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Stepchild of the West

Pankaj Mishra’s long view of the emotional cost of modernity

By GAVIN JACOBSON | 1 April 2017

THE PHILOSOPHER RAYMOND ARON called the fall of Soviet Communism in 1991 “the end of the ideological age.” The Soviet Union’s defeat in the Cold War buried whatever sense of fatalism there was on both sides of the Atlantic about the future of humankind. New master narratives proclaimed the triumph of the West, the United States as the lodestar of human rights, and the inexorable march of the free market. The American political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s premise that liberal democracy constituted the “final form of government”—the “end of history”—exemplified the emphatic nature of this triumphalism.

But since 11 September 2001, there has been a growing sense of catastrophe in the West. Climate change is set to make life a living hell. Europe reels from the influx of refugees escaping war and poverty in such places as Syria. Western adventures in the West Asia have produced the barbarisms of the Islamic State and extremist violence on the streets of Europe. The global recession of 2008 has brought economic uncertainty to large sections of the middle classes, and exposed the ways in which globalisation has hollowed out working-class communities, widened the divisions between rich and poor, and privileged wealth creation over social welfare. In response, societies worldwide are drifting into economic and cultural protectionism, as right-wing strongmen and demagogues entrench themselves in countries such as Hungary, India, the Philippines, Russia, Turkey and the United States.

Pankaj Mishra’s new book, Age of Anger: A History of the Present, is a bracing and essential work that helps us understand how we have become “trapped in this danse macabre”—this dance of death. There is a sense of intellectual crisis, and political and media elites have been thrown into “stunned bewilderment,” as Mishra writes, by the buffeting of the liberal norms and institutions that have prevailed since the Second World War. His book attempts to make sense of the larger psychological underpinnings of this crisis in the context of the last three centuries of Western domination. It is the latest instalment in his larger oeuvre, which catalogues the emotional damage wreaked upon societies by the relentless march of capitalism and liberal modernity.

The book was written primarily as a response to the election of Narendra Modi in May 2014, but was finished the same week that Britain voted to leave the European Union. On the surface, it is about the explosion of popular ressentiment across the world. Ressentiment—“resentment” in French—acquired a special meaning in nineteenth-century European thought, perhaps most significantly in the work of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. The term describes a volatile mixture of envy and humiliation. Mishra refers to ressentiment, after modernity, as emerging from a collision between the ideal of equality and the reality of structural injustice within nation states. Whether in the form of Brexit, the election of Donald Trump in the United States, or that of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, peoples of the liberal netherworld—the socially excluded and economically dispossessed—have sought revenge on elites who have defined the collective good according to their own interest. Nietzsche described ressentiment as “a tremulous realm of subterranean revenge, inexhaustible and insatiable in outbursts.” Mishra uses Nietzsche to show that ressentiment is not just a bitter reaction to powerlessness and moral estrangement, it is also a reassignment of pain onto others. In the Indian context, this means that the mass media and demagogues enable believers to “fill up their imaginative lives with a range of virtual enemies: immigrants, Muslims, liberals, unbelievers, beef-eaters, the media, and most recently in India, literary writers and actors with Muslim names.”

The argument that modernity has defaulted on its promises of freedom and equality, and so has led to virulent forms of political rage, is not a new one. In a 2001 essay titled ‘The New Indian Right,’ the writer Achin Vanaik describes how, after the Second World War, “the social and psychological costs of modernity’s relentless revolutionizing of everyday life were made liveable by collective hopes … that change would be for the better, that happier times lay ahead.” But that progress failed to materialise. Neoliberalism provides “no solace for the social disorientation it brings, for the loss of dignity and (typically male) self-respect—only the exhaustion of perpetually striving after consumerist goals and the anxiety of never seeing them fulfilled. In this vacuum, aggressive cultural self-assertion, religious or ethnic, becomes a form of consolation, whose affirmations of virility offer a balm for social despair.”

Mishra offers the same conclusions, but his analysis is original in two key respects. First, it provides a refreshing long view of the sources of ressentiment in the modern world. In the liberal account, the last three centuries of Western hegemony have been characterised by progress and steady convergence, punctured by “monstrous aberrations” such as world wars and totalitarianism. Far from this unidirectional account of history, in which societies move from barbarism towards rationalism and universal prosperity, for Mishra, humankind has undergone a slow-burn trauma of collective alienation and violence. The path to modern capitalism and democracy, he writes, has been one of “carnage and bedlam.”

But while the present age of anger is continuous with the past, its dangers, Mishra says, are now “more diffuse and less predictable.” In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, relatively few people could have become disillusioned with the promises of modernity, since most people’s lives were structured by religious ideas and local traditions, rather than notions of universal progress. Since the early 1980s, billions more people all over the world have been exposed to the “Enlightenment” promises of freedom and equality, exponentially multiplying thwarted dreams and embittered fury. Philosophers such as Voltaire, Denis Diderot, Immanuel Kant, David Hume and Adam Smith promoted ideals like the perfectibility of the human character, the scientific liberation of the mind, the progress of human history, the universal rights of men, equality and justice before the law, as well as institutions that serve the common good. These eighteenth-century ideas became the modes by which European modernity defined itself.

Age of Anger is not an intellectual history of modernity so much as it is an emotional history of spiritual and psychological corruption. Mishra’s overriding concern is with how modernity has acted upon the soul. The book’s hero is the Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the great diagnostician of man’s moral abasement. Rousseau’s central argument concerns the psychological transformation of our natural differences into moral distinctions. The original dispositions of man, he said, were amour de soi—the concern for self-preservation—and repugnance at seeing the suffering of others. Rousseau then speculated that the first communities, formed by accidents such as natural disasters, brought solitary individuals into permanent territorial proximity. Over time, people would notice qualities—perhaps strength, eloquence or beauty—that distinguished them from others. Society arose when men began to assign significance to these comparisons. Such new forms of self-understanding and communal interaction made people feel they merited respect from others, and so man’s natural pity and compassion mutated into the competitive desire for amour-propre—the need to secure recognition. This voracious self-regard, the need for the approval of others to feel complete, lies at the heart of our discontent.

Today, amour-propre manifests itself on a planetary scale. People now, more than at any time before, know how much worse off they are than others, as comparisons are amplified by social-media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram on which individuals curate perfect worlds for all to praise and envy. They endeavour to match, and ultimately surpass, the privileges of their contemporaries, in a process of mimetic rivalry, or jealous emulation, which creates a permanent suffering in the soul. In Mishra’s argument, the turn to authoritarian nationalism comes when people—often those who are forgotten and ignored by society—seek self-esteem through “a sense of belonging to a group defined by ethnicity, religion, race or common culture.”

Thus, Mishra is not so much interested in the outward appearance of ressentiment as he is in its fundamentals of amour-propre and mimesis. Whether it is right-wing nationalism or religious fundamentalism, Mishra wants to understand the forces that drive people there. Indeed, it is striking how much these themes constitute the intellectual substratum of his entire literary canon. Age of Anger represents the showpiece of a lifelong reflection on the deleterious effects of modernity on the human spirit.

MISHRA’S FIRST BOOK, Butter Chicken in Ludhiana, published in 1995, is not only a travelogue about small towns in India. It is also an early reconnaissance of the economic and psychological changes born of the collision between the provincial and the global. In places such as Ambala, Ajmer, Pushkar and Kottayam, Mishra describes India’s hyper-individualism, as the “sleepy, half-apologetic air” of local life gives way to a new aggressiveness. He also encounters the “me too” attitude of upstarts who embody the “self-love” and “frantic hankering for wealth, fame, status” that would define the new middle class. Butter Chicken is clearly the beginning of his reflections on modernity—its human costs and its chimerical vows of economic and social deliverance.

Mishra’s writings possess a strong biographical edge, as his own life has changed in tandem with India’s disorderly transformation. His works An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World, from 2004, and Temptations of the West: How to be Modern in India and Beyond, from 2006, incorporate memoir and political journalism. Growing up in provincial north India in the 1970s and 1980s—he was born to a Brahmin family in Jhansi, where his father worked for the Indian Railways—Mishra brushed against the misery that bore down on his generation. In Temptations of the West, he writes of encountering men from Indian towns “for whom the world didn’t seem to have much place.” Mishra counts himself fortunate to have left that world behind. But, he writes, “Others weren’t so lucky: they were people whose frustrations and rage over their many deprivations could easily be appropriated into ideological crusades and for whom hallucinations of great power allayed their crushing sense of a very real powerlessness.”

In 1988, after graduating from Allahabad University, Mishra moved to Varanasi, in Uttar Pradesh. By that point, the once “solid-seeming” town had started to vanish, as the syndromes of economic liberalisation—fast-food outlets, video-game parlours and fashion boutiques—began to deform the Indian landscape. Surrounded by street battles between students and police, Mishra immersed himself in the works of the American writer and critic Edmund Wilson, as well as the European classics. “Looking back, I can see my compulsive pursuit of books, the calm and order it suggested contrasting so jarringly with the rage and desperation around me, as my way of putting off a grimly foreclosed future,” he writes. It is tempting to ask what Mishra’s life might have become had he not discovered the library, and not had the good fortune to meet Barbara Epstein of the New York Review of Books, who published his essay ‘Reading Edmund Wilson in Benares,’ which set him upon the path to literary prominence.

Reading Mishra’s essay helps shed light on why he continually draws on Russian literature from the nineteenth century. Tsarist Russia then, much like India of the 1980s, created masses of spiritually disaffected youth in its effort to industrialise and catch up with the West. Writers such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky codified the threats and identified the forces reshaping their society, which furnished their stories with an unmatched gravity and analytic permanence. Mishra’s books, too, are about early risers and latecomers to modernity, and what happens when the latter come into contact with the former.

This temporal sensitivity is another means of comprehending the age of anger. The Turkish novelist Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar said that Asian thinkers, such as Rabindranath Tagore, encountered “the awful thing we call belatedness.” In an essay on Tanpinar, Mishra described belatedness as the experience of arriving late in the modern world, only to discover that one’s future has been “foreclosed and already defined by other people’s past and present.” It is this Western impediment to shaping the world that spawned Asia’s historic ressentiment.

Mishra’s most celebrated book, From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia, from 2012, is an impressive history of Asia’s intellectual and political awakening in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. In this work, Mishra shows how, in this period, ressentiment and humiliation manifested within nation states. Asian countries resented imperial domination, but also envied the West’s organisational energies. Nation-building, whether in nineteenth-century Turkey, Egypt or Japan, represented a series of mindless imitations of the West. In keeping with his cardinal interest in the emotional and psychological dimensions of political history, Mishra chronicles the responses of activist-intellectuals such as Tagore, Mohandas Gandhi, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Liang Qichao, who recognised the spiritual entropy triggered by Asia’s mimetic desire.

Gandhi’s sartorial transformation from the ultimate English gentleman to a khadi-clad Indian everyman was one obvious example of how “advocates of internal self-strengthening” relied on the cultural and psychic resources of their own societies to tackle the problems of imperial humiliation and ressentiment. If Rousseau identified compassion as the original temper of man, Gandhi himself articulated the idea of daya, or compassion, and encouraged Indians to feel empathy for their enemies. Visions of an idealised pre-industrial civilisation, a self-sufficient, pluralist community free from what the philosopher Akeel Bilgrami has called the “enslavement of a people to a decadent and utilitarian modernity,” formed a big part of the cultural revival that took place under anti-colonial movements in India and beyond. These individuals’ solutions for overcoming imperialism were not always purely national. Activists such as al-Afghani, the peripatetic agitator, who travelled across the Islamic world between 1860 and 1900, were the Victorian forebears of later revolutionaries such as Ho Chi Minh and Messali Hadj, who reckoned on the power of transnational solidarities to achieve a post-imperial order.

From the Ruins of Empire ends on an ominous note about how the fantasy of globalisation—the idea that billions of people in Asia can enjoy the same lifestyles as those in the United States and Europe—looks set to “create reservoirs of nihilistic rage and disappointment among hundreds of millions of have-nots.” Age of Anger is almost a seamless continuation of this theme, and could even be read as a sequel, in which Mishra now addresses ressentiment and emulation primarily at the level of individual—rather than societal—psychoses.

Compared to From the Ruins of Empire, which focusses on the intellectual biographies of a set of key thinkers who challenged Western domination, Age of Anger can sometimes feel impressionistic and decontextualised. The myriad historical references and literary juxtapositions, and the vaulting back and forth between historical time periods, give it the feel of a kind of intellectual free jazz that some have found disorienting. Mishra might also be accused of engaging in generalities, as his depiction of a monolithic Enlightenment based on rationalism and progress overlays the deeper divisions that defined eighteenth-century European thought. But this does little damage to his argument that rational and utilitarian schemes for the betterment of mankind have, in fact, turned us into monsters of our own making.

Mishra describes himself as a “stepchild of the West,” and in Age of Anger he demonstrates his fluency in multiple literatures and intellectual traditions. His latest material covers the history of both Asia and Europe. Concepts such as amour-propre and emulation enable him to junk the cut-and-dried orthodoxies of left and right, liberal and conservative, the West and the Rest, and provide lucid insights into the political present. The mimetic nature of violence underscores the shared historical pathologies that connect some unusual bedfellows. Mishra draws out parallels, such as those between Islamic fundamentalism and the nativist right in India and the United States. His book forces us to rethink today’s anger as something emerging not from distinct cultures and traditions, such as Islam, Hinduism or American nationalism, but from the shared experiences engendered by economic and political homogenisation.

One case in particular—which Mishra terms “the most illuminating coincidence of our time”—emphasises the point. While incarcerated in a supermax prison in Colorado, Timothy McVeigh, a US Army veteran and a perpetrator of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that left 168 people dead, befriended Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, the mastermind of the 1993 Islamist attacks on the World Trade Center. Yousef and McVeigh were lodged in adjacent cells, and, as Mishra points out, despite their vastly different backgrounds they had shared emotional and political drives.

Their kinship represented “a kind of globalization from below,” a fraternity of the enraged. Men such as McVeigh and Yousef, Mishra argues, “challenge the assumption that a freely willing human subject is motivated by certain desires, beliefs and perceived benefits, and has an omelette in mind—a New Man, or a New Middle East—when he breaks eggs. For them the act of violence is all.” In his last interviews before his execution, McVeigh defended the actions of Yousef and also of Osama bin Laden. After McVeigh’s execution, Yousef said: “I never have [known] anyone in my life who has so similar a personality to my own as his.”

Mishra has been criticised by some, including the writers Samuel Moyn and Franklin Foer, for failing to provide solutions to go with his relentlessly pessimistic diagnosis of the present. Yet this is to misjudge him. Mishra is not a system builder, and he does not boast a readymade ideology to foist upon the world. Nor is he interested in, or certain of, the possibilities of salvation through laws and institutions. Rather, he is in the tradition of earlier thinkers who were preoccupied with the human condition and the politics of self-awareness. In his intellectual concerns and moral sensibilities, he is a follow-up to central and eastern European writers such as Alexsander Wat, Leszek Kołakowski, Czesław Miłosz and Václav Havel. These were the original step-children of the West, who forged their intellectual careers not only in opposition to traditions of chauvinism, misogyny, nationalism and racism, but also felt a disenchantment and weariness with the project of modernity as a whole.

There are differences, of course. Mishra does not express the overt religious sentiments of Kołakowski, nor has he had what Alexsander Wat called “that terrible need for monotheism,” which drew twentieth-century intellectuals towards Communism. Mishra has not undergone the ideological conversions that defined the work of Miłosz, and has never written under the kind of authoritarian pressures that forced Kołakowski into exile in 1968. While he undoubtedly sides with the powerless, he has never experienced “life at the very ramparts of dehumanized power” in the way Havel did.

But like these writers, who came of age under Soviet imperialism, Mishra has examined the moral and psychological toll empire took on its subjects. He similarly chalks out the “shabby modernity” of India, just as these writers described the lousy post-imperial condition of their own societies. His tone is pitched in a key of desperation similar to that of Wat, who once said: “Pain or despair. Only the costumes change.” Mishra shares the eschatological impulses of Kołakowski, who, in a collection of essays entitled Modernity on Endless Trial, described “an all-encompassing crisis” without offering a solution: “We prefer to be gloomy.”

Mishra’s shadowboxing with the Enlightenment in Age of Anger resembles Kołakowski’s in the essay ‘Our Merry Apocalypse.’ Written in 1997, the text probes the relationship between the sacred and Enlightenment rationalism, which, Kołakowski argued, “reduced human existence to its purely biological determinants; in consequence human persons became entirely interchangeable, like bricks in a wall.” To counter this dehumanisation, Mishra relies on the importance of his personal experience to his intellectual trajectory, like Miłosz, who voyaged “into my own, yet not only my own, past” in his quest for “self-definition.” Mishra sees, like Havel does in Politics and Conscience, the futility of technocratic schemes for man’s redemption, and the alienating power of “ideologies, systems, apparat, bureaucracy, artificial languages, and political slogans.” These authors seek to elevate morality above the “anonymous, impersonal, and inhuman power” of politics, and to recover the lost dignity, compassion and common sense that Rousseau so eloquently rendered in the eighteenth century. But it might be all too little, too late. The decades-long supremacy of neoliberalism has not only created universal expectations of personal liberation and terrestrial grace. It has all but determined the permanence of our aggressive and emulous self-regard, which surely represents the true end of history.

Gavin Jacobson lives in Yangon and writes mainly about Asian and European intellectual history. His writings have featured in the London Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement and New Statesman.

READER'S COMMENTS

One thought on “Stepchild of the West”

Pankaj Mishra’s works are the perfect symbol of the “intellectual club’s” obsession with psychology and the need to find the root cause for social “maladies”. After a malady is diagnosed, they move on to diagnose the next ill, never mind the cure. The actions of real people in the real world to find a solution are characterised as “artificial”. After all only bearded men sitting in London or Oxford have the power to analyse and prescribe medicine. Other men may partake in the discussion by writing book reviews. Now the echo chamber is complete with its speakers and concave headed idiots.

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