The ideas corner: The savage within

We are not as far removed from barbarism as we like to think, warns John Gray

At the close of Joseph Conrad's "An Outpost of Progress", the director of the Great Civilising Company arrives at a remote African trading post in search of two of the firm's representatives. Having set out to bring civilisation to the region - "Quays, and warehouses, and barracks, and - and - billiard rooms" - they end up trading slaves for ivory and drift into a feud in which one of them is killed. The survivor hangs himself on the cross marking his partner's grave, where he is found "with one purple cheek playfully posed on the shoulder. And, irreverently, he was putting out a swollen tongue at his Managing Director."

Like the better-known Heart of Darkness, "An Outpost of Progress" is usually read as a sardonic commentary on imperialism. The story arose from Conrad's travels in the Belgian Congo, where in the years 1885-1908 (when Congo was the personal fiefdom of éopold II) roughly ten million people died as a result of starvation, overwork and mass murder. Yet Conrad is doing more than attacking colonialism. His larger target is the illusion that barbarism is an alien condition that erupts beyond the frontiers of civilised life.

In reality, the threat of barbarism comes from within civilisation itself. This is not to endorse the Romantic myth of the noble savage. " Primitive" peoples are just as prone to cruelty and folly as the rest of humankind, and human history is not - as Rousseau taught - a long decline from original innocence. The distinction between civilisation and barbarism does not mark some societies off from others. It runs through all societies and through every human being. Violence and madness are never far beneath the surface, and when they break through it is often in savagery that is sanctioned by authority.

Civilised life is an artifice created and sustained by flawed humans, and for that reason alone it can never be secure. It is not a condition of peace - as even Hobbes imagined - but rather a system of conventions that mitigates ongoing conflicts. Examples are the conventions regarding the treatment of prisoners of war and prohibiting torture that were embodied in international law after the Second World War. These are not optional extras of civilised life; they are part of what it means to be civilised at the present time.

The weakness of civilisation is that it encourages the illusion that it is the normal human condition, and when this is punctured barbarism can return almost unnoticed. A shift of this kind may be under way in the "war on terror". As the danger of murderous attacks mounts, supposedly secure freedoms are vanishing. Some loss of liberty is unavoidable; the notion that the threat of terror can be removed by a change in foreign policy is mere fantasy. But if we think of the danger as coming from some far-off region, we will fail to understand its roots in current conflicts. We will drift into a world where we retain the appearances of civilised life - the quays, warehouses, barracks and billiard rooms of Conrad's deluded traders - while civilisation itself melts away.

John Gray is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is Seven Types of Atheism (Allen Lane)

This article first appeared in the 21 August 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Al-Qaeda: Britain in its sights