Age of Anger by Pankaj Mishra (full review)

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This piece – a review of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger (Allen Lane)  – originally appeared in The Sunday Business Post in February of this year. I previously posted a wee snippet, but here’s the whole thing, in its original form.

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To quote Howard Beale – the alcoholic anchorman and “mad prophet of the airwaves” who streaks like a meteor through Paddy Chayevsky’s great film Network (1976) – “I don’t have to tell you things are bad. We know things are bad.” Oh, things are bad, alright: Trump, Brexit, ISIS, North Korea’s nuclear programme, the US Muslim ban, Steve Bannon, the return of white nationalism, “fake news,” worldwide protests and demonstrations, Putin, war in Syria, secret dossiers…  As Saul Bellow wrote, presciently, in 1976: “For the first time in history, the human species as a whole has gone into politics […] What is going on will not let us alone. Neither the facts nor the deformations.”

Well, the deformations are clear. But the facts are perhaps less so. How did we get here? In his dense, gripping, and sinuously brilliant new book, Pankaj Mishra offers a powerful alternative history of the modern world – a vade mecum for our frightening times. Mishra is Indian-born, a regular contributor to The New Yorker, and the author of works of fiction, travel, and historical analysis. He is formidably learned – a brief list of major sources for his new book might include Rousseau, Nietzsche, Gabriele D’Annunzio, Francis Fukuyama, Raymond Aron, Hannah Arendt, Max Weber, Herbert Spencer, Theodor Herzl, Dostoyevsky, Marx, Alexander Herzen, Voltaire, Emile Zola, and Stendhal. There are many more.

To skip to the upshot, let me say it at once: Age of Anger is a profoundly important book and everyone should read it immediately. As Mishra notes in a preface, his text “went to the printers in the week that Donald Trump was elected president of the United States.” In the years to come, we are sure to be deluged with hot takes on the Trump catastrophe – blaming the Democrats, the white working class, what have you. But Mishra’s assessment, which barely mentions Trump, already feels definitive. Mishra sees clearly. He has read everything.

Mishra is one of a small number of contemporary thinkers – his closest peer is perhaps the English political philosopher John Gray, author of Straw Dogs (2002) and The Soul of the Marionette (2015) – who reject the idea of historical progress. “There is no deep logic to the unfolding of time,” Mishra observes, demolishing centuries of Western utopian complacency. Mishra’s targets are those Western thinkers – from Voltaire to the editors of The Economist – who believe, baselessly, that history is leading to the triumph of free-market liberal democracy. It is this “malign illusion,” Mishra says, that has brought us to our present state of woe, and that has left us utterly unprepared to cope with the barbarous forces now returning to power across the globe.

After the Berlin Wall toppled in November, 1989, optimistic Western thinkers calmly awaited a worldwide “convergence on the Western model” – as The Economist put it in 1992, “there is no serious alternative to free-market capitalism as the way to organise economic life.” But in the West, as Mishra points out, “the Western model” had already led to genocide and tyranny. For Mishra – as for a handful of other clear thinkers – “the history of modernisation is largely one of carnage and bedlam rather than peaceful convergence.”

Mishra locates the roots of our present crisis in the much larger, and ongoing, crisis of modernity itself. The violent advent of the modern – heralded by the Enlightenment philosophes and their Jacobin offspring – led inescapably to what the German sociologist Max Weber called “the disenchantment of the world,” and the birth of revolutionary terror. For as well as “cosmopolitan liberalism,” individualism, and religious and economic freedom, the modern world brought with it a dangerous new idea: that “human beings can radically alter their social conditions.”

In the maelstrom of the modern – in which, as Marx observed, “all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned” – everything is theoretically permitted. But freedom is a dangerous gift, and the idea of progress is impossible to sustain without the corollary idea of winners and losers. Undermining the West’s “gaudy cult of progress,” a new class of people began to appear – “those who saw themselves as wholly dispensable in a society where economic growth enriched only a minority and democracy appeared to be a game rigged by the powerful.” Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man is one such “superfluous” citizen of the West. Adolf Hitler was another. These “frustrated men,” Mishra says, have “defined whole new modes of politics, from nationalism to terrorism, since the French Revolution.”

As Nietzsche put it, the disruptive forces of the modern world awakened a powerful ressentiment: a deep emulative rage that drove such barbarisms as Nazism, Soviet Communism, and religious fundamentalism – all of them attempts to roll back the clock on modernity. Ressentiment, Mishra points out, cuts across all ideological divisions. It is the underlying force beneath all attempts to combat the forces of modernity. It is the rage that festers at the heart of the modern world.

It is, Mishra points out, modernity itself that “has everywhere weakened older forms of authority” and empowered “unpredictable” actors from Somali pirates to English nationalists to Boko Haram to ISIS to Donald Trump. In other words, emotionally speaking, there is no difference between a gun-toting Trump voter and a “bearded Islamist in Pakistan.” Both men are enraged by the rootless chaos of the modern world, with its parade of failed illusions. In this regard, Mishra says, “The modern West can no longer be distinguished from its apparent enemies.”

Mishra reminds us that the equilibrium of the post-1945 liberal democracies, in which the idea of progress thrived, was “precarious and rare.” That equilibrium is now profoundly threatened. A pulverised global middle class, an obscenely wealthy elite, an enraged and impotent underclass: these are the radioactive materials from which our immediate future will be woven. We are about to see what happens when Western governments junk their long-held liberal values in favour of a largely improvisatory politics of ressentiment. We have been dreaming. Now we are awake.

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