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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

The consistent pessimism of John Gray

…The time to worry would be if he stopped attacking us.

John Gray used to defend freedom and free markets; now he denounces all such stuff. He used to be one of us, but now he isn’t. How come? Have we changed our minds? Has he? Is the fellow some sort of traitor?

There is nothing inconsistent or treacherous about John Gray. He was never more than a useful ally of the libertarian movement. He hasn’t changed the way he thinks. He hasn’t, in Tom Burroughes‘ words, “declined and fallen”. Nor have we. It is the times that have changed. These now place John Gray in opposition to us rather than in alliance with us.

The circumstance which enabled me to start seriously understanding what goes on inside John Gray’s head occurred about fifteen years ago.

Remember the AIDS scare of the mid-to-late eighties. Remember when we all made lists of our bed companions, and when they all did, and we thereby constructed vast but, as it later mostly turned out (provided that you were a non-drug-abusing heterosexual), entirely imaginary networks of deadly contagion. Remember when millions were going to die, and everyone and his lover besieged the Sexually Transmitted Disease Clinics demanding to be tested. Remember when AIDS was trumpetted to the world as an equal opportunities killer. Of course you do, even if, like me, you could not now put an exact date to that terrible moment of apparent doom.

Well, I happened to meet up with John Gray, with whom I was then acquainted, just when this moment was at its most scary. He it was who conveyed to me the full horrors of the sexually transmitted doom that supposedly then awaited us. He had just come back from America, he told me. And in America, he told me, they were predicting deaths by the million. Something like, if I remember his figure rightly, twenty per cent of the American population were going to die hideously, and there was nothing, absolutely nothing, they could do about it.

There wasn’t much talk of the strength of the evidence for all this, merely the assertion that it was definitely so.

And he loved it. He wallowed in it. Just when the world was ceasing to make sense to the rest of us, it was making perfect, wonderful, glorious sense to him. Disaster is just around the corner! Yes!!!!

Now what’s going on here? The simple answer is that John Gray is, as Tom Burroughes says, a pessimist. But he is a consistent pessimist. He has always been a pessimist. He always will be a pessimist, until the moment he dies – another moment which will also make perfect sense to him. He never has and he never will betray the camp of pessimism. His coat will always be deepest black, and he will never turn it. He can be depended upon to see disaster around every corner.

Disaster, in John Gray’s world, is the result of optimism and enthusiasm, of “constructivist rationalism”, as Hayek put it, of some formula which lots of people are getting excited and happy about. All such formulae, for John Gray, will inevitably end in tears.

I don’t know why John Gray is such a pessimist. Perhaps when very young he had his one episode of manic, insane happiness and optimism, and he ran joyously around his Welsh house shouting hosannas. The world was a happy place. He had just proved it, just read a book about it. It was progressing. Every day, in every way, it was getting better and better. Hallelujah!! And then just as the graph of his joy was reaching idiotic heights, his gloomy Welsh uncle dropped by with the news that his favourite Welsh aunt – who was in fact his favourite human being in the entire world ever and who had only that morning been telling little John that the world wasn’t all misery but in fact a happy smiling place full of joy and love and good home cooking and nice clean houses with indoor plumbing such as there didn’t use to be in the bad old days – had just been killed horribly in a car smash

Maybe little John Gray joined the Boy Scouts and got all excited about them, but then his friends started murdering or sexually molesting one another and his scout troop was abruptly disbanded amid terrible scandal. Whatever the explanation, for all of his adult life, for John Gray, the hubris of optimism is always followed inevitably by the nemesis of disaster.

The AIDS catastrophe-that-wasn’t, for John Gray, was ruin overtaking the ideological enthusiasm of the sixties and seventies radicals for a utopia of sexual delight without cost or consequence.

When I first got to know John Gray his target was the warmed-over Marxism that had replaced sexual abandonment as the dominant radically optimistic enthusiasm, and he was of course predicting that this too would end in tears. The Libertarian Alliance reprinted an article of his from that period, about Marxism, entitled The System of Ruins (not, I’m sorry to say, yet available at our website, one of the few that isn’t). All systems, according to Gray, end in ruin, so this title could be used by him again and again, for all the systems he has criticised over the years.

The only question for Gray at any particular moment is: which system are people being most fatuously optimistic about? For as long as it was Marxism, John Gray was on our side.

But as the eighties wore on, it became clear that Marxism was indeed collapsing into the ruin that John Gray and many others had foreseen for it, and that this very ruin was causing another great optimism to take root and to flower luxuriantly. Capitalism, unimpeded by Marxism, might now be about to sweep the world. Hurrah!

Gray switched from writing pessimistic articles for the Daily Telegraph about the bad consequences of collectivist enthusiasm to writing pessimistic articles for the Guardian about the bad consequences of capitalist enthusiasm. He brooded upon ecological doom, and upon the ethnic nastiness still then repressed – repressed from full viewing on western TV anyway – by the power structures of the Cold War, but which would burst forth and confound a new generation of fatuous optimists if the Cold War ever ended and if the USSR ever did collapse.

A more recent Gray book, adorned with another all-purpose Gray title, was called “False Dawn”. The collectivists, whose idiot optimism John Gray helped to destroy, had become the world’s leading pessimists, and their praises covered the book, along with praise from others who merely believe that the enthusiasm for free markets was a bit premature and excessive. Yes, the collectivists now admitted, communism was in ruins, but so, they claimed, was “capitalism”, or at any rate capitalist ideology. This too is a system of ruins. Doomed, doomed. John Gray was thus their natural ally.

Even in the days when Gray was on our side I found his prose style to alternate between okay and impenetrable, and if anyone cares I have small circulation writings by me from way back, mostly promotional writing for the Alternative Bookshop, to prove it. Gray seldom adds much to our understanding about what is wrong with this or that enthusiasm. He merely picks his preferred dominant enthusiasm, and recycles whatever complaints he can find in the air or in print, adding a dash of Oxford University erudition as if from a ketchup bottle. His prose style is like bad classical music. Everything good is unoriginal. Everything original is wrong or empty, but smothered in Oxbridge verbiage to conceal the fact. He trades relentlessly on that shallowest of aesthetic clichés, that misery is more artistic than happiness, that any old rubbish with a sad ending is artistically superior to anything with a happy ending no matter how brilliantly done, that music in a minor key is automatically more significant than anything in C major. His writings and oratings sound portentous and profound, but they are not. All he ever says is that the world is going to hell, dragged by whatever ideological horse is currently being ridden by ideologically optimistic jockeys like me. Once you know this, you can compose your John Gray articles and your John Gray books for yourself.

But it is precisely his unswerving predictability that makes the charge that he is a turncoat so wrong. He is no traitor to our cause. Fellow libertarians who have found the time to dredge their way through Gray’s writings are typically enraged and amazed by his absurd non-sequiturs, his elementary errors and his breathtaking refusals to consider counter-arguments to his chosen arguments – counter-arguments which such a learned person as he must surely be aware of. How come? But it was always thus. Re-read his more respectful writings about Hayek and liberalism from days gone by, or for that matter his denunciations of Marxism, and you will find the same elementary errors, the same ignoring of counter-argument, the same worthwhile reportage of good arguments from others, the same pointless regurgitation of other people’s bad arguments, the same portentous vacuities. He has to read the words of the arguments and enthusiasms that he opposes, in order to reproduce them and in order to throw other words at them. But once you grasp the primitive intellectual structure upon which all of Gray’s thoughts and opinions and visions of catastrophe perch, you can at once know which arguments he will scrutinise conscientiously and regurgitate satisfactorily, which rotten arguments he will recycle uncritically, which arguments he will travesty, which he will attend to with enthusiasm and with the semblance of intellectual integrity, and which he will submerge in adolescent blunders and self-contradictions.

That John Gray is now our ideological opponent is cause not for rage but for celebration. It means that we are winning. We now command the happy future that churns about inside the heads of the next generation, not the collectivists. It is our visions of capitalist utopia that enliven the fantasies of the brightest and the best and the silliest, not the happy visions of the collectivists, for they have none.

That John Gray foresees doom and disaster for global capitalism tells us nothing, absolutely nothing, about the likely future course of the thing. He can look back on the recent turmoil in world markets and the resulting human miseries and on all the disappointments of recent Japan or post-Bolshevik Russia, and in the paperback version say: I told you so. But so what? Permanent pessimists about everything are bound to be right some of the time. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day. Gray books are worth scanning through for all the negative aspects of whatever it is he’s writing about, in the event that you don’t already know a bit about the matter. If you do know about the possible future dark side of whatever it is then you already know everything Gray has to tell you.

On the other hand, if John Gray switches from prophesying doom and disaster for global capitalism to prophesying doom and disaster for something entirely different, like some daft ecological but optimistic scheme as yet unborn, or for some insane variant of one of the world’s great religions, then we should pay serious attention. This would mean that a new enthusiasm may indeed have engulfed the world, and that our own enthusiasms have been supplanted. If true, that would be depressing. But for as long as John Gray is against us, we’re winning.


Tom Bourroughes’ posting caused me to post this, a piece I have long had languishing on my hard disk awaiting completion as a Libertarian Alliance publication – which, with illustrative back-up, it may yet become. However, I wasn’t able to follow the link in Tom’s piece until now because it has only just started working properly.

The review of Gray’s latest book Straw Dogs, by Helene Guldberg of Spiked, confirms all of the above, in fact had you sneaked into my kitchen and read my piece a year ago you could have written both the new book and the Guldberg review of it. Guldberg even speculates, as I did at greater length (and before reading the big bold subheading in her piece to this effect), what life experiences could possibly have caused Gray to think as he does.

This time, Gray’s target is not capitalism, but its close cousin, science and technology, which I’m happy to say is still something that we’re enthusiastically in favour of.

Scientists and technologists now mostly refuse to be pessimistic. Just because socialism is tripe that doesn’t make genetic engineering tripe, is their attitude. Technical fixes may be unfashionable with Guardian-reading novelists, but they still love them, and Gray goes for them with all his usual tricks and turns, as Guldberg describes.

But, I see that Gray now takes the precaution of placing his prophecies of megadeath by plague safely in the distant future, so that he can avoid being denounced as a fraud during his own lifetime, in the way that the idiot Paul (a hundred million Indians minimum will starve to death during the 1970s alone) Ehrlich has had to suffer. Smart move.

Sorry that this piece has been rather too long for a blog. It began life before blogging was thought of, and I did cut out lots, but lots still remained that still made sense to me, and I hope it also did to you.

Be happy!!

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