We live in a disorienting world. In West Asia, the Islamic State uses displays of cruelty and religious fanaticism as a propaganda tool. In large swathes of Europe, far right nationalism is rearing its head for the first time since after the defeat of fascism in World War II. The world’s only superpower, meanwhile, has a president elected to office on an explicit programme of racial and religious bigotry, attacking Muslims and non-White Americans in his campaign speeches.
And, of course, closer home in India, the ideology of Hindutva, which considers India to be a “Hindu nation”, grows ever stronger, assaulting Muslims and Dalits in its wake.
In his new book, intellectual Pankaj Mishra tries to explain this fury enveloping the world. Titled Age of Anger: A History of the Present, the work traces traces today’s discontentment to the rapid changes of the 18th century, when modernity was shaped.
You say that the enlightenment gave rise to some “irresistible ideals: a rationalistic, egalitarian and universalising society in which men shaped their own lives”. So why do so many people disagree with the way in which you see the enlightenment? You’ve shown it to be a very positive thing. So how are, say, Islamists looking at it differently? Why do they disagree?
Well, I am not sympathetic to their critique and I am not sure that they’re directly critiquing the Enlightenment rather than the consequences of the kind of thinking introduced by the Enlightenment philosophers in the late 18th century. And let’s be careful here: many of the consequences weren’t anticipated by these philosophers themselves.
What they were talking about was a polity. And for them a polity was the church and then the monarchy. And they thought individuals could use reason since there had been enough scientific breakthroughs, enough revelations about the nature of reality out there. They did not need intermediaries like the church to tell us what to think about the world, what to think about reality. We could use our individual reason to construct our own worlds essentially and shape society. That was the fundamental message they had. They had no idea what would happen in the 19th century.
What happened in the 19th century was something very different: large nation-states came into being, the process of industrialisation started, the use of individual reason expanded, science took off, all kind of new technologies came into being, and large political and economic webs were built.
The Islamist critique of that would be: too much responsibility for shaping the world was placed upon the extremely fallible minds and sensibilities of the human individual. That this was going against centuries of custom, tradition and history. Human beings had always been seen as being very frail and weak creatures who needed some kind of constraint and that was the role of traditional religion.
Religion reminded humans being of the severe limitations that life imposes on everyone. Whereas the promise of freedom and emancipation sets off all kinds of unpredictable processes that result in actually more oppression and more pain.
So that would be or has been the modern critique of the Enlightenment – which is shared by a pretty broad spectrum of people, not just the Islamists. Mahatma Gandhi himself voiced many of these critiques of modern science, modern industry and the modern nation-state. You have to remember that Rabindranath Tagore himself expressed those critiques. So we also have to look at these other critics of Enlightenment rationalism.
You go into some detail in describing Savarkar in the book. In many ways, a very good argument could be made that Savarkar was a rationalist. He said Hindus should eat beef, for example. How does a Savarkar then map to the more modern forms of Indian conservatism? How do you go from Savarkar to the current-day gau rakshak?
I think Savarkar is essentially a child of Enlightenment rationalism despite all the claims made for an unbroken Hindu tradition. The important thing to note about the Savarkar variety of Hindu nationalism is that it is deeply European and deeply modern. Which was one reason why Gandhi was so opposed to it. He said this was the rule of Englishmen with the English in his book Hind Swaraj.
So Savarkar does not partake of a critique of the Enlightenment. He, in fact, in very much a product of 19th century Europe, which advances Enlightenment rationalism in unexpected directions. He starts to think of a national community of like-minded individuals. He starts to think of a past which can be recruited by the present, that can be deployed politically. Savarkar subscribes to everyone of these political tendencies which are elaborated most prominently by [Giuseppe] Mazzini. So he comes out of that particular tradition.
So this whole reverence for figures and symbols from the past which the gau rakshak seems to manifest is a total 19th century fantasy. People did not think of the past in that way before that century. The past was very deliberately enlisted into a nationalist project. Every nationalist – and I write this in the book – had made some sort of a claim upon the past, made some sort of connection.
We are now looking at history as a series of ruptures and new beginnings. In Savarkar’s case, the rupture would be the Muslim invasion of India. That’s also the case for [VS] Naipaul. That was the big rupture that violates the wholeness of the Hindu past. And now we are invested in a new beginning, which is the revival of Hindu glory.
This whole way of looking at time, of looking at human agency and identity is a product of the European 19th century. And that’s where Savarkar should be placed. I think we spend too much time comparing him to the Germans and the Italians of the 1930s. I think we should go back and look at the 19th century more closely. And also look at Savarkar – which I’ve done in the book – together with various other tendencies such as Zionism.
But it’s not only Savarkar who’s doing this, right? There’s a whole galaxy of Indian leaders, right from Nehru to Jinnah, taking off from the Enlightenment. In your book, you quote Dostoyevsky, who underlined a tragic dilemma: of a society that assimilates European ways through every pore only to realise it could never be truly European. Is there anything that can be done to break this dilemma?
The short answer would be a pessimistic one: that there is no way to break this. Because once we make that original break from pre-modern/rural/traditional society, break away from belief in god, from belief in a horizon that was defined by transcendental authorities, once you stop living in that world, then you are condemned to finding substitute gods. And the national community and the nation state has been that substitute god or transcendental authority for hundreds and millions of people for the last two hundred years.
And one reason it endures – even though in many ways the nation state has lost its sovereign power after being undermined by globalisation – is that as an emotional and psychological symbol, and as a way to define the transcendental horizon, the nation state is still unbeatable. So once we make that basic move away from the pre-modern modes of life into this modern, industrialised, urbanised mode of existence, we have basically embarked on a journey where there’s no turning back. There’s no breaking out of that.
Where do you situate Modi on this scale?
I think Modi is an interesting case. He’s not only someone who incarnates the tendencies that we identify with Savarkar – who is a model for Modi – but also mirrors many contemporary tendencies which one can identify with a sort of aspirational neoliberalism. The man from nowhere who makes it big: that’s the story that Modi has tried to sell about himself. That he’s the son of a chaiwallah who has overcome all kinds of adversity including violent, vicious attacks from the country’s English-speaking elites who wanted to bring him down but failed. And he has overcome all these challenges to become who he is. And he invites his followers to do the same.
So, in that sense, he not only is a Hindu nationalist in the old manner of thinking of India as primarily a country of Hindus and as a community of Hindus which needs to define itself very carefully by excluding various foreigners, but also someone who is in tune with the ideological trends of the last 30 years, which place a lot of premium on individual ambition and empowerment, not just collective endeavour. So he is a very curious and irresistible mix, as it turns out, of certain collectivist notions of salvation with a kind of intensified individualism.
You used a very interesting phrase there: “aspirational neoliberalism”. In the book, you use another term, “neoliberal individualism”. In my opinion, you take a negative opinion of this sort of individualism. Could you tell us what “neoliberal individualism” is, how is it different from, say, Enlightenment individualism and why are you taking a negative view of it.
Individualism really is synonymous with modernity, which is all about individual autonomy and reason. The most important difference is that the previous forms of individualism had certain constraining factors. There would be religion, the nation state, the larger collective.
When [Alexis de] Tocqueville goes to America and begins to describe individualism at work in the world’s first democratic society, he is aware that all of this is made possible because religion is a very important factor. There are many intermediate institutions there to mediate between individuals and the larger reality of society. So these factors were extremely important for individualism to actually work properly.
What neoliberal individualism proposes, though, is essentially that we don’t actually need these intermediaries. It buys into a kind of extreme libertarian fantasy of the kind we see people like Peter Theil [co-founder of PayPal and vocal Trump supporter] expressing. They’re saying, “we don’t need government”, “we don’t need collective endeavour of any kind”, “we don’t really need notions of collective welfare, general welfare or common good”.
They believe individuals pursuing their self-interest can create a common good. And the marketplace would be where these individual desires and needs could be miraculously harmonised. So it’s a kind of mysticism, really, neoliberal individualism. It basically argues that we don’t need any constraining factors. We do not need any intermediate institutions of the kind Tocqueville argued for in America. Neoliberal individualism says, all we really need is individual initiative, individual energy, individual dynamism and, of course, individual aspiration. So this is how neoliberal individualism is different from previous forms of individualism.
It is interesting that you mention Peter Theil, a major supporter of Trump. Is neoliberal individualism then powering Trump?
Well, no. That’s the thing. There are many contradictory elements in this mix. To go back to Modi, he comes from a party which has as part of its extended family the Swadeshi Jagran Manch. The Manch believes in Swadeshi but Modi wants to attract foreign investment.
I think we have to start thinking of a world where archaisms, modernity, post-modernity all exist simultaneously yet differently. You can think of it as different territories. Trump can therefore mobilise a whole lot of disaffected individuals who have believed in the neoliberal ideology and have felt themselves victimised by various technocratic elites and attract a figure like Theil, who claims to be a libertarian, and at the same believe that economic protectionism is the way to go.
I think there are many different contradictory tendencies that have come together to produce events or personalities like Donald Trump and Modi. I think if we were to follow this old analytic method of either/or we would miss many of these contradictory aspects of modern politics and economics. In the same way, Erdoğan mixed in neoliberalism with Islamism and Putin mixed in Orthodox Christianity with Russian Eurasianism. There are all kinds of mixtures on offer.
The central argument being that they correspond to the acute, inner divisions of human beings. Of people wanting individual power, expansion and at the same time wanting identity, longing and a sense of community. So this is, in a way, a little snapshot of where we are – a kind of endless transition.
Age of Anger: A History of the Present, Pankaj Mishra, Juggernaut Books.