Pankaj Mishra on our "Age of Anger"

March 7, 2017

Detail from book cover

DEVIN STEWART: Hi, I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council. Today I'm speaking with Pankaj Mishra. He is an award-winning essayist and also the author of Age of Anger: A History of the Present.

Pankaj, thank you very much for coming to Carnegie Council.

PANKAJ MISHRA: Thank you, Devin, for having me.

DEVIN STEWART: Your book is extremely timely, no question about that. Tell me about the "age of anger." Why do we live in an age of anger today? Your book came out before Trump was elected president, correct?

PANKAJ MISHRA: No, just afterward.

DEVIN STEWART: But you had written it beforehand.

PANKAJ MISHRA: I had written it beforehand because I'd seen Trump-like phenomena erupting all over the world in recent years, demagogues offering angry masses some very vague promise of redemption or just simple release from their state of suffering.

I think the reason why so many people feel angry and disaffected is that too much has been promised to them in recent decades and the globalized economy has not delivered to large numbers of people on these promises. One reason why people are making these extremely unwise political choices is because they have very little faith left in their political representatives, and also, most importantly, in the media, which they see as complicit with the technocratic, globalized elites, and other institutions increasingly which are also suffering from a crisis of legitimacy.

DEVIN STEWART: Is there something to that, that the media is complicit, or do you dispute that?

PANKAJ MISHRA: I don't think that perception is entirely grounded in fantasy. I do think there has been a huge change in the way the media covers certain socioeconomic issues in the last three decades. I do think the media—the mainstream media particularly, not only in Europe and America but also in places like India—has swallowed a very simple-minded narrative of progress through modernization, industrialization, and greater consumerism, and those are the stories they have been retelling, thereby ignoring large numbers of people who do not experience the benefits of this globalized economy.

DEVIN STEWART: Who were the demagogues that you encountered or observed that inspired this book?

PANKAJ MISHRA: In the first instance, we've forgotten that the first demagogue to really benefit from experiments in unregulated markets and gangster capitalism was Vladimir Putin. He emerged in 2000 out of this utter disaster which was the shock therapy experiment in Russia. For a long time I've been obsessed with that particular experience.

Then, of course, Erdoğan in Turkey, and—most intimately for me since I am an Indian citizen—the election of Narendra Modi, a man who should really ideally be in prison for a long time, and here he was being elected prime minister of India by all kinds of people, including members of my own family. So this was really a huge shock for me and really forced me to think deeper and work harder to come up with an explanation that accounts for not just Modi but also all these other demagogues.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you think these leaders are legitimately representing grievances, or do you think they are exploiting a political expediency?

PANKAJ MISHRA: Oh, definitely. I think they are filling a political vacuum. They are filling a vacuum caused by the loss of legitimacy of various political institutions, representative politicians who are seen as too beholden to commercial interests, business interests, and the media. So you have all these so-called "outsiders," people who are not professional politicians, making hay and offering themselves as essentially people who are going to sort everything out, cut through all these corrupt processes of democracy, and deliver on the promises that the elites haven't delivered on.

DEVIN STEWART: Let's talk about some of the characteristics of this populist anger, this global anger. You write about the concept of ressentiment. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

PANKAJ MISHRA: This is something that was identified, this particular emotion, ressentiment, very early in the 18th century as an emotion that becomes very prominent in society at large, in public life, and in the inner life most importantly, when the modern promise of equality collides with the fact of structural inequality, of kind of entrenched differences of income, status, opportunity, and property ownership.

These contradictions, this conflict looked very minor back in the 18th century, but as democracy spreads around the world—and by democracy I mean simply the promise of equality, liberation from older forms of authority—and is embraced by large numbers of people, they also simultaneously collide with the fact of structural inequality, which makes ressentiment a global epidemic, something that people are suffering from all across the world. Obviously it has politically toxic consequences as we are seeing today.

DEVIN STEWART: I think there is an element of resentment toward the elite. There is also a sense of envy. Are the people who are angry angry with policies, or are they angry with the attitudes of the elite?

PANKAJ MISHRA: I think both. We have to take a really broad perspective on this. People who blame all this on economic inequality are really only looking at one side of the picture.

I think there is a sense of humiliation. There is a sense that a tiny minority of people have monopolized intellectual and cultural capital, and using that capital have disdained and scorned the people left behind or pushed behind, the people who are not smart enough or sophisticated enough. There is definitely a sense of being humiliated by the elites.

This is something Donald Trump speaks to very powerfully in his tirades against The New York Times and in his tirades against Manhattan liberals. This is something he exploits very cannily.

DEVIN STEWART: Even though he's from New York City.

PANKAJ MISHRA: Absolutely.

DEVIN STEWART: One of the interesting conflicts you talk about was between one of my favorite philosophers, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and his rival, Voltaire. Why do you talk about that rivalry, and why is it relevant today?

PANKAJ MISHRA: I realize that the debate between these two figures of the Enlightenment—one of them a member of the metropolitan elite and very much a believer in the virtues of self-love or self-interest, commercial society, trade, commerce, all of the things that we identify the modern world with; and then you have this outsider, a man from a very different social background who feels himself scorned by this class of people in Paris and thinks that it is not enough to posit these ideas of modern commercial society, that it will leave a lot of people feeling again disdained and humiliated and would leave people angry and disaffected; that we need to offer them a kind of political community that will enable them to feel free internally.

I feel that a lot of the divisions today between metropolitan elites and people who feel condescended to and ill-treated by those elites can be mapped onto these disagreements of the late 18th century, just when the principles of the modern world we live in are being formulated.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you think Rousseau will undergo historical revisionism and achieve some greater profile looking back on philosophical history?

PANKAJ MISHRA: I certainly think he is due for a revival, not only of his diagnosis of the contradictions of the modern world but also his problematic prescriptions, which include nationalism and cultural nationalism of a certain kind.

DEVIN STEWART: He is certainly a controversial figure. He has been associated with nationalism and even fascism. Do you think he should be defended, or are the criticisms legitimate?

PANKAJ MISHRA: I think connecting people to events that happened decades, if not centuries, after they formulated these ideas is deeply problematic. I think we have to be more alert to the specific socioeconomic factors that animate certain parts of their ideas—not wholly; it is fair to say that Rousseau would be utterly appalled by fascistic states. If there was anything he was against, it was large, centralized states. Likewise, Nietzsche was connected to the Nazis all the time, but it is pretty safe to say he would have been utterly disgusted by the Nazis.

DEVIN STEWART: You're sort of criticizing liberalism in your book, and certainly it deserves some self-criticism. Two questions here: Number one, tell us about the problems with liberalism. I think one of the problems is that it emphasizes the rights of the individual. The downside of that is the individual is left alone as an atom out there in the global economy and loses connections to family, culture, and traditions. It might be lonely out there.

And the second question is: Does liberalism maintain any legitimate merits in your view?

PANKAJ MISHRA: When we talk about liberalism, we have to be very specific about what kind of liberalism we are talking about since it has gone through many different phases since the late 18th century. I think if you were to focus on what liberalism has been in the last three decades, one would have to conclude that it has relied on a narrowly economistic notion of what human society is, so focusing very intensely on material self-interest. It certainly has embraced a kind of hyper-individualism in the last three decades or so, a lot of emphasis on individual agency, ambition, and aspiration.

I think the old problem of not paying enough attention to moral community, to political community, and the fact that human beings need a lot more in their lives than the pursuit of material opportunity or status and wealth, and I think we are really looking at the political consequences of that blindness to human needs and aspirations.

I think sophisticated liberalism would learn from these political fiascos and essentially become more responsive. Let's not forget that someone like John Stuart Mill, his critique was of the tyranny of public opinion, the kind of mediocrity that is caused in large, centralized states. We have to recover some aspects of that critique. This is a man very obsessed with moral freedom. I think we've really let ourselves be blinded by these narrowly economic notions of what we should be doing in the world.

DEVIN STEWART: So you're saying liberalism can be saved?

PANKAJ MISHRA: Yes. If what we mean by liberalism is a respect for the dignity of the individual—that is how I would like to identify it—any attempts to rescue and uphold this notion is welcome.

DEVIN STEWART: What we're encountering right now where liberalism is sort of up for grabs and is in question, we have Jean-Jacques Rousseau versus Voltaire, we have socialists versus fascists, we have traditionalists versus cosmopolitans. Aren't all of these dichotomies inevitable as cyclical swings of the pendulum? If so, what do you foresee for the next pendulum swing?

PANKAJ MISHRA: There are certainly some oppressively repetitive patterns in modern history. I think we may be in the midst of another kind of backlash against certain ideals of the modern world, liberal or conservative, whatever one calls them. The fact is that human beings are again—lots of them around the world—expressing their state of discontent with this world, with this shape of society, which really doesn't offer them a great deal of security and stability. I think after a period of relative prosperity and relative growth since 1945 we are entering a phase of disaffection and conflict.

Let's not forget that the last time a crisis of this kind happened it was preceded by really destructive wars. I hope and I think that those wars are unlikely to happen, but we are definitely in a much more unpredictable era now.

DEVIN STEWART: Let's cast ahead a little bit. What do you think or hope would come after the Age of Anger? Are you hopeful about the next age?

PANKAJ MISHRA: I actually don't know what will come. I would like the Age of Compassion to follow the Age of Anger, again realizing that what is sacred, what remains sacred, is the dignity of the individual, and if you could find a way of politics, if you could develop a way of thinking about the economy that accommodates this essential notion, I think we would be pretty well-off.

DEVIN STEWART: Someone should start writing Age of Compassion as a next book. Pankaj Mishra, author of Age of Anger, thanks so much for coming today.

PANKAJ MISHRA: Thank you very much, Devin.

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