Mar­shalling many a writer, thinker and philoso­pher, Pankaj Mishra tries to make sense of the world around us in the era of Trump and Brexit

India Today - - PROFILE/PANKAJ MISHRA - By Shougat Das­gupta

De­cry­ing 2016 as that most dis­as­trous of years for lib­er­als has be­come a meme, as colum­nists, pub­lic in­tel­lec­tu­als and pop cul­ture celebri­ties line up to be­moan a world­wide re­ver­sion to fear, dis­trust, anger and ha­tred cul­mi­nat­ing in the elec­tion of Don­ald Trump, an or­ange alert if ever there was one. “Some­thing is rot­ten in the state of democ­racy,” Pankaj Mishra wrote in a re­cent col­umn in the New York

Times. “The stink first be­came un­mis­tak­able in In­dia in May 2014,” he added, “when Naren­dra Modi, a mem­ber of an alt-right Hindu or­gan­i­sa­tion in­spired by fas­cists and Nazis, was elected prime min­is­ter.” It was a line cal­cu­lated to cause um­brage. Cudgels were duly taken up against Mishra in the com­ments, with one dis­grun­tled sup­porter warn­ing Amer­i­can read­ers not to “go by this Marx­ist por­trayal of Modi. Its [sic] full of lies and fab­ri­ca­tions... Peo­ple like Pankaj Mishra are in­volved in Maoist ter­ror­ism in In­dia. That is Mishra’s ideal sys­tem, a com­mu­nist rev­o­lu­tion”. Down a phone line from Myan­mar, it’s dif­fi­cult to dis­cern what das­tardly plot the soft-spo­ken, painstak­ingly pre­cise Mishra has in mind. He is not forth­com­ing about the de­tails. Rather than the over­throw of Modi, what Mishra wants to talk about is his forth­com­ing book, Age of Anger, pub­lished in In­dia in hand­some hard­back by Jug­ger­naut Books, which ad­dresses the elec­toral shocks of Brexit, Trump, and the de­feat, at least mo­men­tary, of “En­light­en­ment hu­man­ism and ra­tio­nal­ism”, to quote Mishra quot­ing the Cana­dian his­to­rian and for­mer politi­cian Michael Ig­nati­eff. Some might see in such pro­nounce­ments, or in the as­ser­tion that ‘dem­a­gogues’ such as Modi “have tapped into the sim­mer­ing reser­voirs of cyn­i­cism, bore­dom and dis­con­tent”, fur­ther ev­i­dence of Mishra’s de haut en bas con­de­scen­sion. Does one have to be a bored, ir­ra­tional, en­vi­ous cynic to have voted for Modi?

The hand-wring­ing of so-called lib­er­als, par­tic­u­larly after the elec­tion of Trump, can be a lit­tle hard to take, as if they had not been ac­tive par­tic­i­pants, in­deed lead­ers, in ex­ac­er­bat­ing in­equal­i­ties and bomb­ing poorer coun­tries. But Mishra’s ar­gu­ment is not so facile. His is not a straight-faced ren­der­ing of Woody Allen’s (semi?) comic sug­ges­tion, in Ev­ery­one Says

I Love You, that spout­ing con­ser­va­tive shib­bo­leths could only be the re­sult of tem­po­rary in­san­ity. Age

of Anger is about the fail­ures of the En­light­en­ment, the smug, moral su­pe­ri­or­ity, as Jean-Jac­ques Rousseau put it, of the “im­pe­ri­ous dog­ma­tists”. Rousseau, Mishra wrote in an es­say, “thrived on his loathing of metropoli­tan van­ity, his dis­trust of tech­nocrats and of in­ter­na­tional trade, and his ad­vo­cacy of tra­di­tional mores”. In Voltaire, the great French satirist and poster boy of free speech, Rousseau found the em­bod­i­ment of all he re­sented about the En­light­en­ment— ur­ban­ity, in­tel­lec­tual self-con­fi­dence, and a dis­re­gard, even con­tempt, for the tra­di­tional.

It gives Mishra a neat hook. Played out in the sa­lons of En­light­en­ment Paris, in the an­tag­o­nism be­tween Rousseau and Voltaire are ar­gu­ments with a con­tem­po­rary res­o­nance. It’s a lit­tle like a Euro­pean ver­sion of the me­dieval an­imus be­tween the Mus­lim poly­math Ibn Rush and the doc­tri­naire the­olo­gian Ghaz­ali, the for­mer a kind of hu­man­ist and the lat­ter a man of piety, of un­wa­ver­ing faith. In the New Yorker, Mishra wrote that Rousseau had come to seem like “the cen­tral pro­tag­o­nist in the anti-elit­ist re­volt cur­rently re­con­fig­ur­ing our pol­i­tics”. He is, “a lit­tle like Modi”, Mishra said on the phone from Yangon, “the man from the prov­inces with big

PPeo­ple, says Mishra, no longer want to be told what to do by an en­trenched elite, to be told how to live “while be­ing ex­cluded from the high ta­ble”

ideas”. Modi felt a deep anger to­wards the An­glophile metropoli­tan elite of In­dia, a class of peo­ple happy to spout pab­u­lum about the poor while en­rich­ing them­selves, or so the char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion goes.

Mishra, him­self ar­guably a pro­vin­cial, or at least out­side the An­glo-Amer­i­can elite to which he now be­longs, or is crit­i­cised for pan­der­ing to, feels sym­pa­thy for the Ni­et­zschean ressen­ti­ment that he be­lieves char­ac­terises con­tem­po­rary anti-elitism—“an in­tense mix of envy and sense of hu­mil­i­a­tion and pow­er­less­ness,” he writes, “...poi­sons civil so­ci­ety and un­der­mines po­lit­i­cal lib­erty, and is presently making for a global turn to au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism and toxic forms of chau­vin­ism”.

Peo­ple, Michael Gove, the Bri­tish Con­ser­va­tive politi­cian, said dur­ing the Brexit de­bates “have had enough of ex­perts”. Peo­ple, Mishra says in our con­ver­sa­tion no longer want to be told what to do by an “en­trenched elite”, to be “told how to live” while be­ing “ex­cluded from the high ta­ble”. Of course, the whole point of hav­ing a high ta­ble in the first place is ex­clu­sion. It is the “self-sat­is­fac­tion”, Mishra ac­knowl­edges, of the ‘great and the good’, which has al­lowed dem­a­gogues like Trump, or Re­cep Er­do­gan in Turkey, or Ro­drigo Duterte in the Philip­pines, to cur­dle pop­u­lar dis­sat­is­fac­tion into anger, re­sent­ment and ugly prej­u­dice. art of the tech­no­cratic mis­un­der­stand­ing, Mishra con­tends, is the re­duc­tion of hu­man be­ings to ac­tors mo­ti­vated by eco­nomic self-in­ter­est. “In my book,” Mishra says, “I am ask­ing for some­thing very very mod­est, that we con­sider other as­pects of the hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence: fear­ing of los­ing dig­nity, for in­stance, los­ing hon­our.” In

Age of Anger, Mishra turns to Dos­to­evsky—as he turns to a vast cat­a­logue of writ­ers and thinkers through­out these pages—to ex­plain 19th cen­tury be­wil­der­ment with the nar­row­ness of the En­light­en­ment, of the in­di­vid­u­al­ism that emerged, the ma­te­ri­al­ism that re­sulted in “a prin­ci­ple of iso­la­tion, of in­tense self-preser­va­tion, of per­sonal gain, of the I, of op­pos­ing this I to all na­ture and the rest of mankind”.

Un­able to adapt to the Dar­winian ethos of the mod­ern world, of un­even eco­nomic growth, of feel­ing left out and alien­ated by ‘progress’, peo­ple turned in Europe to dem­a­gogues. It is a process, Mishra ob­serves, that is eerily similar to what has been hap­pen­ing in the world for the past cou­ple of years. “Com­mit­ted to see­ing the in­di­vid­ual self as a ra­tio­nal ac­tor,” he wrote in the Guardian, “we fail to see that it is a deeply un­sta­ble en­tity, con­stantly shaped and re­shaped in its in­ter­play with shift­ing so­cial and cul­tural con­di­tions.” It is not a mis­take that Modi, for all his talk of GDP and de­vel­op­ment, makes.

His ap­peal to pub­lic patriotism to sup­port, in Mishra’s words, “hare­brained” poli­cies such as de­mon­eti­sa­tion has been ef­fec­tive when ra­tio­nal­ity and eco­nomic self-in­ter­est would sug­gest a greater de­gree of dis­gruntle­ment. Mishra, who says “two or three years is a very long time in pol­i­tics”, still holds out hope for “frag­ments of op­po­si­tion, a re­gional coali­tion” to muster suf­fi­cient strength to test Modi by 2019, but ac­knowl­edges that no lan­guage has yet been found to counter the prime min­is­ter. In­stead, vide Arvind Ke­jri­wal, the pro­fessed op­po­si­tion has be­gun to pla­gia­rise Modi’s vo­cab­u­lary of self-ag­gran­dis­e­ment. Modi him­self, as many have noted, is pla­gia­ris­ing Indira Gandhi—In­dia is Modi, and Modi is In­dia, as some func­tionary will no doubt be trot­ted out to say, or rather tweet.

Age of Anger makes use­ful con­nec­tions, shows that the alien­ated young Euro­peans who cause de­struc­tion in their coun­tries in the name of ISIS are not a fresh evil but a con­tem­po­rary avatar of a deeply fa­mil­iar type. Per­haps, as Mikhail Bakunin, an im­por­tant fig­ure in this book, said, “we come al­ways to the same sad con­clu­sion, the rule of the great masses of the peo­ple by a priv­i­leged mi­nor­ity.” That priv­i­leged mi­nor­ity are the an­gry out­siders who have emerged in the decades after the fall of the Ber­lin Wall, or, in our case, the ‘lib­er­al­is­ing’ of In­dia’s econ­omy, to lay waste to tri­umphal­ist procla­ma­tions of the end of his­tory.

Gen­tle fun can be had at Mishra’s ex­pense. He is one of those “peo­ple with projects”—the lat­est of which, and the rea­son he is in Burma, is to write about the “mil­i­tari­sa­tion of Bud­dhism”—a phrase he takes from the le­gal scholar David Kennedy, to de­scribe the dis­cred­ited elite. But he recog­nises his kind and is clear-eyed about their delu­sions and so helps us see a lit­tle more clearly our­selves.

Age of Anger A His­tory of the Present by Pankaj Mishra Jug­ger­naut Books Avail­able in book­stores and www.jug­ger­naut.in Price: Rs 699 (hard­back) Pages: 432

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