DOUGLAS MURRAY’S “THE MADNESS OF CROWDS”: A REVIEW
The greatest libertine pleasure for the liberal-conservative is to submerge himself in decadence and then to feel like a dirty, soiled thing. One pictures him slumped in his plum-coloured armchair in his white cotton shirt, a glass of Condrieu in one hand and a smartphone in the other. One imagines his face, illuminated by the glow of his screen, wrinkling with every filthy little item which drops into his feed, his slightly muscular frame, in turn, squirming from an obscure (but not unwelcome) frisson. One imagines Spectator columnist Douglas Murray.
At other times, one imagines him in a situation which he outlined in one of his Spectator columns, and which I think captures the tragic ideological crossroads at which he sits. (In this crossroad metaphor, he is sat sternly at the wheel of a yellow Nissan Figaro, wearing driving gloves, and gripping the wheel firmly while Classical FM plays indifferently from the radio, though this information is not indispensable.) A member of the Church of England, Murray is asked taciturnly by his vicar during a private chat if certain rumours that he has heard about Murray and his relation to the faith are true. Murray responds in the positive. “Yes,” he says. “I am not a believer.” The vicar responds with an awkward “Oh!” and without putting up any sort of fight assures Murray that this is perfectly alright, that even he himself isn’t all that sure about the business.
In 2017, as a young man who had already begun to think regularly about Murray, I went into my local library to order a copy of his then-latest book, The Strange Death of Europe. I lived then in a London neighbourhood with one of the highest muslim populations, and in taking out Murray’s polemical work I feared for my life. After a couple of days of attempting to obscure the cover of the book from the largely muslim and immigrant population with which I rode the bus, I realised that none of them really cared what I was reading. As national and as urgent as the debate on Islam seemed, it was really only being whipped up by left-leaning, Guardian-reading liberals and right-leaning liberals who read the Spectator. I realised, too, that very few of my fellow-passengers could read English anyway.
That book treated what Murray considered to be a general decline in the cultural and political life in Europe, the disappearance of what one might call a European culture, and the supposed role that Islam had played in this change. In it, I detected a longing for the return of Christianity and the often-cited but loosely defined Judeo-Christian values which it promised to bring. Two years previous to the publication of Murray’s book, the French author Houellebecq had published the novel Soumission, in which an academic, hungry for salvation in a now-absent Christianity, submits instead to Islam. I suspected then that Murray, who has read the book — I know, I have seen sat upon his bookshelf — had returned to the Christian faith, not as a little child, but as a regretful liberal seeking some ballast for his political convictions.
The great puzzle for Murray then, as it is now, was how to synthesise one’s liberal values of tolerance and freedom of expression with the culture of intolerance and censorship which it inevitably invites. In The Madness of Crowds, the question of the paradox of liberalism is much the same, but now Murray turns his sights on more fashionable targets. Muslims, after all, are démodé; one hardly sees them in the news anymore. The book is neatly divided into four sections entitled: GAY, WOMEN, RACE, and TRANS with three interludes: The Marxist Foundations, The Impact of Tech, and On Forgiveness. The general thrust of Murray’s book is explained by the Saint George in Retirement metaphor of liberalism, pinched from Australian conservative Kenneth Minogue. The story goes like this: Saint George, long retired after having defeated the dragon, gets bored and decides to get back in the game. Donning his rusty armour and mounting his old nag in the stable, he scours the land looking for a fight. Finding very little in the way of dragons, but still very much in a dragon-slaying mood, he refuses to stop, slashing now at smaller and smaller foes, eventually fighting the wind.
This is all a rather convoluted way of saying that liberalism has gone a little bit too far for Murray’s liking, and the analysis of those four principal topics which make up the chapter headings doesn’t get any more profound. Instead, we are invited onto the plum-coloured armchair, and given an item-by-item list of every event in mainstream discourse over the past five years which Murray has found objectionable. The average reader will already know about many of these events, and will hardly be enriched by learning about those that they are ignorant of. I was unaware, for example, that an actress from a show named The Big Bang Theory had gotten her breasts out on live television until I read Murray’s book, but neither did I need to know that information. It’s not the sort of thing that invites invite any significant analysis, and indeed Murray gives them none; he just holds them up as exemplary of what has gone wrong with feminism, or gay rights, or women.
Liberalism in itself as a political philosophy is, predictably, never identified as a culprit for these cultural shifts, nor considered as untenable. To do so would force Murray to admit that the progressivism, which has already given him what he wanted, has always carried the kernel of the horrors that it is now producing. Liberalism, he says instead, has gone off its natural course, hijacked by Marxism. Michel Foucault (a thinker who should be as indispensable to the right as it is to the left) is identified as one of the culprits for having framed human relations by their relation to power rather than, say, love. Baudrillard, in his criticism of Foucault, explains beautifully the operation of his target’s linguistic power game:
“These procedures of truth are of no importance, for Foucault’s discourse is no truer than any other. No, its strength and its seduction are in the analysis which unwinds the subtle meanderings of its object, describing it with a tactile and tactical exactness, where seduction feeds analytical force and where language itself gives birth to the operation of new powers. Such also is the operation of myth.”
As Murray notes, many of the cultural shifts which he finds distasteful are taking place on the linguistic plane. Novel terms are introduced, met with some resistance, and then eventually accepted into everyday discourse, at which point their function — to normalise what was once a perversity, or to turn a desire into a ‘human right’ — is realised. The nature of our reality is changed by their introduction into the discourse. Murray, for example, is willing enough to accept that gay and straight are ontological realities, but remains skeptical when it comes to bisexuality or transsexuality, not because of a lack of evidence, but because these terms are still wiggling their way into accepted nomenclature. Liberalism, both that of Murray and of his opponents, functions by taking the millennium of human experience, orchestrating it with precision, and then stamping it with precise, practical terms. As Baudrillard says:
“In a certain way, psychoanalysis puts an end to the unconscious and desire, just as Marxism puts an end to the class struggle, because it hypostatizes them and buries them in their theoretical project.”
Both left and conservative liberals are engaged in this reality-altering word game, only that the former advances new realities, while the latter refines them through challenging them. But both the so-called social justice warriors and those who dedicate entire books to writing about them are essential to the process. Life is whittled down and brought into increasingly tedious realities by the bickering of liberal and conservative columnists.
In Cervantes’ El Quijote, a dispute takes place over the exact nature or name of an object. Don Quijote insists that it is the helmet of the mythical Moorish king Mambrino, while the barber claims that it is a simple basin. Sancho Panza, wishing to keep the peace, settles the question by naming it a basinelmet. While the characters argue, a pronouncement from the author on the exact nature of the object is absent. The work lacks an absolute truth, and there are as many truths as there are points of view. For Cervantes as his reader, the object exists as both a basin and the helmet of Mambrino. Don Quijote’s various conditions — idealist, madman — run parallel throughout the novel, and it is the reader who has the privilege of experiencing every reality without settling upon one.
A failure to accept this is perhaps Murray’s problem. These interlocking power games, he says, “do not all lock neatly together, but grind hideously and noisily both against each other and within themselves. They produce friction rather than diminish it, and increase tensions and crowd madnesses more than they produce peace of mind.” But this is the very vitality of life and politics, and Murray ought to get his own hands dirty. He is a mere spectator to the madness who refuses to advance his own folly.