The murderous trail of violent emotion in the modern era (Reflections on "The Age of Anger")
To be historically literate is difficult. One must work hard to avoid the boatloads of elitist propaganda, and written-by-the-victors just-so stories. As an auto-didact in the area, it has taken me a lifetime to accidentally trip over accurate and concise books about history. (Conciseness is key because it makes for a wider readership.)
Almost every historian agrees that the combined British industrial revolution/French political revolution marked a major milestone, innaugurating the modern era - and, as democracy and industrialization swept away old social structures, pretty much breaking continuity with all previous history. Until I picked up Prakash Mishra's The Age of Anger, I had a short syllabus of the history of the modern era that I thought was complete. Here it is:
1) Eric Hobsbawm's four book series, "The Age of X", where X = revolution, capital, empire, and extremes.
Hobsbawm spoke seven languages and had a prodigious memory, but he also had the ability to write engagingly about the dry dust of history. He was an unrepentant Marxist until his death in 2012 at age 95. The "Age of..." series is the best modern history around.
2. Hannah Arendt's "The Origins of Totalitarianism"
This is the most significant political book I ever read. Writing in 1950, she laid out not only what was going on with fascism and communism; but she went back through imperialism and colonialism. (That is, she covered at least three quarters of modern history.) She described from what kinds of social situations totalitarianism arose, how it behaved, and how it controlled.
3. Morris Berman's "Coming to Our Senses: Body and Spirit in the Hidden History of the West."
This obscure book goes much deeper than Arendt's analysis of the psychology of totalitarianism. (I had the book recommended to me by a psychologist, or I would never have heard of it.) Berman elaborates the psychology of the self/other split that lies behind so much social behavior. He is very interested in the history of heresy and the identification of heresy with body practices and with women/the feminine. He offers four case studies in heresy, one of which is Nazi Germany, which he characterizes as a Manichean theology of self (Aryan) versus other (Jew).
With that syllabus, I thought I understood the modern world pretty well at the level of academic history (Hobsbawm), ideological history (Arendt) and psychological history (Berman).
Then I picked up "The Age of Anger" and found a whole new synthesis of the modern era. Here's my thumbnail of the book:
The industrial revolution created massive inequality. The losers, the superfluous people, were powerless to resist economically or militarily. But they were able to resist culturally. This led the Romantic Era, where culture and religion, myth and tribe, tried to build up solidarity among the losers. Emotion was counterposed to Reason. Unfortunately, the common emotion of all these Romantic ideologues was resentment and revenge, the call to purifying violence, the expectation of a miraculous resurrection of the defeated tribal community. Its the same "ghost dance" desperation that drives losers from 19th century Germans under Napoleon to 21st century ISIS towards violence - and towards excluding women and compromisers as "weak". Misogyny, it seems, is joined at the hip with Romantic nationalism's patriarchal tradition.
For me, Mishra has turned "the Romantic Era" from something about symphonies and novels into something about inequality and violence. By focusing on the history of emotion in the modern era, Mishra shed new light on the importance of people I knew of, but mostly didn't care about: Rousseau, Mazzini, Bakunin (the anarchist), Wagner (as a mythologist of the volk), Sorel(another anarchist), Nietsche (nihilism), d'Annunzio and Mussolini (myth making and the politics of gesture) - Hitler, Modi (naked, Messianic racism). He makes connections I was completely unaware of. (E.g., did you know that Wagner was a close friend of the anarchist, Bakunin; and that they both had to flee from Germany after the failed 1848 revolution?) He traces how the earlier Romantic ideologues either directly or indirectly influenced the later. He shows the continuity across cultures of the nationalist/tribal reaction to industrial globalization.
My personal syllabus probably helped me to appreciate Mishra's book more than the average reader, because it echoes some of my major interests. His discussion of winners and losers as the economy changes is a small slice of Hobsbawm's deeper discussion. I was able to instantly appeciate his use of Arendt's terms "superfluousness" and "negative solidarity". Finally, his discussion of the Manichean tribalism of reactionary nationalism presents many new, modern era examples of Berman's examination of the social impact of the self/other split. Another book of Berman's, "The Reenchantment of the World", discussed the impact of the atheistic, scientific worldview (the clockwork universe) on traditional religious faith and the human psychology underlying it. Mishra uses the same word as Berman, reenchantment, to describe what non-elites are longing for.
Mishra's book does a superb job of tracing the etiology of superfluous peoples' violent rebellion - from its origins in Rousseau's opposition to the Enlightenment all the way to its present incarnation as ISIS. However -spoiler coming - the book is descriptive, not prescriptive. The author documents two centuries of horror, but he offers no way out of the dichotomy that is killing us, he offers no middle ground between elitism/superfluousness and nihilism. He barely mentions that, for several decades, under pressure from Communism, Capitalism was forced to give labor a bigger share of the pie. This omission disappointed me; but if one knows before starting that this book is only history, without praxis, the book accomplishes what it set out to do.
Here are the most representative four paras that I can snip from a 350 page book:
There is a much longer history of fanatacism and zealotry in the defense of a traditional society thretened with extinction by a modern power. The first jihad of the modern era...began in Germany in 1813 against a military and cultural imperialism embodied by Napoleon, or 'the Devil' as he was widely called by Germans. Two subsequent centuries showed how the kind of imperialism that seeks to reshape a whole society, (that) makes people subordinate, morally and spiritually, and (that) often goes under the name of 'a civilizing mission', can provoke ferocious backlashes in the name of culture, custom, tradition and God...
In our own time, a brutish struggle for existence and recognition has come to define individual as well as geopolitical relations acroos the world...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 and shame. Popular culutre as well as state policy has made them seem normal.
ISIS...is the quintessenttial product of a radical process of globalization in which governments, unable to protect their citizens from foreign invaders, brutal police, or economic turbulence, lose their moral and ideological legitmacy, creating a space for such non-state actors as armed gangs, mafia, vigilante groups, warlords, and private revenge-seekers...
Almost all the young men involved in recent terror attacks in Europe and America have no religious education, have rarely visited a mosque. Their knowledge of Islamic tradition and theology does not exceed the pages of Islam for Dummies. Nearly all have an extensive background in petty criminality, not to mention banal but nonetheless un-Islamic levels of drunken carousing and drug taking...
That's all I want to say about Mishra's book. I'm still mulling over the implications of my new insights for any kind of political involvement, any hope that there are forceful political actors who are sane. Right now, I'm feeling like I should just go prepper and get as far from "civilization" as I can tolerate.
While I think things through, here are some other resources for those interested:
You can find Chris Hedges' review of the book here.
You might also find Chris Floyd's rather vulgar take on the same topic amusing. Here's a snip:
Fuck Off And Die.
This is the lodestar guiding leaders of every political stripe across the breadth of western civilization. If you want to make your way through their billows of bullshit, hold fast to this phrase. It’s what they’re really saying to you...
To put it plainly, the elites don’t need us anymore -- or not many of us, anyway. And thanks to runaway population growth -- and the greasy mobility of global capital -- those few of us they do still need to keep the machinery going can be easily replaced, at any moment, by some other desperate chump trying to avoid destitution. So there is no longer any reason for elites to concern themselves with the wearisome creatures out there beyond the mansion gates and the penthouse glass. No need to worry about workers’ rights: if they get out of line, sack them, or even better, send the whole operation overseas, where sweatshop fodder is thick on the ground and comes dirt cheap. No need to worry about communities, the personal, social, economic and physical structures that gave a richer embodiment to ordinary life: just strip them, gut them and leave them to die -- and when the rot gets bad enough, as in Detroit, send in an unelected “manager” to pick the carcass clean.
Finally, years before Mishra wrote his book, I presented unwittingly presented an example of the dyanmic of messianic tribalism - the pre-Romantic era devolution of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth - in a well-recieved essay (348 recs) at GOS.