What are the roots of current global crises, and how can we find hope in an age of instability and rage?
Illustration: Joe Watson-Price (joewatsonprice.tumblr.com)
Age of Anger, the new book by essayist and novelist Pankaj Mishra, proved to be alarmingly prescient even as it was being written. Mishra was focusing on the currents of resentment and disaffection that run through global society – something that became increasingly obvious as 2016 doled out shock after political shock.
He argues that the current world order – celebrating individual freedom within a neoliberal economy – creates a ‘left behind’ majority, whose rage fuels political shifts towards the extremes.
The Bristol Cable caught up with Mishra at Bristol Festival of Ideas. Please note this interview was conducted before the Westminster terror attack took place.
Bristol Cable: You started writing Age of Anger before Brexit and before the US presidential election, the two big shocks of the last year. What were your thoughts when those events transpired?
Pankaj Mishra: I was, to be honest, quite shocked. Even though I had been writing about political disaffection and how it then manifests itself in terrible political choices, I was still amazed by how the passions and feelings of rage and loathing that I was describing were going to explode in the very heartland of the modern world.
I mean, these were things we used to think of as happening only on the periphery, in Muslim countries or non-Western countries, or they would happen in Europe but still on the periphery. And then suddenly it started to happen in Britain and in America. My analysis had not made space for that, but in a way the analysis was vindicated, but I had not thought to examine them specifically until it happened.
You end the book with the assertion that in order to understand and cope with the current chaos, we need some ‘truly transformative thinking’. Can you explain what might be the basis of that transformation?
I think one possible move would be to think of ourselves as deeply interconnected – nations, economies, individuals – and to abandon these extremely unhealthy notions of life as competition… a society that produces ultimate winners and losers. I think this way of thinking of society has become entrenched over the last 30, 40 years. Some really weird experiments in our politics and economy have led us to this present moment of crisis, aggravated certain pathologies that have always existed – but they have potentially become toxic.
We have to really think about society again. We have to think about what holds society together, the ties between people – solidarity, compassion. Not just a whole lot of individuals pursuing their self-interest in isolation and seeking to dominate or defeat other people in the race for success and wealth and status. That has been the dominant ethic and has proven to be destructive.
You said the last 30 or 40 years, but isn’t that ethic of destruction and domination something that goes back hundreds of years?
Well, in the book I argue that the idea of society consisting of competitive individuals was first formulated in the late 18th century, when we began to emerge from centuries and centuries of living with tradition, traditional hierarchies, with authorities like the church or monarchy.
[Among] the new principles on which society was founded were competition and expansion, individual autonomy and freedom. And I think those notions worked for a lot of people, because we still had a whole lot of constraining factors left over. Religion didn’t just disappear overnight; it still provided a moral code to many people. There were other institutions too: trade unions; guilds; local governments – all kinds of networked communities that offered solidarity and identity.
In the last 30 or 40 years of globalisation we’ve seen the steady destruction of all these intermediate institutions. Now the individual finds him or herself completely exposed to these opaque global forces, which they can’t comprehend let alone control. And out of a feeling of frustration and rage people have been making really unwise political choices.
In your book you thoroughly dismantle the ideas of the march of progress, the end of history, and those tropes of Western thought in the post-Second World War era. What’s your personal feeling for the future – do you have any optimism left?
I think at one level I feel pessimistic about the capacity of our existing institutions, whether it’s journalism, or politicians, or business, to respond to the current crisis adequately. I don’t really have much confidence in that. I feel they are making the situation worse in many ways.
I do have a great deal of faith in the capacities of ordinary people, individuals, who are – especially young people – waking up to an era of unprecedented instability, a kind of insecurity that their parents never knew. Much depends on how they will respond to this era, and they will bring fresh energies and new thinking. Their minds will be free of all the entrenched prejudices and clichés that have held back previous generations, generations that are now in power, or are in important positions. So they will be making a huge impact, I think, with their actions – and that is where I draw optimism [from].
In general, looking at the elections taking place across Europe for example, do you think things are going to get a lot worse before they get better?
I think they’re definitely getting worse at this point, so I think maybe a lot of things need to fall away, a lot of our faith and our prejudices need to collapse before we can start thinking again. I only hope that we don’t go through a prolonged phase of political or economic crisis. We’ve already actually gone through a pretty long one, historically speaking. So let’s hope that nothing too bad happens.
The Age of Anger is out now.