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Are We ‘Exceptionally Rapacious Primates’?

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Here are two tracts for the times, the first by a political theorist, the second by a historian, which could not differ more substantially in motive, aim, and subject matter; yet the authors tell oddly similar stories. Both ask us to recognize that the commercial democracies of the West are not the repositories of freedom we have long supposed them to be. The authors agree that we are swayed by a mass delusion, and that the name of the delusion is progress. We will swallow any invention, consider and rationalize any injustice, on the pretext of improved convenience and the conquest of our environment. Technological man is mastering nature in the process of destroying it, and widening the disparities of rich and poor while blurring the lines between them. We are made to think better of ourselves all the while, and that is the trouble.

John Gray’s new book, The Soul of the Marionette, offers a survey of mystical, utopian, and theological fantasies covering several centuries, which exhibit (sometimes satirically) the human aspiration to rise above animal nature. Gray takes much of his evidence from the natural sciences and the literature of the ancients and the moderns: subjects remote from his own considerable competence in economics and politics. Concerns that were conspicuous in Gray’s early work—with the individualist ethics of John Stuart Mill, the free-market conservatism of Friedrich Hayek, and the pluralist liberalism of Isaiah Berlin—grew less pronounced in the late 1990s, and both his tone and focus changed decisively after 2001. Gray’s later books amount to a prognosis of the financial, political, and environmental catastrophe of the West and an inquiry into its causes. Two earlier prophecies by Gray, Straw Dogs (2002) and The Silence of Animals (2013), are precursors of The Soul of the Marionette.

In all of these books, he presents his views implicitly, through a neutral recitation of the insights of wisdom-writers. He approaches his authorities with great deference. Among novelists, the touchstones include Joseph Conrad, T.F. Powys, J.G. Ballard, and Philip K. Dick; among philosophers, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and the latter-day Nietzschean E.M. Cioran; among the canonical political theorists, Hobbes. An antitherapeutic version of Freud is also congenial to Gray’s image of man as a fantasy-haunted being that hungers after illusion. For testimony against the uniqueness of human life, he has cited the sociobiologist E.O. Wilson; and for analysis of the totalitarian implications of modern technology, the theorist of “the society of the spectacle” Guy Debord. One could go on with this list. Gray is an unpredictable and omnivorous reader; and to a large extent his recent books comprise an anthology of quotations and paraphrases, augmented by minimal commentary.

Gray has been called an anti-humanist. A characteristic passage of Straw Dogs will show the temper of the prose that could provoke such a description:

Homo sapiens is only one of very many species, and not obviously worth preserving. Later or sooner, it will become extinct. When it is gone the Earth will recover…. The play of life will go on.

The dry wit of this farewell is part of the point. The atoms will not mourn the loss of humanity, and Gray sides with the atoms. At the same time, there is a puzzle about what to live for (so long as we are around) which turns on the ambiguous phrase “the play of life.” This may mean a play of forces such as physicists or political scientists sometimes speak of. Or it may suggest the desirability of treating life as an aesthetic phenomenon—as with Nietzsche’s cheerful embrace of the fact that nature plays while mankind works. Or again, Gray may have in mind a play in the sense of a theatrical performance.

Is life itself a play without an author? It is not clear how we could enjoy the meanings we project on life while knowing that the meanings are only projections. After all, the pleasure of wish fulfillment depends on our not knowing that we manufactured the lock to fit the key we are delighted to find will turn it. But Gray is drawn to the aesthetic idea of nature as pure spectacle. Human beings, he supposes, may be divided simply into those who know they are acting and those who do not. True philosophers belong to the first group. The second encompasses, among others, utopian capitalists and Communists, the fanatics of the religious wars of the seventeenth century and the jihadists of the twenty-first.

In line with this skepticism, Gray in Straw Dogs had quoted Gurdjieff: “Everyone should try to be an actor.” The Soul of the Marionette turns for similar counsel to Heinrich von Kleist’s extraordinary essay on the puppet theater. Written in a high paradoxical mode, this essay propounds the thesis that marionettes perform their dance with a formal delicacy more perfect than any human dancer. They can do it because they are mechanical and free of thought; being thus emancipated from self-consciousness, they prove that submission to determinism may embody the purest freedom. Kleist’s essay, says Gray, “upsets everything modern humankind believes about itself.” This may be so, but Kleist’s paradox is not unique. His essay resembles in many ways Diderot’s “Paradox of Acting.” How is it, asked Diderot, that changes of emotion that are merely feigned, as the actor passes from grave to gay and back, somehow elicit total sympathy from the viewer? Diderot was particularly struck by the asymmetry between actor and audience; in proportion to the depth of the emotion conveyed to the audience is the nullity of emotion felt by the actor. The paradoxical discovery is that the actor has mastered the emotion beforehand and acquired the ability to display it effortlessly. Kleist and Diderot alike suggest that the artist works from the outside in, and that we are most ourselves when we give in to sheer mechanical reflex.

Gray’s summary of the freedom of the marionette may seem to present a nightmare vision of life; and by the end of his book it is plain that he regards it as a symptomatic fantasy of the Enlightenment. But the whole drift of the argument of The Soul of the Marionette goes in the opposite direction: this is an accurate picture of the machine-like creatures that we really are. Human beings, Gray wrote in The Silence of Animals, are in fact “hungry animals, ready to do anything to go on living.” Or as he put it in Straw Dogs:

The destruction of the natural world is not the result of global capitalism, industralisation, “Western civilization” or any flaw in human institutions. It is a consequence of the evolutionary success of an exceptionally rapacious primate.

To accept these facts without demur seems to Gray the mark of a human awareness properly curbed and disenchanted. Paul de Man, in one of his later essays, wrote approvingly of Kleist’s puppet-theater conceit and used it to discredit the Romantic ideals of aesthetic autonomy and the free play of the mind. Gray uses it in a related way to challenge the modern ideals of personal dignity and public reason.

Maybe it would be fairer to say that he seeks to undermine the humanist self-image on which those ideals were founded and the self-satisfaction they feed. Yet the political implications of The Soul of the Marionette are as finally elusive as its contents are miscellaneous. And there is a curious disjunction between the declared motive of the book and its pervading emotion. The message seems to be that freedom is a delusion, and, more distantly, that the marionettes are unequipped to face the planetary catastrophe they have brought on. But after summarizing the relevant facts, Gray declines any show of passion. Even the stoic discipline of apatheia would strike him as going a step too far. “Like the ancient Stoics before him,” he remarked in Straw Dogs, “Spinoza sought relief from inner unrest; but what is so admirable in being ruled by a need for peace of mind?”

So far as one can judge from the minimal avowals of his prophetic books, Gray is driven by a need to pass beyond need—“need” being synonymous here with passion or appetite, and its overcoming identical with the ability to live without submitting to illusions. Progress is the last of our Western illusions and it may be the hardest to kill; but in the service of its euthanasia, long stretches of The Soul of the Marionette enlist against progress the invigorating antidote of Gnostic religious texts and fictional romances. Doubtless Gray would not profess an attachment to Gnosticism, as either a cure or a consolation for the loss of the liberal faith in progress; but he dwells with a certain relish on his chosen passages. He can appreciate their intuition that human life is foredoomed or destined to a pattern of cyclical defeat.

“Many people today,” he writes, “hold to a Gnostic view of things without realizing the fact. Believing that human beings can be fully understood in the terms of scientific materialism, they reject any idea of free will.” The connection with the marionette fantasy is obvious: Gray is saying that any determinism that denies free will is a form of Gnosticism. But his own skeptical rejection of free will hardly qualifies him to dismiss such people without a respectful hearing; how far does the determinism of sociobiology differ from “scientific materialism”?

Gray is especially attracted to the Gnostic conceit of the creation of the world by an evil demiurge, and he uncovers a distant parallel in the theology of the Aztecs:

For the Aztecs the gods were forces of havoc in the world. Forever at risk of disruption, order was a thin veil stretched over chaos. No increase of knowledge or understanding could deliver human life from primordial disorder.

As one reads this passage in The Soul of the Marionette, its initial sense is that the Aztecs, at least, rejected the self-flattering Enlightenment idea of freedom; they recognized the prevalence of accident in the universal disorder; their error lay in attributing any kind of will to the gods. Gray draws an explicit analogy with Kleist:

Half-finished puppets of the gods, [humans in the Aztec view] must make their own identities—but not by choosing who or what they will be. Their “faces” emerge in interaction with a world they can never control, or come close to understanding.

The Aztecs anyway resist the illusion of freedom that Gray has urged us to resist.

Islamist terrorism is on his mind, or in the back of his mind. This seems at once a cause of his fascination with Manichaean doctrines and a reason for the limits of his fascination. “Humans kill one another—and in some cases themselves—for many reasons,” he says, “but none is more human than the attempt to make sense of their lives.” Should we then refrain from making sense of our lives because it might lead us to employ violent methods to arrive at “sense”? A more natural way of putting it would be that the suicide bombers seek to give their lives a transcendent meaning, and they are assisted in doing so by belief in an afterlife that is more valuable than life on earth. We avoid that error if we begin by supposing that life on earth is all we know. We must value it accordingly.

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Filip Van Roe/eyevine/Redux
John Gray, Antwerp, 2014

It takes half the book to clarify his position, because so much is stated through summary of plots and ideas originated by others, but Gray in the end proposes no radical theory of moral unfreedom. He settles for the moderate conclusion that we humans are not exceptions to the laws of nature. Therefore, though we are not demonstrably free, the determination of our thoughts and actions is bound to strike us as an external fact and not an intimate truth of experience. Gray thinks that Hume is on his side because “he argued that human beings can never have knowledge of cause and effect.” That is not quite right. Hume argued that we could have no certainty about the relation between cause and effect, but we could make sense of it with the aid of our knowledge of probability. The idea of causation is a necessary fiction and not an irrational superstition. Hume made this argument in his Treatise of Human Nature. He proved that he believed it by writing The History of England.

A nonchalant mixing of metaphysical skepticism and therapeutic humility is the most annoying feature of The Soul of the Marionette. “In fact,” writes Gray, “we have no clear insight into what moves us to live as we do,” but this is anything but a fact; and acceptance of the proposition will depend on what exactly is meant by the words “clear,” “insight,” “moves,” and “live as we do.” Is our lack of clarity about ourselves so invariable? And do we all live in much the same way? Having walked up to this precipice, Gray calmly walks back. “Not self-awareness but the split in the self is what makes us human.” In that case, it seems, we do have an insight into something. We know that we are split.

By the last page of the book a strange thing has happened. The puppet figures are gone, and so are the Gnostic demiurge and the gods and victims of the Aztec theology. It is only a “good enough” world that Gray espouses, after all. If you are “content,” as you should be, “to let meaning come and go,” you will no longer dream of becoming a puppet but rather shoulder “the burden of choice” and “make your way in the stumbling human world.”

“The burden of choice”—what shall we make of this notion? Choice is a slippery word these days because it has become our most accessible metaphor for freedom. As with all persuasive metaphors, its cunning lies in its invisibility. We scarcely recognize that choice is a figure of speech; and yet without being coached, in a great many settings we can be trusted to make the mental insertion of the adjective “consumer” to modify “choice.” Steve Fraser’s writings, including Every Man a Speculator (2005) and recent articles in the American Prospect and Raritan, venture an extended critique of the ethic of choice. He traces its popularity to the effective propaganda of the banking, credit, and financial institutions of the United States, from the Reagan years onward. The Age of Acquiescence begins by asking what political forces combined to render the idea of “market choice” acceptable as the principal quasi-moral value of American society today. It ends by wondering what we have lost in the process of acceptance.

The structure of Fraser’s argument follows from the analogy he draws between two historical epochs: the Gilded Age (1870–1900) and what he calls the second Gilded Age (1980–2015). Corporate raiders like Carl Icahn and Ron Perelman, and aggrandizing entrepreneurs like Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, are the modern descendants of the financiers Mark Hanna and J.P. Morgan and the most enterprising and destructive of the robber barons: Rockefeller, Carnegie, Vanderbilt, Gould. Exorbitant, almost exhibitionist greed, sudden fortunes accruing to a new class of the rich, and the creation of new layers of the poor who wonder how they got there—these are salient characteristics of the two periods.

We may associate the last decades of the nineteenth century with the rise of workingmen’s guilds and the Knights of Labor; but political opposition to organized labor was consistent in the administrations of a string of mediocre presidents—Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, Cleveland, Harrison, and McKinley—who obeyed the will of the industrialists with reliable servility. President Hayes ordered federal troops to regard strikers as they would enemies in time of war. The Knights of Labor sprang up in the 1880s but were “in decline and disarray,” writes Fraser, “even before the new decade began.”

Fear of revolution spurred by the Great Depression finally brought the governing class of the 1930s to follow reluctantly the reformist agenda of FDR. Yet the rise of organized labor and the chastening of plutocracy—accepted as a permanent feature of American society between the Truman and Carter presidencies—has proved to be a correction of democracy whose gains were not fated to last. In the mid-1950s, union membership covered almost one third of the workforce. Today the numbers of the unionized have shrunk to 10 percent.

If political repression and vast inequalities of status have been a shared feature of the two gilded ages, radical resistance was a constant manifestation during the first but seems to have departed in the second. The Southwest railroad strike of 1886 engaged almost a quarter of a million workers in several states of the Midwest and the South; the Pullman strike of 1894 was larger still and involved the fortunes of labor in more than half the states of the union. Through the experience of such contests, a national labor movement gradually matured; and the Democratic Party under William Jennings Bryan, defeated in the elections of 1896 and 1900, laid the groundwork for the reforms instigated by Theodore Roosevelt in the following decade. Why have we had so few such manifestations in the second Gilded Age? There are exceptions—the Occupy movement, the Wisconsin protests of 2011—but as Fraser compares the two periods, he finds the differences stark and baffling.

A reason for the acquiescence of the majority today, Fraser suggests, is the absence of a class of Americans who think of themselves as the proletariat or the working class. The idea of unearned wealth therefore arouses no indignation. Another visible cause is that the last thirty years have seen a leveling downward of manners, costume, and taste, accompanied by a leveling upward of habits of self-indulgence and the satisfaction of superfluous needs—a combination that can seem to make the very idea of class, as one walks the streets of a city, almost unreal.

Consider the “real housewives” of Beverly Hills, of New Jersey, of Atlanta, who have become such a popular feature of reality TV. They think of themselves as “middle-class.” Persons of incomparably humbler means who watch the shows in housing projects also think of themselves as middle-class. The same delusive and leveling description has been deployed—with a near-total ban on the words “poverty” or “the poor”—by our last two Democratic presidents. We no longer find unemployment shocking, says Fraser. He might have added that we no longer know what kind of work we value for more than monetary ends.

Early industrial capitalism is often pictured as a time of adventure. But it was also a time of systematic consolidation and enclosure of resources; and Fraser, revising the historical insight of Marx, calls this stage “primitive accumulation.” The financiers and industrialists converted raw materials into potential goods: “lands, minerals, animals, foodstuffs, fisheries, rivers, workshops, stores, tools, muscle, and brainpower” were systematically mined and their profits channeled to a few. Similarly, the runaway profits of the second Gilded Age depended on “cannibalizing the industrial edifice erected during the first, and on exporting the results of that capital liquidation to the four corners of the earth.”

And yet nineteenth-century America has seemed to many observers the epitome of an ideal freedom—always excepting the lot of slaves. Crevecoeur and Tocqueville, Lincoln and Whitman shared this sense of American life with a striking consistency. How much of a fiction was it? Fraser writes that at the midpoint of the Gilded Age, the “richest 1 percent owned 51 percent of all real and personal property, while the bottom 44 percent came away with 1.1 percent.” Again, in reaping the advantages of the Homestead Act—proposed by Stephen Douglas and voted into law during Lincoln’s first term—“fewer than half a million people actually set up viable farms over nearly half a century.” But is that so few? And do these figures represent individual titleholders or entire families?

In any case, the legend of freedom always outran the facts. This was the period when the big cattle companies fenced in millions of acres—an “American version of the British enclosure acts of the seventeenth century”—and convict labor took over much of the toil displaced by the abolition of slavery. No more potent myth was engendered by the American frontier than the idea of the family farm. By 1900, however, two thirds of farming in the US was done by tenants, sharecroppers, or wage laborers. When the particulars of the accumulation are added up, an unexpected question confronts the reader of The Age of Acquiescence. The puzzle is no longer why resistance has turned into acquiescence in the twenty-first century, but why resistance was so widespread and continuous a phenomenon of the nineteenth.

Much of the answer may lie in the world of expectations that people grow into. The immigrant laborers of the Gilded Age saw themselves as part of a struggle in which they had legitimate rights that were being denied. Unemployment, to them, was shocking. Many came to America from peasant societies where the old hierarchies were disintegrating. Some brought vivid memories of the year 1848, and revolution then was an idea evocative of hope much more than fear. Carlyle had written in Past and Present (1843):

The condition of England…is justly regarded as one of the most ominous, and withal one of the strangest, ever seen in this world. England is full of wealth, of multifarious produce, supply for human want in every kind; yet England is dying of inanition.

Carlyle’s urgency was more than matched by Whitman, who wrote in Democratic Vistas (1871) that “not one in a hundred” holders of public office “has been chosen by any spontaneous selection of the outsiders, the people, but all have been nominated and put through by little or large caucuses of the politicians, and have got in by corrupt rings and electioneering.” This meant that “millions of sturdy farmers and mechanics are thus the helpless supple-jacks of comparatively few politicians.” Whitman’s observation makes an apt commentary on the quip by Mark Hanna: “There are only two things that are important in politics. The first is money and I can’t remember what the second is.”

The financial collapse of 2008 added the new disasters of the Sun Belt—including the city of San Jose, close to the heart of Silicon Valley—to those of the Rust Belt in the 1980s. And yet “we can no longer imagine,” writes Fraser, “a way of life and labor at odds with capitalism.” For most people it is probably easier to imagine the end of life on earth than the end of capitalism. Those who might have been protected by accurate information were caught in the 2008 crash by “the democratization of credit.” This was the last stage of a process that sent household debt from an average 36 percent of total personal income in 1952 to 127 percent of income in 2006. The victims felt the arrows but they could not see the archers. Fraser never comes up with a decisive explanation of “the mechanisms of acquiescence, the means of persuasion and coercion”—but really he means the mechanisms of tacit persuasion. Coercion is never a mystery. The surprise in this story is how little coercion has been necessary.

A good deal of work remains to be done in the study of illusions. An exploration like Steve Fraser’s confesses its own partiality, since it depends on historical analogy, and between any two periods the resemblances and the contrasts cover such a range. Still, John Gray in The Soul of the Marionette might have learned from Fraser to attend more closely to the earthly powers that beguile us with “the burden of choice.” Gray has written in the past with truth and admirable sharpness on contemporary history. In articles published around the turn of the century in the New Statesman and collected in Heresies (2004), he looked ahead to the Iraq war and predicted it would bring not order but anarchy. In Black Mass (2007) and elsewhere, he has inculcated the untimely doctrine that great powers may overthrow small tyrannies in the cause of freedom, yet the anarchy that follows may produce more suffering than tyranny itself. For a divided society like ours, a broken democracy at the heart of an empire, not yet tempted by tyranny or overwhelmed by anarchy, the problem remains that we have the wrong actors, and the spectators are asleep.