From the February 2017 issue

Blood and Soil

The rise of vindictive nationalism

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Discussed in this essay:

Age of Anger: A History of the Present, by Pankaj Mishra. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 416 pages. $27.

I am writing from Germany, the world’s last major stronghold of liberal democracy. The United Kingdom fell to Brexit in June; the United States fell, with the election of Donald Trump, in November. We can dispute whatever “the West” was for as much time as humanity has left, but that it collapsed on Tuesday, November 8, 2016, seems to me beyond question. Perhaps Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, is the heart still beating faintly within its brain-dead body, but the prediction here is that the plug will soon be pulled.

It is remarkable how much of the present global order can be traced to identities that were forged in East Berlin and Dresden in the 1980s. Merkel passed her formative years in Protestant youth groups and emerged after 1989 as a sort of postideological cipher, a politician with impressive managerial gifts but little in the way of strong convictions. Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, was working as a KGB agent in one of the German Democratic Republic’s second-tier cities when the Wall came down. Loyal to the empire he served, he later described the Soviet Union’s collapse as the greatest catastrophe of the twentieth century, and has since dedicated his life to slowly, steadily rebuilding it.

Illustration by Nate Kitch

Illustration by Nate Kitch

Putin, for whom Trump has repeatedly expressed his admiration, is also a cipher. The man may flirt with Russian Orthodoxy and pan-Slavism, but his depths, or lack thereof, can be more accurately sounded by watching his notorious performance of “Blueberry Hill” at a charity gala in 2010: terrifying in its dullness, in its passionless submusicality, it is exactly how you might imagine a karaoke night for teetotal on-duty spies. Trump himself is not an ethnonationalist ideologue; he is a trashy New York real-estate baron who has been thrust by the distortions of the mass media into a role for which he is supremely unsuited. This has not prevented sincere ethnonationalists such as Steve Bannon, a far-right media executive who has become Trump’s chief strategist, from riding his coattails to power.

Putin, Merkel, and Trump are all empty vessels into which the blind forces of history have flowed. None of these leaders chose the forces they have come to embody; Trump doesn’t even understand the currents he has been channeling. He still seems to believe that he is simply making deals for America, and knows so little of geopolitics that he is unable to grasp that what he in fact has done is capitulate to the ideology of Eurasianism — a global configuration in which Russia, the planet’s sole remaining hegemon, tolerates the continued existence of the United States as a white-nationalist vassal state. To see how much world-historical significance these figures have acquired is astounding, and yet such unlikely elevations have become a hallmark of the current moment.

I have been hanging around Berlin since 1990 — long enough to remember when punk concerts in the eastern part of the city were held in church basements, when sites of faith were also sites of resistance, places where the young would gather, out of view of the state, to mosh against Communism. We tend to assume that moshing is the very opposite of submission to authority, but Age of Anger, Pankaj Mishra’s incisive new book, suggests a more complicated view. Although moshers aren’t bowing down to the band before them, their behavior is not entirely different from that which occurs at a church service or a mass rally. Understanding how exactly the one phenomenon morphs into the other — how individuals move from an ebullient expression of their individuality to a transcendence of the self in a supercharged collective — is, Mishra argues, crucial for explaining the recent rise of vindictive nationalism around the world.

We know that many young people who have enjoyed dancing under the influence of psychedelic drugs and music have shortly thereafter fallen under the influence of psychopathic cult leaders; we now also know that self-identified libertarian ranchers in the great American West will vote an autocrat into office. Age of Anger, which was completed after the Brexit vote but before Trump’s victory, reminds us that the dialectical movement between these two poles — between a desire to be oneself and a desire to belong to something larger than oneself — has been a feature of Western political life since the Enlightenment.

Mishra sees a paradigmatic example of this dynamic in late-eighteenth-century Germany, where a rebellion against what was perceived as the “narrow intellectualism” of the French Enlightenment, led by the philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder and popularized by 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. 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, natural expression against French refinement, and a determination to find and enshrine a uniquely German spirit.

As Herder implored in his poem “To the Germans”: “Spew out the ugly slime of the Seine / Speak German, O you German!” At the time, such an appeal was not a declaration of German superiority over the French; Herder was merely insisting on the integrity, indeed the equality, of a nation that did not accept the supposedly universal terms of imported French égalité.

Mishra, who was born in India in the late 1960s, says that he is most drawn to German writers and thinkers, an inclination that

has much to do with my upbringing in a country that, like Germany once . . . is a latecomer to modernity; and whose own nationalists, long accused of being perpetual laggards and weaklings, now strive to fabricate a proud New Hindu. It cannot seem coincidental to me that some of the most acute witnesses of the modern era were Germans, who, galvanized by their country’s fraught attempts to match France and Britain, gave modern thought its dominant idioms and themes.

How strange it is, in our era of ahistorical racializations, to think that Germany, recently the paragon of “whiteness,” was once considered subordinate and peripheral, a latecomer to modernity.

But surely the same cannot be said of the contemporary United States. According to Mishra, Trump has “led an upsurge of white nationalists enraged at being duped by globalized liberals,” who, they feel, have their own interests at heart and identify only with members of their elite class. Does this show that anti-elite political mobilizations, such as the Hindu nationalist movement in Mishra’s homeland, are not confined to the so-called global periphery? Or does it show instead that the United States is less central than we had thought? It could be argued that America is, in its way, a latecomer, a backwater. It is part of the North Atlantic, but it also includes an entire continent that extends to the Pacific, which had to be subdued, ethnically cleansed, repopulated by paupers, and built up on the backs of slaves. It is not surprising that the descendants of this incalculable historical violence should now appear a bit dizzy in their attempts to articulate what is best for them politically. And what about Britain? Surely if there is a nation that is not on the periphery it is this one, which through its imperial expansion defined the very distinction between the center and the margin that has held for centuries. Yet it is the British who voted to leave the E.U. and, it seems, set this great unraveling in motion.

For Mishra, the Brexit referendum and the rise of Trump are part of a broader “crisis of legitimacy” facing liberal democracy; the decline of labor unions and government protections, he argues, has turned workers in the developed world into an alienated “precariat” and the national cultures of the United States and Europe into insurrectionist forces, rising up and unleashing havoc. In their ressentiment — a word that Nietzsche used to define “a whole tremulous realm of subterranean revenge, inexhaustible and insatiable in outbursts” — American voters have elected a self-styled antipolitician, who is openly contemptuous of American political institutions and traditions. In December, he embarked on a “victory tour” throughout the country. His supporters — rugged individualists now ready to bow down to Trump as their “God Emperor” — feel that it is their victory, too. Victory, triumph, and vanquishment are all that is left.

The spectrum that has individualism and collectivism at its extremes is only one axis of a Cartesian plane that also includes the opposition between what we have called, since the French Revolution, the left and the right. In reality, of course, there is significant pendular motion between the two. The Maoist peasant rebel hurling himself toward death in a cultic frenzy may have felt much the same as the Japanese pilot who read Goethe while preparing for a kamikaze mission. More recently, Steve Bannon has confessed that his strategies for advancing the desiderata of the radical right are fundamentally Leninist. “Lenin wanted to destroy the state,” Bannon told a reporter in 2013. “And that’s my goal, too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”

Mishra is keenly attuned to this ideological cross-pollination; he points out that violent mass movements, whatever their differences, frequently share a hatred of bourgeois liberal complacency. Many of the political thinkers and agitators he discusses shifted their allegiance from one extreme to the other, a move that often did not require a total overhaul of their worldview but only a small step. In Gabriele D’Annunzio, for instance, the aristocratic adventurer and author who abandoned socialism for Fascism and led the Regency of Carnaro, a short-lived Italian state-within-a-state, Mishra sees a model for the violent radicalism that would later attract the 9/11 hijackers and the suicide bombers of the Islamic State.

D’Annunzio and Osama bin Laden are kindred spirits: larger-than-life zealots who, had they chosen, could have whiled away their lives as apolitical playboys. The men they managed to enlist, in turn, were typically not the “poorest of the poor, or members of the peasantry and the urban underclass” but “educated youth, often unemployed, rural–urban migrants, or others from the lower middle class.” The poorest of the poor are so alienated that they are only dimly aware there is something they are being excluded from; Italian Fascists, Saudi jihadis, and American Trump voters are driven by a longing for upward mobility, even if it is coupled with a self-annihilating impulse that is hardly compatible with the pursuit of a better life.

There are, certainly, a variety of types who might sign up for fascism, from the struggling worker frustrated about sinking wages to the giddy intellectual hoping to transvalue all values. Trump supporters could be arranged along the same spectrum, from those who feel betrayed by the loss of the American dream to those who think that the American dream is for foolish normies and want to summon a new world into existence by making meme magic with Pepe the Frog, the cartoon avatar of the white-nationalist alt-right. For the latter, as for the publishers of the Islamic State propaganda rag Dabiq, politics is primarily spectacle. Even when it appears to be proceeding according to normal parliamentary means, it is still just a play of forces, and in the most stable of times laws are meaningful only to the extent that they are respected or, when not respected, enforced. When and where laws are enforced, to whose advantage and to whose disadvantage, is as much a part of the theater as a terrorist attack that takes over the front pages. So, the terrorists and other antipolitical political actors think, we might as well make good theater, be bold and visionary.

This kind of boldness is difficult to sustain, so it tends to erupt at discrete moments: the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, the Trump revolution in the United States in 2016. These events provide onlookers, who themselves would like to appear bold, with the opportunity to signal their rejection of the complacent liberal West by offering their support for the radical change suddenly under way. Michel Foucault’s moment to look bold came with the Iranian Revolution, which he called the “first great insurrection against global systems, the form of revolt that is the most modern and the most insane.” A generation later, before last year’s U.S. election, Slavoj Žižek, the Slovenian thinker who has made a career out of the performance of a sort of Slavic minstrelsy, brought leftist Trumpism out into the open when he told a journalist that he was more afraid of Hillary Clinton than of her opponent.

Mishra makes a compelling case that the first modern Western thinker to construct his intellectual identity on the rejection of the Western piety of normalcy was none other than Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The Genevan social-contract theorist has of course by now been fully normalized and canonized, such that this “central revolutionary tradition inaugurated by Rousseau is scarcely even a memory today.” It remains to be seen, however, now that the global abandonment of the hopes and promises of liberal democracy has begun, whether we will continue to view the explosive violence that we have until recently attributed to the special natures of jihadis as something foreign to our own natures here in Europe and North America.

Our efforts to get things in order, to banish extremism and lead comfortable quiet lives within a society constructed on the principles of reason, were probably doomed from the start. It seems that every earnest attempt to rationally rebuild society at some point crosses over, as if by natural law, into irrational violence. At present, we may be witnessing the beginning of an irreversible breakdown of American democracy. A form of authoritarian demagoguery is in the course of replacing the old hard-won system, and it is coming as an expression of the popular will of people who do not think of themselves as enemies of American political tradition — on the contrary, they wish to restore its greatness. It is a movement that gleefully rejects facts and arguments in favor of feeling, passionate group identification, and the titillating prospect of violence.

There is, one hesitates to acknowledge, a certain honesty of vision in those who find bold political explosions to be desirable in themselves, an honesty that is missing in those who would like to use violence instrumentally to bring about, per impossible, a comfortable and peaceful future built on the principles of reason. Nowhere is this contrast better illustrated, Mishra shows, than in the bitter disagreement in the 1760s between Rousseau and Voltaire over the best way forward for the nations of Eastern Europe.

Voltaire had enriched himself as the favored courtier of Catherine the Great. With his help, Russia became a great luminary pole of the Enlightenment, a center of learning and culture, but it did so in the most top-down manner: by decree of the sovereign. What Catherine achieved, Rousseau could see, was what the cultural theorist and historian of religion René Girard would later call “appropriative mimicry.” Russian Enlightenment was largely formal, an imported style that was all the rage among the aristocracy of a country whose economy was still based on serfdom.

This did nothing to curb Voltaire’s enthusiasm for Catherine’s efforts. In fact, he believed she ought to spread Enlightenment further, by force, and exhorted the empress “to teach European Enlightenment at gunpoint to the Poles and Turks.” For Rousseau, this approach was both wrong and futile. In The Social Contract (1762), he laid the blame on one of Catherine’s predecessors, Peter the Great, who

wished to produce at once Germans or Englishmen, when he should have begun by making Russians; he prevented his subjects from ever becoming what they might have been, by persuading them that they were what they were not.

Mishra calls this the tsar’s “painful self-division,” which is bad enough when imposed by a sovereign on his own nation; when imposed by an outsider through imperialism, the only appropriate response is resistance. As Rousseau wrote, if the Poles “see to it that no Pole can ever become a Russian, I guarantee that Russia will not subjugate Poland.” A distinctive cultural identity is always an unbreakable barricade against foreign domination.

Voltaire and Rousseau’s disagreements “over the meaning of modernity for backward peoples in the East,” Mishra writes, “have the profoundest implications.” Voltaire wrote the urtext for the neoconservatives who conspired to invade Iraq in 2003 and attempt to export Western democracy; Rousseau anticipated the jihadis who took over amid the chaos left by the failed invasion. Who was right? Mishra’s wide scope makes clear how ridiculous it is to take sides here. Voltaire’s universalism, wherever applied, is always a blind and destructive juggernaut; Rousseau’s resistance from below always grows dark eventually, if it does not start out that way.

This was already evident during the early German counter-Enlightenment. When Herder called for his countrymen to spit out the slime of the Seine, German breasts swelled with pride. In the work of Herder’s successor, the poet Ernst Moritz Arndt, the rejection of French universalism begins to sound like a martial drumbeat: “Let this hatred [of the French] smolder as the religion of the German folk, as a holy mantra in all hearts, and let it preserve us in our fidelity, our honesty and courage.” In Heinrich von Treitschke, writing under Bismarck’s Second Reich, in the 1870s, we discern a further element, an entrancing melody piped over the drumbeat. Treitschke complained that Heinrich Heine, the great German Jewish poet, “never wrote a drinking song.” Heine had “esprit,” he said, which “was by no means Geist in the German sense.” Heine himself understood the connection between the rising spirit of German national particularism, on the one hand, and hatred of the Jews, on the other. “The French-devourers,” he wrote, “like to gobble down a Jew afterwards for a tasty dessert.” Mishra puts it more bluntly: “Francophobia’s flip side is anti-Semitism.” Soft nationalism, defense of the particular against the encroachment of the universal, always threatens to cross over into hard nationalism, ethnic cleansing, persecution, genocide.

It did cross over in Germany. We know that. Heine already knew it, too. “A play will be performed in Germany,” he wrote in 1834, “which will make the French Revolution look like an innocent idyll.” This prophecy came true with the outbreak of World War I, which the bellicose intellectual Ernst Jünger called the “forge in which the world will be hammered into new limits and new communities.” Nietzsche made a similar prophecy, though he spoke in the plural: “There will be wars the like of which have never been seen on earth before.”

It has been one hundred years now since the world was reforged by the war to end all wars. But then there was another war, far greater, and the world was reforged again. Those new limits and new communities held together for a while, but now, it seems, Nietzsche’s prophecy is as potent as ever. I, meanwhile, am looking out the window of my room in Leipzig at a crumbling monument to the power of the workers, feeling nothing but dread, as irrationality, ressentiment, and anger engulf the whole damned earth.

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is the author, most recently, of The Philosopher: A History in Six Types (Princeton).

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