Over in the USA a bunch of ranchers were recently holed up in a wildlife refuge in Oregon, railing loudly against government interference. Others are stocking up on guns: concerned by possible restrictions on the purchase of weapons, many people are buying rifles and pistols, resulting in the share prices of weapon manufacturers reaching new highs. On the other side of the political spectrum people are railing against inequality, highlighting the plight of the American poor who drink poisoned water while men in suits take home unimaginably large salaries.
The current political situation is dominated by two men: one who criticises Muslims, who promises to ban refugees, and who pledged in a campaign speech to “bomb the shit out of Islamic State” – while the other, Bernie Sanders, is angry about inequality, about a culture based around the pursuit of wealth; one of his supporters said in an interview “I’m mad…you have to show some level of anger”.
It’s not just America. In my town in the UK the organisation Britain First recently held a “Christian march” through an area of town populated largely by immigrants, including many Pakistani Muslims. The anti-Muslim organisation Pegida is growing in strength throughout Germany and also the UK. The National Front is on the rise in France. Attacks on Muslims in the UK are increasing. The political spectrum is diverging sharply, with an uncompromising left-winger in charge of the opposition and a welfare-cutting right-winger in charge of the country.
I wonder if this era will, in hindsight, be defined as the age of anger. Everyone, it seems, is angry about something or other. Political disagreement is nothing new, of course, but the breadth and depth of anger felt by ordinary citizens around the world feels different.
I wonder if technology is partly to blame. We live in increasingly segmented lives, cut off from one another by smartphones and laptops, expressing our opinions and sharpening our ideas through Facebook. We seem to spend less and less time actually talking to people, and once the variety and individuality of human beings have been removed, people become one-dimensional caricatures: a right-winger, a gay rights campaigner, a liberal, a Muslim – all targets for dislike and anger, if you happen to disagree with them.
Or perhaps there is something deeper at work: the death of ideas. Throughout history popular discontent has been followed by a proposed solution. Anger at the inequality of 18th century France led to the French Revolution. Anger at the injustice of imperialism led to independence and nationalism (as with the foundation of the Republic of Pakistan, for example). Anger at the aristocracy led to Communism. Anger at religion led to the state-sponsored atheism of Soviet Russia. Anger at warfare led to the foundation of the United Nations. Our present era is still unequal, still stained by warfare, still haunted by abject poverty and lavish wealth, and yet – and yet we have run out of ideas. We feel a sense of pain, of simple wrongness, at the state of the world, and yet where do we go from here? Tyranny? Several steps back. Organised religion? Led to the Crusades, to the Spanish Inquisition, to Islamic State. Communism? Nice idea, doesn’t work. Nationalism? It tore the world apart in the 20th century. International cooperation? It didn’t prevent the Rwanda genocide, nor the Vietnam war, nor the Balkan genocide of the 1990s. Democracy? Hamas were democratically elected, and Donald Trump may be as well. Capitalism? Doesn’t seem to promote equality, does it?
I wonder if modern angst stems from this simple fact: that we can see ever more clearly that the world is imperfect, that we deeply believe that it ought to be perfect, and that we have run out of solutions. Inequality and strife lie at every turn, so we withdraw into our technological bubbles and feel a profound sense of unease.