JOHN GRAY: Post-American Age



“The global financial crisis will see the US falter in the same way the Soviet Union did when the Berlin Wall came down. The era of American dominance is over,” says JOHN GRAY. The prominent British philosopher and historian sits down with Hans Ulrich Obrist to discuss the cult of belief, the death of utopia, and the enduring legacy of the last superpower. The photographer SIMON NORFOLK captures the military sublime in his his series “Full Spectrum Dominance,” on American rocket and missile launches, the instruments of power in action.

HANS ULRICH OBRIST: I was interviewing Damien Hirst the other day and quoted Gerhard Richter: “We cannot live without belief.” Damien Hirst agreed, saying, “My belief in art is a completely religious one. We’re all trying to find a pathway through the darkness, and we need a bit of science and a bit of religion, but it’s impossible to live without belief.”

JOHN GRAY: Well, I disagree with that. Maybe it’s just the word. I don’t think religion is a part of belief. I think beliefs are the most transient features of human life, and that there’s nothing shallower or more deceptive. The traditions of Western Christianity were influenced by Greek philosophy, in which true belief is very important. But in most of the world religions, including other traditions of Christianity – Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and original forms of Christianity like Coptic or Gnostic – belief wasn’t all that central. There wasn’t a set of propositions or arguments of “I believe in this,” or “I don’t believe in that.” It was either certain types of practice or certain types of what would now fit under the vague heading of mystical experience. For one thing, belief implies expressibility, that you can tell someone else what you believe in. Whereas it might be a part of religious experience, and in many traditions it is, in that it’s ineffable – you can’t tell yourself what it is that you’re experiencing or have experienced. So I’m not too persuaded by this, but of course it could be that what Damien says and what he means is maybe not a belief. Belief sounds like a proposition, a sentence, or something you can transmit to others. And once you start putting beliefs at the center of things you’re not very far from evangelism, conversion, and crusades. This is why I’m adamantly anti-missionary, and opposed to evangelical atheists who believe you can pacify humanity if you deconvert it from religion. But it’s absurd because it would be exactly the same thing with just a different set of beliefs.

This is what so many artists like in your work.

Well, that thrills me because what I wanted to do with my earlier work was to break out. Francis Bacon said, “If I could say it, I wouldn’t paint it.” And my view is that there are modes of language which involve constantly trying to say something that can’t be said. So it’s a paradox, and that’s why I’m interested in artists. I’m not trying to use language to convey some banal message or to convert anyone to anything like some kind of argument, and certainly not to any belief of mine, or even disbelief. But I’m rather trying to open up perception. Rather than the systematic derangement of the senses, it’s the systematic derangement of the concepts. Because as long as we think in these grids we won’t get very far.

But despite your intentions to uncover and “systematically derange concepts,” there’s also an interest in pointing to something that’s not yet there, especially in your political writings?

I published an essay at the end of February 2003 in the New Statesman, before the Iraq invasion and before Abu Ghraib. The dates are important. I published it as a “Modest Proposal” in the Swift tradition, and there was a photo of me in the magazine with Jonathan Swift’s wig, the title reading: “A Modest Proposal for Preventing Torturers in Liberal Democracies from Being Abused.” In other words, it was an ironical argument to be kind to torturers, and in favor of torture. But despite these extremely explicit, even labored warnings that it was satire – like Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” in which he recommended the poor sell their children to be eaten by the rich – despite these explicit references, quite a few readers didn’t see the satirical intent and ran out to cancel their subscriptions. I thought that was interesting.

What is interesting is the way that you presented it, as if you were anticipating something. Do you think philosophy can anticipate the future?

My view of history is cyclical, though not progressive or regressive. I think there are cycles. And the anticipation of it came from a number of factors. If you look at wars that are similar to Iraq, like Algeria, or Afghanistan when the Soviets were there, torture was used on a vast scale. Why would this be different? That was one reason. The other reason was that I thought that liberals – liberal people, liberal thinkers, liberal opinion formers – were beginning to succumb to a certain kind of moral panic. But what was going to be interesting, and that’s the nature of this satire, is that torture would not only come back, it would be embraced by liberals, and defended by liberals. The support I had for this when I wrote the piece was that Alan Dershowitz (the American left-liberal civil libertarian and constitutional thinker) was already arguing for torture. In other words, it would have been less surprising for someone connected to the Bush Administration, or to the far right of American politics – some grizzled conservative or crazy reactionary – to come forward and say, “I favor torture.” But now there are a lot of people, both liberal and conservative, who say, “Well, it’s a very complicated moral issue.” It wasn’t complicated until recently. They didn’t say that five or ten years ago. I thought torture would be taken up by liberals, and that happened.


And now we’re in 2008. What’s next?

Have you read my article “A Shattering Moment in America’s Fall from Power,” in The Observer the other week:

Our gaze might be on the markets melting down, but the upheaval we are experiencing is more than a financial crisis, how ever large. Here is a historic geopolitical shift, in which the balance of power in the world is being altered irrevocably. The era of American global leadership, reaching back to the WWII, is over.

You can see it in the way America’s dominion has slipped away in its own backyard, with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez taunting and ridiculing the superpower with impunity. Yet the setback of America’s standing at the global level is even more striking. With the nationalization of crucial parts of the financial system, the American free-market creed has self-destructed while countries that retained overall control of markets have been vindicated. In a change as far-reaching in its implications as the fall of the Soviet Union, an entire model of government and the economy has collapsed.

Ever since the end of the Cold War, successive American administrations have lectured other countries on the necessity of sound finance. Indonesia, Thailand, Argentina, and several African states endured severe cuts in spending and deep recessions at the price of aid from the International Monetary Fund, which enforced the American orthodoxy. China in particular was hectored relentlessly on the weakness of its banking system. But China’s success has been based on its consistent contempt for Western advice and it is not Chinese banks that are currently going bust. How symbolic yesterday that Chinese astronauts take a spacewalk while the US Treasury Secretary is on his knees.

Despite incessantly urging other countries to adopt its way of doing business, America has always had one economic policy for itself and another for the rest of the world. Throughout the years in which the US was punishing countries that departed from fiscal prudence, it was borrowing on a colossal scale to finance tax cuts and fund its over-stretched military commitments. Now, with federal finances critically dependent on continuing large inflows of foreign capital, it will be the countries that spurned the American model of capitalism that will shape America’s economic future.

Which version of the bailout of American financial institutions cobbled up by Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke is finally adopted is less important than what the bailout means for America’s position in the world. The populist rant about greedy banks that is being loudly ventilated in Congress is a distraction from the true causes of the crisis. The dire condition of America’s financial markets is the result of American banks operating in a free-for-all environment that these same American legislators created. It is America’s political class that, by embracing the dangerously simplistic ideology of deregulation, has responsibility for the present mess.

In present circumstances, an unprecedented expansion of government is the only means of averting a market catastrophe. The consequence, however, will be that America will be even more starkly dependent on the world’s new rising powers. The federal government is racking up even larger borrowings, which its creditors may rightly fear will never be repaid. It may well be tempted to inflate these debts away in a surge of inflation that would leave foreign investors with hefty losses. In these circumstances, will the governments of countries that buy large quantities of American bonds, China, the Gulf States, and Russia, for example, be ready to continue supporting the dollar’s role as the world’s reserve currency? Or will these countries see this as an opportunity to tilt the balance of economic power further in their favor? Either way, the control of events is no longer in American hands.

The fate of empires is very often sealed by the interaction of war and debt. That was true of the British Empire, whose finances deteriorated from the WWI onwards, and of the Soviet Union. Defeat in Afghanistan and the economic burden of trying to respond to Reagan’s technically flawed but politically extremely effective Star Wars program were vital factors in triggering the Soviet collapse. Despite its insistent exceptionalism, America is no different. The Iraq War and the credit bubble have fatally undermined America’s economic primacy. The US will continue to be the world’s largest economy for a while longer, but it will be the new rising powers that, once the crisis is over, buy up what remains intact in the wreckage of America’s financial system.

“I think beliefs are the most transient features of human life, and that there’s nothing shallower or more deceptive.”

There has been a good deal of talk in recent weeks about imminent economic Armageddon. In fact, this is far from being the end of capitalism. The frantic scrambling that is going on in Washington marks the passing of only one type of capitalism – the peculiar and highly unstable variety that has existed in America over the last twenty years. This experiment in financial laissez-faire has imploded. While the impact of the collapse will be felt everywhere, the market economies that resisted American-style deregulation will best weather the storm. Britain, which has turned itself into a gigantic hedge fund, but of a kind that lacks the ability to profit from a downturn, is likely to be especially badly hit.

The irony of the post-Cold War period is that the fall of communism was followed by the rise of another utopian ideology. In American and Britain, and to a lesser extent other Western countries, a type of market fundamentalism became the guiding philosophy. The collapse of American power that is underway is the predictable upshot. Like the Soviet collapse, it will have large geopolitical repercussions. An enfeebled economy cannot support America’s over-extended military commitments for much longer. Retrenchment is inevitable and it is unlikely to be gradual or well planned.

Meltdowns on the scale we are seeing are not slow-motion events. They are swift and chaotic, with rapidly spreading side effects. Consider Iraq. The success of the surge, which has been achieved by bribing the Sunnis, while acquiescing in ongoing ethnic cleansing, has produced a condition of relative peace in parts of the country. How long will this last, given that America’s current level of expenditure on the war can no longer be sustained?

An American retreat from Iraq will leave Iran the regional victor. How will Saudi Arabia respond? Will military action to forestall Iran acquiring nuclear weapons be less or more likely? China’s rulers have so far been silent during the unfolding crisis. Will America’s weakness embolden them to assert China’s power or will China continue its cautious policy of “peaceful rise”? At present, none of these questions can be answered with any confidence. What is evident is that power is leaking from the US at an accelerating rate. Georgia showed Russia redrawing the geopolitical map, with America an impotent spectator.

Outside the US, most people have long accepted that the development of new economies that goes with globalization will undermine America’s central position in the world. They imagined that this would be a change in America’s comparative standing, taking place incrementally over several decades or generations. Today, that looks an increasingly unrealistic assumption.

Having created the conditions that produced history’s biggest bubble, America’s political leaders appear unable to grasp the magnitude of the dangers the country now faces. Mired in their rancorous culture wars and squabbling among themselves, they seem oblivious to the fact that American global leadership is fast ebbing away. A new world is coming into being almost unnoticed, where America is only one of several great powers, facing an uncertain future it can no longer shape.

But do you see a different direction for America with Barack Obama as the most likely forthcoming president?

Obama will surely mark a significant change in American politics. But he will come to power with a dreadful inheritance. America has been defiled by torture; it is heavily implicated in unwinnable wars in Afghanistan; the American-led finance capitalism of the past twenty years has collapsed, and the baby boomer generation has been ruined by the effect of the stock market crash on American pension funds. Nothing that Obama does can later these events, or prevent a precipitate decline in American power. Also, Obama may be more stuck in conventional American thinking than many people believe. During the election campaign he supported American military incursions into Pakistan — a potentially disastrous line of action. So Obama may be better than the alternative. But the pattern of events to come may be not all that different.

You’re not optimistic?

[laughing] No, no. But I’m not pessimistic either because a pessimist has preconceptions or a theory of regress, or looks back to a golden age, which I definitely don’t do. The Middle Ages was a time of almost incessant warfare, and there’s no point in the past where I would say things were better in general. Things might be better in certain ways and at certain times. Perhaps controversially I would say if you were around during WWI and just after in Central Europe — now mind only very few people perceived this at the time and they were very much condemned for it — you would probably realize that if you belonged to any minority group in Europe you’d be better off under the Habsburg Empire than what came later. Some things are better in some ways in the past, but there’s no golden age. If you think about the end of the 19th century and what was going on, for example in the Belgian Congo … one-fifth of the population, perhaps more, were killed in King Leopold’s genocide.


What about this idea of millennialism and its presence in contemporary culture?

Well, I’ve always had doubts about what secularism is, or what secular thinking is, or whether or not there can be secular thinking with the kind of history that we’ve had in Europe. There are striking similarities between early modern and late medieval and Nazism and communism. There are also connections with the Bush Administration after 9/11, when apocalyptic thinking came straight back. What’s interesting is that the few months before the Iraqi invasion people were saying, “The Americans won’t do it. It’s obviously too disastrous. They just won’t do it. They won’t be mad enough to do it.” But that showed me that they didn’t understand that for a time, perhaps even a small amount of time, a part of the Bush Administration had been sort of captured by a way of thinking that had apocalyptic elements.

You describe the experiments as failures, but you also say that the advanced knowledge of humanity does not become more reasonable. How does this relate to climate change?

For example, right now there’s something known as the “100 Months Campaign,” which gives us 100 months to clean up the environment. To me, it’s inherently implausible that science would give us this number, which obviously has a psychological significance. The planet has arranged to give us another 100 months? Not 98 or 103, but 100? More importantly, when we’ve used up this time, what will they say? No one can predict the future, and I’m certainly no Cassandra, but I’m absolutely certain that in 100 months, nothing will have been done to mitigate climate change. It’s not about the shortness of the time, but more about what the state entities in this world are most concerned with. And they’re concerned with winning wars, grabbing what remains of the world’s natural resources — the oil and the polar caps — vanishing credit, restarting the economy and growth. About a week before the Iraq war, maybe two weeks, I talked to an environmental think tank and they asked what could be done to stop the Iraq War. I said “nothing.” All the material was already out there and to think they spent six months sending it out, only to send it back again? All you could do then was think about how to cope with the disasters it will bring. One of them said he couldn’t get up in the morning if that were the case. It’s so childish. If you say that in 100 months nothing will be done – even if there is a big event, even if there is a Katrina-like event, even if it hits L.A. or Amsterdam it won’t provoke …

“By embracing the dangerously simplistic ideology of deregulation, America is responsible for the present mess.”

A great change.

No, it will simply provoke the behaviors that human beings have always exhibited, but with more advanced technological characteristics. I’m very sympathetic to environmental causes, and support them. But there is this sort of incurable unrealism in environmental thinking, which is partly connected to anthropocentrism. To put it simply, environmental thinking is right: climate change is happening, and humans have caused it. But where it’s wrong is that they think humans can stop it.

That’s interesting, because in your book Straw Dogs, you use Schopenhauer to criticize anthropocentrism. The West is very anthropocentric and Schopenhauer is one of the few Western thinkers that is not.

There are very few and Schopenhauer is one of them. He says the same will that is manifest in us is manifest in all the other animals. I’m glad you talked about it, because it’s very interesting in terms of climate change. What happens when you’re in month 99 and still absolutely nothing is done? Would you say we have 100 days? 100 hours? 100 minutes? And what do you do after that? They’ll say we have another 100 months. They’ll have another end.

Can you talk about our moment right now as post-apocalyptic?

Not yet [laughs]. Or at least not fully. One reason is that the political form of apocalyptic thinking has been utopianism, and something I analyze is how the utopianism that the far right or far left created became centrist, even liberal. It’s interesting how utopian modes of thinking, or utopian projects, which were expressed by Tony Blair and others, became post-ideological and pragmatic. With Iraq there’s been a big setback to the large utopian project and even if there would be large wars in Iran or Pakistan they will creep up on us by a series of bad decisions — it won’t be launched necessarily as part of a new world order. I say we’re not in the post-apocalyptic age because there’s been a utopian way of thinking without the readiness to launch large projects. People wonder how we can eradicate obesity, or drug use, or terrorism, and the answer is we can’t. But that’s sort of unwelcome. In order to be really post-apocalyptic one would have to embrace the idea of the intractability of human affairs, and accept that the most serious human problems are never fully soluble, and I don’t think that’s been embraced at all. People always criticized neo-cons and extremists, but the most unreal view of all comes from cautious-minded liberals who work inch-by-inch towards slow improvement. We’re not like that. Even the last ten or twenty years have been formed from a series of discontinuous jumps and transformations. The return of torture is one example. The Soviet collapse is another. The sudden collapse of American financial capitalism is yet another. What will come next? I don’t know, but it wouldn’t surprise me if over the next ten or twenty years, America will seriously and radically shrink in terms of world power. This is not going to be the American century like the last century was. And I’m not saying this because I’m a European, because it’s not going to be the European century either.

It’s going East with a seismic shift.

Do you know who I think first said it clearly? Paul Valéry.

What did he say?

He asked, in “Crisis of the Mind”: “Will Europe become what it is in reality — a little promontory on the continent of Asia?” This was 1919. He also said, “The secret dream of Europe is to be ruled by an American commission,” which has evidently been the case since WWII.

I’d also like to talk about the influence of the philosopher and historian Isaiah Berlin in your writing.

He did have a big influence on me. There’s a tendency in liberal thought to harmonize conflicts. He of course believed that in politics you should compromise a lot. Obviously there are some things too important to lose, or at least to lose without fighting for. But what he was interested in was the way in which central values, including liberal values, conflict with each other. It’s not just anti-utopian, because there are lots of anti-utopians, especially in the postwar period. Isaiah Berlin also had insight into the endemic character of conflict in liberal societies as well as in every human being. And one of his favorite writers was Alexander Herzen, who was totally free of teleology. Nothing’s going anywhere. And this scriptless approach to history came long before postmodernism.

So you follow in this tradition of not instrumentalizing the reader?

Exactly. I’m not trying to provide an agenda, but more trying to disarrange the thoughts in certain ways and leave it to the reader to do what they will with that. They might do nothing. They might hate it. They might reject it. They might say that it’s nihilism. That’s up to them – I don’t mind. But you can’t avoid narrative in many cases. Telling a story was a big part of Black Mass, though I’m not just trying to tell people that it’s terrible that Iraq happened, which it is. It’s more a presentation of the different ways of telling stories, which trigger different patterns of thought in the reader, which they can pursue as they wish.

John Gray’s book Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia was recently published.

  • Photography: SIMON NORFOLK