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Age of Anger: A History of the Present, by Pankaj Mishra. Highlights from Kindle book

by davesandel on September 11th, 2017

Your Kindle Notes For:

Age of Anger: A History of the Present

Pankaj Mishra

Last annotated on Tuesday September 12, 2017

175 Highlight(s) | 1 Note(s)

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In September 1919 the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, accompanied by two thousand Italian mutineers, occupied the Adriatic town of Fiume.

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as ‘il Duce’ of the ‘Free State of Fiume’, D’Annunzio created a politics of outrageous rhetoric and gestures – politics in the grand style. He invented the stiff-armed salute, which the Nazis later adopted, and designed a black uniform with pirate skull and crossbones, among other things; he talked obsessively of martyrdom, sacrifice and death. Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, then obscure men, were keen students of the pseudo-religious speeches

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Alexis de Tocqueville had repeatedly called for a great energizing adventure: the ‘domination and subjugation’ of the Algerian people and the creation of a French Empire in North Africa.

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Demagogues in Austria-Hungary, who scapegoated Jews for the mass suffering inflicted by the anonymous forces of global capitalism, sought to copy anti-immigrant legislation introduced in America.

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a political culture wrought by the West’s transition to industrial capitalism and mass politics

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Today, as alienated radicals from all over the world flock to join violent, misogynist and sexually transgressive movements, and political cultures elsewhere suffer the onslaught of demagogues, D’Annunzio’s secession – moral, intellectual and aesthetic as well as military – from an evidently irredeemable society seems a watershed moment in the history of our present: one of many enlightening conjunctures that we have forgotten.

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It has become progressively clearer that political elites in the West, unable to junk an addiction to drawing lines in the sand, regime change and re-engineering native moeurs, don’t seem to know what they are doing and what they are bringing about. They have counterbalanced their loss of nerve before the political challenge of terrorism with overreaction, launching military campaigns, often without bothering to secure the consent of a frightened people, and while supporting despotic leaders they talk endlessly of their superior ‘values’ – a rhetoric that has now blended into a white-supremacist hatred, lucratively exploited by Trump, of immigrants, refugees and Muslims (and, often, those who just ‘look’ Muslim).

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tapped into the simmering reservoirs of cynicism, boredom and discontent.

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Authoritarian leaders, anti-democratic backlashes and right-wing extremism define the politics of Austria, France and the United States as well as India, Israel, Thailand, the Philippines and Turkey.

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beheading (in 2004, just as broadband internet began to arrive in middle-class homes) in Iraq of a Western hostage dressed in Guantanamo’s orange jumpsuit. But the racism and misogyny routinely on display in social media, and demagoguery in political discourse, now reveals what Nietzsche, speaking of the ‘men of ressentiment ’, called ‘a whole tremulous realm of subterranean revenge, inexhaustible and insatiable in outbursts’.

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This book takes a very different view of a universal crisis, shifting the preposterously heavy burden of explanation from Islam and religious extremism. It argues that the unprecedented political, economic and social disorder that accompanied the rise of the industrial capitalist economy in nineteenth-century Europe, and led to world wars, totalitarian regimes and genocide in the first half of the twentieth century, is now infecting much vaster regions and bigger populations:

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nineteenth century. German and then Italian nationalists called for a ‘holy war’ more than a century before the word ‘jihad’ entered common parlance, and young Europeans all through the nineteenth century joined political crusades in remote places, resolved on liberty or death.

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the global age of frantic individualism,

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In a massive and under-appreciated shift worldwide, people understand themselves in public life primarily as individuals with rights, desires and interests, even if they don’t go as far as Margaret Thatcher in thinking that ‘there is no such thing as society’.

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In the age of globalization that dawned after the fall of the Berlin Wall, political life became steadily clamorous with unlimited demands for individual freedoms and satisfactions.

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Most newly created ‘individuals’ toil within poorly imagined social and political communities and/or states with weakening sovereignty. They not only suffer from the fact that, as Tocqueville wrote in another context, ‘traditional ties, supports and restrictions have been left behind along with their assurances about a person’s self-worth and identity’. Their isolation has also been intensified by the decline or loss of postcolonial nation-building ideologies, and the junking of social democracy by globalized technocratic elites.

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capitalism and technology into a common present, where grossly unequal distributions of wealth and power have created humiliating new hierarchies.

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social structures of family and community, and the state’s welfare cushions. Today’s individuals are directly exposed to them in an age of accelerating competition on uneven playing fields, where it is easy to feel that there is no such thing as either society or state, and that there is only a war of all against all.

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The result is, as Arendt feared, a ‘tremendous increase in mutual hatred and a somewhat universal irritability of everybody against everybody else’, or ressentiment. An existential resentment of other people’s being, caused by an intense mix of envy and sense of humiliation and powerlessness, ressentiment, as it lingers and deepens, poisons civil society and undermines political liberty, and is presently making for a global turn to authoritarianism and toxic forms of chauvinism.

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the schemes of worldwide convergence on the Western model always denied the meaning of the West’s own extraordinarily brutal initiation into political and economic modernity. *   *   * Large-scale violence, uprooting and destruction had accompanied the first phase of an unprecedented human experiment in Europe and America.

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The nineteenth century’s most sensitive minds, from Kierkegaard to Ruskin, recoiled from such modernization, though they did not always acknowledge its darker side: rapacious colonialism and savage wars in Asia and Africa, the institutionalization of prejudices like anti-Semitism, and the widespread terror, aggravated by pseudo-science, of what Theodore Roosevelt called ‘race suicide’.

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acknowledged that the history of modernization is largely one of carnage and bedlam rather than peaceful convergence, and that the politics of violence, hysteria and despair was by no means unique to Nazi Germany,

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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.

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billions more people have been exposed to the promises of individual freedom in a global neo-liberal economy that imposes constant improvisation and adjustment – and just as rapid obsolescence.

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copycat pop-ups from San Bernardino in California to Dhaka in Bangladesh, and the success of racist nationalists and cultural supremacists worldwide, ought to make us re-examine our basic assumptions of order and continuity – our belief that the human goods achieved so far by a fortunate minority can be realized by the ever-growing majority that desires them.

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The two ways in which humankind can self-destruct – civil war on a global scale, or destruction of the natural environment – are rapidly converging.

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Can the triumphant axioms of individual autonomy and interest-seeking, formulated, sanctified and promoted by a privileged minority, work for the majority in a crowded and interdependent world? Or, are today’s young doomed to hurtle, like many Europeans and Russians in the past, between a sense of inadequacy and fantasies of revenge?

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explores a particular climate of ideas, a structure of feeling, and cognitive disposition, from the age of Rousseau to our own age of anger. It

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This alienated young man of promise, who appears in all modernizing countries, speaks on behalf of the illiterate majority, the educated minority, or himself – a self that turns out to be painfully divided.

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their parallel and intersecting journeys were fuelled by a mismatch between the energy and idealism of educated youth, almost all men, and political weakness and dysfunction.

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many Anglo-American assumptions, derived from a unique and unrepeatable historical experience, are an unreliable guide to today’s chaos, especially as it infects Anglo-America.

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But a curious and sceptical sensibility would recognize that to stake one’s position on national or civilizational superiority, or turn the accident of birth into a source of pride, is intellectually sterile.

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American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr mocked such ‘bland fanatics of Western civilization’, ‘who regard the highly contingent achievements of our culture as the final form and norm of human existence’.

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the paradox of religious fundamentalism: that it reflects the weakening of religious conviction.

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a rousing cause to fight for, especially one connected, however tenuously, with the past glory of Islam, and aimed at exterminating a world of soul-killing mediocrity, cowardice, opportunism and immoral deal-making.

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A revealed religion had dominated Europe until the seventeenth century; all other intellectual and cultural currents were subordinate to Christianity. Man did not presume to make his world; he was rather made by it. The world itself was seen as unchanging. Thus, there was no such thing as politics as we understand it: an organized competition for power, or contentious notions of equality and justice, identity and citizenship. All legitimacy derived from God and the timeless natural order.

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ideology: the notion that ideas express the conflicting interests of individuals or groups.)

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Liberty had been the battle cry of the men leading the revolutions in seventeenth-century England and eighteenth-century America. As it happened, the Atlantic West’s nascent bourgeoisie had just started to enjoy liberty when Rousseau’s radical heirs brought forth, during the French Revolution, far more seductive ideals of fraternity and equality. They

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Within a decade, the 1790s, two concepts, ‘nationalism’ and ‘communism’, had been invented to define the aspirations for fraternity and equality.

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‘Democracy’ came into vogue around 1830, helped by Tocqueville’s close observations of the new culture of individualism and equality in America.

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The appeal of democracy, broadly defined as equality of conditions and the end of hierarchy, would grow and grow – to the paradoxical point where Fascists, Nazis and Stalinists would claim to be the real democrats, realizing a deeper principle of equality, and offering greater participation in politics, than the bourgeois liberal democrats bothered with.

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never have we known man to walk on his head, that is, to base himself on the Idea and to build the world in accordance with it.’

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entirely equal and equivalent to all that exists outside itself.

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Nietzsche derived from Notes from Underground his specific understanding of ressentiment, and its malign potential as a particularly noxious form of aggression by the weak against an aloof and inaccessible elite.

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A whole new domain of human activity, now known to us by the words ‘economics’ and ‘economy’, opened up, and rapidly assumed a supreme value.

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Rousseau hailed the wisdom of François Fénelon, who in the most widely read book of the Enlightenment, The Adventures of Telemachus (1699), claimed that the Sun King’s project of grandeur through promotion of luxury had created deep economic, social and moral imbalances in France.

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military technology and a rationalized organization

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He sensed, earlier than anyone else, that the individual assertion mandated by modern egalitarian society could amount in practice to domination of other individuals; he foresaw its pathologies, flaws and blind spots, which made certain negative historical outcomes likely in practice.

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Many ‘isms’ of the right and the left – Romanticism, socialism, authoritarianism, nationalism, anarchism – can be traced to Rousseau’s writings.

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Against today’s backdrop of near-universal political rage, history’s greatest militant lowbrow seems to have grasped, and embodied, better than anyone the incendiary appeal of victimhood in societies built around the pursuit of wealth and power.

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A few months later this same young man by the name of Mohammed Atta was told that he been chosen to lead a mission to destroy America’s most famous skyscrapers.

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similar lament appears in the work of Japan’s foremost novelist, Natsume Soseki, who spent two miserable years in fin de siècle London. Novelists as varied as Junichiro Tanizaki and Yukio Mishima sought to return to an earlier ‘wholeness’. Tanizaki tried to re-create an indigenous aesthetic by pointing to the importance of ‘shadows’ – a whole world of distinctions banished from Japanese life by the modern invention of the light bulb. Mishima invoked, more gaudily, Japan’s lost culture of the samurai by dressing up as one. Both were fuelled by rage and regret that, as Tanizaki wrote in In Praise of Shadows (1933), ‘we have met a superior civilization and have had to surrender to it, and we have had to leave a road we have followed for thousands of years’.

Note:japan. Add Silence et al to the list.

 

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and appeals to transcendental authority led Foucault to see a form of ‘spiritual politics’ emerging in Iran. In his view this politics was emphatically not shaped by an abstract, calculating and incarcerating reason, but a ‘groundswell with no vanguard

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The idea that suffering could be relieved, and happiness engineered, by men radically changing the social order belongs to the eighteenth century. The ambitious

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about India, assessing a vast and diverse country through the inferiority complex of an upper-caste minority. However, their obsessive mapping of the high-born Hindu’s id created a useful – and increasingly very recognizable – meme of intellectual insecurity, confusion and belligerence. And, as it happens, thwarted Indians seeking private and national redemption are by no means unique.

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‘We will strive to be leaders,’ Vladimir Putin announced in December 2013, of Russia’s new role in the world. Nothing less would do for ‘a state like Russia, with its great history and culture, with many centuries of experience not of so-called tolerance, neutered and barren, but of the real organic life of different peoples existing together within the framework of a single state’.

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China’s President Xi Jinping outlines a ‘China Dream’ to re-establish his nation as a great power on a par with America: a vision in which he and his party are the representatives of a 5,000-year-old civilization, inoculated against Western political ideals of individual freedom and democracy.

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Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan denounces Turkish journalists and academics as fifth columnists of the West, speaks of Islam as ‘Europe’s indigenous religion’ from ‘Andalusia to the Ottomans’, and vows to protect the domes of European mosques ‘against all the hands that reach out to harm them’. No one, he promises, ‘will be able to stop’ Islam from growing into ‘a huge tree of justice in the centre of Europe’.

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many countries in the West are also obsessed with patriotic education, reverence for national symbols and icons, and the uniqueness of national culture and history; they, too, sound the alarm against various internal and external enemies. Far-right parties in France, Austria, Holland, Germany and the United Kingdom openly admire Putin’s resolve to re-create ‘organic’ life in a ‘single state’.

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‘Israel,’ wrote David Grossman in 2016, ‘is being sucked ever deeper into a mythological, religious and tribal narrative.’

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Today, the demagogues ruling Hungary and Poland claim to be the sentinels of a Christian Europe in a parody of their actual role in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

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the idolatry of the nationalistic state, the ‘coldest of all cold monsters’, as Nietzsche called

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Nationalism has again become a seductive but treacherous antidote to an experience of disorder and meaninglessness: the unexpectedly rowdy anticlimax, in a densely populated world, of the Western European eighteenth-century dream of a universally secular, materialist and peaceful civilization.

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As Keynes wrote, with devastating understatement, ‘The age of economic internationalism was not particularly successful in avoiding war.’ In the late twentieth century, however, the old dream of economic internationalism was revived on a much grander scale after Communism, the illegitimate child of Enlightenment rationalism, suffered a shattering loss of state power and legitimacy in Russia and Eastern Europe.

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In the absence of reasoned debate, conspiracy theories and downright lies abound, and even gain broad credence: it was while peddling one of them, ‘Obama is a foreign-born Muslim’, that Donald Trump rose to political prominence.

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Lynch mobs, assassins and mass shooters thrive in a climate where many people can think only in terms of the categories of friends and foes, sectarian loyalty or treason. The world of mutual tolerance envisaged by cosmopolitan elites from the Enlightenment onwards exists within a few metropolises and university campuses; and even these rarefied spaces are shrinking.

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Between 1770 and 1815 a galaxy of German thinkers and artists, almost all readers of Rousseau, responded to the then emergent commercial and cosmopolitan society; and their response set a pattern of the greatest importance for the history of politics and culture. It started with assertions of spiritual superiority and an aesthetic ideology, mutated over time into ethnic and cultural nationalism, and, finally, into an existential politics of survival. All the diverse movements of German Idealism that transformed the world of thought – from Sturm und Drang to Romanticism to the Marxist dialectic – originally emerged out of the resentment and defensive disdain of isolated German intellectuals, which Rousseau’s rhetoric justified and reinforced.

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these young men started to idealize what they took to be the true Volk, an organic national community united by a distinctive language, ways of thought, shared traditions, and a collective memory enshrined in folklore and fable.

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The Rousseau-reading Germans countered the cosmopolitan ideals of commerce, luxury and metropolitan urbanity with Kultur.

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Kultur combined the nurturing and education of the individual soul (Bildung) with the growth of national culture. Starting with Herder and Goethe, prodigiously talented German literati elaborated, for the first time in history, a national identity founded on aesthetic achievement and spiritual eminence.

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Subjugated and dishonoured Germany came to generate that strange compound we have subsequently seen in many countries: harmless nostalgia for the past glories of the ‘people’, combined with a lethal fantasy of their magnificent restoration. Cults of the Volk did not cease to seduce, and mislead, in the second half of the nineteenth century, even as Germany consolidated its political unity and Bismarck’s Second Reich frenetically pursued industrialization.

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The Volk, expeditiously conflated after 1918 with a purified race, began to seem a magical antidote to the spiritual disorientation induced by modernity, and some of the most intelligent and sensitive Germans were inebriated by it.

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This exhausted and resentful state of mind prepared the ground for the authoritarian state; it was the basic condition of possibility for the uncanny avant-gardist who, while resurrecting symbols of Germany’s glorious past, outlined a glorious vision of the future in which the German Volk would triumph in the international racial struggle. He offered his followers escape from failure and self-loathing, and release into quasi-erotic fantasies of a near-permanent supremacy: a Thousand-Year Reich, no less.

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Herder inaugurated the nativist quest – hectically pursued by almost every nation since – for whatever could be identified as embodying an authentic national spirit: literary forms, cuisine and architecture as much as language.

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Herder also recognized a creative principle in different national cultures. He claimed that each of the world’s many nations has a particular character, expressed diversely in its language, literature, religion, traditions, values, institutions and laws, and that history was a process of national self-fulfilment.

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Herder himself, his early disciple Goethe said, had in him ‘something compulsively vicious – like a vicious horse – a desire to bite and hurt’. But

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Herder never saw Riga again. Instead of mutating into a French-style man of the world, he became the philosophical father of cultural nationalism.

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‘Magnificence in arts and institutions are in the centre of attention,’ he wrote. ‘But since taste is only the most superficial conception of beauty and magnificence only an illusion – and frequently a surrogate for beauty – France can never satisfy, and I am heartily tired of it.’

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the French ‘only want to destroy everything that exists and to create everywhere … a void, in which they can reproduce their own image and never anything else’.

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The rebellion against the narrow intellectualism of the French Enlightenment, led by Herder, and popularized by the young Goethe and Schiller, turned into the movement known as Sturm und Drang, ‘stress and strain’, the essential precursor of the Romantic Revolution that transformed the world with its notion of a dynamic subjectivity.

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Many of its adherents were students – with their rakish dress, long hair, and narcotic and sexual indulgences, they were prototypes for the counter-cultural figures of our age. These young men upheld feeling and sensibility against the tyranny of reason,

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In German hands, literary and classical scholarship and the brand-new discipline of history received the imprint, ineradicable to this day, of cultural defensiveness.

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The population had doubled over the previous century; and there was an abundance of young Germans, many of them brilliantly creative in music, art, literature and philosophy. Yet they had to suffer petty princes, religious division and constricted economic systems.

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The Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation consisted of three hundred states and another fifteen hundred minor units, all with different customs, manners and dialects.

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Political and cultural unity was bedevilled by the division, dating back to the Reformation, of Germans into Catholics and Protestants. Austria and Prussia, two important components of the Holy Roman Empire, were locked in conflict, and frequently pursued policies that seemed to undermine rather than serve the overall German interest.

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For Kant it was proof of mankind’s emergence from its self-imposed immaturity, the process he had termed Enlightenment: a world-historical experiment in which man was finally self-determining and free.

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It was now to be the task of the Romantic generation to shore up the ideal of Bildung against modern society, and its atomism, alienation and anomie.

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At a moment of political catastrophe and cultural crisis, the early Romantic struggles for re-enchantment in Germany mutated, largely due to its humiliations by Napoleon and German elite collaboration with him, into chauvinistic, even militaristic, myths of the Volk, fatherland and the state.

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Mere being came to be degraded, thanks to Germany’s special experience, by becoming. As Nietzsche wrote caustically, ‘The German himself is not, he is becoming, he is “developing”. “Development” is thus the truly German discovery.’

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In the long term, ‘development’ proved to be the most important discovery: it is still the word we use to assess societies. Human self-knowledge since the nineteenth century has been synonymous with all that could help the process of ‘development’: the advance of science and industry and the demystification of culture, tradition and religion. All the hopes, transmitted from Marxists to modernization theorists and free-marketeers, of ‘development’ emerge from nineteenth-century German thinkers: the first people to give a deep meaning and value to a process defined by continuous movement with a fixed direction and no terminus. All our simple dualisms – progressive and reactionary, modern and anti-modern, rational and irrational – derive their charge from the deeply internalized urge to move to the next stage of ‘development’, however nebulously defined.

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The process inaugurated in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – whereby man replaces God as the centre of existence and becomes the master and possessor of nature by the application of a new science and technology – had reached a climax by the middle decades of the nineteenth century. The view of God as only an idealized projection of human beings rather than a Creator had taken hold among the European and Russian intelligentsia well before 1848. Among writers and artists trying to create new values without the guidance of religion, Wagner loomed largest in his attempt to construct a new mythos for human beings.

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In Nietzsche’s view, materialism and loss of faith were generating a bogus mysticism of the state and nation, and dreams of utopia. Describing Bismarck as a ‘fraternity student’, he lamented ‘Germany’s increasing stupidity’ as it descended into ‘political and nationalistic madness’. He also used the Germans to indict a broader complacency in Europe: its investment in liberal democracy, socialist revolution and nationalism.

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poets, often in exile, managed to exalt, with their lyrical power, the amorphous fantasies of self-aggrandizement into the principles of nationhood. Poetry has never been so widely and keenly read as it was in the early nineteenth century.

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Walter Scott, who had practically invented Scotland with his ground-breaking ethnic lore and historical local colour. Poetry’s

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Those vulnerable to the immense soft power of German philosophy – Italians, Hungarians, Bohemians, Poles – devised their own cultural-linguistic nationalism, marked by resentment and frustration. Soon, the Japanese fell under its spell, followed by other Asians. No educated minority was more thoroughly ‘Germanized’ than the Japanese in the nineteenth century.

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As with the Germans, this was no mere conceit of ivory-tower dwellers; clear identification of the other as inferior was essential to building up internal unity and confidence for Japan’s inevitable and final showdown with its enemies. The Kyoto School provided the intellectual justification for Japan’s brutal assault on China in the 1930s, and then the sudden attack on its biggest trading partner in December 1941 – at Pearl Harbor.

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Sorel ‘is the key to all contemporary political thought’. For his work consummated the nineteenth century’s steady transformation of politics: from the Enlightenment’s liberal notion emphasizing rational self-interest and deliberation to Napoleon’s total war, heroism and grandeur, aestheticization and, finally, an existential politics where survival is at stake, and the choices are life or death.

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Over four years later, Gabriele D’Annunzio’s occupation of Fiume offered the socialist apostate a fresh template for arousing the masses: black uniforms, stiff-armed salutes, military parades, war songs, and the glorification of virility and sacrifice.

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Gandhi together with Simone Weil was among many twentieth-century thinkers who questioned the emphasis on rights – the claims of self-seeking possessive individuals against others that underpinned the expansion of commercial society around the world. They, too, said that a free society ought to consist of a web of moral obligations. But Mazzini’s messianism cancelled his good ideas; and he failed to anticipate that his desired Third Rome might require high levels of brutality,

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Bakunin criticized, too, Mazzini’s ‘passion for uniformity that they call unification and that is really the tomb of liberty’.

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explicitly identified Mazzini as the founder of a new religion, whose creeds of nationality, liberty and unity were to be practised with blood and martyrdom. Another close reader of the Italian, Bipin Chandra Pal, used him to promote the cult of Bharat Mata (Mother India), revealing an allegedly ancient Hindu idea of the divinized and spiritualized nation, or the nation as mother, to be derived almost entirely from European nationalist notions. Another devotee of Mazzini was Liang Qichao, China’s foremost modern intellectual, and an inspiration to many writers, thinkers and activists across East Asia. Exiled to Japan in 1898, Liang produced a large inspirational history of Italy aimed at galvanizing his Chinese compatriots. Typically, he placed Mazzini at the centre,

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Savarkar was arrested the same day, 30 January 1948, that his most fervent admirer in his party, Nathuram Godse, murdered Gandhi. During his trial, Godse made a long and eloquent speech reprising Savarkar’s themes; he was disappointed to find that his hero, eager not to return to jail, ignored him coldly in the courthouse and prison. Savarkar himself was acquitted of the conspiracy to murder Gandhi,

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what explains the fact that many individuals among even relatively privileged majorities stand ready to support murderous leaders? A ‘taste for well-being’, Tocqueville wrote, ‘easily comes to terms with any government that allows it to find satisfaction’ – and any kind of atrocity, he might have added. Modi,

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He made many poorly educated, underprivileged laggards – people brought up on Ayn Randian clichés of ambition, iron willpower and striving – feel masters of their individual destinies.

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In their indifference to the common good, single-minded pursuit of private happiness, and narcissistic identification with an apparently ruthless strongman and uninhibited loudmouth, Modi’s angry voters mirror many electorates around the world – people gratified rather than appalled by trash-talk and the slaughter of old conventions. The new horizons of individual desire and fear opened up by the neoliberal world economy do not favour democracy or human rights. In 2016 middle-class voters in the Philippines overwhelmingly chose Rodrigo Duterte as the country’s president, at least partly because he brazenly flaunted his expertise in the extrajudicial killing of criminals. Modi’s assault on Muslims – already India’s most depressed and demoralized minority – may seem wholly gratuitous. But it was an electorally bountiful pogrom; it brought him a landslide victory just three months later, and now seems to have been an initiation rite for a ‘New India’ defined by individual self-interest.

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The crony-capitalist regimes of Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand and Vladimir Putin in Russia were inaugurated by ferocious offensives against ethnic minorities. Erdogan is trying to consolidate support by renewing attacks on the Kurds, among other ‘traitors’. Even in the United States, a figure like Trump became a presidential candidate with the help of repeated threats to Mexicans and Muslims. All

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decline of the historical form of the nation state. The social contract has weakened everywhere under the pressure of globalization. Much ultra-nationalist rhetoric verifies that the political entity entrusted universally since the French Revolution with the exercise of sovereign power is increasingly unable to resolve internal conflicts over distribution or to effect compromises between ethnic and racial communities. This crisis of a flailing universal

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Politicians can find no rational ground to deny the political and moral claims of minorities or the economic benefits of immigration. It is easier to retreat, as England’s Brexit campaign showed, into fantasies of past power and glory, and splendid isolation; and there are enough vendors of a clash of civilizations peddling magical cosmic solutions to neuroses whose source lies in profound inequalities at home. These included the chief advocate of the clash of civilizations theory. Samuel Huntington fretted in his last book, Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity (2004), about the destruction of white American culture by Hispanic immigration – a theme taken up vigorously by Donald Trump promising to make America great again.

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Thus, in the very places where secular modernity arose, with ideas that were then universally established – individualism (against the significance of social relations), the cult of efficiency and utility (against the ethic of honour), and the normalization of self-interest – the mythic Volk has reappeared as a spur to solidarity and action against real and imagined enemies.

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But nationalism is, more than ever before, a mystification, if not a dangerous fraud with its promise of making a country ‘great again’ and its demonization of the ‘other’; it conceals the real conditions of existence, and the true origins of suffering, even as it seeks to replicate the comforting balm of transcendental ideals within a bleak earthly horizon. Its political resurgence shows that ressentiment – in this case, of people who feel left behind by the globalized economy or contemptuously ignored by its slick overlords and cheerleaders in politics, business and the media – remains the default metaphysics of the modern world since Rousseau first defined

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Proudhon, appalled by public support of imperial despotism and militarist adventurism in France, came to believe that: To be governed is to be watched, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, regulated, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, checked, estimated, valued, censured, commanded by creatures who have neither the right nor the wisdom nor the virtue to do so. To be governed is to be at every operation, at every transaction noted, registered, counted, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorized, admonished, prevented, forbidden, reformed, corrected, punished. It is, under pretext of public utility, and in the name of the general interest, to be placed under contribution, drilled, fleeced, exploited, monopolized, extorted, squeezed, hoaxed, hunted down, abused, clubbed, disarmed, bound, choked, imprisoned, judged, condemned, shot, deported, sold, betrayed, and to crown all, mocked, ridiculed, derided, outraged, dishonoured. That is government; that is its justice; that is its morality.

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In the most illuminating coincidence of our time, at a ‘Supermax’ prison in Colorado, McVeigh befriended Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, the mastermind of the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993.

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engineer by training, completed what he had started: the twin towers’ destruction.

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the radical current that reached far outside Europe, deep into South America and Asia, and brought several diverse communities together in the late nineteenth century, was anarchism. Errico

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The anarchist idea of mutual aid was especially attractive among the labouring classes and immigrants as a counter to the pitiless Social Darwinism rampant among elites.

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Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the spiritual father of ISIS, had been a small-town pimp and drug-dealer before he set out to establish a Caliphate in Iraq in double-quick time through theatrical displays of extreme savagery.

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above all, they believe, in Bakunin’s words, in the ‘passion for destruction as a creative passion’.

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The Jacobin politician and journalist Jean-Paul Marat wondered why those accusing him of a reign of terror ‘cannot see that I want to cut off a few heads to save a great number’.

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ISIS, born during the implosion of Iraq, owes its existence more to Operation Infinite Justice and Enduring Freedom than to any Islamic theology. It is the quintessential 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 legitimacy, creating a space for such non-state actors as armed gangs, mafia, vigilante groups, warlords and private revenge-seekers.

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form of strenuous self-assertion that acknowledges no limits, and requires descent into a moral abyss.

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Marx and Hegel posited a new meaning and purpose to life. The failure of 1848, however, caused as much damage to the quasi-theological German idea of development as the discoveries of natural sciences had inflicted on faith in God. The quick collapse of working-class uprisings in 1848, and the triumphs of the bourgeoisie, made historical development seem neither rational nor progressive. Reason did not rule the world; the real was plainly not the rational.

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But it was Nietzsche who sensed, with especial acuteness, the debilitating post-1848 mood – what he called ‘nihilism’ – while also recoiling from what he saw as counterfeit attempts to deny it.

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As he saw it, Europeans were far from facing up squarely to the death of God, and its radical consequences; they had sought to resurrect Christianity in the modern ideals and ideologies of democracy, socialism, nationalism, utilitarianism and materialism. Stressing humanitarianism and pity, they had embraced the ‘slave morality’ of the first Christians in Rome.

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transcend their fate of passive nihilism to become active nihilists. Nihilism, then,

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Educated Russians like Herzen first formulated their revolutionary ideologies in the great intermediate ground between serene elites and mute masses. This is the space, as we have seen, from where almost all modern militants have emerged.

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consumption’, while lamenting the despiritualization

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Today, the belief in progress, necessary for life in a Godless universe, can no longer be sustained, except, perhaps, in the Silicon Valley mansions of baby-faced millennials.

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depoliticized and apathetic working-class and middle-class populations in the United States and Europe. George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four had conceived in dystopian terms this comfortable if regimented life of a remotely and lightly supervised proletariat – the last men of history: So long as they [the Proles] continued to work and breed, their other activities were without importance. Left to themselves, like cattle turned loose upon the plains of Argentina, they had reverted to a style of life that appeared to be natural to them, a sort of ancestral pattern … Heavy physical work, the care of home and children, petty quarrels with neighbours, films, football, beer and above all, gambling filled up the horizon of their minds. To keep them in control was not difficult. McVeigh grew up as this period of general affluence and leisure peaked,

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True freedom for this disaffected individual would consist of a renunciation of self-assertion,

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From its inception in the Enlightenment, the modern world was driven, and defined, by the self-affirming autonomous individual who, condemned to be free, continually opens up new possibilities of human mastery and empowerment.

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His project was deemed crucial to the collective escape, beginning in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, from prejudice, superstition and the belief in God, and into the safety of reason, science and commerce.

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The most convincing and influential public intellectual today – Pope Francis – is not an agent of reason and progress. In a piquant irony, he is the moral voice of the Church that was the main adversary of Enlightenment intellectuals as they built the philosophical scaffolding of a universal commercial society.

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Power in secularizing Europe had been unmoored from its location in the transcendental and made immanent in society; it came to be seen as originating in the will of human beings: the free will that the Romantics, Napoleon cultists as well as economic liberals affirmed, embodied vividly in the individual with certain non-negotiable rights and entrepreneurial energy and ambition. Such an

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Rousseau was among the first to sense that a power lacking theological foundations or transcendent authority, and conceived as power over other competing individuals, was inherently unstable. It could only be possessed temporarily; and it condemned the rich and poor alike to a constant state of ressentiment and anxiety.

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Endemic war and persecution have rendered an unprecedented sixty million people homeless.

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we encounter a pitiless machismo, which does not appease or seek to understand, let alone shed tears of sympathy over, the plight of weaker peoples. These must now submit, often at pain of death, expulsion and ostracism, to the core ideals of the tribe dictated by the history of its religion and territory.

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This is why it is no longer sufficient to ask ‘Why do they hate us?’ or blame political turpitude, financial malfeasance and the media. The global civil war is also a deeply intimate event; its Maginot Line runs through individual hearts and souls. We need to examine our own role in the culture that stokes unappeasable vanity and shallow narcissism.

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we need to reflect more penetratingly on our complicity in everyday forms of violence and dispossession, and our callousness before the spectacle of suffering.

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McVeigh, brought up on American notions of individual freedom bereft of any religious belief, felt this humiliation acutely.

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quarter of the world’s largely urban population – some 1.8 billion – is between the age of fifteen and thirty. The number of superfluous young people condemned to the anteroom of the modern world, an expanded Calais in its squalor and hopelessness, has grown exponentially in recent decades, especially in the youthful societies of Asia and Africa.

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Camus defined as ‘an autointoxication, the malignant secretion of one’s preconceived impotence inside the enclosure of the self’. Camus, among many other writers and thinkers, saw ressentiment as a defining feature of the modern world where individual dissatisfaction with the actually available degree of freedom constantly collides with elaborate theories and promises of individual freedom and empowerment.

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Kierkegaard first used the term precisely in The Present Age (1846) to note that the nineteenth century was marked by a particular kind of envy, which is incited when people consider themselves as equals yet seek advantage over each other.

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Having succumbed to an ‘erroneous notion’ that ‘an easy and unbounded career is open’ to their ambition, they were hedged in on all sides by pushy rivals.

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Its ‘strongest source’, Scheler wrote, was the ‘existential envy’ of rivals and models, the feeling that whispered continually: ‘I can forgive everything, but not that you are – that you are what you are – that I am not what you are – indeed that I am not you.’

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They see immigration as a ploy to create an industrial reserve army that exerts a downward pressure on salaries while simultaneously increasing corporate profits.

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Political and economic life seems to have no remedy for the emotional and psychological disorders it has unleashed; it can only offer more opportunities for self-aggrandizement in the state of virtual equality enforced by digital media.

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Even those who are mercifully employed and anchored find their subjection to economic necessity harder to bear in a climate where mediating forces and buffers (Churches, guilds, trade unions, local government) between the individual and an impersonal economic order are absent or greatly diminished.

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Digital communications offer to many of them relief from an all-pervasive fear, anxiety and uncertainty.

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a ubiquitous screen culture now serves as the primary mode of engaging with (and detaching from) the world; it is the new mediating force and buffer;

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Writing in the mid-nineteenth century, Kierkegaard doubted the then new ‘idea of sociality, of community’ promoted by journalism, and cautioned against the public opinion that rose from ‘a union of people who separately are weak,

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Max Weber warned that, combined with the pressure of work and opaque political and economic forces, it would push modern individuals away from public life and into a ‘subjectivist culture’ – or what he called ‘sterile excitation’.

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In 1969, Marshall McLuhan claimed that the era of literacy had ended with the advent of radio and television; their multi-sensory experience in a ‘global village’ had returned humankind to tribal structures of feeling and ‘we begin again to live a myth’.

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Today’s colossal exodus of human lives into cyberspace is even more dramatically transforming old notions of time, space, knowledge, values, identities and social relations.

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The public sphere, the original creation of eighteenth-century commoners liberating themselves from feudal and aristocratic privilege, has radically expanded.

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The current vogue for the zombie apocalypse in films seems to have been anticipated by the multitudes on city pavements around the world, lurching forward while staring blankly at screens. Constantly evolving mobile media technologies such as smartphones, tablets and wearable devices have made every moment pregnant with the possibility of a sign from somewhere.

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In his prescient critique of the neo-liberal notion of individual freedom, Rousseau had argued that human beings live neither for themselves nor for their country in a commercial society where social value is modelled on monetary value; they live for the satisfaction of their vanity, or amour propre: the desire and need to secure recognition from others, to be esteemed by them as much as one esteems oneself.

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But, as Kierkegaard pointed out, the seeker of individual freedom must ‘break out of the prison in which his own reflection holds him’, and then out of ‘the vast penitentiary built by the reflection of his associates’.

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the vast prison of seductive images does not heal the perennially itchy and compulsively scratched wounds of amour propre.

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competitiveness and envy provoked by constant exposure to other people’s success and well-being.

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amour propre can quickly degenerate into an aggressive drive, whereby an individual feels acknowledged only by being preferred over others,

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most people have found the notions of individualism and social mobility to be unrealizable in practice.

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To accept the conventions of traditional society is to be less than an individual. To reject them is to assume an intolerable burden of freedom in often fundamentally discouraging conditions.

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two phenomena much noted in nineteenth-century European society – anomie, or the malaise of the free-floating individual who is only loosely attached to surrounding social norms, and anarchist violence – are now strikingly widespread. Whether in India, Egypt, or the United States today, we see the same tendency of the disappointed to revolt, and the confused to seek refuge in collective identity and fantasies of a new community.

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the information we have and are constantly stimulated by is much greater than the range of what we can do.

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Man, as Goethe wisely wrote in Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795), ‘is born to fit into a limited situation; he can understand simple, close and definite purposes, and he gets used to employing the means which are near at hand; but as soon as he goes any distance, he knows neither what he will nor what he should be doing.’ Thrown into opaque global processes, and overwhelmed by incalculable variables, man, or woman, can no longer connect cause to effect.

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white nationalists in the United States claim to be taking their own lives in hand again, vindicating their own liberties. Despite the repellant xenophobic aspects of their rhetoric, they offer an anti-elite case that does not fail to connect with the wider public’s own hunches.

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ISIS, too, offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine. Born from the ruins of two nation states that dissolved in sectarian violence, it is a beneficiary, along with mafia groups, human traffickers and drug lords, of the failure of governments to fulfil their basic roles: to create or maintain a stable political order, protect their citizens from external turbulence, including unruly economic and migratory flows as well as foreign invaders, and maintain a monopoly on violence. Led by stalwarts of Saddam Hussein’s secular regime, ISIS represents an ultimate stage in the privatization of war that has progressively characterized, along with many other privatizations, the age of globalization.

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The appeal of demagogues lies in their ability to take a generalized discontent, the mood of drift, resentment, disillusionment and economic shakiness, and transform it into a plan for doing something. They make inaction seem morally degrading. And many young men and women become eager to transform their powerlessness

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they develop a romantic urge for flashy self-transcendence. ISIS caters to these narcissistic Baudelairean dandies, much like Gabriele D’Annunzio

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The shape-shifting aspect of ISIS, which incorporates rebels, former socialists, Sunni supremacists and white European converts as well as accountants and doctors, is hardly unusual in a world in which ‘liberals’ morph into warmongers, and ‘conservatives’ institute revolutionary free-market ‘reforms’ and then initiate such radically disruptive socio-economic engineering as Brexit. It is another reflection of a fundamentally unstable social and political order in which old concepts and categories no longer hold firm.

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We can of course cling tight to our comforting metaphysical dualisms and continue to insist on the rationality of liberal democracy vis-à-vis against ‘Islamic irrationalism’ while waging infinite wars abroad and assaulting civil liberties at home. Such

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The political impasses and economic shocks of our societies, and the irreparably damaged environment, corroborate the bleakest views of nineteenth-century critics who condemned modern capitalism as a heartless machine for economic growth, or the enrichment of the few, which works against such fundamentally human aspirations as stability, community and a better future.

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And now with the victory of Donald Trump it has become impossible to deny or obscure the great chasm, first explored by Rousseau, between an elite that seizes modernity’s choicest fruits while disdaining older truths and uprooted masses, who, on finding themselves cheated of the same fruits, recoil into cultural supremacism, populism and rancorous brutality.

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The contradictions and costs of a minority’s progress, long suppressed by historical revisionism, blustery denial and aggressive equivocation, have become visible on a planetary scale.

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the present order, democratic or authoritarian, is built upon force and fraud;

 

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