Review: Black Mass

Posted: June 27, 2009 in Economics, Idealism, Philosophy, Religion, Writing

I finished reading Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia by John Gray. The language is a bit of a struggle. Whereas the words and sentences are clear, the organization within the paragraph and from section to section is often lacking. (This functions as a reminder that a good part of the work of a writer is to organize his thinking into a form that communicates effectively to his reader. For all his obvious erudition, Gray often fails on this account. I’m also bugged by the absence of commas in many places that causes me to focus on parsing sentences properly rather than on content. That’s an editorial value rather than a rule, and it favors flow over excessive interruption, but it’s poorly applied in this book.) In addition, since Black Mass draws on 2,500+ years of Western intellectual history, one has to be pretty well read to fully grasp the weave of so many threads. I’m probably not quite up to the task, but I wanted to offer a brief review anyway.

Gray’s central thesis is that free market ideologues and neoconservatives, for all their confusion and revisionist history, find intellectual antecedents in a variety of questionable political movements that arose periodically but were ultimately defeated or abandoned in the wages of history. Perhaps most notable among those antecedents are revolutionary, militant, apocalyptic religious beliefs sprung from early Christianity and associated with millenarianism or chiliasm. Gray believes that classical liberalism and free market ideology (or more succinctly, globalization) have been transformed in the last 30+ years into a secular religion that represents, for some at least, a panacea for all types of social organization and a Utopian project worth imposing globally by force. Although not exclusive to America, this attitude is most virulent here. This new Zeitgeist bears similarity to other transformative projects and purges, especially the French Terror, Nazism, and the rules of Lenin and Stalin in Soviet Russia.

Here’s a good example of neoconservative revisionist history:

The classical economists themselves had serious doubts about the commercial society they saw coming into being around them. For Adam Smith[,] commercial society was the best kind of human association, but it was highly imperfect. At times[,] he refers to the market — or the ‘system of natural liberty’, as he often calls it — as being a Utopia; but he means that it is the best achievable system, not that it is without serious flaws. While he was impressed by the productivity of free markets, Adam Smith feared their moral hazards. Workers did not need to be well educated to perform the simple[,] repetitive tasks required of them in the factories that were being set up in the north of England, while the anonymous cities that were springing up around the factories did not encourage virtue. In the long run[,] this posed a risk to commercial civilization. Smith’s anxieties echoed those of earlier thinkers in the civic republican tradition and influenced later critics of capitalism. Marx’s theory of the alienating effects of wage-labour owes a good deal to Smith’s insights into the flaws of commercial societies. Caricatured by twentieth-century ideologues as a market missionary, Smith was in fact an early theorist of the cultural contradictions of capitalism.

I especially like that last phrase: cultural contradictions of capitalism. It impresses me that cultural critics such as Smith and Marx (among many others) could see coming what we are now experiencing in late-stage capitalism, namely, the cumulative effects of moral hazard, lack of civic virtue, and alienation of wage-labor. Gray identifies this condition as anomie and suggests that it often results in disaffected young adults attempting to forge meaning in life through born-again religion and radical politics or a lethal combination of the two. Such antidotes to anomie are arguably as bad as or worse than the sickness. Since most of us are conditioned within this system, it’s fundamentally antithetical for us to recognize our spiritual decay (not the same a religious decay) or to criticize it effectively from within the bubble.

Here’s where I depart from Gray. If we’re indeed embarked on a historical trajectory at all similar to those mentioned above, it’s probably fair to say that in the early stages, the worst effects are being felt in societies around the globe where democratic capitalism has been imposed by force, often through the International Monetary Fund, sometimes by conventional military force, which have had the effect of destabilized sovereign states, since their cultural institutions are not amenable to such wholesale transformation. Iraq and modern-day Russia spring to mind. When the full sweep of history catches up to us in the West, however, following on the strains being felt in financial markets over the past year in particular, we may well prove to be vulnerable to an intensified Fascism, replacing the creeping Fascism we know today, probably led by some messianic ideologue more bold in his thinking and rhetoric than Obama is subtle.

  1. When I was young, I had wild hopes that humankind was due to evolve spiritually–perhaps a few generations after mine. Depending on how one defines generations, my successors are already dominant. So any such hopes have certainly diminished but occasionally I still cling to the possibility. Ideologues don’t sway everyone, ever.

  2. John says:

    Please check out this very sobering assessment of the state of the world, how we got to here, and what we can do about it.

    Plus related references on how we were/are “culturally” programmed or patterned to get to here–or how we are now reaping what we have been sowing for a very, very long time now.

  3. Brutus says:

    There’s a lot there to investigate, John. Truthfully, though, I probably won’t be delving in anytime too soon. My plate stays pretty full all the time. Thanks for the links.

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