2. Clearing a Space: History’s Winners and Their Illusions

My times – my wild beast,

Who will dare to look into your eyes

And to weld with his blood

The severed vertebrae of two centuries?

But your spine has been smashed forever,

My beautiful, pitiful age,

And grimacing dumbly

You now look back, feebly,

A beast once supple and lithe,

At the tracks left by your paws.

Osip Mandelstam, ‘My Age, My Beast’ (1918)

Our Way on the Highway of Progress

In 1992, a year after the Soviet Union imploded, The Economist editorialized ‘that there was no serious alternative to free-market capitalism as the way to organize economic life’. Today, however, the early post-Cold War consensus – that a global capitalist economy would alleviate ethnic and religious differences and usher in worldwide prosperity and peace – lies in tatters. The era of ‘free-market triumphalism’, The Economist now admits, ‘has come to a juddering halt’. But no plausible alternatives of political and economic organization are in sight.

Routine massacres in Western metropolises accompany spiralling wars in Asia and Africa, and civil liberties are consumed by perpetual warfare against real and imagined enemies. In the face of unintelligible disasters, feelings and hunches seem more reliable – the suspicion, for instance, that things cannot go on this way, and that old practices and institutions are failing to conform to new realities.

The first step in understanding them is to dismantle the conceptual and intellectual architecture of history’s winners in the West: the simple-minded and dangerously misleading ideas and assumptions, drawn from a triumphalist history of Anglo-American achievements that has long shaped the speeches of statesmen, think-tank reports, technocratic surveys, newspaper editorials, while supplying fuel to countless columnists, TV pundits and so-called terrorism experts.

At the height of the Cold War, the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr mocked such ‘bland fanatics of Western civilization’, ‘who regard the highly contingent achievements of our culture as the final form and norm of human existence’. Embedded in the West’s major institutions for over half a century, the bland fanatics have held fast to a fundamentalist creed, obscuring our view of a complex changing world: the belief that Anglo-American institutions of the nation state and liberal democracy will be gradually generalized around the world; the aspiring middle classes created by industrial capitalism will bring about accountable, representative and stable governments; religion would give way to secularism; rational human beings would defeat the forces of irrationalism – that every society, in short, is destined to evolve just as a handful of countries in the West sometimes did.

This religion of universal progress has had many presumptive popes and encyclicals: from the nineteenth-century dream championed by The Economist, in which capital, goods, jobs and people freely circulate, to Henry Luce’s proclamation of an ‘American century’ of free trade, and ‘Modernization Theory’, which proclaimed a ‘great world revolution in human aspirations and economic development’.

Writing soon after 9/11, Francis Fukuyama seemed more convinced than ever that ‘modernity is a very powerful freight train that will not be derailed by recent events, however painful and unprecedented. Democracy and free markets will continue to expand over time as the dominant organizing principles for much of the world.’ As late as 2008, Fareed Zakaria could declare in his much-cited book, The Post-American World, that ‘the rise of the rest is a consequence of American ideas and actions’ and that ‘the world is going America’s way’, with countries ‘becoming more open, market-friendly and democratic’, their numerous poor ‘slowly being absorbed into productive and growing economies’.

Such beliefs in historical inevitability, however, can no longer be sustained. Nor can the selective histories they were based on. The extraordinary hegemonic power of naive ideas helped them escape rigorous examination when the world could still be plausibly presented as going America’s way, and modernity’s freight train appeared to be unloading its goodies in the remotest corners of the globe.

A long economic crisis followed by the nihilistic violence of ISIS, the implosion of nation states in North Africa and the Middle East, the rise of far-right movements at home, igniting such disasters as Trump’s victory, have now plunged political and media elites in the West into stunned bewilderment. The op-ed pages of Anglo-American newspapers on any given day are still awash with clichés about the waning of Western power/will and the urgent need to reassert it. Nevertheless, we are now entering an era of frank admissions and blunt reckonings. For it is blindingly clear that ‘so far, the twenty-first century has been a rotten one for the Western model’, as even John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, editors at The Economist, have written.

*   *   *

Unable to discern a rational design in worldwide mayhem, many intellectuals seem as lost as politicians today, their concepts and categories sounding more and more like ineffectual jargon. ‘Whatever our politics,’ Michael Ignatieff, a self-described ‘liberal internationalist’, confesses in a recent article on the Marxist thinker Perry Anderson, ‘we all stand in need of a historical vision that believes there is a deep logic to the unfolding of time’. For the bearers of ‘Enlightenment humanism and rationalism’, liberal or Marxist, can’t ‘explain the world we’re living in’.

As Ignatieff coyly admits, the liberal internationalist cult of progress plainly mimicked the Marxist dream of universal revolution. The origins of both Comintern and its ‘Liberal-Intern’ lay in the original eighteenth-century fantasy of a rationally organized and logically ordered world: the expectation that reason would replace tradition and drift as the determining element in history.

Very little in Europe’s own intellectual and political history actually supported the assumption that the Atlantic West’s liberal institutions would spread eastwards. It was in fact vigorously contested throughout the nineteenth century by writers of many different ideological commitments: for example, Walter Bagehot, editor of The Economist, as well as the Russian thinker Alexander Herzen. Liberal democracy could not even be lodged securely in the continent’s own soil: not even the West was ‘Western’ for a long time.

War, conspiracy, mob violence, repression and authoritarian rule defined the first six decades in Europe after the Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789). Writing after the failure of the 1848 revolutions, Herzen was convinced that Western European dominance, arrived at after much fratricidal violence and underpinned by much intellectual deception and self-deception, did not amount to ‘progress’. He warned his compatriots that ‘our classic ignorance of the Western European will be productive of a great deal of harm; racial hatred and bloody collisions will develop from it.’ The brutality that Herzen saw as underpinning Europe’s progress turned out, in the twentieth century, to be a mere prelude to the biggest bloodbath in history: two world wars, and ferocious ethnic cleansing that claimed tens of millions of victims.

*   *   *

In her 1950 preface to The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt admitted that not only was it futile to hope ‘for an eventual restoration of the old world order with all its traditions, or for the reintegration of the masses of five continents who have been thrown into a chaos produced by the violence of wars and revolutions and the growing decay of all that has still been spared’. We were actually condemned to ‘watch the development of the same phenomena – homelessness on an unprecedented scale, rootlessness to an unprecedented depth’.

The ‘Western model’, however, offered a story of painless improvement. Generations to come may wonder how a mode of wish-fulfilment came to be conventional wisdom; how an ingenuous nineteenth-century philosophy, which posited universal patterns and an overarching purpose in history, managed to seduce so many intelligent people in the twenty-first century. It won’t be possible to understand its appeal without examining the post-1945 climate of ideas in the United States.

For in Europe, the nineteenth-century’s certainties – primary among them Western universalism, the old Jewish-Christian claim to be able to create a life of universal validity now transposed into secular millenarianism – had been undermined by historical calamities. The First World War exposed liberal democracy as fragile; the Great Depression revealed the costs of unregulated capitalism. The Second World War dealt a serious blow to Britain’s capacity to export or implant its institutions. But, in a strange twist of history, the fantasy of disseminating Anglo-American ideals and institutions worldwide was revived after 1945 and made central to political and economic thinking by Britain’s successor, the United States.

*   *   *

The United States, the Spanish-American writer George Santayana wrote, ‘has always thought itself in an eminent sense the land of freedom, even when it was covered with slaves’. Santayana had watched from his perch at Harvard University as commerce, industrialization and imperialism turned post-Civil War America into a powerful country, and the drearily respectable Yankee found himself replaced by the ‘pushing, cosmopolitan orphan’ with dreams of universal Americanization. He was disturbed by America’s aggressive new individualistic culture, in which human beings suddenly seemed to have no higher aim in life than diligent imitation of the rich, and leaders in higher education as well as business, politics and the press were judged by their ability to make that opportunity widely available.

In Santayana’s view, most human beings, temperamentally unfit to run the race for wealth, suffered from impotent resentment, and even the few successful rich did not enjoy ‘moral security’ and ‘a happy freedom’. He left the United States for Europe in 1912, having concluded that ‘there is no country in which people live under more overpowering compulsions’. For the next four decades he continued to amplify his warnings that the worldwide dissemination of an individualist culture of competition and mimicry would eventually incite a ‘lava-wave of primitive blindness and violence’.

But the United States enjoyed an extraordinary growth in military and economic power as the lava waves of two world wars levelled much of Europe and Asia in the first half of the twentieth century. National expansion at a time of worldwide trauma and mayhem helped resurrect Europe’s otherwise discredited universalist philosophies of history and progress. Santayana died a forgotten figure in Rome in 1952, just as the cosmopolitan orphans embarked on an ambitious attempt to seduce postcolonial Asia, Africa and Latin America away from communist-style revolution and into the gradualist alternative of consumer capitalism and democracy.

Modernization, mostly along capitalist lines, became the universalist creed that glorified the autonomous rights-bearing individual and hailed his rational choice-making capacity as freedom. Economic growth was posited as the end-all of political life and the chief marker of progress worldwide, not to mention the gateway to happiness. Communism was totalitarian. Ergo its ideological opponent, American liberalism, represented freedom, which in turn was best advanced by moneymaking.

It was also during the Cold War that many Anglo-American writers began to absurdly prettify – on an industrial scale – the rise of the ‘democratic West’. The diversity and contradictions of the Enlightenment were squeezed out in its standard liberal version – for instance, in Peter Gay’s commercially successful two-volume history in the 1950s – that presented it as a unified project of individual emancipation, inaugurating the necessary and inevitable passage of humankind from tradition to modernity, immaturity to adulthood. (Gay almost entirely ignored Rousseau, the devastating internal critic of the Enlightenment, who appeared in other Cold War accounts as merely the forebear of totalitarianism.)

American scholarship in literature, politics, art history and philosophy in the 1950s was, as Carl Schorske reminisced in his path-breaking book Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture (1980), ‘turning away from history as its basis for self-understanding’. One inevitable result of cutting the ‘cord of consciousness’ linking the past to the present was sanitized history. The centuries of civil war, imperial conquest, genocide and slavery in Europe and America were downplayed in accounts that showed how the Atlantic West privileged with reason and individual autonomy made the modern world, and became with its liberal democracies a vision of the superior people everyone else ought to catch up with.

The number of available Western models multiplied with the post-1945 defanging of Italy, Germany and Japan, and their transformation, under American supervision, into relatively healthy, quasi-Westernized nations. Their irruptions of militarism and fascism were explained away as pathological aberrations rather than as outcomes of improvised political solutions to the problem of catching up with an expansionist Atlantic West.

The long, absurd and ultimately futile struggle of Marxist revolutionaries to attain a historical condition beyond conflict and change came to be mimicked in the Cold War’s historical imaginings of the West: Hegel’s ‘end of history’ reappeared as the ‘end of ideology’ in the 1960s. More remarkably, it came to signify, after the varied intoxications of the Reagan – Thatcher years, the final triumph of free markets and democracy.

The switch to social welfarism after 1945 across the West had indicated that unregulated capitalism was no longer politically tenable. Karl Polanyi summed up a larger mood when he claimed in The Great Transformation (1944) that ‘the utopian experiment of a self-regulating market will be no more than a memory’. In the 1980s, the decade of deregulation and privatization in the West, however, this experiment was revived. The collapse of communist regimes in 1989 further emboldened the bland fanatics, who had been intellectually nurtured during the Cold War in a ‘paradise’, as Niebuhr called it, albeit one ‘suspended in a hell of global insecurity’. The old Hegelian-Marxist teleology was retrofitted rather than discarded in Fukuyama’s influential end-of-history hypothesis.

*   *   *

Writing during the heyday of Modernization Theory, the French critic Raymond Aron, though resolutely anti-communist, termed American-style individualism the product of a short history of unrepeatable national success, which ‘spreads unlimited optimism, denigrates the past, and encourages the adoption of institutions which are in themselves destructive of the collective unity’. By the late 1980s, however, there were very few voices warning against the triumphalist faith that history had resolved its contradictions and ended its struggles in the universal regime of free-market individualism.

Responding to Fukuyama’s thesis in 1989, Allan Bloom was full of foreboding about the gathering revolts against a world that ‘has been made safe for reason as understood by the market’, and ‘a global common market the only goal of which is to minister to men’s bodily needs and whims’. ‘If an alternative is sought,’ Bloom wrote, ‘there is nowhere else to seek it. I would suggest that fascism has a future, if not the future.’ The English political philosopher John Gray warned of the return of ‘more primordial forces, nationalist and religious, fundamentalist and soon, perhaps, Malthusian’ that the Cold War had tranquillized; he pointed to the intellectual incapacity of liberalism as well as Marxism in this new world order.

Soon after 1989, ethnic cleansing in the Balkans and Rwanda, as well as the resurgence of far-right parties in Italy and Austria and anti-immigrant neo-Nazi groups in newly reunified Germany, showed that we would confront authoritarian politics, vicious ethnic prejudice and extreme nationalism whenever and wherever the conditions of their possibility reappeared, regardless of how many times we told ourselves, ‘never again’. The wars in Chechnya, Afghanistan, Africa and South America in the 1990s revealed large numbers of individuals, armed gangs, arms dealers, human traffickers, drug lords, mafias and private security firms snatching the monopoly of violence from flailing states – precursors to the twenty-first century’s terrorists and ‘lone wolves’ who would erase the fading distinction between civilian and military.

The easy availability of assault weapons in the United States was always likely to assist the privatization and socialization of violence. Timothy McVeigh’s murder on 19 April 1995 of 168 Americans in Oklahoma City now seems an early clue to the presently exploding netherworld of political rage, conspiracy theory and paranoia. Writing in a small-town newspaper in 1992, McVeigh, then a young veteran of the First Gulf War, chillingly foresaw our demagogic present:

Racism on the rise? You had better believe it. Is this America’s frustrations venting themselves? Is it a valid frustration? Who is to blame for the mess? At a point when the world has seen communism falter as an imperfect system to manage people, democracy seems to be headed down the same road. No one is seeing the ‘big’ picture.

The Asian financial crisis of 1997, which plunged several countries into chaos and mass suffering, showed, more than a decade before the Euro-American financial crisis of 2008, how mobile and speculative finance could be as devastatingly unpredictable and hostile to socio-political order as weapons of war. The irruption of fundamentalist hatred on 9/11 briefly disrupted celebrations of a world benignly globalized by capital and consumption, exposing paradise to the hell of global insecurity. ‘Our world, parts of our world,’ Don DeLillo warned soon afterwards, ‘have crumbled into theirs’, condemning Americans to live ‘in a place of danger and rage’.

In this new totality, Afghan deserts and caves could immediately connect with and short-circuit New York, America’s financial centre, obliterating old distinctions maintained even during the nuclear standoff of the Cold War between internal and external spaces, war and peace, and the West and its enemies. The 9/11 terrorists had been trained by Islamists once sponsored by the CIA and Middle-Eastern plutocrats, and they were armed with America’s own box-cutters and civilian aeroplanes. These ‘barbarians’ who struck at the heart of empire hinted that the ‘global village’ would manifest its contradictions through a state of permanent and uncontrolled crisis.

But the shock to naive minds only further entrenched in them the intellectual habits of the Cold War – thinking through binary oppositions of ‘free’ and ‘unfree’ worlds, liberalism and totalitarianism – while reviving nineteenth-century Western clichés about the non-West. Once again the secular and democratic West, identified with the legacy of the Enlightenment (reason, individual autonomy, freedom of speech), seemed called upon to subdue its perennially backward other: in this case, Islam, marked by fear of criticism and blind allegiance to a tyrannical God and tribe. Invocations of a new ‘long struggle’ against ‘Islamofascism’ aroused many retired Cold Warriors, who had been missing the ideological certainties of battling Communism.

Apparently triumphant in Afghanistan, the West’s shock-and-awe response redoubled an old delusion. Liberal democracy, whose nurturing modernization theorists had entrusted to middle-class beneficiaries of capitalism, could apparently now be implanted by force in societies that had no tradition of it: military invasion would bring forth democracy. In this dominant discourse, the racial and religious ‘other’ was either an irredeemable brute, the exact opposite of rational Westerners, to be exterminated universally through an endless war on terror, or a Western-style Homo Economicus who was prevented from pursuing his rational self-interest and enhancing the common good by his deficient political leaders and institutions. The assault on Iraq, meant to overthrow a sadistic despot and institute a market society through wholesale privatization, was powered by an ideological fantasy of regime change on a global scale. Intellectual narcissism survived, and was often deepened by, the realization, slowly dawning in the latter half of the 2010s, that economic power had begun to shift from the West. The Chinese, who had ‘got capitalism’, were, after all, ‘downloading western apps’, according to Niall Ferguson.

A Crippling Historical Amnesia

One event after another in recent years has cruelly exposed such facile, self-satisfied narratives. The doubters of Western-style progress today include more than just marginal communities and some angry environmental activists. In 2014 The Economist said that, on the basis of IMF data, emerging economies – or, most of the human population – might have to wait for three centuries in order to catch up with the West. In this assessment, the last decade of high growth was an ‘aberration’ and ‘billions of people will be poorer for a lot longer than they might have expected just a few years ago’.

The implications are sobering: the non-West not only finds itself replicating the West’s trauma on an infinitely larger scale. While helping inflict the profoundest damage yet on the environment – manifest today in rising sea levels, erratic rainfall, drought, declining harvests and devastating floods – the non-West also has no real prospect of catching up with the West.

There is, plainly, no deep logic to the unfolding of time. But then we identify emollient patterns and noble purposes in history because evasions, suppressions and downright falsehoods have resulted, over time, in a massive store of defective knowledge – about the West and the non-West alike. Obscuring the costs of the West’s own ‘progress’, it turns out, severely undermined the possibility of explaining the proliferation of a politics of violence and hysteria in the world today, let alone finding a way to contain it.

Thus, the intellectual cottage industry about Islam and Islamism that is sent into overdrive after every terrorist attack rarely lingers on the fact that it was France’s revolutionary state that first introduced terror into the political realm (the Arabic word irhab for ‘terrorism’ was long understood as state-led terror). Devout Spanish peasants, fighting back against Napoleon’s secular universalist project, were the first irregulars to wage war against a regular modern nation state and army: the predecessors of the lawless guerrillas and terrorists who today race their lawful adversaries to extremes of senseless violence.

It was actually in the Atlantic West that we first witnessed the paradox of religious fundamentalism: that it reflects the weakening of religious conviction. The death of God was attended by hysterical assertions that He exists. The very mathematicians and physicists who led the seventeenth century’s scientific revolution, and overturned the established Christian world view – Descartes, Pascal, Newton – were forced by tormenting doubt and ambivalence into reaffirming the existence of a Creator. It should not surprise anyone today that engineering graduates and students, such as Osama bin Laden, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Abu Musab al-Suri and Anwar al-Awlaki, or, for that matter, Hindu-supremacist techies, cling most desperately to DIY fundamentalist versions of ebbing, if not irretrievably vanished, religious faiths.

Nor do the Islam-mongers pay any attention to the paradox, illuminated consistently from post-revolutionary France to ISIS: that the actual experience of individual freedom in itself can provoke a desperate longing for a ‘master’, as Tocqueville put it; it can also spawn what the French writer, speaking sympathetically of French imperialists in Algeria, called an ‘insatiable need for action, violent emotions, vicissitudes and dangers’. Anarchists, terrorists and despots always thrive in these circumstances of spiritual and psychological weakening.

The pied pipers of ISIS have grasped particularly keenly that insulted and injured men, whether in Parisian banlieus or Asian and African shanty towns, can be turned into obedient and fearless fighters if they are given a rousing cause to fight for, especially one connected, however tenuously, with the past glory of Islam, and aimed at exterminating a world of soul-killing mediocrity, cowardice, opportunism and immoral deal-making. Thus, ISIS is able simultaneously to stoke sectarian hatreds in Asia and Africa and insinuate their message of self-empowerment through mass murder in the older struggles of Muslim minorities for identity and dignity in European societies.

Craving intellectual and political prestige for their DIY Islam, the adolescent jihadists receive endorsements from the self-appointed paladins of the West, who perversely go to war or suspend civil liberties while speaking of the need to defend ‘Western values’ against religious fundamentalism. This only helps the self-proclaimed enemies of Western values to stake their position on ideological purity as well as making it painfully easy, to a degree barely noticed in the West, for Islamist media to revel in the confusion and hypocrisy of Western pronouncements. A recent issue of ISIS’s magazine Dabiq approvingly quoted George W. Bush’s us-versus-them exhortation, insisting that there is no ‘Grey Zone’ in the holy war.

Clashing by night, the ignorant armies of ideologues endow each other’s cherished self-conceptions and projected spectres with the veracity they crave. But their self-flattering oppositions collapse once we cease to take them at face value and expose the overlaps between them. And we come closer to understanding ressentiment today when we recognize that it arises out of an intensely competitive human desire for convergence and resemblance rather than religious, cultural, theological and ideological difference.

The Early Birds of Modernity: Enlightened Upstarts

Escape from the stultifying dualisms of East and West, religion and reason, requires us to train fresh eyes on the most fateful event of human history: the rise of an industrial and materialist civilization, which, emerging in Britain and France, spread itself over the old world of Asia and Africa and the new world of America and Oceania, creating the original conditions of our current state of negative solidarity.

The utter novelty of this event is too easily missed. For the changes brought about by two coalescing revolutions, the French and the industrial, marked a sharp break in historical continuity; they ushered in a new era of global consciousness. Rapidly overcoming geographical limits with, respectively, their ideas and steamships, they opened up a new, potentially boundless setting for human action. They inaugurated what we now call modernity – the world of mass politics and ceaseless social and economic change, and a whole new universe of possibilities about how human beings could act in and shape history, collectively and individually.

The revolutionary tradition with its concepts of democracy, the pursuit of liberty, and equality moved quickly from the economically developed and politically complex ancien régimes of the Atlantic West to the simpler ancien régimes of Prussia, Austria and Russia, before taking root in Asia and Africa. The late eighteenth-century plea for constitutional monarchy from a small minority of property-owning bourgeois escalated into mass movements for republican democracy and universal suffrage, and, eventually, into demands for the abolition of private property and full collectivization.

‘The desire for equality,’ Tocqueville wrote, ‘always becomes more insatiable as equality is greater.’ And, as the French aristocrat predicted, the egalitarian impulse, the urge for social levelling generated by the revolutions, kept turning radical, culminating in Mao Zedong and Pol Pot’s ferocious great leaps forward and Year Zero. It also telescoped historical phases: revolution erupted in pre-industrial, overwhelmingly rural China, and India embraced universal suffrage, which was won after much agitation in Europe, immediately after emerging as a nation state.

Certainly, the cliché that the French Revolution introduced the world to revolutionary ideas of equality, fraternity and liberty understates how politics, long monopolized by absolutist elites, began to open up to commoners with talent and skill. The revolutionary conscript armies of France that flooded Europe, and reached as far as Egypt, transformed the relationship of ordinary people to time, space and their own selves – introducing them to the earth-shaking idea that human beings could use their own reason to fundamentally reshape their circumstances.

History, largely experienced previously as a series of natural disasters, could now be seen as a movement in which everyone could potentially enlist. 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. The balance in European culture shifted from the religious to the secular – a momentous process that is still ongoing in many parts of the world.

*   *   *

A revealed religion had dominated Europe until the seventeenth century; all other intellectual and cultural currents were subordinate to Christianity. Man did not presume to make his world; he was rather made by it. The world itself was seen as unchanging. Thus, there was no such thing as politics as we understand it: an organized competition for power, or contentious notions of equality and justice, identity and citizenship. All legitimacy derived from God and the timeless natural order. In Saint Paul’s resonant words: ‘Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God; and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.’

The discoveries of natural science in the seventeenth century presented a new challenge to Christianity’s hegemony (even though its exponents, from Galileo to Kepler to Descartes to Newton, were devout Christians). They seemed to replace God with man armed with critical reason. Bakunin, who took this emancipation to an extreme, carefully described its philosophical origins:

The awakened intellect, freed from the swaddling clothes of authority, was no longer willing to accept anything on faith, and, separating itself from the actual world, and immersing itself in itself, wished to derive everything from itself, to find the origin and basis of knowledge within itself. ‘I think, therefore I am’. Here is how the new philosophy began in the person of Descartes.

Modern anthropocentrism, situating man in the universal scheme of things, opened up new modes of enquiry. ‘Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night,’ Alexander Pope exulted in 1730. ‘God said “Let Newton be!” and all was light.’ The new empirico-mathematical method seemed to offer a model for analysing everything in secular terms: ethics as well as politics and society, and religion itself.

Indeed, religion was first identified (and weakened) in the eighteenth century as yet another human activity, to be examined alongside philosophy and the economy. The European sense of time changed, too: belief in divine providence – Second Coming or Final Days – gave way to a conviction, also intensely religious, in human progress in the here and now. A youthful Turgot asserted in a famous speech at the Sorbonne in 1750 that:

Self-interest, ambition, and vainglory continually change the world scene and inundate the earth with blood; yet in the midst of their ravages manners are softened, the human mind becomes more enlightened … and the whole human race, through alternate periods of rest and unrest, of weal and woe, goes on advancing, although at a slow pace, towards greater perfection.

Science was to help in the conquest of nature and the overcoming of social evils. The new religion of secular progress was helped by sustained and rapid economic and demographic growth in eighteenth-century Western Europe, especially France. Tocqueville, who ruminated a great deal over why the world’s greatest political revolution erupted in France and not elsewhere, was among the first to describe its intellectual prehistory:

While kings were ruining themselves in great enterprises and nobles wearing each other out in private wars, the commoners were growing rich by trade. The power of money began to be felt in affairs of state. Trade became a political force, despised but flattered. Gradually enlightenment spread, and a taste for literature and the arts awoke. The mind became an element in success; knowledge became a tool of government and intellect a social force; educated men played a part in affairs of state.

These educated men of the Enlightenment who led the revolution in perspectives – the post-religious notion that men make their own world – belonged to a tiny minority of the literate and secular-minded. An anonymous tract ‘Le Philosophe’, which originally appeared in 1743 and was later reissued by Voltaire, summed up their self-image: worldly, witty, freethinking, devoted to reason, and especially contemptuous of the Church. They produced no single doctrine; their views could range from soberly comparativist (Montesquieu) to Voltaire’s militant resolves to crush the ‘infamous thing’ (the Catholic Church) and the technicism of Diderot’s and D’Alembert’s Encyclopédie.

But the future belonged to them and their determination to hold nothing sacred in the political and social world, to examine all phenomena in the light of reason, and regard everything as susceptible to change and manipulation through human will and power. The philosophes hoped to apply the scientific method discovered in the previous century to phenomena beyond the natural world, to government, economics, ethics, law, society and even the inner life. As D’Alembert put it, ‘philosophy is the experimental physics of the soul’. Nicolas de Condorcet hoped that science would ensure ‘the indefinite perfectability of the human species’.

In fact, the words perfectibilité and civilisation made their first appearance in any European language in the 1750s. The adjective ‘social’ acquired currency at the same time, pointing to a new secular order, civil society, which was distinct from the state and from religion. Only a few years separated the publication of such major works of enlightened philosophy as Buffon’s Natural History and Condillac’s Treatise on Systems in 1749 and Montesquieu’s hugely influential The Spirit of the Laws in 1748. In 1751 the Encyclopédie began publication, cementing the Enlightenment’s claim that the knowledge of the human world, and the identification of its fundamental principles, would pave the path of progress.

As Diderot asserted, ‘all things must be examined, debated, investigated without exception and without regard for anyone’s feelings … We must ride roughshod over all these ancient puerilities, overturn the barriers that reason never erected, and give back to the arts and the sciences the liberty that is so precious to them.’ The philosophe was to lead this battle for a secular order. For him, as the Encyclopédie defined this figure, ‘civil society is, in a manner of speaking, a divinity on earth’.

*   *   *

As always, there were, below the surface of high-minded philosophical arguments against the old God and demands for greater freedom of speech, deeper struggles for power and distinction. For like all modern intellectuals, the particular circumstances of the French philosophes shaped their ideology. (Not accidentally, one of the philosophes, Helvetius, founded the modern theory of ideology: the notion that ideas express the conflicting interests of individuals or groups.)

In this case, the interests of the people Tocqueville defined as ‘commoners growing rich by trade’ moulded new ideas. To these men, who had emerged after a long period of fear and frustration caused by Europe’s religious wars, commerce and prosperity under secular regimes seemed the right antidote to religious fanaticism. The acquisitive and competitive spirit of this rising commercial class also chafed against a religious tradition that had long idealized poverty.

The new class largely felt excluded from the traditional hierarchy despite its frequently superior ability and individual talent. Resentment and envy made the commoners thirsty for rapid and libertarian change. In their eyes, the social and religious order of Western Christendom was a barrier; it had to be demolished, and replaced by a new edifice based on rational principles and scientific knowledge.

The spokesmen of the new class consisted of les hommes à talents, men of talent, who no longer depended on military or bureaucratic service, and who ‘conquered’, in Madame de Staël’s words, ‘by their talents that liberty of the press which was not accorded by statute’. Each of these men, Tocqueville claimed, ‘felt hindered daily in his fortune, person, well-being, or pride by some old law, some ancient political custom, some relic of the old powers’. Through their friendships, shared interests and resources, they formed a network – the first of its kind anywhere in the world.

A typical representative of the new Republic of Letters was Voltaire, the son of a lawyer. As a quick-witted young man, he had contemptuously won an argument with an aristocrat, and then found himself publicly flogged by the latter’s lackeys, and forced to flee to England in 1726. He soon became an Anglo-maniac, adoring his refuge as the shining example of a commercial society that enshrined individual liberty. ‘As trade enriched the citizens in England,’ Voltaire wrote, ‘so it contributed to their freedom.’ Voltaire echoed Montesquieu, who had also travelled to England in the late 1720s to learn the secrets of the country that had become, after its Glorious Revolution, so evidently the superior of France.

The philosophes aimed to reorganize society so that intrinsic human merit was acknowledged above traditional status. They had the freedom, as Tocqueville ruefully noted, ‘to philosophize almost without restraint about the origins of society, the essential nature of government, and the primordial rights of the human race’. In their hands, philosophy became a critique of hereditary privilege on behalf of all those – later termed the Third Estate in France – who did not belong to the old elite. It also became, as they rose higher in the world, a celebration and vindication of their own material comfort and hedonism.

The upstarts had to work hard initially to gather their means of upward mobility, and establish a supporting infrastructure for their periodicals, books and libraries; they had to seek the attention and support of rich aristocrats. During the course of the eighteenth century, Enlightenment philosophes moved from being outsiders to insiders: they were installed in academies and government offices. Princes, Russian and German as well as French, courted them; the public was eager to know what they thought.

This is how their notion of self-expansion – through unlimited growth of production, and the expansion of productive forces – steadily replaced all other ideas of the human good in the eighteenth century; it became the central objective of existence, with corresponding attitudes, norms, values, and a quantitative notion of reality defined by what counts and what does not count.

In this schema, now wholly internalized, the human being used the tools of theoretical and practical reason to expand his capacities; and all his reference points and norms were defined by the imperative of expansion. Progress for him denoted the endless growth of a society whose individuals are free but responsible, egocentric but enlightened. Adam Smith founded his political economy on the conception of a human being whose desires are mediated by the desires of others, and who pursues wealth not for well-being but because it is pursued by others. In Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Aim (1800), Kant was actually grateful for ‘spiteful competitive vanity’ and the ‘insatiable desire to possess or even to dominate’, since socially mediated ambitions ‘for honour, power, or property’ led human beings to undergo a ‘process of enlightenment’. It was evidently how a civil society of morally and rationally autonomous individuals could come into being. Voltaire himself showed how universal history with a cosmopolitan aim could work out (for some people at least): he was one of the richest commoners in Europe at the time of his death in 1778.

The Good Barbarian

A meritocratic society, in which people like themselves could flourish, was deemed ‘rational’ by the philosophes. In boosting this rationalism, they saw themselves as constituting a ‘party of humanity’. Their taste for ‘literary politics’, Tocqueville wrote, ‘spread even to people whose nature or situation would normally have kept them aloof from abstract speculation’ and who warmed to the ‘idea that all men should be equal’ and ‘that reason condemned all privileges without exception’. Thus, ‘every public passion disguised itself as philosophy’.

But the new society, though free of irrational old hierarchies, wasn’t meant to be democratic. Liberty primarily meant freedom for social mobility for the man of talent, the means, as Rousseau bluntly stated, of ‘acquiring without obstacle and possessing with security’. The social and intellectual power of his network was meant to benefit society as well, but it was not available to everyone or anyone. On the contrary, access to it required money, property, connections and talents.

Hierarchy would still mark the new society: the mass of the people would remain necessarily subordinate to the authentically enlightened at the top. Peter Gay argued in his Cold War history of the Enlightenment that the philosophes jointly participated in a ‘vastly ambitious program’ to foster ‘freedom in its many forms’, and that their ‘politics’ was essentially ‘modern liberal politics’, which called for ‘parliamentary regimes, political parties, widespread literacy, and a free press’. Until 1789, however, almost all major European thinkers saw progress as something imposed from above, through legislation and decree, not generated from the mass of people below them.

A powerful ruler was not only needed to check the power of Churches, estates and corporations; he was required to repress the ignorant and superstitious mass of people who threatened civilization, which meant social order, law and intellectual liberty for a select few rather than freedom in its many forms for all.

Voltaire, who wanted, as Goethe wrote in Poetry and Truth, a ‘relationship with the lords of the earth’, repeatedly expressed his hatred of the canaille – the ‘ignoble masses who respect only force and never think’. The Enlightenment philosophes sought and enjoyed the patronage of Frederick of Prussia and Catherine of Russia. With the radical exception of Rousseau, they were not interested in social equality. ‘We have never claimed,’ Voltaire wrote, ‘to enlighten shoemakers and servant girls.’

Admittedly, what Voltaire wanted was hardly revolution or even representative government but a wise monarchy that would sideline aristocrats and clergy and create space for people like himself. As he argued in his Essay on the Manners and Spirit of Nations (1756), the European monarchies by emasculating the nobility and the Church had created the order of law and peace; they had made possible the activities of the intellectual and commercial classes – true progress for which a strong central authority was indispensable.

Wishing to modify the institutional and political system for the sake of self-interested individuals like themselves, the Encyclopedists sought workable models for it in despotic Russia and Prussia as well as England. Voltaire began his intellectual career with a eulogy to Britain’s constitutionalist monarchy. In 1750, the year he became court philosopher to Frederick of Prussia, he hailed the century of Louis XIV. He helped popularize a flattering sobriquet, ‘le Grand’, for the enlightened and war-addicted Frederick of Prussia. In his two-volume biography of Peter the Great, Voltaire presented the arbitrary Tsar as an outstanding ruler who by his own initiative had forced his country to move forward along the continuum from barbarism to civilization.

Peter may have ordered the mass beheading of his mutinous palace guards, Voltaire argued, but he had struck a grievous blow against religious fanaticism by appropriating Church property. When Frederick demurred with such praise of a tyrant, Voltaire offered an early version of the after-all-he-made-the-trains-run-on-time argument: ‘I accept that he was a barbarian; but after all, he was a barbarian who had done good to men; he founded cities, he built canals.’

Voltaire also keenly endorsed Catherine of Russia’s plan to ‘preach tolerance with bayonets at the end of their rifles’ in Poland. Exhorting Catherine to learn Greek as she prepared to attack the Ottoman Empire, he added that ‘it is absolutely necessary to chase from Europe the Turkish language, as well as all those who speak it’.

Radicals Against Their Will

This rationalism of the French Enlightenment, defined in opposition to the irrational inequalities of the old hierarchical and religious order, was often aggressively self-serving, not to mention imperialistic; it was meant primarily to benefit a rising class of educated and ambitious men, who were eventually, as the cultural historian Robert Darnton wrote, ‘pensioned, petted, and completely integrated in high society’.

Joining the posh elites was no contradiction on the part of the commoners. After all, the English-style commercial society they evangelized for was premised on mimesis, or what the French critic René Girard called ‘appropriative mimicry’: desiring objects because the desires of others tell us that they are something to be desired. But the insistence, dating back to Descartes, that all men were endowed with the gift of reason (just as they had all previously possessed immortal souls) planted the principle of equality deep in the soil of modern society.

Theoretical rationalism – speculation about a future rational and enlightened society in which all men are equal – turned out to have radically egalitarian implications in a way that few of its seventeenth- and eighteenth-century proponents and beneficiaries anticipated. The philosophes did not know until 1789 – and most of them were dead by then – that the programme of reform by a tiny literate minority cumulatively equalled the demand for a drastically new order, and that the campaign against the evidently fanatical Church would escalate into a ferocious assault on all social inequality, culminating in the public execution of a monarch and later his consort.

Liberty had been the battle cry of the men leading the revolutions in seventeenth-century England and eighteenth-century America. As it happened, the Atlantic West’s nascent bourgeoisie had just started to enjoy liberty when Rousseau’s radical heirs brought forth, during the French Revolution, far more seductive ideals of fraternity and equality. They conceived of individual autonomy within a more inclusive framework than property ownership or education. Within a decade, the 1790s, two concepts, ‘nationalism’ and ‘communism’, had been invented to define the aspirations for fraternity and equality. ‘Democracy’ came into vogue around 1830, helped by Tocqueville’s close observations of the new culture of individualism and equality in America. Almost as soon as they came into circulation in the West, the words were deployed by educated young men across Eastern Europe, and travelled, with varying interpretations, to Russia and further east.

But the execution of a king and queen during the French Revolution, the confiscation of Church property, and the killings of tens of thousands of people had already announced a new episode in human history – one that would confound all expectations of reason’s triumph, or that peace, prosperity and human freedom would be gradually extended to all.

*   *   *

In this ‘monstrous tragi-comic scene’, as Edmund Burke warned, ‘the most opposite passions necessarily succeed, and sometimes mix with each other in the mind; alternate contempt and indignation; alternate laughter and tears; alternate scorn and horror.’ Thus, slaves in French colonies invoking the rights of man and citizen staged bloody insurrections (and suffered savage reprisals from Napoleon), while two of the most zealous boosters of the American Revolution, Thomas Paine and the Marquis de Lafayette, went to their graves lamenting the betrayal of those rights by the slave-owning leaders of the United States.

Edmund Burke of course amplified his dire warnings while the French Revolution was still in its Arcadian phase, and the millions of victims of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars were still alive. Many who witnessed the revolution’s degeneration into terror and Napoleon’s militarism started to have other ideas. The German Romantics of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries rejected the Atlantic West’s new materialist, individualistic and imperialistic civilization in the name of local religious and cultural truth and spiritual virtue. To this monumental divergence from the path of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution we owe many fateful innovations, including nationalism.

Rousseau, a guiding light for the German Romantics, proved to be more prescient than his Enlightenment compatriots in condemning commercial society based on mimetic desire, as a game rigged by and in favour of elites: a recipe, in other words, for class conflict, moral decay, social chaos and political despotism. Little did the elites foresee that their basic assumption of stability, bound up with the guarantee of rights to a restricted number of individuals, would be overthrown, first by an ambitious rising class of the bourgeoisie insisting on perpetual growth and dynamism, and then the masses clamouring to catch up.

Instead of harmonizing socially mediated interests, an increasingly industrialized economy created class antagonisms and gross inequalities – an outcome that none of the salon philosophes could have anticipated in their own pre-industrial age. Frustrated expectations and appalling working conditions radicalized more and more people. By the mid-nineteenth century, the self-interested bourgeois had turned into a hated figure and socialism into a magnetic idea for budding intelligentsias across Europe, before spreading across the world as the primary motivating force of ‘revolution’ – the word itself now connoting the creation of a totally new and entirely man-made order, and opening the way to the radical solutions of totalitarianism.

The appeal of democracy, broadly defined as equality of conditions and the end of hierarchy, would grow and grow – to the paradoxical point where Fascists, Nazis and Stalinists would claim to be the real democrats, realizing a deeper principle of equality, and offering greater participation in politics, than the bourgeois liberal democrats bothered with. A consciousness of unlimited and unprecedented power, boosted by the industrial, scientific and technological revolutions, would tempt many into discarding inherited values and norms.

Unwittingly, then, the philosophers of the Enlightenment instigated the end of ancien régimes everywhere – in thought if not in fact. They also inadvertently initiated challenges to their own status and expertise – and that of every subsequent liberal elite. Writing decades after the French Revolution, Hegel described its world-historical transmutation of the Enlightenment’s abstract rationalism into revolutionary politics: ‘Ever since the sun has stood in the heavens, and the planets revolved around it, never have we known man to walk on his head, that is, to base himself on the Idea and to build the world in accordance with it.’

The Latecomers to Modernity: Resentful Stragglers

The Enlightenment also created the vast stage on which more and more people appeared, changing as well as interpreting their world in a series of often monstrous, and deeply repetitive, tragic-comic scenes. For many outside France, its revolution had institutionalized some irresistible ideals: a rationalistic, egalitarian and universalizing society in which men shaped their own lives. The all-conquering army of Napoleon, the ‘Robespierre on horseback’, as Engels called him, then taught much of Europe – and Russia – a harsh lesson in political and military innovation.

The global human drama would henceforth be powered by appropriative mimicry. According to Girard, the most eloquent contemporary theorist of mimetic rivalry, the human individual is subject, after satisfying his basic needs, to ‘intense desires, though he may not know precisely for what. The reason is that he desires being, something he himself lacks and which some other person seems to possess. The subject thus looks to that other person to inform him of what he should desire in order to acquire that being. If the model, who is apparently already endowed with superior being, desires some object, that object must surely be capable of conferring an even greater plentitude of being.’

A triumphant Napoleon was the perfect ‘model who becomes a rival’ and the ‘rival who becomes a model’. He helped accelerate what Adam Smith, generalizing his own theory of mediated desire from individuals to nations, had called ‘national emulation’. In the decades after the Napoleonic Wars, European societies quickly learned how to deploy, French-style, a modern military, technology, railways, roads, judicial and educational systems, and create a feeling of belonging and solidarity, most often by identifying dangerous enemies within and without. (Germany would succeed abundantly in this project to crush France militarily in 1871, provoking, in another tragic-comic scene, French elites to mimic German-style nationalism.)

Four years before Marx and Engels published The Communist Manifesto, the German thinker Max Stirner argued in the equally incendiary The Ego and its Own that the impersonal rationality of power and government had disguised itself in the emollient language of freedom and equality, and the individual, ostensibly liberated from traditional bonds, had been freshly enslaved by the modern state. Bakunin, the forebear of today’s leaderless militants, spoke with glee of the ‘mysterious and terrible words’, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, which portend ‘the complete annihilation’ of the ‘existing political and social world’.

His friend Herzen saw Europe’s new gods of wealth and power as inaugurating an era of mass illusion – and violent counter-attacks. Europe was fated to move, Tocqueville warned, to ‘democracy without limits’, but it was far from clear ‘whether we are going toward liberty or marching toward despotism, God alone knows precisely’. Benjamin Constant cautioned that ‘there is no limit to tyranny when it seeks to obtain the signs of consensus’.

*   *   *

But most observers were happy to be overwhelmed by the nineteenth-century spectacle of continuous achievement and expansion. For the promise of world-transformative politics was backed by the power of money – the new currency of values created by England’s industrial revolution. Money, circulating unrestrainedly with the help of gunboats, bound more and more people into a state of negative solidarity. As Marx and Engels famously declaimed:

The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilization. The cheap prices of its commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls.

This rhapsody to the Promethean powers of the industrializing and universalizing bourgeois came naturally to two provincials from then pre-industrial Germany enviously recording the progress of the Anglo-French West. Its remote observers in largely peasant countries, such as the radical Russian thinker Nikolai Chernyshevsky, were even more awed. Chernyshevsky found the Crystal Palace, a huge glass and iron structure built by Joseph Paxton for London’s 1851 Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations, to be ‘a miracle of art, beauty and splendour’.

In his What is to be Done? (1863), probably the worst Russian novel of the nineteenth century (and also the most influential), the Crystal Palace embodies a utopian future, built on rational principles, of joyful work, communal existence, gender equality and free love. (Lenin was stirred enough by this vision to write a political blueprint with the same title.) But it was also latecomers to political and economic modernity – the Germans and then Russians – who sensed acutely both its irresistible temptation and its dangers.

Dostoyevsky’s writings capture the unnerving appeal of the new materialist civilization, and its accompanying ideology of individualism: how that civilization was helped as much by its prestige as well as its military and maritime dominance. Two years before he published his novella Notes from Underground (1864), Dostoyevsky went on a tour of Western Europe. During his stay in London in 1862, he visited the International Exhibition. At the Crystal Palace he testified:

You become aware of a colossal idea; you sense that here something has been achieved, that here there is victory and triumph. You even begin vaguely to fear something. However independent you may be, for some reason you become terrified. ‘For isn’t this the achievement of perfection?’ you think. ‘Isn’t this the ultimate?’ Could this in fact be the ‘one fold?’ Must you accept this as the final truth and forever hold your peace? It is all so solemn, triumphant, and proud that you gasp for breath.

France in the eighteenth century had originally represented to the rest of the world the modern civilization of wealth, elegant manners and sensibility, surpassing, as Voltaire asserted, even ancient Athens and Rome, in the ‘art of living’. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, Britain rather than France was the paradigmatic modern state and society. It had staged an epochal transition from an agrarian to industrial, a rural to urban economy, and generated, by way of a supporting philosophy, a utilitarian ethic – the greatest happiness of the greatest number – that had even made its way to Russia (Dostoyevsky was to rail against it in subsequent novels).

The success of its perpetually expanding capitalist bourgeoisie made unceasing motion, forward and onward, seem a political imperative for states and individuals alike. Intellectuals in Cairo, Calcutta, Tokyo and Shanghai were reading Jeremy Bentham, Adam Smith, Thomas Paine, Herbert Spencer and John Stuart Mill in order to learn the secrets of self-improvement. A small minority of Western Europeans had become the bearers and promoters of a civilization that confronted the rest of the world’s population with formidable moral and spiritual as well as political challenges.

Dostoyevsky had no illusions about the world-historical import of what he was witnessing at the Crystal Palace:

Look at these hundreds of thousands, these millions of people humbly streaming here from all over the face of the earth. People come with a single thought, quietly, relentlessly, mutely thronging into this colossal palace; and you feel that something final has taken place here, that something has come to an end. It is like a Biblical picture, something out of Babylon, a prophecy from the apocalypse coming to pass before your eyes. You sense that it would require great and everlasting spiritual denial and fortitude in order not to submit, not to capitulate before the impression, not to bow to what is, and not to deify Baal, that is, not to accept the material world as your ideal.

In Dostoyevsky’s view, the cost of such splendour and magnificence as displayed at the Crystal Palace was a society dominated by the war of all against all, in which most people were condemned to be losers. In tones of awe and fear he described London as a wilderness of damaged proletarians, ‘half-naked, savage, and hungry’, frantically drowning their despair in debauchery and alcohol. Visiting Paris, Dostoyevsky caustically noted that Liberté existed only for the millionaire. The notion of Égalité, equality before the law, was a ‘personal insult’ to the poor exposed to French justice. As for Fraternité, it was another hoax in a society driven by the ‘individualist, isolationist instinct’ and the lust for private property.

Even the socialist played the same game of materialism with his mean calculus of order, and his bitter notion of class struggle. True socialism, which rested on spiritual self-sacrifice and moral community, could not be established in the West, for the ‘Occidental Nature’ had a fundamental design flaw: it lacked Fraternity. ‘You find there instead,’ Dostoyevsky wrote:

a principle of individualism, a principle of isolation, of intense self-preservation, of personal gain, of self-determination, of the I, of opposing this I to all nature and the rest of mankind as an independent autonomous principle entirely equal and equivalent to all that exists outside itself.

Dostoyevsky returned to Russia with much rage against all those who bowed before Baal. Russian tourists in Europe, he wrote, reminded him of little dogs running around in search of their masters. He spent the rest of his life inveighing against the Westernizing engineers of soul who think that ‘there is no soil, there is no people, nationality is just a certain tax system, the soul is tabula rasa, a little piece of wax from which one can straightaway mould a real person, a universal everyman, a homunculus – all one has to do is apply the fruits of European civilization and read two or three short books’.

In Notes from Underground, published a year after What is to be Done?, Dostoyevsky made his narrator resolutely reject Chernyshevsky’s vision of progress. The short monologue was Dostoyevsky’s first sustained barrage on Russians importing Western ideas, and on the increasingly popular notion of rational egoism. Insisting that man is fundamentally irrational, the novella’s anti-hero, an insignificant St Petersburg clerk, methodically destroys Chernyshevsky’s smug symbol of the utopian society, the Crystal Palace. ‘I am a sick man,’ he starts, ‘I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man.’

But this is not actually a knowable man. ‘The fact is,’ he adds, ‘that I have never succeeded in being anything at all.’ And there are no grounds for anything in his character or for his actions. Rational self-interest provides a poor basis for action because it can be easily and pleasurably defied. The Underground Man goes on to reveal his unstable ego as the least reliable guide to moral and sensible behaviour as he enacts its tragi-comic rebellion against an overpowering and humiliating reality. ‘Of course I cannot break through the wall by battering my head against it,’ he admits, ‘but I am not going to be reconciled to it simply because it is a stone wall and I have not the strength.’

Universal happiness could not be attained through individuals succumbing to the material plenitude of the Crystal Palace. Far from it: as the Underground Man says, ‘I’m convinced that man will never renounce real suffering, that is, destruction and chaos.’ Dreaming constantly of revenge against his social superiors, this creature of the netherworld luxuriates in his feeling of impotence, and projects blame for his plight outward. Nietzsche derived from Notes from Underground his specific understanding of ressentiment, and its malign potential as a particularly noxious form of aggression by the weak against an aloof and inaccessible elite.

Keeping Up with the Joneses

Nevertheless, the stealthy Europeanization of the world that Dostoyevsky witnessed in its early stages is now complete. There is hardly a place on Earth, not even in Borneo or the Amazonian rainforests, that has not felt the impact of the Atlantic West, its ideas and ideologies of materialism, and their mass-produced Americanized versions.

The European institutions of the nation state and capitalism have supplanted millennia-old forms of governance, statecraft and market economy. The spread of literacy, improved communications, rising populations and urbanization have transformed the remotest corners of Asia, Africa and Latin America. The desire for self-expansion through material success fully dominates the extant spiritual ideals of traditional religions and cultures.

Speaking before the French Chamber of Deputies in 1840, Tocqueville was already marvelling at the speed and intricacy of this unification of the globe (while urging France to participate in it through more vigorous colonialism): ‘Do you know what is happening in the Orient? An entire world is being transformed … Europe in our times does not attack Asia only through a corner, as did Europe in the time of the crusades: She attacks … from all sides, puncturing, enveloping, subduing.’ Definitely, European dominance was multi-sided; it came about as much through eager emulation as military conquest.

The Crystal Palace, as Dostoyevsky feared, portended a universal surge of mimetic desire: people desiring and trying to possess the same objects. Germany, Russia and Japan set out to catch up with Britain and France in the nineteenth century’s first major outburst of appropriative mimicry. Two world wars eventually resulted from nations desiring the same objects and preventing others from trying to appropriate them. But by 1945 the new nation states of Asia and Africa had already started on their own fraught journey to the Crystal Palace, riding roughshod over ethnic and religious diversity and older ways of life.

Non-Western men and women educated in Europe or in Western-style institutions despaired of their traditionalist elites as much as they resented European dominance over their societies. They had keenly imbibed the ideologies of Social Darwinism; they, too, were obsessed with finding true power and sovereignty in a world of powerful nation states. In this quest to give their peoples a fair chance at strength, equality and dignity in the white man’s palace, China’s Mao Zedong and Turkey’s Mustafa Kemal Atatürk as much as Iran’s democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mosaddeq followed the Western model of mass-mobilization, state-building and industrialization.

*   *   *

Long before such twentieth-century attempts at ‘national emulation’, European and American dominance over ‘the world’s economies and peoples’ had, as Christopher Bayly writes in The Birth of the Modern World, 1780–1914 (2004), turned a large part of humanity ‘into long-term losers in the scramble for resources and dignity’. Imperialism had not only imposed inapposite ideologies and institutions upon societies that had developed, over centuries, their own political units and social structures; it had also deprived many of them of the resources to pursue Western-style economic development.

Despite, or because of, this disadvantage, the explicitly defined aim of Asia and Africa’s first nationalist icons (Atatürk, Nehru, Mao, Sukarno, Nasser and Nkrumah) was ‘catch-up’ with the West. Immense problems – partly the consequence of colonial rule – confronted these many catch-up modernizations soon after independence. The antagonisms and alliances of the Cold War aggravated them further. Left-wing regimes across Asia, Africa and Latin America were embargoed or overthrown by the representatives of the free world; explicitly communist movements, as in Indonesia and Egypt, were brutally suppressed by their local allies. Those that survived became increasingly authoritarian and erratic. By the 1970s, many pro-West nation states had also plunged into despotism.

But one aim united all these ideologically divergent regimes. Socialist as well as capitalist modernists envisaged an exponential increase in the number of people owning cars, houses, electronic goods and gadgets, and driving the tourist and luxury industry worldwide. This is a fantasy that has been truly globalized since the end of the Cold War and today synergizes the endeavours of businessmen, politicians and journalists everywhere. Since the collapse of Communism, ruling classes of the non-West have looked to McKinsey rather than Marx to help define their socio-economic future; but they have not dared to alter the founding basis of their legitimacy as ‘modernizers’ leading their countries to convergence with the West and attainment of European and American living standards.

The Crystal Palace now extends all over the world, encompassing the non-West and the West alike, literally in the form of the downtown areas of hundreds of cities, from radically ‘renovated’ Shanghai to the surreal follies of Dubai and Gurgaon. Homo economicus, the autonomous, reasoning, rights-bearing individual, that quintessential product of industrialism and modern political philosophy, has actually realized his fantastical plans to bring all of human existence into the mesh of production and consumption: Kalimantan in Indonesia, once famous for its headhunters, now hosts McDonald’s. The growth of GDP, however uneven, is the irreplaceable index of national power and wealth. Whether or not the non-West catches up with the West, the irrepressibly glamorous god of materialism has superseded the religions and cultures of the past in the life and thought of most non-Western peoples, most profoundly among their educated classes.

Same Same

Baal, bringing economic disruption in his wake, atomizing societies, threatening older values, and making social maladjustment inevitable, has also created global fault lines – those that run through human souls as well as nations and societies undergoing massive change. From his victims emerge the foot soldiers of radical Islamism as well as Hindu and Chinese nationalism.

Most of them are not the poorest of the poor, or members of the peasantry and the urban underclass. They are educated youth, often unemployed, rural–urban migrants, or others from the lower middle class. They have abandoned the most traditional sectors of their societies, and have succumbed to the fantasies of consumerism without being able to satisfy them. They respond to their own loss and disorientation with a hatred of modernity’s supposed beneficiaries; they trumpet the merits of their indigenous culture or assert its superiority, even as they have been uprooted from this culture.

Regardless of their national origins and locally attuned rhetoric, these disenfranchised men target those they regard as venal, callous and mendacious elites. Donald Trump led an upsurge of white nationalists enraged at being duped by globalized liberals. A similar loathing of London technocrats and cosmopolitans led to Brexit. Hindu nationalists, who tend to belong to lower middle classes with education and some experience of mobility, aim at ‘pseudo-secularist’ English-speaking Indians, accusing them of disdain for Hinduism and vernacular traditions. Chinese nationalists despise the small minority of their West-oriented technocratic compatriots. Radical Islamists, eager autodidacts of Islam, spend much time parsing differences between who they decide are genuine Muslims and nominal ones, those who have surrendered to the hedonism and rootlessness of consumer society.

*   *   *

The most resonant recent acknowledgement of Baal’s insidious appeal and sinister workings comes from Anwar al-Awlaki. This extraordinarily influential American-accented preacher of jihad charged in one of his most popular lecture series, ‘The Life of the Prophet: The Makkan Period’, that ‘a global culture’ has seduced ‘Muslims and especially Muslims living in the West’. Quoting the Slavophile Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn (‘To destroy a people, you must sever their roots’), Awlaki claimed that Muslims ‘are suffering from a serious identity crisis’, sharing more in common with a ‘rock star or a soccer player’ than ‘with the companions of Rasool Allah [Mohammed]’.

Awlaki’s rants on blogs, social media and YouTube, which have spawned a whole generation of ‘Facebook terrorists’ in the West, gain their persuasive power from a widely shared experience among young Muslims of attraction and self-hatred before the gods of sensuousness. Awlaki himself left America and plunged into jihadism out of fear that he, who sermonized against fornication, might be exposed as a frequenter of prostitutes. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whose savage attacks on Shiites helped push Iraq into civil war and laid the foundations for ISIS, was fleeing a long past of pimping, drug-dealing and heavy drinking; and he never quite escaped it. The Afghan-American Omar Mateen was a habitué of the gay club in Orlando where he massacred forty-nine people.

The quest for a moral victory over an unmanly self and a clear identity, both quickly achieved by identifying a single enemy, leads some young Muslims to affiliate themselves with ISIS and al-Qaeda. It has been baffling for many to confront among Justin Bieber-loving Muslims a political species – radicals, revolutionaries, millenarian fantasists – long thought to be extinct in post-industrial, ostensibly post-ideological, Western Europe and America. But the fierce backlash against modernity, as we’ll see in the next chapter, began even before it had entrenched itself as a universal norm; Rousseau was present as a critic at the creation of the new individualistic society, pointing to devastating contradictions right in the heart and soul of the bourgeois individual entrusted with progress, and improvising his own militantly secessionist solutions.

This central revolutionary tradition inaugurated by Rousseau is scarcely even a memory today. Bland fanatics, sedulously polishing the image of a ‘liberal’ West against totalitarianism and Islam, have banished it to obscurity. This is usually done through a combination of reductionist history and ahistorical explanations, largely involving clinical psychology. Thus, politicians and journalists routinely describe the domestic terrorist as a deranged ‘lone wolf’, even when, as with Timothy McVeigh, and many other anti-government militants in the United States, he explicitly articulated a point of view – anti-governmentalism – that mirrors mainstream ideas and ideologies.

McVeigh claimed to be defending the American constitution, and on the day of his atrocity in 1995 in Oklahoma City he wore a T-shirt bearing a quotation from Thomas Jefferson: ‘The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.’ McVeigh also showed himself to be a true product of the First Gulf War – the war that went straight to video – with his carefully staged killing; he was looking for saturation media coverage as well as high body counts. He then justified his spectacular violence with reference to the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and other expedient and devastatingly effective American acts of war.

The generation of militant white supremacists that followed McVeigh upheld the same conventional rationalizations of violence. Republican politicians long before Trump and Ted Cruz were echoing McVeigh’s core belief in freedom from venal government. And gun-owning truck drivers in Louisiana have more in common with trishul-wielding Hindus in India, bearded Islamists in Pakistan, and nationalists and populists elsewhere, than any of them realize.

*   *   *

‘Variety,’ Tocqueville was already warning in the mid-nineteenth century, ‘is disappearing from within the human species; the same manner of acting, thinking, and feeling is found in all corners of the world … all peoples deal with each other more and copy each other more faithfully.’ Even those anti-imperialists who asserted their national personality and particularity against Europe’s rationalistic, aggressively universalizing missions actually ended up radically reconfiguring ancient religions and cultures such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam along European lines, infusing these modernized faiths with political purpose, reformist zeal and even revolutionary content.

By the century’s end, Herzl was hoping that ‘Darwinian mimicry’ would make the Jews as powerful as their European tormentors. It is definitely not some esoteric Hadith that makes ISIS so eager today to adopt the modern West’s methods and technologies of war, revolution and propaganda – especially, as the homicidal dandyism of Jihadi John revealed, its media-friendly shock-and-awe violence.

The intellectual pedigree of today’s nasty atrocities is not to be found in religious scriptures. French colonialists in Algeria had used torture techniques originally deployed by the Nazis during their occupation of France (and also were some of the first hijackers of a civilian aeroplane). Americans in the global war on terror resorted to cruel interrogation methods that the Soviet Union had patented during the Cold War. In the latest stage of this gruesome reciprocity, the heirs of Zarqawi in ISIS dress their Western hostages in Guantanamo’s orange suits, and turn on their smartphone cameras, before beheading their victims.

In many Western countries, what we term ‘radical Islamism’ has grown in tandem with a nativist radical right against the backdrop of economic decline, social fragmentation and disenchantment with electoral politics. Marginalized blue-collar Christians in Rust Belt America and post-communist Poland as well as long-bearded young Muslims in France push a narrative of victimhood and heroic struggle between the faithful and the unfaithful, the authentic and the inauthentic. Their blogs, YouTube videos and social media incarnations mirror each other, down to the conspiracy theories about transnational Jews. The writings of Anders Behring Breivik, who killed nearly two hundred people in Norway in 2011, contained the same strictures against feminism as any Islamist screed. The German-Iranian teenager who killed nine people in Munich on the fifth anniversary of Breivik’s attack confirmed the mimetic nature of today’s violence by choosing a picture of Breivik as his WhatsApp profile.

Identity has long been interchangeable in our global civil war: after all, the militants armed and funded by the West against the Soviet Union were once hailed as ‘freedom fighters’, and they eventually found their capitalist sponsors indistinguishable from godless communists. Today, American veterans of wars against jihadists in Iraq and Afghanistan – African-American as well as Muslim – aim their weapons at their fellow citizens. Yet we continue to look for explanations and enemies in the drastic cultural and religious otherness of those responsible, in a religious ideology that, originating in the Middle East, evidently seduces vulnerable young people away from Western values.

It is a reassuring, even self-flattering, impulse. What could be more alien to liberal, secular and democratic societies than a bunch of seventh-century fundamentalists prepared to kill themselves in the name of Allah in order to inflict maximum damage? For those brought up on stories of how a West defined by Enlightenment rationalism and humanism made, or ought to make, the modern world, blaming Islamic theology, or fixating on the repellant rhetoric of ISIS, can even be indispensable in achieving moral self-entrancement, and toughening up convictions of superiority: we, liberal, democratic and rational, are not at all like these savages. But these spine-stiffening exercises can no longer obscure the fact that the history of the Atlantic West has long been continuous with the world it made.

The belief systems and institutions that Britain, France and the United States initiated and advanced – the commercial society, the global market economy, the nation state and utilitarian rationality – first caused a long emergency in Europe, before roiling the older worlds of Asia and Africa. And it is now clear that the radical aspirations they ignited, which first erupted as revolutions and revolts in European societies in the nineteenth century, are far from burning themselves out. New political religions and demagogues are still emerging; older forms of faith and ways of life are undergoing a metamorphosis as dramatic as the one that Christianity underwent in the secular modern age. The modern West can no longer be distinguished from its apparent enemies.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!