Tuesday, 21 February 2017

The Age of Anger: A Review

"Oh, tell me who was it first announced, who was it first proclaimed, that man only does nasty things because he does not know his own interests; and that if he were enlightened, if his eyes were opened to his real normal interests, man would at once cease to do nasty things, would at once become good and noble because, being enlightened and understanding his real advantage, he would see his own advantage in the good and nothing else?" (Dostoevsky)

“Just as nations crown their despots in their periods of weakness, so human nature in its periods of weakness craves for despots, more than it ever craved for liberty” (G.K. Chesterton)

The book of the week last week on BBC Radio 4, “Age of Anger” by Pankaj Mishra is an interesting book. It is part history, party social commentary, looking mainly on the cultural changes of the last decade and the toxic politics that we have seen arise from that but at also at the deeper roots behind it.

It looks at the backlash against globalism, and the seductive narrative of progress. The myth of progress, what was termed the “Whig view” of history received its first major setback with the First World War, followed by a period of cautious optimism which received its second setback with the rise of the age of dictators – Spain’s General Franco, Lenin and then Stalin in Russia, Hitler in Germany and Mussolini it Italy. These were the strong leaders, who harnessed technological advances for weapons of terror and conquest.

But in the post-war generation, a sunny optimism began to reassert itself despite the setbacks, with the rapidly changing face of technology, and the advent of a more global economy. Here, an increasing technological obsolescence and throw-away mentality replaced make and mend but was in itself replaced with the vision of the next upgrade.

The momentum, it seemed, even despite the fall of the Twin Towers to Islamic extremism, the bombings in Madrid and London, and the economic shocks on 2008, seemed unstoppable. Despite increased regulation, bankers bounced back, and the bonus culture returned.

And he points how the Berlin wall signified the end of the cold war, and ostensibly an age of hope:

“In the hopeful years that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the universal triumph of liberal capitalism and democracy seemed assured; free markets and human rights would spread around the world and lift billions from poverty and oppression. In many ways, this dream has come true: we live in a vast, homogenous global market, which is more literate, interconnected and prosperous than at any other time in history.”

But as Pankaj Mishra, points out, these visions and the changes they wrought had a downside in a time of uncertainty, and feelings of impotence about politics and economics:

“People in the media, in politics, in business who had let themselves become intoxicated by these visions of universal progress. And I think what we forgot is that this experience of great economic disruptions - people being laid off, jobs disappearing - all this has led to a lot of uncertainty and, indeed, induced feelings of powerlessness amongst lots of people all around the world. “

“I think equality defines the modern world. You know, that is what we all set out to achieve a long time ago. So what we've seen in the last three decades is that, you know, a lot of old hierarchies have been dismantled. Anyone can make it. A slumdog can become a millionaire.”

“You know, that has been that sort of dominant ethic. That has been at least the propaganda that a lot of people have believed in. And when they find their way blocked, the frustration and the rage is infinitely greater than, say, the 1960s or '70s.”

As Isaiah Berlin prophetically noted in 1972:

“Nationalism does not necessarily and exclusively militate in favour of the ruling class. It animates revolts against it, too, for it expresses the inflamed desire of the insufficiently regarded to count for something among the cultures of the world. The brutal and destructive side of modern nationalism needs no stressing in a world torn by its excesses”

And this has led to what Pankaj Mishra calls “the age of anger”, where people are searching for causes, for someone or something to blame. It has no great dictators leading the scapegoating, but this is the time when the mediocre demagogue, voicing the zeitgeist, is most dangerous:

“I think there is a dangerous form of democracy where a people, a community are formed around the idea of exclusion. So I would argue against that kind of democracy or thinking that forming a sovereign people or taking back control by building high walls and by demonizing minorities or immigrants actually is democracy because what it is basically saying - that democracy is only reserved for these people who happen to have a particular skin colour or who happen to have a - or share a particular religion”

“Nationalism,” Mishra writes, “has again become a seductive but treacherous antidote to an experience of disorder and meaninglessness.”

And he sees this in the politics of today:

"Demagogues of all kinds, from Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan to India's Narendra Modi, France's Marine Le Pen and America's Donald Trump, have tapped into the simmering reservoirs of cynicism, boredom and discontent,"

He sees as a false and simplistic theory that which lays the blame for the turmoil of the modern world in a clash of civilisations, between Islam-inspired terrorism and modernity. Rather it is the backlash against modernity which has emerged, in religious forms with Islamic fanaticism in the Middle East, Hindu extremists in India, and Christian fundamentalists in America, but also with a secular form, in which nationalism becomes the new idol, and the remedy against the ills of modernity.

Chesterton noted that: “It is because man has always had the instinct that to isolate a thing was to identify it. The flag only becomes a flag when it is unique; the nation only becomes a nation when it is surrounded”

This ties in with Isaiah Berlin who commented on the origins of nationalism:

“Nationalism, unlike tribal feeling or xenophobia, to which it is related, but with which it is not identical, seems scarcely to have existed in ancient or classical times. There were other foci of collective loyalty. It seems to emerge at the end of the Middle Ages in the West, particularly in France, in the form of the defence of customs and privileges of localities, regions, corporations, and, of course, states, and then of the nation itself, against the encroachment of some external power, Roman law or Papal authority, or against related forms of universalism, Natural law and other claims of supranational authority”

It is defined against what it is not, a revote against the status quo in which, as Berlin notes, “protest against this takes the form sometimes of a nostalgic longing for earlier times, when men were virtuous or happy or free, or dreams of a golden age in the future.”

And this leads to the need to define the other, the outsider, the stranger. As Zack Hunt comments:

“When patriotism becomes an idol, the poor can become our enemies, the alien among us can become someone to be feared and the outcast can become someone we actively seek to marginalize. When patriotism becomes an idol, the ‘other’ whom we despise is the least of these.”

Pankaj Mishra gives no solutions to the emerging patterns of this age of anger, but only a cold and sober warning:

“The unprecedented political, economic and social disorder that accompanied the rise of the industrial capitalist economy in nineteenth century Europe, and led to world wars, totalitarian regimes and genocide in the first half of the twentieth century, is now infecting much vaster regions and bigger populations. Societies organized for the interplay of individual self-interest can collapse into manic tribalism, if not nihilistic violence.”

“Future historians may well see such uncoordinated mayhem as commencing the third — and the longest and strangest - of all world wars - one that approximates, in its ubiquity, a global civil war.”

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