In the past, it was mainly avowed reactionaries who raged against cultural decline. Evelyn Waugh hated democracy and despised the modern world, but the belief that we are living in a time in which standards of thought and behaviour are being casually cast aside is far from being the prerogative of the right. In recent years, the cry of gloom and doom has been taken up by sections of the old left. The collapse of communism and the rise of fundamentalism have shattered the faith that history is on the side of the bien-pensants. It is not surprising, then, that some apostles of progress have been plunged into a moral panic.
The shift is sharpest in the United States, where a number of leading neo-conservatives are former partisans of the radical left. In political terms, the neo-cons have been largely discredited by the unfolding fiasco in Iraq, but they remain a noisy presence in the media, where ageing ex-Trotskyists are forever raging against multiculturalism and postmodernism. Though these culture- warriors bemoan the collapse of intellectual standards, they are far from being Waugh-like reactionaries. They are radicals who see in America the force for universal emancipation that some of them once imagined existed in the Soviet Union.
In Britain, a certain residual scepticism inhibits these ideological turnabouts. As a result, the peculiar neo- conservative mix of militant progressivism and cultural angst has not found a voice.
There is clearly a gap in the market, and in How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World, his "short history of modern delusions", Francis Wheen has filled it. In a rambling and bilious tirade against what he sees as the dominant trends in contemporary culture, Wheen rails against Margaret Thatcher and the Ayatollah Khomeini, the Reverend Jerry Fallwell and Professor Noam Chomsky, Milton Friedman and the New Age guru Deepak Chopra. What do these ill-assorted hate-figures have in common? You may well ask, but Wheen is in no doubt: they are all symptoms of a revolt against the Enlightenment that began in 1979.
For it was in that fateful year that the Ayatollah and Mrs Thatcher came to power. From then on it was downhill all the way. Astrologers and postmodernists, radical Islamists and touchy-feely pop psychologists are all targets of Wheen's spleen. He is aghast at the way the world is going and seems at a loss to understand it. As he flays out furiously against virtually every aspect of the current intellectual scene, one is irresistibly reminded of Victor Meldrew's plaintive cry in One Foot in the Grave: "I don't believe it!"
Wheen's version of the history of ideas has a tabloid quality, and so does his account of late 20th-century politics. There is a great deal that is still debatable about Mrs Thatcher, but of one thing we can be sure: she was never an enemy of the Enlightenment. She may have begun as a Tory, but by the end of the Eighties she had come under the influence of ultra-rationalist ideologues such as Milton Friedman and believed that a single economic system was best for all humanity.
Anyone who stood in the way of the free market had to be ruthlessly shoved aside. Mrs Thatcher's indifference to the casualties of unfettered capitalism derived from an ideology that was as rigid and dogmatic as Marxism has ever been - and as deeply rooted in Enlightenment ideals of progress.
The truth is the Enlightenment always had a distinctly dark side. We talk loosely of the liberal Enlightenment, but many Enlightenment thinkers rejected liberal values and quite a few were confirmed racists. Wheen berates the Frankfurt School thinkers, Max Horkheimer and Theodore Adorno, for suggesting that Enlightenment rationalism led to 20th-century totalitarianism. But it is a fact that the largest mass murders of the past century were committed by regimes devoted to Enlightenment ideals.
The Soviet Union did not emerge from a Russian monastery, nor Mao's China from a Taoist hermitage. In their different ways, each was a genuine attempt to realise Marx's Enlightenment vision. Even the Nazis - who were responsible for the worst genocide in history - were not as hostile to Enlightenment thinking as is popularly believed. It is true that they loathed its more liberal aspects, but their most terrible crimes were justified by the ideology of "scientific racism". That body of ideas goes straight back to Enlightenment thinkers such as Arthur de Gobineau, Auguste Comte and Cesare Lombroso.
Wheen has a blind spot for this side of the Enlightenment, and this bias - along with a lack of knowledge of the subject - leads him into some howlers. He writes that Nietzsche was "Hitler's favourite philosopher, but he was not a philosopher of Enlightenment: he belonged to the Romantic tradition, a reaction against demythologising rationalism". He goes on to argue that "Jean-Jacques Rousseau, though often bracketed with other thinkers of the Enlightenment because of his progressive politics, may also be regarded as the first Romantic because of his exaltation of feeling over reason."
Yet Nietzsche loathed Rousseau precisely because he exalted feeling over reason in this way, and was an intense admirer of Voltaire. To think of Nietzsche as a Romantic is at best a crude oversimplification. To represent him as an anti-Enlightenment thinker is simply wrong.
As this example shows, Wheen hardly measures up to the standards of intellectual rigour he defends so severely. Despite his scorn for the culture of feeling that has emerged in Britain of late, this is an intensely emotional book: a personal confession rather than a coherent argument. Only someone badly rattled could write that postmodernists threaten to "consign us all to a life in darkness", as he claims in the book's mawkishly gloomy closing lines.
No doubt postmodernism is often silly and at times harmful, but I have yet to hear of a regime that invokes the works of Derrida to justify mass murder. It shows a lack of proportion to write of an ephemeral academic fad as if it were a threat comparable to the totalitarian movements of the last century. In doing so, Wheen tells us more about his own fevered state of mind than about anything else.
In the end, How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World is a book of nostalgia. Baffled and unnerved by a world in which his judgements lack authority and his hopes are mocked, Wheen has produced a plangent lament for the days when bien-pensant thinkers were figures of some importance, cultural authorities to whom the rest of society deferred. One suspects that few of his readers will share his angst. Still, even at his silliest he is never dull. Who can fail to be entertained by the spectacle of an ardent believer in progress raging that the world is going to the dogs? This may be the political theory of Victor Meldrew, but in its own way it adds something to the gaiety of nations.
John Gray, professor of modern European thought at the London School of Economics, is the author of 'Straw Dogs: thoughts on humans and other animals' (Granta)Reuse content