The nihilism and rage sweeping across the globe are not generated by warped ideologies or medieval religious beliefs. These destructive forces have their roots in the obliterating of social, cultural and religious traditions by modernization and the consumer society, the disastrous attempts by the United States to carry out regime change, often through coups and wars, and the utopian neoliberal ideology that has concentrated wealth in the hands of a tiny cabal of corrupt global oligarchs.
This vast, global project of social engineering during the last century persuaded hundreds of millions of people, as Pankaj Mishra writes in “The Age of Anger: A History of the Present,” “to renounce – and often scorn – a world of the past that had endured for thousands of years, and to undertake a gamble of creating modern citizens who would be secular, enlightened, cultured and heroic.” The project has been a spectacular failure.
“To destroy a people,” Alexander Solzhenitsyn noted acidly, “you must sever their roots.” The wretched of the earth, as Frantz Fanon called them, have been shorn of any ideological or cultural cohesion. They are cut off from their past. They live in crushing poverty, numbing alienation, hopelessness and often terror. Mass culture feeds them the tawdry, the violent, the salacious and the ridiculous. They are rising up against these forces of modernization, driven by an atavistic fury to destroy the technocratic world that condemns them.
This rage is expressed in many forms – Hindu nationalism, protofascism, jihadism, the Christian right, anarchic violence and others. But the various forms of ressentiment spring from the same deep wells of global despair. This ressentiment “poisons civil society and undermines political liberty,” Mishra writes, and it is fueling “a global turn to authoritarianism and toxic forms of chauvinism.”
Western elites, rather than accept their responsibility for the global anarchy, self-servingly define the clash as one between the values of the enlightened West and medieval barbarians. They see in the extreme nationalists, religious fundamentalists and jihadists an inchoate and inexplicable irrationality that can be quelled only with force. They have yet to grasp that the disenfranchised do not hate us for our values; they hate us because of our duplicity, use of indiscriminate industrial violence on their nations and communities and our hypocrisy. The dispossessed grasp the true message of the West to the rest of the planet: We have everything, and if you try to take it away from us we will kill you.
The more that Western elites are attacked, the more they too retreat into a mythological past, self-glorification and willful ignorance. Mishra writes:
Thus, in the very places [in the West] where secular modernity arose, with ideas that were then universally established – individualism (against the significance of social relations), the cult of efficiency and utility (against the ethic of honour), and the normalization of self-interest – the mythic Volk has reappeared as a spur to solidarity and action against real and imagined enemies.
But nationalism is, more than ever before, a mystification, if not a dangerous fraud with its promise of making a country ‘great again’ and its demonization of the ‘other’; it conceals the real conditions of existence, and the true origins of suffering, even as it seeks to replicate the comforting balm of transcendental ideals within a bleak earthly horizon. Its political resurgence shows that ressentiment – in this case, of people who feel left behind by the globalized economy or contemptuously ignored by its slick overlords and cheerleaders in politics, business and the media – remains the default metaphysics of the modern world since [Jean-Jacques] Rousseau first defined it. And its most menacing expression in the age of individualism may well be the violent anarchism of the disinherited and the superfluous.
The proponents of globalization promised to lift workers across the planet into the middle class and instill democratic values and scientific rationalism. Religious and ethnic tensions would be alleviated or eradicated. This global marketplace would create a peaceful, prosperous community of nations. All we had to do was get government out of the way and kneel before market demands, held up as the ultimate form of progress and rationality.
Neoliberalism, in the name of this absurd utopia, stripped away government regulations and laws that once protected the citizen from the worst excesses of predatory capitalism. It created free trade agreements that allowed trillions of corporate dollars to be transferred to offshore accounts to avoid taxation and jobs to flee to sweatshops in China and the global south where workers live in conditions that replicate slavery. Social service programs and public services were slashed or privatized. Mass culture, including schools and the press, indoctrinated an increasingly desperate population to take part in the global reality show of capitalism, a “war of all against all.”
What we were never told was that the game was fixed. We were always condemned to lose. Our cities were deindustrialized and fell into decay. Wages declined. Our working class became impoverished. Endless war became, cynically, a lucrative business. And the world’s wealth was seized by a tiny group of global oligarchs. Kleptocracies, such as the one now installed in Washington, brazenly stole from the people. Democratic idealism became a joke. We are now knit together, as Mishra writes, only “by commerce and technology,” forces that Hannah Arendt called “negative solidarity.”
The backlash, Mishra writes, resembles the anarchist, fascist and communist violence and terrorism that took place at the end of the 19th century and in the early 20th century. In one of the most important parts of his brilliant and multi-layered analysis of the world around us, Mishra explains how Western ideas were adopted and mutated by ideologues in the global south, ideas that would become as destructive as the imposition of free market capitalism itself.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamic revolution in Iran, for example, borrowed liberally from Western ideas, including representation through elections, egalitarianism and Vladimir Lenin’s revolutionary vanguard, which was adapted for a Muslim world. Nishida Kitaro and Watsuji Tetsuro of Japan’s Kyoto School, steeped in the romantic nationalism of German philosophers such as Johann Gottlieb Fichte, transformed the glorification of the German nation into a glorification of imperial Japan. They “provided the intellectual justification for Japan’s brutal assault on China in the 1930s, and then the sudden attack on its biggest trading partner in December 1941 – at Pearl Harbor.” South Asia’s most important writer and scholar, Muhammad Iqbal, provided a “Nietzschean vision of Islam revivified by strong self-creating Muslims.” And the Chinese scholar Lu Xun called for Chinese to exhibit the “indomitable will exemplified by Zarathustra.” These bastard ideologies cloaked themselves in the veneer of indigenous religious traditions and beliefs. But they were new creations, born out of the schöpferische Zerstörung, or the “gale of creative destruction,” of global capitalism.
Nowhere is this truer than with the modern calls for jihad by self-styled Islamic radicals, most of whom have no religious training and who often come out of the secularized criminal underworld. The jihadist leader Abu Musab Zarqawi, nicknamed “the sheikh of slaughterers” in Iraq, had, as Mishra writes, “a long past of pimping, drug-dealing and heavy drinking.” The Afghan-American Omar Mateen reportedly was a frequenter of the nightclub in Orlando, Fla., where he massacred 49 people and had been seen there drunk. Anwar al-Awlaki, who preached jihad and was eventually assassinated by the United States, had a penchant for prostitutes. Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, a senior leader of Islamic State before he was killed, called on Muslims in the West to kill any non-Muslim they encountered. “Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car, or throw him down from a high place, or choke him, or poison,” al-Adnani told followers.
The idea of Mikhail Bakunin’s “propaganda by deed” is, Mishra writes, “now manifest universally in video-taped, live-streamed and Facebooked massacres.” It grew, he writes, “naturally from the suspicion that only acts of extreme violence could reveal to the world a desperate social situation and the moral integrity of those determined to challenge it.” These imported ideas filled the void left by the destruction of indigenous beliefs, traditions and rituals. As Mishra says, these jihadists “represent the death of traditional Islam rather than its resurrection.”
“As it turned out,” he writes, “the autocratic modernizers failed to usher a majority of their wards into the modern world, and their abortive revolutions from above paved the way for more radical ones from below, followed, as we have seen in recent years, by anarchy.”
The terrorist attacks in Paris or London were driven by the same ressentiment, Mishra points out, as that which led Timothy McVey to bomb the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168, including 19 children, and injuring 684. And when the American was imprisoned in Florence, Colo., the prisoner in the adjacent cell was Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, the mastermind of the first attack on the World Trade Center, in 1993. After McVey was executed, Yousef commented, “I never have [known] anyone in my life who has so similar a personality to my own as his.”
Mishra writes, “Malignant zealots have emerged in the very heart of the democratic West after a decade of political and economic tumult; the simple explanatory paradigm set in stone soon after the attacks of 9/11 – Islam-inspired terrorism versus modernity – lies in ruins.” The United States, aside from suffering periodic mass killings in schools, malls and movie theaters, has seen homegrown terrorists strike the Boston Marathon, a South Carolina church, Tennessee military facilities, a Texas Army base and elsewhere.
“The modern West can no longer be distinguished from its apparent enemies,” Mishra notes. The hagiography of the U.S. Navy sniper Chris Kyle – who had a tattoo of a red Crusader cross and called the Iraq War a battle against “savage, desperate evil” – in Clint Eastwood’s movie “American Sniper” celebrates the binary worldview adopted by jihadists who deify their suicide bombers.
“The xenophobic frenzy unleashed by Clint Eastwood’s film of Kyle’s book suggested the most vehement partisans of holy war flourish not only in the ravaged landscape of South and West Asia,” Mishra writes. “Such fanatics, who can be atheists as well as crusaders and jihadists, also lurk among America’s best and brightest, emboldened by an endless support of money, arms, and even ‘ideas’ supplied by terrorism experts and clash-of-civilization theorists.”
Donald Trump, given the political, economic and cultural destruction carried out by neoliberalism, is not an aberration. He is the result of a market society and capitalist democracy that has ceased to function. An angry and alienated underclass, now making up as much as half the population of the United States, is entranced by electronic hallucinations that take the place of literacy. These Americans take a perverse and almost diabolical delight in demagogues such as Trump that express contempt for and openly flout the traditional rules and rituals of a power structure that preys upon them.
Mishra finds a similar situation in his own country, India. “In their indifference to the common good, single-minded pursuit of private happiness, and narcissistic identification with an apparently ruthless strongman and uninhibited loudmouth, [Indian Prime Minister Narendra] Modi’s angry voters mirror many electorates around the world – people gratified rather than appalled by trash-talk and the slaughter of old conventions,” he writes. “The new horizons of individual desire and fear opened up by the neoliberal world economy do not favor democracy or human rights.”
Mishra excoriates the West’s idealized and sanitized version of history, “the simple-minded and dangerously misleading ideas and assumptions, drawn from a triumphant history of Anglo-American achievements that has long shaped the speeches of statesmen, think-tank reports, technocratic surveys, newspaper editorials, while supplying fuel to countless columnists, TV pundits and so-called terrorism experts.” The mandarins who spew this self-serving narrative are, as American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr called them and their ilk, the “bland fanatics of Western civilization” “who regard the highly contingent achievements of our culture as the final form and norm of human existence.”
The roots of modernization and colonization are, as Mishra writes, ones of “carnage and bedlam.” The rapacious appetite of capitalists and imperialists never considered “such constraining factors as finite geographical space, degradable natural resources and fragile ecosystems.” In carrying out this project of global expansion, no form of coercion or violence was off-limits. Those who opposed us simply learned to speak our language.
“The intellectual pedigree of today’s nasty atrocities is not to be found in religious scriptures,” Mishra writes. “French colonialists in Algeria had used torture techniques originally deployed by the Nazis during the occupation of France (and also were some of the first hijackers of a civilian airplane). Americans in the global war on terror resorted to cruel interrogation methods that the Soviet Union had patented during the Cold War. In the latest stage of this gruesome reciprocity, the heirs of Zarqawi in ISIS dress their Western hostages in Guantanamo’s orange suits, and turn on their smartphone cameras, before beheading their victims.”
The West’s dangerous faith in the inevitability of human progress is chronicled by Mishra through the dueling French intellectuals Rousseau and Voltaire, as well as Bakunin, Alexander Herzen, Karl Marx, Fichte, Giuseppe Mazzini and Michel Foucault. This intellectually nuanced and philosophically rich book shows that ideas matter.
“The Hindu, Jewish, Chinese and Islamic modernists who helped establish major nation-building ideologies were in tune with the main trends of the European fin-de-siècle, which redefined freedom beyond bourgeois self-seeking to a will to forge dynamic new societies and reshape history,” Mishra writes. “It is impossible to understand them, and the eventual product of their efforts (Islamism, Hindu nationalism, Zionism, Chinese nationalism), without grasping their European intellectual background of cultural decay and pessimism: the anxiety in the unconscious that Freud was hardly alone in sensing, or the idea of a glorious rebirth after decline and decadence, borrowed from the Christian idea of resurrection, that Mazzini had done so much to introduce into the political sphere.”
Mishra goes on:
ISIS, born during the implosion of Iraq, owes its existence more to Operation Infinite Justice and Enduring Freedom than to any Islamic theology. It is the quintessential product of a radical process of globalization in which governments, unable to protect their citizens from foreign invaders, brutal police, or economic turbulence, lose their moral and ideological legitimacy, creating a space for such non-state actors as armed gangs, mafia, vigilante groups, warlords and private revenge-seekers.
ISIS aims to create a Caliphate, but, like American regime-changers, it cannot organize a political space, as distinct from privatizing violence. Motivated by a selfie individualism, the adepts of ISIS are better at destroying Valhalla than building it. Ultimately, a passion for grand politics, manifest in ISIS’s Wagnerian-style annihilation, is what drives the Caliphate, as much as it did [Gabriele] D’Annunzio’s utopia. The will to power and craving for violence as existential experience reconciles, as [philosopher and social theorist Georges] Sorel prophesized, the varying religious and ideological commitments of its adherents. The attempts to place them in a long Islamic tradition miss how much these militants, feverishly stylizing their murders and rapes on Instagram, reflect an ultimate stage in the radicalization of the modern principle of individual autonomy and equality: a form of strenuous self-assertion that acknowledges no limits, and requires descent into a moral abyss.
Philosopher George Santayana foresaw that America’s obsessive individualistic culture of competition and mimicry would eventually incite “a lava-wave of primitive blindness and violence.” The inability to be self-critical and self-aware, coupled with the cult of the self, would lead to a collective suicide. Cultural historian Carl Schorske in “Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture” wrote that Europe’s descent into fascism was inevitable once it cut the “cord of consciousness.” And, with the rise of Trump, it is clear the “cord of consciousness” has also been severed in the twilight days of the American empire. Once we no longer acknowledge or understand our own capacity for evil, once we no longer know ourselves, we become monsters who devour others and finally devour ourselves.
“Totalitarianism with its tens of millions of victims was identified as a malevolent reaction to the benevolent Enlightenment tradition of rationalism, humanism, universalism and liberal democracy – a tradition seen as an unproblematic norm,” Mishra writes. “It was clearly too disconcerting to acknowledge that totalitarian politics crystallized the ideological currents (scientific racism, jingoistic nationalism, imperialism, technicism, aestheticized politics, utopianism, social engineering and the violent struggle for existence) flowing through all of Europe in the late nineteenth century.”
Mishra knows what happens when people are discarded onto the dung heap of history. He knows what endless wars, waged in the name of democracy and Western civilization, engender among their victims. He knows what drives people, whether they are at a Trump rally or a radical mosque in Pakistan, to lust after violence. History informs the present. We are afflicted by what writer Albert Camus called “autointoxication, the malignant secretion of one’s preconceived impotence inside the enclosure of the self.” And until this “autointoxication” is addressed, the rage and violence, at home and abroad, will expand as we stumble toward a global apocalypse. The self-alienation of humankind, Walter Benjamin warned, “has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.”
The conflicts in Egypt, Libya, Mali, Syria and many other places, Mishra notes, are fueled by “extreme weather events, the emptying of rivers and seas of their fish stocks, or the desertification of entire regions on the planet.” The refugees being driven by their homelands’ chaos into Europe are creating political instability there. And as we sleepwalk into the future, the steady deterioration of the ecosystem will ultimately lead to total systems collapse. Mishra warns that “the two ways in which humankind can self-destruct – civil war on a global scale, or destruction of the natural environment – are rapidly converging.” Our elites, oblivious to the dangers ahead, blinded by their own hubris and greed, are ferrying us, like Charon, to the land of the dead.