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In September 1919, the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio gathered a force of 2,000 mutinous troops from the Royal Italian Army, along with hundreds of other volunteers, and stormed the city of Fiume, on the Adriatic coast, which had been contested territory since the end of World War I. D’Annunzio had served as a fighter pilot in the war, and his daring feats had turned him into one of the most famous people in Europe. An ultranationalist, he had long wanted “Mother Italy” to seize all the territories that he believed rightly belonged to her. In 1911, he had zealously supported Italy’s invasion of Libya, an imperialist adventure whose savagery stoked outrage across the Muslim world. In Fiume, he saw a chance to realize his dream of rejuvenating Italy through war.
D’Annunzio’s forces were met with no resistance; British, French, and U.S. forces withdrew to avoid a confrontation. After installing himself as il duce of the “Italian Regency of Carnaro,” D’Annunzio established a fiefdom shaped by outrageous political rhetoric and gestures. He introduced the stiff-armed salute that Adolf Hitler would later adopt. D’Annunzio and his cadres dressed in black uniforms adorned with a skull-and-crossbones insignia. They spoke obsessively of martyrdom, sacrifice, and death. Hitler and Benito Mussolini, obscure figures at the time, were keen students of the pseudo-religious speeches that D’Annunzio delivered daily from his balcony before retiring to the company of a large, rotating group of sexual partners.
D’Annunzio constructed an elaborate cult of personality around himself and cast his occupation in mythic terms. A group claiming to represent the women of Fiume presented him with a dagger, declaring, “To you . . . chosen by God to radiate the light of renewed liberty through the world . . . [we] offer this holy dagger . . . so you may carve the word ‘victory’ in the living flesh of our enemies.” His so-called foreign minister proclaimed Fiume to be a “magic crucible in which the magma boils” and that might “produce the finest gold.” Thousands of eager volunteers—anarchists, socialists, testosterone-crazed teenagers, and others—came from as far away as Egypt, India, and Ireland to join Fiume’s carnival of erotic militarism. For them, life seemed to be beginning all over again, this time devoid of the old rules. A purer, more beautiful and honest existence was on the horizon.
As the months passed and his sexual indulgences and megalomania deepened, D’Annunzio began to see himself as the leader of an international insurrection of all oppressed peoples. In reality, he remained little more than a two-bit opportunist, one of the many in Europe who had risen to prominence exploiting the rage of people who saw themselves as wholly dispensable in societies where economic growth had enriched only a minority and democracy appeared to be a game rigged by the powerful. In France in the 1880s, General Georges Boulanger, a trash-talking demagogue, took advantage of public disgust over scandals, economic setbacks, and military defeats and came perilously close to seizing power. In 1895, during Austria-Hungary’s traumatic transition to industrial capitalism, Vienna elected a vicious anti-Semite as mayor. Meanwhile, Germany, although successfully industrialized and wealthy, was busy fostering two generations of malcontents and proto-imperialists. At the dawn of the twentieth century, as the world experienced global capitalism’s first major crises and the greatest international migration in history, anarchists and nihilists seeking liberation from old and new shackles burst into terroristic violence. They murdered countless civilians and assassinated numerous heads of state, including U.S. President William McKinley.
In Italy, the relatively young state’s invasive bureaucracy and servility to a rich minority had produced particularly fertile conditions for fantasies of vengeful violence against the establishment. As The Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism, produced in 1909 by Italian admirers of D’Annunzio, proclaimed:
We want to glorify war—the world’s only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive act of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas for which one dies, and contempt for women. We want to destroy museums, libraries, and academies of all kinds, and to fight against moralism, feminism, and every utilitarian or opportunistic cowardice.
For 15 months, D’Annunzio carried out a bizarre experiment in utopia in contemptuous defiance of all of the world’s great military powers. His occupation ended tamely, after the Italian navy bombarded Fiume in December 1920, forcing D’Annunzio and his forces to evacuate the city, which today belongs to Croatia and is known as Rijeka. But a mass movement—Mussolini’s fascism—soon carried on where D’Annunzio had left off. The poet-imperialist died in 1938, a few years after Italy invaded Ethiopia—a ferocious assault that D’Annunzio predictably applauded.
Today, D’Annunzio’s moral, intellectual, and military secession from what he and his followers saw as an irredeemable society continues to echo. Alienated radicals from all over the world have once again flocked to a contested territory to join a violent, extremist, misogynist, sexually transgressive movement: the self-proclaimed Islamic State (or ISIS). Meanwhile, countries across the world are again suffering an onslaught of demagogues, many of them preening buffoons who have recast themselves as visionary strongmen—much as D’Annunzio did. The world is once again mired in what the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, touring the United States in 1916, called a “dense poisonous atmosphere of worldwide suspicion and greed and panic.”
Pundits and scholars alike have struggled to explain the chaos, disorder, and anxiety that have come to define the contemporary political moment. Many blame evidently pathological antimodernisms that have emerged from places outside the West—especially the Muslim world. Having proclaimed “the end of history” in 1989, the political scientist Francis Fukuyama was not alone in wondering, soon after the 9/11 attacks, whether there is “something about Islam” that has made “Muslim societies particularly resistant to modernity.” In reality, today’s malignancies are rooted in distinctly modern reactions to the profound social and economic shifts of recent decades, which have been obscured by the optimistic visions of globalization that took hold in the aftermath of the Cold War.
In the hopeful period that began with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union two years later, the universal triumph of liberal capitalism and democracy seemed assured. A combination of free markets and representative government appeared to be the right formula for the billions trying to overcome degrading poverty and political oppression. Many economies grew rapidly; new nation-states appeared across a broad swath of Africa, Asia, and Europe; the European Union took shape; peace was declared in Northern Ireland; apartheid ended in South Africa; and it seemed only a matter of time before Tibet, too, might be free.
Even in the early and mid-1990s, however, there were warning signs of trouble ahead. Ethnic cleansing in the Balkans and genocide in Rwanda, as well as the resurgence of far-right, anti-immigrant, and neo-Nazi groups in Europe, showed that authoritarian politics, vicious ethnic prejudice, and exclusionary nationalism had hardly vanished. A decade or so of liberal triumphalism gave way to a new era of crises: the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the acceleration of climate change, the global financial meltdown and the subsequent Great Recession, the euro crisis, the rise of ISIS, and the spread of a pervasive sense of anxiety and even terror.
Behind all these developments lies the fact that globalization—characterized by the mobility of people, capital, and ideas and accelerated by the rapid development of communications and information technology—has weakened traditional forms of authority everywhere, from Europe’s social democracies to the despotic states of the Arab world. It has also produced an array of unpredictable new international actors that have seized on the sense of alienation and dashed expectations that defines the political mood in many places. The extremists of ISIS have exploited these changes with devious skill, partly by turning the Internet into a devastatingly effective propaganda tool for global jihad. And demagogues of all kinds—from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to France’s right-wing leader Marine Le Pen, to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, to the GOP candidate in the current U.S. presidential race, Donald Trump—have tapped into the simmering reservoirs of discontent.
For almost three decades, elites in many societies have upheld an ideal of cosmopolitan liberalism: the universal commercial society of self-interested rational individuals that was originally advocated in the eighteenth century by such Enlightenment thinkers as Montesquieu, Voltaire, Adam Smith, and Kant. But in reality, globalization has engendered a myriad of identity-based political formations, including Hindu majoritarianism in India, settler Zionism in Israel, and xenophobic nationalism in Austria, China, Japan, Hungary, Poland, Russia, and the United States. Hate-mongering against immigrants, refugees, minorities, and various other outsiders has gone mainstream. In this age of anger and cruelty, grisly images and sounds continuously assault audiences. The threshold of atrocity has been steadily rising ever since the jihadist group that eventually became ISIS released its first videotaped beheading of an American hostage, in 2004, just as broadband Internet began to arrive in many middle-class homes. Populist and extremist attacks on reasoned debate and evidence-based analysis have made it easier for conspiracy theories and downright lies to spread and gain broad credence. Lynch mobs and mass shooters thrive in a climate where many people think of others only in terms of friends and foes and where sectarian loyalty or nativist hatred override civic bonds.
The larger consequences of the routinized venomousness in public life are incalculable: the urge that for two centuries has led generations to imagine a world better than the one they inherited is giving way to a deep-seated pessimism about the future and a generalized dread of catastrophe. The world seems beset by pervasive panic, which doesn’t quite resemble the centralized fear that emanates from despotic power. Rather, people everywhere find themselves in thrall to the sentiment—generated by the news media and amplified by social media—that anything can happen, anywhere, to anybody, at any time.
MELTING INTO AIR
Unable to discern coherent patterns in today’s chaotic milieu, some liberal intellectuals seem as lost as many of their leftist counterparts did after the collapse of communism in 1989. “Whatever our politics, we all stand in need of a historical vision that believes there is a deep logic to the unfolding of time,” wrote Michael Ignatieff, a self-described liberal internationalist, in an essay published last year in The New York Review of Books. As a source of that kind of “deep logic,” the liberal faith in progress has plainly mimicked the Marxist dream of universal utopia. But today, as Ignatieff forthrightly admitted, “Enlightenment humanism and rationalism,” whether liberal or Marxist in bent, can’t “explain the world we’re living in.”
Since the 9/11 attacks, the blame for global instability has often fallen on an alleged sickness within the Muslim world, or what the novelist Salman Rushdie called a “deadly mutation in the heart of Islam.” In the West, jihadists are commonly understood as somehow standing apart from modernity and as fundamentally different from the Western fascists and totalitarians who terrorized and murdered on an even greater scale not long ago—not to mention more recent European terrorists, such as the Baader-Meinhof Gang in West Germany, the Irish Republican Army in Ireland, ETA in Spain, and the Red Brigades in Italy. An obsession with revealing the “Islamic” roots of terrorism has fueled a quixotic campaign to “reform” Islam and bring it in line with secular Western values with the help of “moderate” Muslims.
In this view, the culprits behind jihadist violence are not only the infinitesimally small proportion of Muslims who actually carry it out but also the majority of the world’s Muslims, who “are unwilling to acknowledge, much less to repudiate, the theological warrants for intolerance and violence embedded in their own religious texts,” as the activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali wrote last year in this magazine. In the United States and Europe, this line of thinking exists on a spectrum whose most extreme end takes the form of a virulent Islamophobia. Right-wing voices now openly call for something akin to the criminalization of Islam and the forceful exclusion of Muslims from the West altogether. But the post-9/11 obsession with seventh-century theology blinded many to the mutations in the heart of secular modernity that link radicals in the Muslim world to not only other exponents of terrorism and violence elsewhere but also some of the most consequential political and social movements in modern Western history.
First exposed to Europe’s fateful experience of modernity through imperialism, large parts of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East are now plunging deeper into struggles with the same forces that produced terror and unprecedented bloodshed in the West just decades ago.
In nineteenth-century Europe, the rise of industrial capitalism was accompanied by wrenching political, economic, and social upheavals that led eventually to world wars, totalitarian regimes, and genocide in the West through the first half of the twentieth century and well into the second. The same kinds of changes are now affecting much vaster regions and bigger populations in the rest of the world. First exposed to Europe’s fateful experience of modernity through imperialism, large parts of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East are now plunging deeper into struggles with the same forces that produced terror and unprecedented bloodshed in the West just decades ago.
In the West, the gains produced by technological innovation and economic growth have frequently been offset by systematic exploitation, growing inequality, the destruction of social bonds, and intercommunal violence. That disruptive process is now playing out everywhere else, challenging how billions of people conceive of life’s meaning and goals. All over the world, botched or failed experiments in Western-style politics and economics have resulted in inviable nation-states, unrepresentative democracy, and vastly unequal distributions of wealth. In places where globalized capitalism has not fulfilled its promise of opportunity and prosperity, culturally and spiritually disorientated people have become increasingly susceptible to demagoguery and extremism. As “all that is solid melts into air,” in Marx’s formulation, some have reacted with frantic assertions of static identities based on race, ethnicity, nationhood, and religion. These voices seek to re-create an imaginary golden age, sometimes through nihilistic violence. Many of them crave bloodshed for its own sake, seeing it as the only path to individual and collective salvation.
ISIS and other present-day extremists are products of their own times and places. But they also follow in the footsteps of their Western forbears of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: the shiftless aesthetes who glorified war and misogyny; the nationalists who accused Jews of rootless cosmopolitanism and celebrated irrational violence; the revolutionaries who turned mass murder into an administrative chore; the imperialists who met demands for equality from subject peoples with violence and chicanery.
“It seems,” Virginia Woolf despaired in 1938 (a far bleaker moment than the present), “as if there were no progress in the human race, but only repetition.” History, however, is far from being repeated. The wars, genocides, and totalitarian tyrannies of the early twentieth century in the West and the state-sponsored calamities elsewhere (such as Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward in China) are unlikely to recur. In this age of frantic individualism, the dangers are less intense but more diffuse and unpredictable.
In a massive and underappreciated shift that has taken place in the past few decades, people everywhere have come to understand themselves in public terms primarily as individuals with rights and interests. Competition, envy, and domination over others have become the essential condition of existence in commercial societies. This condition is only slightly aggravated by the fact that, as the political theorist Hannah Arendt wrote presciently (if slightly prematurely) in 1968, “for the first time in history all peoples on earth have a common present.” In the age of globalization, as Arendt put it, “every country has become the almost immediate neighbour of every other country, and every man feels the shock of events which take place at the other end of the globe.”
Self-seeking individuals with very different pasts now find themselves herded together into a global marketplace where intense disparities of wealth and power have created humiliating new hierarchies. This proximity is rendered more claustrophobic by digital communications that have increased people’s capacity for envious and resentful comparison. It has resulted, as Arendt rightly feared, in a “tremendous increase in mutual hatred and a somewhat universal irritability of everybody against everybody else.”
After the final discrediting of communist regimes in the early 1990s, many Western liberals assumed that the great struggling majority of the world’s population would gradually come to resemble themselves, as long as non-Western societies made their political institutions more democratic, their economies more liberal, and their worldviews less inimical to the individual pursuit of happiness. Such Western observers may have been correct—except they forgot what their own societies actually looked like during their brutal initiations into modernity, and they failed to see what their history portended for the future of the developing world. In post–Cold War commentary and discourse in the West, the centuries of violence and suffering induced by colonialism, slavery, civil wars, and institutionalized racism and anti-Semitism were often reduced to the story of the two world wars—which in turn were interpreted primarily as necessary if terrible stages in liberal democracy’s eventual triumph over its antimodern ideological rivals. Totalitarianism, in both its fascist and its communist flavors, was identified as a malevolent reaction to a liberal tradition of rationalism, humanism, and universalism. In the optimistic haze of the post–Cold War era, Western intellectuals forgot (or unlearned) that totalitarian politics had in fact emerged from turn-of-the-century ideas—eugenics, racial unity, jingoistic nationalism, imperialism, social engineering—that had appeared first in liberal states and that were immensely popular in such bastions of liberalism as France, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
Forgotten, in short, was the fact that even though the Enlightenment philosophers of Europe had formulated the principles of the secular modern world, the West had also generated precisely the kind of militantly antimodern (or perhaps radically modern) ideologies that have now emerged elsewhere. More recently, in the post-9/11 era, this collective forgetting has also afflicted the Western discourse about terrorism, which, far from being an exclusively Islamic phenomenon, is in fact a tactic that has been used by people of all faiths and ideologies since it was developed by the European and Russian revolutionaries and anarchists of the late nineteenth century.
FREEDOM TO FEAR
In retrospect, D’Annunzio’s utopia in Fiume presaged many contemporary themes: the challenges and perils of individual freedom, the yearning for reenchantment, the surrender to large movements with stringent rules and charismatic leaders, and the cult of redemptive violence. His orgies confirmed the link between sexual transgression and unbounded individual freedom originally plotted by the Marquis de Sade and Lord Byron and recently retraced by the pedophiles and rapists of ISIS.
D’Annunzio’s macho posturing also articulated a misogynist fantasy that has historically been as common among distinguished thinkers as among racial and cultural chauvinists—an image of women, in Rousseau’s words, as “specially made to please man” and meant “to be subjugated.” According to Hegel, the ideal woman “simply unfolds like a flower, without struggle and without resistance.” But D’Annunzio went further, embedding disdain for women in a hypermasculine dream of grandeur, heroism, self-sacrifice, power, and conquest—a fantasy shared today by aggressive men across racial, ethnic, national, and religious lines who believe that the quickest path to self-empowerment is through the domination and degradation of anyone they see as vulnerable.
D’Annunzio’s macho posturing articulated a misogynist fantasy that has historically been as common among distinguished thinkers as among racial and cultural chauvinists—an image of women, in Rousseau’s words, as 'specially made to please man' and meant 'to be subjugated.'
But at the time that D’Annunzio took Fiume, the idea of individual empowerment through conquest and domination had distinctly limited applicability. Only about 20 percent of the world’s population lived in countries that could even claim to be independent. The overwhelming majority of the world’s population was deprived of self-rule. In most of the independent countries, women couldn’t vote, and the mildest suggestion that they should be able to provoked fierce opprobrium. Indeed, even the idea of suffrage for all adult males was still considered radical. Put simply, in 1919, relatively few people could become disenchanted with liberal modernity because only a tiny minority had enjoyed the opportunity to become enchanted with it in the first place.
Since then, however, billions more people have been exposed to the promises and illusions of modern development, most of them after the formal decolonization of Africa and Asia. The global process of individualization, or atomization, was accelerated following the collapse of the communist regimes. Beginning in the 1990s, a revolution of personal, materialistic aspirations—an extension of the one that Alexis de Tocqueville had witnessed with much foreboding in the United States in the 1830s—swept the world.
Hundreds of millions of people have emerged from rural poverty and moved to urban areas, only to find life outside traditional communities to be burdened with fear, uncertainty, and unfulfillable fantasies of self-aggrandizement. Their social isolation has also been intensified in many countries by the decline or abandonment of postcolonial nation-building ideologies and projects and by their leaders’ embrace of a global neoliberal economy that imposes constant improvisation and adjustment—and, frequently, rapid obsolescence. As Tocqueville wrote, “To live in freedom one must grow used to a life full of agitation, change and danger.” Otherwise, one will move quickly, he warned, from savoring unlimited freedom to craving unlimited despotism.
This experience of freedom in a void is now endemic among populations in countries at all levels of development. Anarchic expressions of individuality and mad quests for pseudo-religious purity and transcendence have come to fill a gaping moral and spiritual vacuum. In many Western countries in recent years, extremist Islamism has grown in tandem with radical nativism against the backdrop of economic decline, social fragmentation, and disenchantment with electoral politics. Marginalized blue-collar Christians in rust-belt America and postcommunist Poland and alienated young Muslims in France push dueling narratives of victimhood and heroic struggle pitting the faithful against the heretics, the authentic against the inauthentic. Their blogs, YouTube videos, and social media effusions mirror each other, down to their shared conspiracy theories about pernicious transnational Jews.
ISIS represents the most spectacular negation of the pieties of liberal modernity. But it is only one of the many beneficiaries of a worldwide outbreak of individual and collective mutinies. And although ISIS is unlikely to survive for long, others will follow in its footsteps. The sudden and rapid success of racist nationalists and cultural supremacists ought to make liberals wonder whether the millions of young people awakening around the world to their inheritance—which for even the richest among them includes global warming—will be able to realize the modern promise of freedom and prosperity, or if they are doomed to hurtle, like many Europeans in the past, between a sense of inadequacy and fantasies of revenge.
Some will doubtless continue to insist that the secular and modern West is locked in a battle with retrograde Islam or Islamism. But such spine-stiffening rhetoric can no longer obscure the fact that the belief systems and institutions that France, the United Kingdom, and the United States initiated and advanced—the nation-state, the commercial society, and the global market economy—first caused a long emergency in the West and are now roiling societies in Africa and Asia. The radical aspirations inspired by these ideas are far from burnt out. Demagogues are still emerging, in the West and outside it, as the promise of prosperity collides with massive disparities of wealth, power, education, and status. Militant secessions from a civilization premised on gradual progress under liberal democratic trustees—the kind of civilization that D’Annunzio and his peers denounced as feeble and corrupt—are once again brewing within the West and far beyond it: and as before, they are fueled by a broad, deep, and volatile desire for destruction.