[Review] Age of Anger by Pankaj Mishra — Will Moffitt

Shortly after the fall of Berlin Wall, the neoconservative American political scientist Francis Fukuyama published The End of History and the Last Man. In his controversial and oft-cited book, Fukuyama asserted that liberal democracy was triumphing globally and would soon become the final form of human government. Comparing modernity to a freight train that couldn’t be derailed, Fukuyama confidently predicted that ‘democracy and free markets will continue to expand over time as the dominant organizing principles for much of the world’. Soon after, The Economist followed suit, claiming that ‘there was no serious alternative to free-market capitalism as the way to organize economic life’.

A generation later, in the fallout from the seismic political earthquakes of 2016, Fukuyama’s assertion feels overinflated at best. The rampant rise of populist politics, the election of Donald Trump, Britain’s decision to leave the EU, the proliferation of conspiracy groups, truthers, and antivaxxers, and terrorism and internecine conflict persisting in the middle east together evince how liberal democracy is not functioning as Fukuyama and many others hoped it would. On the contrary, millions around the world are disillusioned, angry and desperate for an alternative.

One person who isn’t remotely surprised by all of this rage and discord is Pankaj Mishra, whose Age of Anger: A History of the Present (2017) lays bare that, however much we might be temptated to believe we are living in momentous and unprecedented geo-political times, there is a concrete logic behind the civil unrest and popular rage engulfing the world. Early on Mishra warns that the book is ‘not offered as an intellectual history’ but an exploration of a ‘particular climate of ideas, a structure of feeling, and cognitive disposition’. It quickly becomes clear that Mishra doesn’t do labels, finding them inherently limiting. To have any hope of grasping the reality of our contemporary situation we must, he says, do away with arbitrary categories of left and right; conservative and liberal.

Mishra’s chief claim is that the wave of hatred and aggressive nationalism we are currently witnessing is neither contemporary nor ancient. Rather, it was first conceived during the birth pangs of capitalist modernity in the eighteenth century, as ordinary citizens and renowned intellectuals reacted to the restructuring of society by affluent elites. Our current plight, the author contends, can be best understood through the vitriolic disputes between two of the eighteenth century’s most famous sons: Jean Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire.

Voltaire was a snobbish elitist who never tired of expressing his hatred of ordinary people or the canaille, whom he disparaged as, ‘the ignoble masses who respect only and never think’. During a time when many were calling for revolution, he didn’t even want a representative government, just a ‘wise monarchy that would sideline aristocrats and clergy and create space for people like himself’. Just like the ‘liberal losers’ and ‘metropolitan elite’ Trump detests, Voltaire represented an aloof group of philosophes who thought ordinary people were incapable of rational thought, let alone self-government. He cosied up to wealthy, tyrannical rulers like Catherine of Russia, enthusiastically endorsing her plan to ‘preach tolerance with bayonets.’

Rousseau, on the other hand, thought that it was precisely this kind of snobbery that made the modernising forces of capitalist society so cruel and dysfunctional. He saw ‘a commercial society based on mimetic desire, as a game rigged by and in favour of elites: a recipe for class conflict, moral decay, social chaos and political despotism’. In 1749, paying a daily visit to fellow intellectual Diderot, Rousseau spotted an essay competition in the French newspaper Mercure de France. The question to be answered was: ‘‘Has the progress of the sciences and arts done more to corrupt morals or improve them?’ It represented a chance not only to get noticed and find his voice, but also to lambast the philosophes. In his prize-winning essay, Rousseau boldly declared that the arts and sciences were merely ‘garlands of flowers over the chains which weigh us down’. Civilized man, he argued, ‘is born and dies a slave’.

For Mishra, whilst our current plight is the result of a dizzying array of factors, it is characterised by a Manichean battle between two totemic forces: those who warm to modernity’s choicest fruits and those who want to toss them in a blender. He is fascinated by Dostoevsky’s notion of ‘The Underground Man’: ‘the alienated young man of promise’, a disenfranchised outsider relegated to the back pages of history who rages against the coming of modernity and those that maintain its suffocating boundaries. Whilst this shadowy, enigmatic figure is hard to categorize, he or she is nearly always susceptible to a profound sense of ressentiment. This term, borrowed from Nietzsche, denotes a desperate and inescapable sense of inadequacy that leads individuals or groups to resent others for their good fortune.

Beginning with Rousseau as the archetypal exemplar of ressentiment, Mishra initiates a thrilling 300-page journey spanning four centuries that intertwines tales of German nationalists, Russian revolutionaries, Italian fascists, and a host of other anarchist terrorists. The one thing that ties these confused and disparate characters together is a caustic hatred of modernity, a feeling that is becoming more prevalent as modern capitalism widens its net to ensnare more people into global hegemony. Utilizing Herzl’s notion of ‘Darwinian mimicry’, Mishra contends that the exportation and replication of commerce has created ‘near simultaneously, global structures of feeling and thinking’. These modes of feeling are recreated ‘as much through resentful imitation as coercion, causing severe dislocations, social maladjustment and political upheaval’.

Whilst there are precursors in the book to the sweeping ideologies of Nazism and Communism, neither is discussed in great detail. Mishra is more concerned with a neglected milieu, a subgroup that has always existed but never been fully recognised. As the writer contends, Fukuyama’s so-called ‘End of History’ diagnosis was not only astoundingly naïve, but, like Voltaire, followed a western tendency to think in straight lines. History, according to Mishra, has always been cyclical: the haters of modernity have always been there— they just been ousted from the history books, uwritten from the record. The mirage of progress we have been sold for so long is breaking at the seams, giving way to a bitter assemblage of raging ‘underground men’ and the demagogues who incite them.

The end result is a fascinating and rich, albeit depressing alternative history book. Despite his thirst for detail, Mishra is at his best framing things through a wider lens, raking through personalities and ideologies, revealing where they intersect and then depart to become something else entirely. Most interesting of all is when he compares two seemingly irreconcilable personalities, skilfully revealing their chilling similarities. In Mishra’s analysis Timothy McVeigh, the Gulf War Veteran who killed 168 people in a government building in Oklahoma in 1995, and Ramzi Yousef, perpetrator of the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing, share a startling affinity.

In ‘the most illuminating coincidence of our time’, the two killers met at a ‘Supermax’ prison in Colorado, becoming firm friends. Despite coming from vastly different backgrounds, both shared a hatred of America that was identical in its intensity and ideology. Ultimately both saw themselves as freedom fighters embattling a country they regarded as power-hungry, cruel and oppressive. That two men from antithetical backgrounds could reach such similar conclusions does a great deal to vindicate Mishra’s belief that the structures of modern life create forms of rage that have little to do with, or are at least not only determined by, national, ethnic or religious identities and motivations.

Whilst these kind of analogies are deeply insightful, Mishra misses the mark on ocassion. Isis, for instance, are categorized as a ‘postmodern collage’ resembling ‘many other racial, national and religious supremacists’. Whilst the group are ‘eager to adopt the modern West’s methods and technologies’ releasing beheading videos online and capturing daily atrocities via their iPhones, many of the group, particularly those higher up, draw their ultimate source of inspiration from Wahhabism, a sect initiated by reformer Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab during the eighteenth century. Despite the common consensus that many of those making the pilgrimage to Raqqa have a feeble grasp of the religion, hastily thumbing through Islam for Dummies en route, Isis do still draw on a fundamentalist lineage of at least partially associated with religion, a theme Mishra almost entirely neglects, presumably because it does not fit with his ‘anti-modern’ thesis. Moreover, the group initially spawned from one of the world’s most politically de-stabilised regions, one thoroughly lacking the kind of basic democracy fundamental to all modern states. Had many of these killers received a greater slice of modernity’s privileges perhaps they would have been less likely to murder, rape and pillage?

At times Mishra’s work does demonize modern life to the point where one is left wondering whether there is anything redeemable in capitalism and modern democracy. Whilst both might not have spread as inexorably and inevitably as Fukuyama asserted, they have claimed great swathes of Africa and Latin America, two substantial parts of the globe about which Mishra has very little to say. Since The End of History, free market capitalism has improved the lives of millions, even if equality continues to widen.

Despite all of these facts, George Orwell was almost certainly right in his observation that ‘human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working hours, hygiene, birth control…they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades.’ That an enormous number of people across the globe are either unaware or unconvinced by facts showcasing modernity’s progression only serves to enhance Mishra’s argument further. The one question that cannot be answered, at least not yet, is what, if anything, can placate the age of anger before global rage spirals into an existential threat for us all.

*

Will Moffitt is a feature writer for NS Media Group. His work has appeared in The Telegraph and Tremr, on a range of topics, from football  to fundamentalism. Follow Will on twitter @moffitt_william

Bibliography

Johan Norberg, Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future, Oneworld, 2016. Print.

Mishra, Pankaj. Age of Anger: A History of the Present. London: Allen Lane, an Imprint of Penguin, 2017. Print.

Mishra, Pankaj, Welcome to the Age of Anger, The Guardian, December 8th 2016 (see below)

Read it here: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/dec/08/welcome-age-anger-brexit-trump

Orwell, George, Review of Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler, New English Weekly, March 1940 Read it here: https://docs.google.com/file/d/0BzmBhYakPbYtT3k5cDd4Sm1SRUE/edit

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for an illuminating article on the strange bedfellows spawned by modernity’s collusion with the forces of disruption described so incisively in your review of Pankaj’s ‘Age of Anger.’
    I am just now aware of Sonder as a forum for cultural critique, so I am adding my comment long after the fact of your article, no less powerful.

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