A friend of mine – Avril Gardiner, art-fundi and owner-curator of the Liebrecht at gallery in Somerset-West – recently reminded me of a piece by Bryan Walsh in TIME magazine of 20 February (2017: pp. 15-16), in which Walsh talks about what he calls “this age of anger” in the context of the claim that the historical Enlightenment “predicted modern populism”. I had read the short article before, but our discussion of its insights prompted me to return to it and read it with greater attention.
Walsh draws attention to the unexpectedness of the election success on the part of one of the ‘candidates of anger’ – Donald Trump – although another one, on the left of the spectrum, namely Bernie Sanders, also attracted a lot of support among the electorate. For Walsh this was not expected because of the fact that the US economy was on its way to recovery, as shown by low unemployment figures, and violent crime was low into the bargain. So, by all accounts, one might have expected the “mainstream candidate” (a reference to Hillary Clinton) to have had an easy win in the recent presidential election. So why did it not happen?
The answer: Trump was able to cash in on the simmering anger of American voters, who saw him, for better or for worse – but arguably by way of erroneous judgement – as the ‘candidate of change’. While most politicians and media commentators seem to have been taken aback by this unexpected phenomenon, however, Walsh points to an “erudite new book” by Pankaj Mishra, called “Age of Anger: A History of the Present”, written before Trump and Brexit (another manifestation of the phenomenon of anger), which uncovers the present, widespread rage as having roots embedded in the Enlightenment of the 18th century.
How so, you may ask. Anyone who knows what happened in the Enlightenment – the so-called Age of Reason – will recall that it was the era when the shackles of religious superstition were shuffled off in the name of what all human beings share, namely reason. (Too bad that it took so long for this thought to work through in practice…) Thinkers such as Immanuel Kant, Diderot, Voltaire and Adam Smith (father of liberal, now ‘neoliberal’, capitalism) laid the foundations of social and economic practices that would no longer be in thrall to authoritarian religion and other traditional practices such as despotic monarchy.
In brief, their work marked the onward march of the quest for freedom on the part of humanity, which ultimately meant not only humans in the collective sense, but individuals who pursued the kind of liberty that would enable them to prioritise their individual aims and interests. In his book, Mishra claims that these Enlightenment ideals not only included a quest for moral freedom and the right to develop one’s scientific or artistic interests, but also economic freedom, which has resulted in what we know as ‘free-market capitalism’. Needless to stress, the latter has turned out to be somewhat of a poisoned gift (my metaphor), which has not resulted in wealth for all, to say the least, but in gross economic inequalities all over the world.
Hence the anger. Consider that, after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, resulting in what political scientist, Francis Fukuyama, prematurely dubbed “the end of history” – the apparent embrace, by virtually all nations, of ‘neoliberal capitalist democracy’ (an oxymoron, if ever there was one) – the expectations were raised everywhere that it was only a matter of time before this fusion of economics and politics would spread all over the world and result in significant economic improvement for everyone. But this has not happened, of course. (Here in South Africa we are witnessing our own unique instance of these expectations, and their disappointment, evinced in all the angry protests that are convulsing our country at present.)
Walsh sums this up as follows (p. 16): “But the progress of reason was always shadowed by irrationality. Humans aren’t purely rational actors – at least most of us aren’t – and while the spread of the Enlightenment permitted many to pursue knowledge and wealth through self-interest, it was profoundly disruptive for others, as the sometimes oppressive security of religion and tradition was swept away. The result was what Mishra – borrowing from Nietzsche – terms ‘ressentiment,’ or ‘the mismatch between personal expectations, heightened by a traumatic break with the past, and the cruelly unresponsive reality of slow change.’ It was a toxic mix of envy, humiliation and powerlessness. And it led to rebellion.”
Does this excerpt ring a South African bell, as it should? Who can fail to recognise the current fraught situation here in South Africa in Mishra’s allusion to “the mismatch between personal expectations, heightened by a traumatic break with the past, and the cruelly unresponsive reality of slow change”? But this is not restricted to South Africa – as already noted, the recent events on the American and British political and economic landscape (Trump and Brexit, and one could add the election of Macron, who does not even belong to one of the established parties, in France) testify to something similar: the bitter disappointment and anger on the part of the electorate in the face of unrealised expectations. While the 1% bask in their incomprehensible wealth – who can really grasp the implications of personal wealth to the tune of about $70 billion or more, as in the case of Bill Gates? – the 99% sometimes struggle to make ends meet, let alone those who, in countries like Brazil, South Africa and India, don’t even have food and shelter.
Walsh reminds one that there are other, related, phenomena (p. 16): “For some – from the anarchists of the 19th century to the soldiers of ISIS today – that rebellion takes the form of ever more horrifying acts of violence. But the more powerful shift is psychological. Even though the economy has recovered from its 2008 crisis, the promises of growth for all have still not materialized for many, and the idea that ‘the future would be materially superior to the present,’ Mishra writes, ‘has gone missing today.’
“What’s left behind is a rage that is in many ways justified, as global capitalism – though it has raised living standards around the world – seems to do little but show people what they can’t have…
“…Nineteenth century rebels had real political alternatives, even if some, like communism, would prove catastrophic. But where do we turn now? Mishra nods toward the need to move beyond the ‘religion of technology and GDP and the crude 19th century calculus of self-interest,’ although just how we do that, and where it might take us, he doesn’t say.”
Although it is almost impossible for people to agree on this – how to get beyond the “religion of technology and GDP”, etc. – one thing seems to me to be certain. The exclusive focus on human economy, on growing material wealth, is leading the human species to catastrophe, for the simple reason that it is precisely this frenetic and obsessive preoccupation with financial wealth that blinds one to the much more – in fact, urgent – state of affairs that confronts us today: in our stupid quest for economic growth we are in the process of destroying the very basis of each and every human economy, namely the natural ecology.
I read recently that the Great Barrier Reef off Australia – one of the natural wonders of the world – is beyond redemption, and probably cannot be rescued from human-inflicted damage. And the inability of people to see beyond the money in their pockets is in the process of exterminating the indispensable ‘lungs’ of Mother Earth – the rainforests – by logging them relentlessly (see: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/inpictures/2017/04/fighting-save-canada-giant-trees-170429152837200.html ). Only when the effects of eroding the living ground under our feet, as it were, start becoming more and more tangible, making it impossible even for the world’s wealthy to live comfortably, will people start waking up, and anger will turn into panic. James Lovelock (in The Vanishing Face of Gaia) believes it is too late even now to reverse this course of mindless destruction, but while the jury is still out on that, isn’t it worth a try?