Welcome to the age of anger
The seismic events of 2016 have revealed a world in chaos – and one that old ideas of liberal rationalism can no longer explain
By Pankaj Mishra
Dec 8 2016
The election of Donald Trump as president of the United States is the biggest political earthquake of our times, and its reverberations are inescapably global. It has fully revealed an enormous pent-up anger – which had first become visible in the mass acclaim in Russia and Turkey for pitiless despots and the electoral triumph of bloody strongmen in India and the Philippines.
The insurgencies of our time, including Brexit and the rise of the European far right, have many local causes – but it is not an accident that demagoguery appears to be rising around the world. Savage violence has erupted in recent years across a broad swath of territory: wars in Ukraine and the Middle East, insurgencies from Yemen to Thailand, terrorism and counter-terrorism, economic and cyberwar. The conflicts, not confined to fixed battlefields, feel endemic and uncontrollable. Hate-mongering against immigrants and minorities has gone mainstream; figures foaming at the mouth with loathing and malice are ubiquitous on old and new media alike.
There is much dispute about the causes of this global disorder. Many observers have characterised it as a backlash against an out-of-touch establishment, explaining Trump’s victory – in the words of Thomas Piketty – as “primarily due to the explosion in economic and geographic inequality in the United States”. Liberals tend to blame the racial resentments of poor white Americans, which were apparently aggravated during Barack Obama’s tenure. But many rich men and women – and even a small number of African-Americans and Latinos – also voted for a compulsive groper and white supremacist.
The Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman admitted on the night of Trump’s victory that “people like me – and probably like most readers of the New York Times – truly didn’t understand the country we live in”. Since the twin shocks of Brexit and the US election, we have argued ineffectually about their causes, while watching aghast as the new representatives of the downtrodden and the “left-behind” – Trump and Nigel Farage, posing in a gold-plated lift – strut across a bewilderingly expanded theatre of political absurdism.
But we cannot understand this crisis because our dominant intellectual concepts and categories seem unable to process an explosion of uncontrolled forces.
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.
And yet we find ourselves in an age of anger, with authoritarian leaders manipulating the cynicism and discontent of furious majorities. What used to be called “Muslim rage”, and identified with mobs of brown-skinned men with bushy beards, is suddenly manifest globally, among saffron-robed Buddhist ethnic-cleansers in Myanmar, as well as blond white nationalists in Germany. Violent hate crimes have blighted even the oldest of parliamentary democracies, with the murder of the MP Jo Cox by a British neo-Nazi during the venomous campaign for Brexit. Suddenly, as the liberal thinker Michael Ignatieff recently wrote: “Enlightenment humanism and rationalism” can no longer adequately “explain the world we’re living in.”
The largely Anglo-American intellectual assumptions forged by the cold war and its jubilant aftermath are an unreliable guide to today’s chaos – and so we must turn to the ideas of an earlier era of volatility. It is a moment for thinkers such as Sigmund Freud, who warned in 1915 that the “primitive, savage and evil impulses of mankind have not vanished in any individual”, but are simply waiting for the opportunity to show themselves again. Certainly, the current conflagration has brought to the surface what Friedrich Nietzsche called “ressentiment” – “a whole tremulous realm of subterranean revenge, inexhaustible and insatiable in outbursts.”
By contrast, the fundamental premise of our existing intellectual frameworks is the assumption that humans are essentially rational and motivated by the pursuit of their own interests; that they principally act to maximise personal happiness, rather than on the basis of fear, envy or resentment.
The bestseller Freakonomics is a perfect text of our time in its belief that “incentives are the cornerstone of modern life,” and “the key to solving just about any riddle”. From this view, the current crisis is an irruption of the irrational – and confusion and bewilderment are widespread among political, business and media elites. The ordinarily stolid Economist has lately lurched from dubious indignation over “post-Truth politics” to the Rip Van Winkle-ish declaration of “The New Nationalism”. Many other mainstream periodicals now read like parodies of New Left Review, as they attend belatedly to the failings of global capitalism – most egregiously, its failure to fulfil its own promise of general prosperity.