Sean Mahoney discusses radicalism, populism and the contemporary political moment.
Pankaj Mishra, Age of Anger: A History of the Present (Allen Lane, 2017), 416 pp.
“How did we get here?” is an increasingly common question, posed almost on a daily basis. How should liberal democracy respond to Brexit or the election of Narendra Modi and Donald Trump? Having witnessed the rise of Modi in India in 2014, Pankaj Mishra wonders just how new or unpredictable these phenomena really are. Promising to save us from our own bewilderment, he sets off on a rollercoaster ride, an illuminating journey through literary and philosophical texts spanning over 250 years.
Compromised political leadership is only part of the problem. Within the first few pages, Mishra uncovers a paradox: the supposed innocence of featuring the Dalai Lama in an Apple advertisement is not compatible with the history of Buddhists supporting ethnic cleansing. What are we to take from this is not always clearly stated, although “never trust a cleric” would be a good start. This is only the beginning: Rousseau, one of the most obviously contradictory democratic philosophers, is presented as a prototype populist, an angry voice for those who feel that they have been left behind. American philosopher Brian Barry made a similar point about his colleague Robert Nozick many years ago and it still rings true.
Mishra then introduces us to Al-Suri, Al Qaeda’s key strategic thinker. He has been labelled the “Francis Fukuyama of al-Qaeda“ and the “Mikhail Bakunin of the Muslim world.” These comparisons, although lazy, provoke both curiosity and dread. Are his intentions and ideologies indeed so eclectic? Who else has ever been mistaken for Fukuyama and Bakunin? Rather than allow us a glimpse into Al-Suri’s supposed “ideological purity,” this reveals that the western mind is reluctant in trying to expand its understanding of Islam. A different comparison, “the Che Guevara of the Quran-reading military elite,” would be more appropriate. Guevara’s guerrilla warfare and constant shifts of focus often resemble the tactics that Al-Qaeda now employs. Rather than Fukuyama’s “end of history” or Bakunin’s “Lumpenproletariat,” Al-Suri is more likely to provoke Guevara’s “thousand Vietnams” and set off a wave of protest against the ruling elites and their western allies.
Further on, Mishra introduces the concept of “Westoxification,“ and of radical Islam as a political creed, rather than a theological one. The book leads us ultimately to the view that radical religious groups, be they Hindu or Islamist, feel that they have lost so much of their religious heritage that they need to redefine religion itself, often in relation to the west. From this point of view, the Rolex watches adorning the wrists of the caliphs in the Islamic State are not as odd as they might seem; neither is Modi’s historical revisionism accompanied by “Holy Cows plus mobile phone” nationalism. Yet, as well as revealing patterns, Mishra focuses on the differences.
Still, his sweeping examination of anarcho-militancy leads to a somehow inconclusive ending. The consequences of capitalist globalisation, such as the scapegoating of migrants, the growth of the free, borderless market and global inequality, especially among young adults, undeniably played a part in bringing about the current crisis. But can we blame it all on the shortcomings of globalisation? Perhaps. Yet, the failure of digitalisation to move beyond our own vanity seems to also be at fault. Holding on to our grudges is easier in the digital world, where it is impossible to not see everyone else’s gains and successes. Although fuelled by the digital media, our resentment stems from the mismatch between our own desire and reality. We have been sold freedom but not the means to use it. Our disappointment makes us confused and eager in our search for alternatives, even if they are extreme.
Mishra’s parting note is a reference to Rousseau: the elites benefit from modernisation while holding the masses in disdain, creating chaos with their populist politics. And there, it ends. While the book explores many wonderful ideas, it does not aid in understanding how we got here, or how should we deal with it. Do I feel less bewildered? Not really. While Mishra proves that our current failings are not brand new, he does not move beyond the already well-explored dynamic of the haves and the have-nots, those who hold desires and those who hold riches. We may live in an age of anger, but what we need is an age of change. There is only one world and we are all suffering in it.
Sean Mahoney lives in New Zealand. He has attempted a range of projects and careers, all with limited success. He has published writing on a wide range of things from the Agrarian Socialist Thomas Spence to the England Cricket team’s disastrous 1986 tour of the West Indies. His political and cultural analysis can be found here.