10 May 2017

Age of Losers

Pankaj Mishra's Age of Anger: A History of the Present is one of the most talked-about books of the year in middlebrow circles. Mishra is an India-born writer and academic who publishes regularly in the Anglo-American media. He is a critic of Hindu nationalism in his native country, which he sees as a phenomenon similar in its root causes to all the so-called populist or nativist movements today, from Islamism to the movements that define themselves by enmity to Islamism or Islam. The thesis of Age of Anger is that these 21st century phenomena, from the emergence of the self-styled Islamic State to the election of Donald Trump, are merely the latest in a sequence of angry reactions to the inequities of modernization dating back to 18th century France. All these movements follow one prophet, whether they realize it or not, and his name is Jean-Jacques Rousseau. For Mishra, Rousseau remains, after more than two centuries, the definitive critic of a modernization process that appears unfair to millions if not the majority of people around the world. Rousseau's anger was a reaction to the Enlightenment as represented by Voltaire, a primal villain of Mishra's narrative. Voltaire might be the original neocon if he had any ideological commitment to democracy, but for Mishra he is the prophet of top-down modernization, the champion of "enlightened despotism," a self-interested meritocrat and probably a smug asshole. He may not have willed all the bad aspects of modernity that Rousseau reviled, but his propaganda for progress and individual liberty helped usher it all in. Rousseau, meanwhile, is the first thinker to express the humiliation so many of the world's discontented are supposed to feel today. As a provincial, he seems to have felt personally humiliated in the Paris salons Voltaire frequented. As a result Rousseau came to despise the manners by which the upper classes and other elites were distinguishing themselves, and came to see self-interested, ambitious individuals like Voltaire as fundamentally dishonest in a radical way. The toxic mix of self-interest and manners made society itself dishonest, while an increasingly competitive society, its moral roots seemingly shorn away, left more and more people feeling alienated and oppressed while others enjoyed new wealth and liberty.

Reading Mishra's account of Rousseau, it occurred to me that Rousseau's heir in his own country is the novelist Michel Houellebecq, who denounces a continuing alienation and demoralization as society grows even more competitive today and imagines people longing for a sense of belonging for which they might gladly sacrifice their freedom. Age of Anger helps explain why people might feel more oppressed at a time of apparent progress, compared to the seemingly eternal oppression their medieval ancestors must have endured. The explanation seems to be that, however poor he was, or however desperate his lot at any moment, the peasant presumably felt that he had a place in his society, or in the great chain of being, that was no longer certain in a more competitive and skeptical time. A more competitive society appears to engender greater contempt for those who can't (or perhaps won't) compete. A peasant might be poor or even miserable, but it would seem that he wasn't a loser in the way many people, if not the great majority, are seen today. Rousseau is the prophet for those who reject a society or culture that dismisses them as losers. His remedy for loserdom is the general will. Paradoxically, he takes Sparta as his model for a society where people are truly free -- though Samuel Adams' wish that the United States would become a "Christian Sparta" shows that Rousseau was not exceptional in his vision. "In this society at least," Mishra tries to explain, "the corrupting urge to promote oneself over others, and the deceiving of the poor by the rich, could be counterpoised by the surrender of individuality to public service, and the desire to seek pride for community and country."

There are no good guys in Age of Anger. If the heirs of Rousseau are rightfully angry at some of the injustices of modernity, their recourse to patriotic solidarity almost always escalates into chauvinism, nativism and hate. This is exactly what Rousseau expected and presumably approved. "The patriotic spirit is exclusive and makes us look upon all those who are not our fellow citizens as strangers and almost enemies," the Frenchman wrote. Elsewhere, he made the same point: "Every patriot is severe with strangers; they are merely men, they are nothing in his eyes." Mishra clearly hopes for an alternative but can't point to one in his book. Instead, from Rousseau's time to ours there is a parade of nationalist movements founded on hate for other nations, starting with hatred for France (and later the Jews) among Germans resentful of Napoleon's conquests of their little principalities and determined to prove that their culture, language, etc. still mattered. Alternatives to the nation as the object of chauvinist loyalty have come and gone. For Marxists it was the working class. For Islamists, suspicious of the tyrannical top-down modernization efforts of secular self-styled nationalists like Kemal Ataturk, the Shah of Iran or Saddam Hussein, the alternative is the ummah, the global community of Muslims. Within these objects of loyalty, minorities are often despised and made scapegoats for the injustices of modernity. For some, like the Marxists and Fascists, the object of loyalty was not an idealized past but an idealized future, the home of the New Man born from revolutionary violence and conquest. Even the wave of anarchist violence at the turn of the twentieth century counts as part of the reaction to modernity because Mishra sees it as self-assertion in its rawest form against oppressive society. Taking this broad view, Mishra sees nothing new about ISIS, apart perhaps from its exploitation of social media, and chides those in Europe, India and the U.S. who see its violence as something intrinsic Islamic rather than a localized form of something that has been happening, obviously with greater or lesser degrees of severity, just about everywhere for the last two centuries.

In the end, Mishra stands with neither Voltaire or Rousseau but calls  vaguely for "some truly transformative thinking about both the self and the world." He's clearly uncomfortable with the heartless free-for-all he identifies (unfairly, according to some critics) with Voltaire or the resentfully self-effacing alternative he identifies with Rousseau, in which the price for securing a place in the world looks something like becoming an interchangeable part.  Perhaps oddly, the thinker who comes off most positively in the book is Nietzsche, a critic of both the bourgeoisie and national chauvinism who is probably too easily misinterpreted to be useful in finding a third way. Age of Anger is a pessimistic, frustrating yet fascinating and invigorating read that should stir up your interest in reading many of the writers he cites and drawing your own, hopefully more optimistic conclusions from them.


Anonymous said...

"...of a modernization process that appears unfair to millions if not the majority of people around the world."

And yet the overwhelming majority of those people refuse to do what is necessary to make a better world - get an education. By that, I don't mean a piece of paper saying they're fit to hold a particular job. By 'education', I mean understanding how the world works. Why things are as fucked up as they are and, most importantly, be willing to make whatever sacrifice necessary to fix the problems. Whether that sacrifice is changing their lifestyle, changing their world-view, or eliminating problem persons/populations without regret or remorse. As the average person is too stupid, too lazy and/or too cowardly to do what is necessary, they will always be 'forced' to live in a world which gives them cause to complain.

"...Samuel Adams' wish that the United States would become a "Christian Sparta..."
Considering his lack of military experience, I have to wonder if that is what Adams truly meant. Considering that, in the real Sparta, he would not have had the luxury of becoming a wealthy merchant, as he would have, instead, spent his life in military service, on the front lines. The more history I read, the more I feel that far too many of our founding fathers were rank cowards, who had no problem with sacrificing the lives of those they considered 'lesser' than themselves, while never really putting their own lives on the line.

"For Islamists, suspicious of the tyrannical top-down modernization efforts of secular self-styled nationalists like Kemal Ataturk, the Shah of Iran or Saddam Hussein, the alternative is the ummah, the global community of Muslims. "
Considering the tyranny implicit in any religion, but especially in islam, this would seem to make them hypocrites. Perhaps they should move their 'global community' to one location and leave the rest of us out of their stone-age belief system.

Finally, I note that far too many of these 'thinkers' feel humanity must change itself; make sacrifices, etc. that I don't see these thinkers making themselves. I'd be more willing to grant them the benefit of the doubt if they held crappy jobs to keep a roof over their heads and gave away their books for free. It always seems to be the rest of us who are expected to change and make sacrifices for the good of the whole, but no one, apparently, wants to lead by example. It isn't that I am unaware of what changes are necessary to create a better world, but that change begins with the self - especially the 'selves' of those telling the rest of us that we must change.

Samuel Wilson said...

Regarding Sparta, both Rousseau and Adams seem to have idealized it as a place where self-interest, as they understood it, had no place, while freedom was more self-discipline than self-indulgence. Adams' idea of a "Christian Sparta" has less to do with militancy than an ideal of modest or "sober" virtue. He used the term in a 1780 letter complaining of the "Pomp and Parade" of the new Massachusetts government.

"I once thought, that [Boston] would be the Christian Sparta," Adams wrote, "But Alas! Will men never be free! They will be free no longer than while they remain virtuous. Sidney tells us, there are times when People are not worth saving. Meaning, when they have lost their Virtue. I pray God, this may never be truly said of my beloved Town."

As for Mishra, at least he doesn't pretend to have a clue how exactly our thinking about self and society should change, though he'd probably note that "eliminating problem persons/populations without regret or remorse" has been tried already.