Monday, February 13, 2017

Age of Anger: A History of the Present by Pankaj Mishra

Published February 2017. Title captures the key point.
Here’s an idea for a history professor who teaches a class in European Thought from the Age of Enlightenment to the advent of the First World War. You give this question as the take-home exam:

Identify a trend in European thought that spread throughout the continent and beyond that has a connection to events in the contemporary world. Identify the trend and explain how this trend relates to significant contemporary events.

I imagine that something like this popped into the head of Pankaj Mishra, and the Age of Anger is his answer to this challenge. Our imaginary professor need not look further than this brilliant book to find an “A” answer.

In this book, Mishra looks at terrorism, rising popular frustrations, and the shift toward populist politics, ardent nationalism, and autocratic rulers in the contemporary world. In Mishra’s book, we see connections between Islamic terrorists, Hindu nationalists, Brexit, and Trump voters. Each group manifests a fundamental rebellion against the social and economic—and therefore political—strictures of modernity and its most forceful representative, global capitalism. Others have identified these contemporary connections, but Mishra reaches back to the Enlightenment in 18th century France to see how the foremost nation of the age understood modernity and how it responded to the changes modernity imposed upon individuals and societies. Mishra focuses on the leading figure of the French Enlightenment, Voltaire, and its leading critic, Rousseau. European politics after 1789 can be viewed as a continuation of the battles of the French Revolution, and in the same way, European social and political thought can be seen as a continuation of the contending viewpoints of Rousseau and Voltaire.

Voltaire: more famous at the beginning
Rousseau: greater influence, larger image

Mishra traces the history of Rousseau’s thought as it emigrated to Germany and captured the attention of Herder and the Romantic movement. Germany was late to industrial development and late to nationhood, but it made up for its lost time with a vengeance. Mishra also charts the course of Rousseau’s thought and its attendant nationalism into Italy, which also came late to statehood and only falteringly to industrial capitalism.  And Mishra looks at Russia, its nationhood achieved, but sorely lagging in the cultural and economic markers of modernity. In each nation, throughout Europe (with Great Britain a significant outlier), the demands of modernity and modern industrial capitalism tore the social fabric and created a backlash among those unable to realize the prizes offered by capitalism. In short, a backlash occurred beginning with the French Revolution and continuing through the First World War to now. While the working class struggled for basic living conditions, the intellectual class struggled with the indignities and frustrations that this system built upon mimetic desire created. Mishra examines the work of a variety of continental thinkers in this period, Herder, Proudhon, Marx, Bakunin (anarchist), Mazzini (Italian nationalist), Dostoevsky, Tocqueville, and Nietzsche, to name some of the most prominent writers who addressed these issues. Also, Mishra discusses the spread of these lines of thought through other parts of the world, including Islamic civilization, India, and China, which, in seeking to throw off the yoke of Western imperialism, adopted and modified Western thinking both modern and anti-modern.

But don’t think that this is merely an account of abstract thinkers. Mishra’s book also recounts the violence spawned by these thinkers and others like them. From the French Revolution to the Revolutions of 1848 to the anarchist bombings and assassinations of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, violence plagued Europe, the U.S., and the rest of the world. And while the two world wars and the cold war placed a damper on much of this ferment, it erupted again after the end of the Cold War. Whether large scale killings like those in Bosnia, or acts of terrorism like the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building and the World Trade Center, in Mishra’s account, it’s all of a single cloth. Indeed, the physical proximity of Timothy McVeigh, U.S. Army veteran, and Ramzi Yousef, mastermind of the first World Trade Center attack (1993), represents the similarity of their characteristics. Yousef claimed the mantle of Islam, and McVeigh claimed no religion other than “science,” but both held a deep-seated grievance against the existing order.

The common bond of this tale of violence is ressentiment, frustration, powerlessness, and humiliation. These feelings provide the motivation for both the angry words and the violent deeds that seek to destroy the system, to remake the world. Note that as I write this, a self-proclaimed “Leninist” who want to bring down the system, Stephen Bannon, sits at the right hand of our demagogic president. I fear it events could become uglier more quickly than we can imagine.

Mishra is a native of India and resides currently in London. He is conversant in both worlds. In An End to Suffering: the Buddha in the World, which I read some years ago, I noted how well he moved between the Buddhist tradition and the Western tradition. His mastery of the material of the “exam question” that he gave in himself in Age of Anger is also exemplary. (He provides a thorough bibliographical essay to show where he has been in this research. It’s impressive.)

More than any other source dealing with the Age of Trump, I found Mishra’s account provides the most useful guide because it reaches back in time and around the globe. I agree with Mishra that economic turmoil and uncertainty, threats such as climate change (which some deny but still no doubt fear), and the ongoing frustrations and humiliations perceived by far too many have created our volatile political climate. Like me, he looks around the world and sees millions and millions of young men [sic] who are encountering frustrated expectations as economic growth inevitably slows and thereby denying opportunities to climb the latter of status and success. Alas, Mishra doesn’t have an answer for all of this. I suspect, like me, that he doesn’t want to crush the benefits of modernity to ameliorate its detriments. But somehow, we have to find our way beyond our current fix, or we will suffer much worse to come. 

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