Three new books examining the premise of the Enlightenment, reviewed by Adam Gopnik
Adam Gopnik writes in the New Yorker:
Of all the prejudices of pundits, presentism is the strongest. It is the assumption that what is happening now is going to keep on happening, without anything happening to stop it. If the West has broken down the Berlin Wall and McDonald’s opens in St. Petersburg, then history is over and Thomas Friedman is content. If, by a margin so small that in a voice vote you would have no idea who won, Brexit happens; or if, by a trick of an antique electoral system designed to give country people more power than city people, a Donald Trump is elected, then pluralist constitutional democracy is finished. The liberal millennium was upon us as the year 2000 dawned; fifteen years later, the autocratic apocalypse is at hand. Thomas Friedman is concerned.
You would think that people who think for a living would pause and reflect that whatever is happening usually does stop happening, and something else happens in its place; a baby who is crying now will stop crying sooner or later. Exhaustion, or a change of mood, or a passing sound, or a bright light, something, always happens next. But for the parents the wait can feel the same as forever, and for many pundits, too, now is the only time worth knowing, for now is when the baby is crying and now is when they’re selling your books.
And so the death-of-liberalism tomes and eulogies are having their day, with the publishers who bet on apocalypse rubbing their hands with pleasure and the ones who gambled on more of the same weeping like, well, babies. Pankaj Mishra, in “Age of Anger” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), focusses on the failures of what is sometimes called “neoliberalism”—i.e., free-market fundamentalism—and, more broadly, on the failure of liberal élites around the world to address the perpetual problem of identity, the truth that men and women want to be members of a clan or country with values and continuities that stretch beyond merely material opportunity. Joel Mokyr’s “A Culture of Growth” (Princeton) is an attempt to answer the big question: Why did science and technology (and, with them, colonial power) spread west to east in the modern age, instead of another way around? His book, though drier than the more passionate polemics, nimbly suggests that the postmodern present is powered by the same engines as the early-modern past. In “Homo Deus” (HarperCollins), Yuval Noah Harari offers an elegy for the end of the liberal millennium, which he sees as giving way to post-humanism: the coming of artificial intelligence that may leave us contented and helpless, like the Eloi in H. G. Wells’s “Time Machine.” Certainly, the anti-liberals, or, in Harari’s case, post-humanists, have much the better of the rhetorical energy and polemical brio. They slash and score. The case against the anti-liberals can be put only slowly and with empirical caution. The tortoise is not merely a slow runner but an ugly one. Still, he did win the race.
Mishra, an Indian-born journalist now resident in London, is dashing. Dashing in the positive sense, as one possessed by real brio, and dashing in the less positive sense, as one racing through Western, and a great deal of Eastern, intellectual history of the past three centuries at a pace that leaves the reader panting—sometimes in admiration of his verve, sometimes in impatience at his impatience. Everything in modern history, his book suggests, has been inexorably leading up to the conditions of 2017. Since, if the book had been written a scant seven years ago—with Obama triumphant, Labour in power in Britain, and the euro having survived its shocks—the entire vector of the centuries would have seemed dramatically different, one wonders whether what Mishra traces through time might really be not a directional arrow but more like a surfboard, rising and falling on the quick-change waves of history.
Mishra’s thesis is that our contemporary misery and revanchist nationalism can be traced to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s romantic reaction to Voltaire’s Enlightenment—with the Enlightenment itself entirely to blame in letting high-minded disdain for actual human experience leave it open to a romantic reaction. In Mishra’s view, Voltaire—whose long life stretched from 1694 to 1778—was the hyper-rationalist philosophe who brought hostility to religion out into the open in eighteenth-century France, and practiced a callow élitist progressivism that produced Rousseau’s romantic search for old-fashioned community. Rousseau, who, though eighteen years younger, died in that same fateful year of 1778, was the father of the Romantic movement, of both the intimate nature-loving side and the more sinister political side, with its mystification of a “general will” that dictators could vibrate to, independent of mere elections. The back-and-forth of cold Utopianism and hot Volk-worship continues to this day. The Davos men are Voltaire’s children, a transnational and fatuously progressive élite; Trump and Brexit voters are Rousseau’s new peasant hordes, terrified of losing cultural continuity and clan comfort.
Piling blame on Voltaire as an apostle of top-down neoliberalism is familiar from John Ralston Saul’s 1992 “Voltaire’s Bastards,” and the idea of Rousseau, the Genevan autodidact, as the key figure in the romantic political reaction against modernity, even as the godfather of Nazism, was present in Bertrand Russell’s “A History of Western Philosophy,” back in the nineteen-forties. A fan of Voltaire will object that Mishra offers a comically partial picture of him, neglecting his brave championing of the fight against torture and religious persecution. Mishra’s Voltaire is a self-seeking capitalist entrepreneur, because, among other things, he established a watch factory at Ferney—as a refuge and asylum for persecuted Protestants. Casting Voltaire as the apostle of fatuous utopian progressivism, Mishra curiously fails to note that he also wrote what remains the most famous of all attacks on fatuous utopian progressivism, “Candide.”
The truth is that no thinker worth remembering has some monolithic “project” to undertake; all express a personality inevitably double, and full of the tensions and contradictions that touch any real life. Voltaire was greedy, entrepreneurial, self-advancing; he was also altruistic, courageous, and generous. He spread Enlightenment ideas to the farthest outposts of Europe—and he sold them out to the autocrats who lived there. A persistent oddity of intellectuals is that when they’re talking about someone they actually know they offer a mixed accounting of bad stuff and good stuff: he’ll drive you crazy with this, but he’s terrific in that. The moment someone becomes a feature of the past, however, he is reduced to a vector with a single transit and historical purpose. If we treated our friends the way we treat our subjects, we wouldn’t have any. (Mishra himself is a voice against the neoliberal consensus who also writes a column for Bloomberg View. This does not make him a hypocrite. It makes him, like Voltaire, one more writer who works for a living.)
Mishra’s Rousseau, infatuated with a dream of ancient Spartan order and inflamed with resentment at the condescension of the Enlightenment élite, is more recognizable. But one wonders if an irascible Swiss pastoralist is really responsible for the temper of nineteenth-century anti-rationalism, which Mishra ably presents as it develops over the next two centuries, with a love of apocalyptic violence for its own sake. (Mishra rightly finds the obsession summed up in Bakunin’s phrase about destruction as a creative passion.) There are lots of romantic anti-rationalisms to play with; Rousseau’s was largely soft and sentimental in tone, rather than apocalyptic and violent. As Mark Twain saw, the prewar American South grounded its “organic” medievalism in Walter Scott’s novels, without a trace of Rousseau infecting the brew.
Things get much more original and interesting when Mishra captures how the many currents of romantic nationalism are entangled in the contemporary world. This is the beating heart of the book, and it is both richly realized and wonderfully detailed. He demonstrates that “radical Islam” is an almost wholly modern “collage” of parts borrowed from Western romantic-reactionary thought; even Ayatollah Khomeini’s version was as much a product of Paris as of ancient Persia. (This may explain Michel Foucault’s enthusiasm for Khomeini and his revolution.)
The Indian material is particularly revealing. Mishra shows that, far from being some kind of restorative, backward-looking “tribalism,” the ideology that filled pre-independence India was a bizarre mixture of right-wing social Darwinism, muddled and mystical Theosophy, and left-wing Fabianism—not intrinsically “Eastern” but modern, eclectic, and fantastically mercurial in its turnings. Savarkar, the chief ideologue of the extreme Hindu nationalism now once more in power in India (and a mentor of Gandhi’s assassin), relied on Western ideas absorbed during his student days in England, wedged in alongside Germanic and Wagnerian notions of glorious racial battles. He hated Muslims for their intrusion into a Hindu homeland, and adored them for their history of religious machismo.
For Mishra, elements in modernity that seem violently opposed, Zionism and Islamism, Hindu nationalism and Theosophical soppiness—not to mention Nazi militarism—share a common wellspring. Their apostles all believe in some kind of blood consciousness, some kind of shared pre-rational identity, and appeal to a population enraged at being reduced to the hamster wheel of meaningless work and material reward. Mishra brings this Walpurgisnacht of romanticized violence to a nihilistic climax with the happy meeting in a Supermax prison of Timothy McVeigh, perpetrator of the Oklahoma City bombing, and Ramzi Yousef, perpetrator of the World Trade Center bombing: the fanatic, child-murdering right-wing atheist finds “lots in common” with the equally murderous Islamic militant—one of those healing conversations we’re always being urged to pursue. (“I never have [known] anyone in my life who has so similar a personality to my own as his,” Yousef gushed of McVeigh.)
Mishra is too intelligent and humane to have any confusion about the end and outcome of these romantic reactions—one need be no fan of Shah or Tsar to see that the suffering of the people increased after the ruler’s overthrow by ideologues, religious or secular, enraptured by a dream of the renewed social whole. The twentieth century is a graveyard of such attempts, or, rather, is filled with graveyards of people crushed by such attempts. But Mishra does take most of his mordant pleasures in detailing the illusions on the liberal side. His insistence that the liberal state serves only a tiny élite seems belied by the general planetary truths of ever-increasing, if inequitably divided, prosperity. The same principle of pluralism that applies to minds must also be applied to models. The state can be both inarguably more prosperous and plural and still insufficiently equal. Perhaps Tocqueville’s most brilliant insight (and Mishra, to his credit, cites it) was that revolutions are produced by improved conditions and rising expectations, not by mass immiseration. As Louis C.K. says, right now everything is amazing and nobody is happy. Each citizen carries on her person a computer more powerful than any available to a billionaire two decades ago, and many are using their devices to express their unbridled rage at the society that put them in our pockets.
Behind this rage is the history of European domination, which has produced an inequality favoring the North against the South, and the West against the East. In Samuel Johnson’s eighteenth-century parable “Rasselas,” a Persian prince asks a philosopher, Imlac, an essential question:
“By what means,” said the prince, “are the Europeans thus powerful? or why, since they can so easily visit Asia and Africa for trade or conquest, cannot the Asiaticks and Africans invade their coasts, plant colonies in their ports, and give laws to their natural princes? The same wind that carries them back would bring us thither.”
“They are more powerful, Sir, than we,” answered Imlac, “because they are wiser; knowledge will always predominate over ignorance, as man governs the other animals. But why their knowledge is more than ours, I know not what reason can be given.”
That question underlies the other questions: we can’t understand either the history of liberalism that produced modern life or the history of colonialism that produced Mishra’s postmodern collage without first understanding why the wind blew only one way. Liberalism, on this view, is simply the hot air that blew the imperialists toward their loot.
Joel Mokyr is an economic historian at Northwestern, and “A Culture of Growth,” though rather plainly written, is a fascinating attempt to answer that essential question. He reminds us that the skirmishing of philosophers and their ideas, the preoccupation of popular historians, is in many ways a sideshow—that the revolution that gave Europe dominance was, above all, scientific, and that the scientific revolution was, above all, an artisanal revolution. Though the élite that gets sneered at, by Trumpites and neo-Marxists alike, is composed of philosophers and professors and journalists, the actual élite of modern societies is composed of engineers, mechanics, and artisans—masters of reality, not big thinkers. . .
The whole view provides food for thought. Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel discusses some non-philosophical forces that shaped the modern world.