There is now a steady flow of books trying to explain what Derek Mahon, in a welcome recent return to poetry, referred to as “the age of unbeauty, rage and anger”. One of the first out of the traps was Pankaj Mishra’s The Age of Anger. Mishra is an Indian-born writer now based in London. And his book reflects its title: it’s an angry, polemical work that offers some fresh insights into the current nihilistic mood which has resulted in the rise of an alarming number of demagogues around the world.
For Mishra the main culprit is the extreme free market capitalism which has been in the ascendant since the 1970s which, combined with new technologies, has disrupted lives without providing the so-called “trickle-down” compensating effect that apologists of the system have always promised. This has been a consistent theme since the 2008 recession, but the value of Mishra’s book is that it broadens the debate by taking a much longer time perspective and a much wider geographic angle. He believes that the roots of our present discontent lie in the nineteenth century, when the great European powers sowed the seeds of the modern globalised economic world by extending their reach in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. He has no illusions about the brutal reality of imperialism, which involved the ruthless exploitation of indigenous resources for the benefit of Western powers and blatant racism towards indigenous populations. Nor has he any truck with contemporary revisionists like Niall Ferguson, who argue that on balance colonised nations were net beneficiaries of this process.
Mishra uses two historical examples to illustrate his thesis. In the first he traces the disruptive effects of modernisation back to the eighteenth century French philosophers Voltaire and Rousseau. The former he casts as a moderniser and proto-free-marketeer, while the latter believed that the new commercial society led by callous elites was exacting too high a price in terms of inequality and insecurity. In the second example, from the nineteenth century, Mishra argues that the resentment of those left behind created the “alienated young men of promise” who seek to assuage their anger in acts of terrorism, memorably portrayed in Dostoevsky’s Underground Man. Underground men, often descendants of those exploited by the colonial powers in the nineteenth century continue to stalk Europe and the US today. Mishra employs the term ressentiment, what Nietzsche referred to as “a whole tremulous realm of subterranean revenge, inexhaustible and insatiable in outbursts” which results in “a universal irritability of everybody against everybody else ‑ a mix of envy, powerlessness, humiliation”. Today’s terrorist outbreaks can easily be seen in this light and because Mishra sees no hope of any immediate change he predicts that the mood of anger, cynicism and ugly nationalism will continue in the absence of a more determined effort to mitigate the growing inequality created by the frantic pace of globalisation and modernisation, with its accompanying outriders deregulation and privatisation.
The late nineteenth century witnessed rapid market growth in the West and Mishra accepts that free market capitalism has been responsible for the tremendous increase in living standards across the world; people are healthier, they live longer and the numbers living in extreme poverty have been drastically reduced but his critical insight is that it not the absolute level of material wealth that counts but one’s own position in relation to others living in the same society. The reason for the current global pandemic of rage, he suggests, is not only that too little has been done to reduce inequality but that the world has never seen such an accumulation of wealth that is so unequally distributed.
A second but related problem is the disruption to existing ways of life caused by the increasing pace of modernity. Mishra argues that not enough account is being taken of the psychic damage inflicted on people who have difficulty adjusting to the frightening pace of change, resulting in a conflict between those wanting to embrace change and sample what the wider world has to offer and those who don’t want to stray too far from the comfort of their community. But this debate has been going on since the beginning of time; the Greek gods Hestia and Hermes represented the conflict between the comforts of the hearth and the desire to experience the wider world. More recently, nineteenth century German sociologist, Ferdinand Tonnies’s distinction between gemeinschaft and gesellschaft gained wide currency. Mishra doesn’t refer to these historical precedents but he does reference Marshall Berman’s All That is Solid Melts into Air (1982), one of the most comprehensive contemporary attempts to reconcile this age-old conflict. Berman makes a more sympathetic case for embracing modernity, presenting it as not just being about wealth but about the freedom that wealth can bring; freedom from ignorance, but also from innocence, freedom of expression and the riches of knowledge ‑ a quest for transformational experience, of ourselves, of others and the world. But he also accepts that freeing ourselves from tradition exacts a toll because in the process we also free ourselves from stability, solidity and community. A key societal objective therefore should be to enable people to achieve a healthy balance between the two and it could be argued that for a variety of historical reasons, mainly a long exposure to emigration, we in Ireland have managed a reasonable balance between cosmopolitanism and dinnseanachas.
Mishra’s analysis of the history and reasons for the prevailing mood of anger and despair makes it clear that the current arrangement of largely free market capitalism augmented by social protection nets of varying strength is in urgent need of reform. He doesn’t specify any solutions and up to the 2008 recession it was widely assumed that “there is no alternative”.
Thomas Piketty’s exhaustive analysis made it clear that inequality was rising to unsustainable levels but his proposal for a global progressive wealth tax has only been endorsed by political parties of the far left who are nowhere in a position to implement it. Since then there has been no shortage of analysis with increasingly apocalyptic titles; The Cancer Stage of Capitalism, How Will Capitalism End? and The Corruption of Capitalism, but still precious little by way of a coherent alternative.
The most comprehensive account of the failure of the neo-liberalism project is Paul Mason’s Post-Capitalism: A Guide to our Future (2016) which uses Kondratieff’s wave theory to argue that we are at the end the fourth wave. Each wave has three phases, expansion, stagnation and recession. The first began in 1790 and ended somewhere in the 1860s. The fourth began after the Second World War and ended with the recession of 2008. Mason is betting there will be no fifth wave because this time the recession has resulted in permanent disruption due to the growth of the information economy, which he argues is simply not compatible with a market economy because it corrodes the normal operations of the price mechanism and the normal operation of competition. For example in info-capitalism monopoly is not just a clever tactic to increase profits; it is the only way an industry can run; “Google needs to be the only search engine, Facebook the only way to construct your online identity and Twitter the only place to share your thoughts.” Mason makes a convincing case for the neo-liberal or Anglo-American model of capitalism to be in terminal decline but his map of what might take its place is very unclear. He thinks it will be reformed from within: it is entirely possible to build the elements of the new system molecularly from within. In the cooperatives, the credit unions, the peer networks, the unmanaged enterprises and the parallel, subcultural economies these elements already exist. I think I know what he’s getting at here and in the aftermath of the recession there are faint stirrings of alternative forms of enterprise; witness the growth of a wide range of artisanal enterprises, but it is all too opaque to be able to envision an alternative future to the current model.
In the absence of a detailed roadmap some potential new directions are starting to be explored. There have been suggestions that instead of a blanket wealth tax as proposed by Piketty a new tax should be more context-specific, in particular that it should tax people who benefit from capturing rent as opposed to those who profit by entrepreneurship; in the words of one economist: “we have too many asset managers and lawyers and too few innovators”. Another proposal being considered is that people whose livelihoods are disrupted by new technology-based businesses like Uber should be compensated by higher taxes on the technology companies.
One of the most important challenges facing developed countries is the inability of the welfare state in its current form to cope. This is hardly surprising given that the principles underlying the system were negotiated in very different economic and demographic circumstances. The first sign of a radical alternative is the proposal that the current network of payments would be replaced by a national basic income; replacing the current creaking social welfare system with a kind of cnuas for all. One of the most vocal proponents of the idea is Rutger Bregman a Dutch historian still in his twenties and author of Utopia for Realists. Unlike the other books referred to in this essay this one is bright, breezy and optimistic and begins by reminding us of just how much progress we have made: life expectancy has improved from an average of thirty-five years in 1900 to sixty-four years in 1990 to over seventy today and meanwhile the percentage of the world’s population living on less than 2.000 calories a day has dropped from 51per cent in 1965 to 3 per cent in 2005. But, echoing Mishra, “the land of plenty is shrouded in fog”; Bregman asserts that we’re angry, we’ve buried utopia and we believe that our children will be worse off than ourselves. The idea of a basic income has been tried in a number of areas, he points out, notably in Winnipeg in the 1970s, where it was introduced for five years until it was withdrawn by a new administration. However subsequent research showed it had worked; there was a reduction in crime, child mortality, malnutrition, teenage pregnancy and truancy. Bregman believes that the current system has devolved into “a perverse behemoth of control and humiliation” and that allowing people to make their own decisions about how the money they have should be spent encourages more responsible behaviour. He also warns that very high levels of inequality have been tolerated for too long and that although there is no correlation between social problems and a country’s per capita income there is a strong correlation between a country’s social problems and income inequality. He advocates more redistribution of wealth through progressive taxation and a transaction tax to rein in the banks.
However one of the most interesting themes in the book is what the author refers to as “underdog socialism”: the lack of imagination shown by the left in proposing new mechanisms for redistribution. “The inability to imagine a world in which things are different,” he asserts, “is evidence only of a poor imagination, not of the impossibility of change.” He supports Keynes’s ideas about a shorter working week and the need to devote more attention to more rewarding leisure time. In this connection he points out that the rise of the current extreme version of free markets didn’t happen by accident: it was carefully planned by a group of right-wing economists who met in Switzerland in 1947. They had to wait twenty five years until the 1973 oil crisis gave them the opportunity to begin implementing their policies, which were eagerly grasped by Thatcher and Reagan. Bregman’s point is that the left has forgotten the art of politics; it has no story to tell, no language of hope and progress and moreover it is ineluctably dull.
If the centre-left is to regain some influence it will have to become more interesting. Accepted wisdom on becoming more interesting these days seems to revolve around some dynamic, likeable “personality” untainted by previous associations with the established political system. But the age of anger is not going to be assuaged by clever PR dressed up in a shiny new suit or skirt. New policy initiatives are urgently required, they’re beginning to emerge, and they just need to be brought together in a more coherent whole.
Books referred to:
Age of Anger, Pankaj Mishra. Bloomsbury, 2017
Post-Capitalism, Paul Mason. Allen Lane, 2015
Utopia for Realists. Rutger Bregman. Bloomsbury 2017
John Fanning is a former managing director and chairman of McConnell’s Advertising