Jan 10, 2008

Book Review: Black Mass

Over Christmas, I managed to get my hands on a brand-spanking new copy of John Gray's Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religions and the Death of Utopia. Thinking this was perfect reading for the holiday season, I prompty bought it (and got a recommendation from the the guy at the till for Straw Dogs, also by him) and proceeded to give it a read.

I have to say, I'm not too surprised of the content of the book. A lot of people apparently are, but the simple fact is our current political discourse in the Western world is highly warped, with a focus on internal state politics, instead of international political theory. In International Relations, however, we do not have a left/right or liberal/conservative distinction, which, when taken to its extremes, as in the USA political discourse, ends up branding centrist and liberal-right parties as "left-wing", or the NeoConservatives as actual Conservatives, when they borrow heavily from liberal and Communist thought.

Such inconsistencies don't exist. Instead, we have Realism, Liberalism, Marxism and Constructivism. There are also basic offshoots of these, such as NeoRealism, Postmodernism, Idealism, Cosmpolitanism etc but the above are the 4 main theories one will run into on most University campuses and in the majority of the text books dealing with the subjects.

There are no hard and fast rules tying the theories to internal politics either. One of the greatest Realists of this century, Hans Morgenthau, protested so heavily against the Vietnam war he was spied on by the US government, while Nixon and Kissinger, two other Realists, were in charge of the country's foreign policy. You have Marxists who support economic colonialism, and liberals who favour war to open international markets. I suspect the reason for this is that, aside from times of war, foreign policy is not an area usually high on voters priorities, and thus has escaped media and political corruption, for the most part.

Either way, Gray's thesis is similar to anyone who has been following trends in international political theory over the past couple of years. Gray has returned to Classical Realism in order to critique "ideological crusaders" and the fanatics who threaten the world. He goes one step further than most commentators however (such as Robert Kaplan) in blaming both residual millennarian thought within current political theory, and the death of religion as a means of rational enquiry into metaphysical and philosophical speculation. He draws quite a distinction between the Scholastic scepticism of an Aquinas and the unshaking faith of Von Hayek, as a perfect example of this.

Gray convincingly explains how Christian millennarian teleology was inherent in Enlightenment era thinking about human perfectibility and set a terrible precedent for modern theories. Children of Enlightenment thought and those who opposed it while accepting many of its basic assumptions (the Counter-Enlightenment) eventually resulted in the terrible creation of Bolshevism and Nazism in the 20th century. In particular he does an excellent job with explaining the millennarian content of Communist Russian thought, dispelling with ease the racist/apologist "Oriental Despotism" theory of why Communism there was so violent.

He then turns to more modern theories. Being English, he manages to catch the subtelties of British politics far more than many Americans, and aptly starts with Thatcher and the death of traditional Conservativism. The birth of Neo-Liberalism was a death blow for most traditional conservatives over the world. Fully embracing the free market and the revolutionary, chaotic power of the market to overturn traditional relationships, family structures and ways of life, "Conservatives" who bought into the solution of the Free Market became the new revolutionaries.

And so millennarian thought shifted from the syncretic and left wing movements to the right. He then charts the failure of NeoLiberalism and how it morphed into the more "honest" NeoConservativism, which at least accepted that the Market required a violent actor to sometimes ovecome barriers to its operations.

And then, the book's focus shifts. Its understandable, when you understand Gray's own political background, but about half the book becomes devoted to the political opinions of Tony Blair and the American NeoConservative right and how we can see this sort of thinking driving the invasion of Iraq. Much of the book is devoted to this, which is kind of a shame, as I was hoping he would delve more into the philosophical contradictions of the NeoCons some more. He does, interestingly, make a case for Tony Blair being the first British NeoCon, an excellent and accurate description of his deeply held views. A crypto-NeoCon, keeping the public face of a Neo-Liberal.

Gray ends the book by making the case for Realist thought in the modern world. Much of it is well known to anyone who has taken the time to read the above links, so I wont delve into it in any real depth. Suffice to say, while Realism is certainly an attractive option in the face of ideological crusaders, we have to remember that the current political climate arose as a reaction to Realism. We increasingly see the role of state as that of a moral body (rightly or wrongly, I share Realist scepticism on this, but it is the perception) and do feel moral outrage at the wrongs of the world. A return to Realist thinking would look very much like the early days of the Cold War, where it dominated the US foreign policy establishment. And without the checks on US action by the Soviet Union now being present, would the world really look that much different than it already does?

Realism places stability as its ultimate goal, as its own "Holy Grail". The fear of destablization will eventually resolve itself into military interventionism, which will, in the current military/political evolution of the planet, most likely only increase the scope of the conflict. In trying to create a balance of power, where no state can even think it has the advantage to engage in international political rearragenment of the current system, the USA as global hegemon, would end up supporting a balance of terror. One which may spill over in the presence of irrational agents, of which the world has a large supply.

In conclusion, the critique of this book is brilliant, and far more developed than many others like it. However, the solution it provides is weak, and chosen out of lack of current options instead of for any defensible reason. Realism has been tried in the past, and it was not as successful a model as its proponents would like people to think. New thinking is needed on the topic of international relations theory, desperately, but this book does not provide it, despite its formidable intellectual arguments against the current state of affairs.

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