It is always a good idea, I think, to resist the temptation to regard the politics of one’s own time as especially awful, but recent history does seem to have provided no shortage of prima facie evidence that there is something a bit unhinged and perhaps even pathological about contemporary conflicts. As Pankaj Mishra and Kenan Malik both argue, the volatility and irrationalism of the present are expressions of widespread feelings of alienation, resentment, anger and hatred. This much, at least, seems obvious enough. The difficult question Mishra and Malik set out to answer is why this should be the case.
On one level, the resurgence of these negative emotions can be readily attributed to a combination of material and intellectual factors, which have deep historical roots, but have converged in the period following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 – an event widely interpreted at the time as confirmation of the ultimate global triumph of liberal-democratic values. ‘Over the past two decades,’ Mishra writes in Age of Anger, ‘elites in even many former socialist countries came to uphold an ideal of cosmopolitan liberalism: the universal commercial society of self-interested rational individuals that was originally advocated in the eighteenth century by such Enlightenment thinkers as Montesquieu, Adam Smith, Voltaire and Kant.’ The failure of this ‘vast homogenous market’ to deliver on its promises of liberation and shared prosperity has encouraged scepticism about the universal aspirations of the Enlightenment’s emancipatory ideals; it has exacerbated the feelings of frustration and powerlessness among the marginalised, dispossessed, persecuted, exploited or otherwise discriminated against – rather a large group, when you add them all up.
As Mishra argues, the destructive psychological phenomenon Nietzsche called ressentiment thrives ‘where the modern promise of equality collides with massive disparities of power, education, status and property ownership’. And the consequences of this imbalance should concern us all. The persistence of ressentiment ‘poisons civil society and undermines political liberty, and is presently making for a global turn toward authoritarianism and toxic forms of chauvinism’.
Ressentiment translates straightforwardly as ‘resentment’, but Mishra follows Nietzsche in preferring the French word, in deference to its substantial philosophical and literary pedigree. He notes its first use as a technical term in Kierkegaard’s jeremiad The Present Age (1846), but traces the origins of the concept back even further to the Enlightenment philosophes – and specifically to Rousseau, whom he characterises as ‘the man who understood the moral and spiritual implications of the rise of international commercial society, and who saw the deep contradictions in a predominantly materialist ethic and a society founded on individuals enviously emulating the rich and craving their privileges’.
In placing ressentiment at the centre of Age of Anger, Mishra means to draw us back to a fundamental issue. The very concept of the rational self-interested individual – the foundation stone of modern liberal-democratic ideals – rests on the assumption of autonomy. But this notional independence divides us between a private realm of conscience and a public realm of action and discourse; it pits the individual will against social obligation, creating a conflict that reaches into the psyche. Rousseau was prescient because he grasped the unresolvable internal contradiction of radical individualism. He understood that the concept of virtue is meaningless outside of a social context. When we invert this principle and treat self-interest as if it were a virtue, the inevitable result is an atomised and fractious society in which individuals are forced into unhappy competition with each other. They become consumed with amour propre – an unhealthy form of self-esteem that can be gratified only by gaining the approval of other people. The insight informs what Mishra calls the ‘extraordinary paradox’ of Rousseau’s thought: ‘he hopes for the individual to subordinate himself to the community for the sake of his freedom, and not for the sake of any collectively shared goals’.
This paradox is the source of Rousseau’s notorious ideological ambiguity. The important point for Mishra is precisely that Rousseau stands outside conventional left-right distinctions, proposing that there is indeed something like a pathology of modern life, or at least a kind of fatal flaw. ‘What is crucial for Rousseau, and many of his ideological successors,’ writes Mishra, ‘is that politics is always personal for him.’ It is ‘entangled in neuroses of the over-socialized self’.
As Mishra points out, the literary archetype of the hopelessly conflicted modern individual is the unnamed narrator of Notes from Underground (1864), a story in which Dostoevsky set out to ridicule the fashionable notion of ‘rational egoism’. The Underground Man is an outrageous demonstration of the incompatibility of those two concepts. His desire for self-definition renders intolerable the knowledge that other people are making assumptions about him, so he constantly tries to second-guess and deny those assumptions, which results in him contradicting himself over and over again. He desperately desires recognition, but cannot accept it. Humiliated by the unbridgeable gap between his inflated sense of his own importance and the objective fact that he is utterly inconsequential, he lurches between fits of aggrandisement and self-loathing. His mind is an angry hive of regressive impulses and emotions: he nurses his permanently wounded pride, luxuriates in feelings of spite and scorn, takes a perverse delight in despicable behaviour.
The task Mishra sets himself in Age of Anger is as delicate as it is ambitious. He states that the book is ‘not an intellectual history … it explores a particular climate of ideas, a structure of feeling, and cognitive disposition, from the age of Rousseau to our own age of anger’. He neglects to mention that the phrase ‘structure of feeling’ was coined by the twentieth-century critic Raymond Williams, but the allusion is apt. In The Long Revolution (1961), Williams offers his deliberately paradoxical formula (a ‘feeling’ doesn’t really have a ‘structure’) as an encapsulation of the nebulous communal concept of ‘culture’, which in its all-encompassing sense raises the question of how we might begin to understand the influence of something as vague and open-ended as a ‘climate of ideas’ upon an individual sensibility.
This loosely defined cultural dimension makes Age of Anger an unusual work of history. Mishra attempts to reconcile material, intellectual and psychological factors, interweaving accounts of various chauvinistic political movements and violent reactionaries with considerations of influential writers and thinkers. He identifies underlying correspondences, emphasising that these reach across centuries and do not respect national boundaries or ethnic identifications. Yet he argues that ‘our unit of analysis should also be the irreducible human being, his or her fears, desires and resentments’. This value of this approach, he claims, is that an examination of ‘beliefs, mindsets and outlooks releases us from ideological and often moralizing categories’.
Mishra thus encourages us to see his procession of Underground Men – and they are overwhelmingly men, making his gender-inclusive pronouns seem rather unnecessary – as a lineage of disaffection. He gathers men as disparate as the Italian poet and proto-fascist Gabriele D’Annunzio, the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin and the Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh under the capacious umbrella of modernity, interpreting their rage against the societies that nurtured them as a symptom of its deracinating forces. He argues that if we are to understand the rise of violent Hindu nationalism or the motivations of jihadi terrorists then we should not look for an explanation in religious doctrines, but recognise the parallels with the bomb-throwing radicals of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. We should try to understand the pernicious dialectic of ressentiment, which drives those who have been disempowered and humiliated to seek refuge in the idea of inner-purity, and thus to enact a movement ‘from victimhood to moral supremacy’. And we should examine Romanticism’s counter-revolution against the Enlightenment’s rationalism and instrumentalism, note its formative influence on the Volkish notions that emerged in Germany in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, and try to understand the way in which these ideas mutated over the course of a century into fascism. The aim of Age of Anger is to shift
the preposterously heavy burden of explanation from Islam and religious extremism. It argues that the unprecedented political, economic and social disorder that accompanied the rise of the industrial capitalist economy in nineteenth-century Europe, and led to world wars, totalitarian regimes and genocide in the first half of the twentieth century, is now infecting much vaster regions and bigger populations.
There are some significant differences of opinion between Mishra and Malik, but on this point they agree: the ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis is thoroughly bogus. ‘The ideas of radical Islam certainly challenge basic tenets of Western democracy,’ Malik argues in From Fatwa to Jihad, ‘and the actions of Islamic terrorists are undoubtedly demonic. Yet the fault lines run not between civilizations but deep within Western societies themselves.’ He echoes Mishra’s argument when he draws on the work of French sociologist Olivier Roy to observe that
contemporary Islamic radicalism, far from being an expression of ancient theological beliefs, is really a reaction to new political and social changes: the loss of a sense of belonging in a fragmented society, the blurring of traditional moral lines, the increasing disenchantment with politics and politicians, the growing erosion of the distinction between our private lives and our public lives.
What particularly troubles Mishra and Malik is the self-perpetuating quality of contemporary divisions, the way in which insecurities have driven people back into culturally defensive positions and identifications. Near the end of From Fatwa to Jihad, Malik notes that the monolithic concepts of the ‘West’ and ‘Islam’ – which, one should hardly have to observe, are in no sense unitary or fixed – have acquired mythical qualities. They have come to function as a lazy rhetorical opposition that serves only to obscure a complex reality. Both authors rightly emphasise the fact that the perpetrators of terrorist attacks against the ‘West’ in the name of ‘Islam’ have tended to be disaffected young men who have often grown up in the West, who have not lived especially devout lives, and whose understanding of the religion they claim to represent is shallow at best. In recognising that the problem of contemporary anger and violence cannot be explained by the kinds of categorical distinctions that are routinely applied to them, Mishra and Malik offer differing but complementary analyses of our present predicament. Mishra’s argument about the philosophical and psychological orientation of modernity ultimately rests upon a claim about the metaphysics of progress; Malik adopts a narrower historical perspective, but focuses on the struggle to define and control the public sphere.
Mishra is clear about what he sees as the relevance of his wide-ranging historical survey. We are, he argues, in the midst of a ‘global civil war’ (a contentious claim and a rather confusing formula, for reasons I will come to): its conflicts are ‘deeply intimate … its Maginot Line runs through our individual hearts and souls’. One of the most unsettling implications of this diagnosis is that the distinction between political and sociopathic violence is rendered unclear. On this point, Malik again echoes Mishra’s argument when he observes that ‘there seems to be almost a continuum between ideological violence, inchoate rage, and some degree of sociopathy or mental illness’.
It is this inscrutable dimension, no less than the complexities of social and cultural divisions, that makes political anger so hard to read and its analysis so problematic. It raises an obvious methodological issue, which follows from the inherent difficulty of assessing an individual’s state of mind with any degree of certainty. And not the least troublesome aspect of the interpretive conundrum this creates is that the very labels one applies and the motivations one ascribes will themselves have political implications. As Åsne Seierstad notes in One of Us (2015), her comprehensive account of Anders Breivik’s terrorist attack in Norway in 2011, people invariably came to interpret his appalling crime in ways that reflected their pre-existing allegiances: those on the left saw him as a dedicated ideologue of the far-right; those on the right dismissed him as someone who was socially maladjusted and mentally unbalanced.
The proposition that there is truth in both assessments entails no necessary contradiction, and part of Mishra’s intention in Age of Anger is to demonstrate that this kind of ambiguity is not a new problem. Many of his historical Underground Men, he observes, committed violent acts without anything resembling a realistic or credible political objective, or sometimes even a hazy notion of the kind of society they would like to bring into being. Their aims were often not simply incoherent or badly thought through, but secondary to the crude desire to deliver a gratifying shock to the system.
It is on this murky subterranean level that Mishra suggests the underlying affinities between quite different historical actors and movements are more significant than their specific ideological commitments. Near the end of Age of Anger, by way of example, he lands upon the neat coincidence that Timothy McVeigh was imprisoned for a time in a maximum security cell adjacent to Ramzi Yousef, the man responsible for the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. (Yousef’s uncle, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, was one of the conspirators who succeeded in destroying the towers eight years later.) Apparently, McVeigh and Yousef got along famously, recognising each other as kindred spirits and bonding over their shared contempt for the United States government. ‘I have never [known] anyone in my life,’ Yousef claimed, ‘who has so similar a personality to my own as his.’
This emphasis on temperament in Age of Anger contains an important insight. In the chapter that discusses McVeigh and Yousef, Mishra positions the grandiosely contradictory figure of Bakunin – who didn’t bomb anyone, but did develop the concept of ‘creative destruction’ – as intellectual godfather to modern-day terrorists who seem to revel in carnage for its own sake. He quotes Dostoevsky’s sarcastic observation about an 1863 conference of exiled Russian radicals that was attended by Bakunin: ‘after everything has been annihilated, then, in their opinion, there will be peace’. The anarchists and nihilists of that era, Mishra argues, were seeking liberation in violent negation, a transcendent act of will. They were thus unconcerned with the kinds of practical problems that exercise genuine revolutionaries and reformers: society and conventional morality were assumed to be so irredeemably hypocritical and decadent and corrupt that they demanded nothing less than wholesale rejection. The heedless destructiveness born of this view represents the logical endpoint of unchecked individualism, but it also anticipates the random violence of our contemporary globalised world, in that it ‘assumes the irrelevance of nations and states as determining forces in history’.
The mindset of Bakunin and his acolytes was shaped by what Mishra calls the ‘militantly atheistic’ world view that took hold in Russia in the 1840s, influenced by the new ideas that were filtering through from the West. It was famously depicted in Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons (1862), in the character of the ‘nihilist’ Bazurov, and in Dostoevsky’s Demons (1872), which is based around a murder committed by Sergei Nechaev, one of Bakunin’s wayward disciples. But perhaps the most apposite literary example of Mishra’s ‘mindsets and outlooks’ argument is one he does not mention: Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907) – a surprising lacuna, since he refers to Conrad’s work on several occasions and the shady character known as the Professor would seem to be a near-perfect encapsulation of his thesis about the relation between ressentiment, ‘cognitive disposition’ and nihilistic violence. The Professor is described as a man who lacks ‘the great social virtue of resignation’. His burning sense of injustice has made him literally incendiary: he walks around London with a bomb in his pocket at all times, embracing death because, unlike the civilisation he has come to despise, death ‘knows no restraint and cannot be attacked’. He is a man of mean appearance and humble background who nevertheless possesses a powerful intellect, and Conrad gives us this remarkable description of the social and psychological forces that have shaped his personality:
his imagination had been fired early by tales of men rising from the depths of poverty to positions of authority and affluence. The extreme, almost ascetic purity of his thought, combined with an astounding ignorance of worldly conditions, had set before him a goal of power and prestige to be attained without the medium of arts, graces, tact, wealth – by sheer weight of merit alone. On that view he considered himself entitled to undisputed success. His father … had been an itinerant and rousing preacher of some obscure but rigid Christian sect – a man supremely confident in the privileges of his righteousness. In the son, individualist by temperament, once the science of the colleges had replaced thoroughly the faith of conventicles, this moral attitude translated itself into a frenzied puritanism of ambition. He nursed it as something secularly holy. To see it thwarted opened his eyes to the true nature of the world, whose morality was artificial, corrupt, and blasphemous. The way of even the most justifiable revolutions is prepared by personal impulses disguised into creeds. The Professor’s indignation found in itself a final cause that absolved him from the sin of turning to destruction as the agent of his ambition.
The key elements of Age of Anger’s thesis are contained in this passage. But it also suggests a sticking point. The Professor is simultaneously modern and atavistic. He is an atheist, yet his arrogant and destructive puritanism is described as a displaced religious impulse. It is his unworldliness, rather than any specific ideology, that is the poison in the machine. Yet there are distinctly conservative implications to the notions that creeds are disguised impulses and resignation is a social virtue. The unanswered question is what might constitute a justifiable revolution.
Mishra takes it for granted that his Underground Men, however abhorrent or futile their actions, are not wrong to see the modern world as unjust and corrupt – and who could deny it? What is absent from Age of Anger is a consideration of the grounds on which we might begin to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate grievances, to assess the substance of particular beliefs. All men are created equal, but their ideas are not. On this question, the explanatory power of Mishra’s unifying thesis is constrained by its broadness and generality. The emphasis on psychological disposition not only downplays the importance of ideology as a motivating force, it skates across distinctions between quite different views and circumstances. McVeigh and Yousef may have clicked on a personal level, and their shared sense of outrage is revealing, but their affinities do not nullify the signficance of their very different cultural backgrounds and specific intellectual influences.
Even if different actions can be understood as manifestations of a common underlying phenomenon, they retain their specificity. And when we are faced with a particular atrocity, we have little choice but to consider explicitly stated or apparent motives. There is a distinction to be made, for example, between driving a truck into a crowd of holidaymakers, with the sole aim of causing as much death and mayhem as possible, and carrying out targeted assassinations, as was the case with the Charlie Hebdo murders. The horrific pointlessness of the former example would seem to support Mishra’s thesis; the latter example complicates it, because it suggests a specific grievance, which demands to be assessed on its merits. It also has political ramifications beyond itself, in that it was an attack upon the secular principle of free expression, and thus raises the issue of the limits of acceptable speech and the function of an unregulated and uncoerced public sphere.
It is notable on this point that the Charlie Hebdo and Breivik massacres, which rank among the most sensational incidents of recent years (up against some stiff competition), are mentioned only fleetingly in Age of Anger, since these atrocities would seem to demonstrate many of the complexities of the issue at hand, while cutting against the grain of Mishra’s thesis. Breivik’s mental state was the main source of controversy at his trial. He was an awkward and socially isolated young man who acted alone. Yet he was also an ideologically motivated ethno-nationalist, whose appalling terrorist attack (in which he killed 77 people, not ‘nearly two hundred’ as Mishra claims) was meticulously planned and executed: he wrote an extensive manifesto setting out his noxious political views and targeted those he saw as his enemies. One could easily cite other complicating examples, such as the recent series of murders in Bangladesh, unmentioned by Mishra, in which Islamic extremists singled out writers, academics and publishers who advocated secularism – or Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber, a significant omission from Mishra’s gallery of rogues, given that he directed his wrath against modern technological society. Like Breivik, Kaczynski was a maladjusted loner, but cannot be dismissed as merely deranged or irrational: he was highly intelligent, conducted his long-running bombing campaign with great care and deliberation, explained his motives in a 35,000 word manifesto, and insisted at his trial that he should not be judged insane.
What these examples suggest is that, even if we accept Mishra’s proposition that ressentiment is the underlying psychological condition, it is often ideological disposition (and I include religious belief under this heading, though I suspect Mishra would not) that generates specific effects, since it gives a form to modern disaffection, directs its negative energies, provides an inchoate sense of anger with an object and an objective. These examples suggest that an examination of mindsets and outlooks will not be sufficient in itself. Any atrocity committed with an apparent sense of purpose will require at least some engagement with the ideas behind it, however ill-formed or vague these may be, and thus with the kinds of ideological and moralising categories Mishra wants to avoid.
One of the charges levelled in Age of Anger is that the Enlightenment philosophes (with the exception of Rousseau), and by extension their intellectual heirs, are guilty of trahison de clercs. And it is true enough that intellectuals have too often demonstrated a willingness to align themselves with the powerful. Age of Anger can only hint at the long and inglorious history of artists, writers and thinkers who have scorned the ignorance and moral backwardness of general populace, disdained the rise of mass culture and participatory democracy, and embraced ideas that are frankly hateful and reactionary – consider, for example, the disturbing number of prominent modernist writers of the early twentieth century who found fascism congenial. There is also a general tendency for educated elites to congeal into a distinct class of technocrats, which then seeks to impose its views from above and transform society against the wishes of the masses.
In the service of this argument, Mishra devotes space early in Age of Anger to a discussion of the rivalry between Rousseau and Voltaire, who are presented as contrasting archetypes. Rousseau understood ressentiment because he felt himself to be socially excluded (despite his literary successes); he sympathised with the poor and respected the religious beliefs of ordinary people. Voltaire, on the other hand, was an ‘unequivocal top-down moderniser’, who derided the superstitions of the lower classes and possessed a cheerfully uncomplicated attitude toward his own energetic social climbing – in fact, when it came to ingratiating himself with ruthless autocratic monarchs, he proved to be an accomplished toady.
The proposition that the modernising enthusiasms of intellectual elites will inevitably come into conflict with traditional beliefs and customs is part of the basic problem Mishra identifies, and much of Age of Anger is devoted to teasing out the complexities of the dialectic this creates. He rightly points out that the important idea the Enlightenment bequeathed to us is that ‘human beings can radically alter their social conditions’. The words perfectibilité and civilisation, he notes, were both coined in the eighteenth century. What this means is that social progress has an active dimension; it is not simply a consequence of naturally evolving material circumstances. It means that ideas drive change, that even abstract intellectual arguments can have worldly implications. For Mishra, this is why ressentiment remains the ‘default metaphysics of the modern world’. It is a corollary of the belief in the possibility of progress: ‘All of our simple dualisms – progressive and reactionary, modern and anti-modern, rational and irrational – derive their charge from the deeply internalised urge to move to the next stage of “development”, however nebulously defined.’
What remains underexamined in Age of Anger is the precise nature of that troublesome distinction between elites and the rest. Mishra suggests that the intellectual conflict between these two broad groups combines with material inequalities to generate what Hannah Arendt called ‘negative solidarity’ among the marginalised and disadvantaged, who are thus inclined to retreat into ‘a fierce politics of identity built on historical injuries and fear of internal and external enemies’. But he makes this argument without sufficient acknowledgement of the extent to which there is no simple correlation between the intelligentsia, as such, and those who actually have wealth and power – or the extent to which the assumption of a natural antagonism between (allegedly) liberal or progressive ‘elites’ and (allegedly) conservative ‘ordinary’ people has become a cliché of contemporary political discourse and, specifically, a stock trope of the populist right. It has become a rhetorical opposition every bit as distorting and simplifying as the notion that Islam and the West are destined to clash.
The point bears directly upon the problem of understanding the relation between a climate of ideas and the specific notions that individuals might come to hold. Mishra is undoubtedly correct when he argues that contemporary manifestations of ressentiment have their origins in real grievances and historical injuries, though he does acknowledge there is also a top-down dimension to the anger of the present, which has been encouraged and exploited by demagogues and powerful vested interests. He thus recognises the toxic cycle of negativity that seems to have poisoned modern politics, and which can have very real consequences. McVeigh and Breivik bear responsibility for their monstrous actions, but they are both examples of what can happen when an atmosphere of fear and paranoia is distilled in the mind of an unstable individual. As Mishra notes in passing, many of McVeigh’s extreme anti-government views are remarkably similar to mainstream Republican Party rhetoric. The targets of Breivik’s manifesto, which he held responsible for all the ills of a declining European civilisation – feminism, multiculturalism, ‘cultural Marxism’ – are not simply pantomime villains in the paranoid netherworld of the lunar right; they are denounced on a regular basis by mainstream politicians and commentators.
There is ultimately something a little lopsided about Mishra’s despairing argument in Age of Anger, which arises from its psychological emphasis. Strictly speaking, the totalising phrase ‘global civil war’ is contradictory. The spectre it summons of a reversion to a Hobbesian state of nature, with its war of all against all, makes a point about the apparent hegemony of the globalised neoliberal order, the way in which it disempowers nation states and forces people into competition with each other. As Margaret Thatcher made clear, neoliberalism refuses on an ideological level even to recognise the existence of such a thing as ‘society’. (This founding principle is succinctly expressed in the rousing cry of the Underground Man: ‘I say let the world go to hell, but I should always have my tea.’ If the drones at the Institute of Public Affairs had a modicum of wit, they might adopt it as their motto.) But the rise of this narrow, doctrinaire and morally stunted worldview is a relatively recent phenomenon, and its intellectual hegemony is not comprehensive. Nor is it, as Mishra sometimes seem to imply, coterminous with modernity itself, or an inevitable outcome of its internal logic.
Given that the modern world is driven by ideas, we would seem to have little choice but to recognise that the current system is merely one possibility among many, to believe that some kind of incremental moral progress is achievable, and try and change things for the better, however insurmountable contemporary problems might seem. Mishra does not indicate how we should interpret the history of genuine progress that falls outside the purview of Age of Anger but nevetheless runs parallel to its account of rage and violence – that Whiggish history of activism and social reform, which has opposed inequality and discrimination, and which has resulted in numerous tangible achievements, imperfectly realised though these may be. The tenor of his argument suggests that such modest gains are overshadowed by the destruction and chaos of the past few centuries, and that social advances can always be thrown into reverse. But the unhappy implication of his argument is also that the metaphysics of modernity have fused the conditions of progress to violent reaction, such that the former will inevitably beget the latter. As such, his argument slides into a gloomy fatalism. ‘Political and economic life,’ he laments near the end of Age of Anger, ‘seems to have no remedy for the emotional and psychological disorders it has unleashed.’
This is, I think, the most significant difference between Kenan Malik and Mishra. From Fatwa to Jihad – an updated and expanded version of a book Malik first published in 2009 – maintains a clear focus on the specific issues at stake in the conflicts it examines. He agrees with Mishra that contemporary manifestations of discontent need to be understood as symptoms of social conditions, arguing that radical Islam is ‘very much a child of modern plural societies’ and that the ‘new political fault line is not between left and right, between social democracy and conservatism, but between those who feel at home in – or at least are willing to accommodate themselves to – the new globalized, technocratic world, and those who feel left out and disempowered’. But he also positions himself as an old-school humanist, a partisan of secular universalism. The important point for Malik is not simply that the world we now inhabit has been decisively shaped by the Enlightenment’s intellectual revolution and the dialectic of progress and reaction it set in motion; it is that the emancipatory project of the Enlightenment remains unfinished.
Malik takes the Rushdie affair as his starting point, proposing that this pivotal event ‘gave notice not just of a new Islam but also of a new left’. One of the central contentions of From Fatwa to Jihad is that in the decades since Ayatollah Khomeini sentenced Salman Rushdie to death for writing The Satanic Verses (1988), urging the faithful to murder not only the author but anyone involved with the novel’s publication, Western liberals have ‘effectively internalised the fatwa’. Those who denounced Rushdie, writes Malik, ‘lost the battle in the sense that they never managed to stop publication of The Satanic Verses. But they won the war by pounding into the liberal consciousness the belief that to give offence was a morally despicable act’.
In taking the Rushdie affair as his starting point, Malik treats the rise of the identity politics of the new left as a post-Cold War phenomenon, but its origins can be traced back a little further to the social revolution of the 1960s. The slogan ‘the personal is political’ was first used as the title of an essay published in 1969 by a feminist collective called Redstockings. As Andrew Hartman points out in A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars (2015) – a book that is, among other things, an excellent guide to the way in which the cultural controversies of recent decades have reshaped political discourse – the line was not so much a statement of principle as the encapsulation of a tactic. The second-wave feminists of that era sought to use personal testimonies to instantiate their arguments, encourage a sense of solidarity, and expose the way in which the patriarchal culture belittled or excluded their experiences and concerns. The strategy was common among other liberation movements. The rationale for this personalisation of politics was that it highlighted the reality of discrimination. Its justification was its appeal to the fundamental principle of equality (my life is every bit as important and deserving of respect as yours); its rhetorical effectiveness was that such personal testimonies cannot be gainsaid (my experience is my experience).
What this exposes, however, is the inherent tension within the notion of equality between universality and particularity. Malik is interested in the way in which the left’s commitment to the former seems to have been almost entirely displaced by an attitude of deference toward the latter, and there is a somewhat ironic appropriateness in the fact that he has a personal reason for this preoccupation. As he explains near the beginning of From Fatwa to Jihad, the constant racism he experienced growing up in England had the effect of driving him toward left-wing activism and an embrace of the principles of common humanity and universal rights; the puzzle he confronts is why so many young men of similar backgrounds and experiences are today more likely to embrace an assertive ethnic or religious identity.
There can be no simple answer to this question, of course, and Malik’s investigations into several post-Rushdie controversies – ranging from the Danish cartoon scandal to some localised protests against Monica Ali’s novel Brick Lane (2003) – draw out many of the social complexities of the issue. But his argument circles back to the changed political landscape, a recalibration that has entailed ‘the retreat of the left, the demise of class politics, the narrowing of the political sphere, the erosion of more universalist visions of social change’.
Divisiveness and defensiveness have flourished in the void this has created and, as Malik demonstrates, this has not been an unprompted phenomenon. The common feature of the cultural controversies he examines is that they did not have their origins in spontaneous eruptions of community outrage, but were actively fomented and manipulated. In the case of the Danish cartoons, the controversy was entirely manufactured. There was an almost farcical quality to the strenuous efforts that were made to ensure the drawings generated a satisfactory level of uproar, firstly by Jyllands-Posten, the right-wing magazine that published them, and then by the imams who (after some prompting) decided to take the bait. The confected scandal allowed both sides to claim the privileges of righteousness. In doing so, it presented the issues as polarised and absolute, made cultural division a fait accompli – an assumption unthinkingly replicated in the way it was reported. Malik interviews one Danish Muslim who remembers telling the editor of a left-wing newspaper that he was not in the least bit offended by a bunch of silly cartoons, only to be met with the response: ‘But you’re not a real Muslim.’
The assumption of cultural essentialism is the crux of the issue. The contemporary obsession with authenticity and difference, the idea that personal experiences and belief systems are inherently valuable and unchallengeable, the tendency to speak of culture in proprietorial terms – these are all ultimately regressive tendencies because they invert the positive meaning and function of cultural knowledge, which is by definition something communal, something no one person can claim to own or speak for with absolute authority. Cultures are always inessential, impure, fluid and porous. This is their virtue: they are invariably comprehensible and transmissible and debatable. The communal space of culture grants us windows into ideas and experiences that are not our own; it is what allows us to say that no man is an island and that nothing human is alien to me. This is why claims of cultural ownership and inviolability are pernicious. They are a self-defeating form of defensiveness that constructs wall where there should be a bridge, validates and perpetuates divisions, and fuels the cycle of anger and paranoia. ‘The two sides feed off each other,’ observes Malik, ‘creating ever more exaggerated fears. Such exaggerations are the life-blood of grievance culture. It helps create a siege mentality, stoking up anger and resentment, and making communities, both Muslim and non-Muslim, more inward looking and more open to extremism.’
The Rushdie affair was definitive in this sense. As Malik points out, the fatwa had far more to do with politics than any theological principle. Ayatollah Khomeini seized upon some inconsequential rumblings of discontent about a densely written work of magic realist fiction and transformed them into a major international incident. Not the least of his intentions was to shore up his own authority. He rallied support by directing enmity against an external enemy and positioning himself as leader and spokesman for the aggrieved. He was able to do this by tapping into a general sense of grievance and appealing to a shared cultural identity.
Like all cultural controversies arising from a sense of moral indignation, the Rushdie affair was an attempt to manipulate the public sphere, to set the parameters of acceptable speech. And the fatwa was perfectly targeted, in that it opened up the fissure that runs through all secular societies, which require us to subordinate our personal convictions to our sense of civic responsibility and respect a plurality of views, but also to accept that whenever we do carry private convictions into the public sphere they can be subjected to whatever criticism or ridicule might come their way. The Rushdie affair was thus revealing not only for the passions it aroused and the divisions it exposed, but also for the divisions it did not expose. The neoconservative commentator Daniel Pipes, an early proponent of the clash of civilisations thesis rejected by Mishra and Malik, rather undermines his own argument in The Rushdie Affair (1990) when he acknowledges that there were, in fact, many Muslim writers and intellectuals who were prepared to voice their support for Rushdie, just as there were a significant number of non-Muslims who reacted to Khomeini’s indefensible fatwa with pusillanimous equivocations. But he also notes that that the controversy revealed a remarkable degree of solidarity in other quarters. ‘No leading religious figure or organisation stood by Rushdie in his hour of need,’ notes Pipes, going on to quote an extraordinary outburst from the Christian fundamentalist and sometime presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan, in which he denounces the First Amendment of the United States Constitution as ‘the last refuge of the scoundrel’.
That quote might serve as a reminder that the ‘moral commitment to censorship’ that Malik argues has become a pervasive feature of ‘progressive’ opinion (he pointedly refuses to apply the term to any form of identity politics) is not a simple left-right issue. The conservative side of politics, despite the current vogue for professing a belief in free speech, has historically displayed a robust commitment to the virtues of a strictly regulated public sphere. It wasn’t all that long ago that conservative guardians of public morality were trying to prevent us from reading Philip Roth and J.P. Donleavy, picketing Monty Python’s Life of Brian and The Last Temptation of Christ, denouncing the depravity of contemporary art, and battling to protect innocent children from racy Prince lyrics.
Malik rejects the proposition that ‘because we live in a plural society, we must police public discourse about different cultures and beliefs, and constrain speech so as not to give offence’, arguing that when ‘we give up on the right to offend in the name of “tolerance” or “respect”, we constrain our ability to call those in power to account, and therefore to challenge injustice’. There is a perverse confirmation of this point in the way in which the language of tolerance and respect has been co-opted by thoroughly reactionary movements. Thus we have lately been treated to the argument from religious conservatives that the legalisation of gay marriage – a straightforward question of equality before the law – should be opposed because it could constrain the ‘religious freedom’ to practice a form of blatant discrimination, while those who reject this absurd proposition have been accused of intolerance. That the argument is ridiculous should not blind us to its form: the basic claim is that a core belief or sense of identity is inherently deserving of respect, a claim accompanied by assertions of victimhood.
There is an air of unreality about contemporary arguments over free speech, now that technology has made it all but impossible to actually censor anything. The public sphere is no longer marked by its exclusions and limitations, but its boundlessness and overabundance of competing voices and opinions. We are, consequently, awash in all manner of hateful garbage. The online world does not simply erode the distinction between our public and private selves; it is a literally reactionary environment that has transformed public debate into a fruitless cycle of provocation and response – one that might well give us pause to reflect on the mechanical implications of the phrase ‘to push someone’s buttons’. Not for nothing does the Underground Man liken himself to a piano stop. In this context, it becomes both more difficult and more important to distinguish between symptoms and causes, culture and ideology, legitimate and illegitimate grievances, and Malik’s argument is in large part that an effective progressive politics depends upon our ability to do this:
Political struggles divide society across ideological lines, but they unite across ethnic and cultural divisions; cultural struggles inevitably fragment. What matters in political struggles is not who you are, but what you believe; the reverse is true in cultural or ethnic struggles.
The distinction between political and cultural or ethnic struggles is too casually made. There are lot of valid historical reasons why an Indigenous Australian or an African American might refuse to recognise the difference. The line is not and has never been clear. But the most compelling argument Malik makes for rethinking the way in which cultural and political arguments are prosecuted is practical. ‘When political problems are reposed as cultural conflicts,’ he observes, ‘they become transformed into the kind of struggles that are neither useful nor resolvable. Rather than debate the economic and political roots of a problem, and how to change them, we come to debate who we are, and who belongs, or does not belong, to our tribe.’ This is precisely why those who really do believe that the world can go to hell so long as they get their tea are more than happy to engage in inane culture wars and race baiting and breathtakingly hypocritical posturing about free speech and equality. These are strategies to lay claim to a spurious moral authority, provoke reactions, dictate the terms of debate, distract from more substantial issues. Their only function is to foster divisions, generate hostility and defensiveness. A rhetorical stalemate is always a victory for the argument that is objectively worse; an impasse is always a victory for the vested interests and the status quo. But don’t just take my word for it. While I was writing this essay, Steve Bannon, the former political strategist for Donald Trump and the force behind the website Breitbart, a man who has worked as hard as anyone to cultivate today’s toxic atmosphere of anger and division, gave an interview to American Prospect in which he said this:
Democrats, the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.
‘One cannot argue with anyone’s experience or decision or belief.’ So wrote James Baldwin in ‘Letter from a Region in My Mind’ (1962), one of the most brilliant essays ever written on the subject of race in the United States. The line appears in the midst of his description of an uncomfortable dinner party he attended at the Chicago home of Elijah Muhammad, founder of the Nation of Islam, who spent the evening explaining his theory that all white people are devils, while his mute cohort of followers nodded in implacable agreement.
The observation presages a moment of exquisite irony. Over the course of his essay, Baldwin sets out with devastating acuity just how comprehensively the blood of America’s violently racist history has stained the social fabric, how even the most well-meaning white liberals are implicated, how the insinuating and invidious effects of the overt and implicit cultural hostility every African American must confront on a daily basis reach deep into the psyche, how this can encourage a state of paranoia in which ‘it begins to be almost impossible to distinguish a real from a fancied injury’. Yet sitting across from Elijah Muhammad, he suddenly has an eerie glimpse of what it must be like to be a white person trying to convince a table of hardened racists of the basic humanity of black people, catching himself just as he is about to say: ‘But take my friend Mary …’
Baldwin is right, of course: one cannot argue with anyone’s experience or decision or belief. Rational argument alone will never shift conviction; that is not how people are made. The most likely result of a direct assault on someone’s belief – even if that belief is incoherent, unsubstantiated and loosely adhered to – will be for that person to dig himself further into his bunker, adopt a defensive position. Rebecca Solnit observed in a recent essay – one of the deluge of think-pieces trying to make sense of the election of Donald Trump – that anger is a physiological reaction to threat, an evolutionary defence mechanism that we share with other animals, but our imaginative and narrative capacities mean that, uniquely for our species, ‘challenges to one’s status, beliefs, and advantages count as threats. Human anger is a response to insecurity both literal and imagined, to any sense that our physical or social or emotional welfare is at risk.’
Chronic insecurity and inequality have made anger ubiquitous; the historical injuries of race and class mean that the political now has a seemingly unavoidable personal dimension. Yet if the personal is always political, then we really are doomed. Near the end of Age of Anger, Mishra observes that we need to reflect on ‘our own role in the culture that stokes unappeasable vanity and shallow narcissism … our complicity in everyday forms of violence and dispossession, and our callousness before the spectacle of suffering’. But his pessimistic argument does not hold out much hope:
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 us from other predatory animals – trust, co-operation, community, dialogue and solidarity.
Barely possible, perhaps, but surely not impossible. What else can we do? Inviting sarcasm would appear to be the least of our worries.
James Baldwin, ‘Letter from a Region in My Mind,’ The Fire Next Time (Vintage, 1963).
Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent (Modern Library, 1998).
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground, translated by Michael R. Katz (Norton, 2001).
Andrew Hartman, The War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars (Chicago University Press, 2015).
Robert Kuttner, ‘Steve Bannon, Unrepentant,’ American Prospect (16 August 2017).
Kenan Malik, Pandaemonium.
Daniel Pipes, The Rushdie Affair (Birch Lane Press, 1990).
Åsne Seierstad, One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway, translated by Sarah Death (Virago, 2015).
Rebecca Solnit, ‘Facing the Furies,’ Harper’s Magazine (1 May 2017).
Raymond Williams, The Long Revolution (Chatto & Windus, 1961).