Pankaj Mishra on global rage, and the real culprit: modernity
A conversation with the author of The Age of Anger
A new Pankaj Mishra book is always a publishing event. In critically acclaimed, best-selling works—most recently Temptations of the West, An End to Suffering and From the Ruins of Empire—the Indian essayist, author and public intellectual has offered thoughtful explorations of a globalizing India, the Buddha and contemporary spirituality, and western imperialism’s history in Asia. Mishra’s latest book, The Age of Anger: A History of the Present, though, has struck a particular chord at a time when populism and fanaticism are taking hold in many parts of the world.
Monobina Gupta is a journalist and author based in Delhi. She has worked with The Times of India and the Kolkata Telegraph, and written for The Economic Times, The Caravan, and The New York Times’ India Ink. Her books, Didi: A Political Biography and Left Politics in Bengal: Time Travels among Bhadralok Marxists, have examined the fortunes of the left in Bengal as well as the rise of Mamata Banerjee, the powerful female leader who brought down a long-ruling communist government there. She spoke with Mishra via email this week.
Monobina Gupta: I have followed your work over the years with a great deal of interest. You drew readers’ attention to the fault lines within the neoliberal economic project long before the crisis of globalization and democracy exploded dramatically. I recall a time not so far back when, in India, certainly, critics of neoliberalism who questioned the narrative of trickle-down economics were brusquely dismissed as outmoded intellectuals. The entire discourse seemed to have been hijacked by economists. You write in your book about this tendency to overestimate economics and underplay culture.
Pankaj Mishra: I think an economistic vocabulary of endless growth and consumption dominated all other kinds of moral, political and intellectual discourses in recent decades—this explains much of our helplessness today before the earthquakes of our time. This rhetoric of individual entrepreneurship and private wealth creation was, of course, the chosen language of the beneficiaries of neoliberal capitalism, and one of the ways in which they delegitimated any alternative was to identify its critics with the “failed” collectivist project of socialism and to mock them as deluded jholawallahs.
Gupta: We should explain that word—a jhola is a kind of sling bag, the cloth variety favoured by bookish intellectuals, and wallah is just the Hindi word for person. It’s interesting how the term jholawallah, once used to describe Marxist intellectuals and activists, now refers to just about any left-wing critic of economic liberalization, including mainstream non-governmental organizations.
Mishra: Exactly. Over the past two decades, the Indian public sphere came to be dominated by these American-educated or Americanized figures, who had grown up intellectually in post-Reagan America. In fact, you can observe the hegemony of these neo-Americans in most countries around the world. What they don’t understand is that socialism’s great historical role since the 19th century was to civilize capitalism, soften it with social-welfarist projects. And without this restraining and civilizing influence, the inequalities and upheavals imposed by capitalism would grow intolerable, and politically toxic, as we witness today. So, the economists prepared the stage for the demagogues with their arrogance and ignorance.
Gupta: You emphasize that the rise of demagogues is an essential part of the politics of ressentiment and alienation afflicting large swathes of people today—those who have been left behind in the frenetic search for more wealth. Globalization seems to have engendered exactly the opposite of what its architects intended it to deliver. In India, economic deprivation has fuelled popular rage, widespread cynicism about parliamentary democracy and a loss of faith in institutions. At the same time, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, anxiety about minorities and dissidents—particularly Muslims—is growing stronger by the day. How can we better understand these contradictory developments, where economic deprivation across religion, caste and gender feeds a rhetoric of hard nationalism rather than a broad coalition of those who have been left out for the past two decades?
Mishra: The mass suffering caused by uneven growth and disruptive change and the loss of legitimacy of political institutions has historically benefitted right-wing demagogues more than the internationalist left. This perplexed socialist revolutionaries right from the 19th century. Trying to build a broad-based coalition of the suffering working classes, they found themselves aghast at the instant success of ethnic-racial nationalists and cultural supremacists. I think the latter addressed the widespread feelings of powerlessness and humiliation more directly and persuasively. They intuited that global economic and technological processes were radically disruptive of older networks of community and solidarity.
The progressive left, which has its own grand projects of radical change and rapid economic growth, has very rarely been as sensitive to this disruption. It speaks of justice and equality and redistribution. But this does not address the existential fears of many who feel menaced by large-scale change. The far right, on the other hand, quickly identifies scapegoats for their suffering. These “traitors” in the past used to be Jews and cosmopolitan liberals. Now they are Muslims, cosmopolitan liberals, women and Jews. Loathing or demonizing them not only brings instant gratification; it seems to offer a chance to rebuild a lost sense of community and solidarity. The left and the centrist liberals have no such quick remedies.
Gupta: Discussing Rousseau in Age of Anger, you write: “His books were the biggest best-sellers of the eighteenth century, and we still return to them today because they explore dark emotions stirring in the hearts of strangers rather than the workings of abstract reason.” Emotion and feelings do indeed seem to be at the centre stage of politics today—often accompanied by a suspicion of expertise. Do you think the proliferation of visual and social media has made political life dramatic, without always adding much substance to it?
Mishra: It has helped fragment the political landscape, and diminish the authority of its institutions and personalities. I think Rousseau’s invocation of a troubled subjectivity against the instrumental reason of powerful elites has a special charge today because we are witnessing in many ways the mass subjectivization of truth. The people empowered by Twitter and Facebook have their own versions of reality and their sheer multiplicity and proliferation uniquely threaten political life, which is about ascertaining the general will of a given community and devising its shared values and agreed-upon truths.
Gupta: Yes, a proliferation of social media makes it harder to sense what “the people” feel about specific issues, something that played out dramatically in India following the Modi government’s demonetization policy, which withdrew high-value currency notes from circulation in the economy. Ostensibly done to curb corruption, prevent the hoarding of black money and cut off funding for “terror organizations,” the policy hurt vulnerable sections the most. Many actually died waiting in ATM queues, and the lack of cash made day-to-day life unmanageable for the poor, the elderly—people who are not plugged into the credit card or online banking systems. But, despite suffering as a result of the policy, many among the working classes support the government because the cash crisis also affects or inconveniences the rich and well-to-do.
Mishra: Yes, I quote from Hugo von Hofmannsthal in the book: “politics is magic” and “he who can summon the forces from the deep, him will they follow.” In that sense, Modi is the Pied Piper of India, who manipulates the masses at the level of emotion and sentiment with highly potent rhetoric and imagery. He has successfully persuaded many people that he stands with them in their loathing of the economically and culturally privileged, and he is enacting their desire to curtail their privileges. It means nothing at all that he is allied with the most powerful and wealthy people in India; this contradiction does not strike his followers, although it may seem clear to you and me. Likewise, Trump has filled his cabinet with Goldman Sachs alumni after raging against various elites and, of course, he was always one of them, but the fact is invisible to many of his supporters. This is why I argue that we need to understand the workings of ressentiment, and return to figures like Freud, Hermann Broch and Robert Musil who observed this phenomenon in politics very closely. Rational modes of analysis, which assume that individuals act out of perceived self-interests, won’t take us too far, and may even be dangerously misleading.
Gupta: It’s interesting to consider this from the feminist perspective of the reason/emotion binary as a gendered one. Note how wildly popular women leaders in India—there are several—are described in the media. Mamata Banerjee, twice elected chief minister of Bengal, for instance, is often referred to as a moody, temperamental leader, prone to irrational decisions. Some of these terms would be fitting for many male Indian politicians too. But it is primarily women leaders who are judged to be too emotional.
Mishra: Such allegations are commonly deployed against women in the public sphere. For a long time, for instance, Arundhati Roy was described as shrill and irrational, most loudly by members of ruling classes and technocratic elites who imagined themselves to be in the possession of all the right “facts” about India’s economic development and the right kind of rational schemas of progress. Of course, Roy was pointing to the human costs of such instrumental rationality, and saying that there is more to human life than maximizing utility and profits, and that many people simply do not want the kind of progress that uproots and dispossesses them. But this, in the conventional perspectives of the self-appointed modernizers, was “irrational” and “romantic.”
Gupta: The distrust of conventional forms of politics has created a space for “outsiders” who are not seen to represent the system—Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Kellie Leitch in Canada. Fed up with corrupt politicians and institutions, people are searching for other leaders and political structures. Where do you stand on the debate unfolding around populism? Do you see such personalities creating other avenues for expressing the discontentment and anger people feel?
Mishra: Yes, I believe very strongly that Bernie Sanders would have won against Trump, or that Hillary Clinton would have won with Sanders on the ticket. The reason is that he was speaking the same language of disaffection as Trump, and of course much more sincerely. The problem with the left in many places is that it became too centrist and mainstream, and wedded to economistic and technocratic solutions of redistribution and welfare. This is why it was unable to seize this moment of popular anger against neoliberalism and the aloof elites that appear to impose it.
Gupta: In an era of resurgent nationalism, demands for national autonomy in different contexts also need careful engagement. Nicola Sturgeon in the United Kingdom is calling for another referendum on Scottish independence. The term aazaadi [meaning “freedom”] has been at the forefront of some of these demands in the Indian context. Although the word was used by feminists in the past to refer to aazaadi from patriarchy, it is now strongly associated with the demand for independence in Kashmir. As you probably know, the word became a rallying point and focus of controversy after students from Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University were arrested on the charge of sedition for allegedly raising chants of aazaadi on campus last year. Those arrests set in motion a struggle over nationalism that brought Kashmir into focus, but have also led to a witch hunt for dissident voices that the government considers “anti-national.”
In such highly charged environments, what future do you see for such struggles for self-determination?
Mishra: There are several things happening here. The more a particular group, such as English nationalists or Brexiteers, stress their distinctive identity, the more the other members of that community will insist on separateness—like the Scots are doing now. So the revolt against globalizing forces, such as we see in Brexit, incites the fragmentation of previously coherent political communities in wholly unexpected ways.
I think self-determination in the Indian context has multiple meanings—it is the individual self as much as the collective self that seeks determination. Previously, the project of self-determination presupposed a clear outcome: the sovereign and independent nation-state. But as this ideal fades or becomes more difficult to achieve in the age of global flows, the struggle for self-determination takes on an additional charge: the young men and women engaged in it are fighting for personal recognition—of their dignity and identity—as much for political sovereignty. You see that in the cult of Burhan Wani [a young militant killed at the hands of Indian forces, who has become a martyr] in Kashmir.
Gupta: Meanwhile, in the West, nationalist assertions appear to want renewed isolation and autonomy from “outsiders.” Phenomena such as Brexit and Trump’s call for America First appear to feed on xenophobia and also on a sense of lost identity. To that extent, would it be fair to say that strong nationalism and a fear of the Other are byproducts of a market-oriented, fragmented culture where the individual is always first?
Mishra: I think we should recognize that this nostalgia for the past, when things moved slowly and community was clearly defined, is experienced broadly, and has diverse political and cultural manifestations, from the cult of the TV show Mad Men in which white men rule the roost to the treacherous political craving for a wholeness unviolated by foreigners. If we recognize this craving in its wide manifestations in our societies, then we are better placed to see that it springs from an increasingly unbearable experience of atomization and anomie. The burden of individualism, which you carry alone as old solidarities weaken, and the imperative to compete with and outshine others in the marketplace have proven to be just too much for many people. The sense of exhaustion, and the feeling of being coerced and humiliated by opaque global elites, turns into a hatred and distrust of those nearest to you—people you can blame for your plight, who seem to be getting ahead of you, such as women in the workplace and politically assertive minorities.
This is why I argue that we need different frameworks to understand where we are, and much more complex diagnoses and prescriptions than just the problem of inequality or the solution of redistribution.
Gupta: Given that our political class is either inept or unwilling to consider anything other than an expedient formula to grab power, does the responsibility of reformulating the complex debate now rest with outsiders?
Mishra: The big problem we have today, globally, and I have been saying this for some time, is that decision makers in politics, business and the media are incredibly homogenous in their world views and agenda. Committed to a way of economic production and consumption through individual self-aggrandizement, they have left very little space for dissenters and outsiders, or alternative visions. The result is that all kinds of demagogues have arisen to represent the mass of the excluded and the ignored. If you look at the last 200 years and reflect on how our most path-breaking ideas were offered by outsiders and mavericks—from Rousseau to Gandhi—rather than mainstream politicians, technocrats, tenured professors and op-ed pundits, you realize how impoverished our political and intellectual life has become, dominated as it is by people educated in the same way and speaking the same language of power—how to get it and how to hold on to it. This is why I praise Pope Francis and rate him above our many public intellectuals. He at least comes to our global modernity from a very different place, the global South and an ancient spiritual tradition, and speaks of human needs and values we have ignored for too long. So we definitely need more such outsiders if we are not to lurch permanently between self-serving globalizers and rancid ethno-nationalists.