John Gray, philosopher: ‘The West has a false view of Hamas as an anti-colonial movement. It has more in common with ISIS’

The author of ‘Straw Dogs’ — one of the most influential political thinkers of recent decades — analyzes the Israeli conflict and argues that populism is a reaction to liberal policies

John Gray
Philosopher John Gray photographed in Bath, United Kingdom, on October 6, 2023.Ione Saizar
Rafa de Miguel

There is a certain consistency in the idea of always swimming against the current. In the persistence of rebelling against fashionable ideas, even if changing opinion ends up, paradoxically, appearing as incoherence. That’s the case for John N. Gray, 75, one of the most influential and widely read political thinkers and philosophers in recent decades.

Gray is a staunch defender of the pluralism of values in the liberalism of philosopher Isaiah Berlin — who he met while studying at Oxford, and whose fundamental work he contributed to editing — against the legalistic and universal liberalism of John Rawls. He supported Margaret Thatcher until he became her biggest critic due to the damage her policies caused to the working class families of northern England, like his own. He was a fervent follower of Tony Blair’s New Labor until sinking in disappointment at how Labor embraced the neoliberal economic consensus. And he backed Brexit, which he saw as the obvious expression that liberal elites were incapable of understanding the pulse of the society they sought to govern.

Gray lives in the most French of English cities: Bath, just over an hour from London. Since the pandemic, his trips to the British capital have become much more sporadic. The conversation with EL PAÍS took place in one of the beautiful cafes that are spread throughout the center of the town [later, the interview was updated by telephone after the Hamas attack on Israel, but before the bombing of the al-Ahli al Arab Hospital in Gaza]. Gray is of a protestant nature, which, however, hides his great generosity. He’s generous with his time and effort. Reluctantly, he adopts all the poses asked by the photographer. Gradually but with increasing speed, he answers all the questions posed by the interviewer. And asks his own. He has an original and provocative vision, always articulated, in the face of the challenges facing the world. The atrocities of Hamas in Israel and the bombing of Gaza. The invasion of Ukraine. The crisis of liberal democracies. The disturbing drift of the United States. And the emergence of artificial intelligence.

Twenty years have passed since he published Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals. One of Gray’s most acclaimed pieces, the book shakes up the reader’s conventional thinking by challenging the “religion” of humanism and progress on which liberalism or Marxism are based. He refutes the idea that human beings are really different, in their importance and transcendence, from the rest of the beings that inhabit the planet. Gray defends without nuance everything he stated two decades ago, and even points out the historical examples from this period that confirm his rational pessimism, and his disbelief in the idea that there is something called progress.

Question. I must begin this interview by asking you about the Hamas attack in Israel and the Israeli government’s response in Gaza. Does this mark a before and after?

Answer. Hamas’s atrocities amount to the largest, worst attacks on Jews since the Holocaust, and therefore they will have a profound effect in Israel, as well as on Jewish people around the world. And in that respect, I think a Western liberal perception has been falsified. The perception of Hamas until now, was of a national liberation movement like that in third world countries, an anti-colonial movement. I think what their behavior in Israel has demonstrated is that they have more in common with jihadist movements like ISIS and Al Qaeda.

Q. Do you think the West’s response has been different this time?

A. We have to remember that there’s a whole culture in the west of anticolonialism and decolonization. This is the lens through which a lot of Western opinion perceives what’s going on in Israel. It’s deeply rooted, and I think it will only become more extreme, more embedded in future months. The response in the West has been equivocal, and will become more equivocal, and is likely to become more hostile to Israel. Part of the tragedy of this cruel conflict is that it is a disaster for the project of Palestinian statehood.

John Gray during the interview in Bath, on October 6.
John Gray during the interview in Bath, on October 6.Ione Saizar

Q. Twenty years have passed since you wrote Straw Dogs, where you dismantled the idea that humans were different from the rest of the species on planet Earth, and attacked the optimistic vision of humanism. Has this idea been reaffirmed?

A. The idea of a humanity, as an entity, as a unique subject capable of choosing, still seems absurd to me. When people say, ‘Is there still time for us to deal with climate change?’ Who’s us? There’s us? Who’s us? Is it the people sitting in the room at that time? You mean highly intelligent progressive journalists? You mean, very fluent, and opportunistic politicians? Does ‘us’ include the United States, which two years from now may be governed again by Trump? Does it include China, which is spending an awful lot on renewable energies, but it’s also bringing out huge numbers of new coal mines? Humanity, in that sense, is a myth.

Q. You do not believe in progress outside of science or technology.

A. I hold completely to the view I expressed about progress and ethics in politics. Progress, and if you like, even civilization, could always be lost. What has been gained over one generation or two generations can be lost in the blink of an eye in a few months, or a few weeks.

As you may know, I opposed the Iraq War before it happened. I wrote in the New Statesman in late 2002, early 2003 February, that I thought the Iraq War would lead to the breakup of the Iraqi state. But I also wrote a satirical spoof called A Modest Defense of Torture. I suggested darkly as a piece of black humor — like Jonathan Swift did when he said the solution to the Irish famine was obvious, the Irish should eat their children — that torture be used as an instrument of human rights. That was regarded as a piece of nihilistic cynicism. Then came Abu Ghraib, and you had people in the United States defending waterboarding and the torture of captured terrorists in various parts of the world.

Q. You have never doubted the threat of global warming and climate change. But you are much more critical of the political objectives adopted in the last decade.

A. Climate change first of all is real, and even accelerating. And secondly, it is a product of human action. But it can’t be solved by moving to renewable technologies as such. It will actually probably require new energy technologies like new generations of nuclear power. The net-zero program is an interesting example of the fact that we live in an age of absurdity. The net-zero program was adopted before the infrastructure was ready. Before the necessary technologies were ready. And before we had any of the raw materials for the batteries, and without taking into account the geopolitical reality that most of the necessary materials are controlled by China.

Q. The problem is that any criticism of the environmental strategy ends up becoming a political weapon, especially by the sector of the right that falls into climate change denial.

A. The weaponization doesn’t come just from the right. The weaponization comes from the fact that they’re not democratically legitimate. They can’t be because a lot of the costs fall on poorer people. What do you think caused the Yellow Vest movement in France? An increase in energy prices.

Q. Doesn’t demagoguery sneak into such an important debate?

A. It’s been whipped up by demagogues, of course, every society always has demagogues. Why can they get mass support now? That’s the question. Because the center and the left have vacated the space on this. It’s all being weaponized by the right. But the weaponization is working because the actual policies don’t work. When liberals talk about populism — liberals and the liberal left — what they’re talking about is the political backlash against the social disruption produced by their own policies, which they don’t understand.

Q. Recently, a current of thinkers has warned that liberal democracy, after decades of success following the end of the Second World War, is at risk of disappearing. Do you agree?

A. There were some excellent features of liberal democracy. And I’m still myself, in some sense, a liberal. But they’re not recognizing the role of fundamental errors by liberal democracies, by the liberal political class, in bringing about this situation. It’s as if it only happens. It’s actually a rather deep paradox. These are all people who believe in indefinite human improvability, but then they suddenly start talking in a way in which it’s almost a theory of evil. Evil as Trump is evil. I’m not convinced.

Q. I understand then that you blame liberalism for the populist drift.

A. The excesses of liberalism and the errors of liberalism and the doubling up of liberalism have produced this monster. And so the more they persist in this attitude, the stronger the populist response will be. I predict that in America, the legal campaign against Trump — which is no doubt well-founded in Trump’s crimes — will not only be to strengthen support for Trump among his supporters, which has already happened, actually, but even increase that support.

John Gray, author of 'Straw Dogs,' in Bath (United Kingdom), on October 6, 2023.
John Gray, author of 'Straw Dogs,' in Bath (United Kingdom), on October 6, 2023.Ione Saizar

Q. Let’s talk about Ukraine. In this conflict, which achieved early and unanimous support from the West, you are beginning to see things with a certain pessimism.

A. Europeans have support Ukraine in their resistance against what was a great crime against humanity. I don’t share this nonsense that it was produced by NATO. It was principally produced by Putin’s nationalism or imperialism, by his desire to reconstruct some kind of semi mystical, Russian Empire. But I’ve also constantly predicted that with one or two exceptions — the Swedes, the Baltic states and Poland — European support for the Ukrainians will crack. It’s already cracking, cracking even between Poland and Ukraine. And I’ve also always predicted that it would crack in America. Because America has lots of internal problems of its own.

Q. You believe that the mistakes made in other conflicts in the 21st century are beginning to be repeated.

A. Whatever happens in Ukraine, Europe has to understand that Russia is not a solvable problem. Regime change [would not be] doubling up — we would be quadrupling the stakes. Regime change in such a vast country that is also a nuclear power? We were lucky to live when communism collapsed. The spine of the state remained in Russia, and its nuclear power did not slip out.

Q. Are you worried about the U.S.? Trump’s possible return is beginning to be a very realistic prospect.

A. Whoever wins the next presidential election in the United States, it’ll be a period of great disorder, because whoever wins will be regarded as illegitimate by about a quarter to a third of the population. It’s a crisis of legitimacy. That’s a great moment of danger for the world. The world’s autocracies will be looking for a moment where they can act decisively when America is distracted, when America is introverted.

Q. After 9/11, many voices announced a before and after, that nothing would be the same again. The same thing happened with the pandemic, even with the invasion of Ukraine and the return of war to the heart of Europe. And yet there is no such change.

A. What never changes is the fragility of civilization. And the rapidity with which it can dissolve into barbarism. Chaos. That’s what not changed. So in one sense, you could say that the fact that everything didn’t change is consoling, because everything didn’t end. But the other side of it is that the horrors that had been carrying all along, didn’t end either.

I wrote in October 1989 a criticism of Fukuyama’s essay The End of History — the book hadn’t come out yet — and then I published a book called False Dawn in which I said that the period of globalization global capitalism would break down the way it did. They said, ‘he’s an apocalyptic pessimist.’ I said, ‘What I’m saying is that history will go on exactly before.’ I wrote that what’s happening now is not the end of history, but it’s resumption on very traditional lines. The wars of the future will be wars of religion, wars of resources.

Q. Let’s talk about artificial intelligence (AI). You already talked about it in Straw Dogs. But I don’t think that at that time you foresaw the revolution that was coming.

A. The main conclusion from Straw Dogs is the idea that we should regulate it. But we return to the problem at the beginning of this conversation. Who are we? We in America or Europe? Will China regulate it? Will Russia? There isn’t one kind of entity of artificial intelligence that’s evolving in the world, there are separate systems, each of which is programmed in a different way with different goals and objectives. We may get to a point where each of them deviates from the programming, but that doesn’t mean we’ll get a kind of global artificial intelligence. It just means that these conflicts will be fought out using artificial intelligence or even with artificial intelligence in different ways in different contexts.

Q. And the changes it will bring are both certain and uncertain.

A. One thing that can be said it that its impact on economic life it’s going to be huge. Maybe the first consequence. It will not be a matter of generations, or even decades, it will be quick. Probably one of the first signs is the Hollywood writers strike. That can be maybe settled in the short run, but there is an underlying tendency to wipe out certain professions or reduce them greatly.

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