Review: Anger, the Failure of Modernity

Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger adds to the wealth of knowledge on the troubled history of the Western liberal order, but does not offer anything new on how to counter it.

Pankaj Mishra. Courtesy:

Pankaj Mishra. Courtesy:

Across the world, a sense of disillusionment has come to dominate the discourse on religion, politics and culture. A despair of democracy is seen in the rise of demagoguery that came to prominence with this century’s ‘Game of Thrones’ that led ‘strong statesmen’ like Narendra Modi, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Donald Trump emerge victorious in the current global (dis)order that is characterised by chaos, inequality and resentment. This runs parallel to the grotesque violence unleashed by the ISIS militants in the streets of Iraq and Syria – countries where the West’s half-hearted projects of implanting democracy and modernity have failed miserably. In addition to this, the local brigades of cultural nationalists, white supremacists and clerical apologists have moved out of the periphery to control the mainstream. The common element in all three interrelated developments is found in Pankaj Mishra’s latest book, Age of Anger: A History of the Present.

Mishra’s present book is in tandem with his previous works, particularly From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia, where the basic premise has been a critique of the West’s liberal dispensation and Western perspective of the East. The argument on “mimetic desire” is instructive here. Much like the present book, he has in Ruins of Empire discussed how Asian countries in their struggle for decolonisation ended up imbibing the West, emulating ideals of nationalism and consumerism among others. This sudden and imbalanced imitation led to an upsurge of ressentiment – a French word meaning a mixture of hostility, envy and hatred for the other.

Placing it in the political context, where one’s natural rights to life, liberty and security are threatened by political dysfunction and economic stagnation, Mishra describes ressentiment as, “An existential resentment of other people’s being, caused by an intense mix of envy and sense of humiliation and powerlessness, ressentiment as it lingers and deepens, poisons civil society and undermines political liberty, and is present making for a global turn to authoritarianism and toxic forms of chauvinism.” The three “P’s” that run through the book are prejudice, paranoia and populist passions; all a culmination of ressentiment.

Mishra narrates a history of anger and finds the roots of this diverse yet connected politics of violence in the 18th and 19th centuries’ political revolutions. These revolutions, which ranged from enlightened despotism to proletarian revolution to the expansive reach of market forces, disillusioned and alienated one from the other in the “divided modern world”. The ambivalence of the non-Western culture in its encounter with the West is mimetic of the ressentiment possessed by those who identify themselves in relation to the ‘superior’ others, giving birth to “moods of envy and hatred.” This ambivalence, coupled with ressentiment, is symptomatic, according to Mishra, of our Age of Anger.

Seen as a failure of modernity, anger has now infected vast regions and larger populations. “…first exposed to modernity through European imperialism, large parts of Asia and Africa are now plunging deeper into the West’s own fateful experience of that modernity.” As modernity failed to fulfil its promises of “universal civilization”, we embarked on a journey of unfreedom, instability and scarcity. He writes,

The unprecedented political, economic and social disorder that accompanied the rise of the industrial capitalist economy in nineteenth century Europe, and led to world wars, totalitarian regimes and genocide in the first half of the twentieth century, is now infecting much vaster regions and bigger populations.

Such explosive sentiments, “ring even truer today”, asserts Mishra, quoting mid-20th century German jurist Carl Schmitt, “What is exploding today was prepared before 1848…the fire that burn today was lit then.”

Resonating very clearly with the historical narrative, anger has, over centuries, been manifested in the political violence linked to timeless existential conflicts. Today’s world is a reflection of the past and “we must”, argues Mishra, “return to the convulsions of that period in order to understand our own age of anger” that is marked with images of American shooters and ISIS beheadings to Trump’s narcissistic politics and Erdogan’s disregard for secular Turkey. The political insecurity that has given rise to vengeful nationalism, bigotry, racism and pervasive misogyny in countries of the West has betrayed their post-war principles. Thus, “Hate-mongering against immigrants, migrants and various designated ‘others’ has gone mainstream – even in Germany, whose post-Nazi politics and culture were founded on the precept of ‘Never Again’.”

The central point of his argument is that, “The key to man’s behaviour lies not in any clash of opposed civilizations, but, on the contrary, in irresistible mimetic desire: the logic of fascination, emulation and righteous self-assertion that binds the rivals inseparably. It lies in ressentiment, the tormented mirror games in which the West as well as its ostensible enemies and indeed all inhabitants of the modern world are trapped.”

Beginning “from the age of Rousseau to our own age of anger” Mishra’s work is rich with political philosophy that chronicles the present through past by exploring and reinterpreting the modern intellectual history. In his pursuit of exhibiting the history of modernisation as “one of carnage and bedlam”, Mishra invokes Enlightenment thinkers, such as Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu and Tocqueville. In doing so, the author engages at length with the opposing political thought and reflections of Voltaire and Rousseau, who shared a “rarely disguised” violent and lengthy animosity with each other. While Voltaire denounced Rousseau as a “tramp who will like to see the rich robbed by the poor”, Rousseau, in turn, wrote to Voltaire in 1760, “I hate you”, going further to assault nearly everything that Voltaire wrote.

Pankaj Mishra <em>Age of Anger: A History of the Present</em> Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017

Pankaj Mishra
Age of Anger: A History of the Present
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017

“The gulf between Voltaire and Rousseau was intellectual, moral, temperamental and fundamentally political,” writes Mishra. Much like the Enlightenment philosophers, Voltaire was an unequivocal top-down moderniser; Rousseau, on the other hand, is identified as the first spokesman of modernity’s victims, the poor. Contrary to Voltaire, Rousseau identified “a whole schema of modernity in which power flows unequally to a networked elite, especially a smug Republican of Letters that actively accentuates social differences at home while pursuing fantasies of universal transformation abroad.” Driven by their “two views on progress”, Voltaire exhorted the Russian Empress Catherine the Great to teach European Enlightenment at gunpoint to the Poles and Turks. Opposing this, Rousseau believed that liberty was not inherent in any form of government, and instead resides in the heart of the free man. Expressing his dislike for both, Joseph de Mistre, the Catholic monarchist, described Voltaire as someone who “undermined the political structure by corrupting morals, and Rousseau, as a person driven by a certain plebeian anger that excites him against every kind of superiority.”

Contextualising the “Two Views on Progress” in recent times, we observe a kind of historical resonance, where the past unfolds and manifests itself in different forms of hierarchies and ressentiment. As people encounter modernisation and the loss of tradition, the clamorous modern political life suggests a recapitulation of some of the most violent events in modern history – “from the Vandals in Roman North Africa” to “Islam-centric accounts of terrorism” to white nationalists’ repellent xenophobia. In the act of ‘othering’ the statesmen, then and now, in order to procure and secure their position among the aggrieved children of modernity, have resorted to exclusionary politics. Adolf Hitler’s promise to “make Germany great again”, resonates in the US today, with Trump pledging to “Make America Great Again.” This kind of invocation of nationalism of making a country ‘great again’ and its demonisation of the ‘other’ is “more than ever before, a mystification, if not a dangerous fraud.”

Given the current political climate, Age of Anger is compelling and timely. The book is a peek into Mishra’s mind which further establishes him as an intellectual but certainly not as an “heir to Edward Said,” as remarked by The Economist. The banality of such comparisons not only does injustice to the author but also to the theorist upon whose argument the author builds up his narrative. Convincing in its arguments, the book suffers from serious detouring in writing, sometimes reading like a tour of the author’s reading list. As the reader peruses the rich intellectual history of philosophers that Mishra discusses, there emerges a sudden digression in the argument that takes to the failures of globalisation, the phenomenon of ISIS and Hindu nationalism, leaving the reader confused and struggling with the narrative.

While Mishra’s book is worth reading, it is, in its essence, a continuation of the earlier critiques of the western liberal order and of the current malaise that afflicts the world today. Rich in its intellectual insights, the book adds to the wealth of available knowledge on the subject of blood-stained history, with nothing particularly new to offer to counter or deal with this.

While the current political climate of “cultural supremacism, populism and rancorous brutality” is worrisome, the future, which lies with us, will require, as Mishra writes, “some truly transformative thinking, about both the self and the world.” As the streets in every quarter of the world swell with protesters against the brutalities of “strong statesmen” of today, from Syria to America to India, Mishra’s book leaves us wondering: Will the ageless anger be our future or will we be able to embark on an angerless age?

Adil Bhat is assistant editor with New York-based magazine Café Dissensus. His work has been published in Himal South Asia, The Wire, Kindle, Kashmir Ink, Greater Kashmir, Kashmir Reader, Kashmir Life and Café Dissensus.

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