Friday, December 09, 2016

Pankaj Mishra on shaky democracy

My last post cited one of the Big Think sort of columns that the Guardian sometimes has. This is another one, from Pankaj Mishra, Welcome to the age of anger 12/08/2016.

After the 2008 financial crisis, Paul Krugman started talking about how to get new ideas in economics you needed to read old books. He meant people like John Maynard Keynes and Charles Kindleberger.

Mishra's article suggests that something similar holds in sociology and political science. He's looking more toward the old books of Hannah Arendt, Albert Camus, Charles Darwin, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx (maybe), Robert Musil, Friedrich Nietzsche, Max Scheler, Alexis De Tocqueville and Max Weber. At the core of Mishra's argument is a well-founded criticism of the dominant neoliberal ideology, which has implications far beyond economic policy:

The past two decades of hectic globalisation have brought us closer than ever before to the liberal Enlightenment ideal of a universal commercial society of self-interested, rational and autonomous individuals – one that was originally advocated in the 18th century by such thinkers as Montesquieu, Voltaire, Adam Smith, and Kant. In the 19th century, it was still possible for Marx to sneer at Jeremy Bentham for assuming “the modern shopkeeper, especially the English shopkeeper, as the normal man”. In our own time, however, the ideology of neoliberalism – a market-centric hybrid of Enlightenment rationalism and 19th-century utilitarianism – has achieved near total domination in the economic and political realm alike.

The success of this universal creed can be attested by many innovations of recent decades that now look perfectly natural. The rational market is expected to ensure the supply of valuable products and services, while the task of governments is to ensure fair competition, which produces “winners” and “losers”. The broad intellectual revolution in which an all-knowing market judges failure and success has even more forcefully insisted on the rationality of the individual.

Issues of social justice and equality have receded along with conceptions of society or community – to be replaced by the freely choosing individual in the marketplace. According to the prevailing view today, the injustices entrenched by history or social circumstances cease to matter: the slumdog, too, can be a millionaire, and the individual’s failure to escape the underclass is self-evident proof of his poor choices.

But this abstract conception has no room for the emotional situation of real, flesh-and-blood people – and how they might act within concrete social and historical settings. [my emphasis]
Mishra conveys a good sense of the complexity of the long term effects of neoliberalism: "For nearly three decades, the religion of technology and GDP and the crude 19th-century calculus of self-interest have dominated politics and intellectual life. Today, the society of entrepreneurial individuals competing in the rational market reveals unplumbed depths of misery and despair; it spawns a nihilistic rebellion against order itself."

It's also important to make sure the resonance of broad generalizations doesn't distract us too much from empirical facts. In the 2016 American Presidential election, Hillary Clinton decisively defeated Donald Trump. She got a plurality rather than a majority. But it was a bigger plurality than Trump's. So it's still to early to declare that American's political culture has decisively embraced Trumpism.

But I don't think Mishra is taking such a simplistic approach. In another essay almost two years ago, he reminds his readers of the contrast between the propaganda image of "the West" that conservatives and many liberals and some people who identify as left use as a contrast to a hostile image of Islam and the Islamic world (After the Paris attacks: It’s time for a new Enlightenment) Guardian 01/20/2015:

You don’t have to be a Catholic, or a Marxist, to acknowledge that Europe is beset by serious problems: soaring unemployment, the unresolved crisis of the euro, rising anti-immigrant sentiment, and the stunning loss of a sense of possibility for young Europeans everywhere – events made intolerable for many by the invisible bondholders, exorbitantly bonused bankers, and the taint of venality that spreads across Europe’s oligarchic political class. “Right in front of our eyes,” the Polish thinker Adam Michnik laments in his new book The Trouble with History, “we can see the marching parade of corrupt hypocrites, thick-necked racketeers, and venal deputies.” “Today, in our world,” Michnik argues, “there exists no great idea of freedom, equality, and fraternity.”

In these circumstances, the unspoken supposition that while everything else changes in the modern world, European norms should remain self-sufficient and unchangeable, deserving of unconditional submission from backward foreigners, makes you pause. As Tony Judt demonstrated in his magisterial Postwar, the notion of Europe as the embodiment of democracy, rationality, human rights, freedom of speech, gender equality was meant to suppress collective memories of brutal crimes in which almost all European states were complicit. They cannot be said to have reinvigorated the values of the Enlightenment in recent years, either. European nation-states, even those that did not participate in Anglo-American wars and occupations, facilitated extrajudicial execution, torture and rendition, which were originally sanctioned in the name of reason, freedom and democracy. Marine Le Pen has not got close to occupying the Élysée Palace by advocating pluralism and tolerance. Nicolas Sarkozy reportedly secured his tenancy there in 2007 with the help of a €50m donation from Libya’s Gaddafi (Sarkozy denies the charge); he then committed a French version of blasphemy by claiming that the roots of France were “essentially Christian”. [my emphasis]

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