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The Age of Anger and its 'crisis of masculinity' - an interview with Pankaj Mishra Open in fullscreen

Emran Feroz

The Age of Anger and its 'crisis of masculinity' - an interview with Pankaj Mishra

Pankaj Mishra [Flickr/Palfest]

Date of publication: 8 December, 2017

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Interview: None of the violence or dysfunction we are currently witnessing around the world is new and can be repeatedly found in history, Pankaj Mishra told Emran Feroz.
Emran Feroz: One of your central arguments in your recent book "Age of Anger" is that many aspects of today's violence are connected to the violence that took place in Europe in the 19th century. Why is that the case?

Pankaj Mishra: I think the book essentially steps away from the foolish arguments we have heard over and again - that social or economic problems, religious fundamentalism and militancy are all connected to a country's culture or religion.

This is what we heard in so many analyses coming out of Western Europe and the United States. What I am trying to do is show that crises like the kind we are witnessing today form part of a very long history.

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These problems don't really have to do much with religion, tradition or philosophy. They are rather connected to our political and economic structures, whether that is the nation-state or industrial capitalism.

The latter is an exploitative and destructing process, and we have seen the effects of these institutions and ideologies in one country after another.

An "Age of Anger" has arisen in almost every country as an attempt to broaden our analytical frameworks.

These had been incredibly narrow and ended in some very stupid and counterproductive conclusions of many current problems.

Europe should see a lot of these young people who embrace violence as part of a longer tradition of violence and dissection

You say that Muslim fundamentalism is some kind of heir to earlier European revolts and that many of these fundamentalists respond to contemporary conditions. Many people in Europe would ask why these extremists are connected to "us". What would you say to them?

I would say that if you look at your own history, you would find similar fundamentalism, militancy and terrorists – people who respond similarly to experiences of deprivation, the denial of rights, injustice, invasion and imperialism.

We have seen this often in modern history. Europe should see a lot of these young people who embrace violence as part of a longer tradition of violence and dissection in Europe, rather than blame everything on Islam or on some particular region in the world.

It is wrong to say that "these people are coming to us with their problems". These problems are central to the modern world right from the time it came into being. That is the correct way to understand these problems.

Otherwise you end up offering all kinds of diagnoses which make the problem worse. One of these outcomes is that many people start to think that Islam should be reformed.

According to this foolish idea, the entire Islamic religion should be reformed and with that, Muslims should be brought into modern times. Nevertheless, many factions - and even governments - support this idea.

Why do you think such attempts are still so popular? Why do many people continue to believe in the "clash of civilization" thesis?

The cynical interpretation of this is that it suits people who are in a position of power.

There is a whole intellectual-industrial complex devoted to turning out this kind of analysis. It is very well funded, they are always looking for more money and there is a huge network of right-wing organizations which fund people who think along these lines and have these positions.

Some of this analysis come from genuine ignorance and that is what I am trying to address. If we look at history in this way, we would understand a lot of today's problems.

A lot of men feel inadequate; they feel failure in the goals that have been prescribed for them.

You say that violence is a "male vocation". If you take a look at current events and see people like Trump, Erdogan, Putin or Modi or leading figures on the side of extremists groups like ISIS or right-wing groups, all are male. Is it a male problem?

Since the beginning of the modern age, we have been witnessing a crisis of masculinity. A lot of men feel inadequate; they feel failure in the goals that have been prescribed for them.

These men want strong men like Modi, Trump or Erdogan to represent them and control everything. Out of a feeling of frustration, many essentially turn their anger, rage and frustration onto some of the weakest people around them - and women obviously become a target.

That is why we have seen an enormous increase in misogyny. Men feel deeply threatened by the rights of women, how they take jobs and how they have emerged in the public sphere.

These men also feel threatened by the rise of minorities in society and how they take public positions, even though we know these minorities are still very poorly represented. Even the smallest sign of emergence is enough to enrage these men, all over the globe.

One of your central arguments in your recent book "Age of Anger" is that many aspects of today's violence are connected to the violence that took place in Europe in the 19th century. Why is that the case?

I think the book essentially takes a broad analytical framework. It steps away from foolish arguments of the kind we heard over and over again in the past few decades - that social or economic problems, religious fundamentalism and militancy are all connected to a country's culture or religion.

This is what we heard over and over again in many analyses coming out of Western Europe and the United States. What I am trying to do is to show that crises like the kind we are witnessing today have a very long history.

They don't really have to do much with religion, tradition or philosophy. They are rather connected to the shape of our political and economic structures, whether that is the nation-state or industrial capitalism;- the latter is an exploitative and destructing process, and we have seen the effects of these institutions and ideologies in one country after another.

In Europe - both east and west, Russia, Japan and now postcolonial Asia and Africa since the 20th century, an "Age of Anger" has arisen as an attempt to broaden our analytical frameworks.

These had been incredibly narrowed and ended up in some very stupid and counterproductive conclusions of many current problems.

Since the beginning of the modern age, we have been witnessing a crisis of masculinity

You say that Muslim fundamentalism is some kind of heir to earlier European revolts and that many of these fundamentalists respond to contemporary conditions. Many people in Europe would ask why these extremists are connected to "us". What would you say to them?

I would say that if you look at your own history, you would find similar fundamentalism, militancy and terrorists – people who respond similarly to experiences of deprivation, the denial of rights, injustice, invasion and imperialism.

We have seen this often in modern history. Europe should see a lot of these young people who embrace violence as part of a longer tradition of violence and dissection in Europe, rather than blame everything on Islam or on some particular region in the world.

It is wrong to say "these people are coming to us with their problems". These problems are central to the modern world right from the time it came into being.

That is the correct way to understand these problems, otherwise you end up offering all kinds of diagnoses which make the problem worse. One of these outcomes is that many people start to think that Islam should be reformed.

According to this foolish idea, the entire Islamic religion should be reformed and with that, Muslims should be brought into modern times. Nevertheless, many factions - and even governments - support this idea.

Why do you think such attempts are still so popular? Why do many people continue to believe in the "clash of civilization" thesis?

The cynical interpretation of this is that it suits people who are in a position of power.

There is a whole intellectual-industrial complex devoted to turning out this kind of analysis. It is very well funded, they are always looking for more money and there is a huge network of right-wing organizations which fund people who think along these lines and have these positions.

Some of this analysis come from genuine ignorance and that is what I am trying to address. If we look at history in this way, we would understand a lot of today's problems.

You say that violence is a "male vocation". If you take a look at current events and see people like Trump, Erdogan, Putin or Modi or leading figures on the side of extremists groups like ISIS or right-wing groups, all are male. Is it a male problem?

Since the beginning of the modern age, we have been witnessing a crisis of masculinity. A lot of men feel inadequate; they feel failure in the goals that have been prescribed for them.

These men want strong men like Modi, Trump or Erdogan to represent them and control everything. Out of a feeling of frustration, many essentially turn their anger, rage and frustration onto some of the weakest people around them - and women obviously become a target.

That is why we have seen an enormous increase in misogyny. Men feel deeply threatened by the rights of women, how they take jobs and how they have emerged in the public sphere.

Read more: Playing the big man: Sexual assault in the Middle East blamed on fragile male egos

These men also feel threatened by the rise of minorities in society and how they take public positions, even though we know these minorities are still very poorly represented. Even the smallest sign of emergence is enough to enrage these men, all over the globe.

You also say that the "losers of globalization" are angry and feel disappointed. In Germany and Austria, we have just witnessed the success of extreme right-wing parties. These parties also argue that the poor working class people are voting for them. Do you think this is connected?

Political dysfunction is a very important part of this problem. When the mainstream political parties fail to represent the left-behind, in any given society, another political formation will try to represent them.

This is what is happening, for example, in Germany, where the Social Democrats and the Conservatives neglected the portion of the population that felt marginalized and suppressed for a long time.

Not surprisingly, this portion is voting for the AfD, which really has emerged only in recent years, largely in response to a feeling of need by a large number of Germans who believed that the mainstream political countries did not represent them.

This is happening all over Europe and I think that people and parties have to reformulate their policies to target these voters, akin to the rise of New Labour in the United Kingdom.

Do you think that the marginalization of these people also explains growing racism, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in our societies?

That has always been the case. Since the late 19th century when capitalism suffered and societies faced a severe crisis, most of this anger was channelled against minorities like Jews and immigrants.

Both in Europe and the US, violence against minorities reached a peak during crisis times. All kinds of demagogues would say precisely the kind of things you hear today: - about retaking control, rebuilding the political community and keeping people who "do not belong here" out.

All this is nothing new. There have always been right-wing or far-right formations that emerge into the vacuum and articulate what the people are feeling - they create scapegoats.

How can a thing like ISIS – a nihilist militant organisation in the Middle East – can be linked to post-revolutionary France, as you argue?

I think the problem is that when nation-states or older regimes collapse, people are left without a framework of meaning. This happened in large parts of Syria and Iraq, where a whole structure that organized people's life – however repressive and brutal these structures were – collapsed. Massive numbers of people have been uprooted.

This notion, that IS represents something completely unprecedented and new. It is actually a very ahistorical notion, as it does not represent the reality that there have been so many junctures in modern history.

We had militant, extremist, secessionist movements consisting of young revolutionaries who wanted to, sometimes, simply blow themselves up in exhibitionistic ways.

These men could believe that violence is an aesthetic experience - and we have seen this before many times.

It is yet another symptom of our historical ignorance and naivety when we start to think of IS as a completely unprecedented event or, indeed, when we start to connect it with Islamic theology from the 12th or 13th century. Nothing could be more foolish and misleading than such attempts.

Pankaj Mishra was speaking to Emran Feroz, a freelance journalist based in Germany and the founder of Drone Memorial, a website that lists the victims of drone strikes.

Follow Emran on Twitter: @Emran_Feroz

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