A war of all against all

May 21, 2017

Modernity promises the fruits of prosperity for all but only a privileged few can reach for them. This perhaps is why this is an age of anger

A war of all against all

Is there anyone who doubts that we live in an Age of Anger? For several years now, a rage has been gathering across the world, from the extreme violence of groups like ISIS, to the rise of demagogues in places as various as the Philippines, India, Russia, Turkey, and the United States. The European project, binding together once-warring nations through a borderless economic union under NATO’s protective umbrella, lies imperilled. When the neo-fascist Marine Le Pen secured a third of the presidential vote, our principal response was not one of alarm, but relief.

For Pankaj Mishra, there is nothing surprising about these events. With the election of Narendra Modi in 2014, he took pause to reflect on the appeal of the politics of demonisation. The comforting notions we have lived with since the end of the Cold War --with the promise of freedom and prosperity delivered via free markets -- were dangerous conceits. "The paths of progress," as the Cold War theologian Reinhold Niebuhr presciently wrote, have turned out "to be more devious and unpredictable than the putative managers of history could understand".

Drawing on Abrahamic traditions, liberals and Marxists had insisted on a teleological march toward progress, with a happy ending in this world rather than the next. As Mishra details in his book, such readings of events were crude simplifications and attempts at obscuring the brutal encounters that the West had with modernity before exporting it to the rest of the world. Ever since the conception of the modern commercial society, we have seen the rise of dangerous demagogues, young men drawn to the seductions of violence, a resentment towards elites, and an ‘us versus them’ attitude that demonises ‘the Other’.

To illuminate these tensions, Mishra reaches back into the late 18th century, drawing on a quarrel between two of the leading intellectuals of the time: Voltaire and Rousseau. Voltaire, whose anti-Semitic views have been sanitised by those who now exalt him as an early torchbearer of free speech, was one of the earliest liberal cosmopolitans. He conceived of modern society as driven by rational individuals driven purely by self-interest. His opponent, Rousseau, warned that "insatiable ambition" ineluctably leads to, "the thirst of raising their respective fortunes, not so much from real want as from the desire to surpass others, inspired all men with a vile propensity to injure one another."

Pakistan’s thwarted attempts at modernisation, its fitful irruptions of violence, and its deeply compromised military and civilian elites vividly attest to the age Pankaj Mishra describes.

This is the dilemma we have today, Mishra writes. The world we inhabit is defined by scarcity, as the precarious fate of our environment shows. Modernity promises the fruits of prosperity to all, and yet they are dangled so high that only a privileged few can reach for them. This breeds within people a sense of ressentiment, Mishra says, something that Nietzsche defined as "a whole tremulous realm of subterranean revenge, inexhaustible and insatiable in outbursts". The shocks of modernity are directly unleashed upon individuals who are not equipped to cope with them, Mishra writes, "in an age of accelerating competition on uneven playing fields, where it is easy to feel that there is no such thing as either society or state, and that there is only a war of all against all."

The appeal of strongmen like Modi, Trump, Duterte, Erdogan and Putin lies in their ability to skilfully manipulate the mood of the majority, offering themselves as proud guardians of their tribes, soothing feelings of injured amour propre even as they inflict deeper wounds on vulnerable minorities in their midst. So bleak has the world become, Mishra suggests, that denying dignity to others is the only way for people to gratify their own desire for it. A virulent strain of nationalism has taken root, where people feel they can only demonstrate their allegiance to the nation by identifying enemies within and without, projecting their own humiliations on them.

Age of Anger

Pakistan is an excellent metaphor for the book. Its thwarted attempts at modernisation, its fitful irruptions of violence, and its deeply compromised military and civilian elites vividly attest to the age Mishra describes. The book will be a sobering read for Pakistan’s liberals. If there is any group that clearly articulates the need to bolster democratic civilian rule, resist the military’s incursions into politics, establish peace with India and other neighbours, and resist the tide of violent Islamism, it is them. But, as Mishra explains, worldly liberals are a forlorn minority - especially in Pakistan. Despite their outsized influence, they can only have limited impact. There is nothing that the liberal project, closely identified with ‘globalist’ elites, has to offer people who rely on national and religious bonds to deliver them dignity.

Despite its content, this is not an angry book. It’s actually quite cold. There is nothing about this depressing state of affairs that cheers Mishra. He shares the revulsion of his readers in the world’s leading liberal journals. Strikingly, there’s no anxiety in his writing either - no laments about the crumbling liberal order, no reminisces of a happier age, no suggestions for how these forces can be tamed. The book is remarkable not just for its astonishing erudition and its elegant prose, but also for its bracing confidence.

Mishra, once a youthful leftist, and later a reluctant investor in liberalism who spent many years teasing out its contradictions, is now a clear-eyed realist, who approvingly quotes Niebuhr and Raymond Aron, while at times echoing E.H. Carr’s excoriation of the 19th century notion of a "harmony of interests".

Mishra’s earlier work began where V.S. Naipaul’s non-fiction left off: keenly observing Asia’s encounter with modernity. Mishra has no truck with Naipaul’s prejudices, but clearly admires his finely attuned social antennae. Over the course of essays and books like Temptations of the West, Mishra noted how painful the passage, from the collective wounds of colonialism to the frenetic-paced modern commercial society that exalts individual success, has been for these societies. His sympathies are clearly with the victims of these processes, just as Gandhi’s and Tagore’s were.

It is little wonder that he retreats, for part of the year, to the foothills of the Himalayas, where he can find some respite from our inescapably modern world. And yet he is also a member of the global literary elite, a critic of neoliberalism who is a regular columnist for Bloomberg, a writer whose acknowledgments include Fatima Bhutto -- every Western radical intellectual’s favourite Pakistani aristocrat. This powerful book will force many people to revisit their cherished assumptions, just as its author has had to confront his own.

Age of Anger - A history of the present
Author: Pankaj Mishra
Publisher: Allen Lane, Penguin Books, 2017
Pages: 416
Price: USD18

A war of all against all