The Roots of Rage

Perhaps the main problem with the case made by Pankaj Mishra in his Age of Anger is that it gives an outsized place to intellectuals and the ideas that inspire them, people and their works like Mishra and his books, and as consequence fail to bring to light the material forces that are such idea’s true source.

It’s one thing to be aware that today’s neo-liberalism, and the current populist revolt against them have roots stretching back to the Enlightenment and Rousseau’s revolt against it and to be made aware that there’s a contradiction at the heart of the Enlightenment project that has yet to be resolved. It’s quite another thing to puzzle out why even a likely doomed revolt against this project is taking place right now as opposed to a decade or even decades ago. To do that one needs to turn to insights from sociology and political economy, for if the crisis we are in is truly global- how is it so, and is it the same everywhere, or does it vary across regions?

The big trend that defines our age as much as any other is the growing littoralisation of human populations, and capital. In the developing world this means the creation of mega-cities. By 2050, 75  percent of humanity will be urbanized. India alone might have 6 cities with a population of over 10 million.     

What’s driving littoralisation in the developing world? I won’t deny that part of mass migration to the cities can be explained by people seeking more opportunities for themselves and especially for their children. It’s also the case that globalization has compelled regions to specialize in the face of cheap food and goods from elsewhere and thus reduced the opportunities for employment. Yet perhaps one of the biggest, and least discussed, reasons for littoralization in the developing world is that huge tracts of land are being bought by often outside capitalists to set up massive plantations, industrial farms and mines.

It’s a process the urban sociologist Saskia Sassen describes in great detail in her book: Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy where she writes:

A recent report from the Oakland Institute suggest that during 2009 alone, foreign investors acquired nearly 60 million hectares of land in Africa.

Further, Oxfam estimates that between 2008 and 2009, deals by foreign investors for agricultural land increased by 200 percent. (94-95)

I assume the spread of military grade satellite imaging will only make these kinds of massive purchases easier as companies and wealthy individuals are able to spot heretofore obscured investment opportunities in countries whose politicians can easily be bought, where the ability of the public to resist such purchases and minimal, and in an environment where developed world governments no longer administer any oversight on such activities.  

For developing world states strong enough to constrain foreign capital these processes are often more internally than externally driven.  Regardless, much of littoralization is driven the expulsion of the poor as the owning classes use their political influence to chase greater returns on capital often oblivious to the social consequences. In that sense it’s little different than the capitalism we’ve had since that system’s very beginnings, which, after all, began with the conquest of the New World, slavery,  the dissolutions of the monasteries, and the enclosure movement.

What makes this current iteration of capitalism’s perennial features somewhat different is the role played by automation. I’ll get to that in a moment, but first it’s important to see how the same trend towards littoralisation seen in the developing world is playing out much different in advanced economies.

Whereas the developing world is seeing the mass movement of people to the cities what the developing world is primarily experiencing the movement of capital. Oddly, this has not meant that percentage of overall wealth has shifted to the coasts because at the same time capital is becoming concentrated in a few major cities those same cities are actually declining in their overall share of the population.

The biggest reason for this discrepancy appears to be the increasing price of real estate on the coast. Here’s what the US would look like if it was mapped by land values rather than area:

US land area by wealth


As in the case with the developing world much of the change in land values appears to be driven by investments by capital not located in the city, and in many instances located abroad.

In the developed world littoralisation has almost all been about capital. Though an increasing amount of wealth is becoming located in a few great cities, structural reasons are preventing people from being able to move. Foreign money, much of it of nefarious origins has been pouring into global cities such as New York and London and driving up the cost of rent let alone property ownership. Often such properties are left empty while, as Tim Wu has pointed out, inflated property values have turned the most valuable real estate into something resembling ghost towns.

This is a world that in a strange way was anticipated by William Gibson in his novel The Peripheral where Gibson leveraged his knowledge of shady Russian real estate deals in London to imagine a future in which the rich actively interfere in the past of an Appalachian society in a state of collapse.

The evidence I have for this is merely anecdotal, but many of Dominicans who are newly arrived to small Pennsylvania cities such as Bethlehem and Lancaster are recent refugees from the skyrocketing rent of New York. If this observation is correct ethnic communities are being driven from large cities where wealth is increasing to interior regions with declining job prospects, which have not experienced mass immigration since the 1920’s. In other words we’ve set the stage for the rise of political nativist.

I said automation plays a role here that might make our capitalist era distinct from prior ones. The developed world has witnessed the hollowing out of the interior through automation before when farm machinery replaced the number of farmers required as a percentage of the population from 64 percent in 1850, to around 15 percent in 1950, to just two percent today. The difference is the decline of employment in agriculture occurred at the same time manufacturing employment was increasing and this manufacturing was much less concentrated, supporting a plethora of small and mid-sized cities in the nation’s interior, and much less dependent on high skills, than the capitalism built around the global city and high-end services we have today.

Automation is manufacturing has been decimating employment in that sector even after it was initially pummeled by globalization. Indeed, the Washington Post has charted how districts that went for Trump in the last election map almost perfectly where the per capita use of robots has increased.

Again speaking merely anecdotally, a number of the immigrants I know are employed in one of Amazon’s “fulfillment centers” (warehouses) in Pennsylvania. Such warehouses are among the most hyper-automated an AI directed businesses currently running at scale. It’s isn’t hard to see why the native middle class feels it is being crushed in a vice, and it’s been far too easy to mobilize human against human hate and deny- as Steven Mnuchin Trump’s Treasury Secretary recently did- that automation is even a problem.

These conditions are not limited to the US but likely played a role in the Brexit vote in the UK and are even more pronounced in France where a declining industrial interior is the source of the far-right Marine Le Pen’s base of support.  

The decline of industrial employment has meant that employees have been pushed into much less remunerative (on account of being much less unionized) services, that is, if the dislocated are employed at all.  This relocation to non-productive services might be one of the reasons why, despite the thrust of technology, overall labor productivity remains so anemic.

Yet, should the AI revolution live up to the hype we should witness the flood of robots into the services a move that will place yet larger downward pressure on wages in the developed world.

The situation for developing economies is even worse. If the economist Dani Rodrik is right developing economies are already suffering what he calls “premature de-industrialization” . The widespread application of robots threatens to make manufacturing in developed countries- sans workers– as cheap as products made by cheap labor in the developing world. Countries that have yet to industrialize will be barred from the development path followed by all societies since the industrial revolution, though perhaps labor in services will remain so cheap there that service sector automation does not take hold. My fear there is that instead of humans being replaced by robots central direction via directing and monitoring “apps” will turn human beings into something all too robot-like.

A world where employment opportunities are decreasing everywhere, but where population continues to grow in places where wealth has never, and now cannot accumulate, means a world of increased illegal migration and refugee flows- the very forces that enabled Brexit, propelled Trump to the White House, and might just leave Le Pen in charge of France.

The apparent victory of the Kuchner over the Bannon faction in the Trump White House luckily saves us from the most vicious ways to respond to these trends. It also means that one of the largest forces behind these dislocations- namely the moguls (like Kushner himself) who run the international real estate market are now in charge of the country. My guess is that their “nationalism” will consist in gaining a level playing field for wealthy US institutions and individuals to invest abroad in the same way foreign players now do here. That, and that the US investors will no longer have their “hands-tied” by ethical standards investors from countries like China do not face so that weak countries are even further prevented from erecting barriers against capital.

Still, should the Bannon faction really have fallen apart it will present an opportunity for the left to address these problems while avoiding the alt-right’s hyper-nationalistic solutions. Progressive solutions (at least in developed economies) might entail providing affordable housing for our cities, preventing shadow money from buying up real estate, unionizing services, recognizing and offsetting the cost to workers of automation. UBI should be part of that mix.

The situation is much more difficult for developing countries and there they will need to find their own, and quite country specific solutions. Advanced countries will need to help them as much (including helping them restore barriers against ravenous capital) as they can to manage their way into new forms of society, for the model of development that has run nearly two centuries now appears to be irrevocably broken.

Raging against the machine

As a consequence of our geographical isolation and preponderance of our country’s power Americans, at least since the Civil War, haven’t paid much attention to what is going on in the rest of the world. One can assume that few of us know or have thought all that much about how a Republic under president Trump isn’t just a sort of primal scream emanating from the failures of US politics and culture that we’ve been storing up for over a generation- though it is that as well- but stands as only one representative of a truly global phenomenon. In addition to Trump, populists strongmen now dominate many of the world’s most important and powerful countries and many lesser ones. There’s Xi Jinping in China, Narendra Modi in India, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, and yes, Vladimir Putin in Russia. Should Marie Le Pen take the French presidency in the upcoming elections a woman will join what for now is an all male club.

This wasn’t supposed to have happened. At the end of the Cold War we were promised an end to history. The world appeared to be inexorably moving in a liberal direction promising an end to the authoritarianism and dictatorship of the past, taking us through the providential telos of history now stripped of any reference to the divine or transcendent towards one world united and free world. The internet that emerged in this same era was thought to be the harbinger of a “global mind” of our finally unified world and would serve as the vector for a new and more democratic form of politics.

Many of us who once believed in this story are nowadays asking where did it all go wrong, whereas Pankaj Mishra in his new book The Age of Anger: a history of the present aims to show us why we were never right in the first place. Somehow we managed to forget, in all our talk about the end of history, the wisdom of markets, or the supposed disappearance of violence, that the inadequacy of the Enlightenment project had been apparent since Rousseau. To build a society on the basis of status seeking where only a tiny minority would ever scale the heights of wealth, meritocracy, and power, all the while proclaiming universal equality was a recipe for individuals being crushed under the weight of an inescapable ressentiment.

To aim for such as society at the same time we were willfully and inadvertently eliminating all the protections individuals had against such competition, whether in the form of the welfare-state built as consequence the disasters of the first age of ressentiment in the 20th century, or through more traditional means of support such as local communities, churches, and the extended and nuclear family- well, this was a recipe for revolution. And as we should have learned from fascism, revolution can just as likely come in a right-wing as a left-wing form.

What Pankaj Mishra sets out to do, and largely succeed in doing, in The Age of Anger is to wake us from our historical amnesia though an intellectual history that traces the roots of our failed enlightenment from its beginnings in the 18th century until today.

Underlying this history is a truth Mishra thinks too few liberals grasps. Ultimately the liberals are right in the sense that we do now live in one world in which every culture is going through a similar process of modernity. What liberals get wrong is ignoring the socially wrenching aspects of this modernity and in believing that the conditions it unleashes are sustainable or indeed even represent the type of society we should hope will be found in the human future.

For Mishra, Voltaire and other philosophes who during the 18th century imagined a commercial society in which the pursuit of wealth was made universal, and the upper echelons of power and status were open to those who rose into its ranks, rather than merely those born into it, were blind to is how this vision would collide with equality and democracy. Voltaire especially was the great fan of “enlightened despots” such as Russia’s Peter the Great. (The great myth of liberalism is that capitalism and democracy go hand in hand.) What was clear to the philosophes of the enlightenment was that you could have a competitive, meritocratic society in an already egalitarian society (US in the 1800s) which was politically democratic, but that you could not have a competitive social order which was both inegalitarian and democratic at the same time.

Intense competition in a society in which political action is either stifled or is no longer effective and which preaches universal equality results in many of those having lost in this competition becoming enraged. Mishra wants us to see a racist killer such as James H. Jackson and the ISIS inspired terrorist Khalid Masood as sown from the same cloth, both personified expressions of collective anger in the face of failure. It’s a very modern type of anger that looks for its resolution in concocting the new social bonds that Mishra claims was pioneered by Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Rousseau was the anti-Voltaire who both identified the contradictions with the type of society the Enlightenment tried to create and who imagined solutions- from romantic individualism, to  nationalism to primitivist-environmentalism which have proven even more problematic than the very contradictions they were supposed to solve.

Mishra charts the global course of this conflict between Voltaire and Rousseau. It moves from France in the 18th century, to Germany in the 19th- sowing vile seeds that would later sprout with Nazism. It was a conflict that in the 1800’s made its way to Russia as well, a country that gave this conflict a spiritual and psychological depth it had never seen before or since in the works of the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

In 1862 Dostoyevsky was in London, just one stop along his tour of Western Europe. One place in London in particular made a deep impression upon the young Russian- the massive structure in Hyde park known as the The Crystal Palace. Built in 1851 to house The Great Exhibition, the first exhibition of technologies from all over the globe (the progenitor of the World’s Fairs that run to this day) The Crystal Palace was supposed to serve as a sort of museum of the future, a world suffused with technology and material abundance where the competition between nations was a matter of who produced the best technology and grabbed the most market share. In other words, the future conceived as a shopping mall. It is little wonder that Dostoyevsky found it empty and a just a bit terrifying. As he wrote of his experience, which Mishra quotes.

You become aware of a colossal idea; you sense that here something has been achieved, that there is  victory and triumph. You may even begin vaguely to fear something.  However independent you may be, for some reason you become terrified. ‘For isn’t this the achievement of perfection?’ you think. ‘Isn’t this the ultimate?’ Could this in fact be the ‘one fold?’ Must you accept this as the final truth and forever hold your peace? It is all so solemn, triumphant, and proud that you gasp for breath.

You sense that it would require great and everlasting spiritual denial and fortitude not to submit, not to capitulate before the impression, not to bow to what is, and not to deify Baal, that is, not to accept the material world as your ideal.  (68-69)

Dostoevsky would use The Crystal Palace as a symbol of what he found to be the soul crushing utilitarian materialism of the West in his novella The Notes from the Underground. That book ridiculed not only the new type of society and man born with the The Crystal Palace but the anarchist- utopianism that arose when Russia tried to assimilate these alien ideas. A vision of the world made new found in Nikolai Chernyshevsky utopian novel “What is to be done?”, whose title Lenin would rip as an homage for his now much more well known polemic.     

Indeed, The Crystal Palace is a good jumping off point for anyone who wants to understand what separates the world before the industrial revolution and the post-industrial era that is our own. For The Crystal Palace is where a seemingly already determined future – a future that would be based on material prosperity that was global in scope- came clearly into into view, along with the rebellion against it.

What can  be seen in the protagonist of The Notes from the Underground is just how soul crushing the quest for material goods and petty competition for status can be absent some larger source of meaning. The protagonist lives in the quest of a kind of status he can never achieve while at the same time lacking any source of values and that includes the value that would be bestowed by the esteem of the persons he is so keen to impress. A kind of self and world- destructive cynicism and nihilism lies very close to the competitive materialism unleashed by the modern age.

The kinds of contradictions and psychological distortions classical liberalism unleashed, which Dostoyevsky helped identify, exploded in the early decades of the 20th century and helped give rise to both fascism and state communism. During this same period the conflict between Rousseau and Voltaire found its way into European colonies and beyond to sow seeds only being reaped today.

Mishra largely skips the period of the Cold War- an era in which liberalism deliberately constrained itself, prohibited financialization and boom- and- bust cycles in the economy and adopted worker support and protections. In good measure this tempering of liberalism was a consequence of the existence of a revolutionary alternative in the USSR. Once the idea of a communist alternative began to unravel in the 1970’s, and especially after the Soviet Union and its empire collapsed in the 1980’s and 90’s, a version of liberalism that sought to be free of restraints became truly ascendant and became the project of not just elites in the US and UK, but throughout the world.

It’s here where Mishra’s story enters the contemporary period. The religion of the free market has ruled the world for a generation now, and while it has surely helped millions lift themselves out of poverty and into a global middle and upper class, it has also been the era of middle class erosion in the developed world. Billions have come to aspire to the material comforts of the richest nations and classes- a goal unobtainable in their lifetime, and given a world of finite resources should not be pursued at all.

Mishra states it this way:

In 2014 The Economist said that, on the basis of IMF data, emerging economies- or, most of the human population- might have to wait for three centuries in order to catch up with the West. In this assessment, the last decade of high growth was an ‘aberration’ and ‘billions of people will be poorer for a lot longer than they might have expected just a few years ago’.

The implications are sobering: the non-West not only finds itself replicating the West’s trauma on an infinitely larger scale. While helping inflict the profoundest damage yet on the environment- manifest today in rising sea levels, erratic rainfall, drought, declining harvests and devastating floods – the non-Wet also has no real prospect of catching up with the West.  (48)

So we’ve got a situation where we’re in an increasingly connected world where everyone can see what anyone else is doing- even if that person is on the other side of the world. It’s a situation where inequality within- though not necessarily between- societies is increasing rapidly and in which renewed growth appears unlikely to either restore the middle class to its prior glory in developed societies, or ever establish such middle classes in many developing countries to begin with. In such a world the lower middle and working class in advanced countries feel their way of life eroding even as many people in the developing world feel compelled to move to those countries to achieve opportunities for their families out of reach in their own societies. A vicious cycle of walls and refugee flows are predictable features of these conditions.

Automation will only make this worse as it simultaneously erodes middle class employment in the developing world while precluding developing countries from following the historical path to development which has always begun with leveraging cheap labor in manufacturing.

While Mishra’s Age of Anger offers us no solutions it does leave readers with an invaluable perspective. Understanding why human beings seem driven to embrace anger, populists authoritarianism, and violence at this particular historical juncture he shows us has very little to do with the clash of civilizations. From hillbillies to salafists were all stuck in the same modernity with all the damage it does by crushing humanity through its narrow sieve. Such anger will continue to return in periods and give rise to explosions until we finally stop acting as if we can base society on human greed and vanity.