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Cynicism is the West’s great weakness

24 March 2017

2:09 PM

24 March 2017

2:09 PM

Pankaj Mishra’s book Age of Anger is good in parts, but also shows the weakness of leftist thought. It is a bold history of political ideas that traces the extremism and populism of our day to nineteenth-century sources. Both Isis supporters and Trump supporters are reacting to the insecurity caused by neoliberal globalisation, he argues. ‘Cosmopolitan civilisation based on individual self-interest’ has brought material wealth at the cost of creating huge expectations that lead to dangerous resentment. And now social media intensifies such resentment. More people reject traditional politics, due to ‘the gap between the profligate promises of individual freedom and sovereignty, and the incapacity of their political and economic organisations to realise them.’

As in his previous book From the Ruins of Empire, Mishra shows some nostalgia for early postcolonial thought – figures such as Nehru were confident that they could combine the best of the West with stronger social traditions. It was an empty hope, his new book sadly confirms.

To my mind he has an excessively negative, cynical view of the ideology of the West. It is not just about ‘individual freedom and sovereignty’; it is also involves a strong idealism about human rights, the good of all. As I argue in my new book, God Created Humanism, this positive aspect is hard to talk about – one risks seeming naïve. But it’s also naïve to ignore it. A purely cynical view of the creed of the West contributes to the resentment it speaks of.


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