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The Origins of Anger

How Enlightenment philosophers accidentally exported their ideals and left us all feeling duped

There is, plainly, no deep logic to the unfolding of time. But then we identify emollient patterns and noble purposes in history because evasions, suppressions and downright falsehoods have resulted, over time, in a massive store of defective knowledge—about the West and the non-West alike. Obscuring the costs of the West’s own “progress,” it turns out, severely undermined the possibility of explaining the proliferation of a politics of violence and hysteria in the world today, let alone finding a way to contain it.

Thus, the intellectual cottage industry about Islam and Islamism that is sent into overdrive after every terrorist attack rarely lingers on the fact that it was France’s revolutionary state that first introduced terror into the political realm. (Devout Spanish peasants, fighting back against Napoleon’s secular universalist project, were the first irregulars to wage war against a regular modern nation state and army.)

Escape from the stultifying dualisms of East and West, religion and reason, requires us to train fresh eyes on the most fateful event of human history: the rise of an industrial and materialist civilization, which, emerging in Britain and France, spread itself over the old world of Asia and Africa and the new world of America and Oceania, creating the original conditions of our current state of negative solidarity.

The utter novelty of this event is too easily missed. For the changes brought about by two coalescing revolutions, the French and the industrial, marked a sharp break in historical continuity; they ushered in a new era of global consciousness. Rapidly overcoming geographical limits with, respectively, their ideas and steamships, they opened up a new, potentially boundless setting for human action. They inaugurated what we now call modernity—the world of mass politics and ceaseless social and economic change, and a whole new universe of possibilities about how human beings could act in and shape history, collectively and individually.

The revolutionary tradition with its concepts of democracy, the pursuit of liberty, and equality moved quickly from the economically developed and politically complex ancien régimes of the Atlantic West to the simpler ancien régimes of Prussia, Austria and Russia, before taking root in Asia and Africa. It transformed the relationship of ordinary people to time, space, and their own selves—introducing them to the earth-shaking idea that human beings could use their own reason to fundamentally reshape their circumstances.

History, largely experienced previously as a series of natural disasters, could now be seen as a movement in which everyone could potentially enlist. Intellectuals and artists rose as a class for the first time to lend a hand in the making of history, and locate the meaning of life in politics and art rather than traditional religion. The balance in European culture shifted from the religious to the secular—a momentous process that is still ongoing in many parts of the world.

As always, there were, below the surface of high-minded philosophical arguments against the old God and demands for greater freedom of speech, deeper struggles for power and distinction. For like all modern intellectuals, the particular circumstances of the French philosophes shaped their ideology. In this case, the interests of the people Tocqueville defined as “commoners growing rich by trade” moulded new ideas. To these men who had emerged after a long period of fear and frustration caused by Europe’s religious wars, commerce and prosperity under secular regimes seemed the right antidote to religious fanaticism. The acquisitive and competitive spirit of this rising commercial class also chafed against a religious tradition that had long idealized poverty.

The new class largely felt excluded from the traditional hierarchy despite its frequently superior ability and individual talent. Resentment and envy made the commoners thirsty for rapid and libertarian change. In their eyes, the social and religious order of Western Christendom was a barrier; it had to be demolished, and replaced by a new edifice based on rational principles and scientific knowledge. They aimed to reorganize society so that intrinsic human merit was acknowledged above traditional status.

A meritocratic society, in which people like themselves could flourish, was deemed “rational” by the philosophes. In boosting this rationalism, they saw themselves as constituting a “party of humanity.” The new society, though free of irrational old hierarchies, wasn’t meant to be democratic. Liberty primarily meant freedom for social mobility for the man of talent, the means, as Rousseau bluntly stated, of “acquiring without obstacle and possessing with security.” The social and intellectual power of his network was meant to benefit society as well, but it was not available to everyone or anyone. On the contrary, access to it required money, property, connections, and talents. Hierarchy would still mark the new society: the mass of the people would remain necessarily subordinate to the authentically enlightened at the top.

Visiting Paris, Dostoyevsky caustically noted that Liberté existed only for the millionaire.

But theoretical rationalism—speculation about a future rational and enlightened society in which all men are equal—turned out to have radically egalitarian implications in a way that few of its seventeenth- and eighteenth-century proponents and beneficiaries anticipated. The philosophes did not know until 1789—and most of them were dead by then—that the programme of reform by a tiny literate minority cumulatively equaled the demand for a drastically new order, and that the campaign against the evidently fanatical Church would escalate into a ferocious assault on all social inequality, culminating in this “monstrous tragi-comic scene,” as Edmund Burke warned, “the most opposite passions necessarily succeed, and sometimes mix with each other in the mind; alternate contempt and indignation; alternate laughter and tears; alternate scorn and horror.” Thus, slaves in French colonies invoking the rights of man and citizen staged bloody insurrections (and suffered savage reprisals from Napoleon), while two of the most zealous boosters of the American Revolution, Thomas Paine and the Marquis de Lafayette, went to their graves lamenting the betrayal of those rights by the slave-owning leaders of the United States.

The Enlightenment also created the vast stage on which more and more people appeared, changing as well as interpreting their world in a series of often monstrous, and deeply repetitive, tragic-comic scenes. For many outside France, its revolution had institutionalized some irresistible ideals: a rationalistic, egalitarian, and universalizing society in which men shaped their own lives.

Dostoyevsky’s writings capture the unnerving appeal of the new materialist civilization, and its accompanying ideology of individualism: how that civilization was helped as much by its prestige as well as its military and maritime dominance. Two years before he published his novella Notes from Underground (1864), Dostoyevsky went on a tour of Western Europe. During his stay in London in 1862, he visited the International Exhibition. At the Crystal Palace he testified:

You become aware of a colossal idea; you sense that here something has been achieved, that here there is victory and triumph. You even begin vaguely to fear something. However independent you may be, for some reason you become terrified. “For isn’t this the achievement of perfection?” you think. “Isn’t this the ultimate?” Could this in fact be the “one fold?” Must you accept this as the final truth and forever hold your peace? It is all so solemn, triumphant, and proud that you gasp for breath

Dostoyevsky had no illusions about the world-historical import of what he was witnessing at the Crystal Palace. In his view, the cost of such splendor and magnificence as displayed at the Crystal Palace was a society dominated by the war of all against all, in which most people were condemned to be losers.

In tones of awe and fear he described London as a wilderness of damaged proletarians, “half-naked, savage, and hungry,” frantically drowning their despair in debauchery and alcohol. Visiting Paris, Dostoyevsky caustically noted that Liberté existed only for the millionaire. The notion of Égalité, equality before the law, was a “personal insult” to the poor exposed to French justice. As for Fraternité, it was another hoax in a society driven by the “individualist, isolationist instinct” and the lust for private property. Even the socialist played the same game of materialism with his mean calculus of order, and his bitter notion of class struggle. True socialism, which rested on spiritual self-sacrifice and moral community, could not be established in the West, for the “Occidental Nature” had a fundamental design flaw: it lacked Fraternity.

Nevertheless, the stealthy Europeanization of the world that Dostoyevsky witnessed in its early stages is now complete. There is hardly a place on Earth, not even in Borneo or the Amazonian rainforests, that has not felt the impact of the Atlantic West, its ideas and ideologies of materialism, and their mass-produced Americanized versions.

Non-Western men and women educated in Europe or in Western-style institutions despaired of their traditionalist elites as much as they resented European dominance over their societies. They had keenly imbibed the ideologies of Social Darwinism; they, too, were obsessed with finding true power and sovereignty in a world of powerful nation states. In this quest to give their peoples a fair chance at strength, equality and dignity in the white man’s palace, China’s Mao Zedong and Turkey’s Mustafa Kemal Atatürk as much as Iran’s democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mosaddeq followed the Western model of mass-mobilization, state-building, and industrialization.

Socialist as well as capitalist modernists envisaged an exponential increase in the number of people owning cars, houses, electronic goods, and gadgets.

Despite, or because of, this disadvantage, the explicitly defined aim of Asia and Africa’s first nationalist icons (Atatürk, Nehru, Mao, Sukarno, Nasser, and Nkrumah) was “catch-up” with the West.  Immense problems—partly the consequence of colonial rule—confronted these many catch-up modernizations soon after independence. The antagonisms and alliances of the Cold War aggravated them further. Leftwing regimes across Asia, Africa, and Latin America were embargoed or overthrown by the representatives of the free world; explicitly communist movements, as in Indonesia and Egypt, were brutally suppressed by their local allies. Those that survived became increasingly authoritarian and erratic. By the 1970s, many pro-West nation states had also plunged into despotism.

But one aim united all these ideologically divergent regimes. Socialist as well as capitalist modernists envisaged an exponential increase in the number of people owning cars, houses, electronic goods, and gadgets, and driving the tourist and luxury industry worldwide. This is a fantasy that has been truly globalized since the end of the Cold War and today synergizes the endeavors of businessmen, politicians, and journalists everywhere. Since the collapse of Communism, ruling classes of the non-West have looked to McKinsey rather than Marx to help define their socio-economic future; but they have not dared to alter the founding basis of their legitimacy as “modernizers” leading their countries to convergence with the West and attainment of European and American living standards.

The Crystal Palace now extends all over the world, encompassing the non-West and the West alike, literally in the form of the downtown areas of hundreds of cities, from radically “renovated” Shanghai to the surreal follies of Dubai and Gurgaon. Homo economicus, the autonomous, reasoning, rights-bearing individual, that quintessential product of industrialism and modern political philosophy, has actually realized his fantastical plans to bring all of human existence into the mesh of production and consumption: Kalimantan in Indonesia, once famous for its headhunters, now hosts McDonald’s.

Bringing economic disruption in its wake, atomizing societies, threatening older values, and making social maladjustment inevitable, the Enlightenment has also created global fault lines—those that run through human souls as well as nations and societies undergoing massive change. From his victims emerge the foot soldiers of radical Islamism as well as Hindu and Chinese nationalism.

The Enlightenment has created global fault lines that run through human souls as well as nations and societies undergoing massive change.

Most of them are not the poorest of the poor, or members of the peasantry and the urban underclass. They are educated youth, often unemployed, rural–urban migrants, or others from the lower middle class. They have abandoned the most traditional sectors of their societies, and have succumbed to the fantasies of consumerism without being able to satisfy them. They respond to their own loss and disorientation with a hatred of modernity’s supposed beneficiaries; they trumpet the merits of their indigenous culture or assert its superiority, even as they have been uprooted from this culture.

Regardless of their national origins and locally attuned rhetoric, these disenfranchised men target those they regard as venal, callous, and mendacious elites. Donald Trump led an upsurge of white nationalists enraged at being duped by globalized liberals. A similar loathing of London technocrats and cosmopolitans led to Brexit. Hindu nationalists, who tend to belong to lower middle classes with education and some experience of mobility, aim at “pseudo-secularist” English-speaking Indians, accusing them of disdain for Hinduism and vernacular traditions. Chinese nationalists despise the small minority of their West-oriented technocratic compatriots. Radical Islamists, eager autodidacts of Islam, spend much time parsing differences between who they decide are genuine Muslims and nominal ones, those who have surrendered to the hedonism and rootlessness of consumer society.

Identity has long been interchangeable in our global civil war: after all, the militants armed and funded by the West against the Soviet Union were once hailed as “freedom fighters,” and they eventually found their capitalist sponsors indistinguishable from godless communists. Today, American veterans of wars against jihadists in Iraq and Afghanistan—African American as well as Muslim—aim their weapons at their fellow citizens. Yet we continue to look for explanations and enemies in the drastic cultural and religious otherness of those responsible, in a religious ideology that, originating in the Middle East, evidently seduces vulnerable young people away from Western values.

It is a reassuring, even self-flattering, impulse. What could be more alien to liberal, secular and democratic societies than a bunch of seventh-century fundamentalists prepared to kill themselves in the name of Allah in order to inflict maximum damage? For those brought up on stories of how a West defined by Enlightenment rationalism and humanism made, or ought to make, the modern world, blaming Islamic theology, or fixating on the repellant rhetoric of ISIS, can even be indispensable in achieving moral self-entrancement, and toughening up convictions of superiority: we, liberal, democratic, and rational, are not at all like these savages. But these spine-stiffening exercises can no longer obscure the fact that the history of the Atlantic West has long been continuous with the world it made. 


Excerpted from Age of Anger: A History of the Present by Pankaj Mishra.  Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2017 by Pankaj Mishra. All rights reserved.

Read a Q&A with the author here.