Saturday, May 10, 2008

Gray and Fukuyama

Today’s The Australian has a feature on British philosopher John Gray who arrives for the Sydney Writers Festival in a week’s time. Gray is not to be confused with Dr John Gray who writes about men and women as if they come from different planets, neither of which support life. The Sydney-bound Gray has also been accused of not supporting life. His straight talking and profoundly original thinking in books such as “Straw Dogs” has seen him labelled erroneously as a misanthrope. But the reason Gray doesn’t like big ideas because they lead to “big casualties”. Gray is a post-anthropist, recording likely future extinction with scientific insensitivity. He will be in Sydney to promote his new book Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia in four events at the festival between May 19-25.

One of John Gray’s most vehement critics is Francis Fukuyama, still best known for his 1992 work “The End of History and The Last Man”. The book’s elegiac title alone should have endeared Fukuyama to Gray. But Gray had no time for Fukuyama’s theory that the end of the Cold War marked a total victory for the idea of liberal democracy.

Both men have their political contradictions. Gray has in his time supported the Tories, then New Labour and now wishes a plague on both their houses. After establishing his reputation, Fukuyama joined the powerful People for New American Century (PNAC) in the late 1990s. PNAC backed the winning horse (after a protest) in the 2000 election and most of the key positions in the Bush Administration were filled by PNAC members. Behind the scenes, Fukuyama and PNAC were key advocates of linking Iraq to 9/11. Inexplicably, Fukuyama changed course in 2002 and began distancing himself from the neo-cons. By 2006 he was saying that history will not judge the Iraq War or “the ideas animating it” kindly.

Back in 1995, Gray interviewed Fukuyama for the then new “Prospect” magazine. Fukuyama had just released his follow up to The End of History called “Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity”. In that book Fukuyama explored the social factors that created prosperity and how they could be harnessed. Gray called him a “theorist of global economic rivalry and, perhaps, of American decline.” The second-generation Japanese immigrant bristled at the latter prospect.

In his 1999 work “The Great Disruption”, Fukuyama described Gray as an inheritor of the “Burkean critique of the Enlightenment.” Fukuyama described Gray as the logical follower of the 18th century Irish statesman and orator Edmund Burke. Burke was the MP for Bristol at the time of the French Revolution. He was a Whig but as Tory as they come. Burke excoriated the French Revolution as a human disaster. The Revolution, like the Enlightenment that caused it, sought to replace traditional rules with rational ones.

Fukuyama saw these qualities in Gray. Fukuyama said Gray’s reaction to the fall of the Berlin Wall (a pivotal event in his own End of History schema) was that it laid bare the internal contradictions of the Enlightenment. Gray’s 1995 book “Enlightenment’s Wake” said the victory of capitalism in Berlin led to higher crime rates and social disorder in the US. The self-interest of capitalism reinforces the process by placing self-interest ahead of moral obligation and a tragedy of the commons occurs. Society survives only on a limited human capital that is running out and not being replenished.

Himself veering further to the right as the 1990s wore on, Fukuyama disagreed with the assumption that human capital could not replenished. Fukuyama pointed out that both crimes against violence and property were on the wane since 1992, falling dramatically especially in the big cities of New York, Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles. In New York, crime levels are now at the levels they were at before they exploded in the 1960s. Fukuyama calls the period of the 1960s to the 1990s the “Great Disruption” when society underwent the greatest structural change. He says a new social order is now emerging from the chaos because we are all biologically hardwired to forge bonds.

Gray believes that Fukuyama’s ideas proved irresistible to the right because they painted a seductive picture of capitalism as an unstoppable force of nature. Gray proved better at predicting the course of history than Fukuyama when he said it would quickly resume in the shape of ethnic, religious and resource wars. He knew that a non-ideological approach would be needed to deal with the conflicts to follow the victory of liberal democracy. But in Gray's eyes the Enlightenment was still culprit. He sees Al Qaeda as an inheritor of the same post-Enlightenment revolutionary tradition as communism, Nazism and neo-conservatism. Al Qaeda can mean "the base" but can also mean "the database". Knowledge is indeed power in Gray's book.

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