There are two John Grays. There is the pragmatic realist of vaguely centrist views who I sometimes talk to at parties. Then there is another Gray, who writes apocalyptic books about the follies of modernity, and for whom everything is painted in the bleakest of colours. Alas, much of Gray’s political journalism seems to be written by the latter.
I have not read Gray’s new book Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, sympathetically reviewed by Anthony Dworkin in the new issue of Prospect. Judging by the review, the book contains plenty of Isaiah-Berlinian good sense on utopias, in which “clashes of interest among individuals and social groups, antagonism between and within ideals of the good life, choices among evils—these conflicts, which are endemic in every society, are reduced to insignificance.”
What I have read, however, is an extract from the book, published in the Independent last week, on the failure of Tony Blair. The essay is designed to appeal to the disillusioned Labour supporters who trace back almost all of the failings and disappointments of the past ten years to Blair’s alleged “neoconservatism.” But nowhere does Gray define what he means by neoconservatism. Moreover, he makes some quite astonishing claims about the Blair era—that Blair was only concerned, like Thatcher before him, to “reorganise society around the imperatives of the free market.” Has Gray not noticed that the last ten years has seen a huge increase in public spending and the size of the state, a large-scale redistribution of income, significant increases in tax levels, the introduction of a minimum wage and so on? And, according to Gray, the intervention in Iraq was not a piece of hubristic liberal interventionism gone wrong, but a zealous religious crusade.
Gray’s essay is full of such wild and unsubstantiated judgments. These play precisely to the utopianism of a disengaged left—without Blair, the promised land would have been reached!—a left which tends to swing from frenzied political engagement back to political apathy. It is the politics of leftie rock stars and the like, people who care little for the intractable necessary conflicts of the real world that the unsentimental, realist Gray wants us to focus upon.
So despite what sounds like Gray’s anti-Blair leftism, both the essay and the book (judging by Dworkin’s review) seem to end on a deeply conservative, even cynical, note—there is nothing that politics can achieve. Through…