Writing in 1907, on the eve of the immense carnage that would sweep away the longstanding regimes and institutions associated with a more optimistic and more hierarchical epoch, the French engineer-turned political theorist Georges Sorel proposes a model for grasping sociopolitical change that treats “social conditions as forming a system bound together by an iron law which cannot be evaded, as something in the form of one block, and which can only disappear through a catastrophe which involves the whole” (Reflections, 11). Change is not an incremental process, in which social transformations are brought about by the deliberate implementation of political projects aimed at improving the general well-being. Instead, it is sudden, violent, and largely unwilled, carried forward by upheavals that invert established systems of value and dissolve cherished, long-held certainties. Otherwise, absent the force of such an overwhelming compulsion, a collective will have little incentive to develop new habits and cultivate new ways of life, for these only come into being from the stresses of adjusting to unanticipated dangers and unpredictable circumstances.
If any set of issues in the present drives home the inadequacy of incremental and gradual measures, it would be the challenge posed to the current sociopolitical order by the problems of global warming and resource depletion. Modifications of the political and economic status quo are woefully insufficient to avert a grim future marked by the uprooting of entire populations by rising sea levels, famines triggered by atmospheric carbon dioxide playing havoc with rainfall patterns, and the intensification of geopolitical rivalries over dwindling reserves of hydrocarbons. The lack of political will shown thus far by the United States and the major emerging industrial powers in addressing these dangers, coupled with a global economy that operates upon the expectation of unending growth, works steadily to cast such a dire prospect into our fate. But if the political process aimed at reducing carbon emissions appears stalled and flawed, the military has become sufficiently alarmed to issue bleak and urgent reports on the implications of environmental destruction for global security. The report issued by the Pentagon last August projects nightmarish scenarios such as catastrophic flooding in Bangladesh that triggers massive waves of refugees into neighboring countries and endemic drought in already stressed regions like Sudan. Retired Marine General Anthony Zinni states the alternatives bluntly: “We will pay to reduce greenhouse gas emissions today, and we’ll have to take an economic hit of some kind. Or we will pay the price later in military terms. And that will involve human lives” (New York Times, 8/8/09).
We are thus confronted by a staggering disproportion between the urgency of the crisis, along with the devastating consequences if we do too little or act too late, and our incapacity to translate our understanding into meaningful collective action. The act of undertaking such sweeping measures will transform the life to which the United States and other advanced industrial nations have become accustomed over the course of the half century following the end of the Second World War. These changes are made more difficult to accept or imagine because our predominant models of politics remain wedded to the promise of abundance and the expectation of never-ending growth. Even the primary adversary of liberal democratic capitalism, state socialism, fought and lost the ideological battle on the terrain of economic prosperity, as it failed to match the rising standard of living delivered by the capitalist economies. What this means of course is that intellectually and psychologically we are largely unprepared to take the measure of a reality in which scarcity becomes increasingly the dominant factor of social life. Our anxious position resembles that of the generic leftist opponent of British imperialism as dissected by George Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier. The left-wing intellectual, in his outbursts of moralistic fervor, condemns the depredations of the Empire and snickers at the pretensions of the colonial officials of Raj, but fails to make the connection that his material comforts depend upon the desperate poverty of a hundred million Indians. There is no way to bite into a serving of strawberries and cream without eating the British Empire. The alternative, Orwell points out, of halting the exploitation of foreign peoples means “reducing England to a cold and unimportant island where we should all have to work very hard and live mainly on herrings and potatoes” (Road, 159-160). But where Orwell’s imaginary socialist fights, however confusedly, to bring about an egalitarian political order in which the benefits of prosperity are extended to all, our society is more likely to find itself in actual combat for far less idealistic purposes, straining instead to maintain as much of an embattled and unsustainable status quo as possible. The underlying challenge nevertheless is to make the transition to a society of diminished material expectations while preserving a modicum of the rule of law and preventing irreparable harm to the social fabric.
Some will dismiss these notions as extreme and unduly alarmist. Perhaps such pessimism is excessive and unwarranted in an interdependent global economy. But as British philosopher John Gray points out, scarcity and the attendant evils it brings, such as wars fought over access to rivers and fertile land, are in fact the norm in history. What is exceptional and an aberration, in historical terms, is the incomprehension with which we greet such developments, not least their recurrence in our own time. Gray writes, “if we find the emergent pattern of conflict unfamiliar, it is because we are still haunted by nineteenth-century utopian visions in which the spread of industry throughout the world ushers in an age of perpetual peace” (Heresies, 115). He observes that the “great game” for access to the vast energy resources of Central Asia has resumed, with the United States jockeying with China and Russia for favors from the corrupt and brutal oligarchs who control the region (Heresies, 119). The world’s largest remaining reserves of cheap oil, that is, supplies of petroleum that are relatively inexpensive to extract using existing technology, are to be found in regions where political instability is rife, such as the Niger River Delta, and where authoritarian regimes, like the House of Saud, hold power. As is often the case in oil-rich states, the wealth generated by the sales of petroleum have flowed disproportionately to a tiny elite while the masses continue to suffer in dire poverty. Moreover, the rapid rise of the economies of Brazil, China, and India has exacerbated the competition for oil, natural gas, and other vital resources. Although the emergence of these nations as economic powerhouses has succeeded in lifting millions out of poverty, the world’s energy output must, according to Michael Klare, “increase by 57% over the next twenty-five years,” a highly optimistic prospect, to avoid the onset of a severe global recession or depression (Rising Powers, 11). The emergence of these countries as world powers means a worsened predicament for the smaller nations that not only lack vital resources but also the geopolitical and economic muscle necessary to acquire them. The process of extracting oil from the alternative sources that offer the best hope of keeping pace with demand, such as from shale in the Rocky Mountains and the tar sands of Alberta, uses up massive quantities of an even more vital resource — fresh water.
If Gray, a supporter of Margaret Thatcher turned critic of neo-liberal globalization, is a most compelling intellectual guide to our unwilled sociopolitical realities, it is because he is a thinker most avowedly at odds with the prevailing spirit of the times. Gray charts a rigorous and idiosyncratic course that makes its way to the tragic insights about the problematic nature of human beings forsaken by the progressive left and the capitalist right alike in their embrace of the idea of progress. His book Straw Dogs (2002) was the object of a vehement denunciation by Marxist critic Terry Eagleton, who called it a “dangerous, despairing” work, the product of a “full-blooded apocalyptic nihilist” under the sway of a “virulent misanthropy” (Guardian, 9/7/02). For Gray contends that the humanitarian sentiments and liberal sensitivities that have become commonplace in contemporary society are unthinkable without the affluence and security created by the cruel and unjust politics they denounce. Eagleton must surely find unforgivable such statements as the following: “Humans thrive in conditions that morality condemns. The peace and prosperity of one generation stand on the injustices of earlier generations; the delicate sensibilities of liberal societies are fruits of war and empire” (Straw Dogs, 107). But what Eagleton’s outrage causes him to miss is the exacting thought experiment that Gray undertakes in this book. Proceeding in a non-linear fashion, through aphorisms and anecdotes, he unravels the therapeutic illusions that modern humanism has deployed between itself and the harsh Hegelian formula that history is a slaughter-bench. Whereas the conventional opinion in the West clings to the idea that economic and cultural interconnectedness fosters the spread of liberal values throughout the globe, Gray questions whether we have pulled free of the orbit of history, with its cycles of anarchy and tyranny. Although such a question might strike one as an eminently sensible one to consider, given recent events, the vituperation aroused by his act of exploring it attests to the stubbornness with which the Enlightenment belief in progress and human perfectibility endures even after the ideological projects it inspired have become discredited.
In that sense, Gray’s project must be considered alongside the work of a kindred spirit, the recently deceased novelist J. G. Ballard, whose writings share the conviction that the affluent societies which emerged in the postwar years are to be defined largely as extended exercises in delusion. Like Gray, Ballard’s overriding theme is the fragility of modern liberal societies, which operate according to the assumption that they have overcome, through their economic productivity, the afflictions that have plagued human beings across the ages, while subterranean yearnings for “a more passionate world” boil over into the consumption of illegal drugs, the practice of S&M, and the liberation and release granted by war. Ballard’s final novels cohere into a series with striking thematic continuities, as they explore the perils of a leisured existence and its apparent opposite, a life of ceaseless work. In Cocaine Nights (1996), a former professional tennis player named Bobby Crawford wakes an entire resort out of its sedative-induced stupor through a therapeutic regimen of crime and other forbidden activities. He organizes the residents into shooting pornographic films, arranges for the trafficking of stimulants like cocaine and methamphetamines into the resort, and goes off on nightly jaunts during which he vandalizes houses, smashes car windows, and shoplifts while charming all those he meets. Far from turning him over to the police, the residents actually regard him with gratitude for rescuing them from an empty and tedious existence, even after he deliberately sets a fire that causes the deaths of five people (220). Millennium People (2003) features a violent insurrection against the state carried out by middle class professionals living in a gated community, who have become fed up with parking fees, maintenance charges, and the other high-priced expenses of the affluent life. They set off firebombs in a video store, and vandalize a travel agency, actions in which the regressive glee of destruction is never far away from the high-minded aim of edifying the public: “Travel is the last fantasy the 20th century left us, the delusion that going somewhere helps you reinvent yourself” (55). The sheer incongruity of rioting middle-aged professionals, who do not want to brawl with the police unless they’ve had their morning cappuccinos, might be regarded as a limit case of consumerist pathology, yet the grotesque nature of their wanton acts of destruction is rooted in a bitter historical insight — the narrator, entering the residential complex for the first time, observes, “Most revolutionaries in the last century had aspired to exactly this level of affluence and leisure, and it occurred to me that I was seeing the emergence of a higher kind of boredom” (77).
In short, the work of both Gray and Ballard is marked by a shared preoccupation with the afterlife of dead ideas, with the compulsions that decaying dreams continue to exert over us, because we find it unbearable to lay them to rest. As the subtitle of Gray’s recent book, “the death of utopia,” would indicate, the sociopolitical paralysis of our time has a cause far deeper than the failure to reform crucial political institutions or to reorganize economic life around egalitarian principles. Rather, Gray and Ballard demonstrate how the impasse is to be found at the level of the imagination itself, from our inability to extricate ourselves from the horizon of expectations that has outlived the collapse of state socialism and has now been claimed by the defenders of neo-liberal capitalism. Thus, as belief in political action has waned, science and technology have become invested with the hopes for a “transformed world” that were formerly associated with revolutionary political programs (Heresies, 20). But more than that, science has mutated into a religion, offering to its adherents the same things that believers of all stripes have always desired, namely “salvation from themselves” (Heresies, 23). Gray is that rare atheist who holds that the followers of traditional religions, like Christianity and Buddhism, are less deluded and argue from more solid philosophical basis than contemporary secular atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. For religions transmit in poetic form the truth that human beings are intrinsically flawed and radically disordered entities. Humanistic atheists, on the other hand, inherit from Christianity what Gray regards as the religion’s most harmful aspect, the belief that human beings possess a unique significance in the cosmos, while jettisoning its most profound teaching, the lesson of human fallibility found in the story of Eden.
Secular humanists are thus prone to exalt and overrate human capacities, especially the power of reason. Furthermore, their faith in science proves to be quite a tenuous and unstable construction, something embraced out of exhaustion and default rather than with any genuine enthusiasm. As Gray writes, “If people cling to the hope of progress, it is not so much from genuine belief as from fear of what may come if they give it up” (Straw Dogs, 19). The idea of progress thus serves as a sort of platonic medicinal lie for the terminally disenchanted, holding together social bonds and enabling individuals to go on making the sacrifices and compromises necessary for sustaining the existing order: “For the men and women of today, an irrational faith in progress may be the only antidote to nihilism. Without the hope that the future will be better than the past, they could not go on” (Straw Dogs, 28). Along these lines, the key task for art and culture is to confront this fear and see what emerges once one has extricated oneself from it. What is thus needed is an art that incorporates the trauma of relinquishing an essential element from our horizon of expectations, an art that registers the amputation of a limb from the body of the ideas to which we have become long accustomed.
A common feature of contemporary narratives that undertake this task is the portrayal of the reversion of society to the Hobbesian state of nature, evoking the ubiquitous fear and violence that results from the dissolution of civilized restraints. Michael Haneke’s film Time of the Wolf and Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer-winning novel The Road concern the survivors of an unnamed catastrophe, who are cast into a dangerous world where death might wait at any corner or behind any tree. But it is Ballard’s own autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun that remains the far more resonant work for rendering, with a vertiginous attention to detail that borders on the uncanny, the downward journey from the heights of colonial privilege and luxury to the brutal, predatory reality of a Japanese prison camp near Shanghai during the Second World War. Young Jim, separated from his parents when the Japanese intern the city’s British residents after the outbreak of hostilities, is forced to endure hunger during the weeks following Pearl Harbor and nearly sold into slavery by a scheming companion. But the novel’s most troubling sequences have to do with how readily Jim becomes acclimated to his new circumstances, and how he comes to derive a powerful sense of liberation once the rules that governed his former life of luxury and privilege have dissolved. Watching an elderly beggar scrub out a toilet near a fetid canal, Jim suspects that his own method of coping with hardship is similar to that of the destitute Chinese, the dead bodies of whom have been for him an ordinary, everyday sight:
A strange doubling of reality had taken place, as if everything that happened to him since the war was occurring in a mirror. It was his mirror self who felt faint and hungry, and who thought about food all the time. He no longer felt sorry for this other self. Jim guessed that this was how the Chinese managed to survive. Yet one day the Chinese might come out of the mirror (Empire, 77).
Jim’s response to his own sufferings provides the vital reminder that the loss of privilege is not necessarily accompanied by an increase in compassion or empathy. Indeed, the opposite proves to be more often the case. He finds something of a surrogate father in a British doctor, who grows concerned that the boy has learned too well to adjust to the war. For Jim readily takes to a strange new role. He is well-liked by the other prisoners, but their congeniality does not prevent them from placing bets on how far he can walk away from the camp to set traps for birds before being shot at by the guards (Empire, 172). The doctor thus makes a point of making Jim perform impractical tasks, like studying Latin, in order to keep him anchored to the memory of the civilized world. As the war nears its end and supplies to the camp become drastically reduced, and Jim comes under the sway of strange dreams and reveries. He dwells on his fantasy of growing up to become a fighter pilot for the Japanese air force, and gives himself over to the thought that he can raise the dead. Lying in a field among prisoners dead and dying of starvation, he grows angry when a few still capable of walking form a party to be marched into the countryside, so that they will die outside his view (Empire, 209).
It is often noted that Ballard’s experience in the prison camp was formative for his career as a writer. For his later novels, though set in vastly different surroundings, revisit the perennial question of what human beings become once they find themselves freed from normal social restraints. The self-induced upheavals in a gated community and the imposed ordeals of the prison camp provide the mirror for the future of a world being transformed against its will, while discovering the forbidden pleasures that a sudden change of fortunes makes possible. The fiction of Ballard and the philosophical writings of Gray chart the paths through which history resumes its course. They show us that whereas capitalism was lauded at the end of history as the system best suited for human capacities, it now names our helplessness, our continuing inability to take collective action against catastrophic dangers.
J. G. Ballard, Cocaine Nights. Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 1996.
J. G. Ballard, Empire of the Sun. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984.
J. G. Ballard, Millennium People. London: Harper Perennial, 2004.
John Gray, Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions. London: Granta Books, 2004.
John Gray, Straw Dogs: Thoughs on Humans and Other Animals. Granta Books, 2002.
Michael Klare, Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet: The New Geopolitics of Energy. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2008.
George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1958.
Georges Sorel, Reflections on Violence. Ed. Jeremy Jennings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.