On June 18, Donald Trump initiated his reelection campaign in Orlando, Florida. His rambling speech was typical of this creepy commander in chief with name-calling, half-truths and bloviation. He even promised a cure for cancer if reelected. Thousands in the Amway Center exemplified his base of obsequious supporters loving every fulsome minute of Trump. Out of ignorance or mean-spiritedness, his minions are ever enthralled by his childish antics, outbursts and unpredictability.
Trump owes his lofty placement to an effete Electoral College. However, economist Thomas Piketty stated Trump’s 2016 victory was “primarily due to the explosion in economic and geographic inequality in the United States.” Although his raucous devotees are a perpetually contentious and benighted herd representing a minority — albeit a substantial portion — of the electorate Trump could still prove triumphant in 2020. Which is a most disconcerting thought in this jittery time of climate change and tensions spanning the planet.
In his riveting “Age of Anger,” author Pankaj Mishra — who was born in India and considers himself “a stepchild of the West” — portrays the Trump phenomenon as the American expression of a profusion of discontent and violence engulfing much of the globe. He writes: “After a long uneasy equipoise since 1945, the old West-dominated world order is giving way to an apparent global disorder.” Mishra speaks throughout his penetrating work of “ressentiment” a term first used with exactitude by existentialist Soren Kierkegaard in 1846 “to note that the nineteenth century was marked by a particular kind of envy, which is incited when people consider themselves as equals yet seek advantage over each other.” Individuals and groups left out of modern social and economic advancement can seethe with anger and humiliation, resenting deeply those with advantages while at the same time desiring to emulate them. Such is the case Mishra argues throughout much of our contemporary world.
And so it has been since the Enlightenment when new discoveries in science and technology began to transform parts of the West. Later industrialism lured many from the countryside into teeming cities. Large numbers of people found themselves crammed into fetid spaces. Extremes of poverty, disease and multifold instances of urban distress abounded. While multitudes suffered, some benefitted, grew rich and apart from the masses. The French Revolution was one glaring reaction. Other revolutions would follow. In the course of the 19th century multiple societies found themselves playing catch-up with Western modernization, thus precipitating disruption and alienation.
Mishra was moved to embark on his book after his reading of Friedrich Nietzsche’s commentary on Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The intense contest between the two French 18th century luminaries is an epitome of a contention that persists today. Voltaire celebrated power, hierarchy and commercialism. He endorsed forcing peoples considered uncouth and barbarous into his version of civilization at the point of a bayonet. Those noncompliant should be exterminated. He courted the opulent and powerful, always feeling his own resentment that he had not been born into royalty.
Enter plebian Rousseau who was “the first outraged diagnostician of commercial society and of the wounds inflicted on human souls by the task of adjusting to its mimetic rivalries and tensions.” He was vociferous in his critique of harsh impacts the new order imposed on those marginalized by shifting economic and social forces. Rousseau is “eerily resonant” today. He portrayed “the uprooted outsider in the commercial metropolis, aspiring for a place in it, and struggling with complex feelings of envy, fascination, revulsion and rejection.” His was a lone voice decrying the underside of the Enlightenment and its capacity to cause rootlessness and rage.
Filled with learned historical and economic observations, Mishra’s book also illuminates the anarchist legacy. The irrepressible Russian Mikhail Bakunin steps into the limelight. Referred to by Mishra as a “homeless revolutionary,” Bakunin personified the frustration and desperation of young intellectuals and revolutionaries who found no way forward save complete destruction of old regimes. The first person to refer to himself as an anarchist — Pierre-Joseph Proudhon — envisioned a rural utopian community as the optimum arrangement for human society structured around simple living and sharing. Aside from his ceaseless criticism of societal disparities and top-down power, Bakunin and his disciples felt that the inequities overseen by the power of states, their military and police, must be expunged first before any kind of humane and just alternative could arise.
Bakunin’s restive and fluid philosophy earned him the abiding scorn of his philosophical opponent Karl Marx. Yet in the latter part of the 19th century violent anarchist activity “sprang up all over Europe and even America.” In 1901, one such anarchist assassinated U.S. President William McKinley. Bakunin was prescient. Mishra claims he “foresaw significantly large parts of the world — our world — where the ideologies of socialism, liberal democracy and nation-building would lose their coherence and appeal, giving way to mobile and dispersed political actors creating violent spectacles on a global stage.”
Presently a number of populous countries are led by individuals disposed to authoritarianism: Vladimir Putin in Russia, Kim Jung-un in North Korea, Recep Erdogan in Turkey, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. The recent landslide reelection of India’s Narendra Modi gives one pause. An unrepentant Hindu nationalist, Modi is well known for his animosity toward Muslims within his country. He venerates the memory of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar who was Mahatma Gandhi’s lifelong antagonist. “As distinct from Savarkar’s duty, which was to kill for one’s religious community, Gandhi wrote of the necessity of a non-violent social order.” It was one of Savarkar’s followers who assassinated Gandhi. In the late 1960s after Savarkar’s death, it would be revealed that he had conspired in Gandhi’s murder.
In the current shaky juggernaut of domestic and international politics demagogues “promise security in a radically insecure world,” Mishra writes. An apocalyptic mood seeps into many corners of society. A beneficent transformation derivative of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. would be a benign antidote to the reckless atmosphere stoked by men — mostly men — intoxicated by power, a cramped sense of history and pinched doctrines of bigotry and exclusion. At the time of his execution, MLK was organizing the Poor People’s Campaign, which he hoped would coerce the U.S. government into addressing rampant poverty and injustice. Now, a New Poor People’s Campaign is trying to gain purchase in our land to confront the yawning chasm that exists between the super-rich few and so many other Americans of all ethnicities. A time of tumult indeed.
Do read the work of Pankaj Mishra.
Read the full July 10 - 16 issue.
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