Wall Street Journal
Notwithstanding a title that screams of current events, Pankaj Mishra’s “Age of Anger: A History of the Present,” is a book of far greater ambition than its timeliness suggests. Though attentive to all the headline staples—the rise of nationalism and populism, the weakening of liberalism, the threat of virulent strains of radical Islam—Mr. Mishra frames these phenomena as manifestations of a much larger problem. The “age of anger” here is nothing other than modernity itself, as seen through the eyes of those to whom modernity has come late and partially—if indeed it has come at all.
Mr. Mishra’s primary target is the assumption that modernity is synonymous with progress. He traces this view back to the Enlightenment conception of human beings as rights-bearing individuals quite apart from the whims of crown and church. This radical idea spread throughout the West, and then globally, infiltrating the realms of politics, economics, society and culture.
Proponents of modernity, perhaps including most readers of this newspaper, point to the spread of freedom and growing prosperity as a result of market economics, and they are pleased. True, they likely see progress as incomplete, both with regard to its extension around the world and to its development in their own societies. But the direction—forward—isn’t in doubt.
In Mr. Mishra’s view, apologists of modernity are complacent and “self-flattering.” They had the great good fortune to be the initial beneficiaries of “commercial society, the global market economy, the nation state and utilitarian rationality.” For this, the Western (and Westernizing) winners deserve no special credit. In a mistake characteristic of Enlightenment universalism, Mr. Mishra argues, they mistook the advantage they gained from the system for the advantage of the whole world. Meanwhile, the globalizing spread of modernity from its points of origin in Europe and North America caused tremendous disruption of local and traditional patterns of life wherever it went, producing what Mr. Mishra sees as the characteristic trait of modernity: an “existential resentment of other people’s being, caused by an intense mix of envy and sense of humiliation and powerlessness.”
It is this sense of resentment, the defining spirit of the age of anger, that Mr. Mishra spends most of the book exploring. Resentment takes shape right alongside commercial society, in the have-nots’ mimicry of the successful in their ambition to attain success. Whether or not they succeed, that mimicry comes at the cost of a more authentic sense of self. Beginning in earnest in the 18th century and reaching a mass scale by the early 20th, all the talk individuals have heard about the “rights” they supposedly enjoy stands in sharp contrast to the reality of the inequality they experience daily.
For some, the disjunction is intolerable. In Mr. Mishra’s view, this resentment-fueled anger directly connects Leon Czolgosz, the anarchist who assassinated President William McKinley in 1901, to Timothy McVeigh, the perpetrator of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, to the Islamic State beheaders today. Their acts of violence announced “militant secession from a civilization premised on gradual progress under liberal-democrat trustees.” The view that radical Islam is a throwback is mistaken, in Mr. Mishra’s judgment. Rather, it is a thoroughly modern expression of resentment.
Not all such expressions of resentment are violent: The sentiment has had its theorists as well. Mr. Mishra has read them widely, and his book is accordingly something of an intellectual history of the case against modernity.
That history begins with the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who was struck one day by the epiphany that the Enlightenment, rather than having improved the human condition, had actually worsened it. While in Mr. Mishra’s account Rousseau retains the position he has long enjoyed as a central figure of modernity, “Age of Anger” recasts his centrality as a reflection of his broad disaffection: “Many ‘isms’ of the right and the left—Romanticism, socialism, authoritarianism, nationalism, anarchism—can be traced to Rousseau’s writings,” the common element being his grasp on “the incendiary appeal of victimhood in societies built around the pursuit of wealth and power.”
Mr. Mishra sketches as well the thought of such radical Russian thinkers as the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, the socialist Alexander Herzen and the novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, finding them united in discomfort with the modernization and Westernization of Russia under Peter the Great. Modernization likewise propelled the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran and Sayyid Qutb of Egypt, the intellectual godfather of radical Islam. The 19th-century German effort to find exceptional virtue in Das Volk, seized upon by Hitler in the 20th century, was also in large measure a reaction to Germany’s delayed rendezvous with modernity.
Mr. Mishra harbors the prejudice that modernity has failed, is running on fumes and is about to be consumed by the resentment it generates. In his view, globalization simply cannot deliver on the promise of increasing prosperity, and climate change stands as a planetary rebuke to the limitless competitive acquisition he sees at the heart of commercial society. “Age of Anger” intends to undermine the social and cultural premises of democratic capitalism as thoroughly as Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” (2013) sought to undermine the premises of market economics. Neither book, however, offers much detail about what will or should come next, and in light of this common lacuna, they are equally unpersuasive.
As for the cast of characters Mr. Mishra introduces in “Age of Anger,” one must note that generally speaking, and with varying degrees of brilliance—ranging from Nietzsche to McVeigh—they are out of their minds. With regard to their fellow human beings, they end up performing, advocating or excusing unspeakable acts, up to and including murder on a grand scale. Their often powerful but always “reckless minds,” to borrow Mark Lilla’s phrase, turned them into monsters.
Yes, resentment is real, a response to a felt sense of injustice. In this respect, it well predates modernity—see Homer’s account of the row between Agamemnon and Achilles in the “Iliad” or Jesus’s Gospel parable of the vineyard workers. But resentment in the violent form Mr. Mishra limns is only one of many possible responses to such a sense of injustice. Another, the most common, is to pursue a quiet life notwithstanding the fact of injustice. A third, however, is to seek improvement, of self or society or both.
This last underlies the Enlightenment impulse that led to modernity. That’s a story Mr. Mishra knows well but excuses himself from telling in “Age of Anger.”