His­tory’s cy­cle of de­spair, anger and despo­tism

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Car­los Lozada

How­ever long the Don­ald Trump pres­i­dency is with us — eight years, four years or less — the forces that pro­pelled him to power will not dis­si­pate with his de­par­ture. If any­thing, with­out Trump as a fo­cal point gal­va­niz­ing sup­port­ers and op­po­nents, those forces may be­come harder to con­trol, chan­nel or even un­der­stand.

Eco­nomic griev­ances and racial an­i­mus com­pete as the two short­hand ex­pla­na­tions for Trump’s rise, and among the pres­i­dent’s lib­eral crit­ics, it is a near ar­ti­cle of faith that the for­mer ra­tio­nale is overly gen­er­ous, while the lat­ter is more ac­cu­rate and (bonus!) more damn­ing. Af­ter all, it is sim­pler and more right­eous to call out the hor­ri­fy­ing rhetoric of proTrump white na­tion­al­ists than to Piketty your way through di­ag­noses and reme­dies for eco­nomic in­equal­ity.

Pankaj Mishra’s “Age of Anger” is a book about many things, a sort of in­tel­lec­tual his­tory of his­tory it­self. But if there is one con­vinc­ing con­clu­sion that em­anates from these pages, it is that these al­ter­na­tive ex­pla­na­tions are not

com­pet­ing; in fact, they are barely al­ter­na­tives. The two are bound to­gether, re­in­forc­ing each other in cy­cles that long pre­date the Trump phe­nom­e­non.

What the world has en­dured in the quar­ter­century since the end of the Cold War — the tri­umph of po­lit­i­cal lib­erty and eco­nomic glob­al­iza­tion, only to be fol­lowed by fi­nan­cial crises, pop­ulist move­ments and transna­tional ter­ror­ism — is but the lat­est it­er­a­tion, on a wider scale, of what has hap­pened for cen­turies. “The un­prece­dented po­lit­i­cal, eco­nomic and so­cial dis­or­der that ac­com­pa­nied the rise of the in­dus­trial cap­i­tal­ist econ­omy in nine­teenth cen­tury Europe, and led to world wars, to­tal­i­tar­ian regimes and geno­cide in the first half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, is now in­fect­ing much vaster re­gions and big­ger pop­u­la­tions,” Mishra writes. “So­ci­eties or­ga­nized for the in­ter­play of in­di­vid­ual self-in­ter­est can col­lapse into manic trib­al­ism, if not ni­hilis­tic vi­o­lence.”

Those im­pulses can take the form of 18th­cen­tury rev­o­lu­tions, 19th-cen­tury an­ar­chist move­ments, 20th-cen­tury eth­nic cleans­ing, and 21st-cen­tury ter­ror­ism and na­tion­al­ism. Vi­cious­ness and prej­u­dice flow from eco­nomic dis­lo­ca­tion, and in turn feed it. His­tory priv­i­leges no right side, and its arc can bend so far that it loops back upon us.

“Now with the vic­tory of Don­ald Trump,” Mishra writes, “it has be­come im­pos­si­ble to deny or ob­scure the great chasm . . . be­tween an elite that seizes moder­nity’s choic­est fruits while dis­dain­ing older truths and up­rooted masses, who, on find­ing them­selves cheated of the same fruits, re­coil into cul­tural supremacism, pop­ulism and ran­corous bru­tal­ity.”

There is noth­ing worse than par­tial moder­nity. And all moder­nity, it turns out, is par­tial.

Mishra is a fel­low of the Royal So­ci­ety of Lit­er­a­ture, and he writes like he’s try­ing to re­mind you of that. Ev­ery novel or man­i­festo by some 19th-cen­tury Rus­sian philoso­pher, post-En­light­en­ment Italian literati wannabe or Hindu na­tion­al­ist ide­o­logue mer­its a few pages or at least a few sen­tences. Strad­dling the line be­tween eru­di­tion and show­ing off, this book makes you feel smarter for hav­ing read it, even if you feel a lit­tle stupid first.

Mishra paints in thick, fu­ri­ous strokes, then lingers on minute de­tails. To­gether, the French and In­dus­trial rev­o­lu­tions con­spired to pro­duce cap­i­tal­ist mod­ern­iza­tion, “the univer­sal­ist creed that glo­ri­fied the au­tonomous rights-bear­ing in­di­vid­ual and hailed his ra­tio­nal choice-mak­ing ca­pac­ity as free­dom,” Mishra writes. Faith in science, eco­nom­ics and ra­tio­nal­ity be­gan to over­power faith in, well, faith, as En­light­en­ment thinkers “hoped to ap­ply the sci­en­tific method dis­cov­ered in the pre­vi­ous cen­tury to phe­nom­ena be­yond the nat­u­ral world, to gov­ern­ment, eco­nom­ics, ethics, law, so­ci­ety.” This new faith would also yield the cult of “de­vel­op­ment” — equat­ing progress with the in­ex­orable ad­vance of science and in­dus­try, and the req­ui­site down­grad­ing of tra­di­tion and re­li­gion.

If that had worked, this book would not ex­ist. How­ever, “in­stead of har­mo­niz­ing so­cially me­di­ated in­ter­ests,” Mishra writes, “an in­creas­ingly in­dus­tri­al­ized econ­omy cre­ated class an­tag­o­nisms and gross in­equal­i­ties.” Fy­o­dor Dos­toyevsky grasped the con­flict; Mishra re­calls how, dur­ing a visit to Paris, the Rus­sian writer caus­ti­cally con­cluded that “lib­erté” was just for mil­lion­aires, “égal­ité” did not ex­ist for the poor in French jus­tice and “fra­ter­nité” was a joke in an at­om­ized, iso­la­tion­ist so­ci­ety. The petty, bit­ter pro­tag­o­nist of his “Notes From Un­der­ground” (1864) em­bod­ied the frus­tra­tions of the left be­hind.

Jean-Jac­ques Rousseau, “his­tory’s great­est mil­i­tant low­brow,” and Friedrich Ni­et­zsche, “the prophet of rest­less young men ev­ery­where,” emerge as Mishra’s town criers of re­sent­ment (or “ressen­ti­ment,” the au­thor in­sists) — that feel­ing when “the modern prom­ise of equal­ity col­lides with mas­sive dis­par­i­ties of power, ed­u­ca­tion, sta­tus and prop­erty own­er­ship.” As solutions, one gave us the strong­man; the other, the su­per­man.

For Rousseau, only a mil­i­taris­tic, pa­tri­otic spirit — a fore­run­ner of cul­tural na­tion­al­ism — can com­bat avari­cious elites and har­ness the “in­cen­di­ary ap­peal of vic­tim­hood in so­ci­eties built around the pur­suit of wealth,” Mishra writes. Ni­et­zsche’s con­trast­ing re­sponse to the fail­ings of eco­nomic moder­nity was hy­per-in­di­vid­u­al­ized — a per­sonal re­volt against au­thor­ity, of­fer­ing “an un­prece­dented scope for hu­man be­ings to re­shape the world: to cre­ate, in ef­fect, one’s own ob­jects of de­sire, val­ues, ide­ol­ogy and myths,” Mishra ex­plains. And in­di­vid­ual vi­o­lence can prove par­tic­u­larly al­lur­ing, he notes darkly, when it seems “the only avail­able form of self-ex­pres­sion.”

The na­tion­al­ist ap­proach would take shape in Ger­many’s em­brace of Volk (the peo­ple), “an or­ganic na­tional com­mu­nity united by a dis­tinc­tive lan­guage, ways of thought, shared tra­di­tions, and a col­lec­tive mem­ory en­shrined in folk­lore and fa­ble,” as Mishra de­scribes. Feel­ing marginal­ized by France’s cul­tural, po­lit­i­cal, eco­nomic and mil­i­tary as­cen­dancy, “sub­ju­gated and dis­hon­oured Ger­many came to gen­er­ate that strange com­pound we have sub­se­quently seen in many coun­tries: harm­less nos­tal­gia for the past glo­ries of the ‘peo­ple,’ com­bined with a lethal fan­tasy of their mag­nif­i­cent restora­tion.”

It is not enough to make a na­tion great, you see — it must be made great again.

This would mu­tate over time from af­fir­ma­tions of Ger­man spir­i­tual and aes­thetic su­pe­ri­or­ity to eth­nic na­tion­al­ism and, fi­nally, “into an ex­is­ten­tial politics of sur­vival.” An­tiSemitism formed a deadly part of that politics, as Ger­man in­tel­lec­tu­als linked the power of the Volk to the in­fe­ri­or­ity of the Jew, Mishra writes. “Weren’t the Volk spon­ta­neous, un­pre­ten­tious and im­mune to the con­ta­gion of moder­nity?” they asked them­selves. “Weren’t they op­posed to the de­vi­ous mon­ey­grub­bing Jews and the ef­fete, so­phis­ti­cated rul­ing classes that chased af­ter alien gods?”

Ha­tred and prej­u­dice would root them­selves in gov­ern­ing struc­tures, Mishra writes, as “this ex­hausted and re­sent­ful state of mind pre­pared the ground for the au­thor­i­tar­ian state.” And au­thor­i­tar­ian states and to­tal­i­tar­ian lead­ers would af­flict Europe well into the 20th cen­tury.

Mishra sur­veys the globe, par­tic­u­larly his na­tive In­dia but also China, Rus­sia, Europe and the Amer­i­cas, show­ing how both na­tion­states and in­di­vid­u­als in­flicted un­speak­able vi­o­lence in the back­lash against moder­nity, put­ting the lie to its in­ex­orable spread. “Since ac­tual mo­bil­ity is achieved only by a few,” he con­tends, “the quest for some un­mis­tak­able proof of su­pe­rior sta­tus and iden­tity re­places the ideal of suc­cess for many.” From an­ar­chists to Nazis to the Is­lamic State, “the his­tory of mod­ern­iza­tion is largely one of car­nage and bed­lam rather than peace­ful con­ver­gence.”

The ap­par­ent calm of the post-World War II Pax Amer­i­cana is re­garded as an out­lier here. “Amer­i­can elites, sin­gu­larly un­dam­aged and ac­tu­ally em­pow­ered by the most de­struc­tive war in his­tory, ide­al­ized their ex­cep­tional ex­pe­ri­ence — of in­di­vid­ual self-seek­ers achiev­ing more or less con­tin­u­ous ex­pan­sion un­der rel­a­tively thin tra­di­tional con­straints — into a model of uni­ver­sal de­vel­op­ment,” Mishra writes.

This obliv­i­ous­ness was com­pounded in the eu­pho­ria of the post-Cold War mo­ment, de­spite count­less warn­ings: eth­nic cleans­ing in the Balkans and Rwanda, a far-right resur­gence in Europe, Ti­mothy McVeigh in Amer­ica and a fi­nan­cial cri­sis through­out Asia. Even 9/11 only “sharp­ened an old di­vide,” Mishra writes. “How could, it was felt, peo­ple be so op­posed to moder­nity, and all the many goods it had to of­fer around the world: equal­ity, lib­erty, pros­per­ity, tol­er­a­tion, plu­ral­ism and rep­re­sen­ta­tive gov­ern­ment.”

But the fail­ures of the model — mori­bund wages, spi­ral­ing in­equal­ity, an un­rav­el­ing fi­nan­cial sys­tem — would be­come ev­i­dent. “In the neo-lib­eral fan­tasy of in­di­vid­u­al­ism, every­one was sup­posed to be an en­trepreneur, re­train­ing and repack­ag­ing him­self or her­self in a dy­namic econ­omy, per­pet­u­ally alert to the lat­ter’s tech­no­log­i­cal rev­o­lu­tions,” Mishra writes. In­stead, “eco­nomic shifts, lit­er­acy and the com­mu­ni­ca­tion rev­o­lu­tion bring more peo­ple out of ab­ject poverty into a land­scape of hope and as­pi­ra­tion — and then cru­elly aban­don them in that limbo.”

In a news con­fer­ence this past week, Trump de­clared that “this coun­try was se­ri­ously di­vided be­fore I got here” — and he is more right than he knows. With his ap­peals to Amer­ica’s for­got­ten men and women, Trump is more con­se­quence than cause; the pil­lars of his cam­paign and his early ac­tions as pres­i­dent re­flect the forces that have long driven ret­ro­grade na­tion­al­ist lead­ers. Islamophobia em­pow­ers the new dem­a­gogues of our time, “just as pop­u­lar anti-Semitism did dur­ing the crises of mod­ern­iz­ing Europe,” Mishra writes. So does ha­tred for transna­tional, cos­mopoli­tan elites, who “con­ve­niently em­body the vices of a des­per­ately sought-af­ter but in­fu­ri­at­ingly unattain­able moder­nity: money wor­ship, lack of noble virtues such as pa­tri­o­tism.” Refugees, mi­grants and asy­lum seek­ers, “this class of the ex­cluded,” serve their pur­pose, too, as the “feared ‘oth­ers’ in un­equal so­ci­eties.”

Mishra fore­sees a lengthy con­flict out of this mix of eco­nomic dis­place­ment, po­lit­i­cal re­sent­ment and racial scape­goat­ing. “Fu­ture his­to­ri­ans may well see such un­co­or­di­nated mayhem as com­menc­ing the third — and the long­est and strangest — of all world wars,” he cau­tions, “one that ap­prox­i­mates, in its ubiq­uity, a global civil war.”

That sounds omi­nous, even if I’m not sure what it means. Davos Men vs. na­tion­al­ists, united across bor­ders? Or sim­ply the steady ex­pan­sion of that ter­rain “be­tween serene elites and mute masses,” as the au­thor puts it, the space “from where al­most all modern mil­i­tants have emerged”? Mishra doesn’t get too spe­cific, nor of­fer solutions for the crises he iden­ti­fies, merely call­ing for “some truly trans­for­ma­tive think­ing, about both the self and the world.”

What does ap­pear clear is that Trump’s per­ma­nence in the White House is al­most ir­rel­e­vant to the strains and frac­tures un­der­ly­ing the age of anger. In Mishra’s dense yet oddly riv­et­ing book, Trump is just one more data point — and anger feels less a symp­tom of a par­tic­u­lar age than a time­less, chronic con­di­tion.

I’m not sure the ti­tle is right.

Car­los Lozada is the non­fic­tion book critic of The Wash­ing­ton Post.


Pres­i­dent Trump’s vic­tory, Pankaj Mishra writes, high­lights the gap be­tween elites who en­joy “moder­nity’s choic­est fruits” and the lower classes “who, on find­ing them­selves cheated of the same fruits, re­coil into cul­tural supremacism, pop­ulism and ran­corous bru­tal­ity.”

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