Pankaj Mishra’s new book, Age of Anger: A History of the Present, will be the subject of his Jacob Julien Lecture at Wesleyan on Wednesday, March 1 at 8 p.m. at the Russell House. A frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books and the Guardian, Mishra is an award winning fiction writer, intellectual historian and political commentator. I reviewed his latest book recently in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Anger is the order of the day. Around the globe — from the cold-blooded killers of the Islamic State to Polish patriots fearful of cultural contamination, from Hindu chauvinists in India to immigrant bashers in America — resentment is boiling over into rage. Populist passions naturally target scapegoats that are local, so the variety is staggering; but behind the specificities of bigotry, Pankaj Mishra sees a general phenomenon. The story of progress guiding modernity assumed that the march forward was universal. When people feel themselves left behind, when they see that progress exists but not for them, they get very, very angry.
Mishra’s new book, “Age of Anger,” is a history of the present, a diagnosis that traces the violence of today to patterns set down in 18th century France and then repeated around the world as peoples deal with modernization and the loss of tradition. The outlines of this diagnosis were sketched by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the decades just before the French Revolution. While cosmopolitan intellectuals like Voltaire were expressing faith in the inevitability of positive change, Rousseau saw a society that was fostering accelerated inequality — a society that was manufacturing vanity and resentment but no moral basis on which to build solidarity or community. Rousseau realized early on that the rich would use the power of the state to increase their own privileges, and he wrote on behalf of those who would be victimized by the new elites. “In the movement from victimhood to moral supremacy,” Mishra writes, “Rousseau enacted the dialectic of ressentiment that has become commonplace in our time.”
As modernization became a globalized phenomenon, resistance to it took the form of cultural nationalism. This began with the resistance of German-speaking Europe to Napoleon’s export of civilization at the point of a bayonet. It continued with resistance to attempts to “open markets” or to “liberate the potential” of a region that had yet to participate in the modern dispensation of inquiry, trade and communication. Those who found the pursuit of wealth empty of personal or social meaning (and those who were just not very good at the game of accumulation) often turned to their local traditions as a bulwark against modern modes of rationality. Nationalism was born from a feeling of being disrespected or simply left behind. In countries whose elites thought they had to “catch up” with the vanguard of economic or cultural change, there was often a counter-movement of people who felt they had to return to national roots in order to fend off change they found threatening.
Mishra, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in London, tells the reader that he began this book after Hindu nationalists came to power in India and finished it just after the election of Donald Trump. He chillingly describes how Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin justified his crime by appealing to militant Hindu traditions betrayed by the apostle of nonviolence. Today, those traditions — embraced by the current Indian government – are leading once more to violence and scapegoating. Mishra sees the pattern occurring again and again: in late 19th century Russia, in early 20th century Italy, in late 20th century Islamic countries and in contemporary America. Large groups of people reject modernity and look backward to a time when their land was supposedly pure, when their people were supposedly great. “Nationalism,” Mishra writes, “has again become a seductive but treacherous antidote to an experience of disorder and meaninglessness.”
Modernizing societies have no antidote to this void of meaning, Mishra thinks, because they don’t have the resources to generate sentiments of solidarity for their citizens. The pursuit of democracy and equality fails to satisfy because the dynamic of historical change always produces new hierarchies and resentments. There has been no shortage of thinkers who have talked about this — from Nietzsche to Dostoevsky, from European fascists to democrats who wanted to decolonize the minds of those once dominated by the West. Mishra cites a myriad of such authors, and although the breadth of his reading is impressive, his argument is chronologically scattershot and thematically repetitive.
Still, even if the book could have been streamlined, the theme bears repeating: Our current situation is recapitulating some of the most violent and dangerous episodes in modern history. Cultural nationalism at those moments was expressed as violent anarchism of the dispossessed, something we’ve seen in our own time in the terrorism of Timothy McVeigh, al Qaeda and the Islamic State. In “Age of Anger,” we see how easily frustration can spawn religions whose only core tenet is destruction.
“Nationalism,” Mishra writes, “is, more than ever before, a mystification, if not a dangerous fraud with its promise of making a country ‘great again’ and its demonization of the ‘other.’” Noting that we need a deeper understanding of our own complicity in suffering as well as a “transformative way of thinking,” he leaves readers with a dire diagnosis — not a recommended treatment. With powerful and worrisome insights into history, Pankaj Mishra has clarified our present. The future is up to us.
Age of Anger
A History of the Present
By Pankaj Mishra
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 406 pages; $27)