Black Mass Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia

John Gray

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



Trade Paperback

256 Pages


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Winner of the Lannan Notable Book Award In the decade that followed the end of the Cold War, the world was lulled into a sense that a peaceful, consumerist, globalized future was ahead. The beginning of the twenty-first century has rudely disposed of such ideas—most obviously through 9/11 and its aftermath. Just as damaging has been the rise in the West of a belief that a single model of political behavior will become a worldwide norm and that, if necessary, it will be enforced at gunpoint. In Black Mass, philosopher and critic John Gray explains how utopian ideals have taken on a dangerous significance in the hands of right-wing conservatives and religious zealots. He charts the history of utopianism, from the Reformation through the French Revolution and into the present. He describes how utopian politics have moved from the extremes of the political spectrum into mainstream politics, dominating the administrations of both George W. Bush and Tony Blair, and coming to define the political center. Gray suggests that we have not shaken off discredited ideology, but we are more than ever in its clutches.


Praise for Black Mass

"'Modern politics is a chapter in the history of religion,' Gray, a British philosopher, insists in this outspoken attack on utopianism and the ‘faith-based violence’ it has inspired. History, Gray writes, offers no new dawns or sharp breaks, and, from the French Revolution to the war on terror, he is as critical of the humanist belief in progress as of the ‘belligerent optimism’ of neoconservatives. Sketching the roots of utopianism, he emphasizes the similarities between seemingly disparate movements: radical Islam, he suggests, might best be thought of as ‘Islamo-Jacobinism.’ Taking the Iraq war as an object lesson, he argues for an acknowledgment that the ‘local pieties of Atlantic democracy’ are not the only way to govern. Gray’s writing has a bracing clarity."—The New Yorker

“Gray's Black Mass is a little Molotov cocktail of a book, blowing up the categories in which we usually discuss matters like the war in Iraq and the direction of history. Any book that herds Robespierre, Lenin, radical Islamists and neoconservatives into one conceptual corral doesn't lack for audacity. While Gray covers a lot of ground, tracing millenarian thinking from early Christianity to the present, he mainly sets his sights on the American neoconservative project to export free-market capitalism and liberal democracy—at the point of a gun if necessary . . . The story line of Black Mass goes like this: Christianity bequeathed to the West the idea of apocalypse, a violent event in history that transforms everything and remakes the world. That idea wormed its way into our DNA, so to speak, and has been there ever since . . . Gray is not the first to see the Iraq War as rooted in a naive right-wing utopianism. What's impressive is the way he embeds present political trends in a larger framework going back to the beginnings of Western culture . . . [T]he book challenges and provokes. For most readers, I suspect, it will tell them things they didn't know.” —Fritz Lanham, Houston Chronicle

"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 . . . 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." —John Banville, The Guardian (U.K.)

"Gray is right to scoff at the misplaced faith in progress propounded by Enlightenment philosophers . . . Gray reminds us about more ancient and truthful myths, which predicted that our reckless pursuit of knowledge and power would lead to disaster." —Peter Conrad, The Observer (London)

"When the fashionable pundits of the age of globalization are as forgotten as those who, in the run-up to World War I, predicted globalization had rendered war obsolete, John Gray's work will still matter. It is at once a reproof and an antidote to the reigning wishful thinking that makes Voltaire's Dr. Pangloss look like a realist. Gray's work has always been about separating reality and delusion. In Black Mass, Gray dissects the greatest of all political delusions—utopianism—and maps the way in which, against all expectations, it has migrated from left to right, from communism to neo-conservatism. This is that rarest of things, a necessary book." —David Rieff

“Seeing history as a progressive narrative, especially one with a utopian ending, is a practice that has doomed earlier civilizations and threatens our own, argues Gray. Having dealt with the concept of human progress in such previous books as Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern, the author sees no reason to revise his core belief: ‘Human knowledge tends to increase, but humans do not become any more civilized as a result.’ He urges Western powers to adopt a political philosophy of realism. Look, he says, not at the Middle East you want to see—a cluster of none-too-peaceable kingdoms transformed by force into little democracies whose oil wells gurgle merrily to supply the West—but as it really is, a volatile place whose populations have always hated one another and probably always will. Gray spends lots of time painting the historical and philosophical background. He examines the apocalyptical aspects of Christianity and other religions, all of which in his view share a number of traits, most significantly the notion that the end is near. He takes a look at utopian communities of earlier times and notes that inhumane means have almost always been used to attempt to achieve humane ends. In a troubling chapter about the 20th century, Gray characterizes both Communists and Nazis as ‘children of the Enlightenment,’ employing the ‘scientific’ principles of economics and eugenics to justify their political goals. The English author has some harsh words for both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair (equally deluded, in his view), but he bashes Bush continually for reliance on ‘faith-based intelligence’—with Iraq serving as a compelling argument for the pitfalls of this approach. Throughout his impassioned text, Gray's prose is thick with allusion and quotation, but even thicker with erudition and provocation. Makes a discomfiting case that Western liberal democracy just is not suitable for much of the world.” —Kirkus Reviews

"'The violence of faith,' philosopher John Gray warns his readers, 'looks set to shape the coming century.' Himself a skeptic, Gray identifies the early Christian vision of Apocalypse as the wellspring of violent passions threatening the globe. True, St. Augustine defused these passions by interpreting end-time scriptures allegorically. But the savage beasts of scripture burst through Augustinian restraints, in Gray’s view, when unbelievers transformed the Christian hope of salvation into the secular dream of an earthly utopia. For when severed from the theology of human sinfulness, the quest for utopia inspired political zealots with impossible expectations—until disappointment turned them into doomsday prophets. Gray traces this destructive religious-secular dynamic in both Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. Readers may recoil in surprise, however, when the analysis turns to the American and British invasion of Iraq as the latest manifestation of apocalyptic utopianism. But Gray indicts as utopians the neoconservatives who advocated the invasion in order to turn Iraq into a democracy and predicts that the collapse of this fantasy will only embolden apocalyptic war-mongering among religionists in America—and Iran. Perilously unbalanced thinking will prevail, Gray fears, until Western leaders regain the sober wisdom embodied in Genesis and resist the seductive sensationalism of Revelation. Certain to ignite sharp debate." —Bryce Christensen, Booklist (starred review)

"Some readers will see pessimism where others see sober appraisal in Gray's antiutopian argument that we must reconcile ourselves to a world of multiple truths and incompatible freedoms, where there is no overarching meaning and human values and desires can never be fully harmonized. The views that history progresses toward perfection and the millenarian faith in human salvation—both rooted in abiding Christian myths—are as tenacious as they have proven destructive, the renowned British political theorist and critic argues. Building succinctly on arguments developed in his previous work (including Two Faces of Liberalism and Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern), Gray traces the course of apocalyptic-utopian politics from early Christianity through its secular variant in the Enlightenment and into modern political thought from Marx to Francis Fukuyama, the French Revolution to radical Islamism. Centrally, he assails the contemporary American right (and staunch neoconservative fellow traveler Tony Blair), which after 9/11 advanced into the mainstream the utopianism previously confined to the extreme right and left. His eloquent and illuminating attack also challenges a notion common to the liberal establishment: that history moves inexorably toward the universal application of U.S.-style liberal democracy. He calls it a delusional article of faith that, like the utopian variants before it, easily justifies violence in the name of a greater destiny." —Publishers Weekly

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John Gray is the author of many critically acclaimed books, including Straw Dogs and Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern. A regular contributor to The New York Review of Books, he is a professor of European thought at the London School of Economics.
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  • John Gray

  • John Gray is the author of many critically acclaimed books, including Straw Dogs and Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern. A regular contributor to The New York Review of Books, he is a professor of European thought at the London School of Economics.
  • John Gray