Modernity, secularism, development and progress have long been viewed by the powerful few as benign ideals for the many. Today, however, botched experiments in nation-building, democracy, industrialisation and urbanisation visibly scar much of the world.
As the world became modern those who were unable to fulfil its promises – freedom, stability and prosperity – were increasingly susceptible to demagogues. The many who came late to this new world or were left, or pushed, behind reacted in horrifyingly similar ways: intense hatred of invented enemies, attempts to re-create an imaginary golden age and self-empowerment through spectacular violence.
It was from among the ranks of the disaffected that the militants of the 19th century arose – angry young men who became cultural nationalists in Germany, messianic revolutionaries in Russia, bellicose chauvinists in Italy and anarchist terrorists internationally.
Pankaj Mishra explains how today, just as then, the wider embrace of mass politics, technology and the pursuit of wealth and individualism has cast many more billions adrift in a literally demoralised world, uprooted from tradition but still far from modernity – with the same terrible results.
Pankaj Mishra is the author of From the Ruins of Empire, An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World and Age of Anger: A History of the Present. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a columnist at Bloomberg View and the New York Times Book Review. He writes regularly for the Guardian, the London Review of Books and The New Yorker.