“We have to rediscover some discarded ideas of just how human beings are to live.”
Pankaj Mishra is an award-winning essayist and novelist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the New York Review of Books, TheGuardian, The New Yorker, and more. His latest book, Age of Anger: A History of the Present, considers the historical and social causes that have led to contemporary political fury. Pankaj recently joined Siddhartha Deb, author of The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India, for a Heleo Conversation on how the missteps of the last two decades have led to our current moment, and why solidarity and compassion need our renewed focus.
This conversation has been edited and condensed. To view the full conversation, click the video below.
Siddhartha: You talk a lot about politics and the crisis of democracy, resentment, anger. How do you place something like the International Women’s Strike?
Pankaj: This book is describing a crisis of masculinity, of which women happen to be one of the victims. It is describing a failure of this great desire to assert oneself, to find a place in the world, which has been defined in very hyper-masculine ways. When met with frustration, you see rage directed against “weaker” peoples, and that includes women.
A lot of the violence against women in workspaces and in the public sphere, a lot of the misogyny on social media, I think has to do with men feeling deeply threatened by socioeconomic changes, big disruptions in the economy, jobs going away, but also with the growing prominence of women in public life and the feeling that women are taking over a lot of the jobs that were once only available to men.
Siddhartha: In some sense it seems we’ve gone backwards in terms of feminism. One expected that things were getting better. In some senses, it’s a sign, and you see that in the hyper-masculinity of authoritarian leaders: Donald Trump in the United States or Narendra Modi in India.
On the other hand, isn’t there something hopeful about the fact that we are talking in the language of strike, internationalism, women, and solidarity?
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Pankaj: Definitely. We’ve seen more signs of hope in just the few weeks since Trump’s inauguration than we have in 10 to 15 years. That words like “solidarity” have become part of our everyday vocabulary is a huge step forward. Let’s not forget that these words—”compassion,” “trust”—have fallen out of favor, especially in the last two decades, where anyone talking about people coming together to struggle was dismissed as a socialist, a loser, as someone who wanted to bring back communism or totalitarianism. We systematically de-legitimated a whole set of ideas or discourses that people have historically used to fight for their rights. We forgot that all these rights—women’s rights, rights for the working class—are gained after a lot of struggle, and that there was no process, either economic or technological, which simply distributed these rights as if by miracle. People have to go out in the streets, protest, and struggle continuously. You keep it up all the time before those rights will be given.
We have become too complicit over the last few decades. We thought that this narrative of progress will go on forever, that we are just all part of it, and we will see victories for women and various other deprived peoples and minorities. That this will all happen as if by magic. That you won’t have to fight for it.
Now we’re realizing we do have to fight. We have to resist. The people who want to deprive you of your rights [are] people who want to go back to some fantastical past that they’ve imagined, where women, minorities, and various uppity foreigners are in their place (which is to say outside their national borders). If we have to fight this dangerous fantasy, then nothing better than retrieving some of these politically important notions of solidarity.
Siddhartha: You keep coming back to the last two to three decades. What went wrong in these last few decades? How did this illusion happen that you don’t have to struggle? That you can just use technology, an app, various versions of Lean In?
Pankaj: What we saw was an explosion of hyper-individualism, where all the notions of progress through collective projects—whether it’s the nation-state, class, gender, race, or religion—were de-legitimized. The emphasis was put on this entrepreneurial individual, who, with his or her ambition and energy, finds a place for herself in this marketplace. Society was conceived as a kind of marketplace where we compete with other individuals, polish our brands, franchise ourselves through social media. We go out and sell.
“Cosmopolitan liberalism, which on the surface is quite attractive because it talks about difference and diversity, is really based on this idea of narrow self-interest and competition.”
This [is a] notion that we’ve all internalized, even embraced, whether we like it or not. I keep saying we’re all neoliberals now, because we bought into this ideology of hyper-individualism, and that has undermined a whole set of solidarities and ideas of political struggle. And I think we are now finding ourselves at the end of that particular tragic tree. Hyper-individualism has lent itself to ethno-racial nationalism.
Siddhartha: You’re saying that cosmopolitan liberalism, which on the surface is quite attractive because it talks about difference and diversity, is really based on this idea of narrow self-interest and competition. Underneath that cosmopolitanism, underneath that veneer, it’s transactional between everybody. It’s a battle of all against all, and you have to succeed, to strive, to win. There’s this contempt for losers, a lack of compassion.
Pankaj: In that sense, Donald Trump’s evocation of “winners” and “losers” is highly significant. These are his main categories, the words he deploys over and over again, and he’s basically saying that’s how the world is divided up. If you’re going to be losing all the time, then I’m afraid nobody will do a thing for you. You’ve got to be a winner. It doesn’t matter how you become a winner. Success is the ultimate measure. That is a dominant ideology of the last two, three decades.
Siddhartha: How has this played out in the realm of ideas, journalism, history, fiction? Have we just not done a good enough job in talking about it in the last 20 years? Have writers and intellectuals also been a part of this dazzle of surface cosmopolitanism and liberalism, and not wanting to care, or identify with, or understand people who are not making it?
Pankaj: We have to acknowledge that we have been complicit in this project. Different degrees, of course, not as complicit as some people. But we are the prime beneficiaries of this massive expansion of the global economy. Our own life chances have improved, our living standards have gone up.
Siddhartha: When we say “we,” who are you referring to?
Pankaj: Writers, journalists, intellectuals. We’ve all done well at a certain level. There are many more opportunities for us to be mobile, for us to make more money, and I think we have generalized from that experience to thinking that it’s all working out for other people as well.
Particularly journalism has been pretty blind to the experiences of a lot of people who are not making it at all, who do not and will not have the opportunity to make it, because of structural inequalities that have existed for decades. Whether it’s African Americans or Dalits in India: poor people everywhere who do not have a lot of opportunities, either educational or employment.
Journalists on the whole have been pretty oblivious to the experiences of these people, and have basically swallowed this assumption that liberal capitalism and democracy are going to spread all over the world, and they are going to deliver prosperity, stability, and security to the hundreds of millions of people who want them. I don’t think they’ve questioned these assumptions rigorously enough at all. They’ve not examined this either historically or empirically. Just exposing themselves to, say, trade unions. When was the last time you read a piece on an American trade union in the financial press, or even in general periodicals? These figures have completely disappeared. What we read about is the successful CEO. We’ve had different cults of the CEO, but they’re all cults of successful people. It’s success that we worship. And writers are not exempt from that.
“We have to rediscover some discarded ideas of just how human beings are to live. Basic notions of solidarity, community, belonging, the importance of self-respect and identity.”
Siddhartha: Right, and this has given way to pronounced ethnic nationalism. Just the stories that one comes across every day are horrifying. One would argue that we’ve been familiar with them in India, for instance, for a long time. But now these stories about the borders, the checks, the rhetoric—this is the realm we’re in with ethnic nationalism. Trump here, Brexit in Britain.
The age of anger has really arrived. It’s erupted. What happens now?
Pankaj: We have to rediscover some discarded ideas of just how human beings are to live. Basic notions of solidarity, community, belonging, the importance of self-respect and identity. All these things that were deemed less important than the pursuit of material self-interest, wealth, status that was upheld as a global, universal idea. The pursuit of economic growth at all costs, environmental including. This is an opportunity to examine these assumptions that we’ve lived with, discard many of them, and to embrace other languages.
Siddhartha: Such as?
Pankaj: What we’re seeing with the Women’s Marches. What we’ve seen since Trump’s inauguration. Perhaps there’s a tendency to exaggerate the importance of the resistance that has sprung up in this country, the degree of the opposition that exists to Donald Trump, but I think it’s nevertheless significant. It’s more than what I’ve seen in the last two decades. Just think about the atrocities that have been committed, both internationally and domestically, through these two decades: preemptive wars, the destruction of entire regions, the financial crisis, the way bankers got away with it in 2008 and bailed out with taxpayers’ money.
One atrocity, one calamity after another. And people did not protest. People did not come out in the streets. Now, a lot of people recognize the stakes are very high and they have to do something. They have to organize, they have to come together in a way they had forgotten to.
Siddhartha: It’s also very frightening to protest because the neoliberal world means that you have to work. You cannot protest if you have to work, if you’re worried about losing your job. That’s the world of impermanent work that it’s coming to.
The other thing is that the state seems to be significantly more powerful. The recent Wikileaks about the CIA, it’s an absurd story, that they have a program to get your Samsung TV to spy on you. This is not stuff that you could make up. And they name it after Doctor Who, “Weeping Angels.”
This is what taxpayers’ money goes into? This is what grown-up people do? It’s easy to laugh at it, but it’s also frightening, the sheer concentration of power.
Pankaj: This is what happens if you let the State’s institutions develop in the way they have, without any kind of accountability, without any public protest. We invest so much faith in these institutions because they are there to protect us from all these “darky foreigners” who wish to harm us. And what we’re seeing today is the consequence of that investment of confidence in these institutions. We should have been far more skeptical and questioning. In fact, a lot of people today are saying it would be nice if the Deep State strikes back against Trump. It would be something that they might even welcome, if the CIA or the FBI starts to move against Trump. Which I think is incredibly disturbing.
Siddhartha: It’s like almost giving up on democracy.
Pankaj: Yes, which is a story we have seen in different parts of the world, where the liberal intelligentsia or middle class cosmopolitans decide to stand with the Deep State against democracy. Against elected politicians.
Siddhartha: I want to take it back to the historical basis for your book: you’ve given it deep roots in the Enlightenment. You have these two major figures, Voltaire and Rousseau, and you see Voltaire as a complicit intellectual, as selling out with the precursor to the Deep State. Why do you see the Enlightenment this way?
Pankaj: That is when the principles of the world we live in were being formulated. Rousseau was very shrewdly pointing out the problems, tensions, and contradictions in this whole project. What I meant to do is to initiate a critique of the modern intellectual, this figure who comes into the world allied with networks of power, who draws his primary sustenance from those relationships.
What people are protesting against today is this elite that has been empowered by certain specialized forms of knowledge and is able to enforce its own mode of functioning upon everyone else. That affiliation between knowledge and power was embodied by someone like Voltaire, who also supported various other projects of top-down socio-economic engineering, modernization from above.
Siddhartha: All the colonial projects.
Pankaj: Exactly, the liberal complicity with what are essentially despotic projects. Which may have a semblance of democracy, but are actually projects imposed from above by a tiny, often unrepresentative minority upon the majority. In many cases, the revolts today are against those unaccountable, unresponsive, remote metropolitan elites. This debate between Voltaire and Rousseau illuminated many aspects of today’s conflicts.
Siddhartha: You do a wonderful job of showing [Voltaire’s] striving, his climbing. When a truth becomes inconvenient, he has a relationship with power where he’s willing to look the other way. He does come across as a contemporary figure, someone you might see in New York or London or in Delhi, going to the parties. A kind of paid intellectual.
But Rousseau is more puzzling, because he’s a critic of this process, a critic of the kind of sellout that Voltaire is. He’s much more angry, he’s much more critical. And yet, for you, he also births a kind of anger that is quite nihilistic. Can you talk about that?
Pankaj: Quite a few people thought I was on Rousseau’s side, like I have to have a side. In fact, I don’t. What I’m pointing to are the problems and contradictions in this project, and Rousseau is the first one to identify them and then to prescribe certain solutions, which, in many cases, historically turn out to be much worse than the cosmopolitan universalism that Voltaire is proposing. History offers plenty of evidence that both projects are deeply flawed. The project of cosmopolitan universalism, of basically having the same life goals and ideals in societies all around the world, and the project of ethno-racial or cultural nationalism, which is opposed to this cosmopolitanism, both can lead to terrible political outcomes. This is what modern history illustrates.
“A society based upon competition and vanity is going to generate turmoil in our lives. People are going to be constantly anxious, disaffected, discontented, and often their emotions are going to take terrible political forms.”
The question is, how do we get out of this particular trap? This is a question that remains alive for us, and that’s why that debate is important. No sides are perfect or offer perfect solutions. That is why I thought of Rousseau as a crucial figure: early on, he identifies these problems, and his prescriptions are embraced by a whole range of people, starting with the French Revolutionaries and the German Romantics. Then we get into the 19th century, with people responding to cosmopolitan civilization with nationalistic projects of their own.
Siddhartha: The problem is, we are connected. This all starts happening when the world starts getting connected, and there are these two possible, flawed, approaches we’ve been see-sawing between: cosmopolitan liberalism and ethnic nationalism. How do we get out of this?
Pankaj: In that sense, Rousseau’s critique is still very profound, much more so than Voltaire’s. I think Voltaire is a shallow figure. He’s a networker and he loves power, basically, like many intellectuals today.
But Rousseau does identify contradictions which are fatal to our modern commercial societies, which turn politically toxic. Which is, a society based upon competition and vanity is going to generate turmoil in our lives. People are going to be constantly anxious, disaffected, discontented, and often their emotions are going to take terrible political forms, which we’ve seen over and over again. That critique stands, and stands even more so today after three decades of neoliberal individualism, as a particularly important critique of where we are today.
That people ravaged by competitiveness, vanity, and this great desire to outshine others are feeling themselves left behind, and to use Donald Trump’s terminology, are finding themselves constantly on the side of the “losers” rather than the “winners”.
Siddhartha: So how do you sustain an inner life? That’s one of the phrases that you bring out of Rousseau.