The Emotional State Of Nations

Humiliation and disrespect are the drivers of history that ends badly.

Jonathan Zawada for Noema Magazine

Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

There are plenty of analyses floating around about what drives today’s cultural tensions within societies as well as geopolitical conflict, present wars — and prospective wars. But few get closer to the deep and long-gestating forces that lay behind it all than Pankaj Mishra, the Indian author who participated in a recent Berggruen Institute salon.

Like writers such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky or Frantz Fanon in their time, Mishra plumbs the collective psychology that is cumulatively brewed out of the inner emotions and spiritual conditions of those who have been marginalized, humiliated and uprooted, as he puts it, by the “trauma of modernization experienced by most of the world” over the past 200 years.

In both his latest novel, “Run and Hide,” and in his various nonfiction books and essays, Mishra traces the migration from tradition-bound realms to “modernity as a mode of salvation,” from the temperament of the sticks, villages and provinces to the urbanity of the metropolis. At the individual, societal and even global level, he chronicles the pull and promise of the aspiring who “arrive late on the historical stage” and seek to fit into the “narrative of the winners of modern history,” doing so at the “irreparable cost” of self-alienation and a sense of dispossession that comes from severing the roots of their identity.

Whether left behind as others move on or, as parvenus from the ranks of “people from nowhere,” they seek “dignity, stability and love” in the circumstances they can manage. When the respect they expect doesn’t materialize, humiliation breeds a fierce ressentiment that swells into what Mishra has called “The Age of Anger,” the title of his seminal 2017 book.

In Mishra’s reading, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was the first “intellectual populist” who articulated this sensibility in 18th-century France, speaking up for “a large part of the population that feels scorned and humiliated by the metropolitan class, by an elite that claims to be cosmopolitan and looks down upon people from the provinces.” As Mishra observed in his salon discussion, it is this common cultural fault line that Rousseau identified so long ago that ties together the “Trumps, Putins and Modis” of the world, whose bristling politics of grievance attracts so much popular support.

Lacking Proper Respect

Humiliation and resentment over a lack of recognition and respect are among the most powerful drivers of history that ends badly. Russia may be the most indicative case in point at the moment. To consider Putin a maniacal outlier in his worldview misses how broadly his sentiments are shared by a range of otherwise sympathetic personalities in Russia over the post-Cold War period.

As I’ve written before, when Mikhail Gorbachev complained to me about how NATO expansion betrayed the “new thinking” that had thawed hostilities, he didn’t talk about military security, but disrespect. “Americans have treated us without proper respect,” he told me almost two decades ago. “Russia is a serious partner. We are a country with a tremendous history, with diplomatic experience. It is an educated country that has contributed much to science.”  

Alexander Lebed, a popular former general who ran for president in pre-Putin times, instinctively fathomed where things were headed if NATO filled the vacuum of the dismantled Warsaw Pact. For him too, the issue was not security but humiliation.

“If [the] sense of loss and humiliation that comes with defeat is allowed to fester in the Russian mentality, it may lead to an inferiority complex that can only be overcome by gaining new victories, preferably over old rivals,” he warned. “Territories come and go, but humiliation of a nation’s dignity remains in the minds of the people. … It injects the virus of vengeance into the defeated nation.”

What was worse, in losing the ideological Cold War, Russia also lost the future it had believed in for most of the 20th century. Without a future, all it had to hang onto going forward was its past, the farther back the better. The Polish literary journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski captured how losing faith in better times to come can be a trap for historical societies.

“In historical societies, all their energies, their feelings, their passions are directed toward the past, dedicated to the discussion and meaning of history. They live in the realm of legends and founding lineages. They are unable to speak about the future because the future doesn’t arouse the same passion in them as their history.

All historical societies live with this weight clouding their minds, their imagination. They must live deeply in history; this is how they identify themselves. If they lose their history, they lose their identity. Then they will not only be anonymous — they will cease to exist.  To forget about history would mean to forget about themselves – a biological and psychological impossibility. It is a question of survival.”

In other words, the sharp edge of ressentiment for humiliated historical societies manifests itself by striking out at the victors in an illusory effort to return to an idealized past when they had respect and recognition.

A Parvenu Scorned

The path to war in Asia is all but certain if China, which over the last few decades has “arrived late” to modernity in spades, becomes convinced that its future will be blocked by the West. Wrath has no greater fury than a parvenu scorned, especially when it has a long and continuous history of being a great power while its current rivals were “people from nowhere.”

Forebodingly, this is where we seem headed today. Just last week, President Xi Jinping cast aside normally oblique, diplomatic etiquette and lashed out, naming names. “Western countries led by the United States,” he declared, “have implemented all-round containment, encirclement and suppression of China, which has brought unprecedented grave challenges to our nation’s development.”

Some years ago, when I was discussing the rise of Asia with Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding father anticipated this clash between arrivistes late to modernity and the already established powers who looked down on them. “For America to be displaced, not in the world, but only in the western Pacific, by an Asian people long despised and dismissed with contempt as decadent, feeble, corrupt and inept, is emotionally very difficult to accept,” he said. “The sense of cultural supremacy of the Americans will make this adjustment most difficult.” 

In a similar vein, a few weeks ago, when the Adani Group’s stock fortunes tanked in Western markets as investors sold short, a popular former Cricket champion tweeted to his 23 million followers that “India’s progress is not tolerated by whites.”

It is the shared history of humiliation and scorn from the West that binds together the likes of India, Brazil, South Africa, Mexico and others from the Global South who won’t join Western sanctions against Russia despite the atrocious crimes against humanity being committed in Ukraine.

It is also the reason China viscerally sides with Russia. When one meets Xi in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, he always raises how far his nation has come from the humiliation of colonialism, as if it were yesterday. It is not much of a stretch from that enduring memory to his conviction that the lessons of history place China next in the crosshairs of the West, after Russia.

The point of all this is not to excuse, and certainly not justify, the behavior of individuals and nations alike by pointing to their misfortune in the course of Western-led modernization. But it is to recognize, as Mishra so well conveys in his work, that wounds from the past will remain ever-present as the future unfolds.  

Emotions shape reasons of state no less than they do the lives of persons. The heretofore winners of modern history ignore this profound character of human nature at their peril.