Gray on gray: John Gray and the Owl of Minerva

Just like 2001, 2011 has given lots of people reason to have a pop at Fukuyama’s notion of The End of History (all caps, we’re talking in Hegelian now).  Often this involves some pretty weak criticisms vaguely directed at a straw-man version of Fukuyama’s thesis, which is assumed to be about US unipolarity or globalisation or whatever. John Gray, however, knows what he is talking about and offers a much more insightful dissection of the concept in an article on the BBC website. I think, in the context of the short piece, he does justice to Fukuyama’s ideas whilst vivisecting them to display their flaws:

They were swayed by a myth – a myth of progress in which humanity is converging on a universal set of institutions and values. The process might be slow and faltering and at times go into reverse, but eventually the whole of humankind would live under the same enlightened system of government.

…While constantly urging the necessity for change, believers in gradual progress also assume that fundamental conflicts will wither away. Along with Marx, they imagine a radical alteration in human existence as a consequence of which the recurrent struggles that have shaped human life throughout the ages will be no more.

In different ways utopian thinkers and believers in gradual progress both look forward to an end to history as it has always been.

Here, I think, Gray is on the money. The denial that major human conflicts will at some future point be permanently resolved and that social life will take on the placid tranquillity of a waveless ocean can be thought of as a hallmark of ‘realist’ thought. For thinkers in such a tradition, the idea of a world without politics is absurd. A dangerous absurdity too because it encourages messianic crusades to bring history to a close and discourages an acceptance of plurality and disagreement.

Gray wants to suggest that the book of history never closes, that new surprises await us on every page. Crises don’t just disorientate us, they can leave us without bearings as all the stable features of our lives crumble away. I have to admit, this perspective has some resonance with my own personal situation since the GFC broke. But greater chaos yet could still be unleashed, plenty of history looks likely to be made in 2012.

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Posted on December 29, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Gray wants to lump believers in “gradual progress” (i.e., liberals and social democrats basically) together with “utopians”. Both groups believe in a perfect end state without conflict, he says. This thesis is nonsense. Plenty of believers in gradual progress do not see arrival at an end state where conflict, politics, and history stop. One keeps trying to improve but the assumption is that perfection will always be elusive: certainly that is a more accurate characterization of the ‘progress’ view than Gray’s. A left-leaning American political theorist, Joseph M. Schwartz, wrote a book some years ago (it was his dissertation) called The Permanence of the Political, which argued that Rousseau, Marx, Hegel and others were wrong to posit eventual arrival at an end-state devoid of conflict and beyond politics. Gray does not much impress me, at least not in this piece.

    • Sorry for the delay in approving your comment, I was away from the internet for an extended weekend. Gray is notorious for his propensity for lumping. Liberalism is disguised Christianity, secularism is disguised Christianity, atheism is disguised Christianity and so on. ‘Everything is everything else’ to paraphrase AC Grayling’s criticism of Gray. I think you are right about liberal meliorism, but there are still a few post-political threads in the works of some important thinkers: e.g. Keynes’s expectations about the euthanasia of the capitalist class, Rawls’s presumption that his account of justice would prove to be a non-controversial account of how different values could be reconciled.

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