Masculinity and Violence in the Age of Anger

Pankaj Mishra and Molly Crabapple
In Conversation

Pankaj Mishra and Molly Crabapple

Though it charts historical and intellectual trends that have taken place over centuries, Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger could hardly be more timely. Earlier this spring, Mishra and the author and artist Molly Crabapple corresponded over e-mail about the book and considered how some of the book’s principal themes—such as the power of resentment, the contradictions of modernity, and the remarkable connections between ostensibly opposed ideologies—can illuminate a few of today’s most pressing issues. Below, we’ve included their conversation in full.


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Molly Crabapple: Age of Anger is a book about resentment. It is a book about men alienated by globalized, neoliberal society and its attendant humiliations—men who long to return to a state of unity and wholeness that may not have ever existed. I say “men” deliberately here. Except in the pages about the nineteenth-century anarchist movement, or Voltaire’s relationship with Catherine the Great, women seldom make an appearance in the book. To me, the reason for this makes immediate emotional sense. The glorious, Edenic Golden Ages have generally meant subjugation of women by the family or the community, while modernity offered women massive possibilities along with its dangers. Men may stew in resentment because they are not recognized and rewarded by an atomized and unjust society, but—and I don’t think I speak only for myself here—I never imagined that recognition was my due. Do you think the resentment you address in your book is something to which men have historically felt more inclined? And is this changing along with women’s changing role in the world?

Pankaj Mishra: This is really a very important question and goes to the heart of the book, which as I was writing felt to me like the description of a long, drawn-out crisis of masculinity.

But let’s start with the present. A few days ago a man guilty of domestic violence drove his car over ordinary pedestrians and fatally assaulted them with knives in London. I read your e-mail on the same day as the Daily Mail, Britain’s most influential and vicious tabloid, put a picture of the legs of this country’s senior-most politicians, Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon, on its cover, with the screaming caption, “Never mind Brexit, who won Legs-it!” Now, the link between the rage of Muslim men and terrorism has been made a lot in recent years. But what explains the apotheosis of a serial groper as the most powerful man on earth, voted in by a majority of white men, and even white women? Can our discussion of Islam or terrorism explain this? This is why I thought, writing this book, that we have to broaden our analysis, get away from the parochial and sterile discussion of Islam or the Middle East, and think about the project of modernity on a global scale, of emancipation and individualism, as something that can be fulfilled—often rewardingly—by both men and women, but is also unfulfillable for many, leading to rage and resentment. When repeatedly frustrated, the desire to be an individual—to achieve the goals of stability and security and personal dignity—becomes indistinguishable from the desire to dominate and degrade another human being, and the trajectory from domestic violence to terrorism then becomes visible. I use the figure of all-conquering Napoleon as someone who is both a rival and a model for many men in the nineteenth century, and I use his critique by his contemporary Madame de Staël to show just what kind of man this much-beloved hero who wanted to bring the fruits of the Enlightenment to Egyptians as well as Germans was: a short man obsessed with his masculinity, who inspires fantasies of power in both his allies and enemies. I also cite Mary Wollstonecraft’s critique of Rousseau’s views of women, which makes clear that the project of creating communal unity through nationalism is fundamentally misogynistic. Women are always supposed to know their place in that vision of lost wholeness and purity.

I am also fascinated by Timothy McVeigh, another character in the book who loathes feminism, like a lot of men in our age who can’t find positions of dignity for themselves and come to hate women and members of racial and ethnic and sexual minorities who seem to be getting ahead of them. This is now a universal phenomenon. A lot of the violence against working women in India, for instance, is inflicted by semi-employed or unemployed men in urban areas who are exposed to images of prosperity and sexual freedom all the time but have no means of achieving them. But let’s not forget how misogyny, long before it exploded on social media, crept into political and intellectual discourses in the so-called developed countries. There is an important but neglected book by Susan Faludi, The Terror Dream, which argues that feminism received a huge setback in the West after the terror attacks of 9/11, and I can certainly remember that time when men in politics and the media were trying to out-macho each other as they thumped their chests and fantasized about violent retaliation, launched horribly sexist attacks on dissenting critics like Arundhati Roy and Susan Sontag, and sold the intervention in Afghanistan in the old colonialist way as a rescue mission for Muslim damsels in distress, and the Daily Mail cover tells me that we have not recovered from this blow.

MC: You speak about the goal of “getting away from the parochial and sterile discussion of Islam or the Middle East,” and indeed this was one of Age of Anger’s greatest triumphs. In your work, you draw connections through time (from Rousseau to Giuseppe Mazzini to the chauvinistic Hindutva founder Savarkar), and through space (you note the admiration of Iranian Islamists for early Zionists, for instance) that are seldom made. What did ideologies as diverse as imperialism, Zionism, political Islamism, and Hindutva share? And how does this relate to the rise of our new generations of demagogues—Putin, Modi, Orbán, Duterte, Trump?

PM: Let’s again start with the present, and look at Trump boasting about the size of his member, Modi bragging about the size of his chest, Putin having himself photographed with his shirt off, doing some seriously manly thing or other; these are all men playing to their supporters’ profound fear of diminishment and loss of authority and meaning. We won’t understand this global phenomenon of virile male bonding and posturing across continents until we put down our usual lenses of cultural and ideological difference and abandon our pet dualisms: Islam versus the West, West versus the East, civilization versus barbarism, religion versus secularism, liberals versus reactionaries, and that kind of thing. These are very poor substitutes for analysis, a form of self-flattery, really, which blames a specific people (Muslims, Middle Easterners) or region for what are universal problems and pathologies. What I am trying to show in the book is the radical and unprecedented nature of a modern civilization organized around individual emancipation from traditional authority through science, commerce, and reason, a civilization of fantastically attractive promises of liberty and equality and temptations of material prosperity that gets more and more complicated and arduous as the nineteenth century progresses, industrialization starts to happen, large state structures and bureaucracies start to come into being, inequalities and hierarchies arise as a result of capitalist expansion and professional specialization, new systems of exclusion and discrimination (such as racist imperialism and anti-Semitism) lock into place, scapegoats are found for extensive suffering at home (Jews and rootless cosmopolitans), machineries of mass media (and manipulation), such as large-circulation newspapers, start to function, and modern society’s own exalted goal of individual freedom becomes more and more elusive. Let’s not forget that the patron saint of liberalism, John Stuart Mill, a man at the heart of the greatest nineteenth-century empire, is already complaining about the new threats to individual liberty in the mid-nineteenth century. By the end of the nineteenth century, as the world is knit together more rapidly by commerce and technology, and becomes more complex and intimidatingly opaque, this fear is a global experience, especially among men emerging, in many cases very late, into the modern world, whether you are a Chinese exile in Japan (Lu Xun), a Jew facing increasing anti-Semitism in Odessa (Jabotinsky), an upper-caste Hindu obsessed with loss of status in India (Savarkar), or an educated Egyptian nationalist ranged against British imperialists. So one major response to this general fear of emasculation are hyper-masculinist, Social-Darwinist, and Nietzschean ideologies in different parts of the world—and Nietzsche with his project of self-overcoming, and global thinkers like Herbert Spencer, are the mentors of most of these early ideologues of Zionism, political Islam, Hindu and Chinese nationalism. They are all obsessed with weakness, real and imagined, and so desperately want to be as hard and unflinching in their pursuit of individual and collective power as the people oppressing them—hence, the mimetic nature of their ideologies. And of course many of them, such as the Hindu chauvinist Savarkar, already want to build an “iron wall” (Jabotinsky’s phrase) between themselves and their perceived enemies. So to understand these ideologies of exclusion and self-hardening today, we have to return to their earliest existential and emotional promptings during the first phase of the truly radical, disruptive, and widespread transformation that we now call globalization.

MC: To spend a moment on one particularly provocative moment in your research, can you speak more about how Zionism and political Islam have related to each other?

PM: Yes, we tend to think of them in the light of the conflict between the state of Israel and Arabs—as bitterly opposed, locked in an existential battle. In fact, the ideologies of Zionism and political Islam grew symbiotically, in the same conditions of fear and oppression that many young, educated Jews and Muslims suffered while living under imperialist occupation or regimes that systematically denied them their dignity (the case in Russia and large parts of Europe with the Jews). In their search for a new identity, they initiated a broad reinterpretation or “modernization” of religious tradition, of both Islam and Judaism, by leading Jewish and Muslim writers and intellectuals—this process of reformulating tradition with modern goals also occurred, by the way, in Hindu and Buddhist-majority countries. Starting in the late nineteenth century, a range of figures from Muhammad `Abduh and Iqbal to Gerhard Scholem participated in this religious-political revival, and many of these went on to theorize political and nation-building or umma-building ideologies with often a messianic overtone. And the overlap can be demonstrated by the envious regard many Muslims had for the early Zionists, such as Rashid Rida, who is today seen as the intellectual father of Islamic fundamentalism, but who in his time hugely admired the way in which the Zionists were recovering their ancient language and creating a political consciousness and unique culture. Then of course you had Jalal Al-e-Ahmad in the 1960s thinking of Israel as a likely model for Iran. Why only talk about the deep connection between Zionism and political Islam? To give you another example of affinities that cut across familiar border: I grew up in India in a family of hardline Hindu nationalists who admired and envied Israel for its harsh treatment of Muslims. Today, Modi unsurprisingly loves Netanyahu. Far-rightists across Europe and America love Putin. The Hungarian prime minister is smitten with Erdogan. I describe in my book how Hitler and Mussolini adored Atatürk. I described in my previous book From the Ruins of Empire how the first generation of Chinese nationalists wanted to learn the secrets of national success from Japan, their country’s main tormentor. In all cases, you have people lamenting the weakness of their side and trying to imitate the virtues of those they perceive as strong. Kipling, himself an embodiment of unappeasable imperial machismo at the turn of the century, put it best when he wrote in “The Ballad of East and West” that “there is neither East nor West . . . / When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth!”

MC: In Syria, ISIS has in many ways acted as a settler colonialist organization. Syrians who flee Raqqa, ISIS’s self-proclaimed capital, have their homes confiscated—as do those whom ISIS accuses of a variety of small infractions. ISIS then recruits fighters to come to Raqqa from Europe and the Muslim world, and gifts them with these homes. In a bizarre mirror image of old-school colonialism, the EU passport–holding grandson of a Tunisian who had his country occupied by the French might fly to Istanbul on that first-world passport, travel to Raqqa, and steal the house of a Syrian whose poor-world passport does not give him freedom to move. How do the motives of the poor Europeans who were once the foot soldiers of imperialism compare to those of European ISIS members?

PM: Today’s powerless are very likely to be tomorrow’s oppressors, unless they use their power wisely and compassionately. I have always maintained that these roles are interchangeable. I am at a loss for words when I am accused of harping on Western imperialism. I want to say that I have spent most of my writing life describing how the most distinguished anti-imperialist and democratic country of the modern age—my own country, India—started to behave imperialistically soon after freedom from imperialist rule in its border provinces, especially Kashmir. Likewise, China in Tibet. Israel in the Occupied Territories. It is people who want desperately to hold on to a virtuous image of themselves as unusually “benign” imperialists who cannot see that all of us are capable of succumbing to the corruptions of power and the lure of expansion through murder and dispossession. It is not surprising in this context that ISIS is guilty of the same atrocities once blamed on Western imperialists and settler colonialists, or that Putin rants against Western imperialism while swallowing bits of Ukraine. Again, we have to abandon our comforting binary oppositions and ideological dualisms to think of the way that power works upon people and through certain institutions and the complex mix of motivations that lead people to join militant movements in far-off countries. We tend to forget that Britain constantly sent out its surplus young men to invade and pillage countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and other wannabe-imperialists in Europe enviously tried to emulate this export of testosterone throughout the nineteenth century—imperialism was, among many other things, the outsourcing of frustrated masculinity, the transfer of excess and uncontrollable energies, which allowed Europeans to maintain relative peace and order at home. We don’t think of a figure like Tocqueville in the context of ISIS. But the French aristocrat’s own search for freedom from bourgeois mediocrity and a desire to catch up with British imperialists led him to endorse, however reluctantly, the French adventurer in Algeria who is “possessed by an insatiable need for action, violent emotions, vicissitudes and dangers.” France, in this view, could escape the soul-killing corruptions of commercial society by pursuing honor and glory through imperialism in North Africa. In Age of Anger I write about the Italians who are even more eager to invade North Africa and satisfy their craving for violence and destruction—the book begins with D’Annunzio, who brings to a climax a great passion among young Italians for war and glory. In one sense, the young dupes of ISIS, many of them children of immigrants in Europe, trying to build a caliphate in the Middle East and North Africa, are exercising that same option of spine-stiffening imperialism.

MC: Your book spends some time drawing parallels between the bomb-making, royalty-assassinating anarchists of the nineteenth century and ISIS today. While I loved the lavish history of transnational anarchism, I couldn’t help disagreeing with your conclusions. In my view, ISIS attracted fighters to Syria with the promise that they would take part in building a strong, successful state (while also getting a free house, a sense of direction, and the religious imprimatur to carry out sadistic violence). Their emphasis on past empires, state building, and bureaucracy don’t seem to bear much relation to Bakunin’s thought. And of course, Western anarchists are currently fighting and dying in Syria in the war against ISIS. Could you speak a bit more about this connection—and perhaps elegantly decimate my critique?

PM: You are right. One part of the appeal of the ISIS is surely that they seem to promise the security and stability of a state—and many people in Iraq and Syria who have witnessed the implosion of their states, or were benefitting from state power previously (such as former Saddam-ites), are obviously attracted to ISIS. But there is another part of ISIS, which appeals to people like Omar Mateen and numerous other young men in Europe and America—and here, spectacular violence for its own sake, or for the sake of publicity and self-promotion, is more appealing than the project of state-building. I argue in the book that ISIS should be seen as offering a collage—quite like Modi combining Hindu nationalism with neoliberal individualism—and that we should abandon either/or thinking when examining political movements with such a variety of followers. Their project has to be diverse and multifaceted in order to seduce people across national, ethnic, class, and even religious boundaries, and it is also true that their apparently self-contradictory program corresponds to the acute divisions between many human souls today. For instance, many people with weak or underdeveloped egos are prone to the lure of singularity and distinction—which can be achieved through crowing about your murders on Facebook, like Mateen did—while at the same time craving in their intolerable state of isolation for some sense of community and belonging and existential certainty, a craving to immerse oneself in a large entity and group identity that religious fundamentalism or ethno-racial nationalism satisfies.

I brought in Bakunin and the transnational anarchists of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century to point to a long modern history of militant violence and disaffection that has nothing to do with Islam. The parallel there was with a socio-economic conjuncture familiar to us today—globalizing economies that uproot and dispossess many people, political and economic crises that makes for large numbers of immigrants and refugees, and marginalized immigrant communities in a regime of gross exploitation of labor (which was the case in late nineteenth-century America). I argue that the appeal of violence as self-empowerment and self-assertion becomes irresistible to many isolated men in these circumstances of acute oppression and misery. And it is what we see among largely secularized or non-devout sons or grandsons of immigrants in Europe and America today, who, unlike pathological gangsters who kill for sheer pleasure, invoke an evidently ancient and highbrow ideology of jihad (which then misleads various “experts” on terrorism into scouring Islamic scriptures for clues). But, of course, as you say, there is the state-building and rational bureaucracy side of ISIS, which tempts people who have already suffered from too much anarchy.

MC: As we stand on the precipice of Spray Tanned Authoritarian Tentacle Apocalypse, I want to turn to you and ask, Pankaj, what now? What do we do? To be very simplistic, your book sees a certain sort of religion (or spirituality) as one possible answer. Can you speak more about this?

PM: If I say that that we need to rethink our notion of the good life, and rephrase the urgent political questions of the day in spiritual, religious, and philosophical terms, it is because I think that Trump is us in a hideously magnified form. He is the grotesque reflection in the mirror—let there be no doubt about that, and we should not try to boost our self-image by blaming his apotheosis on evidently racist voters in the Rust Belt or the Russians. In any case, he is not just American. He is a product of a global culture of excess. You can’t have a more monstrously fitting embodiment of the culture of success, vanity, and greed that has prevailed globally in recent decades than this tax-dodging, spray-tanned plutocrat from New York City. In that sense, Trump represents a harsh reproach to all of us who bought into the values of a hyper-competitive and hyper-individualistic society and internalized its dominant categories of winners and losers. How can recovery from such a fallen state be not broadly spiritual (to use a word much scorned in contemporary discourse) or inner-directed, as well as political? How can we dream of a better world without rediscovering many discarded ideas of just how human beings have lived—what to other human beings in history have been some basic notions of solidarity, community, belonging, the importance of self-respect, and identity. All these things were deemed less important in recent years than the pursuit of material self-interest, private wealth, and status. In a way, the great worldwide success of the Anglo-American ideology of globalization is due to their having persuaded many people that pushy entrepreneurship in a competitive marketplace and individual cravings and jealousies are the recipe for a life of plenty and happiness. The most positive way to look at the rise of Trump is to see it as a great opportunity to examine these assumptions that we’ve unthinkingly lived with, discard many of them, and to adopt other moral languages and vocabularies in which we can phrase human needs more precisely and accurately. The political opposition to Trump is already manifesting some neglected values of compassion and solidarity. This is already a big and welcome change from the years when one atrocity after another—whether the destruction of Iraq or the financial crisis imposed by greedy bankers—failed to provoke any great political passion or feelings of empathy for the victims. Societies were too atomized and individuals too distracted to mount any effective opposition or even absorb and reflect on a widespread and profound experience of suffering. The ruling classes were hardly disturbed, until a demagogue came along, capitalizing on the fears and anxieties of many people who felt like losers all the time in a universal competition for wealth and status that produced only a small number of winners—the winners who took all. This is what demagogues always do, and we can only fight them effectively by discarding the corrupt values that have led to their rise. Post–Hitler Europe with its commitments to social-welfarism and co-operation is a case in point. We should hope that a new individual and collective ethic emerges from a sustained opposition to Trump and global Trumpism, without us having to suffer a great calamity.

MC: In the last few weeks, Trump has showily launched airstrikes on a Syrian government airbase, dropped a bomb with a one-mile-blast radius in Afghanistan, and made various aggressive noises toward North Korea . . . all to the general applause of the TV commentariat. Fareed Zakaria, for instance, said this made him into a president. What do you think of the way that bombs can quickly rehabilitate the image of a man who much of the country considers a fascist?

PM: Yes, Trump has finally revealed his presidential manhood and many of his “critics” are predictably awed. I think this latest bombing spree again illustrates the link between masculinity and violence that we have been talking about in other contexts, especially the post–9/11 one, in which the fantasy of reasserting omnipotence and reshaping the world through shock-and-awe force came to provide a quasi-erotic thrill to even many intellectuals. We should not be surprised that so many academics, writers, journalists, and TV anchors ecstatically participate in the exercise of brute power. The fact that these laptop bombers have been educated very expensively, receive high salaries, wear smart suits and ties, speak suavely and write elegantly, and enjoy infinitely greater social status and intellectual respectability than, say, the criminal-ish young men in hoodies who fall for ISIS propaganda, doesn’t obscure the utterly gross nature of their craving for self-expansion through war and domination. And the appeal of violence as an aesthetic experience, which I talk about in Age of Anger, retains its seductiveness from the Italian Futurists to Jihadi John—you see that in Brian Williams’s hailing the Tomahawk missiles as “beautiful.” There are also more hideous continuities here. Libya was where the world’s first aerial bombing happened, and the recent dropping of the “mother of all bombs” on Afghanistan, and Trump’s preening afterward fall in that tradition—through Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Vietnam—of testing the most destructive munitions on black and brown people in Asia and Africa. I fear that we may be exposed to more earth-shattering demonstrations of Trump’s manhood. I say this because in the end Trump and his fans are most illuminatingly seen as men terrified of losing the power and status they have enjoyed for so long, as China rises and the “darkies” seem to get out of control, they will rummage deep into their gun cabinet and do all kinds of crazy stuff to scare their presumed rivals and detractors, and to keep at bay their own fear of emasculation.
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Pankaj Mishra is the author of From the Ruins of Empire and several other books. He is a columnist for 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.

Molly Crabapple is an artist and writer living in New York. She is a contributing editor for VICE and has written for The New York Times, The Paris Review, Vanity Fair, The Guardian, CNN and Newsweek. Her published books include her illustrated memoir Drawing Blood, Discordia (with Laurie Penny) on the Greek economic crisis, and the art books Devil in the Details and Week in Hell.

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