Pankaj Mishra is an Indian writer and historian. Among his many books are An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World and From the Ruins of Empire. He recently spoke to The WorldPost about the themes of his new book Age of Anger ― the revolt against cosmopolitan elites, the “subjectivization of ‘facts’” and the fragmentation of the media. “Complacent elites” enabled “a treacherously volatile troll in the White House,” he said, and we’re also “plunging faster into the endgame of a whole civilization.”
WorldPost: In your new book, Age of Anger, you correctly anticipated the rage, the ressentiment, out there against global cosmopolitan elites. We’ve seen that revolt of the left behind now sweep in the advanced world through Britain with Brexit, Donald Trump’s victory in the United States and the populist surge of both right and left now in Europe. We saw it earlier in Venezuela with former President Hugo Chavez, and as well with the rise to power of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Islamic-oriented movement out of the Anatolian provinces against the Europeanized Istanbul elites. There is also Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu fundamentalism. Even in China some talk about the neo-Maoist resurgence against the globalized elites there.
When you wrote about this for WorldPost back in 2014, you spoke about “worldwide mutinies against globalization.” And you had a searing quote defining “a cosmopolite” in the developing world as “a premature universalist, an imitator of superficial attainments of dominant civilizations, an inhabitant of the upper caste milieu without real contact with the people.”
As justified as the rage of the superfluous or left behind might be, what seems to come along, part and parcel, with this revolt against the global liberal order is nativist and illiberal sentiments leading to the erosion of the free media, the rule of law and antipathy, even hate, of the majority toward minorities. The strong undercurrent, if not the main current, is “us vs. them” xenophobia.
To put it in colloquial terms, is the baby being thrown out with the bath water? If so, how can the baby be saved?
“'We witness today a stunning eruption of mutinies against extensive socio-economic engineering within the heart of the modern West.'”
Pankaj Mishra: That somewhat contemptuous definition of the cosmopolite you quote was taken from an Indian politician and thinker called Ram Manohar Lohia, who inspired many Indian artists and intellectuals in the 1950s and 60s with his contrarian ideas about development and modernization. Similar such critiques of top-down modernizers were advanced in many other countries, notably Iran, where, as I describe in my book, they laid the ideological groundwork for the Islamic Revolution in 1979.
I think what we witness today is a stunning eruption of these mutinies against extensive socio-economic engineering within the heart of the modern West. It was easy to see them previously as manifestations of religious fanaticism (in the case of Islam), or cultural weakness and political dysfunction. After successive disastrous attempts at Westernizing Russia and Iraq, we were told that the Iraqis and the Russians were simply not good enough for Western-style liberal democracy. People like myself who argued against this culturalist and embarrassingly self-flattering argument were derided as anti-Westernists or sympathizers of nativists.
But it is indisputable that we now need a global framework rather than some untenable assumptions of moral and intellectual superiority to understand the rise of the far-right in the West. And this is what I have tried to provide in my new book, which looks at Brexit and Trump in the context of a global disaffection, one with plenty of historical precedents within the modern West.
I have been writing for the last two decades of the energies building up from below in countries undergoing radically disruptive socio-economic change that is imposed from above by remote and often unaccountable and corrupt elites. I have complained repeatedly about the indifference, bordering on callousness, among ruling classes ― in the media as well as government and business ― to the complex suffering caused by this hectic transformation of all modes of life: dispossession, disorientation, loss of identity and community, not to mention rampant destruction of the environment.
I have warned against its political consequences: nihilistic violence, demagoguery and blind hatred and persecution of minorities identified as scapegoats. So today the global explosion of what you call “us vs. them” xenophobia not only makes me despair of the complacent elites who not only failed to anticipate it but also enabled it, however inadvertently. I am very worried about what the near future holds. The catastrophic failures of these elites have helped install a treacherously volatile troll in the White House, and we seem to be plunging faster into the endgame of a whole civilization ― one that started to come into being in the late 18 century.
“'We seem to be plunging faster into the endgame of a whole civilization.'”
WorldPost: Like you, Isaiah Berlin disdained cosmopolitanism and foresaw the forces behind today’s mutiny against it. He thought every culture should sustain its unique identity, or volksgeist, which is incommensurate with others. “I regard cosmopolitanism as empty,” Berlin once told me in an interview:
People can’t develop unless they belong to a culture. Even if they rebel against it and transform it entirely, they still belong to a stream of tradition. New streams can be created ― in the West, by Christianity, or Luther, or the Renaissance, or the Romantic movement ― but in the end they derive from a single river, an underlying central tradition, which, sometimes, in radically altered forms, survives.
But if the streams dry up, as for instance, where men and women are not products of a culture, where they don’t have kith and kin and feel closer to some people than to others, where there is no native language—that would lead to a tremendous desiccation of everything that is human.
The French philosopher Régis Debray also anticipated the backlash because he saw the same thing as Berlin. For Debray, if borders don’t secure cultural affinity, walls will be erected in their place as a defense against contamination. “Borders are a vaccine against the epidemic of walls,” he has written. So the question is, how do you balance belonging and self-determination with the interdependence of plural identities that globalization has created, including through mass immigration?
Mishra: This is a complex issue. Of course, a figure like Johann Gottfried von Herder, who Berlin wrote about at length, and who I discuss in my book, also insisted on defining the need for a cultural community and solidarity against a homogenizing cosmopolitan universalism. Some of this can be denounced as nativism, and put down to the ressentiment of a superior elite — in Herder’s case, the Parisian philosophers.
But there is more to it than our liberal sensibilities are prepared to admit. You will remember the controversial speech [French anthropologist Claude] Lévi-Strauss gave on racism at a UNESCO conference in 1971 where he insisted on — let me give the correct quote — “the right of every culture to remain deaf to the values of the Other.” He said bluntly that the project of anti-racism was not going to be advanced by the project of universal integration — quite the contrary. We’ll end up with more rather than less racism. The great value of human and cultural pluralism could only be maintained by an “optimal distance” and separation between cultures. If we accept this, then we have to acknowledge that the kind of cosmopolitanism advanced by a global market contains a devastating contradiction ― by homogenizing societies it works against its own stated goals of universal progress and greater tolerance and democracy. In other words, the cherished ideals of the liberal cosmopolitan elite ― capitalism and democracy and multicultural diversity ― are in opposition to each other.
When you go to countries like Myanmar, which are routinely praised for “opening up” to foreign investors and tourists, you can see this up front: the country’s nascent project of democracy is immediately threatened by not just older ethnic-religious insurgencies but also hyper-individualistic and competitive modes of global capitalism, which undermine old solidarities, communities and networks and unleash new forms of political toxicity.
In a speeded-up version of modern history, ethnic cleansing and refugee camps in Myanmar accompany the earliest stages of democratic representation and capitalistic economic growth rather than following in their wake, or becoming manifest, as they have elsewhere, during a crisis of nation-building. And Buddhist monks cheerlead the ethnic cleansers (making fresh nonsense of the claim that Muslims are predisposed to militant intolerance of the “other”). We will never know, to take a Lévi-Straussian perspective, what other political possibilities—more tolerant of difference ― the country’s Buddhistic ethic might have contained without its contact with the ideologies and values of a homogenizing modernity.
“'The whole regime of consensual truth has collapsed.'”
WorldPost: Across the Western democracies, trust in public institutions and established political parties has all but collapsed because of the inability of governing elites to address popular anxieties and social demands over inequality, immigration, globalization and the upheaval in labor markets caused by the emergent digital economy.
The mainstream media elites have also lost their influence. As our WorldPost/GDI survey of the globally dominant English language web revealed, the passionate political environment of 2016 appears to have marked a tipping point where the influence of peer-driven social media surpassed that of established media platforms. A BuzzFeed study of the role of social media during the U.S. election disturbingly showed that viral fake news outperformed real news on Facebook shares.
The result is that the whole regime of consensual truth has collapsed. The ongoing inability to arrive at a shared worldview or even to agree on basic facts is deadly for the discourse in any democracy. This crisis of social intelligence in which the perception of reality is unmoored from objective observation may now be the greatest challenge to governing our societies.
Do you see it this way? What has it come about? What can be done?
“'Today, the subjectivization of "facts" has dramatically peaked in Europe and America.'”
Mishra: One of the arguments in my book is that the project of modernity—equality, liberty, prosperity ― has been contingent on more and more people believing in certain norms that are defined as “objective.” A few upstart intellectuals in the 18 century formulated these ideals originally with appeals to the prestige of science and reason and a quasi-Christian teleology of progress; they invoked these modern ideals against the entrenched traditional religious and political authorities of their time.
The appeal and legitimacy of their ideas has grown and grown because they promised emancipation to all those either voluntarily moving out of or expelled from traditional modes of life. This is broadly speaking the universal framework of secularization in which political entities like the nation-state, economic processes like industrial capitalism and ideologies like liberalism and socialism have acquired legitimacy as replacements for older forms of political and economic life. People around the world came to uphold an ideal of a sovereign nation-state in which a free media educates and informs people in their duties as citizens and voters.
“'Millions of people seem to have concluded that, as Nietzsche put it, "there are no facts, only interpretations.'"”
More recently, we have believed in the vision of free market capitalism in which a rising tide lifts all boats everywhere, or the benefits of economic growth eventually trickle down to all. But we tend to forget that these “truths” about universal or national progress through democracy, freedom and capitalism have validity only if sufficient people believe in them. In other words, these truths are socially constructed ― “agreed-upon,” as Gore Vidal used to say. Where the media and the politicians suffer a loss of credibility and moral authority, conspiracy theories flourish. Do you remember how these developments used to be blamed on Islam or “failing states” in the days when “fake news” was the preserve of murky Urdu newspapers in Lahore and Islamabad rather than of Silicon Valley’s finest? Today, the subjectivization of “facts” has dramatically peaked in Europe and America.
It started of course a long time ago ― [political philosopher] Hannah Arendt was talking about the toxic consequences of lying in politics decades ago and we saw how the [George W.] Bush administration sneered at the “reality-based community” while going to war in the Middle East with a lot of alternative facts, which the mainstream media helped disseminate. But now the objective truths and universal norms of the interconnected global elites face a very broad and angry challenge because their central promise of general prosperity have been exposed as false and self-serving. Instead of “trickle-down” we have witnessed “gush-up.” So millions of people seem to have concluded that, as Nietzsche put it, “there are no facts, only interpretations.”
“'Nihilism today is the single greatest threat to the modern world since its founding principles of reason, science and progress were formulated.'”
[German philosopher Friedrich] Nietzsche of course used to lament that people in the modern world avoided the consequences of the death of God and the destruction of a whole set of beliefs and norms that shaped human lives for centuries by escaping into pseudo-religions like socialism and liberalism and fantasies of progress. Well, those substitute religions have very few believers today ― first socialism and then liberalism lost its persuasive power, material progress does not seem a possibility even for many people in the West who have enjoyed its benefits for several generations; climate change and scarce resources makes it unachievable for most people in Asia and Africa. The resulting perfect storm of nihilism today is the single greatest threat to the modern world since its founding principles of reason, science and progress were formulated.
We are now recognizing that our modern civilization has always been incredibly fragile, since it has no recourse to any transcendental truth, as distinct from certain agreed-upon truths. And so while political and economic crises may come and go ― Trump’s presidency may implode tomorrow ― the moral and epistemological breakdown we witness today is more enduring and destructive. I would argue that the naïve people, the free-marketeers and globalizers, responsible for this state of affairs did not know what they were doing ― that they were dismantling a whole system of interlocking and necessary fictions that societies and individuals have needed since the death of God to give a degree of meaning, purpose and stability to their lives.
“'Trump’s presidency may implode tomorrow, but the moral and epistemological breakdown is more enduring and destructive.'”
The notion of the “common good” that I grew up with in pseudo-socialist India in the 1970s and 80s was of course another ideological abstraction and fiction dressed up as a truth, but it arguably made for less rage and anxiety than the dominant worldview of recent decades in which “there is no such thing as society” and rationally self-interested individuals compete with each other in a marketplace whose outcome is manifestly more and more inequality.
“'Beijing’s response to the fragmentation of "truth" is to crack down on the internet, the font of alternative facts.'”
It is not an accident that elites that have managed to enforce a degree of consensual truth through a restricted media and indoctrination ― as in Iran and China ― preside over relatively politically stable nation-states. Beijing’s response to the fragmentation of “truth” is to crack down on the internet, the font of alternative facts, and “selfish” individualistic elites, and to refurbish collectivist ideologies of welfarism and nationalism. Is this “China Model” the best way to prevent our societies from collapsing into angry tribalism or civil war? I hope not. I’d like to think that some of our modern ideals of solidarity and collective purposes can to be reimagined and reanimated with the values of trust and compassion. We should at least make the attempt if we wish to escape our nightmare of nihilism.
This piece has been edited and condensed for clarity.