False Idols of the Enlightenment

Q&A with Pankaj Mishra

Ratik AsokanFebruary 07, 2017

Mishra in 2008. / PalFest

In my mind’s eye, I see Pankaj Mishra’s life in theatrical terms.

Act One opens in the late eighties. We are at a decaying college in provincial India. On the left, at the foot of the stage, a railway officer’s son sits surrounded by a pile of western novels and periodicals. He reads furiously, randomly, with the “intensity of a small-town boy to whom books are the sole means of communicating with ( . . . ) the larger world.” But those around him are not so studious. Impoverished rustics, soon-to-be losers in a rigged economy, they—like him—have “no future, no prospects, nothing.” Hopeless, they form armed mobs that terrorize campus; it’s the best way to impress local politicians.

This grand guignol is played on the right of the stage. Looking up from his copy of Edmund Wilson, our hero sees it approach him. How will he escape?

When Act Two opens, Mishra has miraculously become a writer. Butter Chicken in Ludhiana, his Gogolian travel book about small town India’s collision with market capitalism, has won the attention of the New York Review of Books. Over the next decade, they and other publications will send him to various parts of the third world—as Mishra walks across the stage, the backdrop transforms to show Kabul, Islamabad, Kathmandu, Djakarta, Shanghai—on reporting assignments à la V.S. Naipaul.

What does Mishra find in these places? A transition from colonialism to western-style democracy that’s characterized by chaos, resentment, terrible inequality, and the destruction of local culture. The reporter in him understands that these countries must “modernize or perish.” But the novelist senses immense psychological damage in this process, the same damage that overwhelmed the students at his college, damage he would express in The Romancers, a roman a clef about an East-West collision.

In Act Three, Mishra is once again surrounded by books. Two decades of thinking and reporting has convinced him that the western model of progressive globalization is broken; the rage he saw in provincial India has spread everywhere. And so, as montages of global terror play on a backdrop of silent televisions, he tries to draw up a history to the present.

What results is Age of Anger, a book that traces nationalism and nihilism from its origins in eighteenth century Europe. Written after Narendra Modi’s election and completed right before Brexit, it is an extraordinary work, a counter-history of the Enlightenment whose central thesis is as simple as it is disturbing: liberalism is an elite idea; it did not and will not work for everyone. Building on this insight, Mishra proceeds to dramatize how “the unprecedented political, economic and social disorder that accompanied the rise of the industrial capitalist economy in nineteenth-century Europe ( . . . ) is now infecting much vaster regions and bigger populations.”

Last week, I spoke to Mishra about his new book over Skype. Amongst other things, we discussed the prescience of Rousseau, the complacency of liberals, and the similarities between ISIS and Hindu nationalism. He was unfailingly charming and a good listener.

—Ratik Asokan


Ratik Asokan: Age of Anger feels like a continuation of a project that began with your first book, Butter Chicken in Ludhiana, and which you’ve approached from various angles—memoir, fiction, reportage, now intellectual history—since then. Perhaps its subject can be described as “latecomers to modernity”?

Pankaj Mishra: As a writer, you can’t afford to become too self-conscious. You can’t become too aware of your origins or background. Because that impairs your capacity to think spontaneously. There are certain crucial experiences we have early on that set our trajectory. It’s for other people to identify them . . .

You’re right in that this particular quest started twenty years ago, with Butter Chicken in Ludhiana, which is an account of the provinces in India. Now looking back—I haven’t looked at the book for a long time—I think, and this is something I’ve been thinking of writing about, that something missing from much political, and literary-intellectual discourse, at least in the last three decades or so, is the experience of the provincial. Of the outsider from the provinces.

I have been insisting all along that that experience is very crucial, that it’s going to shape our futures, especially our cultural future. And what we are seeing today, is a political assertion of people who did not really have a voice in our political and literary discourses. That’s one reason why we find ourselves so politically and intellectually helpless before contemporary phenomena. We simply have no inkling what people in these places who felt ressentiment—felt excluded, marginalized, disdained, scorned—that they might at some point strike back by electing figures like Modi and Trump.

So to answer your question. I suppose I was fortunate enough to grow up in a particular class, which meant that I had to basically live in proximity to these experiences, to experience all that ressentiment myself. I suppose that is what has handed me my particular interests and preoccupations.

Something that is missing from much political discourse is the experience of the provincial.

RA: You also identified ressentiment as being crucial on a world-historical scale. From the Ruins of Empire was about postcolonial nation-building and its discontents: cultural humiliation, slavish imitation of the West, reactionary nationalism and so forth. With Age of Anger, you’ve gone back two centuries to locate these feelings in Europe itself.

PM: It’s possible to draw up a taxonomy of countries and cultures that were haunted by the feeling that they had been left behind by history. Certain countries—France and Britain, later the United States—were thought to be leading the march of history. And those left behind felt the need to catch up. “The leaders had acquired secrets of power and affluence that we also need,” they thought, “Otherwise, we won’t survive. We will simply be overwhelmed.”

This was especially important for post-colonial nations that suffered from imperialism. And a country like Germany had experienced just enough of imperialism, just a few years of Napoleon’s occupation, to know that it was not something they wanted. So they set about developing—inventing, really— a sense of nationality in response. Late in the nineteenth century, the German state came into being. It then went to terrible lengths to becomes more powerful than its old rival in the Atlantic West. I’d say post-colonial nations have followed that trajectory. Starting with Japan, which is the process I describe in From the Ruins of Empire.

What I’m outlining in both books is the particular experience of left-behind people and nations. India and China today. Germany and Russia in the nineteenth century. My feeling is that this way of looking at modern history will liberate us from a whole lot of categories and concepts—those of “cultural difference”—which at this moment seem incapable of explaining of what’s going on.

RA: This brings us to one of your more startling contentions: you claim that today’s Jihadis and Hindu nationalists share a lot in common with eighteenth century European nationalists that they are driven by similar impulses. This is not a widely held opinion . . .

PM: We have invested too much in the ideology of cultural and theological difference. From the very beginning in the late eighteenth century—I stress this throughout my book—from the moment our modern commercial society came into being, its values, those insisted upon by leading Enlightenment philosophers, have been emulated, mimicked.

The concept of “cultural difference” seems incapable of explaining of what’s going on at this moment.

We have to recognize that the modern world was predicated on the notion of mimicry and imitation. Which makes people more and more alike than different. And it makes them more vulnerable to experiencing the same ressentiment when their particular identities are under threat, when their stability is threatened, when their jobs are taken away.

There are certain pathologies that are common to all of these people: whether they are Indians uprooted from their rural areas to the cities; or middle Americans laid off by an opaque global capitalist economy they can’t understand. In both cases, they seek an easily identifiable enemy and find those closest to hand: immigrants, women, elite.

This similarity is something I stress. By contrast, most people who try to understand what’s happening today use cultural frames. They say that it’s Islam, or a perverted interpretation of Hinduism, that’s leading people to act a certain way. We really have to transcend such parochial explanations and look at the modern world as constituted essentially by similarity and sameness and mimicry. Not by difference. The world is becoming—very broadly speaking—more homogenous. Especially in the last three decades. So why is it surprising that people will also respond in a similar way to threats from the juggernaut of universalism?

RA: Perhaps one reason is that we don’t pay enough attention to the thinkers who first diagnosed these phenomena. You argue that Rousseau saw all this in the eighteenth century, but the revolutionary tradition he established has all but disappeared. Why is that?

PM: This is really interesting. A whole book could be written about how particular thinkers come to be studied in particular times, about the ways they are interpreted. What motive, for example, drove so many intellectuals to identify Rousseau as a progenitor of totalitarianism? Why was he seen as someone who encouraged authoritarian, even totalitarian tendencies in modern life?

As you know during the Cold War the west, the so-called “free world,” was embattled against communism. And so its publicists, its ideologues, were seeking ways to discredit communism. Obviously they looked at their own history, because that’s where communism emerged. Rousseau, in this context, was identified as a philosopher of totalitarianism.

What these cold warriors forgot, however, was that Rousseau as also the prophet of other important political tendencies, such as nationalism! They forgot his deep and enduring influence on the German romantics. These are the trajectories I stress in Age of Anger. After all, nationalism was as much a revolution as socialism. Investigating it will certainly help us explain our present situation. A situation in which majorities feel disdained, condescended to by metropolitan elites whom they accuse of having monopolized not just the best economic opportunities, but also cultural-intellectual capital.

Rousseau identified all these problems early on. And based on these intuitions, he tried to theorize a society that would be equal—that would let individuals live without the obligation to compete with each other, that protected their inner lives from corrosion. Rousseau became a central figure in this book, because I felt he was the first person to systematically reflect on the problems of a new, secular, commercial society. And to argue that we will need something more than this.

He understood that we will need the principals of equality, that we had to organize ourselves. Simply advancing our self-interest and hoping that they will be, at some level, harmonized—he knew this was just a fantasy. And so in the process of thinking and writing, he basically created the ingredients for all kinds of upsurges of the next century.

RA: By contrast, you are far more critical of Enlightenment philosophers like Voltaire and Diderot. I was struck by your claim that their liberal ideologies were drawn up as much for career advancement as out of an altruistic motive. In fact, you pay as much attention to their life and motivations as to their ideas. Which makes Age of Anger more of an emotional than intellectual history.

PM: Well I started off as a novelist. My greatest ambition was to write a novel, which I somehow managed to fulfil. But there is still a frustrated novelist left in me—and parts of him have gone into writing all these nonfiction books.

I write from a novelist’s perspective. I don’t analyze ideas as if they simply, un-problematically, uncomplicatedly emerge from a writer’s mind. . . . Because look, when people say, “This is how a society must be organized,” we have to ask ourselves why they’re saying this. In what interest are they speaking? What project are they looking to advance? What kind of temperamental, psychological factors are involved here?

We live in a service dominated economy, where a proletariat is hard to identify, because it consists of people who have been laid off.

Those are the questions that a novel asks. Novels place people in concrete political, social settings; they analyze your psychological make up, they present the crucial experiences of your life. So coming from that perspective, I find it pointless to simply describe ideas and draw a line between them.

Instead, I wanted to show how many of these thinkers—who were also novelists by the way; I came to Rousseau, Voltaire, and Diderot through their novels—were people craving freedom from their particular oppressors. As a result, their idea of freedom was a very limited one: they wanted freedom for themselves, that’s all. They had no intimation of what would happen in the next century, that society would become much, much larger with industrialization. They didn’t know that many more individuals would emerge to claim their rights. They just wanted to get the enlightened despots on their side. They thought: “These despots will give us a free space, us intellectuals who don’t want to be part of the church, who don’t want to toady to anyone.” That’s what they wanted—freedom for themselves. You could argue that they established the template for many successive liberal elites.

RA: Your novelistic perspective also seems to realign some familiar intellectual hierarchies. For example, Marx plays a small role in Age of Anger, but you devote long sections to less well-known nihilists like Bakunin and nationalists like Mazzini.

PM: You could argue that Marx’s unit of political activism, which was class, did not yield much. We have struggled to define the particular class which will be the agent of revolution. Mazzini, on the other hand identified nationalism as a replacement for religion; and Bakunin, understood the death of not just religion but ideology as a kind of blank slate on which the individual can rewrite his own destiny through spectacular acts of violence: those are the two phenomena we see everywhere today, far more than class mobilization and class consolidation. We know in fact that class mobilization is no longer possible.

That’s why I feel their Bakunin and Mazzini’s importance outlasts Marx. Because the political agents that they identified—nationalists and anarchists—they are still with us. Class struggle is no longer with us: it has fragmented, splintered, in ways Marx could not have predicted.

RA: You say that quite matter-of-factly. But most intellectuals still like to discuss class struggle . . .

PM: Marx has made a revival in these last few decades. And quite rightly. He’s an incomparable critic and analyst of capitalism: of its inequalities, its losses. So we will always need him. But analysis is one thing and prescription is another.

Marx’s prescriptions make less and less sense. The nineteenth century conditions in which he wrote—of industrialization, of the working class being exploited—those are just very, very far away from where we are today. We live in an age of de-industrialization. We live in a service dominated economy, where a proletariat is hard to identify, because it consists largely of people who have been laid off, people ready to be embraced by various far right demagogues. So as compelling as Marx’s diagnosis is, his prescriptions of raising class consciousness and organizing for revolution have little bearing to where we are today.

RA: So would you say that Age of Anger is the history of an unfeasible idea, namely liberalism?

PM: Well not so much unfeasible as inherently contradictory. That freedom should be advocated by slave owners; that rationalism should be advanced by people who don’t believe the masses (or Americans) capable of reason; that formulations of liberty and equality exclude a large number of the world’s people (Indians and black people, but also white women and the working class): these are some of many contradictions that we haven’t actually paid much attention to.

We killed God and replaced him with a new idolatry. Today we simply worship liberal thinkers and their ideas.

What we have done really, and what many, many books—those that tell us the Enlightenment made the modern world, etc— do, is that we killed God and replaced him with a new idolatry. Today we simply worship liberal thinkers and their ideas. Voltaire—the number of times he’s been invoked in the last decade and half as this great opponent of religion—was also an anti-Semite. He was a racist. Why don’t we reckon with these facts? Why do we insist on seeing these people as great moral and intellectual authorities?

RA: This is all very thought-provoking. But I can imagine many people—V.S. Naipaul for example—accusing you of a sort of high-handed hypocrisy. After all, you are a posterchild for globalization: from Jhansi to the New York Review . . .

PM: People who work hard in a particular way—who learn to speak English like I did, who learn to write in English as I did, who keep at it—may be rewarded. That is certainly the case with someone like Naipaul, who started off, you could argue, with much more severe disadvantages than someone in India would: coming from Trinidad, a place that was politically inconsequential. So yes, we both benefited from the system.

But then he made certain political and intellectual choices that aligned him with the dominant narrative off a progressive globalization that western countries were leading: a process both inevitable and desirable—unstoppable, really. He believes that people who were resisting it were simply deluded. Like people in Iran or Indonesia. Anybody who rejects what he called a “universal civilization,” was essentially a loser, because they didn’t know what’s good for them. “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.”

My own experience, by contrast, has told me that this globalization only works for a minority. I am a member of that minority; it has worked for me. But I also know, in a pressing and intimate way, that it may not have worked for me either. I know that I’m a beneficiary of good fortune, of various accidents. I know that with all my striving, all my talent, I may not have been a member of this elite. I just find it obvious that what worked for me may not work—will not work—for millions and millions of other people. So I simply cannot invest my faith in this whole process, in the way Naipaul did.

RA: But what are the alternatives? Isn’t western liberalism so ubiquitous precisely because it is universally attractive?

PM: What gives us—either Naipaul or me—the right to generalize out of our individual experiences? Of course I don’t want to live in a stifling North Indian village. But, there are enough people I know who don’t want to leave their villages, who don’t want to participate in this adventure of individuality, of finding new experiences and sources of pleasure in the metropolis. Who don’t want to enter the modern world. Who don’t want to embrace its opportunities. There are a lot of people like this across the so-called developing world. What is to be done with them?

What is to be done with the people who don’t want to work particularly hard? Who don’t want to make a great life for themselves? I know many people like that: in my village in Mashobra, in the small towns that I grew up in. In many ways, I am myself one of those people, a person who doesn’t want to work too hard.

So I think, it’s a danger to generalize from one’s experience. What I want or what I dislike should not be the framework of a given society. The “good life” is diversely conceived. And a good society should make place for all kinds of people. You growing up in cosmopolitan Bombay. Me growing up in small town India. We should not all be strong-armed into an economic and political system where everyone is allotted a particular role. And where, under the pretext of freedom and prosperity, people are trapped in degrading hierarchies. Which is the case today.

There are countless people making the move from villages to big cities, hoping to experience in them modern emancipation. But finally they are just enslaved. They are enslaved in places where you literally can’t breathe, places like Delhi. That experience, we have to take it into account.

RA: Why do you think that experience has disappeared from public discourse? Your book is filled with references to novelists, poets, and intellectuals who reflected on “those left behind” or those that don’t want to be modern. But these figures seem to have disappeared from books today.

PM: Hölderlin praised Rousseau for divining the “soul” of the stranger—I think I quote him in my book—and that’s a fantastic tribute. It reminds us that the stranger, the provincial, an alienated figure, has disappeared from much contemporary literature. (We can’t even speak of philosophy at this point because it’s so academic and disconnected from reality.)

If you look back at the nineteenth century, starting with Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, then Balzac, Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Chekhov; not to mention the creators of modern philosophy: Rousseau, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard: these are all figures who have provincial or small town backgrounds. And their thinking about the world is shaped by this experience.

And that experience, why has it disappeared from books? Is it because the cities became the centers of intellectual and literary life, making village life or small town life unfeasible for a writer to depict? Is it that social mobility has become so rapid and dramatic that people experience very little friction? The United States became such a rich country post-1945, and then started to extend its benefits to the artistic community: perhaps most of these people experienced such rapid mobility that they actually, in a way, did not want to dwell on their journey, the journey of a provincial in the metropolis.

You don’t read about this that much anymore. And when you do, you read about it from the perspective of the New Yorker, the person who is already there.

RA: Any exceptions?

PM: There are a few, the filmmaker Ken Lonergan for example, who made Manchester By The Sea. His other films are worth seeing too. He has been very focused on life in obscure small towns, and suburbs. And of course there is Jia Zhangke. I feel very close to him because I share the experiences of so many of his characters. Also Nuri Ceylan, the Turkish filmmaker. His film Uzak—I think it’s called Distant in English—depicts a provincial intellectual in Istanbul. It’s a fantastic film.

By contrast, you’d have to search hard for that experience in contemporary literature. A social analysis of this really would be rewarding.

You see this problem in the journalism world too. So called “flyover America,” is imagined to be populated by irredeemable racists. But the very same people voted for Barack Obama. Not once, but twice. It’s been pretty well documented. I fear that the liberal intelligentsia will remain stuck in the mode of disdaining flyover America. That polarization will define American politics going forward. 

Journalists haven’t really thought deeply about other possibilities, environmental constraints, political risks—they simply haven’t challenged themselves.

To be honest, most journalism has been complicit in this ideological project. Not out of any malign reasons. But simply because people who’ve grown up in a period of plenty, who have grown up thinking that there’s only one way of being, that all other ways have been tried—that this mode will bring prosperity to everyone since it’s brought prosperity to us—they simply haven’t challenged themselves. They haven’t really thought more deeply about other possibilities, environmental constraints, political risks. Having neglected these factors, they are now being “mugged by reality,” to use a phrase from the nineties.

RA: This is a book more or less entirely about men, frustrated men. I was wondering how masculinity fits into this taxonomy of feelings.

PM: The classic novel that depicts this is The Red and the Black. There we see the workings of male ressentiment. Here is a man obsessed with Napoleon, obsessed with the ideal of the modern world, which is the sanctification of the individual will, which is embodied in Napoleon most vividly. And that particular masculine fantasy off individual assertion, which is almost inseparable from domination, is . . . you know what I’m describing in this book is a sort of masculinity gone mad.

A masculinity that cannot find a dignified way of expressing itself has been unleashed by an excessive emphasis on the individual will. And that in the absence of any kind of moral constraint simply becomes murderous. That is the experience Dostoyevsky also describes: If you don’t observe these older prohibitions of God, and if the surrounding social structures are too weak, then you will simply want to become a kind of mini-Napoleon, who gives himself all kinds of reasons for committing murder.

That is a problem that remains with us today. This notion that you will only be recognized once you assert your will in the wider world creates all kinds of pathologies for men. I think a lot of the violence you see in India today, inflicted on women in the cities, is a result of this particular imperative. Men feel emasculated; men feel diminished; and the only way they can assert themselves is by dominating, degrading, humiliating women around them.

As I was writing this book, I started looking around for a good feminist history of the modern world, and I couldn’t find. There are a few here and there, but they are more theoretical in nature. On the whole I think modernity has been better coped with by women, who have found opportunities for emancipation and liberation which do not involve the degradation of other humans. It’s men that have struggled with it. And continue to struggle with it.

RA: What were your models for this book?

PM: This is the first book I’ve written for which I could not actually find any models. So I just had to follow my instinct, and follow, as it were, my discoveries and intuitions. I hoped that the reader who is clearly perplexed, like I am, by world events, will find some kind of novelistic truths in my pages. By which I mean that I hope there will be a degree of identification with the characters and situations I was describing. It’s very much a book written in response to a particular situation. And it depends on the reader having asked some of these questions. I’ve depended on the reader sharing my perplexity and curiosity. And sharing my desire to explore history to find parallels and similarities.


Read an excerpt from Pankaj Mishra’s book, Age of Anger.

Ratik Asokan is a writer. He lives in New York. His work can be read here.