Sunday, January 27, 2008

Apocalypse Forever?


I did have a test today. That wasn't bullshit. It's on European socialism. I mean, really, what's the point? I'm not European. I don't plan on being European, so who gives a crap if they're socialists? They could be fascist anarchists--that still wouldn't change the fact that I don't own a car. Not that I condone fascism, or any -ism for that matter. -Isms in my opinion are not good. A person should not believe in an -ism, he should believe in himself. I quote John Lennon, "I don't believe in Beatles, I just believe in me." Good point there. After all, he was the Walrus. I could be the walrus, but I'd still have to bum rides off of people.

--Ferris Bueller, Ferris Bueller's Day Off

I recently finished reading British political philosopher John Gray's Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia. With a cover and title like that, how could one not read the book? Gray's basic thesis, which is at once original, kind of obvious, and neither proveable or unproveable, is that the Christian narrative of a fallen humanity brought to salvation after an apocalyptic event has so powerfully affected Western political thought that it has been replicated in all of the post-Enlightenment political movements that are based on supposedly univerally applicable principles, beginning on the left with Jacobinism and Communism, going wack with Nazism, then moving into the currently active, intertwined philosophies of neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism. These -isms view history in stark terms, and tend to view the application of their own principles as the end of history--a utopia, or, in Christian terms, a millenium--with no other forms of government or society to be developed thereafter. Indeed, American neo-conservative Francis Fukuyama titled one of his books The End of History. When these political movements are decoupled from the traditional Christian millenialist belief that only Jesus Christ can bring about the millenium, the movements take it on themselves to bring about the apocalyptic changes that will take global society into the land of milk and honey.

Gray's main focus is the neo-conservative movement, particularly in the United States, and its failure to create a functioning Western-style democracy in Iraq. According to Gray, neo-conservatism has rooted itself in America's Lockean founding principles of self-determination and personal freedoms. It is also tied to the neo-liberal belief that the spread of the capitalist free market to the entire world will diminish the significance of the nation state. Unlike more traditional American conservatives, who tend to distrust fanaticism and radical change, the founders of the neo-conservative movements are former Trotskyites who brought their intolerant revolutionary zeal and notion of permament, global upheavel from the political left to the political right.

Philosophically, the neo-conservatives rely heavily on the writings of Leo Strauss, though Gray believes Strauss would condemn neo-conservatism as a form of the liberalism he abhorred. Strauss believed that unchecked liberalism leads to nihilism, that political order should rest on the acceptance of moral constraints, and that the notion of natural law embodied in Aquinas and others should be revived as a way to avoid modern nihilism. Strauss, however, recognized that the attachment of liberal democracy to methaphysical beliefs is not rationally defensible, strictly speaking. At this point, Gray brings up the Platonic notion of the "noble lie," or that philsophers may know a deadly truth but may protect the benighted rabble with consoling myths. Strauss himself suggested that some great thinkers had beliefs that they held secretly, different from the beliefs that were overtly presented in their writings. More to the point, a noble lie is one that can be told to further some higher truth. Gray does not believe that Strauss himself engaged in noble lying, but he does believe that American neo-conservative figures in the Bush Administration did so in the run-up to the Iraq War, stretching Strauss's notion that thinkers write in secret codes to the interpretation of intelligence. This led them to disregard the CIA's interpretation of intelligence on Iraq in favor of their own. Indeed, Paul Wolfowitz had a group of his fellow neo-cons to filter prewar intelligence.

Like many traditional Amerian conservatives, the neo-conservatives believe in American exceptionalism, a phenomenon that has existed since John Winthrop's "shining city on a hill." Gray explains the history of American exceptionalism as a religious belief, though he curiously omits Mormonism, which places the exceptional position of America as a promised land in its foundational texts. Also, Mormomism is well known for its missionary zeal, an attribute Gray sees in neo-conservatism and most of the other political movements he discusses. However, Mormons do not believe that they themselves will bring about the millenium--that is something left up to Jesus. There are some Christian dominionists out there who evidently do believe that the Kingdom of God will be created by humans before the Second Coming, but those people are few and far between, and Gray doesn't discuss them other than to say that the Christian Right is aligned with the neo-conservative movement. I'd say that whatever alliance exists is a marriage of convenience; it was, after all, Mike Huckabee who labeled the Bush foreign policy "arrogant."

The linking of neo-conservatism with American exceptionalism and, more importantly, the Bush Administration and the most powerful military and economy in human history allowed the movement to believe it could spread its evangel at will. Iraq was the first experiment, a failed state where a Western democracy would be created by force of arms. Gray suggests that the sanctions imposed after the first Gulf War caused the Iraqi state to fail; I'd say that Saddam's war with Iran had the place FUBARd well before then. The Iraqi experiment, which Gray believes is doomed to fail, is the beginning and end of the neo-con attempt to create an international utopia.

Gray advocates a fallback to the conservative, realist notion that nation states are unique entities with their own unique institutions and competing interests that frequently result in armed conflict. Gray aligns himself somewhat with Burke and definitely with Machiavelli, whom my mentor at LSU called the only political scientist who ever mattered. He also believes that the history of western politics is, in its way, a history of religion. As for actual religion, he advocates that government recognize the importance of faith in the lives of individuals and that it should ensure that various faiths coexist without conflict.

It's a fascinating read, and Gary's writing style is clear, witty, and accessible to one who is fairly unschooled in technical aspects of philosophy (e.g., me). His link of utopian political theories with the Christian narrative is something I'd never thought of before.

1 comment:

Beat Dad said...

The Walrus was Paul.