John Gray, ‘The Soul of the Marionette’


John Gray is a powerful critic of ideas of ‘progress’ and ‘development’, probably most famous for his Straw Dogs (2002). His latest offering searches deep into ideas of what freedom means to humans, and whether it is worth defending. Gray’s critique of the erosion of freedoms in rich countries is penetrating, but he also offers food for thought for those involved in development. Are visions of ‘making the world a better place’ helpful in motivating us to do our work, or do they ultimately do more harm than good?

I think of John Gray as my ‘bad angel of development’. You know the old cartoons, when a character isn’t sure what to do and has a good self telling him to do one thing and a bad self telling him to do another. John Gray, who’s described as “the most important living philosopher” or as “the world’s pre-eminent prophet of doom”, has made it his life’s work to take down ideas of progress and development. In my less confident moments his arguments seem pretty persuasive, but thankfully, there are several ‘good angels’ to help on the other side (Amartya Sen and Chinua Achebe are two of the best).

Donald Duck good and bad angels
John Gray’s the one on the right…

Gray has made so many powerful arguments against social and moral ‘progress’ that it’s surprising that he’s never taken on the modern international development business as such. He contents himself with attacking the intellectual forefathers of ideas of progress, people like Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825), Auguste Comte (1798-1857) and Karl Marx (1818-1833). He also attempts to show how many of the greatest evils of modern history – from the Holocaust and Mao’s Great Leap Forward to the invasion of Iraq in the name of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ in 2003 – were animated by fantasies of improving humanity. Gray’s central idea is that humans’ misguided faith in our ability to make the world a better place has generally tended to make it worse.

After Gray’s previous tirades against progress such as Straw Dogs (2002) and Black Mass (2007), this latest offering is billed as ‘A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom’. Similar to Gray’s other books, it’s short and mostly readable, but is something of a collection of fragments, with Gray’s thoughts presented in reaction to those of other writers and artists (Andrei Tarkovsky, Philip K. Dick and Giacomo Leopardi are a few of the better known ones). Sometimes it feels as if the ostensible subject of the book – human freedom – is left aside as Gray goes off on various tangents. But flashes of brilliant insight still illuminate the book and make it a worthwhile read.

I had come to the book after seeing a review by Gray of Fukuyama’s Political Order and Political Decay, which finished with the suggestion that large sections of humanity may not much care whether they are governed democratically. So I was hoping to get Gray’s views on political freedoms and democracy – when people value them and when they don’t. But this is not the main subject of the book. Gray’s main beef is with those who believe that knowledge and science will somehow ‘free’ humans from some of the most basic problems of human life, such as war, poverty or even nature itself (he has particularly trenchant criticism for futurists like Ray Kurzweil who see technology as enabling humans to ‘transcend biology’). For Gray, technological progress is real, but moral, social and political progress are fictions. History taken as a whole does not have a meaning or a purpose; as a species, we are not ‘moving forward’ towards political freedom or any other kind of freedom. In fact, freedoms are being eroded in many richer countries at the moment with CCTV at every street corner, restrictions on the age old right of habeas corpus, and the re-introduction of torture “as an essential weapon in the struggle for human rights”.

Gray takes the discussion further, asking deep questions about the value people put on freedoms. One obvious point is that those in poorer countries may value “food to eat and a place to live” more highly than political freedom. More challenging is the idea that, even in rich countries, people may be prepared to tolerate restrictions on freedom in a climate of fear and intolerance. Humans in western countries see themselves as living in a protected environment, becoming ever more fearful of the dangerous world outside that they see on their iPhones and tablets. Gray questions whether people even want to be ‘free’ from this CCTV-protected, media-filtered bubble. Rather like the happily slumbering humans in The Matrix (not referenced by Gray), they may prefer to submit voluntarily to restrictions on their freedom rather than being let out into the frightening ‘real world’.

There’s a lot of discussion in the book about ‘civilization’. This is always a word that has made me somewhat uncomfortable, due to its uses in the colonial period to distinguish ‘civilised’ Europe from ‘barbaric’ tribal societies, especially in Africa. ‘Civilization’ has often been used in the past to mean a kind of fudge of technological progress with political sophistication, but Gray use the word in quite a different way. His starting point is that “Civilization and barbarism are not different kinds of society. They are found – intertwined – whenever human beings come together.” This is an idea which most literature would support, not to mention twentieth century history, and it’s one I wholeheartedly agree with. Gray goes on to suggest that “before it means anything else, civilization implies restraint in the use of force” and that the only meaningful kind of freedom is “mutual non-interference” to “protect human beings from each other”. I’m not sure that this is really the be-all and end-all of freedom, but the reminder that basic freedoms, such as freedom from torture or from arbitrary detention, may be being eroded in the name of protecting ‘the free’ (increasingly defined as a particular geographical or racial group of people) is highly timely.

In the end Gray concludes that the only freedom we can hope for in today’s world is an inward one. In this, he’s true to form as my ‘bad angel’ – for him, it’s better to abandon visions of making the world a better place rather than attempt to modify them. The closest Gray comes to condoning any idea of fighting to protect freedom is in a paraphrase of Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor who was also a stoic philosopher: Aurelius, he says, argues that “civilization must be resolutely defended against barbarism without any hope that civilization can finally prevail.” This, bleak message though it is, seems to me to encapsulate a philosophical position those involved in ‘development’ might adopt. From the point of view of the universe, it’s true, nothing matters. And from the point of view of the history of the planet, civilisations will rise and fall, and humans, like dinosaurs, will one day become extinct. But in the meantime it still matters if people are tortured, enslaved, locked up indefinitely without trial, or killed in mass numbers – in rich or poor countries. The question, then, becomes whether we can motivate ourselves to fight these short term battles without some kind of vision (even a false one) of ‘making the world a better place.’ For my part, I’m not sure we can.


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