John Gray: Forget everything you know

John Gray is a philosopher. But don't imagine that he's a dusty academic engaged in arcane research. His project is far simpler, and perhaps more important. He wants to tear down many of the concepts that we hold dear. Will Self meets him and salutes a man for our times

Tuesday 03 September 2002 00:00 BST

This will, I hope, prove an unusual article for you to read, quite as much as it's been for me to research and write. In it I hope to introduce you to a remarkable new work of philosophy, one that comes blazoned with pre-publication plaudits from thinkers as various as the novelist J G Ballard, the scientist James Lovelock and the theologian Don Cupitt. Straw Dogs, by John Gray, is that rarest of things, a contemporary work of philosophy devoid of jargon, wholly accessible, and profoundly relevant to the rapidly evolving world we live in. Were it less elegantly written and a lot more populist, a better title for it might be: "How to Contemplate the Inevitable Destruction of the Majority of Humanity with Total Equanimity".

The straw dogs' master,Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics, is also distinctly out of kilter with the way the media currently operates. Over a recent lunch at L'Escargot, London's foremost hermaphrodite eatery, I asked Gray about himself and got this reply: "My approach is: my personal life stays private. But let me put it in this general way: there's an Indian writer I very much like called Coomaraswamy, who was asked whether he would ever write an autobiography, and he said, no, because I haven't got the slightest interest in my ego. Now, that sounds an almost implausible attitude nowadays, but it's the one I really take... What I really dislike about Western culture now is that it's confessional, but not only that, every stage of the immemorial phases of human life are written about as if they were a complete surprise...

"I almost think someone should write a book called Dentures. It would be 800 pages long. It would cover before you had them, eventually having them, how you got used to them... I mean come on, give me a break, I hate all writer's disguises. What I'm interested in myself, is not myself but the world. The next five minutes – as J G Ballard says – not the past either. But also, I regard my private life as that. I may not be as unambiguously hostile to capitalism as many people are, but what I don't like about it is the commodification of personal experiences, it turns everyone into actors."

So eloquently put, this injunction was impossible to gainsay. Doubtless, I could have found out something about Gray's private life (we have mutual acquaintances), but what would this have availed me? There was one salient issue about Straw Dogs that I felt might be accounted for autobiographically, but this Gray was able to explain – or possibly explain away. Beyond that it seemed only proper that the thinker's biggest profile to date in the non-academic press be an intellectual rather than a personal one.

The limited biographical information Gray gave me was that he comes from a North-east working-class background and was brought up in South Shields. His parents are dead, but his siblings remain. He described himself as "a beneficiary of the openness of education in the 1960s. A time when people didn't see the system as quite so oppressive, and so, for a bookish child like me, it was a means to become more bookish." This he did moving on a smooth conveyor belt of apparently effortlessly acquired erudition, from undergraduate to graduate studies, then a doctorate, until by 1976 Gray had secured a fellowship at Jesus College, Oxford University. Here he remained for the next 21 years, eventually becoming Professor of Politics. He moved to his current chair in 1998, but still lives with his wife, near Port Meadow in Oxford.

So far so cloistered. But Gray seems always to have regarded academe as an allotment as much as a sacred grove; a verdant patch to be tended, rather than embowered within. In his thirties, Gray moved to the right and became one of the most intellectually stimulating of the political thinkers who helped give form to the amorphous quasi-ideology of Thatcherism. For more than a decade, Gray was associated with the ideas and think tanks of the new right. He worked with American organisations including the Institute for Humane Studies, the Cato Institute and the Liberty Fund, none of which was exactly interested in promoting "freedom" in the way that the British soft-left conceive of it. In Britain during this period he worked with the Institute of Economic Affairs, which, in 1989, published his classical liberal essay, Limited Government: A Positive Agenda.

Gray wrote about Hayek, the doyen of the new-right economists, but he also remained attuned to the history of ideas, publishing two books on the Enlightenment. Perhaps it's too crude to suggest that Gray's initial flight into the bespoke-tailored arms of the Tories was a reaction to his working-class upbringing, but there was a vehemence to his remarks about Old Labour that I detected nowhere else, save for his mockery of the Euro-communists of the 1980s: "A grotesque confection – then still quite pervasive." Of his own partisan alignment, Gray said: "What I liked was Thatcherism's Bolshevik aspect, which was to shake up the whole of Britain quite fundamentally, and if you read what I wrote in those years I think you might agree that in taking the view that I did then – that this was necessary and desirable – I never subscribed to the main delusion of the Thatcherites, which was that you could change everything and everything would remain the same. If what you wanted was a very anarchic, globalised, polyglot, mixed-up society in which most of the structures which had somehow been renewed from the Edwardian period to the Sixties were destroyed, then Thatcherism was what would do the job. Labour never would."

Perhaps it was in this identification of severely countervailing tendencies that Gray began to perceive more fundamental truths about free will. Certainly his own account of his "distance" from Thatcherism is more prosaic: he spent much of the 18 years of Tory rule going back and forth to the States: "The people involved in these experiments on a day-to-day basis can't see the ways in which the environment they're performing them in is changing; they're just too close to it. That always happens, and it has an interesting anti-rationalist consequence, that the great initiators of history never know what it is that they're doing."

This isn't the sort of perspective likely to gain a political thinker a position as the éminence grise of some pontiff or prince. And in the mid-1990s as Britain and the USA were swept up in the great stock market tsunami, so Gray became more and more inclined to take the long view. By the time he came to write False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism, the world-bestriding projects of both the victorious free marketeers and the now defeated Marxists appeared to him to be two sides of the same post-Enlightenment tendency towards utopian millenarianism.

Far from hailing the "end of history" or the abolition of the business cycle, False Dawn pinpointed contradictions in the dominant philosophy of the transatlantic corporate and governing élites that were so obvious as to be almost semantic. Namely that "globalisation" and "free market", far from being aspects of the same thing, were potentially deeply contradictory. According to Gray, historically, the free market was not a product of "minimalist" government, but its exact reverse. The laissez- faire economic regime of late-Victorian and Edwardian England needed big government to put it in place, and thus contained within itself the seeds of its own destruction, and subsequent replacement (post-war) by Keynesianism. The first part of this was – Gray argued – true of Neo-Liberalism, but for the now entirely capitalist economies of the 21st century, once their Great Depression hit, there could be no going back to cosy Social Democracy.

Needless to say, such a pitiless stare into the looming abyss didn't gain Gray many plaudits during the first feel-good months of 1998. As he said ruefully to me: "The confidence was like a cliff, the confidence that what was going on then would go on for ever. There were probably only two or three writers in the world that I knew of – at least in English – who imagined that something like this could really end pretty badly. So that confidence was completely trashed between March and August of that year when the Russian default happened. And suddenly the people from whom everyone else's energy emanates nowadays – the financial people – were hurting, and anxiety crept in, and doubts, and this immediately produced further runs... so every time one of these happens, it [False Dawn] goes into a new edition somewhere else in the world – it's had almost 20 now."

Despite the elegant, red-cloak-and-sword job that False Dawn does on the complacent bulls, Gray himself has found no evidence of a willingness for other countries to heed his warnings about the inapplicability of Anglo-Saxon free-market solutions to the economies of divergent cultures. In the seven years before he wrote the book, Gray went to Argentina on numerous occasions and consulted across the political spectrum, including the Peronists: "They were all very gung-ho about the economic reforms. They said: we had hyperinflation, now we have almost no inflation, it's been taken out of the hands of the politicians. And it was obvious that all you needed was an untoward shift in the relationship of two currencies and they'd be completely ruined. Then I went back last year, and the situation had got dramatically worse but this was still before the crash, and then their mood was depression – or even despair – combined with the belief that the situation would go on for ever."

Of course, memories of what a fixed exchange rate can do to a nation's currency should be particularly fresh in Britain, where the Treasury lost an estimated £15bn before crashing out of the ERM in September 1992. (It'll come as no surprise that George Soros, who mugged the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street on that occasion, should be one of the book's fans.) However, the author was dismissive of the current Chancellor's acumen: "He has a short memory, or no memory at all. Certainly no grasp of history." Gray recalled the Brazilian minister who said that, "Brazil's problems fall into two categories: those that will solve themselves, and those that are insoluble." But he doubted any British politician could exhibit such sangfroid: "Don't forget, people at the top of British * politics are very rarely cynical – the same is true of the USA."

When it comes to European unity, as our snail shells clunked down companionably on to our plates, Gray proved himself just as detached "British entry to the Euro could turn on the fall of a leaf,' he told me 'I've thought all along that it would be decided by default.' While he conceded that Blair might call a referendum and win it, Gray thought the more likely outcome was 'it'll be continuously postponed until the penny drops that it's not going to happen.' In a few, brief sentences he limned in his lack of faith in a federal Europe: 'American version of Europe... Europeans have opted for a post-historical perspective - the Americans haven't... They've instigated a brutal melting pot, whereas the long-settled Europeans never can... There are only two multinational states in the EU, Britain and Spain, both monarchies... The upper limit of democracy in the nation states is still lower than that of the EU itself... ' and so on, until he concluded 'I am attracted to it, but I don't think anything can come of it.'

By now, perhaps, you will have been able to detect Gray's unusual dialectic, which comprises the search for strangely fruitful internal contradictions, the aim being to confirm his own irrationalist's view of human 'progress'. 'There were rationalists who didn't believe in progress - Hume, Hobbes, and I identify with them - but I'm not one of them. Rationalism presupposes that a whole historical milieu which is inherently volatile and precarious will remain in place long enough for some vast project like the European Union to turn out, and it also presupposes that the effects of it when it comes into being will be the ones intended and only those. Well the ideas and consequences are rarely those intended, and never only those. So there will be some subsequent level of historical irony.'

On this basis, Gray told me he confined himself to writing on individual policy topics - rather than making predictions about the whole political scene. He pens a monthly essay for the New Statesman in which he advances his - once again Hobbesian - view, that all that can be said about social policy issues is: How can this be managed in the least damaging way? But while he may avoid colouring in the bigger picture, he has no objections to painting a vast, vaulting fresco on to what he perceives as the very wet plaster of our own contemporary view of the world. This is 'Straw Dogs', which is - depending on which way you look at it - either an accurate portrait of the cold heavens above us, or a most sophisticated example of philosophical trompe l'oeil. The book - subtitled 'Thoughts on Humans and other Animals' - takes its title from the Lao Tzu: 'Heaven and earth are ruthless, and treat the myriad creatures as straw dogs.'

This ruthlessness is precisely what Gray believes in denied - indeed masked - by contemporary Humanism. It is our unwillingness - inability even - to appreciate not simply that we are the kin of the other animals, but that like them we are ultimately powerless over both our individual and collective destinies, which leads to our nonsensical faith in progress. This Gray defines as 'the hope that, in the spiralling ascent of the species, we can somehow preserve ourselves from oblivion.' And oblivion is unquestionably what Gray believes lies in store for many human beings. To me, he reiterated his view that the maximum projected global human population - which forecasters place at around 8.5 billion and estimate will be reached by the middle of this century - can only be sustained 'for a generation or two'.

And unlike such thinkers as Edward O.Wilson (who Gray sees as a patrician heir to Comte, a positivist who understands the human destiny as being the measurer and administrator of all things), he is no environmental meliorist. Gray doesn't believe the destructive genie of technology can be put back in its box by Wilson 'and his pals from the Sierra Club'. Gray doesn't provide a blow-by-blow account of how exactly Gaia will shrug our troublesome species off of her broad back, but shrug he certainly believes she will, and if I read him rightly he also anticipates good going for all the apocalyptic jockeys.

It is this profound belief in the reality of things, sans phrase, that readers will, I believe, find so refreshing about Gray's book. 'Straw Dogs' is not some exercise in arid analysis or semiotic shuffling; it's for any reasonably literate, ordinary reader. I say 'reasonably literate', because despite Gray's own effort to 'write it in a way that would be accessible to the average reader', I think that many years spent in libraries and tutorials have divorced this former 'bookish child' from those who aren't on nodding terms with a significant quadrant of the intellectual firmament, if not the whole galaxy. With its references to thinkers as diverse as Heidegger, William Gibson, James Lovelock, Plato and Wyndham Lewis; with its trawls through Schopenhauer, via Bruce Chatwin, Joseph Conrad, and Guy Debord, this is veritable commonplace book for stoics of the new millennium.

Or it would be, were Gray's arguments not so rigorous, so unflinching. Again and again, as his elegant post mortem dissection of Western thought proceeds, Gray excises the same pathological tissue of lies: Humanism places Man in lieu of God; and while at least deism had the virtue of resting on faith, this new, bogus religion is demonstrably false. In conversation with me, Gray defended his method as 'sculptural', a chipping away at our philosophical heritage to see what might be left at the end; the trouble is, from my perspective all I could see remaining was the sculptor himself (who is, as you will no doubt have realised, a quite jolly, upbeat sort of fellow), and the irregular chunks and shards of shattered ideas.

Gray is very good at his destruct jobs. Here he is on Post-Modernism: 'Just the latest fad in anthropocentrism.'; on atheism: 'Secularism is like chastity, a condition defined by what it denies.'; on environmentalism: 'A high-tech Green utopia, in which a few humans live happily in balance with the rest of life, is scientifically feasible, but it is humanly unimaginable.'; on Buddhism 'This is only another doctrine of salvation, subtler than that of the Christians, but no different from Christianity in its goal of leaving our animal inheritance behind.' As you can see, this is not some work of middle brow, Alain de Bottonesque consolation, philosophy viewed as an antiseptic sticking plaster for the fevered mind. This is the full monte, with isms falling right left and centre, free will savagely downsized and morality revealed as a perennial but threadbare attempt to market white as the new black. Personally I found 'Straw Dogs' a painfully bracing read. I knew the water was in the bucket, and I knew it was that cold, but it still drenched me more effectively than I'd dared to imagine.

When I told Gray that I'd found the book disturbing, he was pleased 'That was what I wanted to do, that was my goal.' He told me that he'd tried to keep himself out of the text - to make it as impersonal as possible. The last thing he was aiming to do was to convert his readers to anything in particular. And yet, such is the uncompromising nature of Gray's view of humanity's future and it's current follies, that I couldn't help wondering about the man himself. In the book he speaks approvingly of one ism - the Tao variety - did this constitute a body of spiritual belief for him? 'I don't believe in belief. I'm not being flippant. If one aims simply to see, as I put it at the end of the book, then beliefs - especially spiritual beliefs - are just an encumbrance. Best to have none, if you can manage it.' Another chilly douche, and one difficult to take when there are children to comfort and instruct. Almost the main reason I'd wanted to meet Gray was to ask him if he had any.

'No, but I'm not sure that my views would be any different if I did. I've reached these views not by reflection on my own circumstances. The fact that you have children won't stop you from acknowledging their truth.' I conceded that this was the case, but that it was difficult to be entirely sanguine about the probable extinction of one's immediate descendants. 'I don't see why,' Gray was forthright 'after all, they have their chance, they have their day in the sun. And how recent is it that people connected having children with their confident belief that future generations would live better than they did? I would say eighteenth century... so we're not hard-wired for that.'

Nor does Gray subscribe for a second to the idea that he's pessimistic 'The notion that on confronting these particulars, we should give up, lie on the floor, implies that we - whatever that is - are responsible for humanity - whatever that is - which is a sort of dilute Christian view. Without diminishing the individual sufferings, what's pessimistic about the notion that this particular species has demonstrated its incapacity? It's only pessimistic if you think that's the site of meaning in the world.'

Certainly the philosopher was not a pessimistic luncheon companion. He consumed his snails and his liver with gusto, he drank two espressos, then he brushed the crumbs from his yellowish corduroy trousers and loped off in the direction of the London Library, leaving me with an impression of twinkling eyes, laughter lines (he whinnies like a donnish Houyhnhnm), and a sensibility genuinely focused on what will happen in the next five minutes - or five years - albeit one steeped in knowledge of the past. I wonder what John Gray will do next, certainly after 'Straw Dogs' it's difficult to see how he can squeeze his way back into any political philosophy that comes in the usual sizes. He told me that he was currently working on a short book about Al Qaeda and 9.11. Certainly the subject cries out for the Gray treatment, and he was vehement about how these terrorists were - far from being throwbacks to some medieval mind set - the very stuff of our frightening and still inchoate modernity.

'Straw Dogs' is part of that modernity as well, it's a simple tool wielded effectively to devastating effect. My hunch is that after reading it you'll find that everything remains exactly the same - but appears very different. And that is disturbing.

'Straw Dogs' by John Gray is published by Granta, £12.99

Gray matter: three extracts from 'Straw Dogs'

Science vs Humanism

Most people today think that they belong to a species that can be master of its destiny. This is faith, not science. We do not speak of a time when whales or gorillas will be masters of their destinies. Why then humans?

We do not need Darwin to see that we belong with other animals. A little observation of our lives soon leads to the same conclusion. Still, since science has today an authority that common experience cannot rival, let us note that Darwin teaches that species are only assemblies of genes, interacting at random with each other and their shifting environments.

Species cannot control their fates. Species do not exist. This applies equally to humans. Yet it is forgotten whenever people talk of "the progress of mankind". They have put their faith in an abstraction that no one would think of taking seriously if it were not formed from cast-off Christian hopes.

If Darwin's discovery had been made in a Taoist or Shinto, Hindu or animist culture it would very likely have become just one more strand in its intertwining mythologies. In these faiths humans and other animals are kin. By contrast, arising among Christians who set humans beyond all other living things, it triggered a bitter controversy that rages on to this day.

In Victorian times, this was a conflict between Christians and unbelievers. Today it is waged between humanists and the few who understand that humans can no more be masters of their destiny than any other animal.

Humanism can mean many things, but for us it means belief in progress. To believe in progress is to believe that, by using the new powers given us by growing scientific knowledge, humans can free themselves from the limits that frame the lives of other animals. This is the hope of nearly everybody nowadays, but it is groundless. For though human knowledge will very likely continue to grow and with it human power, the human animal will stay the same: a highly inventive species that is also one of the most predatory and destructive.

Darwin showed that humans are like other animals; humanists claim they are not. Humanists insist that by using our knowledge we can control our environment and flourish as never before. In affirming this, they renew one of Christianity's most dubious promises -- that salvation is open to all. The humanist belief in progress is only a secular version of this Christian faith.

In the world shown us by Darwin, there is nothing that can be called progress. To anyone reared on humanist hopes this is intolerable. As a result, Darwin's teaching has been stood on its head, and Christianity's cardinal error – that humans are different from all other animals – has been given a new lease on life.


Post-Modernists tell us there is no such thing as nature, only the floating world of our own constructions. All talk of human nature is spurned as dogmatic and reactionary. Let us put these phoney absolutes aside, say the Post-Modernists, and accept that the world is what we make of it.

Post-Modernists parade their relativism as a superior kind of humility – the modest acceptance that we cannot claim to have the truth. In fact, the Post-Modern denial of truth is the worst kind of arrogance. In denying that the natural world exists independently of our beliefs about it, Post-Modernists are implicitly rejecting any limit on human ambitions. By making human beliefs the final arbiter of reality, they are in effect claiming that nothing exists unless it appears in human consciousness.

The idea that there is no such thing as truth may be fashionable, but it is hardly new. Two-and-half-thousand years ago, Protagoras, the first of the Greek sophists, declared: "Man is the measure of all things." He meant human individuals, not the species; but the implication is the same. Humans decide what is real and what is not. Post-Modernism is just the latest fad in anthropocentrism.

At the masked ball

"I should liken Kant to a man at a ball, who all evening has been carrying on a love affair with a masked beauty in the vain hope of making a conquest, when at last she throws off her mask and reveals herself to be his wife." In Schopenhauer's fable the wife masquerading as an unknown beauty was Christianity. Today it is humanism.

What Schopenhauer wrote of Kant is no less true today. As commonly practised, philosophy is the attempt to find good reasons for conventional beliefs. In Kant's time the creed of conventional people was Christian, now it is humanist. Nor are these two faiths so different from one another.

Over the past 200 years, philosophy has shaken off Christian faith. It has not given up Christianity's cardinal error – the belief that humans are radically different from all other animals.

Philosophy has been a masked ball in which a religious image of humankind is renewed in the guise of humanist ideas of progress and enlightenment. Even philosophy's greatest unmaskers have ended up as figures in the masquerade. Removing the masks from our animal faces is a task that has hardly begun.

Other animals are born, seek mates, forage for food and die. That is all. But we humans – we think – are different. We are persons, whose actions are the results of their choices. Other animals pass their lives unawares, but we are conscious. Our image of ourselves is formed from our ingrained belief that consciousness, selfhood and free will are what define us as human beings, and raise us above all other creatures.

In our more detached moments, we admit that this view of ourselves is flawed. Our lives are more like fragmentary dreams than the enactments of conscious selves. We control very little of what we most care about; many of our most fateful decisions are made unbeknownst to ourselves. Yet we insist that mankind can achieve what we cannot: conscious mastery of its existence. This is the creed of those who have given up an irrational belief in God for an irrational faith in mankind.

But what if we give up the empty hopes of Christianity and humanism? Once we switch off the soundtrack – the babble of God and immortality, progress and humanity – what sense can we make of our lives?

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