Pankaj Mishra’s ‘Age of Anger’: A Review – Will Moffitt

Will Moffitt graduated from the University of Edinburgh, where he studied Philosophy and Theology. He is a freelance journalist and writes for Tremr on a range of topics, from Football  to Fundamentalism.

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 he 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”.

Twenty-five years on, as we chew over 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, and the growth of the gang raping and journalist killing Daesh all show that not only is liberal democracy not working as pervasively as many had hoped it would, but it has left a lot of people disillusioned, angry and desperate for an alternative.

One person who isn’t remotely surprised by all of this mayhem is Pankaj Mishra, whose latest book Age of Anger: A History of the Present seeks to show that, whilst there is a temptation to believe we are living in momentous times, there is a concrete logic behind the anarchy that’s engulfing us. Early on we’re told 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.

His 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 18th 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 18th centuries most famous sons: Jean Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire.

Voltaire was a snobbish elitist constantly expressing his hatred of ordinary people or the canaille: ‘the ignoble masses who respect only force and never think’. During a time where 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 but 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 he 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 then, 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. A term, borrowed from Nietzsche, that 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 ensnares 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’ve just been ousted from the history books. The mirage of progress that we have been privy to for so long is breaking at the seams, giving way to a bitter assemblage of bitter ‘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. His comparison of 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, is startling.

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 almost 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 very little to do with national, ethnic or religious discrepancies.

Whilst these kind of analogies are deeply insightful, there’s a lot in this book that’s off the mark. 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 18th 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 lineage of Islamic Extremism that is 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 worlds 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 overtly demonize modern life and its free market focus to the point where one is left wondering whether there is anything good left to say about 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 done a great deal to improve the lives of so many. In 1820, 94% of humanity subsisted on less than $2 a day, that figure now stands at 10%. In 1980 clean water was a luxury enjoyed by a mere 24% of the world’s population, for 68% it’s now a basic right. And despite the gory headlines, the world we now live in is a much safer one than it was for previous generations: the homicide rate in hunter-gatherer societies was about 500 times what it is in Europe today.

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.

Follow Will Moffitt 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

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