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The War of the Worlds
In Ideas That Matter: A Personal Guide for the 21st Century, an elegantly written and frequently stimulating dictionary of ideas, he denounces religion as a “rudimentary and primitive precursor to science and technology” while praising the virtues of an atheistic outlook. Grayling asks us to compare “the life of the ordinary man and woman in a western country” with the lives of “their fellows in developing countries, especially those where religion remains a dominating influence over people’s lives. The transforming effect of Enlightenment ideas in history is plain to see; and as admirable as it is plain”.
Financial Times

The war of the worlds

By Pankaj Mishra

Published: June 6 2009 01:20 | Last updated: June 6 2009 01:20

An illustration depicting the divide in political and intellectual landscapeGray’s Anatomy: Selected Writings
By John Gray
Allen Lane £20, 481 pages
FT Bookshop price: £16

Ideas That Matter: A Personal Guide for the 21st Century
By AC Grayling
Weidenfeld & Nicolson £20, 436 pages
FT Bookshop price: £16

The Geopolitics of Emotion: How Cultures of Fear, Humiliation and Hope are Reshaping the World
By Dominique Moïsi
Doubleday $21.95, 177 pages

George Orwell once pointed to a “major mental disease” among intellectuals: “The instinct to bow down before the conqueror of the moment, to accept the existing trend as irreversible”. Orwell blamed this on an intellectual reverence for power which “blurs political judgment”. This at least partly explains how the famous “victory” of the cold war seeded the most influential idea of the past two decades: that American-style, free-market capitalism and democracy were the terminus of world history, where post-communist China and Russia, for example, would eventually end up.

This ideological assumption, embraced by politicians, journalists and businessmen alike, naturally provoked the impatient desire that the US, the “indispensable nation” in a “unipolar” world, should quickly become an empire, showering benighted peoples all over the flattened earth with the manna of free markets, democracy and human rights.

Despite the swift shattering of this fantasy over the past five years, the cheerleader’s tone still breaks through sober assessments of international affairs today. “The world is going America’s way. Countries are becoming more open, market friendly and democratic,” Fareed Zakaria, a usually shrewd commentator, wrote last year in his book The Post-American World. In Terror and Consent: The Wars For the Twenty-First Century, also published last year, the American academic Philip Bobbitt exhorted the US and the European Union to form a G2 as part of a broader alliance against authoritarian states. Hailing Bobbitt as a fellow homo atlanticus in the FT, historian Niall Ferguson especially recommended his book for “men of a certain age, class and education from Manhattan’s Upper East Side to London’s West End”.

Now, as China looms larger over a wrecked American economy, homo atlanticus quickly mutates into homo pacificus: Ferguson himself recently called for China and America to constitute a “Chimerican G-2”. Clearly, the world is no longer going America’s, or the west’s, way, a fact briefly obscured but not dispelled by the arrival of a charismatic president in the White House. The non-west, always more bumpy than flat, suddenly has a more complex topography than globalisation, brand-consumerism, or American firepower made it seem. Fresh ideas and concepts are needed to grasp the multiplicity of national power centres abroad and ethnic communities within, and many conflicting and often irreconcilable interests and values. The main interest of these new books by philosophically minded European commentators lies in their responsiveness to a transformed political and intellectual landscape.

Gray’s Anatomy, a selection of John Gray’s writings over three decades, shows the former professor of European thought at the London School of Economics to be the most prescient of British public intellectuals. Arguing against Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History in 1989, Gray predicted that “if the Soviet Union does indeed fall apart, that beneficent catastrophe will not inaugurate a new era of post-historical harmony, but instead a return to the classical terrain of history, a terrain of great power rivalries, secret diplomacies, and irredentist claims and wars”.

In 1998, a year after East Asia suffered a financial meltdown, Gray published False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism. This argued that the dominant Anglo-Saxon belief in unregulated markets would sow chaos everywhere. Gray’s iconoclasm derives from his suspicion that the west has replaced traditional religion with a plethora of secular cults about money and power. Primary among them is the quasi-Christian ideology of progress and collective salvation which free-marketeers of recent times no less than totalitarian ideologues of the past internalised.

Gray has little time for the “Enlightenment project of a universal civilisation” or the belief that “modern societies will everywhere converge on the same values”. He is at his most bracing when he attacks the pieties of liberal internationalism, which seeks to remake the world in the most flattering image of the west. Yet he also has useful things to say to those liberals for the fear of cultural otherness – particularly Islam – has pushed into uneasy proximity to war-mongering neo-conservatives.

The most important essay in Gray’s Anatomy proposes to make old-style liberals more responsive to the fact of pluralism in Europe and the world at large. Gray argues that the European idea of liberal tolerance presupposed a high degree of cultural homogeneity; what is needed now is “modus vivendi among ways of life animated by permanently divergent values”.

This may seem unacceptable not only to the isolationist conservatives who hold on to the fading ideal of national cultures but also liberal utopians who want to make the world safe – through violence, if necessary – for their “universal” values. But Gray brings to contemporary affairs a melancholy sense of the limits of human action; he has, too, a clear-eyed vision of the grievous wound the most inventive and rapacious of animals has inflicted on his solitary planet’s fragile environment. “The most we can do”, he writes, “is stave off disaster, a task that demands stoicism and fortitude, not the utopian imagination”.

If the genealogy of his political thought extends through Isaiah Berlin to Alexander Herzen, then temperamentally and stylistically, Gray resembles the spiritual philosopher Lev Shestov. His distrust of secular modernity, for instance, makes him sympathetic to the poetry and enigmas of religion, which hard-line atheists have perennially regarded as a useless superstition heading for the trash-heap of history: “Scientific and technological advance”, he claims, “has not, and cannot, diminish the realm of mystery and tragedy in which it is our lot to dwell”.

AC Grayling, one of the Britain’s most prominent rationalist philosophers, would disagree. In Ideas That Matter: A Personal Guide for the 21st Century, an elegantly written and frequently stimulating dictionary of ideas, he denounces religion as a “rudimentary and primitive precursor to science and technology” while praising the virtues of an atheistic outlook. Grayling asks us to compare “the life of the ordinary man and woman in a western country” with the lives of “their fellows in developing countries, especially those where religion remains a dominating influence over people’s lives. The transforming effect of Enlightenment ideas in history is plain to see; and as admirable as it is plain”.

“Not so fast,” might say the Hindu nuclear scientist who prays every morning at a small shrine of Lord Krishna in his home and does voluntary work on his weekend for underprivileged members of his caste group. Grayling won’t consider the fact that there are many more ways to be modern apart from those dictated by the unique history of the west. Or, that religion fulfils a variety of social as well as emotional needs outside the secularised cultures of the modern west, especially for the millions of people who, uprooted from their rural and traditional modes of life, have failed to find salvation through secular modernity. The hyper-rationalist’s disdain for faith fatally undermines his ability to understand not only much of the non-west, but also new immigrant populations within Europe and America.

Unperturbed by the barbarisms of the 20th century, many of which were the work of atheistic ideologies and amoral scientists, Grayling presents the secularised west (western Europe rather than Christian America) as a superior and largely unquestionable standard to which the rest of the world must conform. Dominique Moïsi, a French academic and columnist on international affairs, seems more aware of the colonial history of this aggressive evangelism on behalf of science and rationality. In his book The Geopolitics of Emotion: How Cultures of Fear, Humiliation, and Hope are Reshaping The World, he presents many reasons why the west’s “unjustified sense of cultural superiority based on real and total ignorance” is politically counterproductive. Already, he writes, “the Muslim world is dominated by a sense of political and cultural humiliation and an exacerbated demand for dignity.”

Moïsi, who wishes to alert us to the role of emotions in international affairs, attempts to transcend business-lounge clichés about unstoppable globalisation on the flattened earth: “In spite”, he laments, “of the fact that we live in an information age, we do not understand the Other any better than we did in the past”. Moïsi evokes, mischievously, the wounded amour propre of many denizens of Upper East Side and the West End: “What’s happening to us? ... We used to be in charge of the rest of the world ... Now it seems we are to be victimised by forces beyond our control. Asia is about to overtake us economically. Fundamentalists in the Islamic world are intent on destroying us.”

Of course, this exaggerated self-pity is merely the flip side of the overweening millenarianism that held the west’s dominance to be eternal. Moïsi knows that the vision of all-conquering Islamic hordes is a paranoid fantasy. China and India, where some of the poorest people in the world live, are far from overtaking the west. Islamic fundamentalism will sooner implode than destroy western civilisation.

The Geopolitics of Emotion, however, is hobbled by its grand thesis, “that in general terms, the Asian world today is characterised especially by hope, the Arab-Islamic world by humiliation, and the western world by fear”. An intellectual conceit that may be amusing at a dinner party and appear provocative in a column on a sleepy morning becomes insupportable when inflated into a book. Most Muslims do not live in the Arab world; and, as in Indonesia or Turkey, their emotions are shaped by their own particular experiences and histories. In India, where more than 100,000 farmers killed themselves in the past decade, there exists, along with hope, a great sense of hopelessness, not to mention fear and humiliation.

Moïsi’s emotional map of the world turns out to be drawn with the same broad brush that Samuel Huntington used to paint his lurid “clash of civilisations”. Nevertheless his impressionistic survey is full of salutary insights and, more importantly, a sense of humility about a complex and largely unknown world. “A cultural and historical grasp of the differences and similarities of the Other”, Moïsi writes, “is the essential basis for a more tolerant world”.

It does seem, though, that the intellectual habits bred by two decades of triumphalism will die hard: Moïsi ends his book exhorting us, Grayling-style, to have “a renewed confidence in the values and mission of the west”. His preceding pages, however, have suggested a more subtle possibility, one that Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr proposed during the early and dark days of the cold war: “A sense of awe before the vastness of the historical drama in which we are jointly involved”; and “a sense of modesty about the virtue, wisdom and power available to us for the resolution of its perplexities”. “Amen,” the sceptic John Gray, rather than the rationalist AC Grayling, might say.

Pankaj Mishra is author of ‘Temptations of the West: How to be Modern in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tibet’ (Picador)

The War of the Worlds