Calculus of self-interest, Disputable causes of the global disorder, Donald Trump, Economic and geographic inequality, Greater precision in matters of the soul, Human Rights and Human Dignity, Landmarks in ruins, Liberal scraps of an unfounded faith, Political Earthquake, Religion of technology, The Age of Anger, The collapse of liberal values, The insurgencies of our time, What does freedom mean in an angry world?
The seismic events of 2016 have revealed a world in chaos – and one that old ideas of liberal rationalism can no longer explain.
Thus Pankaj Mishra of the Guardian welcomes us to the age of anger:
“The election of Donald Trump as president of the United States is the biggest political earthquake of our times, and its reverberations are inescapably global. It has fully revealed an enormous pent-up anger – which had first become visible in the mass acclaim in Russia and Turkey for pitiless despots and the electoral triumph of bloody strongmen in India and the Philippines.
The insurgencies of our time, including Brexit and the rise of the European far right, have many local causes – but it is not an accident that demagoguery appears to be rising around the world. Savage violence has erupted in recent years across a broad swath of territory: wars in Ukraine and the Middle East, insurgencies from Yemen to Thailand, terrorism and counter-terrorism, economic and cyberwar. The conflicts, not confined to fixed battlefields, feel endemic and uncontrollable. Hate-mongering against immigrants and minorities has gone mainstream; figures foaming at the mouth with loathing and malice are ubiquitous on old and new media alike.
There is much dispute about the causes of this global disorder. Many observers have characterised it as a backlash against an out-of-touch establishment, explaining Trump’s victory – in the words of Thomas Piketty – as “primarily due to the explosion in economic and geographic inequality in the United States”. Liberals tend to blame the racial resentments of poor white Americans, which were apparently aggravated during Barack Obama’s tenure. But many rich men and women – and even a small number of African-Americans and Latinos – also voted for a compulsive groper and white supremacist.
The Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman admitted on the night of Trump’s victory that “people like me – and probably like most readers of the New York Times – truly didn’t understand the country we live in”. Since the twin shocks of Brexit and the US election, we have argued ineffectually about their causes, while watching aghast as the new representatives of the downtrodden and the “left-behind” – Trump and Nigel Farage, posing in a gold-plated lift – strut across a bewilderingly expanded theatre of political absurdism.”
The theatre of political absurdism
With Martin Luther King Jr. Day looking over our shoulder, the world waits on the 58th Presidential Inauguration when Donald J. Trump becomes “leader of the free world” (sic), suddenly we wonder what freedom means in an age of anger.
“But we cannot understand this crisis,” insists Krugman, “because our dominant intellectual concepts and categories seem unable to process an explosion of uncontrolled forces.”
When paradigms, such as the dominant intellectual concepts of the day (dogmas), fail to process the explosion of uncontrolled forces, it’s time to change one’s paradigm.
“In the hopeful years that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the universal triumph of liberal capitalism and democracy seemed assured; free markets and human rights would spread around the world and lift billions from poverty and oppression. In many ways, this dream has come true: we live in a vast, homogenous global market, which is more literate, interconnected and prosperous than at any other time in history.
And yet we find ourselves in an age of anger, with authoritarian leaders manipulating the cynicism and discontent of furious majorities. What used to be called “Muslim rage”, and identified with mobs of brown-skinned men with bushy beards, is suddenly manifest globally, among saffron-robed Buddhist ethnic-cleansers in Myanmar, as well as blond white nationalists in Germany. Violent hate crimes have blighted even the oldest of parliamentary democracies, with the murder of the MP Jo Cox by a British neo-Nazi during the venomous campaign for Brexit. Suddenly, as the liberal thinker Michael Ignatieff recently wrote: “Enlightenment humanism and rationalism” can no longer adequately “explain the world we’re living in.”
I would go further than Ignatieff:
Enlightenment humanism and rationalism have never been able and will never be able to adequately explain the world we’re living in.
Mishra traces the philosophical roots of enlightenment humanism:
“… during the Enlightenment… leading thinkers, despising tradition and religion, sought to replace them with the human capacity to rationally identify individual and collective interests. The dream of the late 18th century, to rebuild the world along secular and rational lines, was further elaborated in the 19th century by the utilitarian theorists of the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people – and this notion of progress was embraced by socialists and capitalists alike.
After the collapse of the socialist alternative in 1989, this utopian vision took the form of a global market economy dedicated to endless growth and consumption – to which there would be no alternative. According to this worldview, the dominance of which is now nearly absolute, the human norm is Homo economicus, a calculating subject whose natural desires and instincts are shaped by their ultimate motivation: to pursue happiness and avoid pain.”
Simplistic views neglect reality:
Mishra suggest this simple view always neglected many factors ever-present in human lives:
“The fear, for instance, of losing honour, dignity and status, the distrust of change, the appeal of stability and familiarity. There was no place in it for more complex drives: vanity, fear of appearing vulnerable, the need to save face. Obsessed with material progress, the hyperrationalists ignored the lure of resentment for the left-behind, and the tenacious pleasures of victimhood…
What Robert Musil called the “liberal scraps of an unfounded faith in reason and progress” have yet again failed modern human beings in their all-important task of understanding their experience. We once more confront the possibility, outlined in Musil’s great novel about the collapse of liberal values, The Man Without Qualities, that the characteristic desolation of the modern human being – his “immense loneliness in a desert of detail, his restlessness, malice, incomparable callousness, his greed for money, his coldness and violence’ – is “the result of the losses that logically precise thinking has inflicted on the soul”.
For nearly three decades, the religion of technology and GDP and the crude 19th-century calculus of self-interest have dominated politics and intellectual life. Today, the society of entrepreneurial individuals competing in the rational market reveals unplumbed depths of misery and despair; it spawns a nihilistic rebellion against order itself.
With so many of our landmarks in ruins, we can barely see where we are headed, let alone chart a path. But even to get our basic bearings we need, above all, greater precision in matters of the soul. The stunning events of our age of anger, and our perplexity before them, make it imperative that we anchor thought in the sphere of emotions; these upheavals demand nothing less than a radically enlarged understanding of what it means for human beings to pursue the contradictory ideals of freedom, equality and prosperity.
Otherwise, in our sterile infatuation with rational motivations and outcomes, we risk resembling those helpless navigators who, De Tocqueville wrote, “stare obstinately at some ruins that can still be seen on the shore we have left, even as the current pulls us along and drags us backward toward the abyss”.
[For the entire article by Pankaj Mishra go to “Welcome to the age of anger.”]
This is more enigma than the dogma of modernity’s neoliberalism can bear. How timely now is the invitation to a “greater precision in matters of the soul.”
Bravo. Great piece of writing here Rusty.
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R.H. (Rusty) Foerger said:
Thanks for the encouragement (but credit should go to Pankaj Mishra whom I quote extensively). I am aware this is more reading than many would like, but the topic feels so urgent. Hoping you will finish your own writing hiatus soon?
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eliza rudolf said:
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