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.