Modernity and its malcontents

Pankaj Mishra traces the origins of the disaffection that has become the defining political trend of our times and suggests that its roots aren’t very far from the liberal modernism it opposes

February 04, 2017 02:29 pm | Updated 03:09 pm IST

Age of Anger; Pankaj Mishra, Juggernaut ₹699.

Age of Anger; Pankaj Mishra, Juggernaut ₹699.

We were shocked when Donald Trump won the election. Before that, we were shocked by Brexit. And before that, by the rise of the IS death cult.

No doubt, many of us did not expect any of these developments. But do they really constitute a radical break from the world we thought we knew? Or do they represent a form of continuity with the past? Belying the narrative of shock and outrage that has greeted these phenomena, Pankaj Mishra’s latest book, Age of Anger , emphatically argues the latter.

The two contemporary phenomena that have exercised liberal minds the most in recent times are the rise of militant right-wing nationalism around the world, and the ability of nihilistic outfits such as the IS to attract youth even from the heart of the developed West, which is supposed to embody all that is great about modernity. How could so many turn their backs on the liberal values of freedom, pluralism, material comforts, and human rights to embrace destruction and suicidal violence?

The liberal consensus typically blames the ignorance and gullibility of the under-educated masses for the former (militant nationalism), and Islam for the latter (terrorism), invoking the idea of a clash of civilisations between the modern West and a medieval religion that seeks to challenge, if not destroy, modernity.

What remains outside the purview of debate are liberal verities about modernity and its goodness for all. And it is the liberal’s blind faith in the modernist project — mirrored by the blind faith of the terrorist seeking to undermine it — that Mishra foregrounds in Age of Anger .

He is well placed to undertake such a project. If there is a common thread that runs through his work, both fiction and non-fiction, it is the forced encounter with Western modernity and the psychological cost it imposes on individuals living in non-Western societies.

Not surprisingly, Mishra approaches present-day maladies such as militant xenophobia and nihilistic violence through the filter of the West’s own traumatic encounter with modernity in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In seven allusive chapters dense with scholarship, he maps the upheavals this encounter generated in Europe, and “describes a pattern of mental and emotional behaviour as the landscape of modernity extended from the Atlantic West to Europe’s heartland, Russia and further east.”

In the process, he teases out the contradictions inherent in the very project of modernity. Contradictions such as the seductive promise of consumerist fulfilment but the lack of material means to do so, the coexistence of formal equality alongside wrenching inequality, and most crucially, the imperative to approach life as a competitive race for success but in a society that shows no mercy to the losers who form the majority everywhere.

For Mishra, these contradictions coagulate in the minds of men — mostly men — into a singularly powerful emotion: ‘ressentiment’. This is a term borrowed from French that denotes not just ‘resentment’ but a persistent psychological state that contains elements of frustration, envy, humiliation, impotence, inferiority, hatred, rage, and of course, a deep urge for revenge.

It is the world’s overflowing reserves of ressentiment that is harvested by Hindu nationalists in India, Islamist extremists in the Middle East, white supremacists in the US, xenophobic neo-Nazis in Europe and by demagogues and extremists of all stripes everywhere.

What produces this ressentiment? The dialectic of modernity, answers Mishra.

From the dawn of civilisation, pre-modern societies were defined by fixed, stable hierarchies. A privileged minority, typically headed by a king, claimed divine sanction to exploit the majority. Then came the Enlightenment, which displaced faith with reason. It tore the veil over exploitation and promised progress, thereby inaugurating the modern era. The promise of ‘progress’ was the idea that one’s life circumstances could be changed for the better through rational exercise of human will. Not just individuals but entire societies could, and must, change in order to realise their fullest potential.

But as capitalism entrenched itself, it rapidly became clear that the doors of social mobility would remain shut for the vast majority. Not only did the exploitation of the many by the few continue — in contravention of lofty Enlightenment values — it formed the very basis of liberal modernity. But for the modern self, such exploitation and inequality was no longer palatable. There emerged a growing mass of dissatisfied, young men with a sense of entitlement, status anxiety, and unlimited desires. In the absence of productive avenues for their energies, they were eminently susceptible to militant ideologies. They succumbed to them in 19th century Europe, and they are doing so in traditional societies around the world as they come in intimate contact with modernity.

Mishra quotes the influential 19th century thinker Mikhail Bakunin, who “spoke with glee of the ‘mysterious and terrible words’, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, which portend ‘the complete annihilation’ of ‘the existing political and social world”. He suggests that militant anarchists such as Bakunin, who identified “freedom with a joyful passion of destruction,” are the intellectual forefathers of outfits such as the IS. Yet Bakunin was a child of the Enlightenment who only “took to a new extreme the romantic-liberal notion of individual autonomy”.

In other words, the “lethal individualism” that we call terrorism is not a break from modernity but “as much its integral part as liberal individualism and such collectivist projects as nationalism and fascism”. Mishra argues that all these tendencies originated at particular moments in a historical experiment that started in 18th century Europe, and is now worldwide in scope.

Age of Anger debunks the liberal thesis that something external to liberal modernity (Islam, xenophobia, etc) is to blame for the world’s ills. Far from being civilisational aliens to each other, cultural nationalism and political Islam, Hindutva and secularism, liberalism and terrorism, fascism and pluralism, Rousseau and Savarkar, Modi and Montesquieu, all have the same intellectual parentage. They are all children and grandchildren of the Enlightenment.

This book is an important intervention that asks us to think deeply about how we frame our intellectual ‘other’. For what we need today is not a fight-to-the-death to save modernity from its putative enemies or even a project to modernise or ‘reform’ the adherents of ideologies identified as pre-modern, but a better understanding of modernity .

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