It has been building up for months… as events and data points have mounted. Now, in the global circles that I move in both physically and intellectually what people are experiencing can be summed up in one phrase and one phrase only: utter bewilderment. People are asking: What is happening to the world? Universities, schools, workplaces are organizing counselling and venting sessions. Families, particularly extended families, are being sundered by divisions over preferences in public affairs. The feeling persists that global affairs might have taken a dark turn, perhaps irretrievably. People look at the future with dread. They look at the global calendar of significant mass decisions and ask plaintively: Where is the next shock going to come from? Others, in utter despair, have given up all hope. They forecast a series of dominoes falling…and crashing.
In other words, we now have multitudes in the overmastering claws of angst. Existentialist philosophers describe angst as an unavoidable and ever present disquiet or dread or anxiety about life, the individual life. For, each human being on earth knows that tragedy is potentially just around every corner. There is so much about our lives that we cannot control and we know only too well that life can suddenly go awry. However, in this essay I use angst in a connected but slightly broader sense, as in the top definition of the word that Google offers: “a feeling of deep anxiety or dread, typically an unfocused one about the human condition or the state of the world in general.”
The question is: why are so many people angst-ridden? I would argue that we have to look beyond particular events since the condition has been created by a series of political developments and decisions around the world.
A good place to start is the stubborn belief in human progress. Now, in the history of ideas the doctrine of progress has had a rough journey. (For a good survey please see this). Many Enlightenment philosophers believed that with the rise of Science and the spread of Reason not only would human life would improve materially, human beings and human life would get better, saner, ever more civilized. It took the World Wars and the pogroms of the 20th century to discredit the idea. But then came 1989 and the seeming triumph of liberal constitutional democracy. The idea of progress escaped the tombs. Only the environmentalists kept warning us that humanity was hurtling towards catastrophe because of the unstainable impact of humans on the environment. Then came the Paris Accords and that pessimism was tempered somewhat.
But I have always felt that the true plinth of the idea of progress is an unvarying one: our deeply ingrained optimism. Which is why movie makers (Bollywood, Nollywood or Hollywood) concoct happy endings even when the logic of the story makes the denouement silly.
Part of what I suspect is happening now is that both the idea of continuing human progress and our ingrained optimism about the future are being undermined. Particularly perturbing is growing evidence of the persistence of human irrationality; that reason is not insuperable, that the collective weight of expert opinion can be dismissed out of hand, and that primitive impulses remain all too powerful. It seems that in a sharp contest between cosmopolitanism and tribalism the latter wins hands down. All the time. And that is a deeply depressing realization.
I would venture a second reason for the widespread angst. The key question is this: Is human behavior graspable and predictable? We committed to the view that it is. We moved the study of human nature from “the Humanities” and their poetic and mystical flights of fancy to something we now call “the Social Sciences”. We developed tools like opinion polls with what a friend of mine likes to describe as the sophistication and precision of a Swiss watch maker. Then we added “Big Data” and the powerful computers that can carry out quadrillions of simulations of voting intentions in order to discover “regressions to the mean” and be able to predict election outcomes with 90% and above accuracy. And so on. Then what happens? Again and again, human behavior wrong-foots our precision tools, our Big Data, our gazillion simulations. That is bound to be unnerving. For, progress is often deemed to mean the progress of The Scientific Method and its promise: the mastery of unpredictability, the domination of nature.
The third reason I would venture is the following. Three weeks ago, in an essay titled “The tribulations of wishy-washy liberalism” I wrote:
…when liberal constitutional democracy is challenged the defense ranges from tepid to non-existent. Fire is being directed at Liberalism and there is scant returning fire. What we have is not simply a wishy-washy Liberalism but a diffident, even exhausted force. Yet look around you. The populists and nativists might be making outrageous claims but they are making these claims confidently and vigorously. As a result, they have acquired outsized acreage in the global public sphere, and they know how to threaten, abuse and bully all who disagree with them. For effete liberal cosmopolitans, it is all getting a bit too much. Like the populists, the new autocrats are also getting louder and more confident…promoting the efficiency of one man rule, sanctioning extra-judicial killings of citizens, subverting and weaponing so-called champions of transparency and so on. In response, the leaders of the liberal constitutional democracies seem emasculated by the brazenness of it all.
Is it surprising then that so many liberal cosmopolitans all over the world are so firmly in the custody of angst?
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