From the February 2017 issue

Blood and Soil

The rise of vindictive nationalism

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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.

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

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