Across the world, a wave of anger seems to be rising as a tide doing someone’s bidding. Its not just the reaction of those who have been ruled by tyrants for decades, although that clearly seems to help; we also saw this anger on display in the UK during the riots that had analysts scrape the bottom of explanations barrel and come up empty ( they had plenty to say of course but you know what i mean). We have seen this frustration play out in the US, on opposite sides of the ideological spectrum- the Tea party on the one hand and the Occupy Wall Street movement on the other. And we are no means done yet- India hasn’t done too badly on this front, and some key countries in Europe, including Russia seem more than likely to follow.
And yet, as evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker argues in his latest book, the world is in all probability a better place than it has ever been in its considerable history. Fewer people die on account of violence, we live longer and healthier lives and technology has made our everyday lives much easier. This should have been a time of relative tranquillity, as more once-poor countries start experiencing the advantages of affluence, and feel better about themselves. Instead what we see is this global wave of anger, seemingly because of different local reasons, but begging the question as to whether there is a deeper, more universal force at play, something that explains the apparent co-incidence of so many parts of the world boiling over with anger at the same time.
The uprisings in the Middle East seem on the face of it, to offer relatively easier explanations. After decades of living under the rule of tyrants, the young generation, with its imagination fired by ideas of freedom, democracy and its ability for self-expression vastly enhanced by the digital revolution, takes to the street and fights valiantly for change. The problem of course is that however compelling this narrative, it is a vast oversimplification. It might be relatively clear what the protestors are fighting against, but it is far from clear as to what exactly they are fighting for. It is a distinct possibility that the current regimes are replaced not by progressive, democratic ones but by those rooted in some version of Islamist theocracies.
What we are seeing today is the dismantling of most of the founding assumptions of an earlier era. What were yesterdays certitudes are increasingly becomes today’s negotiables; and the process of this negotiation is often an extremely untidy one. Yesterday’s institutions are under attack as are the big ideas that propelled these- globalisation, the power of the market, the permanence of affluence, the influence exerted by military power, the ideal of muti-culturalism and the unquestioned virtues of democracy are no longer the self-assured formulations they once were.
The problems of the affluent nations have to do with the anxiety about having dealt themselves out of reckoning in the emerging world order. The insulation provided by their economic superiority does not seem as strong as it once did. The financial crisis of 2008 made it clear that people who controlled money in the world were manufacturing money without any raw material; they were conjuring up something out of nothing. Wealth was being created by means of convention; an implicit agreement between the big boys of what the rules were without any reference to any external consideration. The collapse, far from bringing about any reform, actually made things worse as the big institutions were bailed out and the financial system remained pretty much what it was. At a more fundamental level, the consequences of creating very large debt burdens are coming home to roost. The irrationality of the financial system, which by implicit mutual consent was never really focussed on, is now becoming evident, and even now the will to do something about it seems absent. The hollowness of the idea that one can live beyond one’s means on an on-going basis, borrowing endlessly from tomorrow has been exposed. There is a feeling that the world is no longer under its control; as economic power shifts and military power does not guarantee desired outcomes.
The misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan have forcefully underlined the limits to which military power can be translated into influence. If anything, military power seems to exert a magnetic pull that draws the stronger countries inexorably into messy conflicts from which extrication becomes a real problem. Influence, even when it exists, as in Iraq or Pakistan, does not automatically translate into any meaningful long-term advantage; on the contrary it seems more likely to sow seeds of mistrust and suspicion. The fact that it took a decade to hunt down America’s most wanted terrorist, and it turned out that he was ensconced virtually in the lap of the Pakistani army underlines the absurdity of the American quest. War as a means of conquest has been increasingly hollowed out and has the strange ability to diminish the apparent victors.
And then of course, is the challenge posed by the emerging economies, which results in the more immediate and politically pressing issue of the loss of jobs. After decades of lecturing to the rest of the world about the virtues of free trade without restrictions, the developed world is quick to yelp when it is its turn to pay a price for globalisation. The volatility of the job market creates an unsettling air of uncertainty that makes individual futures seem permanently wobbly. One result of this development is the rising resentment against immigrants and the desire to reclaim the advantages of affluence without having to share them with those who are seen to partake of them without due legitimacy. Ideas of multiculturalism are rapidly seeing mainstream challenge, and combined with the anxiety produced by terrorism, we are seeing more countries take entrenched positions against immigration, both in terms of allowing entry as well as in the tolerance of their cultures.
The question of the environment and the sense that human progress might have dramatic consequences for the world as a whole makes the prospect of the explosion in the economies of the emerging countries one that is fraught with risks. Having caused a bulk of the problem in the first place, the West is under pressure to preach restraint to those that are seeing affluence for the first time. Overall, the combination of low economic growth in their own countries and the sense of foreboding with which progress is viewed in other countries makes for a simmering anger at having been left with few options. The coping mechanisms may vary from anger at the financial establishment, protests against big governments or disgust at the way in which environmental treaties are held hostage to selfish political considerations, but the sense that all is not quite well and that things are likely to get worse is unmistakable.
If the problems of the developed world have to do with the prospect of losing what it once had, the anxieties of the rest of the world are about finding their own paths. Here too the certitudes of the past are up for negotiation and answers are as elusive. If for some the stability provided by long running tyrannical regimes is under question, for others like India, it is the gap between what was promised by the ideals it was founded on and the reality of what those have delivered. Increasingly, democracy seems like an idea that loses much of its force in translation. Questions of poverty and inequality rub shoulders with the need for lives founded on material acquisitions as aspirations become more democratic and there is a greater sense of impatient entitlement to a better life for oneself. The pressure of being an individual is a particularly difficult one to deal with. The idea of freedom was a powerful driver of an earlier age, as we strove to find our individual selves and ‘become who we were’.
In a world that is more inter-connected than it has ever been, it takes very little for someone’s problem to become everyone’s problem. Digital rage works in different ways than its analog counterpart. The most significant difference lies in the ability of social media to store anger and to give it visible moving form. If earlier, anger resided in the cracks between people, events and institutions and needed a significant trigger to find tentative expression, social media makes anger a public installation. The mood of the people ceases to become an abstraction; the ticker tape of resentment is available for observation and participation in every home and on every phone. The cost of entry into protest is very low and the sense of palpable contribution to a movement extremely high. Digital rage reduces risk and increases participation; it explodes quickly and subsides with alacrity. It does not depend on leaders for one role of leaders is to visibly gather rage and find a way to channelize it.
Under all the various kinds of anger on display today, it is as if the world looks forward to nothing any more. Progress has become a succession of gadgets, rather than the development of ideas about the world we live in. The big ideas of the earlier centuries have all been compromised by acts of incomplete digestion. We know the limits of everything, and have learnt the words of praise and criticism by heart. The grand promises of an earlier era have not been kept; affluence has not brought us lasting happiness and democracy has never really translated into a sense of personal freedom. The market has created avenues to affluence that are increasingly detached from anything real; causality itself is the biggest casualty as analysis seems possible only in retrospect. What we see is reason in reverse; things never happen because of a reason in the financial world; they happened because of a reason applied a posteriori.
Regardless of what our immediate context might be, we live with a shared sense of incomprehension- at our rulers and what makes them tick, at the mechanics of the process by which money is made in the world today, by the responsibility that has been thrust on individual shoulders to make something of our life, at the process by which meaning is produced, consumed and re-circulated in the world today. The absence of a stable source of meaning lies at the heart of the current dilemma; we know what we don’t want but do not really know what we do. What we used to want seems less absolute in its desirability today and nothing has taken its place. The anger we see today is nameless and homeless; it seems to live in between things.
Governance Now January 16-31, 2012