'To try and do something which is inherently impossible', the conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott once wrote, 'is always a corrupting enterprise'. It is a theme that has been central to much of philosopher John Gray's recent work. In Black Mass, he gives the argument a new twist. Virtually all politics, he suggests, is inherently impossible and therefore corrupting.
At the heart of the argument is Gray's belief that modern politics is but 'a chapter in the history of religion'. The yearning for religious faith is, Gray argues, a human constant. In the Enlightenment, however, that yearning became secularised. Post-Enlightenment political thought, Gray argues, is almost entirely Utopian in form and all Utopian projects, though often expressed in anti-religious form, articulates a form of sublimated religious impulse. The millenarian character of politics is expressed not just through the usual suspects, such as Marxism, but also in much of liberalism and, increasingly, in conservatism too. The belief in social progress, the yearning for freedom and the attachment to universal values and rights - all betray a Utopian impulse.
In the 21st century, however, the association between politics and religion has become reversed. No-one believes in secular Utopias anymore. As secular Utopianism has died so it has become replaced once more by apocalyptic religious faiths.
Understanding the relationship between secular and religious thought, and between the death of secular Utopias and the re-emergence of religious faith, is clearly a hugely important task. Recent discussions of these issues by the so-called New Atheists - authors such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens - have often been crude and philistine, and Gray is scornful of such accounts. Unfortunately, Gray's analysis is even less nuanced.
Gray defines a Utopian project as one for which 'there are no circumstances under which it can be realized'. That includes just about every political venture. Marxism and Thatcherism, Communism and anti-Communism, the Enlightenment project and the project of the Counter-Enlightenment, the 'project of engineering a western-style market economy in post-communist Russia' and the attempt to 'establish liberal democracy in post-Saddam Iraq' - all are not just Utopian but rooted in eschatology. Sometimes it appears as if the only non-Utopians in the world are Gray himself and his handful of heroes such as Edmund Burke and Isaiah Berlin.
If Gray's notion of Utopianism is implausible, equally so is his claim that virtually all modern political ideologies (and, indeed, virtually all modern Western philosophical beliefs) are disguised forms of religion, and in particular of Christianity. It is true that in the two millennia between the Ancient and the modern worlds, Christianity helped provide in Europe much of the framework for the development of philosophical, political and scientific ideas. It is inevitable, therefore, that many non-religious beliefs that are current today - for instance about agency and progress - find their roots in Christian thought. But then, even many scientific ideas developed out of religious notions. The concept of natural laws, for instance, grew out the notion of God's law as the mechanism by which the universe maintained a rational form. This suggests not that science is religion disguised but that the historical roots of ideas are often complex and that the meaning of those ideas often mutate with changing contexts.
In Gray’s eyes, however, even figures such as Dawkins and Dennett are unacknowledged theists because they have the effrontery to believe that humans are unlike other animals in their ability to transform the world. Gray will have no truck with the absurd belief that 'human life can be transformed by a human act of will', a belief that, he argues, is simply a statement of religious faith. It is an argument he first articulated in his book Straw Dogs. 'Those who struggle to change the world', he wrote then, are merely seeking 'consolation for a truth they are too weak to bear'. Their 'faith that the world can be transformed by human will is a denial of their own mortality'. Black Mass attempts to provide political flesh to such pessimism about the human condition.
But what of the reality of human life? From the overthrow of absolute monarchy to the abolition of slavery, from the banning of torture to the establishment of universal suffrage, history is precisely a narrative of humans transforming the world through their will. Such historical change requires not just a belief that the world can be transformed by human action but also a vision of what a better world may look like.
Gray attempts to wriggle out of this problem by suggesting that the abolition of slavery, say, was not a Utopian project because it was not inherently unrealisable. But inherently unrealisable was exactly how critics of abolition - the John Grays of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries - saw it. In any case it is difficult to see why the abolition of slavery should have been any more realizable than, say, the bringing of democracy to Iraq.
In place of Utopianism, Gray suggests, we need realism. A realism that accepts that life consists not of soluble problems but of irresolvable conflicts and that humans are mere animals with no more ability to shape our future than do whales or gorillas. There is little that politics can achieve, Gray seems to suggest, because 'human disorders cannot be remedied, only treated day by day'. This is not so much realism as cynicism - the very kind of cynicism that drives many to embrace the forms of religious faith that so worry Gray. It is also the kind of cynicism that opens the way to the most regressive of beliefs. 'The freest human being', Gray suggested in Straw Dogs, 'is not one who acts on reasons he has chosen for himself, but one who never has to choose' - a view as chilling as any proposed by a Utopian.
The blind acceptance of Utopian ideas can certainly be corrupting. But so, too, can be the blind rejection of Utopianism. After all what could be more corrupting than accepting as inevitable problems that we might be able to tackle were we to attempt the impossible?