To the dizzying sense of foreboding enveloping the world, Pankaj Mishra brings no balm. His new book Age of Anger: A History of the Present (Juggernaut Books, Rs 699) says liberal democracy’s perils are far from over. Indeed, he argues that violence, xenophobia, the experience of ressentiment (resentment) and the appeal of demagoguery have always been part of the West’s march to global domination. To make sense of the toxic anger around us, Mishra asks us to look at the “advent of a commercial-industrial civilisation in the West in the 19th century”; and the droves of “alienated young men of promise” it left in its wake.
Excerpts from a phone interview:
You described Donald Trump’s election as America’s re-entry into the history of the modern world. Would you elaborate?
Since 1945 or even through the 20th century, the United States was the only country that became more powerful. The European nations fought two wars that destroyed them. Countries in Asia and Africa spent most of the 20th century recovering from imperialism. The US emerged as extremely powerful and wealthy. Now with globalisation, American jobs going elsewhere, companies relocating, the US is entering a stage of decline. A lot of Americans have realised that they are getting a raw deal, and have expressed their anger in the kind of politically toxic ways you have seen elswhere. In that sense, the American people have rejoined what for others has always been a tormented history.
In your new book, you argue that one needs to look at — not the 1930s — but the 19th century for an explanation of the current disorder.
The evocation of 1930s is a bit of a cliché. It prevents us from understanding deeper similarities between our situation and that of many people in the late 19th century when the world witnessed the first intensive phase of globalisation, with all the disruption that a global economy brings: people without jobs, adrift in a new economy, people moving from villages to the cities. As political institutions failed to respond to this widespread pain and suffering, people began to chose demagogues as their representatives — and that is true of practically every European country in the late 19th century. They also began ostracising people they had lived with for centuries and centuries. I am talking primarily of the Jews…
…The atmosphere for the rise of Nazism and fascism was prepared at least four decades ago in the early 19th century. That experience is also relevant in India where we are seeing all these phenomena simultaneously: urbanisation, the global economy, the loss of confidence in an old political elite, the longing for a strong man to cut through the glacial processes of democracy.
One of the arguments you advance is that to conceive of humans as the homo economicus — a rational being in pursuit of his economic self-interest—is no longer possible. Why is that?
First of all, we have to recognise that that is an entirely radical conception, first formulated in Europe in the late 18th century, and institutionalised as Europe industrialised and expanded its territories. It believed that a human being’s real aim should be material self-interest and that governments should exist to make that pursuit possible. There were people like Sigmund Freud, any number of novelists and artists who argued that to think of human beings in this way is incredibly crude. Humans are motivated by the unconscious, ideas of honour, dignity, security and stability, all equal or more important than material advancement. In the last 20-30 years, we have lost this fundamental insight of our religions and philosophies, which the modernists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries insisted on.
The cracks are now showing up because (on the one hand) there is accumulation of great profit at one end of the economic spectrum. Also, a dominant mode of existence where individuals compete with others to advance has proven to be oppressive for many people, for instance, those who have been laid off. What is being asked of them? They should retrain themselves for the new service-oriented, technology-driven economy. But many people in their late 40s or early 50s or even older are not in a position to transform themselves into this new person.
You seem to be pessimistic about China and India’s path to growth.
It is the big political problem right now. That the promises the ruling classes have made to the citizens — of continuous growth and then the fair distribution of that growth — that project is really endangered now. Growth is slowing down and it seems like it has been benefiting a tiny minority all this time. Attempts at redistributing are not succeeding fast enough. And that is why many countries, including India, are turning to authoritarianism as a kind of preemptive measure to check what would be increasingly militant disaffection. There are new formulas of nationalism, identification of enemies, both internal and external. People are being distracted with notions of national glory.
In the book, you speak of resentment as a political emotion ripe for plucking.
In India and the US, we have seen ressentiment and resentment become politically toxic. In highly unequal societies, the source of pain for many people is not just economic inequality. It comes from the fact that people who are in power not only have more money but also have more cultural and social capital. Narendra Modi exploited this brilliantly in the run-up to the 2014 elections, where he ranged himself against the Nehruvian, English-speaking Anglophone elite of the country. In the same way, Trump employed ressentiment against the metropolitan elite effectively.
…As many people uprooted from their homes search for livelihoods in big cities, they become disconnected from their families, from the ways in which we become human, we become citizens. When you look at the mass molestation in Bangalore, you are looking at individuals who have missed the process in which they become members of a society. When you have many people uprooted in this way, many pathologies are unleashed, which includes the craving for a master and a strong man who can offer some psychological compensation in the way he speaks, in the way he attacks the elite. There is some moral confirmation to be drawn from trash talk.
You don’t really go there in this book, but do you see this as a crisis of masculinity?
That’s very insightful. As I was writing the book, I kept thinking to myself that there should be a feminist history of the modern world. One will quickly acknowledge then that so much of the violence, starting from the 19th century, comes from a crisis of masculinity. It comes from a need to assert your will—which is a great good upheld by the modern world—and then finding that simple assertion doesn’t take you very far. You are immediately met with frustration. That kind of frustrated will then finds vulnerable targets, women being one of them, minorities being another. And what we are seeing today is the kind of universalisation of the crisis of masculinity.
Your book highlights a robust tradition of critique of industrial capitalism, from the Romantics to Tolstoy to Rousseau and Gandhi. Why is it that the tradition breaks in the 21st or the late 20th century?
I think that is a very good question and to answer that properly, one would have to write a whole book, where you have to describe how this particular tradition, which basically, feeds much of modern literature and philosophy, died as writers and philosophers became professionalized. Writers and artists became a part of the wider world of affluence and power. They lost much of their critical edge in the process. They ceased to be the marginal figures that they always were. All through the 19th century, they were critics of their respective societies, of the main tendencies of their society, whether it is Flaubert or Nietzsche or Kierkegaard. One of the reasons we find ourselves at a loss to understand what is happening right now is because we are disconnected from that tradition.
You describe ISIS soldiers as modern-day Raskolnikovs. Are you not giving a free pass to religious extremism?
Words like religious/Islamic extremism are misleading and have led many intelligent people astray. This is the kind of intellectual harakiri people committed after 9/11 when everyone rushed to find a copy of the Quran to find if there was sanction for acts of violence, forgetting this long history of terrorism in the West and other parts of the world.
…The people who join ISIS can barely tell you anything about Islam. Almost all of them are petty criminals, drunks, drug-dealers. They are not even nominally Muslim. These are half-made men who find in ISIS and violence a kind of intoxicating assertion of masculinity, who find destruction deeply fulfilling.
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