How should we understand this age, these times we live in? Some have called it the Age of Extremes – the British historian Eric Hobsbawm – some, the age of the Clash of Civilisations – the political scientist turned demagogue Samuel P. Huntington and the late ideologue and leader of the Al Qaeeda Osama bin Laden – while others have said – and sometimes retracted after saying – that this is the age of the End of History – Francis Fukuyama. Well, which one is it? I would say, all of them yet none of the them. It could be any of these or any other capitalized phrase of any cosmological magnitude or political disposition. Or, it could be one at one time, another at another, maybe different at different places, in states of mind, at times of the day, or the mixtures of some two or three different epithets, the beginning of one and the end of another, anything, or nothing at all. It could be, for all we know, the age of nothing. Maybe that is what future generations decide when they look back at the record of our age. Maybe they’d frown and say, that was such a waste of time. Everything we consider of value now could be, well, nothing of consequence in the long run.
But I do have my two pennies. For me, this is the age of such questions, the kind I’ve raised above. This is, hold your breath – the Age of Suspicion. The realm and scope of our suspicions in this age, extends to everything. Everything that was once so certain is now open to question, to suspicion. Our mythologies, cosmologies and religions – they have been explained as constructed and contingent. Our science is, after Einstein – very relative, functional but only within its discipline, its application. Our politics is a day to day affair of problem management and the balancing of priorities, of this people with that, of the economy with society, of the morning with evening. Our dreams operate in four-five-or-six yearly election cycles and our hopes and desires depend on the Friday blockbuster. And that is about it.
To be fair, such tendencies are not new. They have been around for four-five-six decades, since the end of the second world war, since the antiauthority culture of the 1960’s, in the West and the West-oriented sections of the global populace. But now, especially after the fall of the Soviet Union, and the collapse of communism globally, after the Global War on Terror, the Wall Street crash, and all that, the Age of Suspicion is a universal global phenomenon. We don’t trust anything anymore, and maybe rightly so. The only challenge that remains is, perhaps, the Islamic Insurrection – though, not in Iran anymore – and its religious opponents, and their number is small.
To understand why, we must first discuss the characteristics of this age. The Age of Suspicion is built on the foundations of philosophy but is itself a challenge to all philosophies. There are some protagonists – or villains, depending on your position – in this story. They are, as the philosopher R. Roderick called them, the masters of suspicion – Darwin, Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche. Beginning with their explorations of philosophy, the world and the meaning of existence everything we knew about those things has, well, lost its meaning. Nothing is beyond doubt, certain and absolutely true. Everything – including the question – is open to question. Such a condition of being, as such, Roderick calls the state of the self under siege – a fundamental challenge to what we are or what we think we are. We cannot be sure anymore. We know we are not made in the image of, or especially, or specially, by the divine or anything like that. We know our morals are not universal values, true in every pale at every time and place. We know that behind our very straight and righteous ways of life might lie a whole socio-economic system of injustice and oppression. Everything we believed, we were certain of, is just not so certain anymore. So, how do we, can we, must we know anything. The Age of Suspicion is well underway.
Soren Kerkegaard, the troubled progenitor of the philosophy of existentialism in the Western tradition, once wrote that the only peace one can find is within the walls of the monastery. But all walls, of all monasteries have been shattered. They have been penetrated by the smoke of suspicion. Now, the only peace that the mind can have is to close itself, to wall itself from the world, to be its own monastery. Is this possible anywhere? Only in the philosophy of fundamentalism.
Michel Foucault, a very true disciple of the masters of our age, was elated by the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Here was the beginning of a New Society. A polity that put morals and philosophy at the core of its being. Perhaps a return to the Age of Greek Philosophy. And finally a polity of Philosopher Kings. Sadly, he died. So, we don’t know. Perhaps Iran could have been that society. If it found the reason for its existence, confidently and solidly, in its own philosophy rather than crutch against the chimera of a Great Satan to justify its existence. Who knows, who can tell. But that was lost. Sadly or fortunately. Again, who knows, who can tell.
In the monasteries of many fundamentalisms of our age, so many of us find respite from the festering, soul consuming fires of suspicion. Can we really blame the fundamentalist when the philosophers of our age have given up their duty of finding the way out of the cave, when the world is so caught up in day to day happenings, when there is no greater vision of the future, of humanity, of a global future beyond our narrow domestic walls of nations and their states.
Of the masters of suspicion, Karl Marx was the only one who sought to answer the great existential dilemma his questions and created a possible answer. Sadly, though a great effort, it did not work out in the end, though whose fault that was is a long story. Or whether it was a fault at all. In the Age of Suspicions, however, we sorely lack a vision to commit ourselves to. We lack such visions because there is no great commitment to constructing such visions, to be on the fundamentals of justice, equity and empathy. There is literature, activism and conventions, but no unified and unifying vision of the future with global appeal. In their place, we have bigotries sold as truths. But that is all we have. And until we have something else, they will be all.
The last paragraph would have been the logical conclusion of this essay. But I don’t want to raise doubts without seeking to solve them. In our times, in our age, there are problems that require great effort, great philosophical commitment and great visions. Many problems need to be addressed by such a vision. The greatest of all is nationalism.
The rhetoric of globalization leads most us to believe that national borders, political boundaries are redundant. While globalization has created many more routes that cross political boundaries, the routes themselves are open for a limited few to traverse. For the rest, borders are more prevalent, and even stronger built, than before. Our politics, and all it baggage, remains limited to concerns of the country, of our governments, of our states. The geographer John Agnew called this the territorial trap. The territorial trap prevents us from addressing huge problems that need to be addressed on a global scale. One, most pressing, is the problem of acute scarcity despite growing abundance – in wealth, resources, everything. The wealth gap between Scandinavia and Sub-Saharan Africa is shameful. Also, the pervasiveness of the territorial trap prevents us from addressing potentially catastrophic issues, most obviously, climate change. So, in my view, if there is one philosophy that we need, one vision that is absolutely necessary, it has to that which challenges the closed nature nationalism for an open one, of cosmopolitanism, of the word as one. Is that possible? It has been many times, all religions claim to be universal, including the atheist ones like Communism. So why not Cosmopolitanism? From where will it come? Who knows, who can tell.
But until we don’ t have it, we don’t have it. What we do have unit then is the Clash of Civilisations and the Islamic State. Maybe that is it? What a waste.