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Straw Dogs Revisited

Straw Dogs by John Gray

Review by Gerald Levy

‘Progress and mass murder run in tandem,’ so writes John Gray in his short book, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, which is packed with such epigrams.

These sparkling gems are always thought-provoking, and it would appear that there is little that Gray does not know about. Certainly there is little he does not write about. After his book was published in 2003, it was nominated by several British intellectuals as the best book of the year, high praise indeed. Three years on, it is still selling well, so it might be worthwhile conducting a re-evaluation.

The best way to form an idea of the quality of Gray’s thinking is to look at how he deals with a few specific topics. So off we go.

Financial planning: ’ … we have no idea what the future will bring. None but the incorrigibly feckless any longer believe in taking the long term view. Saving is gambling, careers and pensions are high-level punts.’

This sort of statement could seriously damage your health. John Gray is Professor of Modern European Thought at the London School of Economics. There may be young people contemplating a career, or contributing to a pension fund, who will actually act on his advice.

Of course ships may sink, and planes may crash, but it does not follow from that that we should never set sail nor go to Heathrow. If we pay into a fund and things go well, we should get a moderate pension; if they go badly, our pension will be reduced. But if we do not pay into a fund at all, for certain we will have a poverty-stricken old age.

Jobs and class: ‘Industrialisation created the working class. Now it has made the working class obsolete … The middle class is a luxury capitalism can no longer afford.’

By the end of 2002, when Gray was writing, the UK employment level had been climbing for years and had reached a record 28 million. Not the strongest of empirical foundations for a prediction of catastrophe. By October 2005, another 800,000 jobs had been added.

Progress: Gray does not believe in progress. Fair enough. But to bolster up his position he writes: ‘Progress and mass murder run in tandem.’ I find this puzzling.

What progress is John Gray talking about, and which mass murders? Presumably among the mass murders that he has in mind are those by Stalin and Hitler. Take the thirty years from 1914 to 1945. They are not generally thought of as years when progress shone out over the world like the midday sun.

So presumably Gray would have to blame the excesses of the dictators on some good things that happened before 1914. Twenty five years previously Bismark had carried through one of the great reforms of the nineteenth century, a comprehensive social welfare system for Germany. Are we to understand that this went in tandem with the Holocaust?

Anyway, the truth is that bad things sometimes happen after good ones, but they are not necessarily caused by them. Richard was promoted on Monday and died in a train crash on Tuesday. The promotion did not cause him to be involved in the crash. We would not say that promotion and train crashes run in tandem.

Truth: ‘The worship of truth is a Christian cult’ writes Gray. I seem to remember that one of the Ten Commandments was that you should not bear false witness against your neighbour. If you list out the ten things that Christians were most strenuously encouraged to worship over the ages, I doubt if truth would figure, save as it appears in the those commandments. And even in non-Christian countries, people get sacked or sent to prison for telling lies.

Truth and Freedom: ‘Humanists believe that if we know the truth we will be free.’ I personally do not know anyone who would call himself a ‘humanist’, but leaving that aside, who today believes that if we know the truth we will be free? Free from what? From wars? From poverty? From crime? Of course, psychoanalysts used to think that if we knew the truth about ourselves we might be free of neuroses, but who believes this as a general proposition?

Gray says ‘Human knowledge is one thing, human well-being another.’ Of course he is right, but you have to go further than this. Knowledge of how to make penicillin did lead to human well-being. But the result of one group’s knowledge of how to make atom bombs was that another group ceased to exist.

Economics: Gray tells us that ‘Financial markets are moved by contagion and hysteria. Mesmer and Charcot are better guides to the new economy than Hayek or Keynes.’

Charcot, born in 1825, was a French neurologist. He used hypnosis largely for experimental purposes, to investigate what was then called ‘hysteria’.

Keynes was not only a great economist, he was also a great speculator and investor in the stock markets, using his own funds, the funds of friends, and the funds of King’s College, Cambridge. He believed that the stock market was a “casino”, guided by “animal spirit”. He wrote of “the mass psychology of ignorant speculators” and stated, “the stock market will be subject to waves of optimistic or pessimistic sentiment.” I would have thought that Gray would have relied on Keynes’ work as authority for his own views, rather than deem him inferior to a nineteenth century neurologist.

Tigers: Gray writes, ‘Even a caged tiger passes its life half out of time’. I think this means that even tigers sleep. With that I agree.

There are many good ideas in this book, ideas of enormous interest, but again and again they are taken to extremes, packaged into short, sharp sentences and made untenable, like an elastic band which is pulled until it snaps.

Gray is brilliant at producing startling epigrams, but the reason why startling epigrams are startling is generally because they are wrong.