John Gray: Whatever human beings do changes the world. The ques­tion is whether projects which are for­mu­lat­ed to change the world in cer­tain spe­cif­ic ways can suc­ceed. And one of the prob­lems here, of course, is that there’s no we.” Who’s we? I mean, human­i­ty’s composed—the human species is composed—of bil­lions of sep­a­rate indi­vid­u­als with dif­fer­ent goals, dif­fer­ent plans, dif­fer­ent val­ues, and dif­fer­ent ideals. So, yes they can all change the world but not in the way that they anticipate.

Eveline van der Ham: And do you think that they change the we?

Gray: The we changes all the time, but there’ll nev­er be a uni­ver­sal we. There nev­er has been a uni­ver­sal we, and there nev­er will be a uni­ver­sal we because human beings, although they have many things in com­mon, have—each of them as well as tak­ing them sep­a­rate­ly or collectively—have con­flict­ing goals and pur­pos­es. So there can’t be a we which has the same pur­pos­es, because even in a sin­gle indi­vid­ual, pur­pos­es and val­ues con­flict with each other.

Van der Ham: Now, you are famous for crit­i­ciz­ing beliefs.

Gray: Yes.

Van der Ham: But what do you believe yourself?

Gray: I try to avoid beliefs. We need to have beliefs in con­texts such as med­i­cine or the crim­i­nal law. We try to get the best beliefs we can based on the evi­dence. We all have beliefs about fac­tu­al states of the world. And we even have gen­er­al views of what human beings are like and how human his­to­ry is developing. 

But I think the depen­den­cy on beliefs, the idea that a set of beliefs or a sys­tem of beliefs can some­how pro­vide mean­ing to human life, is a mis­take. So I think we should econ­o­mize on beliefs and do with as few as pos­si­ble. Make them as sim­ple as pos­si­ble and as few as pos­si­ble, and the ones that we have, we should be ready when they con­cern mat­ters of fact in the world—when they con­cern pol­i­tics, for example—we should be ready to sur­ren­der them, give them up, when the world changes.

So I think one of the great errors of the last hun­dred or two hun­dred years is to for­mu­late a sys­tem of polit­i­cal beliefs which is not revis­able by expe­ri­ence. So that if you have a project, such as com­mu­nism or uni­ver­sal democ­ra­cy or the European project, and it does­n’t work out, rather than revis­ing the beliefs about the project, what peo­ple tend to do is to say well, if we try twice as hard, or if we change the cir­cum­stances, or if we’re more enthu­si­as­tic, or more com­mit­ment, of if there’s a larg­er we, or a more har­mo­nious we, we can achieve it. That’s near­ly always an illu­sion. It would be bet­ter to revise the beliefs.

Van der Ham: So, dur­ing your life, have you giv­en up on beliefs?

Gray: No. No, because I did­n’t have any to start with of that kind. For me pol­i­tics is a series of tem­po­rary reme­dies for recur­ring human evils. Politics does­n’t con­sist of a sys­tem of uni­ver­sal prin­ci­ples or of any kind of uni­ver­sal project. It’s sim­ply a series of tem­po­rary, pro­vi­sion­al, par­tial, reme­dies for recur­ring dif­fi­cul­ties or evils. So, Thatcherism was nec­es­sary in…I believe in the late 70s, 80s, and 90s. But it last­ed thir­ty years. It achieved some use­ful goals. But it’s no longer work­able. We need some­thing dif­fer­ent. That’s normal. 

But one of the prob­lems of the late 20th cen­tu­ry and even ear­ly 21st cen­tu­ry think­ing about pol­i­tics is that there is an assump­tion that there is a sin­gle project, or a sin­gle strat­e­gy, or a sin­gle set of respons­es that can always work. Universal democ­ra­cy, human rights, a European project, or some­thing of that kind. All of these should be seen as tem­po­rary expe­di­ents for dimin­ish­ing or reduc­ing human evils such as pover­ty, or tor­ture, or per­se­cu­tion, or geno­cide. There are dif­fer­ent ways of stop­ping or reduc­ing these evils. And if you fix­ate on one, you’ll will nor­mal­ly come soon­er or lat­er to failure. 

Further Reference

How to Change the World?, the 2012 Nexus Conference event page