Savage violence has erupted in recent years across a broad swathe of territory: wars in Ukraine and the Middle East, suicide bombings in Belgium, Xinjiang, Nigeria and Turkey, insurgencies from Yemen to Thailand, massacres in Paris, Tunisia, Florida, Dhaka and Nice. Conventional wars between states are dwarfed by those between terrorists and counter-terrorists, insurgents and counter-insurgents; and there are also economic, financial and cyber wars, wars over and through information, wars for the control of the drug trade and migration, and wars among urban militias and mafia groups. Future historians may well see such uncoordinated mayhem as commencing the third—and the longest and strangest—of all world wars: one that approximates, in its ubiquity, a global civil war.
Unquestionably, forces more complex than in the previous two great wars are at work. The violence, not confined to any fixed battlefields or front lines, feels endemic and uncontrollable. More unusually, even this war’s most conspicuous combatants—the terrorists—are hard to identify.
Attacks on Western cities since 9/11 have repeatedly provoked the questions: ‘Why do they hate us?’ and ‘Who are they?’ Before the advent of Donald Trump, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) deepened a sense of extraordinary crisis in the West with its swift military victories, its exhibitionistic brutality, and its brisk seduction of young people from the cities of Europe and America.
ISIS has seemed to pose to many even more perplexing questions than al-Qaeda did. Why, for instance, has Tunisia, the originator of the ‘Arab Spring’ and the most Westernized among Muslim societies, sent the largest contingent among ninety countries of foreign jihadis to Iraq and Syria? Why have dozens of British women, including high-achieving schoolgirls, joined up, despite the fact that men from ISIS have enslaved and raped girls as young as ten years old, and have stipulated that Muslim girls marry between the ages of nine and seventeen, and live in total seclusion?
An anonymous writer in The New York Review of Books, a major intellectual periodical of Anglo-America, says that ‘we should admit that we are not only horrified but baffled’ and that ‘nothing since the triumph of the Vandals in Roman North Africa has seemed so sudden, incomprehensible, and difficult to reverse’.
Some of the Islam-centric accounts of terrorism have translated into the endless ‘global war on terror’, and no less forceful—or quixotic—policies aimed at encouraging ‘moderate’ Muslims to ‘prevent’ ‘extremist ideology’, and ‘reform’ Islam. 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). Meanwhile, selfie-seeking young murderers everywhere confound the leaden stalkers of ‘extremist ideology’, retaliating to bombs from the air with choreographed slaughter on the ground.
How did we get trapped in this danse macabre? Many readers of this book will remember the hopeful period that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. With the collapse of Soviet Communism, the universal triumph of liberal capitalism and democracy seemed assured. Free markets and human rights appeared to be the right formula for the billions trying to overcome degrading poverty and political oppression; the words ‘globalization’ and ‘internet’ inspired, in that age of innocence, more hope than anxiety as they entered common speech.
American advisors rushed to Moscow to facilitate Russia’s makeover into a liberal democracy; China and India began to open up their economies to trade and investment; new nation states and democracies blossomed across a broad swathe of Europe, Asia and Africa; the enlarged European Union came into being; peace was declared in Northern Ireland; Nelson Mandela ended his long walk to freedom; the Dalai Lama appeared in Apple’s ‘Think Different’ advertisements; and it seemed only a matter of time before Tibet, too, would be free.
Over the last two decades, elites in even many formerly socialist countries came to uphold an ideal of cosmopolitan liberalism: the universal commercial society of self-interested rational individuals that was originally advocated in the eighteenth century by such Enlightenment thinkers as Montesquieu, Adam Smith, Voltaire and Kant. Indeed, we live today in a vast, homogeneous world market, in which human beings are programmed to maximize their self-interest and aspire to the same things, regardless of their difference of cultural background and individual temperament. The world seems more literate, interconnected and prosperous than at any other time in history. Average well-being has risen, if not equitably; economic misery has been alleviated in even the poorest parts of India and China. There has been a new scientific revolution marked by ‘artificial’ intelligence, robotics, drones, the mapping of the human genome, genetic manipulation and cloning, deeper exploration of space, and fossil fuels from fracking. But the promised universal civilization—one harmonized by a combination of universal suffrage, broad educational opportunities, steady economic growth, and private initiative and personal advancement—has not materialized.
The promised universal civilization—one harmonized by a combination of universal suffrage, broad educational opportunities, steady economic growth, and private initiative and personal advancement—has not materialized.
Globalization—characterized by roving capital, accelerated communications and quick mobilization—has everywhere 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. The shock waves emanating from the financial crisis of 2008 and Brexit and US presidential elections in 2016 confirmed that, as Hannah Arendt wrote in 1968, ‘for the first time in history, all peoples on earth have a common present’. In the age of globalization, ‘every country has become the almost immediate neighbour of every other country, and every man feels the shock of events which take place at the other end of the globe’.
The malign minds of ISIS have moved particularly energetically to use this interdependent world to their advantage; the internet in their hands has turned into a devastatingly effective propaganda tool for global jihad. But demagogues of all kinds, from Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan to India’s Narendra Modi, France’s Marine Le Pen and America’s Donald Trump, have tapped into the simmering reservoirs of cynicism, boredom and discontent.
China, though market-friendly, seems further from democracy than before, and closer to expansionist nationalism. The experiment with free-market capitalism in Russia spawned a kleptocratic and messianic regime. It has brought to power explicitly anti-Semitic regimes in Poland and Hungary. A revolt against globalization and its beneficiaries has resulted in Britain’s departure from the European Union, sentencing the latter to deeper disarray, perhaps even death. 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.
Hate-mongering against immigrants, minorities and various designated ‘others’ has gone mainstream—even in Germany, whose post-Nazi politics and culture were founded on the precept ‘Never Again’. People foaming at the mouth with loathing and malice—such as the leading candidates in the US Republican presidential primaries who called Mexican immigrants ‘rapists’ and compared Syrian refugees to ‘rabid dogs’—have become a common sight on both old and new media. Amid the lengthening spiral of ethnic and subethnic massacre and mutinies, there are such bizarre anachronisms and novelties as Maoist guerrillas in India, self-immolating monks in Tibet, and Buddhist ethnic-cleansers in Sri Lanka and Myanmar.
Grisly images and sounds continuously assault us in this age of anger; the threshold of atrocity has been steadily lowered since the first televised 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’.
There is a pervasive panic, which doesn’t resemble the centralized fear emanating from despotic power. Rather, it is the sentiment, generated by the news media and amplified by social media, that anything can happen anywhere to anybody at any time. The sense of a world spinning out of control is aggravated by the reality of climate change, which makes the planet itself seem under siege from ourselves.
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: that, first exposed to modernity through European imperialism, large parts of Asia and Africa are now plunging deeper into the West’s own fateful experience of that modernity.
The scope of this universal crisis is much broader than the issue of terrorism or violence. Those routinely evoking a worldwide clash of civilizations in which Islam is pitted against the West, and religion against reason, are not able to explain many political, social and environmental ills. And even the exponents of the ‘clash’ thesis may find it more illuminating to recognize, underneath the layer of quasi-religious rhetoric, the deep intellectual and psychological affinities that the gaudily Islamic aficionados of ISIS’s Caliphate share with D’Annunzio and many other equally flamboyant secular radicals in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: the aesthetes who glorifi ed war, misogyny and pyromania; the nationalists who accused Jews and liberals of rootless cosmopolitanism and celebrated irrational violence; and the nihilists, anarchists and terrorists who flourished in almost every continent against a background of cosy political-financial alliances, devastating economic crises and obscene inequalities.
We must return to the convulsions of that period in order to understand our own age of anger. For the Frenchmen who bombed music halls, cafés and the Paris stock exchange in the late nineteenth century, and the French anarchist newspaper that issued the call to ‘destroy’ the ‘den’ (a music hall in Lyon) where ‘the fine flower of the bourgeoisie and of commerce’ gather after midnight, have more in common than we realize with the ISIS-inspired young EU citizens who massacred nearly two hundred people at a rock concert, bars and restaurants in Paris in November 2015.
Much in our experience resonates with that of people in the 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. Revolutionary messianism—the urge for a global, definitive solution, the idea of the party as a sect of true believers, and of the revolutionary leader as semi-divine hero—prospered among Russian students recoiling from the cruelty and hypocrisy of their Romanov rulers. Then as now, the sense of being humiliated by arrogant and deceptive elites was widespread, cutting across national, religious and racial lines.
Pankaj Mishra is the author of From the Ruins of Empire and several other books. He is a columnist at Bloomberg View and The New York Times Book Review, and writes regularly for The Guardian, the London Review of Books, and The New Yorker. A fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, he lives in London.
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