John Gray’s Critique of Liberalism and the Entrance of Utopia in Mainstream Politics


Jogn Gray, Black Mass. Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia
Penguin Books, 2008, 342 pp.

John Gray is an English political philosopher, who held courses with the London School of Economics, Harvard University, Oxford University and University of Essex.

Black Mass reads almost like a political thriller that totalizes an entirely historical experience only to expose at the end a series of wrong doings and wrong doers that by deceit, alienation from the truth, manipulation and misplaced interest, manage to prove one of John Gray’s beliefs in a type of future for humanity that represents nothing but a return to the past. One of the quotes that he introduces at the beginning of this book from Cioran’s History and Utopia, not only sets the pessimistic tone of the narrative but also turns the reader face front to one of the central preoccupations of his political thought, what one might call „the fall in utopia” and the paths man has taken to this fall. Much of Gray’s earlier work, which gathered equal quantities of praise and criticism, represents a critique of liberalism as practiced in the last two decades, and which in Gray’s opinion is holding the marks of plans for world improvement, marks of re-enchantment, imposing an image of itself as „the ideal of a rational consensus on the best way of life”1. In his Two Faces of Liberalism, Gray argues that what stands in front of us at the moment is a task of shaping liberal toleration, which has its origin in a search for modus vivendi that goes back to the sixteenth century, and which must be fit to a plural world. Although he sees the ideal of toleration as indispensable he nonetheless argues for a critical treatment of it that goes as far as abandonment due to what he acknowledges as the presence of „two incompatible philosophies” which the ideal has inherited:

„Viewed from one side, liberal toleration is the ideal of a rational consensus on the best way of life. From the other, it is the belief that human beings can flourish in many ways of life ...In the former view, liberal institutions are seen as applications of universal principles. In the latter they are means to peaceful co-existence. In the first liberalism is a prescription for a universal regime. In the second, it is a project of co-existence that can be pursued in many regimes ...if liberalism has a future, it is in giving up the search for a rational consensus on the best way of life”2

This „de-masking” of liberalism that Gray attempts in Black Mass is done by making a very long and variously informed demonstration on how rigid ideologies and utopian thinking can accommodate themselves under the umbrella of a current of thought that always thought of itself as being at shelter from what Gray likes to call „cognitive dissonance”, that is a losing of touch with reality. What makes this accommodation possible and actually facilitates it takes the reader to what probably constitutes Gray’s preoccupation with the idea of progress and the manners in which it has altered human thought and behavior in its various guises throughout history. Taking this as a read wire that goes through the entire book it is more easily to follow an argument that starts in pre-Christian Europe and ends in the desserts of Iraq where in Gray’s opinion liberalism can be found dead and buried. The thesis what Gray’s book is stated at the begging in an all-encompassing sentence:

„Modern politics is a chapter in the history of religion. The greatest of the revolutionary upheavels that have shaped so much of the history of the past two centuries were episodes in the history of faith – moments in the long dissolution of Christianity and the rise of modern political religion. The world in which we find ourselves at the start of the new millennium is littered with the debris of utopian projects, which though they were framed in secular terms that denied the truth of religion were in fact vehicles for religious myths.”3

The narrative of progress with which Gray confronts the reader is nothing more in his opinion than a remnant of Christian faith and the first two chapters of the book make the demonstration of how the idealization of the End Time has stood as culmination for various stories of human advancement. These different re-interpretations of the End-Times, from the teachings of Jesus, to medieval millenarian sects, to the more secular versions in which the task of change and the bringing of a new age is put upon the people, all present in Gray’s view a positive understanding of the apocalyptic belief. In this context the concept of history has within it a dynamic which is specific to Christianity, the story of the beginning and of the end bringing with a belief that „history must be understood not in terms of the causes of events but in terms of its purposes, which is the salvation of humanity.” In the theories of progress that came with Enlightenment Gray sees the modern heritage of this approach to history and he recognizes in them the dynamic character of history which is viewed as a movement to some sort of universal goal. In Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions, Gray makes clear that for him most of the thinkers of Enlightenment were actually „neo-Christians, missionaries of a new gospel more fantastical than anything in the creed they imagined they had abandoned. Their belief in progress was only the Christian doctrine of providence emptied of transcendence and mystery”.4 The mutation into the Enlightenment of the idea that the human is inherently a progressive species finds its echoes further on into the 19th century with the belief that humanity is only God’s helper and in this context, Gray argues, the advancement of scientific knowledge was welcomed as a means of realizing the divine plan. But Gray remains a skeptic when it comes to the uses of knowledge in human affairs and especially when it comes to the advancement of the idea of progress. For him, the modern idea that human progress can come about through knowledge is a terrible error, and the error does not lie in thinking that human life is opened to improvement, but in „… imagining that improvement can ever be cumulative. Unlike science, ethics and politics are not activities in which what is learnt in one generation can be passed on to an indefinite number of future generations. Like the arts, they are practical skills and they are easily lost”5.

Moving his analysis to contemporary politics Gray identifies in the militant faith in progress which he sees in the Right a sign of its abandonment of the philosophy of imperfection which the conservatives have embraced for so long. The anti-utopian thinking which the conservatives endorsed by believing that the flaws of human nature could not be overcome is no longer present in their politics. For the next two chapters of the book Gray argues how in a period of 30 years, starting with the neoliberal policies of Margaret Thatcher, continuing with Blair’s support for the US and ending with the neoconservative militant pursuit of progress in the desserts of Iraq, utopic thinking has re-entered politics by a strong belief and a growing promise that the advancement of free market can bring about prosperity and change. The rational consensus on the best way of life which Gray sees as being violently forced in the Arab world carries with it the same marks of eschatological faith which could be identified in other historical periods. George Bush’s religious informed politics, Gray argues, presented evidence of a type of moral absolutism that since Augustine, the mainstream of Christian thought has rejected. The Kingdome of heaven is not of this earth and no human institution can claim to embody good. But the view of the world that came to power with Bush brought, in his own words, a clear responsibility to history „to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.” What Gray sees as the apocalyptic imagery of the Bush administration can be seen not only in the presidential speeches, but also in the speeches and remarks of the army officers. Lieutenant General William Boykin declared that „the enemy is a spiritual enemy; he’s called the principality of darkness. The enemy is a guy called Satan.”6 But this vision of the world as it presented itself during Bush’s administration, Gray argues, was not only talked about but was also acted upon in terror as a means for social engineering. The failure of the democratic project in Iraq reminds us of Hirschman’s perversity thesis, considering that in the Iraq case a less bold attempt at social engineering than the Soviet one has been attempted.

This entrance of utopia in mainstream politics, as Gray sees it, is done by the progressive idea that humanity is moving towards adopting the same values and institutions. During history variations of this convergence could be noticed in Marx’s communism, in Herbert Spencer’s or Hayek’s free market, in Compte’s universal technocracy, and most recently in Fukuyama’s global democratic capitalism. In Gray’s opinion, to combat this myth of humanity as moving in the same imposed upon direction, politician ought to take the cold bath of realism. His argument becomes is a bit blurry, as some of the authors he cites while building his arguments on the necessity of realism in politics and who he sees as giving „canonical statements of Realist position” are persons of deep religiosity, like Reinhold Niebuhr foe example. Perhaps it is in his intention to indicate that a committed opposition to utopian thinking has been of religious source.

Read outside the idea of progress, Gray’s book can be discovered as resourceful in various other points of discussion that come about with the narrative. In this direction Gray brings about a very interesting set of information regarding the attitude to truth starting with the Cold War and ending with the war in Iraq within the neocon policy network and the mistrust of empirical research in the interpretation of information inside the American Office of Special Operations.


GRAY, John, Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions, London: Granta Books, 2004
GRAY, John, Two Faces of Liberalism, Polity


Mădălina Luciana Chițac
[The University of Bucharest]


1 GRAY, John, Two Faces of Liberalism, Polity, pp.1
2 GRAY, John, Two Faces of Liberalism, Polity, pp.1-2
3 GRAY, John, Black Mass. Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, Penguin Books, 2008, pp. 1
4 GRAY, John, Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions, London: Granta Books, 2004, pp.2
5 GRAY, John, Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions, London: Granta Books, 2004, pp.3-4
6 GRAY, John, Black Mass. Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, Penguin Books, 2008, pp. 159



MĂDĂLINA LUCIANA CHIȚAC – Doctorand, Universitatea din București..




Sfera Politicii