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Book review: Age of Anger, by Pankaj Mishra

age of angerThe world turned ugly in 2016. That’s an observation I frequently hear. Something broke, and we’re still trying to work out exactly what and why. Age of Anger: A history of the present is an attempt to account for the “simmering reservoirs of cynicism, boredom and discontent” that characterise our modern world.

Mishra’s interest is in tracing the philosophical lineage of current ideas. Who’s been reading whom? What thinkers and rabble-rousers lie behind today’s rash of nationalist agitators? We start with the enlightenment figures of Voltaire and Rousseau, with their contrasting visions of individual freedom on the one hand, and social responsibility on the other. The book then rolls these ideas forward as they influenced the Russian golden age under Catherine the Great, the French Revolution, and German romanticism.

These ideas of reason, rights and a new humanity then collide with the industrial revolution, which singularly fails to deliver. The wealth goes to the factory owners, and many workers feel a whole lot less free than before. New enemies begin to give rise to anarchist and communist alternatives. We go on through the nation building and empire, the World Wars, post-colonialism, globalisation, radical Islam and on to today.

None of this is linear and straightforward – X to Y to Z. Ideas clash and rebound like balls on a pool table. X may follow Y, but it draws on M, tweaks this bit of D, disagrees with K and so over-emphasises P. That Mishra holds all these connections together in his head is quite a feat. Whether the reader can follow it is another matter, and I found the book exhausting in its endless referencing of thinkers. In one paragraph we learn that Foucault admired Khomeini, who was in the tradition of Mazzini, but borrows Maududi’s notion of state power, who was in turn inspired by Lenin.

If that’s not enough, the book drops in further references in its adjectives, with a ‘Burkean warning’ here or a ‘Hannibalic oath’ there. Exotic ‘eans’ and ‘isms’ abound, from ‘Saint-Simonians’ to ‘pseudo-Fichteans’. There’s a cast of thousands to keep in mind. The book would really have benefited from a who’s who at the back, or as a center insert.

Another problem – for me at least – is that the book is far more concerned with thought than events. We get exhaustive detail about who read whom and what they drew inspiration from, but unless you happen to know what then transpired, it can be a bit vague. Sometimes the author merely insinuates that something important happened, and assumes we all know what it was. A long passage on German romanticism hints that the year 1813 may be significant, which I then have to go and look up, because we didn’t cover the War of Liberation and the Campaign of the Sixth Coalition in my American high school. It would have been helpful to have at least named the event, saving me the indignity of Googling ‘things that happened in Germany in 1813’ like a noob.

Thankfully I have Wikipedia handy to join the dots for me, and when Mishra’s scholarship and reading come together, it can crystallize into intriguing patterns. As he describes it, he is exploring “a particular climate of ideas”, and aiming to “reveal some historically recurring phenomena.” In the late 1800s the big fear was anarchism, with terrorists blowing up the Paris stock exchange and assassinating world leaders. Torture became acceptable again in response, and crackdowns and repression followed. The threat of Islamic terrorism has been used in similar ways. In India, Prime Minister Modi’s philosophy of Hindu superiority has echoes of nationalist movements in Italy and Germany.

Much of our current anger, Mishra suggests, lies in the failed promise of modernism and consumerism, the resentment that rises from the gap between our desires and our ability to fulfil them. This expresses itself in different ways, and Mishra shows the common roots behind quite different expressions of rage: “The trolls of Twitter as much as the dupes of ISIS lurch between feelings of impotence and fantasies of violent revenge.” Billions of people have been left behind, demoralized and disenfranchised, with no particular focus for their anger. In that context, politicians can easily turn the blame to other religions or races. “The appeal of the demagogue lies in their ability to take a generalized discontent, the mood of drift, resentment, disillusionment and economic shakiness, and transform it into a plan for doing something. They make inaction seem morally degrading. And many young men and women become eager to transform their powerlessness into a irrepressible rage to hurt or destroy.”

If you want solutions or ways forward, the book has nothing to offer. What Age of Anger does is alert us to the resurgence of old ideas, and where they took us last time – hopefully in time for us to avoid repeating those old mistakes. It’s a profound and timely book. It’s also one that expects a lot from the reader.

2 comments

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