IS THERE A link between the rise of Trump (“making America great again”), Brexit (“taking back control”), the resurgence of the European right wing…and ISIS? Two recently published books suggest perspectives from which to view and understand these world-defining trends…this new populist zeitgeist. American intellectual Mark Lilla (“The Shipwrecked Mind”) and Anglo-Indian scholar Pankash Mishra (“The Age of Anger”) both seek to offer up interesting – and interlinked – frameworks that chart the arc of history that have led us to where we are now. Lilla examines the phenomenon from the perspective of the thinkers who underpin the intellectual framework of these new nativist Right Wing movements; while Mishra’s approach examines the mindset of the people…from the enfranchised, disenchanted public who voted against the status quo (of Clinton and Cameron) to the disenfranchised youth radicalized by millennial dreams of the Caliphate.
Lilla’s proposal is that what we’re experiencing by the tactics of these newly popular autocrats is a rise not in conservatism, but in reactionary aggression (“Reactionaries are not conservatives”, he writes. “Millennial expectations of a redemptive new social order and rejuvenated human beings inspire the revolutionary; apocalyptic fears of entering a new dark age haunt the reactionary”. Or to put it another way; it’s a comparison between Obama’s Hope and Merkel’s EU visions for that “redemptive new order” v Trump’s and Le Pen’s followers’ apocalyptic fears of Mexicans, Muslims, and the jihadist Barbarians at the gate).
What with these reactionary fears of “the other” leading to an acceptable demonization of multiple religions and peoples, what with its open racism, xenophobia and social media-fuelled misogyny, we’re living, Mishra concludes, in an age of anger. His interpretation identifies what, quoting Nietzsche, he calls ressentiment (the wild anger arising from feelings of humiliation, powerlessness and invisibility).
The world we live in is one of fear and panic, where anything can happen to anyone, anywhere anytime; add climate change to this, and this age of anger is being lived out in a world which, to many, is spinning out of control.
Reactionary leaders feed off their publics’ ressentiments in a world these publics no longer understand.
Lilla explains the underlying narrative to the reactionary world-view: There was once a pre-lapsarian well-ordered state, when a clear moral imperative and a sense or hierarchical order existed. All then was bliss. Alien ideas (say the acceptability of homosexuality or interracial marriage) were introduced by intellectuals, artists and writers (always the first group to be demonized…think of Trump’s recent tweet about Meryl Streep and his virulent opposition to the media). What followed was the abandonment of the status quo by the elites (the second group to be demonized). These new liberal ideas led to a false consciousness (such as the acceptance of “diversity” as the norm, the demands of gender equality, or for the French alt-right, banning smoking and accepting halal in schools etc.), and the imminent collapse of social cohesion. Only those with the preserved memories of the old (It’s no coincidence that the Tea Party fanatics frame their cult around an historical event) can provide the appropriate resistance or the reactionary energy necessary to regain and rebuild the society as it once was…whether this be an all White America of white picket fences where women (“pampered by modern ideas” as Nietzsche wrote) and Blacks knew their places and America was great, or a Britain still emboldened by a memory of the Empire and a sense of its imperial role in the world, when it had control; or an ideal of an Islamic Caliphate when the destruction of the Crusades can simply be imagined away.
For these thinkers, the present, not the past is a foreign country.
The deepest need (the revolutionary nostalgia) is to shake us from the stupor of our despair and take revenge on the beast that sundered this glorious past from our inglorious present. To do that, we can either build a new future, as Hitler sought to do (you’ll note the strong emotional empathy of so many of the Far Right with Hitler and Nazi glories) or return more directly to the past (as, say the American Cubans’ ideal of a Miami without Castro, or Putin’s desire to resurrect the USSR, or Hinduism’s need through Modi to rediscover its lost glories or, as one journalist wrote recently, British PM Theresa May’s mission to build a bridge to a better yesterday).
This “militant nostalgia” is a force more powerful than hope: “Hopes can be disappointed. Nostalgia is irrefutable”
(And the nostalgia can certainly be evidenced in the UK where, it seems, whole segments of pop –TV-culture, from “Endeavour”, a 50’s police drama, to the multiple war-themed shows, are dedicated to reminding audiences of the time “when we were great”).
For Mishra, this paradise lost was no mere mythic place. The traditional ties of the past, the well honed structures of church, family and community with “…their assurances about a person’s self-worth and identity” (de Tocqueville) or what Rousseau saw as the “restraining traditions of a virtuous society” were shock absorbers that protected the individual in the face of wars, hunger, poverty etc. These traditional bonds gave meaning to life…engendered strong social ties and the self-worth of being part of a greater whole
In their drive to regain this lost collective sense of order and moral clarity, the reactionaries co-opted the ideas of a number of –often quite obscure – thinkers to legitimize their tactics. One of these was Eric Vogelin, a prolific Austrian scholar in the 40’s/50’s who, in a pamphlet called “The Political Religions” blamed the modern secular West for the rise of Nazism.
Vogelin noted that post-Augustinian Christianity (St Augustine’s “City of God” – his philosophical interpretation of Christ’s “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; render unto God the things that are God’s” – became the foundation stone of Catholic thinking) made it the first religion to separate divinity from governance…revelation from reason. This meant that man could govern himself, run his own affairs, liberated from the word of God. In Vogelin’s words, Christianity “decapitated God”. Thus liberated from God, as reason increasingly held sway over revelation (from the Reformation and the Enlightenment on), man began to conceive of himself in divine terms…as a Prometheus capable of anything. Mikhail Bakunin, the Russian anarchist noted, “The awakened intellect, freed from the swaddling clothes of authority, was no longer willing to accept anything on faith…”. Voltaire sought to crush that ‘infamous thing’ (the Catholic chirch). God, Vogelin noted was replaced by the new political religions of Marxism, Fascism, Capitalism, nationalism etc. “When you abandon the Lord, it’s only a matter of time before you start worshipping a Furhrer” [or Trump or Putin for that matter]
Lilla points out that another thinker, Leo Strauss, a student of Martin Heidegger, was also a key person whose writings shaped the thinking of many of today’s Right wing think tanks and media foundations. Strauss’ views of history were co-opted by them to show that America had been slipping into nihilism since the 1960’s; and that there was the need for the collusion between right-wing populism and religious fundamentalism (the desired reunision between reason and revelation…or the birth of the theoconservative) to help the nation recover its basic sense of right and wrong.
Because (the thinking is) the demonstrable fuzziness between right and wrong in this modern, lapsed world has resulted in what the polemicist Brad Gregory (“The Unintended Reformation”) calls the advent of Wal-Mart Capitalism: ideological correctness and cultural relativism. The historical paradigm he mapped out suggests that the fundamental goodness and sacraments of the church (the foundation of ancient shared values and ambitions) were corrupted – historically- by the excesses of the church itself, resulting in Luther’s conservative rebellion. But this rebellion itself got out of hand by groups of “spiritual Jacobins” (or simply intellectuals and artists…Mishra also notes that “intellectuals and artists rose as a class for the first time to lend a hand in the making of history, and locate the meaning of life in politics and art rather than traditional religion”) and resulted in a kind of corrosive pluralism, where, without a clear set of moral and theological doctrines, any and everyone felt that they could become their own St Paul (and just how many sects and churches are there now in the US?).
The conflicts that naturally arose from this chaos, along with what Gregory calls the “ossification of Catholic dogma” resulted in the institutionalization of toleration as the highest moral virtue…leaving “the rest of us to sink ever deeper into the confusing, unsatisfying, hyper-pluralistic, consumer-driven, dogmatically relativistic world of today”. A “today” when everything is relative: you may or may not accept homosexuality as ‘deviant’; you may or may not accept the need for gender and racial equality…you may or may not accept the ethics of abortion…morality becomes fluid and plural.
This mythos of the earthly God-fearing paradise leading to its fall and corruption through alien ideas and leading to the need to steer away from moral relativism and regain the paradise led by the righteous few (Remember George W Bush and his messianic leanings?) is mirrored in fundamentalist Islam.
Before the days of the prophet, it is suggested, there was an age of ignorance and pagan immorality (jahiliyya). Mohammed, the vessel of God’s revelation, led to the formation of a new society based on divine law (no separation between revelation and reason here). But success led to luxury, decadence and stagnation; and the will to impose God’s sovereignty died. The crusades only added insult to injury, forcing increasing secularism and a new jahiliyya. The aim of the new jihadists is the defeat jahiliyya and the regaining of the purity of Mohammed…the new caliphate. Inshallah.
As we noted, Mishra’s emphasis is less on the intellectual framework that describes our age of anger, but on the events that led to this angst…from the ordinary unemployed youth who feels that his only hope is to take up arms in Syria to the underemployed white American who feels bypassed by generations of self serving politicians and who turns in desperation to a racist demagogue for help.
At the heart of this rise in anger, the ressentiment is a relatively modern phenomenon: the evolutional of the person as an individual. Mishra notes that there has been a massive shift worldwide: people see themselves in public life primarily as individuals, freed from the old hierarchies of class and caste (and gender and race), longing for wealth, status and empowerment. The desire for self-expansion via material success, he suggests, directly replaces spiritual ideas of traditional religions and cultures; with (as a result) a heightened sense of social discrimination and gender inequality. To this you can probably add Lilla’s insight into “plural moralities”, effectively alienating the modern individual from those cushioning cultural anchors.
The problem is that growing inequality – the unequal distribution of wealth and power – political dysfunction and for many, economic stagnation (with the realization that there really is no better tomorrow) has created what Hannah Arendt calls “negative solidarity”. The promise of individual freedom therefore remains a promise that will forever be unfulfilled, resulting in “an existential resentment of other people’s being”…an intense mix of envy, humiliation and powerlessness (the recipe for ressentment).
The only out, the only catharsis for the anger lies either in fantasies of revenge (the proto jihadist) or, and here he quotes both de Tocqueville, “…a desperate longing for a master” and Max Weber “…the modern world is an iron cage from which only a charismatic leader [Trump, Putin. Ben Laden, Modi, le Pen etc] offers escape”
Lilla’s book is a far more balanced, academic study of these philosophical strands that web and suffocate the modern far right thinking; Mishra’s book, though endlessly interesting, menders here and there with the often glib flabbiness of a pop journalist. The focus of neither of them replaces the endless navel gazing into the immediacy of “what happened in the election?, the role of fake news, the reasons for the failure of globalism etc. But their value lie in the broad historical perspectives they offer; that endless savannah of philosophical insights that underline so much of the gestalt of our lives