Feb/Mar 2017

All the Rage

Pankaj Mishra's global history of political anger

Eric Banks


Age of Anger:

A History of the Present

by Pankaj Mishra

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

$27 List Price

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It didn't take long following the first utterance of those dreadful four words almost no one expected to hear—president-elect Donald Trump—for political shock to give way to an onslaught of analyses of how an event so recently unimaginable had been hiding in plain sight. Like the banking crisis in 2008 and the terrorist attacks of 2001, the surprise was amplified by the sense that all our certainties—political, economic, cultural—seemed to melt before our eyes. While some commentators focused on the short term and the days, weeks, and months leading up to the election, most played the long game, mining the mix of uncomfortable truths and complacent thinking that had festered over the course of decades and looking to the past to understand the present. The glance backward fueled a handful of Amazon sales runs, from Richard Rorty's book-length essay predicting a right-wing ascendancy (Achieving Our Country, 1998) to Sinclair Lewis's dystopian novel of American-style fascism (It Can't Happen Here, 1935).

Pankaj Mishra's valiant attempt to come to terms with our moment may extend the classics boom even further back, at least to the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Dedicating his new book to a reanalysis of Enlightenment thought, Mishra identifies a deep and global anger that continues to inflect aggrieved agents on a number of continents. He pointedly argues that you can't understand the populist fury and racial rage of the new Right without a proper sense of the history of modernity's losers. Cutting across space as well as time, he also notes that the scary turn in European politics over the past year didn't occur in a vacuum, sealed off from the violent cultural nationalisms and apocalyptic projects across Asia and the Middle East.

Mishra's ambitious tracing of the philosophical roots of global political outrage situates the current moment within the long history of ressentiment, the moralizing and self-righteous revenge of those without power. In Rousseau's complex articulation of what would become, in the centuries to follow, a philosophically piquant notion, Mishra finds a point of departure for a modern sense of victimhood that crosses geographic boundaries, from jihadists and Hindu nationalists to ukip Brexiters and alt-right Trump voters. If Mishra's philosophical net seems awfully wide, his long view of modernity and its discontents is also provocative, providing a broadly conceived idea of how the conditions of political outrage and its often aestheticized expression have developed over the past three hundred years.

Mishra's account of current global convulsions finds strong antecedents in the violent energies unleashed in cultures and societies as diverse as czarist Russia, Bismarckian Germany, and the Italy of unification. He argues that the revolutionary, messianic urges that turned Russian students in the 1800s into nihilists and impelled them to startling eruptions of violence still have much to teach us about the spleen of jihadists in 2017. More than that, they seem remarkably familiar. The end-of-history nostrums of our recent past have blinded us to this lesson, and Mishra's book is a tonic reminder that the paroxysms of modernity didn't come to an end after all in 1989. We'll need new philosophical frameworks to understand the phenomenon of political anger in a global perspective; what's fascinating about Mishra's novel reading is that it draws on familiar philosophical and literary touchstones while turning them on their head.

As with Mishra's earlier writings and criticism, Age of Anger is especially scornful of clash-of-civilizations theorists and West-versus-the-rest apologists, who see the political anger of the Middle East as confined to one part of the world. They read terror and violence through the binary lens of West and East, developed and unintegrated, modern and fundamentalist. Their chauvinistic accounts rarely consider how disruptive modernity was for European societies themselves. In 2011, writing in the London Review of Books, Mishra eviscerated Niall Ferguson's Civilization, a triumphalist account of Western ascendance, as a "gallimaufry" and its author as a "retailer of emollient tales about the glorious past," resulting in threats of a libel suit. If anything, in the past half decade, Mishra's impatience with such attempts at understanding the eruption of violent mass movements underwritten by a sense of victimhood has grown more pungent. It isn't difficult to see why: The neoliberal agenda is in ruins. While many post–Berlin Wall assumptions held that open markets and global trade, coupled with democratizing technological achievements, would lead inevitably to a withering away of politics, including the politics of anger, these ideas now seem quaint at best and dangerous as a theory of human action. The fairy-tale appeal of a world of markets, Mishra argues, is a great goad to tribalist agendas across the planet. "Gun-owning truck drivers in Louisiana have more in common," Misha writes, "with trishul-wielding Hindus in India, bearded Islamists in Pakistan, and nationalists and populists elsewhere, than any of them realize."

Click to enlarge

Still from a YouTube video made by the Georgia Security Force III% militia as a declaration of war on ISIS.

Such alignments of partners in anger recur throughout the book, which presents a gallery of "forgotten conjunctures" since the Enlightenment: from the nineteenth-century Russian literary reactionaries to the staggering splendor of London's Crystal Palace, to the bombastic rabble-rousing of the poet Gabriele D'Annunzio's ill-fated attempt to establish a duchy in the Italian city of Fiume, to the odd friendly association between Timothy McVeigh and Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, the mastermind of the first World Trade Center bombing, in a supermax prison in Colorado. Mishra seems aware that the scope of his project creates unlikely bedfellows, but he hopes to restore a fuller appreciation of the global flow of ideas and to reinstate what he argues was written out of the self-congratulatory markets-and-freedom rhetoric of the neoliberal era: a robust taste for the vagaries of history and an appreciation for human complexity, including the fact that individuals don't necessarily act in rational ways. What he is after, he writes, is "a particular climate of ideas, a structure of feeling, and cognitive disposition, from the age of Rousseau to our own age of anger."

Using Rousseau as the starting point, Mishra emphasizes the philosopher's "severe maladjustment"—he was a proud outsider to the salonist world of his Enlightenment confreres and a hater of Voltaire. The philosophers' opposition serves in miniature to foreground a battle of ideas still unfolding today. He juxtaposes Voltaire's celebration of the London Stock Exchange—as a would-be leveling place of social harmony, where, as Voltaire wrote, "Jew, Mohammedan and Christian deal with each other as though they were all of the same faith"—with Rousseau's countering dissent that "financial systems make venal souls," reducing freedom to a commodity. Where Voltaire pursued liberty as an end in itself, Rousseau warned against "reason without wisdom, and pleasure without happiness." As the Enlightenment paradigm spread east, Voltaire turned himself into a patron saint of the secular Russian aristocracy, urging Catherine to battle against infidel Turkey and backward Poland, while Rousseau encouraged the Polish to proudly construct a patriotic program and form a citizens' militia complete with national costume.

Rousseau's place in the history of anger ramified across the nineteenth century. Mishra plumbs the work of the philosopher's German heirs and sees their fetishism of culture and Bildung as their contribution to the subsequent career of ressentiment. He outlines how the German reception of ressentiment as a philosophical concept would prove crucial in Nietzsche's famous elaboration of it as the centerpiece of his own moral philosophy. Rousseau, too, loomed like a specter over the Russian intelligentsia that spawned men both superfluous and underground. The scope of Age of Anger is ambitious, and rather than an exacting account of intellectual history, it offers a kind of vast cultural portrait. The result is what is at once most fascinating and exasperating about Mishra's project: In fusing biography and historical survey, as he successfully did in his 2012 From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia, his story vacillates between sweeping perspective and intimate detail, and the push and pull of long history and close-up viewpoint sometimes give the book a herky-jerky pace. Nevertheless, it's a brilliant work, and a glance at the voluminous research agenda that produced it—outlined in a biographical essay spanning twenty-five-pages, a coda unusual outside a scholarly monograph—gives a hint at how much material Mishra has digested in a relatively modest tome.

On the page, that expansiveness translates into portraits of figures both familiar (Herder, Fichte, Mazzini) and much less so (Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the chief ideologue of Hindu nationalism; Sergei Nechaev, the single-minded Russian anarchist who inspired Dostoyevsky's Demons). Above all it is capable of integrating a great number of figures in order to make insightful historical leaps across a surprising range of domains. (And if some of those leaps seem anachronistic, that's in large part because many contemporary movements, for example the revival of identity-based projects, are themselves strangely anachronistic.) Like the somewhat quixotic cultural-nationalistic projects shared by many of the neo-populists—Mishra includes Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's plans to build a mosque in Cuba (based on the claim that Muslims settled the island ahead of Columbus) and the yoga cults exploited by Indian prime minister Narendra Modi—there is a sense throughout The Age of Anger that the present has become unmoored and history is out of whack. It may be the case that this is nothing less than the time signature of our own age of anger.

The globalism of the past three decades has made it seem like the world has shrunk. Meanwhile, the experience of instantaneity, brought on by technological advances, has become the defining characteristic of contemporary life. But that notion isn't unique to the digital moment. In the 1840s, Tocqueville was astonished at the rapidity with which the world was being unified: "Do you know what is happening in the Orient? An entire world is being transformed." A century later, Hannah Arendt observed that "for the first time in history, all peoples on earth have a common present."From this sort of eternal and global present, it perhaps is no surprise that tribalists of all stripes would desire to re-create fantastic origins of dubious substance. It gives all the more urgency to Mishra's own look at the forms political anger has taken in the past, for his roster of victimized protagonists may offer us an unfortunate preview of the planet's future.

Eric Banks is the director of the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU.

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February 13, 2017
10:09 pm

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February 14, 2017
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February 16, 2017
2:40 pm

The insurgencies of our time, including Brexit and the rise of the European far right, have many local causes – but it is not an accident that demagoguery appears to be rising around the world. Savage violence has erupted in recent years across a broad swath of territory: wars in Ukraine and the Middle East, insurgencies from Yemen to Thailand, terrorism and counter-terrorism, economic and cyberwar. The conflicts, not confined to fixed battlefields, feel endemic and uncontrollable. Hate-mongering against immigrants and minorities has gone mainstream; figures foaming at the mouth with loathing and malice are ubiquitous on old and new media alike.

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February 20, 2017
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February 23, 2017
11:20 pm

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February 23, 2017
11:31 pm

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