The west has forgotten how traumatic modernisation can beby Sameer Rahim / February 7, 2017 / Leave a comment
Pankaj Mishra was born in North India in 1969. Educated at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, he currently lives in London. One of the most prominent essayists of his generation, his new book, The Age of Anger (reviewed by Stefan Collini in the February issue of Prospect) explores the roots of the radical nativism engulfing our world. How are violent jihadism, Hindu nationalism and Donald Trump connected? Mishra, speaking to Prospect’s Arts and Books Editor Sameer Rahim, argued that much of the world is going through the same tumultuous changes the west did in the 18th and 19th centuries. The creation of modernity was a more terrorising experience for the ordinary man and woman than is often remembered—as attested to by thinkers like Rousseau and Dostoevsky.
Sameer Rahim: There’s only one place to start: Donald Trump. His actions last weekend—instituting a “Muslim ban”—seem like an expression of the kind of nativist anger you describe in the book. Was it a surprise to you, or has it been a culmination of events and policies since 9/11?
Pankaj Mishra: I think it is very much a culmination. One has to remember that the powers Trump is exercising as president have been accumulated by the previous president Barack Obama and the one before, George W Bush. The general atmosphere of Islamophobia has been in the making more or less since the Iranian revolution of 1979. Of course, it intensified after 9/11 but the notion that Islam represents “the other” to western identity, and now more specifically the white Americans who voted for Trump—that has become disturbingly mainstream. People have been spouting that, pretty openly, for many years. So Trump is a monstrous culmination of tendencies and traits we’ve already seen in American politics. It’s a mistake to see him as an aberration.
SR: There has been a tendency in liberal circles to demonise Islam. I’m thinking of figures like Sam Harris or Martin Amis. In a 2006 interview Amis said: “There’s a definite urge—don’t you have it?—to say, ‘the Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order. What sort of suffering? Not letting them travel. Deportation—further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan … Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children…’”. He later defended this saying it was a “thought experiment.”
PM: Martin Amis’s “thought experiment” is turning into a reality. It goes to show that everything that can be thought can also become at some point an awful reality. That’s one reason not to commit one’s thought experiments (certainly of that kind) to print. Not to give them the intellectual prestige that will automatically be conferred on them because it’s coming from a novelist. That’s a very important lesson for all of us. We should be careful about how we talk about entire communities. But as you say it’s not just the Steve Bannons or Robert Spencers we need to be wary of. It’s also the Islamophobic liberal intelligentsia.
SR: Do I perhaps detect a kind of grim satisfaction that the mask has come away? You wrote last year at least Trump means it’s impossible to deny that Islamophobia exists.
PM: With Trump a whole lot of masks have come off. What used to go on, under covers, what used to be given a very suave appearance—in the shape of a very articulate president [Barack Obama], who actually deported more people than any president before him. Bill Clinton put more African-Americans in prisons than any Republican president. But we are committed to these figures because they resemble us, they read the kind of books we read, and therefore we feel very sympatico to them. What someone like Trump does is to reveal inhumane practices that have been driving an economy and politics that claims to be dedicated to human freedom. In that sense one has to welcome that clarity. I’ve been thinking a lot about this today: this is the most politically hopeful period in my lifetime. The big women’s march the day after the inauguration—I’ve never seen so many Americans politically engaged in the way they have been in the last 10 days, never.
SR: There were some amazing scenes at the airports with protests and lawyers volunteering to help stranded people.
PM: Absolutely. All these countries being devastated by heedless wars, interventions, extra-judicial executions. I can’t remember, apart from the anti-Iraq war demonstrations a single big expression of public anger or dissatisfaction. It has been very disheartening to follow American politics and see someone like George Bush get re-elected after his criminal invasion of Iraq. In a sense, Trump will have performed the western world a great historical service if he incites a new feeling of citizenship—that we have to rediscover our connection and have to do something. As people used to say in the 1960s “get involved”—put your bodies on the line. Don’t just sit at home and press send or like, whatever you do on Twitter. Fill up the public squares, fill up the streets, fill up the airports.
SR: What’s been so heartening has been all the human stories: the Iranian-American doctor, the Iraqi refugee who can’t visit his mother. Finally, people are seeing a broader humanity.
PM: Very much so. People are discovering what is obvious on one level: that everyone has multiple identities, multiple affiliations—you cannot identify people on the basis of religion or the religion they were born into or the colour of their skin. This basic knowledge is finally beginning to become more apparent when you read these stories—you neighbour down the road, your colleague, is actually a human being with multiple commitments, whether that’s an accident of birth, or belonging to a particular religion or choices you’ve made as an individual. People simply cannot be reduced to their so-called “religious communities.”
SR: One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the relationship you draw between liberalism and violence. The Age of Reason was also, you argue, an Age of Anger. Have we forgotten what a violent process it was to become modern?
PM: To put it crudely, Anglo-America has been the winner of the last 200 years. England managed to acquire large territories and it managed to expand economically, then came the industrial revolution—all these things gave a small country extraordinary power. And then the Americans finding slaves in Africa to service their growing economies. So they were fortunate people. Much of what we think of today has been mediated by the philosophies of Anglo-America: the idea of human individuals defined by enlightenment rationalism; or the international commercial world. But people who are committed to this Anglo-American mode of thinking have often missed out on the fact that modernisation and industrialisation have been pretty traumatic processes. Nineteenth-century literature, whether it’s Dickens or Ruskin or Carlyle, is about the trauma of that process. How did we miss this fact when thinking about the rest of the world, which had much fewer resources and opportunities than Britain and America? How did we assume that modernisation was going to be something that was inevitable, desirable—that all these countries were going to benignly follow the west’s model? Getting people out of the villages into cities, embracing industrialisation, moving away from traditional structures.
In recent decades, we have embraced these crude notions of 19th-century utilitarianism: self-interest, individualism, reason as implacably opposed to tradition. All of these notions were challenged dramatically at the end of the 19th century as these societies underwent political crises. Demagogues began to appear, democracy was questioned, liberalism was questioned. Liberalism became complicit with imperialism. Various culprits for mass suffering were identified by demagogues. Freud saw it in the way in Vienna a small vulnerable Jewish community was being scapegoated. I think that we should re-focus our attention on this experience and the lessons that were drawn from it by various people—Nietzsche, Dostoevsky.
SR: In the book, you write about Gabriele D’Annunzio in 1920s Italy, a proto-Fascist who wanted to assert older values under threat. Interestingly, he was also a poet. Like Islamic State (IS), he offered a dream as well as violence.
PM: D’Annunzio was a great exponent of violence as a kind of aesthetic experience. This desire for empowerment and self-expression through spectacular feats of violence, great extravaganzas, remains constant. You see something similar in Jihadi John beheading people on video—what I describe as a kind of “homicidal dandyism”—an extreme version of individualism. We’ve forgotten these connections and become obsessed with finding the roots of violence in Islam rather than in the modern world.
SR: You feel that jihadism is a product of modernity rather than medieval barbarism, as is often argued?
PM: Others such as John Gray and Karen Armstrong have made this point. Everything that happens in the modern world has to be seen with reference to the modern world. To argue that this can be connected to something that happened in the 7th century is ridiculous. It is to argue that what was said back then has survived and has remained intact through the intervening centuries and is available to anyone today unmediated. A person alive today is being worked on by any number of forces—social, economic, political—that have nothing to do with the 7th century. The idea that they do is kind of mind-numbing. This intellectual failure one of the reasons we’re in this mess right now.
SR: But why aren’t young Hindus attacking the west in the name of Hinduism? I wonder whether Islam has become, maybe because of its size in comparison to Christianity, the global oppositional global movement people attach themselves to. It has become defined as the anti-western ideology.
PM: That’s a very good question. I have written literally hundreds of thousands of words about Hindu nationalism. I’ve not written a single sentence implying that sanction for Hindu nationalism or its extreme acts is to be found in its scriptures. That would be a line of enquiry I find utterly demeaning. But with Islam, analysts of terrorism have not obviously observed that prohibition. So why Islam? I would argue that in imperial times the strongest resistance came from people in Muslim countries.
This is largely because Muslims are spread over a wide territory—much more so than Hindus. Wherever you travel, whether it’s in Malacca or Java not to mention the Middle East, you found Muslims resisting. When the Russians started to expand in the 19th century their fiercest opponents were Muslims, as Tolstoy writes about in his story “Hadji Murat.” So Islam becomes the most convincing other.
SR: Rousseau runs through the book. Why do think he was such an important thinker?
PM: I find him incredibly revealing on just a whole set of attitudes that we have ignored and neglected for too long. Rousseau bluntly opposes the value system of that elite and invokes the values of the community he has left behind, which is of the small group of pious people outside Geneva. They don’t want destructive change in their lives; they have values of community solidarity and are not interested in self-expansion, pursuing enlightened self-interest, embarking on international commerce or international trade. The problem in this process of becoming enlisted in an increasing commercial society defined by individualism is that people are constantly surrounded by other people whose virtues and possessions they want to acquire. He makes a powerful critique of this mimetic tendency at many different levels—especially the psychological level. When you embark on that process you lose an important source of spiritual content: a self that is not constantly determined by what other people think of you, a self that is immune to all those temptations. Once you leave that world it can have devastating spiritual and psychological consequences.
SR: This alienated individual is not necessarily the poorest in society. It is the educated, thwarted individual—a type we have seen a lot more of since China and India have got wealthier.
PM: You know the person who identified this paradox really clearly: Alexis de Tocqueville in The Old Regime. He identified how revolution becomes inevitable when expectations start to rise. Then people find that their upward mobility is being blocked by the remnants of the old regime and the churches. Four years ago this book was all the rage among elite Communist Party circles in China: the lesson was that China is on its way up and needs to stay extra alert. We need to do something to keep the masses satisfied, to keep them pacified. Even today it’s not the poorest people in India who are lining up to be the foot-solders of Hindu nationalism: it’s the people who have had a degree of education, had exposure to the modern world, who have absorbed many of its promises and its fantasies, and feel thwarted and gravitate to figures like Narendra Modi, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi or Trump.
SR: You write that jihadists “dislike the soul-killing mediocrity, cowardice, opportunism, and grubby deal making of the modern world.” Your rhetoric seems to indicate that you think they might have a point.
PM: One thing that’s been missing in literature—especially over the last 25 years—has been the voice of the militantly disaffected stranger, the one that Dostoevsky did so much to highlight. The only one I can think of is Rawi Hage’s novel Cockroach. One reason why we find ourselves intellectually underprepared to analyse this problem is that we, writers and journalists, have failed to notice the anger and resentment roiling many lives. One doesn’t have to condone the extreme acts that flow from those feelings. One has to understand that for large numbers of people the fundamental experience of the modern world is humiliation. If literature fails to furnish evidence of that, if journalism fails to furnish evidence of that, then we are lost.
SR: You seem to be describing a spiritual problem as much as a political one.
PM: When I writing this book I was worrying that I was kind of re-writing my book on the Buddha except with historical examples from Europe and America. But I feel very strongly that, as Kierkegaard put it, “All big problems in the end are metaphysical problems.” That might seem a pretentious thing to say in today’s climate, when the words spiritual and metaphysical have been more or less banned from intellectual discourse. And yet there was a time when people motivated by spiritual concerns were important intellectuals, Reinhold Neibuhr or Czesław Miłosz or Simone Weil.
SR: The Need for Roots. It’s in her title.
PM: It’s a classic text worth returning to. Human beings have many more needs than mere material expansion. Ignoring those needs can have politically toxic consequences. The current crisis today is not due only to economic inequality; it’s a feeling of powerlessness—that you have no control over your life, that you’re being jerked around by economic and political forces, that your dignity is being trampled on and your sense of honour is being violated and that you have no inner peace. This sense of inner turmoil that Rousseau was so sensitive to is really widespread. I think at some point I say that it’s a civil war happening today within our souls—that to me is the most pregnant line in the book.
SR: I interviewed Amartya Sen recently and he still believed we need to retain a space of reason and liberalism no matter how extreme circumstances become. Do you think that’s something you would endorse?
PM: Very much so. It’s pointless to assume a severely judgemental position and say the emphasis on reason is disastrous—there is a whole schematic analysis of the Enlightenment that blames it for the Holocaust. I really reject that. But we need to recognise that, as Rousseau put it contradicting the Cartesian notion, “I feel before I think.” Even the people in the late 19th century I talked about earlier were not advocating a rejection of reason because they could see the politically toxic consequences of that. So these very strong critiques of what they saw as the kind of soul-killing rationalism were of people very much wanting to effect a marriage between the life of emotion and reason. I think we need to re-build that connection.