Friday 23 February 2018

An intellectual take on the conspiracy theory

Non-fiction: Age of Anger: A History of the Present, Pankaj Mishra, Allen Lane, hdbk, 416 pages, €20

Chaos theory: a protester disrupts a rally with Trump and his supporters in Albuquerque
Chaos theory: a protester disrupts a rally with Trump and his supporters in Albuquerque
Age of Anger

A new book seeks to blame all the world's woes on globalisation, but Con Coughlin finds it simplistic and unnecessarily negative.

Those who regard globalisation as one of the gravest evils of the age could claim as their greatest triumph the inauguration of Donald J Trump as the 45th President of the United States. The complete antithesis to those modern politicians obsessed by focus groups and opinion polls, Trump seeks to relocate millions of jobs that have been outsourced to foreign rivals such as China; his "America First" strategy will penalise US companies if they do not invest in American products and jobs.

Trump's election to one of the world's most powerful political positions marks the end of the democratic consensus that has dominated the civilised world since World War II. His electoral success, moreover, needs to be seen in the context of other recent cataclysmic events, such as the rise of ISIS and Britain's Brexit vote.

While at first glance it might seem preposterous to attempt to identify common denominators between a barbaric group of Islamist militants and the desire of ordinary Britons to liberate themselves from the EU's clutches, they are all part of the growing resentment felt by those who feel disfranchised by the ruling elites.

Thus, while the main stimulus of Britons who voted for Brexit last June was to regain control of the running of their country from the EU's unelected bureaucrats, the young men and women volunteering to join ISIS do so out of a sense that no government in the Muslim world is interested in addressing their concerns and aspirations.

This, at least, is the central premise of Pankaj Mishra's new book Age of Anger, which argues that many of the social and political challenges we face today are the result of globalisation, which has left millions of people around the world feeling abandoned and dispossessed. He writes: "Globalisation - characterised by mobile capital, accelerated communications and quick mobilisations - has everywhere rapidly weakened older forms of authority, in Europe's social democracies as well as Arab despotisms, and thrown up an array of unpredictable new international actors, from English and Chinese nationalists, Somali pirates, human traffickers and anonymous cyber hackers to Boko Haram."

One strong theme that emerges through Mishra's wide-ranging, if at times pretentious, analysis is that the West has conveniently sought to blame the emergence of Islamist-inspired militancy - the "global war on terror" - for many of the world's ills, when the real problem is the malign effects of globalisation. "We live in a vast, homogenous world market," Mishra contends, "in which human beings are programmed to maximise their self-interest and aspire to the same things, regardless of their difference of cultural background and individual temperament."

This sentence is typical of the author's many sweeping generalisations, through which his attempts to explain the many challenges faced by the world often lead him to facile or unconvincing conclusions. For example, he compares today's difficulties with the political, economic and social disorder Europe experienced in the 19th century as a result of "the rise of the industrial capitalist economy".

This discredited Marxist analysis fails to address the many other factors that created the global tensions and resulted in two world wars, such as the intense rivalry between competing empires and the emergence of populist doctrines that sought to use capitalist gains for the good of the nation state.

These doctrines certainly seem to be echoed in Trump's policies as he seeks to rebuild the American economy after decades of industrial decline. It could, of course, be argued that his approach is a reaction to the globalisation trend, although, personally, I see it as more in keeping with Trump's plan to rebuild ­America's international standing so that it can once again dominate the world stage. That's more like the ­globalisation Trump would like to see.

Mishra remains fixated on the view, though, that all our ills are the result of the growing divide between what he describes as the satisfied elites and the mute masses.

This "great chasm", as he calls it, has developed "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".

This book will appeal to those who are persuaded by highly intellectualised conspiracy theories. For my part, I found Mishra's analysis simplistic and unnecessarily negative.

The world today, for all its faults, is far more prosperous and democratic than it has ever been, and there is an abundance of opportunity for all its inhabitants - just so long as the next generation of policymakers ensures there is genuine opportunity for all, not just the pampered elite.

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