Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe, through Paris and London, through New York and Boston and Concord, through church and state, through poetry and philosophy and religion, till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality.
Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854)
The Last Men Proliferate
Europe, Alexander Herzen predicted in the mid-nineteenth century, is ‘approaching a terrible cataclysm’. ‘The masses crushed by toil, weakened by hunger, dulled by ignorance’ had long been the ‘uninvited guests at the feast of life’, whose ‘suppression was a necessary condition’ of the privileged lives of a minority.
The political revolutions had brought the masses out of their state of passivity, but they were ‘petering out under the weight of their own complete impotence’. ‘They have not,’ Herzen argued, ‘established the era of freedom. They have lit new desires in the hearts of men, but they have not provided ways of satisfying them.’
Educated Russians like Herzen first formulated their revolutionary ideologies in the great intermediate ground between serene elites and mute masses. This is the space, as we have seen, from where almost all modern militants have emerged. It has grown broader as economic shifts, literacy and the communication revolution bring more people out of abject poverty into a landscape of hope and aspiration – and then cruelly abandon them in that limbo. Democratic expectations escalated in the nineteenth century because the abolition of the old society of hierarchy had turned out to expose another division of humanity into grossly unequal social classes: rich and poor, masters and labourers, and hence also exploiters and exploited. The mass of society seemed to many to be oppressed and deluded by an elite.
As Bakunin wrote, ‘The opposition of freedom and unfreedom has been driven to its last and highest culmination in our present which is so similar to the periods of dissolution of the pagan world.’ This is why he refused to build, like Marx, a theory and philosophy of history. Bakunin invoked a ‘fullness of the totality of human nature which cannot be exhausted by abstract, theoretical propositions’. Instead of identifying a specific agent of change in the working class or the nation, he cleaved to a capacious and stirring notion of a spiritually as well as politically and economically disenfranchised ‘poor class which, without doubt, is the vast majority of mankind’:
Look into yourself and tell me truthfully: are you satisfied with yourself and can you be satisfied? Are you not all sad and bedraggled manifestations of a sad and bedraggled time? – are you not full of contradictions? – are you whole men? – do you believe in anything really? – do you know what you want, and can you want anything at all? – has modern reflection, the epidemic of our time, left a single living part in you; and are you not penetrated by reflection through and through, paralyzed and broken? Indeed, you will have to confess that ours is a sad age and that we all are its still sadder children.
Bakunin articulated a sentiment of revolt among these agonizingly divided men: an immediate, violent reaction against an oppressive social state. Many of Bakunin’s anarchist and terrorist followers revealed the depth of a revolutionary lust that has broken free of traditional constraints and disdains to offer a vision of the future – a lust that seeks satisfaction through violence and destruction alone. Incarnated today by the maniacs of ISIS, it seems to represent absolute evil. But, as Voegelin once argued:
This new absoluteness of evil, however, is not introduced into the situation by the revolutionary; it is the reflex of the actual despiritualization of the society from which the revolutionary emerges. The revolutionary crisis of our age is distinguished from earlier revolutions by the fact that the spiritual substance of Western society has diminished to the vanishing point, and that the vacuum does not show any signs of refilling from new sources.
We see again, in our own sad age, the stark extremes of political inflexibility and anarchic revolt, insuperable backwardness and a gaudy cult of progress. Indeed, the men trying to radicalize the liberal principle of freedom and autonomy, of individual power and agency, seem more rootless and desperate than before; even less constrained than the Russian nihilists or immigrant anarchists of the late nineteenth century by shared rules or possibilities of political participation. For society itself, let alone its spiritual substance, has been diminished by the loss of its relative autonomy and internal order in the age of globalization. The spatial and temporal reference points that have helped orientate populations in specific territories, since the rise of civil society and the nation state in the eighteenth century, have faded. Thus, individual assertion, often wholly lacking the constraining context in which it was born, tends to be more volatile today, and can degenerate quickly into a mad quest for singularity.
Furthermore, we suffer, just as Bakunin did after 1848, from an extraordinary if largely imperceptible destruction of faith in the future – the fundamental optimism that makes reality seem purposeful and goal-oriented. Back in 1994, Václav Havel could still point to the ‘new deity: the ideal of perpetual growth of production and consumption’, while lamenting the despiritualization enforced by modern society. Today, the belief in progress, necessary for life in a Godless universe, can no longer be sustained, except, perhaps, in the Silicon Valley mansions of baby-faced millennials.
The world has never seen a greater accumulation of wealth, or a more extensive escape from material deprivation. The fruits of human creativity – from smartphones to stem-cell reconstructions – continue to grow. But such broad and conventional norms of progress cloak how unequally its opportunities are distributed: for instance, nearly half of the world’s income growth between 1988 and 2011 was appropriated by the richest tenth of humanity and, even in rich countries, there is a growing life-expectancy gap between classes.
In an economically stagnant world that offers a dream of individual empowerment to all but no realizable dreams of political change, the lure of active nihilism can only grow. Timothy McVeigh with his quintessentially American and First World background illustrates the passage from passive to active nihilism as vividly as men from impoverished postcolonial societies. For he claimed to be defending, with his spectacular brutality, the ideal – individual autonomy – that modernity itself had enshrined, and then barred him from.
He was born into a way of life common until the 1980s among large numbers of the depoliticized and apathetic working-class and middle-class populations in the United States and Europe. George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four had conceived in dystopian terms this comfortable if regimented life of a remotely and lightly supervised proletariat – the last men of history:
So long as they [the Proles] continued to work and breed, their other activities were without importance. Left to themselves, like cattle turned loose upon the plains of Argentina, they had reverted to a style of life that appeared to be natural to them, a sort of ancestral pattern … Heavy physical work, the care of home and children, petty quarrels with neighbours, films, football, beer and above all, gambling filled up the horizon of their minds. To keep them in control was not difficult.
McVeigh grew up as this period of general affluence and leisure peaked, and a series of economic crises from the 1970s onwards began to make the American Dream, as he himself pointed out, seem less and less credible. McVeigh found it hard to get jobs commensurate with his sense of dignity. Brought up by a culture of individualism to consider himself unique, he seemed to have suffered from a sense of diminishment as he grew older and sensed the vast political and economic forces working around and on him. In our own time, support for Donald Trump’s white nationalism connects with middle-aged working-class men, who have suffered a dramatic deterioration in mortality due to suicide, and an increase in morbidity because of drug and alcohol abuse.
* * *
Max Stirner wrote in 1842 that to be looked ‘upon as a mere part, part of society, the individual cannot bear – because he is more; his uniqueness puts from it this limited conception’. True freedom for this disaffected individual would consist of a renunciation of self-assertion, or a retreat into the kind of inner freedom that Rousseau finally sought, followed by the German Romantics. But a free will that chooses not to will itself has never been part of the design of the modern world ever since Descartes pronounced, ‘I think, therefore I am.’
From its inception in the Enlightenment, the modern world was driven, and defined, by the self-affirming autonomous individual who, condemned to be free, continually opens up new possibilities of human mastery and empowerment. His project was deemed crucial to the collective escape, beginning in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, from prejudice, superstition and the belief in God, and into the safety of reason, science and commerce. Since then, freedom has been synonymous with the developing natural sciences, new artistic forms, free trade and increasingly democratic civil society and political institutions.
Intellectuals – writers, scientists, sociologists, historians, economists – have embodied the quasi-religious belief in continuous progress. From the very beginning of the modern era, they subsumed themselves, much to Rousseau’s alarm, into what they saw as the larger force and movement – the onward march of history. The iconic modern intellectual is, aptly, Voltaire, who helped found civil society and fought for freedom of speech while counselling ruling classes and participating in international trade. But history seems to have come full circle instead of marching forward.
The most convincing and influential public intellectual today – Pope Francis – is not an agent of reason and progress. In a piquant irony, he is the moral voice of the Church that was the main adversary of Enlightenment intellectuals as they built the philosophical scaffolding of a universal commercial society. He has acquired his moral stature largely because the ostensibly autonomous and self-interested individual, unleashed by the advance of commercial society, confronts an impasse. The contemporary crisis stems in large part from the failed universalization of this figure, and its descent, in the age of globalization, into either angry tribalism or equally bellicose forms of antinomian individualism.
* * *
Power in secularizing Europe had been unmoored from its location in the transcendental and made immanent in society; it came to be seen as originating in the will of human beings: the free will that the Romantics, Napoleon cultists as well as economic liberals affirmed, embodied vividly in the individual with certain non-negotiable rights and entrepreneurial energy and ambition. Such an individual sought power – or what in a commercial and egalitarian society amounted to advantage over rivals and competitors.
Rousseau was among the first to sense that a power lacking theological foundations or transcendent authority, and conceived as power over other competing individuals, was inherently unstable. It could only be possessed temporarily; and it condemned the rich and poor alike to a constant state of ressentiment and anxiety.
This was already evident as nineteenth-century Europe, having abandoned its old social order, lurched with its new religions of power and wealth into the age of Social Darwinism; its masses, mobilized by strongmen through large states, then went on to participate in an extensive slaughter in the early twentieth century. In our own time, however, a brutish struggle for existence and recognition has come to define individual as well as geopolitical relations across the world.
Billions of the world’s poorest are locked into a Social Darwinist nightmare. But even in advanced democracies a managerial form of politics and neo-liberal economics has torn up the social contract. In the regime of privatization, commodification, deregulation and militarization it is barely possible to speak without inviting sarcasm about those qualities that distinguish humans from other predatory animals – trust, co-operation, community, dialogue and solidarity.
In our state of worldwide emergency, extrajudicial murder, torture and secret detentions no longer provoke widespread condemnation, disgust and shame. Popular culture as well as state policy has made them seem normal. The educated middle classes, long hailed as the transmitter of democratic values, are haunted by fears of social redundancy. Their anxiety combined with the rage of the dispossessed and the also-rans, and the indifference, bordering on contempt, of the plutocracy, make for an everyday culture of cruelty and heartlessness.
Endemic war and persecution have rendered an unprecedented sixty million people homeless. Endless misery provokes many desperate Latin Americans, Asians and Africans to make the risky journey to what they see as the centre of successful modernity. Yet more and more individuals and groups – from African-Americans in American cities, Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, Muslims in India and Myanmar, to African and Middle Eastern refugees in European camps and asylum-seekers imprisoned on remote Pacific Islands – are now seen as superfluous.
Forcibly confined to zones of abandonment, containment, surveillance and incarceration, this class of the excluded performs yeoman service as the feared ‘others’ in unequal societies. They are both scapegoats for the race- and class-based anxieties of many insecure individuals and the raison d’être of a growing industry of violence.
In general, there has been an exponential rise in tribalist hatred of minorities, the main pathology of scapegoating released by political and economic shocks, even as the world is knit more closely by globalization. Whether in the screeds of angry white men, or the edicts of vengeful Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist and Jewish chauvinists, we encounter a pitiless machismo, which does not appease or seek to understand, let alone shed tears of sympathy over, the plight of weaker peoples. These must now submit, often at pain of death, expulsion and ostracism, to the core ideals of the tribe dictated by the history of its religion and territory.
Our sense of impending doom today is quickened by the premonition that it won’t be caused exclusively by selfish politicians and businessmen, illiberal, manipulable masses, or brutal terrorists. In our state of negative solidarity, ‘universal ruin’, as Baudelaire warned, has become ‘apparent in the baseness of our hearts’.
This is why it is no longer sufficient to ask ‘Why do they hate us?’ or blame political turpitude, financial malfeasance and the media. The global civil war is also a deeply intimate event; its Maginot Line runs through individual hearts and souls. We need to examine our own role in the culture that stokes unappeasable vanity and shallow narcissism. We not only need to interpret, in order to make the future less grim, a world bereft of moral certitudes and metaphysical guarantees. Above all, we need to reflect more penetratingly on our complicity in everyday forms of violence and dispossession, and our callousness before the spectacle of suffering.
The Wars in the Inner World
Behind the private and state-sanctioned cults of violence and authoritarianism today, and the grisly cycle of bombings and beheadings, there are even grimmer signs of worldwide ressentiment. McVeigh, brought up on American notions of individual freedom bereft of any religious belief, felt this humiliation acutely. But there are many more men like him in the world, especially in ‘emerging economies’, their number expanded by the mass disillusion, anger and disorientation caused by an increasingly unequal and unstable economy.
The quotient of frustration tends to be highest in countries with a large population of educated young men. A quarter of the world’s largely urban population – some 1.8 billion – is between the age of fifteen and thirty. The number of superfluous young people condemned to the anteroom of the modern world, an expanded Calais in its squalor and hopelessness, has grown exponentially in recent decades, especially in the youthful societies of Asia and Africa.
Extremist organizations find easy recruits among unemployed and unemployable youth – globally, those who fight in wars or commit violent crimes are, as usual, nearly all young men. They have undergone multiple shocks and displacements in their transition to modernity and yet find themselves unable to fulfil the promise of self-empowerment. For many of these Bazarovs and Rudins the contradiction between extravagant promise and meagre means has become intolerable.
Since 1989 the energies of postcolonial idealism have faded together with socialism as an economic and moral alternative. The unfettered globalization of capital annexed more parts of the world into a uniform pattern of desire and consumption. In the neo-liberal fantasy of individualism, everyone was supposed to be an entrepreneur, retraining and repackaging himself or herself in a dynamic economy, perpetually alert to the latter’s technological revolutions.
A heightened rhetoric of self-empowerment accompanied, for instance, the IT revolution, as young graduates and dropouts became billionaires overnight in the Bay Area, and users of Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp briefly appeared to be toppling authoritarian regimes worldwide. But the drivers of Uber cars, toiling for abysmally low fares, represent the actual fate of many self-employed ‘entrepreneurs’.
Capital continually moves across national boundaries in the search for profit, contemptuously sweeping skills and norms made obsolete by technology into the dustbin of history. We may pretend to be entrepreneurs, polishing our personal brands, decorating our stalls in virtual as well as real marketplaces; but defeat, humiliation and resentment are more commonplace experiences than success and contentment in the strenuous endeavour of franchising the individual self.
Katherine Boo in Behind the Beautiful Forevers (2012) sees through the cliché that Mumbai is ‘a hive of hope and ambition’ to a more disturbing fact:
Mumbai was a place of festering grievance and ambient envy. Was there a soul in this enriching, unequal city who didn’t blame his dissatisfaction on someone else? Wealthy citizens accused the slum-dwellers of making the city filthy and unliveable, even as an oversupply of human capital kept the wages of their maids and chauffeurs low. Slum-dwellers complained about the obstacles the powerful erected to prevent them from sharing in new profit. Everyone, everywhere, complained about their neighbours.
And everyone, everywhere, seems to suffer from what Camus defined as ‘an autointoxication, the malignant secretion of one’s preconceived impotence inside the enclosure of the self’. Camus, among many other writers and thinkers, saw ressentiment as a defining feature of the modern world where individual dissatisfaction with the actually available degree of freedom constantly collides with elaborate theories and promises of individual freedom and empowerment. It can only become explosive as inequalities rise and no political redress appears to be in sight.
* * *
Rousseau understood ressentiment profoundly, even though he never used the word – Rousseau, the first outraged diagnostician of commercial society and of the wounds inflicted on human souls by the task of adjusting to its mimetic rivalries and tensions. Kierkegaard first used the term precisely in The Present Age (1846) to note that the nineteenth century was marked by a particular kind of envy, which is incited when people consider themselves as equals yet seek advantage over each other. He warned that unreflexive envy was ‘the negatively unifying principle’ of the new democratic ‘public’.
Tocqueville had already noticed a surge in competition, envy and rivalry resulting from the democratic revolution of the United States. He worried that the New World’s ‘equality of conditions’, which concealed subtle forms of subjugation and unfreedom, would make for immoderate ambition, corrosive envy and chronic dissatisfaction. Too many people, he warned, were living a ‘sort of fancied equality’ despite the ‘actual inequality of their lives’. Having succumbed to an ‘erroneous notion’ that ‘an easy and unbounded career is open’ to their ambition, they were hedged in on all sides by pushy rivals. For the democratic revolutionaries, who had abolished ‘the privileges of some of their fellow-creatures which stood in their way’, had then plunged into ‘universal competition’.
The German sociologist Max Scheler elaborated these nineteenth-century speculations into a systematic theory of ressentiment as a characteristic phenomenon of societies founded on the principle of equality. Its ‘strongest source’, Scheler wrote, was the ‘existential envy’ of rivals and models, the feeling that whispered continually: ‘I can forgive everything, but not that you are – that you are what you are – that I am not what you are – indeed that I am not you.’ Ressentiment was inherent in the structure of societies where formal equality between individuals coexists with massive differences in power, education, status and property ownership.
A rowdy public culture of disparagement and admonition does not hide the fact that the chasm of education and sensibility between the technocratic and financial elites and masses has grown. Thus, the majority sees social power monopolized by people with money, property, connections and talent; they feel shut out from both higher culture and decision-making. They see immigration as a ploy to create an industrial reserve army that exerts a downward pressure on salaries while simultaneously increasing corporate profits.
Many people find it easy to aim their rage against an allegedly cosmopolitan and rootless cultural elite. Objects of hatred are needed more than ever before during times of crisis, and rich transnationals conveniently embody the vices of a desperately sought-after but infuriatingly unattainable modernity: money worship, lack of noble virtues such as patriotism. Thus, globalization, while promoting integration among shrewd elites, incites political and cultural sectarianism everywhere else, especially among people forced against their will into universal competition.
The state of negative solidarity, as Arendt suspected, has become ‘an unbearable burden’, provoking ‘political apathy, isolationist nationalism, or desperate rebellion against all powers that be’. Political and economic life seems to have no remedy for the emotional and psychological disorders it has unleashed; it can only offer more opportunities for self-aggrandizement in the state of virtual equality enforced by digital media.
Even those who are mercifully employed and anchored find their subjection to economic necessity harder to bear in a climate where mediating forces and buffers (Churches, guilds, trade unions, local government) between the individual and an impersonal economic order are absent or greatly diminished. Digital communications offer to many of them relief from an all-pervasive fear, anxiety and uncertainty. For the 1.5 billion people now on Facebook, and hundreds of millions more on other social media forums, a ubiquitous screen culture now serves as the primary mode of engaging with (and detaching from) the world; it is the new mediating force and buffer; and, like all other media (telegraph, telephone, cinema, radio, television, computer and the internet), it has altered individual and collective ways of being in the world.
Writing in the mid-nineteenth century, Kierkegaard doubted the then new ‘idea of sociality, of community’ promoted by journalism, and cautioned against the public opinion that rose from ‘a union of people who separately are weak, a union as unbeautiful and depraved as a child-marriage’. Early in the twentieth century, communications technology was still confined to the telegraph, the telephone and the cinema; but Max Weber warned that, combined with the pressure of work and opaque political and economic forces, it would push modern individuals away from public life and into a ‘subjectivist culture’ – or what he called ‘sterile excitation’. In 1969, Marshall McLuhan claimed that the era of literacy had ended with the advent of radio and television; their multi-sensory experience in a ‘global village’ had returned humankind to tribal structures of feeling and ‘we begin again to live a myth’. Today’s colossal exodus of human lives into cyberspace is even more dramatically transforming old notions of time, space, knowledge, values, identities and social relations.
The public sphere, the original creation of eighteenth-century commoners liberating themselves from feudal and aristocratic privilege, has radically expanded. And, for some long-disenfranchised peoples, such as African-Americans, to enter this space of liberal modernity is to assert one’s autonomy as an interlocutor armed with critical reason, and to expose the self-serving amnesia among a reigning elite about the historical crimes that secured them their hegemony. But for many more the project of individual autonomy is imperilled like never before.
The current vogue for the zombie apocalypse in films seems to have been anticipated by the multitudes on city pavements around the world, lurching forward while staring blankly at screens. Constantly evolving mobile media technologies such as smartphones, tablets and wearable devices have made every moment pregnant with the possibility of a sign from somewhere. The possibility, renewed each morning, of ‘likes’ and augmented followers on social media have boosted ordinary image consciousness among millions into obsessive self-projection. The obligation to present the most appealing side of oneself is irresistible and infectious. Digital platforms are programmed to map these compulsive attempts at self-presentation (or, self-prettification), and advertisers stand ready to sell things that help people keep counterfeiting their portraits.
Meanwhile, in the new swarm of online communities – bound by Facebook shares and retweets, fast-moving timelines and twitter storms – the spaces between individuals are shrinking. In his prescient critique of the neo-liberal notion of individual freedom, Rousseau had argued that human beings live neither for themselves nor for their country in a commercial society where social value is modelled on monetary value; they live for the satisfaction of their vanity, or amour propre: the desire and need to secure recognition from others, to be esteemed by them as much as one esteems oneself.
But, as Kierkegaard pointed out, the seeker of individual freedom must ‘break out of the prison in which his own reflection holds him’, and then out of ‘the vast penitentiary built by the reflection of his associates’. He absolutely won’t find freedom in the confining fun-house mirrors of Facebook and Twitter. For the vast prison of seductive images does not heal the perennially itchy and compulsively scratched wounds of amour propre. On the contrary: even the most festive spirit of communality disguises the competitiveness and envy provoked by constant exposure to other people’s success and well-being.
As Rousseau warned, amour propre is doomed to be perpetually unsatisfied. Too commonplace and parasitic on fickle opinion, it nourishes in the soul a dislike of one’s own self while stoking impotent hatred of others; and amour propre can quickly degenerate into an aggressive drive, whereby an individual feels acknowledged only by being preferred over others, and by rejoicing in their abjection – in Gore Vidal’s pithy formulation, ‘It’s not enough to succeed. Others must fail.’
It’s All About Me
Ressentiment may seem a natural consequence of the worldwide pursuit of wealth, power, status and sterile excitation mandated by global capitalism. While making some people rich, the latter has exposed the severe disparities of income and opportunities, and left many to desperately improvise jaunty masks for themselves in the social jungle. Digital media have unquestionably enhanced the human tendency to constantly compare one’s life with the lives of the apparently fortunate. It is one reason why women who enter the workforce or become prominent in the public sphere incite rage among men with siege mentalities worldwide.
But the palpable extremity of desire, speech and action in the world today also derives from something more insidious than economic inequality and unsocial sociability. It has the same source as the myriad Romantic revolts and rebellions of early nineteenth-century Europe: the mismatch between personal expectations, heightened by a traumatic break with the past, and the cruelly unresponsive reality of slow change. Human beings had been freed, in theory, from the stasis of tradition to deploy their skills, move around freely, choose their occupation, and sell to and buy from whomever they chose. But most people have found the notions of individualism and social mobility to be unrealizable in practice.
Much, as before, is required today of the world’s largely youthful population. To accept the conventions of traditional society is to be less than an individual. To reject them is to assume an intolerable burden of freedom in often fundamentally discouraging conditions. Consequently, two phenomena much noted in nineteenth-century European society – anomie, or the malaise of the free-floating individual who is only loosely attached to surrounding social norms, and anarchist violence – are now strikingly widespread. Whether in India, Egypt, or the United States today, we see the same tendency of the disappointed to revolt, and the confused to seek refuge in collective identity and fantasies of a new community.
* * *
Moreover, the burden of personal inadequacy and estrangement has been increased by the unavoidable awareness of an unlimited horizon of global complications: the information we have and are constantly stimulated by is much greater than the range of what we can do. The pressures on the human soul that Rousseau described could still be traced back to specific social conditions in Europe; and it was still possible, as he himself showed, to avoid the strain of loving oneself through others, and retreat from the social jungle into a clearing of one’s own. The German Romantics’ notion of self-cultivation suggested another way of deploying the human powers of understanding and feeling within precise boundaries.
But that experience of a sovereign life in a circumscribed place is much harder to achieve in the vast and complex space of the global, which is marked by currents, flows and waves rather than clear outlines or limits. In place of society or nature, the individual confronts a new indecipherable whole: the globe, in which multiple spaces and times bewilderingly overlap. Enmeshed in its various dense networks, including an electronic web mediating his relationship with reality, the individual can act satisfactorily neither upon himself nor upon the world, and is reminded frequently and humiliatingly of his limited everyday consciousness and meagre individual power.
Man, as Goethe wisely wrote in Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795), ‘is born to fit into a limited situation; he can understand simple, close and definite purposes, and he gets used to employing the means which are near at hand; but as soon as he goes any distance, he knows neither what he will nor what he should be doing.’ Thrown into opaque global processes, and overwhelmed by incalculable variables, man, or woman, can no longer connect cause to effect.
Considerably more people than during Goethe’s time know what is owed to them. Individual and national capabilities have been greatly enlarged by technology: the despots of impoverished North Korea possess nuclear bombs, and anyone, as the parody accounts of Kim Kardashian reveal, can rapidly build up a large following on Twitter. But self-assertion and mimesis in the absence of clear norms and ends prove to be self-defeating; they entangle human beings in open-ended processes that ceaselessly provoke anxious uncertainty.
Instead of making history, individuals find themselves entangled in histories they are barely aware of; and their most conscientiously planned action often produces wholly unintended consequences, generating more perplexing histories. After more than a century of global warming many dreams of individual and collective greatness can never turn into realistic projects. To take only one example: the greatest ventures of national modernization since Bismarck’s Germany that accelerated in India and China in recent decades, appearing to power the world economy. Burdened by uncontrollable social unrest, and irreversible climate change, Indians and Chinese will never enjoy in their lifetime the condition of a civilized urban existence that a few millions in Europe and America enjoyed intermittently through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
There is plainly much more longing than can be realized legitimately in the age of freedom and entrepreneurship; more desires for objects of consumption than can be fulfilled by actual income; more dreams than can be fused with stable society by redistribution and greater opportunity; more discontents than can be allayed by politics or traditional therapies; more demand for status symbols and brand names than can be met by non-criminal means; more claims made on celebrity than can be met by increasingly divided attention spans; more stimuli from the news media than can be converted into action; and more outrage than can be expressed by social media.
Simply defined, the energy and ambition released by the individual will to power far exceed the capacity of existing political, social and economic institutions. Thus, the trolls of Twitter as much as the dupes of ISIS lurch between feelings of impotence and fantasies of violent revenge.
* * *
Even in advanced countries, the collapse of the labour market and the systems of solidarity around it, and the growth of the informal economy, bears more than a passing resemblance to the working conditions of the European nineteenth century that were such a fertile soil for revolutionaries, anarchists and terrorists. Marx thought that wage slavery, insecure and impersonal, was worse than serfdom; but, today, stable employment in a single line of work, let alone a single enterprise, is becoming increasingly rare. Ad hoc work is more common. Many young people work part-time, study and work at the same time, travel huge distances in order to find work – if they can find it at all.
These significantly numerous members of the precariat know that there is no such thing as a level playing field. They share a suspicion, which was previously mostly found among paranoid conspiracy theorists, that their own political elite has become the enemy of freedom, not its protector. The fierce contempt among these groups in America for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton reflects more than just a misogynist backlash against the gains of feminism, or deflected hatred of minorities; it reflects a severely diminished respect for the political process itself.
The failure of any convincing rebuttal from the elite gives their fears greater plausibility. Thus, white nationalists in the United States claim to be taking their own lives in hand again, vindicating their own liberties. Despite the repellant xenophobic aspects of their rhetoric, they offer an anti-elite case that does not fail to connect with the wider public’s own hunches. Trump and his supporters in the world’s richest country are no less the dramatic symptom of a general crisis of legitimacy than those terrorists who plan and inspire mass violence by exploiting the channels of global integration.
The appeal of formal and informal secessionism – the possibility, broadly, of greater control over one’s life – has grown from Catalonia, Scotland, England to Hong Kong, beyond the cunningly separatist elites with multiple citizenships and offshore accounts. More and more people feel the gap between the profligate promises of individual freedom and sovereignty, and the incapacity of their political and economic organizations to realize them.
Yet the obvious moral flaws of our universal commercial society have not made it politically vulnerable. In Europe and America, a common and effective response among reigning elites to unravelling national narratives and loss of legitimacy is fear-mongering against minorities and immigrants – an insidious campaign that continuously feeds off the alienation and hostility it provokes.
Chinese, Russian, Turkish and Indian leaders have even less reason to oppose a global economic system that has helped enrich them and their cronies and allies. Rather, Xi Jinping, Modi, Putin and Erdogan retrofit old-style nationalism for their growing populations of uprooted citizens, who, like the Germans and Italians of the nineteenth century, have unfocused and often self-contradictory yearnings for belonging, identity and community, as well as for individual autonomy, material affluence and national power. The demagogues promise security in a radically insecure world. And so their self-legitimizing narratives are unavoidably hybrid: Mao-plus-Confucius, Holy Cow-plus-Smart Cities, Putinism-plus-Orthodox Christianity, Neo-liberalism-plus-Islam.
* * *
ISIS, too, offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine. Born from the ruins of two nation states that dissolved in sectarian violence, it is a beneficiary, along with mafia groups, human traffickers and drug lords, of the failure of governments to fulfil their basic roles: to create or maintain a stable political order, protect their citizens from external turbulence, including unruly economic and migratory flows as well as foreign invaders, and maintain a monopoly on violence. Led by stalwarts of Saddam Hussein’s secular regime, ISIS represents an ultimate stage in the privatization of war that has progressively characterized, along with many other privatizations, the age of globalization.
ISIS resembles many other racial, national and religious supremacists, in offering to release the anxiety and frustrations of the private life into the violence of the global. Unlike its rivals, however, ISIS mobilizes globally and stokes ressentiment into militant rebellion against the status quo. It is the canniest and most resourceful of all traders in the flourishing international economy of disaffection.
The appeal of demagogues lies in their ability to take a generalized discontent, the mood of drift, resentment, disillusionment and economic shakiness, and transform it into a plan for doing something. They make inaction seem morally degrading. And many young men and women become eager to transform their powerlessness into an irrepressible rage to hurt or destroy.
Faced with a rigidly enclosed world, with rules that are both arbitrary and impossible to change, they develop a romantic urge for flashy self-transcendence. ISIS caters to these narcissistic Baudelairean dandies, much like Gabriele D’Annunzio did, with its regalia and anthems. These converts to a haughty counter-culture mock the imperative of an entrepreneurial age to project an appealing persona; they post snuff videos and selfies with Kalashnikovs instead on Instagram.
While identifying various external enemies, ISIS directs its most malevolent energies at an internal enemy: the perfidious Shiite. At the same time, ISIS has a stern bureaucracy devoted to proper sanitation and tax collection. Some members of ISIS extol the spiritual nobility of the Prophet, and the earliest caliphs. Others confess through their mass rapes, choreographed murders and rational self-justifications a primary fealty to the amoralism Dostoyevsky rightly feared: one that makes it impossible for modern-day Raskolnikovs to deny themselves anything, and possible to justify anything.
The shape-shifting aspect of ISIS, which incorporates rebels, former socialists, Sunni supremacists and white European converts as well as accountants and doctors, is hardly unusual in a world in which ‘liberals’ morph into warmongers, and ‘conservatives’ institute revolutionary free-market ‘reforms’ and then initiate such radically disruptive socio-economic engineering as Brexit. It is another reflection of a fundamentally unstable social and political order in which old concepts and categories no longer hold firm.
We can of course cling tight to our comforting metaphysical dualisms and continue to insist on the rationality of liberal democracy vis-à-vis against ‘Islamic irrationalism’ while waging infinite wars abroad and assaulting civil liberties at home. Such a conception of liberalism and democracy, however, will not only reveal its inability to offer wise representation to citizens.
It will also make freshly relevant the question about intellectual and moral legitimacy that T. S. Eliot asked at a dark time in 1938: whether ‘our society, which had always been so assured of its superiority and rectitude, so confident of its unexamined premises, assembled round anything more permanent than a congeries of banks, insurance companies and industries, and had it any beliefs more essential than a belief in compound interest and the maintenance of dividends?’
Today, the unmitigated exercise of what Shelley called the calculating faculty looks just as indifferent to ordinary lives, and their need for belief and enchantment. The political impasses and economic shocks of our societies, and the irreparably damaged environment, corroborate the bleakest views of nineteenth-century critics who condemned modern capitalism as a heartless machine for economic growth, or the enrichment of the few, which works against such fundamentally human aspirations as stability, community and a better future.
Radical Islamists, among many other demagogues, draw their appeal from a deeply felt incoherence of concepts – ‘democracy’ and ‘individual rights’ among them – with which many still reflexively shore up the ideological defences of a self-evidently dysfunctional system. Very little in contemporary politics and culture seems to be able to match their offer of collective identity and self-aggrandizement to isolated and fearful individuals. This is why the failure to check the expansion and appeal of an outfit like ISIS is not only military; it is also intellectual and moral.
And now with the victory of Donald Trump it has become impossible to deny or obscure the great chasm, first explored by Rousseau, between an elite that seizes modernity’s choicest fruits while disdaining older truths and uprooted masses, who, on finding themselves cheated of the same fruits, recoil into cultural supremacism, populism and rancorous brutality. The contradictions and costs of a minority’s progress, long suppressed by historical revisionism, blustery denial and aggressive equivocation, have become visible on a planetary scale.
They encourage the suspicion – potentially lethal among the hundreds of millions of people condemned to superfluousness – that the present order, democratic or authoritarian, is built upon force and fraud; they incite a broader and more apocalyptic mood than we have witnessed before. They also underscore the need for some truly transformative thinking, about both the self and the world.