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
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