Modi’s rise leaves no space for elite complacencies: Pankaj Mishra

Pankaj Mishra on why he welcomes the harsh clarity of the dawn of Trump and Modi and the end of the self-serving fiction of American and Indian exceptionalism

January 28, 2017 04:25 pm | Updated January 29, 2017 09:52 am IST

Pankaj Mishra

Pankaj Mishra

Paramankeni, Tamil Nadu. When Pankaj Mishra reaches the house I live in, a kilometre from a fishing village in the heart of the Coromandel Coast, we sit on the veranda in front of a plate of penne with zucchini, looking at a flock of egrets perusing the garden, a kite hovering in the sky looking for prey, while the distant riffling sound of waves hits the Pearl Beach shore. Mishra is in his element, here on the Bay of Bengal, the centre of an Asia he’s been representing as an original intellectual for years, first as a novelist and now as an erudite observer of history and of the present in both geopolitics and culture, illustrating how literature best documents the metamorphoses of societies.

He talks with a calm, measured voice in a thoughtful manner, blessed with that rare quality for an intellectual, that of being a good listener as well as an articulate and elegant speaker. We discuss how European philosophers and political thinkers of the Age of Enlightenment have a responsibility in the current global political crisis, but also on what is happening in India, in Asia, the Middle East and Africa. And, finally, how the Uber driver perfectly represents the failed promises of globalisation.

Indeed, the thesis of his latest non-fiction work, Age of Anger (Juggernaut) is that social disorder in Europe in the 19th century, resulting also in the two world wars that marked the first half of the 20th century, has to be understood in order to grasp diffused anarchy and terrorism in the world until today, including the recent conflict with IS.

You mention that this intuition was inspired by what Nietzsche had to say about the conflicts between “the serenely elitist Voltaire and the enviously plebeian Rousseau.” Could you explain this fresh take on the modern world’s divisions?

Yes, I think the clue is a line I quote from Alexander Herzen: that modern Western civilisation is a civilisation of a privileged minority, a ‘feast of life’ where the masses are ‘uninvited guests’ who have to be excluded or suppressed. There are many other formulations that echo the same thought: the economistic one that says capitalism is prone to periodic crises of extreme inequality and cannot distribute its goods to all those it promises to, and maintains a large army of wage slaves. But Nietzsche saw this ‘unfinished problem of civilisation’ as he called it, in more philosophical and political terms. He of course disliked the masses, and stood with the haughty elite, but he could also see that Rousseau had issued a formidable challenge to the advocates of the Enlightenment, such as Voltaire, who in the 18th century had benefited from enlarged intellectual freedom and economic opportunities and outlined the principles of the modern commercial society. Voltaire has always had his fans and followers among the elite but Rousseau’s political challenge would grow as more people entered the modern world and found themselves adrift and lost.

How does Rousseau’s dialectic of ressentiment of the superfluous man influence today’s world where people feel left behind by the globalised economy? What is the role of individualism with regards to violent anarchism of the disinherited and the superfluous?

Age of Anger; Pankaj Mishra.

Age of Anger; Pankaj Mishra.


Rousseau seems more and more prescient today because he saw that a commercial society premised on competition and mimesis would exhaust and corrode the modern individual from within — create an intolerable inner life. He also subscribed to the modern project of liberation, but he asked the crucial question; liberation to do what? And here he could see that the individual forced to do things he dislikes or is unfit for, such as the race for wealth and status, would become a victim of ressentiment which would frequently erupt in acts of terror and demagoguery — and this is the history of the modern world, in a way. The project of individualism, as outlined in the 18th century, was the most radical utopian project in history. It presupposed the end of old hierarchies of church and monarchy; it assumed a greater role for reason, self-interest and personal growth in post-religious society. By the same token, individualism could assume an extreme form, in which no moral prohibition seemed to matter, rational self-interest could be defined any which way, and murder itself could become an existential and aesthetic experience, a kind of individual fulfilment — the main subject of Dostoevsky long before anarchists and nihilists started their mayhem across Europe and America, and a century before our own terrorists and Facebooking and Tweeting and live-streaming killers.

Globalisation, you write, “while promoting integration among shrewd elites, incites political and cultural sectarianism everywhere else, especially among people forced against their will into universal competition.” Could you elaborate? When you quote Kierkegaard pointing out that the seeker of individual freedom ‘must break out of the prison in which his own reflection holds him’, and then out of ‘the vast penitentiary built by the reflection of his associates’, are you indicating a way out of this? What is it?

No, not a way out. That would be too simple. I think Kierkegaard, along with many others, is pointing to the importance of real inwardness and reflection, away from the raucous noise of the media and the public sphere, and the dangers of over-socialisation, of having one’s identity dependent on other people’s approbation. Tocqueville made a similar point: that modern individuals had abolished old hierarchies only to plunge into a universal competition of all against everyone. This made for constant anxiety about other people — what they are doing, what they are thinking of, are they thinking of me, what they possess, should I also have it — in short, the whole process of mediated desire, of mimicry and vanity, made a mockery of individual freedom.

You quote Marx and Gandhi drawing comparisons between Italy and India and see that Mazzini has inspired Savarkar, Prime Minister Modi’s favourite political thinker when it comes to Hindutva. What are the specific roles of Sorel, Bakunin and especially Mazzini in today’s nationalistic non-West countries? How has Mazzini’s “religion of humanity, of the God who loves progress and makes man the Carrier of the Divine Spirit”, affected nation-building in Asia? You enlist the man who began the latest era of religious conflict, Ayatollah Khomeini, saying he “belonged in the long line of revolutionary nationalists that began with Giuseppe Mazzini, who had called for a holy insurrection by the oppressed masses”. Could you explain more specifically what you mean?

Yes, the Hindu nationalist movement in India has a much deeper Italian ancestry than Sonia Gandhi, who is commonly accused by Hindu fanatics of being a foreigner in India. Its chief theorist Savarkar was obsessed with Mazzini, and borrowed nearly everything from the Italian in his construction of Hindu nationalism as the new religion of India. Mazzini was an inspiration to exiled freedom-fighters, activists and writers everywhere in the non-Western world — in China as well as the Arab world. His global influence is truly extraordinary. In one sense, he is bigger than Marx in that his influence is still playing itself out in today’s nationalisms. I pay him close attention in my book, along with Bakunin, because these figures from largely peasant, pre-modern and conservative societies spoke more directly to people in Asia and Africa, or in Europe’s own South, such as Spain.

Why are we now witnessing a return of the demagoguery of the Volk , a renewed fixation with manliness (as attested by the current U.S. electoral campaign) and a renovated split by cosmopolitan Zivilisation and the making of Kultur ’s cultural nationalism? Could you expand on these concepts?

The abstract idea of the volk or the people was the replacement for god and monarchy — the entity that exercises sovereign power, that embodies the collective will. Around this abstraction the modern world’s political spaces have been constructed. Of course, we are still struggling to define what the people is since the people in actuality are always diverse and plural. It was always easier to define what the people is not — and various others who did not belong, such as the Jews and various other rootless cosmopolitans, were ostracised and many of them eventually killed. In the age of globalisation, which promised cosmopolitan citizenship to all but delivered it only to the elites and left many feeling cheated, the emotional appeal of this entity called the people has again grown. So political cultures are again obsessed with recreating the ideological and cultural unity of the people, with affirming their will. And the emphasis on manliness is no accident; it emerges from the post-Christian obsession with individual self-assertion, the sanctification of the human will. Let us not forget that very many intelligent people in the 19th century were obsessed with Napoleon, a mass-murdering imperialist, because he showed what real men could do with their will to power.

How would you frame this in the contemporary Indian context? Have the failed promises of globalisation affected the situation differently in India? How has nationalism morphed in the last few years, considering the latest developments in India?

I think we are seeing Modi in the process of defining a new people — yet again through identification of various intimate enemies and their harsh ostracism. Indian nationalism, at its most secular and inclusive, always had an exclusionary aspect — the Kashmiris, for instance, were always deemed alien and suspect — and Modi has deepened it radically. He is, of course, obsessed with machismo, and as a strongman he is the perfect father-figure for many who feel emasculated by opaque economic and political forces. Many suffering people also want scapegoats and he has identified them — Muslims, liberals, the Lutyens class, and various other anti-nationals — just as cannily as demagogues in turn-of-century Vienna fingered Jews and liberals.

And you can go back to 19th century Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy and find exact prototypes of Modi’s loudest supporters today — ambitious hacks, thwarted economists, megalomaniacal scholars, failed artists, and many others seeking political power as compensation for various private inadequacies and injuries. So history repeats itself in India, with of course some new tragic and farcical characters and sub-plots. Many of us in India thought we were exempt from the long and tormented history of modern politics and economy, that we had forged our own path, and that India was something unique, a functional secular democracy. There was a whole cult built around the ‘idea of India’ and some very intelligent people went around saying that India was poised to take off, become a great and unique power, etc. But the extraordinary phenomenon of Modi shows that the narrative of Indian exceptionalism was as much a self-serving fiction as that of American exceptionalism. I actually welcome this clarity, just as I welcome the harsh clarity with which the phenomenon of Trump has exposed many ideological delusions of America’s ruling classes. The rise of Modi shows us who and where we are; it has left no space for many elite complacencies.

What would you say are the key causes of the unstable social and political order today and what are the main causes behind the intellectual and moral failure to check the expansion and appeal of outfits like IS? Are we repeating the same mistakes committed in the 19th century? How? What do young men and women who leave Europe to join IS have in common with the Italian Risorgimento, the Carbonari movement and Italian and European anarchists of the 19th century? Is there a suggestion on how to deal with this phenomenon?

To identify key causes, we have to return to the structural tensions and built-in contradictions of the modern world as it came into being in Europe, which caused so much conflict and bloodshed — the worst ever in history. This making of the modern world is now a universal project, hence the greater scale of the crisis today. It would be unwise to isolate specific mistakes or suggest likely solutions because the foundational concepts of modernity themselves are deeply problematic — for instance, assuming that the people are one and indivisible when the people are always plural.

You draw a fascinating and documented communion of points of view between white-suprematist McVeigh and 1991 World Trade Center bomber Yousef, as becoming friends in jail and proving again the link between the Western and non-Western ressentiment against the status quo. You mentioned the connection between the Iranian-German terrorist in Munich in July of this summer and Norwegian white-suprematist Breivik. And this brings us back to your analysis of Gabriele D’Annunzio thoughts and writing. In which way are all these elements and players connected?

D’Annunzio with his attempted utopia in Fiume in 1919 outlined the attraction of cult movements, charismatic strongmen and violence to many young and frustrated people. We cannot afford to ignore him and the nature of his appeal when we think of international cult movements, nationalist demagogues, and terrorists today. Italy in the late 19th century and early 20th century — before Mussolini arrives — is an instructive and illuminating case of a country miserably failing to fulfil the promise of liberal modernity — democracy, the nation-state, of industrial capitalism — and generating out of built-up disaffection a cult of violence and war — something that the Fascists were best equipped to exploit. This pre-fascist Italy was like many countries in Asia and Africa today, with a large population of young people brought out of rural and traditional society, who had nowhere to go.

Finally, you provide a sharp image of Uber drivers as symbols of today’s reality, “toiling for abysmally low fares, and representing the actual fate of many self-employed ‘entrepreneurs’.” In today’s anarchic, fragmented world of mirrors and digital reflections, has the individualism of the Crystal Palace provided dreams but not the means to attain them, ultimately reaching an impasse? How and why? And what is the way out?

Yes, we are witnessing an especially intense phase in the long drawn-out endgame of modernity: its biggest-ever breakdown even as it becomes truly universal, and Uber reaches India and Louis Vuitton opens in Borneo. The problems outlined by Rousseau — how can the modern individual liberated from old bonds use his freedom — has become a matter of life and death for many around the world. There are no easy solutions, of course, but then I sometimes feel that we have barely started to diagnose the problem. I find it extraordinary, even shocking, that the dominant intellectual mood in Europe and America and their intellectual colonies for decades was that liberal democracy and capitalism are the future of humanity, and that history itself is ending, and we only needed to remove a few hurdles — communism, Islam, terrorism — in the way. The political and economic shocks of the last few years have devastated such utopian fantasies and intellectual complacencies, and perhaps we can finally start thinking again — thinking without the crutch of ideology.

Carlo Pizzati is a writer of fiction and non-fiction, and a professor of communication theory based in Tamil Nadu.

Top News Today

Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.