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Every once in a (long) while a book comes out that rips the zeitgeist, shining on like a crazy diamond. Age of Anger, by Pankaj Mishra, author of the also-seminal From the Ruins of Empire, might as well be the latest avatar.
Think of this book as the ultimate (conceptual) lethal weapon in the hearts and minds of a rootless cosmopolitan Teenage Wasteland striving to find its true call as we slouch through the longest – the Pentagon would say infinite – of world wars; a global civil war (which in my 2007 book Globalistan I called “Liquid War”).
Mishra, a sterling product of East-meets-West, essentially argues it’s impossible to understand the present if we don’t acknowledge the subterranean homesick blues contradicting the ideal of cosmopolitan liberalism — the “universal commercial society of self-interested rational individuals” first conceptualized by the Enlightenment via Montesquieu, Adam Smith, Voltaire and Kant.
History’s winner ended up being a sanitized narrative of benevolent Enlightenment. The tradition of rationalism, humanism, universalism and liberal democracy was supposed to have always been the norm. It was “clearly too disconcerting,” Mishra writes, “to acknowledge that totalitarian politics crystallized the ideological currents (scientific racism, jingoistic rationalism, imperalism, technicism, aestheticized politics, utopianism, social engineering)” already convulsing Europe in the late 19th century.
So, evoking T.S. Eliot, to frame “the backward half-look, over the shoulder, towards the primitive terror” that eventually led to The West versus The Rest, we’ve got to look at the precursors.
Smash the Crystal Palace
Enter Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin – “the first of many ‘superflous man’ in Russian fiction,” with his Bolivar hat, clutching a statue of Napoleon and a portrait of Byron, as Russia, trying to catch up with the West, “mass-produced spiritually unmoored youth with a quasi-Byronic conception of freedom, further inflated by German Romanticism.” The best Enlightenment critics had to be Germans and Russians, latecomers to politico-economic modernity.
Two years before publishing the astonishing Notes from the Underground, Dostoyevsky, in his tour of Western Europe, was already seeing a society dominated by the war of all against all in which most were condemned to be losers.
In London, in 1862, at the International Exhibition at the Crystal Palace, Dostoyevsky had an illumination (“You become aware of a colossal idea … that here there is victory and triumph. You even begin vaguely to fear something.”) Amid the stupor, Dostoyevsky was also cunning enough to observe how materialist civilization was enhanced as much by its glamor as by military and maritime domination.
Russian literature eventually crystalized crime at random as the paradigm of individuality savoring identity and asserting one’s will.
The path had been carved for the swelling beggars banquet to start bombing the Crystal Palace – even as, Mishra reminds us, “intellectuals in Cairo, Calcutta, Tokyo and Shanghai were reading Jeremy Bentham, Adam Smith, Thomas Paine, Herbert Spencer and John Stuart Mill” to understand the secret of the perpetually expanding capitalist bourgeoisie.
And this after Rousseau, in 1749, had set the foundation stone of the modern revolt against modernity, now splintered in a wilderness of mirrored echoes as the Crystal Palace is de facto implanted in gleamy ghettos all around the world.
Mistah Enlightened – he dead
Mishra credits the idea of his book to Nietzsche commenting the epic querelle between the envious plebeian Rousseau and the serenely elitist Voltaire – who duly hailed the London Stock Exchange, when it became fully operational, as a secular embodiment of social harmony.
But it was Nietzsche who eventually came from central casting, as a fierce detractor of both liberal capitalism and socialism, to make Zarathustra’s enticing promise a magnetic Holy Grail to Bolsheviks (Lenin, though, hated it), the left-wing Lu Xun in China, fascists, anarchists, feminists and hordes of disgruntled aesthetes.
Mishra also reminds us how “Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barrons borrowed eagerly” from Herbert Spencer, “the first truly global thinker” who coined the “survival of the fittest” mantra after reading Darwin.
Nietzsche was the ultimate cartographer of Resentment. Max Weber prophetically framed the modern world as an “iron cage” from which only a charismatic leader may offer escape. And anarchist icon Mikhail Bakunin, for his part, had already in 1869 conceptualized the “revolutionist” as severing “every link with the social order and with the entire civilized world … He is its merciless enemy and continues to inhabit it with only one purpose – to destroy it.”
Escaping the Supreme Modernist James Joyce’s “nightmare of history” – in fact the iron cage of modernity – a viscerally militant secession “from a civilization premised on gradual progress under liberal-democratic trustees” is now raging, out of control, far beyond Europe.
Ideologies that may be radically opposed nonetheless grew symbiotically out of the cultural maelstrom of the late 19th century, from Islamic fundamentalism, Zionism and Hindu nationalism to Bolshevism, Nazism, Fascism and revamped Imperialism.
Not only WWII but the current endgame was also visualized by the brilliant, tragic Walter Benjamin in the 1930s, when he was already warning about the self-alienation of mankind, finally able to “experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.” Today’s live-streaming DIY jihadis are its pop version, as ISIS tries to configure itself as the ultimate negation of the pieties of – neoliberal – modernity.
The Age of Resentment
Weaving savory streams of politics and literature cross-pollination, Mishra takes his time to set the scene for The Big Debate between those developing world masses whose lives are stamped by the Atlanticist West’s “still largely acknowledged history of violence” and the liquid modernity (Bauman) elites yielding from the (selected) part of the world that made the crucial breakthroughs since the Enlightenment in science, philosophy, art and literature.
This goes way beyond a mere debate between East and West. We cannot understand the current global civil war, this post-modernist, post-truth “intense mix of envy and sense of humiliation and powerlessness,” if we don’t attempt to “dismantle the conceptual and intellectual architecture of history’s winners in the West”, drawn from the triumphalist history of Anglo-American over-achievements.
Even at the height of the Cold War, US theologian Reinhold Niebuhr was mocking the “bland fanatics of Western civilization” in their blind faith that every society is destined to evolve just as a handful of nations in the West – sometimes – did.
And this – the irony! – while the liberal internationalist cult of progress glaringly mimicked the Marxist dream of internationalist revolution.
In her 1950 preface to The Origins of Totalitarianism – now a resurgent mega-best seller on Amazon – Hannah Arendt essentially told us to forget about the eventual restoration of the old world order; we were condemned to watch history repeat itself, “homelessness on an unprecedented scale, rootlessness to an unprecedented depth.”
Meanwhile, as Carl Schorske noted in his spectacular Fin-de-Siecle Vienna: Politics and Culture, American scholarship cut the “cord of consciousness” linking the past to the present; bluntly sanitized history; and then centuries of civil war, imperial ravage, genocide and slavery in Europe and America simply disappeared. Only one TINA (there is no alternative) narrative was allowed; how Atlanticists privileged with reason and individual autonomy made the modern world.
Enter master spoiler Jalal Al-e-Ahmad, born in 1928 in poor south Tehran, and the author of Westoxification (1962), a key reference text of Islamist ideology, where he writes about how “Sartre’s Erostratus fires a revolver at the people in the street blindfolded; Nabokov’s protagonist drives his car into the crowd; and the stranger, Mersault, kills someone in reaction to a bad case of sunburn.” Talk about a lethal crossover – existentialism meets Tehran slums to stress what Hanna Arendt called “negative solidarity.”
And enter Abu Musab al-Suri, born in 1958 – one year after Osama bin Laden – in a devout middle class family in Aleppo. It was al-Suri – not the Egyptian Al-Zawahiri – who designed a leaderless global jihad strategy in The Global Islamic Resistance Call, based on “unconnected cells” and “individual operations”. Al-Suri was the Samuel “clash of civilizations” Huntington of al-Qaeda. Mishra defines him as “the Mikhail Bakunin of the Muslim world.”
That ‘syphilis of revolutionary passions’
Responding to that silly neo-Hegelian “end of history” meme at the end of the Cold War, Allan Bloom warned that fascism might be the future; and John Gray telegraphed the return of “primordial forces, nationalist and religious, fundamentalist and soon, perhaps, Malthusian.”
And that leads us to why the exceptional bearers of Enlightenment humanism and rationalism cannot explain the current geopolitical turmoil – from ISIS to Brexit to Trump. They could never come up with anything more sophisticated than binary opposition of “free” and “unfree”; the same 19th century Western clichés about the non-West; and the relentless demonization of that perennially backward Other: Islam. Hence the new “long war” (Pentagon terminology) against “Islamofascism.”
They could never understand, as Mishra stresses, the implications of that meeting of minds in a Supermax prison in Colorado between Oklahoma City bomber, all-American Timothy McVeigh, and the mastermind of the first attack on the World Trade Center, Ramzi Yousef (non-devout Muslim, Pakistani father, Palestinian mother).
And they cannot understand how ISIS conceptualizers can regiment, online, an insulted, injured teenager from a Parisian suburb or an African shantytown and convert him into a narcissist – Baudelairean? – dandy loyal to a rousing cause worth fighting for. The parallel between the DIY jihadi and the 19th century Russian terrorist – incarnating the “syphilis of the revolutionary passions,” as Alexander Herzen described it – is uncanny.
And the DIY jihadi’s top enemy is not even Christian; it’s the “apostate” Shi’ite. Mass rapes, choreographed murders, the destruction of Palmyra, Dostoyevsky had already identified it all; as Mishra puts it, “it’s impossible for modern-day Raskolnikovs to deny themselves anything, and possible to justify anything.”
It’s impossible to summarize all the rhizomatic (hat tip to Deleuze-Guattari) intellectual crossfire deployed by Age of Anger. What’s clear is that to understand the current global civil war, archeological reinterpretation of the West’s hegemonic narrative of the past 250 years is essential. Otherwise we will be condemned, like puny Sisyphean specks, to endure not only the recurrent nightmare of history but also its recurrent blowback.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly asserted that novelist William Burroughs had bragged about randomly shooting a gun in crowd. In fact, it was the surrealist Andre Breton who said that “he purest surrealist act is walking into a crowd with a loaded gun and firing into it randomly.”