The Long Read: The seismic events of 2016 have disclosed a world in chaos and one that old the notions of liberal rationalism can no longer explain

The election of Donald Trump as president of the United States is the biggest political earthquake of our times, and its reverberations are inescapably global. It are completely revealed an enormous pent-up fury which had first become visible in the mass acclaim in Russia and Turkey for pitiless tyrants and the electoral triumph of bloody strongmen in India and the Philippines.

The insurgencies of our time, including Brexit and the rise of the European far right, have many local causes but it is not an accident that demagoguery appears to be rising around the world. Savage violence has erupted in recent years across a broad swath of province: wars in Ukraine and the Countries of the middle east, rebellions from Yemen to Thailand, terrorism and counter-terrorism, economic and cyberwar. The conflicts , not confined to fixed battlefields, feel endemic and uncontrollable. Hate-mongering against immigrants and minorities has gone mainstream; figures foaming at the mouth with disgust and maliceare ubiquitous on old and new media alike.

There is much dispute about the causes of this global disorder. Many observers have characterised it as a backlash against an out-of-touch establishment, explaining Trumps victory in the words of Thomas Piketty as primarily due to the explosion in economic and geographic inequality in the United States. Liberals tend to blame the racial bitterness of poor white Americans, which were apparently aggravated during Barack Obamas tenure. But many rich men and women and even a small number of African-Americans and Latinos also voted for a compulsive groper and white supremacist.

The Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman admitted on the night of Trumps victory that people like me and probably like most readers of the New York Times truly didnt understand the country “were living in”. Since the twin shocks of Brexit and the US election, we have argued ineffectually about their causes, while watching aghast as the new representatives of the downtrodden and the left-behind Trump and Nigel Farage, posing in a gold-plated lift strut across a bewilderingly expanded theatre of political absurdism.

But we cannot understand this crisis because our dominant intellectual notions and categories seem unable to process an explosion of uncontrolled forces.

In the hopeful years that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the universal victory of liberal capitalism and democracy seemed assured; free markets and human rights would spread around the world and lift billions from poverty and oppression. In many styles, this dream has come true: we live in a vast, homogenous global market, which is more literate, interconnected and prosperous than at any other time in history.

And yet we find ourselves in an age of indignation, with authoritarian leaders manipulating the cynicism and discontent of furious majorities. What used to be called Muslim rage, and identified with rabble of brown-skinned men with bushy beards, is abruptly manifest globally, among saffron-robed Buddhist ethnic-cleansers in Myanmar, as well as blond white patriots in Germany. Violent hate crimes have blighted even the oldest of parliamentary republics, with the murder of the MP Jo Cox by a British neo-Nazi during the venomous campaign for Brexit. Suddenly, as the liberal thinker Michael Ignatieff lately wrote: Enlightenment humanism and rationalism can no longer adequately explain the world were living in.

The largely Anglo-American intellectual hypothesis forged by the cold war and its jubilant aftermath are an unreliable guidebook to todays chaos and so we must turn to the ideas of an earlier epoch of volatility. It is a moment for intellectuals such as Sigmund Freud, who cautioned in 1915 that the primitive, savage and evil impulses of humankind have not faded in any individual, but are simply waiting for the opportunity to show themselves again. Surely, the current conflagration has brought to the surface what Friedrich Nietzsche called ressentiment a whole tremulous realm of subterranean retaliation, inexhaustible and insatiable in outbursts.

By contrast, the fundamental premise of our existing intellectual frameworks is the assumption that humans are basically rational and motivated by the pursuit of their own interests; that they principally act to maximise personal happiness, rather than on the basis of fear, jealousy or resentment.

The bestseller Freakonomics is a perfect text of our time in its notion that incentives are the cornerstone of modern life, and the key to solving just about any riddle. From this view, the current crisis is an irruption of the irrational and disarray and bewilderment are widespread among political, business and media upper-class. The commonly stolid Economist has lately careened from dubious indignation over post-Truth politics to the Rip Van Winkle-ish declaration of The New Nationalism. Many other mainstream periodicals now read like charades of New Left Review, as they attend belatedly to the failings of global capitalism most egregiously, its failure to fulfil its own promise of general prosperity.

We can now see, all too clearly, a widening abyss of race, class and education in Britain and the US. But as explains proliferate, how it might be bridged is more unclear than ever. Well-worn pairs of rhetorical opposites, often corresponding to the bitter divisions in our societies, was again been put to work: progressive v reactionary, open v shut, liberalism v fascism, rational v irrational. But as a polarised intellectual industry plays catch-up with fast-moving events that it entirely failed to anticipate, it is hard to avoid the suspicion that our search for rational political the purpose of explaining the current disorder is doomed. All of the opponents of the new irrationalism whether left, centre, or right are unified by the presumption that individuals are rational performers, motivated by material self-interest, enraged when their desires are thwarted, and, hence, likely to be appeased by their fulfilment.


This notion of human motivating deepened during the Enlightenment, whose resulting thinkers, hating tradition and religion, sought to replace them with the human capability to rationally identify individual and collective interests. The dream of the late 18 th century, to rebuild the world along secular and rational lines, was further elaborated in the 19 th century by the utilitarian theoreticians of the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people and this notion of progress was embraced by socialists and capitalists alike.

After the collapse of the socialist alternative in 1989, this utopian vision took the form of a global market economy dedicated to endless growth and consumption to which there would be no alternative. According to this worldview, the dominance of which is now nearly absolute, the human norm is Homo economicus , a estimate subject whose natural desires and instincts are shaped by their ultimate motivating: to seek happiness and avoid pain.

This simple view always neglected many factors ever-present in human lives: the anxiety, for example, of losing honour, dignity and status, the distrust of change, the appeal of stability and familiarity. There was no place in it for more complex drives: vanity, fear of seeming vulnerable, the need to save face. Obsessed with material progression, the hyperrationalists ignored the entice of bitternes for the left-behind, and the tenacious pleasures of victimhood.

And yet modern history provides enormous proof for the persistent power of unreason. It was not so long ago in the early 19 th century that French pretensions to a rational, universal, and cosmopolitan civilisation first provoked resentful Germans into the militant expres of what we now call cultural nationalism: the assertion of authentic culture rooted in national or regional character and history.

One revolution after another since then has demonstrated that impressions and moods change the world by turning into potent political forces. Anxiety, anxiety and a sense of shame were the principal motive of Germanys expansionist policy in the early 20 th century and it is impossible to understand the present upsurge of anti-western sentiment in China, Russia and India without acknowledging the role played by humiliation.

Yet a mechanistic and materialist route of conceiving human actions has become entrenched, in part because economics has become the predominant means of understanding the world. A view that took shape in the 19 th century that there is no other nexus between man and human than naked self-interest has become orthodoxy is again in an intellectual climate that views the market as the ideal sort of human interaction and venerates technological progress and the growth of GDP. All of this is part of the rigid contemporary notion that what counts is only what can be counted and that what cannot be counted subjective feelings hence does not.

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A Brexit supporter, and a Vote Remain campaigner exchange views in Market Square, Northampton, on 31 May Photograph: Christopher Furlong/ Getty Images

Our current neglect of non-economic motivatings is even more surprising when we just knowing that less than a century ago, the Enlightenments narrow rational programme for individual happiness had already become the butt of ridicule and contempt as the Austrian modernist novelist Robert Musil observed in 1922. Indeed, the pioneering runs of sociology and psychology as well as modernist art and literature of the early 20 th century were defined in part by their insistence that there is more to human beings than rational egoism, competitor and acquisition, more to society than a contract between logically calculating and autonomous individuals, and more to politics than impersonal technocrats devising hyper-rational schemes of progress with the help of polls, surveys, statistics, mathematical models and technology.

Writing in the 1860 s, during the course of its high noon of 19 th-century liberalism, Fyodor Dostoevsky was one of the first modern thinkers to air the suspicion , now troubling us again, that rational reasoning does not decisively influence human behaviour. He pitted his Underground Man the quintessential loser dreaming of retaliation against societys wins against the idea of rational egoism, or material self-interest, then popular in Russia among eager readers of John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham. Dostoevskys protagonist obsessively assaults the shared rationalist assumptions of both capitalists and socialists: that human beings are logically calculating animals, driving in perceived incentives 😛 TAGEND

Oh, tell me who was it first announced, who was it first extol, that human merely does nasty things because he does not know his own interests; and that if he were enlightened, if his eyes were opened to his real normal interests, human would at once cease to do nasty things, would at once become good and noble because, being enlightened and understanding his real advantage, he would assure his own advantage in the very best and nothing else?

Dostoevsky defined a style of thought that was later elaborated by Nietzsche, Freud, Max Weber and others who mounted a full-blown intellectual uprising against the oppressive certainties of rationalist ideologies, whether left, right or centre. This is an intellectual revolution that is barely remembered today but it erupted at an emotional and political moment that would seem eerily familiar to us: a period of uneven and disruptive economic growth, distrust of legislators, dread of change, and anxiety about rootless cosmopolitans, foreigners and immigrants.

This was an era when the disaffected masses recoiling from the 19 th centurys prolonged experiment in laissez-faire economic rationalism had begun to fall for radical alternatives, in the form of blood-and-soil nationalism and anarchist terrorism. This anti-liberal political insurgency forced many of those we are today regard as central figures of 20th-century intellectual life to question their fundamental notions of human behaviour, and to discard the positivist nostrums that had taken root in the previous century.

By the late 1850 s, Charles Darwin had already shattered the notion that human beings could control how they develop let alone build a rational society. Novelists, sociologists and psychologists examining the turbulent mass societies of the late 19 th century concluded that human actions could not restricted to single causes, whether religious and ideological religion, or the rationality of self-interest.

Freud, who lived in turn-of-the-century Vienna while demagogues were scapegoating Jews and liberals for the mass suffering inflicted by industrial capitalism, came to see the rational intellect as a feeble and dependent thing, a plaything and tool of our impulses and emotions. One has the impression, Freud wrote in The Future of an Illusion( 1927) that culture is something imposed on a reluctant majority by a minority that managed to gain possession of the instruments of power and coercion. Long before the 20 th centurys detonations of demagoguery, Max Weber, as he observed Germanys hectic industrialisation, presciently speculated that individuals, unmoored by socioeconomic turmoil and alienated by bureaucratic rationalisation, could become vulnerable to a despotic leader.


The problem for these critics of Enlightenment rationalism, as Robert Musil defined it, was not that we have too much intellect and too little soul, but that we have too little intellect in matters of the soul. We suffer even more from this problem today as we struggle to make sense of the outbreaks of political irrationalism. Perpetrated to insuring the individual ego as a rational actor, we fail to see that it is a profoundly unstable entity, constantly shaped and reshaped in its interplay with shifting social and cultural conditions. In our own period, amid what Hannah Arendt described as a tremendous increase in mutual hatred and a somewhat universal irritability of everybody against everybody else, this fragile self has become particularly vulnerable to ressentiment.

Ressentiment caused by an intense mix of resentment, humiliation and powerlessness is not simply the French term for rancor. Its meaning was shaped in a particular culture and social context: the rise of a secular and meritocratic society in the 18 th century. Even though he never use the word, the first intellectual to identify how ressentiment would emerge from modern ideals of an egalitarian and commercial society was Jean-Jacques Rousseau. An outsider to the Parisian elite of his time, who struggled with envy, fascination, disgust and rejection, Rousseau saw how people in a society driving in individual self-interest come to live for the gratification of their vanity the desire and need to secure recognition from others, to be esteemed by them as much as one esteems oneself.

But this vanity, luridly exemplified today by Donald Trumps Twitter account, often ends up nourishing in the soul a disfavor of ones own self while stoking impotent hatred of others; and it can quickly degenerate into an aggressive drive, whereby individuals feel recognise only by being preferred over others, and by rejoicing in their abjection.( As Gore Vidal pithily set it: It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail .)

Such ressentiment breeds in proportion to the spread of the principles of equality and individualism. In the early 20 th century, the German sociologist Max Scheler developed a systematic hypothesi of ressentiment as a distinctly modern phenomenon ingrained in all societies where formal social equality of rights between someones coexists with massive differences in power, education, status, and property ownership. In an era of globalised commerce, these gaps now exist everywhere, along with enlarged the idea of individual aspiration and equality. Accordingly, ressentiment, an existential bitternes of others, is poisoning civil society and undermining political liberty everywhere.

But what induces ressentiment especially malign today is a growing contradiction. The ideals of modern republic the equality of social conditions and individual empowerment have never been more popular. But they have become more and more difficult, if not impossible, to actually realise in the grotesquely unequal societies created by our brand of globalised capitalism.

The past two decades of hectic globalisation have brought us closer than ever before to the liberal Enlightenment ideal of a universal commercial society of self-interested, rational and autonomous people one that was originally advocated in the 18 th century by such intellectuals as Montesquieu, Voltaire, Adam Smith, and Kant. In the 19 th century, it was still possible for Marx to sneer at Jeremy Bentham for presuming the modern storekeeper, especially the English shopkeeper, as the normal man. In our own day, however, the ideology of neoliberalism a market-centric hybrid of Enlightenment rationalism and 19 th-century utilitarianism has achieved near total dominance in the economic and political realm alike.

The success of this universal credo can be attested by many inventions of recent decades that now look perfectly natural. The rational marketplace is expected to ensure the supply of valuable products and services, while the task of governments is to ensure fair competition, which produces wins and losers. The broad intellectual revolution in which an all-knowing market judges failure and success has even more forcefully insisted on the rationality of the individual.

Issues of social justice and equality have receded along with notions of society or community to be replaced by the freely selecting individual in the marketplace. According to the prevail opinion today, the injustices entrenched by history or social circumstances cease to matter: the slumdog, too, can be a millionaire, and the individuals failure to escape the underclass is self-evident proof of his poor choices.

But this abstract notion has no room for the emotional situation of real, flesh-and-blood people and how they might act within concrete social and historical settings.

One of the first people to notice the disturbing complex of feelings we now watch among self-seeking people around the world was Alexis de Tocqueville who was already worried in the 1830 s that the American promise of meritocracy, its homogeneity of culture and ways, and equality of conditions would make for immoderate aspiration, corrosive jealousy and chronic discontent. The passion for equality, he advised, could swell to the high levels of fury and result many to acquiesce in a curtailment of their autonomies, and to long forthe rule of a strongman.

As De Tocqueville pointed out, people liberated from old hierarchies want equality in liberty, and, if they cannot get onto, they are continuing want it in slavery.

We witness a universal frenzy of dread and loathing today because the democratic revolution De Tocqueville witnessed has spread from its American centre to the remotest corners of the world. The fury for equality is conjoined with the pursuit of prosperity mandated by the global consumer economy, exacerbating tensions and contradictions in inner lives that are then played out in the public sphere.

To live in freedom, De Tocqueville alerted, one must grow are applied to a life full of unrest, change and danger. This various kinds of life is barren of stability, security, identity and accolade, even when it overflows with material goods. Nevertheless, it is now banality among people around the world that rational considerations of utility and profit the needs of supplying chains and the imperatives of quarterly shareholder returns uproot, humble and render obsolete.

The widespread experience of the maelstrom of modernity has only heightened the enticement of ressentiment. Many new people now live in liberty, in De Tocquevilles terms, even as they are enslaved by finely integrated political, economic and cultural powers: the opaque works of finance capital, the harsh machinery of social security systems, juridical and penal systems, and the unrelenting ideological influence of the means and the internet.

Never have so many free someones felt so helpless so desperate to take back control from anyone they can blame for their impression of having lost it. It should not be amazing that we have seen an exponential rise in hatred of minorities, the main pathology induced by political and economic shocks. These apparent racists and misogynists have clearly suffered silently for a long time from what Albert Camus called an autointoxication the evil secretion, in a sealed boat, of prolonged impotence. It was this gangrenous ressentiment, festeringfor so long in places such as the Daily Mail and Fox News, that erupted volcanically with Trumps victory.


Rich and poor alike voting for a serial liar and taxation dodger have confirmed yet again that human desires operate independently of the logic of self-interest and is likely to be destructive of it. Our political and intellectual elites midwifed the new irrationalism through a studied indifference to the emotional dislocation and economic suffering induced by modern capitalism. Not astonishingly, they are now unable to explain its rise. Indeed, their universal hypothesi, hardened since 1989, that there are no alternatives to western-style democracy and capitalism the famous end of history is precisely what has built us incapable of comprehending the political phenomena shaking the world today.

It is clear now that the rapture of individual will as something free of social and historical pressures, and as flexible as marketplaces, concealed a breathtaking innocence about structural inequality and the psychic injury it causes. The contemporary obsession with individual option and human bureau disregarded even the basic discoveries of late-1 9th-century sociology: that in any mass society, life chances are unequally distributed, there are permanent winners and losers, a minority dominates the majority, and the elites are prone to manipulate and deceive.

Even the terrorist attacks of 9/11 left undisturbed the vision in which a global economy built around free markets, rivalry and rational individual choices would alleviate ethnic and religious differences and usher in worldwide prosperity and peace. In this utopia, any irrational obstacles to the spread of liberal modernity such as Islamic fundamentalism would be eventually eradicated. Fantasies of a classless and post-racial society of empowered rational-choice actors bloomed as late as 2008, the year of the most devastating economic crisis since the Great Depression.

Today, however, the basic assumptions of cold war liberalism lie in ruins after decades of intellectual exertion to construct flimsy oppositions between the rational west and the irrational east. The political big bang of our time does not merely threaten the vanity projects of an intellectual upper-clas, but the health of republic itself the defining project of the modern world. Since the late 18 th century, tradition and religion have been steadily disposed, in the hope that rational, self-interested individuals can form a liberal political community that defines its shared laws, ensuring dignity and equal rights for each citizen, irrespective of ethnicity, race, religion and gender. This basic premise of secular modernity, which earlier only seemed menaced by religious fundamentalists, is now endangered by elected demagogues in its very heartlands, Europe and the US.

Where do we go from here? We can of course continue to define the crisis of republic through reassuring dualisms: liberalism v authoritarianism, Islam v modernity, and that sort of thing. It may be more fruitful to think of democracy as a profoundly fraught emotional and social condition one which, aggravated by turbo-capitalism, has now become unstable. This might allow us to examine the workings of ressentiment across varied countries and classes, and to understand why ethno-nationalist supremacy has grown alongside economic stagnation in America and Britain, even as it prospers alongside economic expansion in India and Turkey. Or, why Donald Trump, the flashy plutocrat tormented by his lowly status among Manhattans cultivated liberals, obsessively baits the New York Times and calls for a boycott of the Broadway show Hamilton.


That a rancorous Twitter troll will soon become the worlds most powerful man is the latest of many reminders that the idealised claims of western upper-class about republic and liberalism never actually conformed to the political and economic reality at home. A rowdy public culture of disparagement and warning does not hide the fact that the chasm of sensibility between a technocratic upper-clas and the masses has grown. Everywhere, a majority that was promised growing equality insures social power monopolised by people with money, property, connects and talent; they feel shut out from both higher culture and decision-making.

Many people find it easy to aim their rage against an allegedly cosmopolitan and rootless culture upper-clas. Objects of hatred are required more than ever during times of crisis, and rich citizens of nowhere as Theresa May dubbed them conveniently represent the vices of a desperately sought-after but infuriatingly unattainable modernity. And so globalisation, which promotes consolidation among shrewd elites, helps incite ressentiment everywhere else, especially among people forced against their will into universal competition.

In search of a salve for these meanders, many intellectuals have espoused nostalgic fantasies of vanished unity. Earlier this year, the New York Times columnist David Brooks returned from communist Cuba gushing about Cubans fierce love of country, a sense of national solidarity and a confident patriotic spirit that is today lacking in the United States. More lately, Simon Jenkins, in this newspaper, and the intellectual historian Mark Lilla in a widely circulated New York Times opinion piece have urged the rejection of identity liberalism and the necessity of espousing national unity and common identity. As Trumps victory was proclaimed, Simon Schama tweeted that we need a new Churchill to save democracy in Europe and America.

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A Trump advocate in Ambridge, Pennsylvania during the presidential election campaign. Photo: Evan Vucci/ AP

Such breast-beating amounts to a truly irrational demand: that the present abolish itself, building style for a return to the past. Ideally, to the time when paternalistic white liberals occupied the vital centre, little disturbed by the needs and longings of history forget, humiliated and stillness people.

These lamentations for simpler hours that all we lack is the right sort of spine-stiffening democratic leader, or rational culture, or culture unity, or patriotic spirit ignore the fragmented nature of our politics. Social and technological developments are not liberal or conservative, democratic or authoritarian; they are as prone to enshrine LGBT rights as to reinstate torment and circulate fake news. Nor does the longing for the good old days adequately respond to the massive crisis of legitimacy facing democratic institutions today.

Political antidotes to the sinister pathologies unleashed by Putin, Erdoan, Modi, Brexit and Trump require a reckoning with the bad new days something a lot more forward-looking than models of solidarity inspired by Cuba or Churchill, nationalist pedagogies for the oppressed, or dauntless faith in globalisation eventually delivering the promised goods.

This work is necessary but it can only proceed with a most sophisticated analysis of how todays scenery of hyperrational power has coerced a new and increasingly potent irrationalism into existence. And such analyses would require, above all, a richer and more varied picture of human experience and requires than the prevailing image of Homo economicus. This intellectual attempt which was first undertaken more than a century ago by the intellectuals quoth here would inevitably take us beyond liberalism and its faith in the curative power of economic growth.

What Robert Musil called the liberal scraps of an unfounded religion in reason and progress have yet again failed modern human being in their all-important undertaking of understanding their experience. We once more confront the potential, outlined in Musils great fiction about the collapse of liberal values, The Human Without Qualities, that the characteristic desolation of the modern human being his immense loneliness in a desert of detail, his restlessness, malice, incomparable callousness, his avarice for fund, his coldness and violence is the result of the losses that logically precise guessing has inflicted on the soul.

For virtually three decades, the religion of technology and GDP and the crude 19 th-century calculus of self-interest have predominated politics and intellectual life. Today, the society of entrepreneurial individuals vying in the rational market reveals unplumbed depths of sadnes and desperation; it spawns a nihilistic insurrection against order itself.

With so many of our landmark in ruins, we can barely insure where we are headed, let alone chart a path. But even to get our basic bearings we need, above all, greater precision in matters of the soul. The stunning events of our age of fury, and our perplexity before them, make it imperative that we anchor thought in the sphere of emotions; these upheavals demand nothing less than a radically enlarged understanding of what it means for human beings to pursue the contradictory ideals of liberty, equality and prosperity.

Otherwise, in our sterile infatuation with rational motivations and its outcome, we risk resembling those helpless navigators who, De Tocqueville wrote, stare obstinately at some ruins that can still be seen along the shores we have left, even as the current pulls us along and drags us backward toward the abyss.

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