I feel it. You do too. We all do if at somewhat different levels.
Chris Hedges writes that the Age of Anger is the entirely predictable, even inevitable outcome of late stage neoliberalism. Hedges, in reviewing the writings of Pankaj Mishra, suggests that we're not nearing the edge of an abyss, we're already beyond it:
The nihilism and rage sweeping across the globe are not generated by warped ideologies or medieval religious beliefs. These destructive forces have their roots in the obliterating of social, cultural and religious traditions by modernization and the consumer society, the disastrous attempts by the United States to carry out regime change, often through coups and wars, and the utopian neoliberal ideology that has concentrated wealth in the hands of a tiny cabal of corrupt global oligarchs.
This vast, global project of social engineering during the last century persuaded hundreds of millions of people, as Pankaj Mishra writes in “The Age of Anger: A History of the Present,” “to renounce—and often scorn—a world of the past that had endured for thousands of years, and to undertake a gamble of creating modern citizens who would be secular, enlightened, cultured and heroic.” The project has been a spectacular failure.
Western elites, rather than accept their responsibility for the global anarchy, self-servingly define the clash as one between the values of the enlightened West and medieval barbarians. They see in the extreme nationalists, religious fundamentalists and jihadists an inchoate and inexplicable irrationality that can be quelled only with force. They have yet to grasp that the disenfranchised do not hate us for our values; they hate us because of our duplicity, use of indiscriminate industrial violence on their nations and communities and our hypocrisy. The dispossessed grasp the true message of the West to the rest of the planet: We have everything, and if you try to take it away from us we will kill you.
Neoliberalism, in the name of this absurd utopia, stripped away government regulations and laws that once protected the citizen from the worst excesses of predatory capitalism. It created free trade agreements that allowed trillions of corporate dollars to be transferred to offshore accounts to avoid taxation and jobs to flee to sweatshops in China and the global south where workers live in conditions that replicate slavery. Social service programs and public services were slashed or privatized. Mass culture, including schools and the press, indoctrinated an increasingly desperate population to take part in the global reality show of capitalism, a “war of all against all.”
What we were never told was that the game was fixed. We were always condemned to lose. Our cities were deindustrialized and fell into decay. Wages declined. Our working class became impoverished. Endless war became, cynically, a lucrative business. And the world’s wealth was seized by a tiny group of global oligarchs. Kleptocracies, such as the one now installed in Washington, brazenly stole from the people. Democratic idealism became a joke. We are now knit together, as Mishra writes, only “by commerce and technology,” forces that Hannah Arendt called “negative solidarity.”
Mishra writes, “Malignant zealots have emerged in the very heart of the democratic West after a decade of political and economic tumult; the simple explanatory paradigm set in stone soon after the attacks of 9/11—Islam-inspired terrorism versus modernity—lies in ruins.” The United States, aside from suffering periodic mass killings in schools, malls and movie theaters, has seen homegrown terrorists strike the Boston Marathon, a South Carolina church, Tennessee military facilities, a Texas Army base and elsewhere.
“The modern West can no longer be distinguished from its apparent enemies,” Mishra notes. The hagiography of the U.S. Navy sniper Chris Kyle—who had a tattoo of a red Crusader cross and called the Iraq War a battle against “savage, desperate evil”—in Clint Eastwood’s movie “American Sniper” celebrates the binary worldview adopted by jihadists who deify their suicide bombers.
Mishra finds a similar situation in his own country, India. “In their indifference to the common good, single-minded pursuit of private happiness, and narcissistic identification with an apparently ruthless strongman and uninhibited loudmouth, [Indian Prime Minister Narendra] Modi’s angry voters mirror many electorates around the world—people gratified rather than appalled by trash-talk and the slaughter of old conventions,” he writes. “The new horizons of individual desire and fear opened up by the neoliberal world economy do not favour democracy or human rights.”
Philosopher George Santayana foresaw that America’s obsessive individualistic culture of competition and mimicry would eventually incite “a lava-wave of primitive blindness and violence.” The inability to be self-critical and self-aware, coupled with the cult of the self, would lead to a collective suicide. Cultural historian Carl Schorske in “Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture” wrote that Europe’s descent into fascism was inevitable once it cut the “cord of consciousness.” And, with the rise of Trump, it is clear the “cord of consciousness” has also been severed in the twilight days of the American empire. Once we no longer acknowledge or understand our own capacity for evil, once we no longer know ourselves, we become monsters who devour others and finally devour ourselves.
“Totalitarianism with its tens of millions of victims was identified as a malevolent reaction to the benevolent Enlightenment tradition of rationalism, humanism, universalism and liberal democracy—a tradition seen as an unproblematic norm,” Mishra writes. “It was clearly too disconcerting to acknowledge that totalitarian politics crystallized the ideological currents (scientific racism, jingoistic nationalism, imperialism, technicism, aestheticized politics, utopianism, social engineering and the violent struggle for existence) flowing through all of Europe in the late nineteenth century.”
Mishra knows what happens when people are discarded onto the dung heap of history. He knows what endless wars, waged in the name of democracy and Western civilization, engender among their victims. He knows what drives people, whether they are at a Trump rally or a radical mosque in Pakistan, to lust after violence. History informs the present. We are afflicted by what writer Albert Camus called “autointoxication, the malignant secretion of one’s preconceived impotence inside the enclosure of the self.” And until this “autointoxication” is addressed, the rage and violence, at home and abroad, will expand as we stumble toward a global apocalypse. The self-alienation of humankind, Walter Benjamin warned, “has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.”
The conflicts in Egypt, Libya, Mali, Syria and many other places, Mishra notes, are fueled by “extreme weather events, the emptying of rivers and seas of their fish stocks, or the desertification of entire regions on the planet.” The refugees being driven by their homelands’ chaos into Europe are creating political instability there. And as we sleepwalk into the future, the steady deterioration of the ecosystem will ultimately lead to total systems collapse. Mishra warns that “the two ways in which humankind can self-destruct—civil war on a global scale, or destruction of the natural environment—are rapidly converging.” Our elites, oblivious to the dangers ahead, blinded by their own hubris and greed, are ferrying us, like Charon, to the land of the dead.