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. Continue reading