16 years ago

When someone denounces both a book – Black Mass – and then a review of it as an uncritical rehash, and then notes halfway through the review that they haven’t read the book in question, you’d have to say that intellectual standards have fallen pretty low.

As I read Rundle’s ALR essay, the first part is an outline of Gray’s argument in Black Mass as a base for the later argument about the book’s relationship to Marxism. Gray argues, as others have, that leninism and nazism were religious movements in the guise of politics. He then extends that to neoliberalism and the neocon adventure in Iraq. The second part of Rundle’s essay argues that the book presents a key challenge to anyone whose basic political orientation is ‘revolutionary’ – believing there are times when one has to ‘grab history by the scruff of the neck’ – as to whether such a stance can ever be justified, given its consequences in the past. He then suggests that nothing of itself can prove a revolutionary/transformational movement will necessarily be pseudo-religious, and that the process of reflecting on Stalinism etc might be part of the process whereby the pseudo-religious dimension (and the violence it causes)is removed. Gray’s argument that there are never times when things are so awful that the risk of such is worth taking is therefore an argument from precedent – ‘it’s always been that way, therefore it always will be’.

So, the review is actually an argument against Gray’s core argument.

But then again Ken you havent read the book, so how the hell would you know?

Ingolf Eide
16 years ago

Nicholas, I wonder if you mightn’t have been looking for more in that sentence than is in fact there. As best I can judge, Rundle simply intended to note (much as Simon Smith says) that the question of whether transformational processes can ever be separated from religious impulses remains open, that one can only attempt to close off the possibility by falling back on historical precedent and that, in a perhaps unintended irony, Grays own work might actually contribute to any eventual process of separation.

I havent read Gray, other than via reviews and brief quotes, Ken, but I think youre being a little hard on Rundle and perhaps, by inference, Gray. I dont detect uncritical admiration of Grays ideas in this essay. My impression is that Rundle finds his challenge to humanist orthodoxy, exaggerated and even absurd though it may be at times, a useful spur to reflect a little more deeply on some of our more cherished beliefs. Rundle is at times a little too ready to sacrifice clarity to phrase-making but I found the essay both enjoyable and thought provoking.

His essential conclusion by my reading is that even a philosophical approach to human affairs as sceptical and consciously dispassionate as that of the enlightenment will at times be corrupted by millenial enthusiasms, many of which flourished under the influence of the monotheistic religions. Men seem fated to stumble into periods of mass irrationality, and this latent capacity will always find thinkers and leaders only too ready to ride the dragon, whether cloaked in vestments, stormtroopers uniforms or peasant tunics.

The banality that pervades much of modern life with its thin cover of consumerism, wishful thinking and splintered belief systems may be particularly prone to another outbreak of the madness of crowds. Combine these with the complexity of technological progress and an accelerating loss of cultural identity and there may be good reason to consider the sorts of fears that appear to most concern Gray.

Anyway, thanks for the link and post, Nicholas.

Geoff Robinson
16 years ago

There is a pattern with intellectuals who move from one end of the spectrum to the other and John Gray fits it. His Hayekian liberal work was fun to read even if wildly overstated but his more recent material simply inverts his early Hayekian dogmatism. I remember an article of his from the early 1990s on how the fall of the Berlin Wall meant a united and neutral Germany and hence a threat of Soviet power being drastically increased, this shows a certain academic unrealism. Nevertheless his early post-Hayekian work is still worthwhile.

simon smith
simon smith
16 years ago

Geoff Robinson’s comment is a little unfair to Gray. He’s not simply a mirror version of the hard left to hard right jump of people like Windschuttle, who are simply looking for a new political faith to hold themselves together. The epistmeological base of his work is still a liberal one – pluralist rather than classical – arguing that politics is the art of reconciling different and incommensurable ends. His mid-90s work – ‘after social democracy’ and ‘post-liberalism’ (?) – tracks his development in stages away from the Hayekian perspective. If he’d done a Windschuttle, he’d be selling copies of the socialist worker on Putney High St. I rather think his work is an example of intellectual evolution in which one interrogates more youthful enthusiasms