"Black Mass" and the Americanization of the Apocalypse

I.
I had planned on writing a review here of John Gray's important new book, Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, one of the most bracing and insightful things I've read in a long time. But now I find that acclaimed novelist John Banville has beaten me to it, with a review in Saturday's Guardian that pretty much says it all. So without further ado, let's turn it over to Mr. Banville, with these excerpts from Rocky Road to Utopia:

As John Gray demonstrates in his brilliant but frightening new book...Barbarism is rapidly on the rise, if it has not already re-established itself; religion is once again real blood and real sacrifice; and as for what used to be called culture, we find ourselves mournfully re-positing the question Shakespeare first asked in the sonnets: "How, with this rage, shall beauty hold a plea, / Whose action is no stronger than a flower?"

Gray sees most of today's western politics as awash with spilt religion. "Modern revolutionary movements," he writes, "are a continuation of religion by other means." The Enlightenment, Gray's big bugbear, imagined it was rejecting Christianity but "its eschatological hopes did not disappear. They were repressed, only to return as projects of universal emancipation." The utopian right, as he calls it, led by America's neoconservatives, is a modern millenarian movement, and its drive to impose western-style democracy upon the world, a drive towards utopia that came to a juddering halt in Iraq, was as deluded and foolhardy a project as any past scheme to establish the Kingdom of Heaven on earth....

Ironically, or so it might seem, radical Islam - in the ferocity and relentlessness of its advance into the past - owes, as Gray points out, a great deal to western millenarian and utopian thought. Like Christianity, "Islam has always contained a powerful eschatological element"...Yet the Islamists, knowingly or not, have also taken many of their methods and much of their conviction from Enlightenment revolutionaries. Radical Islam, Gray believes, can be best described as "Islamo-Jacobinism". Robespierre would have recognised a soulmate in Osama bin Laden.

Gray writes a controlled, clean and unfussy prose, but here and there his anger and contempt knock flashes from the steely sheen of his reserve. He harbours a special animus towards American neoconservative theorists, the heirs of Karl Schmitt and Leo Strauss, such as Albert Wohlstetter, Irving Kristol and, Gray's favourite dunce, Francis Fukuyama, who in 1989 famously announced the end of history and the triumph of western, liberal, market-driven democracy.

These zealots, whose "thinking is a mix of crackpot realism and chiliastic fantasy" and whose "catastrophic optimism" has wrought so much mischief in the world since the end of the cold war, hold to the Straussian view that the political high consistory must proceed according to "a modern variation of Plato's noble lie: while philosophers may know the truth they also know that truth is deadly to the mass of humankind". Thus George Bush and Tony Blair, when they present false evidence to support the invasion of Iraq, are not exactly lying, merely realigning the truth in accordance with their higher aims. "For these seers," Gray writes, "victory was the same as truth - not truth of the ordinary kind, to be sure, but the esoteric truth that is concealed in the deceiving mirror of fact."

Gray's critique of the war on Iraq, and especially of Blair's part in it, is devastating. His contempt is palpable in these measured and meticulously argued pages. As usual, it is the details that snag in the mind's fabric. British security firms, he writes, are reported to have some 48,000 personnel in Iraq, "outnumbering British troops by a factor of six to one". The war has been privatised, and "the ragtag army of crooks and shysters that followed in the wake of American troops is not greatly different from that which trailed behind the colonial armies of earlier times".

Black Mass - "a sacrilegious ritual in which the Christian Mass is performed backwards", as an epigraph informs us - is a limpidly argued and finely written synthesis of Gray's thinking over the decade or so since False Dawn, his highly regarded and influential study of globalisation. It is not a cheering work, to say the least, and Gray's conclusions, though never exaggerated or overstated, are bleak in the extreme. Yet the right expression of even the bleakest truths is always invigorating, and any half-sensible reader will come away from the book soberer and even, perhaps, wiser.

II.
One need not agree with every single tenet or interpretation in of Gray's book to echo Banville's closing remarks. I would just add here that the two chapters at the heart of the book are alone worth the price of admission. "The Americanization of the Apocalypse" and "Armed Missionaries" provide a succinct yet thorough -- and deeply disturbing -- account of how the United States has degenerated into its current status as a warmongering, dysfunctional "illiberal democracy."

I was especially pleased to the long section detailing how the neo-con architects of Bush's war closely resemble the savage and destructive extremists in Dostoevsky's great novel, The Possessed. This is particularly satisfying, as the neo-cons and their outriders often cite Dostoevsky as a guide to "understanding the world's thugs and menaces," as the New York Times' shallow-foolish columnist David Brooks once put it, in a column cleanly skewered by Gray, who goes on to say:

The neo-conservative idea that one can understand terrorist violence by reading the novel of Dostoevsky is entertainingly ironic, since what Dostoevsky describes is the mentality of the neo-conservatives themselves... As the neo-conservative analyst Michael Leeden wrote soon after the 9/11 attacks, the "war on terror" is all of a piece with the "global democratic revolution":

We should have no misgivings about our ability to destroy tyrannies. It is what we do best. It comes naturally to us, for we are the only truly revolutionary country in the world...Creative destruction is our middle name....In other words, it is time once again to export the democratic revolution.

Here a celebrated dictum of the 19th century Russian anarchist Bakunin -- "The passion for destruction is a creative passion" -- is restated in neo-conservative terms. Bakunin's disciple, the divinity student Sergey Nechayev, applied this maxim in his "Catechism of a Revolutionary" (1868), where he argued that in advancing the revolution the ends justified any means -- including blackmail and murder. A year later Nechayev murdered one of his comrades for failing to carry out orders...Nechayev had revealed the logic of Bakunin's project. Terror followed from the goal of a total revolution.

Leeden's project of militarily enforced democracy has a similar logic. Nechayev never doubted his was the cause of the people, and Leeden takes for granted that the countries that have regime change imposed on them will welcome the overthrow of their governments. If they do not, they must be purged of retrograde elements. Only then can there be any assurance that forcible democratization will be accepted for what it is: liberation from tyranny. Torture and terror are acceptable if they assist in the global war without evil.

The neo-cons as Nechayev: a perfect image for our times.

One could go on quoting passages from the book to good effect, but we'll end with just one more -- another succinct but damning précis of the current state of the Union:


By any internationally accepted standard of what constitutes torture, the world's pre-eminent liberal regime has committed itself to the practice as a matter of national policy. Along with this, there has been a shift away from the constitutional traditions that curbed American government in the past. The vote by the Senate on 28 September 2006 that allowed the president the authority to determine what counts as torture also suspended habeas corpus for people detained as terrorist suspects, denying their right to know the offense with which they are charged and to challenge their detention in court. Henceforth, anyone charged with involvement in terrorism -- not only foreign nationals but also US citizens -- can be detained without charge and held indefinitely. Taken together with the Patriot Acts, which permit surveillance of the entire American population, the US has suffered a loss of liberty that has no parallel in any mature democracy.... The fact remains that [the US] has ceased to be a regime in which the power of government is limited by the rule of law. The checks and balances of the constitution have failed to prevent an unprecedented expansion of arbitrary power.

There is more, much more to the book, so check it out if you get the chance. It is indeed meet food to feed upon in these lean and hungry times.
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