Age of Anger: A History of the Presentby Pankaj Mishra Published 07 Feb 2017
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One of our most important public intellectuals reveals the hidden history of our current global crisis
Modernity, secularism, development, and progress have long been viewed by the powerful few as benign ideals for the many. Today, however, botched experiments in nation-building, democracy, industrialization, and urbanization visibly scar much of the world.
As once happened in Europe, the wider embrace of revolutionary politics, mass movements, technology, the pursuit of wealth, and individualism has cast billions adrift in a literally demoralized world.
It was from among the ranks of the disaffected and the spiritually disorientated, that the militants of the nineteenth century arose—angry young men who became cultural nationalists in Germany, messianic revolutionaries in Russia, bellicose chauvinists in Italy, and anarchist terrorists internationally.
Many more people today, unable to fulfill the promises—freedom, stability, and prosperity—of a globalized economy, are increasingly susceptible to demagogues and their simplifications. A common reaction among them is intense hatred of supposed villains, the invention of enemies, attempts to recapture a lost golden age, unfocused fury and self-empowerment through spectacular violence.
In Age of Anger, Pankaj Mishra explores the origins of the great wave of paranoid hatreds that seem inescapable in our close-knit world—from American “shooters” and ISIS to Trump, Modi, and racism and misogyny on social media.
"Age of Anger: A History of the Present" Reviews
Like the ghosts of the dead, 2016 is with us. Donald Trump is still with us, Brexit is still with us, the forces of economic anxiety and racial prejudice are still with us, the howls of rage from the dispossessed, across Middle America and the factory towns of North England are still with us, the siren songs of nationalism and protectionism and wall-building and the contempt for cities and the hatred of the educated and the decadent and moderately prosperous and the different are still with us. Pankaj Mishra writes that they have been with us for much longer.
Mishra's thesis, taken broadly, is that the sequence of events in the past quarter century - first the triumph of free market liberalism, and then a sequence of populist movements, resentment, and political violence convulsion, is the most recent stanza of a pattern that has occurred since the 19th century. A society organized around naked self-interest leads to the benefits of a few and the expense of many others. This reaction to the structural inequality of market liberalism, industrialization, and the situation of 'modernity' bubbles over into resentment, tribalism, and often violence.
This is an intellectual history, and Mishra's presentation of 19th century European thinkers showcases some uncomfortable similarities to contemporary anxieties. Revolutionaries, anarchists, xenophobes, have beliefs that are only too familiar, repeated in the anger of some nationalist or extremist today. Take the 'Futurist Manifesto', where Marinetti calls for the destruction of museums, libraries, and contempt of women - too much like ISIS. Think of radical anarchists who set off bombs in public squares and assassinated heads of state as 'propaganda of the deed' is an echo of modern terrorism, in London or Paris. Or, for another example German nationalists who held 'rootless cosmopolitans' and 'finance' in contempt, called for "holy war", and resented the power and influence of their French neighbors. The attempts to create an imaginary golden age - see Bannon or Le Pen talking about how 'strong nations' make 'strong neighbors', or how Jean-Jacques Rousseau idealized Sparta.
This book does not end on an upbeat note, and the author is rightfully suspicious of those who claim to have all the answers. Too many Utopian movements have gone awry for him to make that mistake. But this is a thorough investigation of our times, and one worth thinking about, and then acting on.
All round the planet excitement is mounting as people get ready for the first “World Cup of Ideas” of the 21St Century.
The 20th Century saw this contest held three times, starting with a hard fought championship in France in 1914. The kickoff for the next round was Poland in 1939 while the surprise venue to start the third and final match of the last century was Fulton, Missouri in 1946, starting only a year after the last match had finished.
As always the Liberal-Democrat-Cosmopolitans are expecting to do well, fielding some top notch players known to us all. We should see the highly talented Frenchman Francois-Marie Arouet (better known to his fans by the nickname ‘Voltaire’) take the forward spot. He will be ably supported by mid-field mood-maker Emmanuel Kant playing alongside the solid Jeremy Bentham. Diderot and Montesquie will be out on the wings with the rest of the team made up from other well known players from the Enlightenment League. This is a team that loves to play with ideas and their supporters are expecting great things.
The problem with the Liberal-Democrat-Cosmopolitans (whose fans call them the “Philosophes”) is, of course, identical to the problem faced by Brazilian football team: they are a great team on paper with individual players guaranteed to give 110 percent but they all have their own style of play, rarely work well together and just don’t seem able to maintain the same team-discipline as their main rivals, the Anti-Modernist-Nativist-Authoritarians (to their fans, the ‘Nationalists’). The Nationalists are well known for sticking together and playing ruthlessly on the field even if their individual skills just aren’t at the same level.
A lot of supporters are blaming the recent poor run of the Philosophes on their merger with the Liberal-Capitalist team around thirty years ago. Its certainly true that we’ve seen a lot of shabby tactics from them since then, with players like Adam Smith or John Locke hogging space in front of the goal mouth and not letting the rest of the team get a look in.
This trend has lost the Philosophes a lot of fans. After all, except for some very rich season ticket holders, who wants to go to a match where Voltaire is left in the dressing room while Milton Friedman plays up front? Some of the fan base are so turned off they’ve even gone back to the Socialist-Communist team (known as the “Reds” after their supporters’ favorite color) even though the Reds placed bottom when the last Cup ended in 1989.
Part of the drama of a good World Cup of Ideas is seeing Voltaire up against his arch rival on the Nationalist team, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Knowing that they are both French, that they played head-to-head for top teams in the Enlightenment League while also knowing that they hate each other with a passion off the field just adds to the spectator’s enjoyment.
Although the ‘Nationalists’ have Rousseau on their team the rest of their players are far less well known. We expect to see them field a mixed team with a bias towards German and Italian players: Gabriele D’Annunzio, Giusseppe Mazzini, Joseph-Arthur de Gobineau, Adam Mickiewicz, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Herbert Spencer, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar are all expected to catch the manager’s eye along with a few less well known players.
Just like in previous competitions, this century we expect both the Philosophes and the Nationalists to make a pitch for the controversial but incredibly talented young German player from Saxony in Prussia: Friedrich Nietzsche. Some fans say Nietzsche is good enough to swing the balance in favor of any team he plays for but Nietzsche’s critics complain that its often difficult to tell which side he is actually on. Either way we can be pretty sure he will be taking to the field for this Cup as well.
It’s time to touch on an important subject that comes up in every World Cup of Ideas. That subject is Hooliganism. I am sorry to have to report that, yet again, the offending supporters are all fans of the Nationalist team.
It’s often said that Nationalist fans don’t know and don’t even care who is playing on their side in the World Cup of Ideas because they are just there looking for a fight. It is sad, but true, that if you asked the average Nationalist in the US, the UK, France, India, Turkey or wherever who Giusseppe Mazzini or Johann Gottlieb Fichte is they would struggle to answer you.
Supreme (but often misplaced) confidence in their own team’s abilities doesn’t seem to stop the Nationalist fans playing dirty in the pre-tournament fixtures. In recent years we’ve seen them beating up other fans, taking over the sound system around the pitch and even trying to hack the score board thinking that no one would notice. This behavior has got to stop.
Despite overall poor placing in past matches the Anarchist/Nihilist team (the “Blacks” to their fans) is also expected to be well represented in the up-and-coming Cup.
The Blacks always amuse the crowd with their antics on the field of play given how they love to kick the ball in random directions and are often tackling members of their own team. The can be dangerous to watch though, as they have been known to attack the spectators much like Eric Cantona with his famous drop kick in the 1995 Manchester United v Crystal Palace game. While they might please the crowd their erratic play means the Blacks often disappoint and I wouldn’t put money on them even getting to the semi-finals.
The Reds are still a weak team after their defeat at the end of the last century. They have been steadily losing fans, mainly to the Nationalists and the Blacks. There is even some talk that their star player from Trier in Prussia, Karl Marx, might be waiting for the transfer market to open up so he can make a move to the Nationalists team or even the Philosophes.
As anyone following the World Cup of Ideas knows the choice of venue is still wide open. Europe has always been a popular location ever since the tournament was first held in France in 1789, but where the next championship will start is anyone’s guess.
The leading contender is a brand new location for the fixture: the South China Sea. The Korean Peninsular nearby is also a possible location, as is Kashmir. That perennial favorite “somewhere in the Middle East” is never out of contention.
A few fans have suggested that the next World Cup of Ideas should be a purely domestic fixture held in the US, with a team of Liberal Democrat Cosmopolitans from the coasts (the ‘Liberals’) playing a team of Nativist, Evangelical Authoritarians drawn from the American South and mid-West (the ‘Rednecks’).
This sounds like a rerun of a much earlier Championship of Ideas that kicked off in 1861 in South Carolina but which only had regional match status rather than being a full World Cup. It looks unlikely that the US would be the venue for the very first Cup in the 21st Century, but you never know. If things continue as they are in the US it could well be a venue for the next fixture after that.
Well, that’s just about it for my round up of prospects for the next World Cup of Ideas.
If you would like a more detailed guide to the forthcoming championship then “The Age of Anger” is a great place to start. It has profiles of many of the players and is a good guide to how they performed in earlier matches. It also has a run down of each team’s strengths and weaknesses and useful commentary on how they might perform when the next round starts.
No point sitting on the sidelines anymore. Pick your team and get out there with your support.
This article in The Guardian suggests suggests this book will be well worthwhile.
Also a one hour interview with the author at the RSA is here
This was a fascinating discussion. Very meandering, maybe organization and presentation could've been streamlined so that knocks it down a bit for me. To be fair, given the breadth of the material and ambitious nature of this book it is probably an impossible task. But overall I enjoyed the author's exploration of the intellectual history of "ressentiment" (anger, resentment). His exploration stretches as far back as the French Revolution.
I guess if I had to distill things the main focus here is about anti-systems intellectuals; intellectuals who rebel against the power of the state/power elite, the insipid and empty nature of bourgeois life (as some see it!), the hollowing out of spirit and agency due to the cult of modern materialism/consumerism, inequality and asymmetry of power in society, the sterilized secularized nature of the liberal Enlightenment era. What is the fall-out from these ideas? this kind of thinking can be warped into burn the system down philosophy with a focus on extreme nationalism and xenophobia, a mode of thought that is willing to destroy any and everything (with everything permitted, all crimes permitted so long as ends justify means). Of course for such ideas to take hold the ground amongst the public must be fertile, there must already be wide discontent, anger, economic pain/inequality, cultural revanchist sentiment, the view that society is spiritually dead, anger against entrenched elites who seem to monopolize power (politically, culturally, economically)...
The book goes beyond the intellectual realm and explores individuals and groups who acted on some of these ideas (including terrorists like Timothy McVeigh, elements of Al Qaeda. Symmetry between some of their thinking was surprising to me but in a way makes sense).
I really enjoyed his examination of Rousseau and Voltaire, along with various other contemporaries like de Maistre (I know very little about him, but de Maistre critiqued them both, I've made a note to read more on him). As I understand it, and forgive the flattening of nuance into simple caricatures, but Rousseau struck me as a pretty harsh anti-system, anti-elitist, anti-bourgeois, anti-materialist guy (most of which wasn't really new to me, but my depth of understanding his philosophy is low). What was new to me was Voltaire, I had no idea he was so wealthy and entrepreneurial. So while he was a rationalist, skeptic, etc, based on Mishra's presentation he comes across as an old school neoliberal elitist who looked down upon the masses in his own ways (even though he was locked out from the power elite that had political power, he made up for it with financial and cultural/intellectual power). That was fascinating, given those facts it makes sense why he and Rousseau absolutely hated each other.
I guess when it comes down to it I think both figures are interesting, would love to read more about them and their relationship as well. But to me a guy like Rousseau is more dangerous than a guy like Voltaire, even though both have flaws. And yet I'm firmly of the belief that thinkers like Rousseau are important, guys like him shake things up, inject a bit of passion and excitement back into the intellectual and public realms, challenge the holders of power... but excesses from this kind of character can be incredibly dangerous, can unleash an uncontrollable monster within the public realm. Then again, such ideas only get hold of the public imagination when the public is ripe and angry enough to embrace them, and some of these guys like Rousseau have a real bloodlust that is frightening and can help give frameworks for people to execute campaigns of violence. Although I'm sure when people are motivated/angry enough they can find a reason to destroy regardless of if a guy like Rousseau exists or not. (these are merely my impressions)
There were also major explorations of Russian intellectual thought, especially mid-19th to early 20th century, certainly not a lack of bomb-throwing burn the system type guys in that era! But given that the vast majority were locked out and completely disenfranchised from any shred of power it makes sense that this would be the perfect grounds for such anger. Dostoevsky is endlessly fascinating (read a lot of him when I was younger, want to get back to reading his work, more familiar with his explorations on suffering than his political philosophy). Also exploration of quite a few German thinkers like Nietszche. Nice analysis of the dynamic between France and Germany, both intellectually, politically and the interplay between those who adopted certain French cultural intellectual ideas and those who rebelled against it. And the tension that occurs when there is a dominant hegemonic foreign culture/ideology and the need to define oneself against it and form a counter/counter-vision. Mishra also points out this interesting dynamic in India.
There was a section on Hindu nationalism and the development of modern ressentiment in India. The book gets into some pretty nuanced psychological analysis with both Germany and India, how the dynamics worked between those who adopted certain intellectual ideas from abroad and how it warped them in different ways (not really in ways you'd necessarily expect). Learned quite a bit in this section, that history is somewhat non-linear and multi-factional which was interesting, some of it is somewhat speculative but makes you think.
Basically lots of good stuff. This is a very ambitious book and sure it falls short in a few sections, it is hard to tie everything together. The author has a lot of knowledge, has read a lot, has some very interesting insights. I imagine some people might take issue with some of his analysis, for me it works quite well overall, but even if you don't agree with his analysis the discussion and explorations are fabulous and make it well worth the read.
PS. I thought this was a solid op-ed recently written by Mishra on US situation: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/28/op...
Disclaimer: I did not enjoy this book and I apologize for the lengthy critique, but I had experienced my own 'age of anger' while reading this book.
I gave the book due dilligence and decided to quit reading after 144 pages - something I typically avoid doing. I decided to put the book down because I could not quite get over the structural and style flaws with the work. The following review is of the first 1/3 of the book, but it appeared as though the book wasn't going to get any better.
The tragic part is that I looked forward to reading this book because the concept seems quite interesting and very timely. The world appears to be full of angry individuals and societies. This book's objective - I think - was to explain the sources of this rage and the implications for our modern world.
First of all, I want to say that I believe that the editor of this book failed the author entirely. This, in my opinion, is the reason behind this book being a wasted opportunity to explore a novel concept. I'm not sure if there was a rush to get the book published or the editor not having someone on staff who could wade through the author's prose.
The structure of this book is well, nonexistent. The chapters and sections within chapters are not arranged in any discernible manner. The content is not arranged thematically or chronologically. The content moves back and forth from the past to the present in the space of a paragraph. The author is speaking about a certain author or philosopher at one moment and then erratically moves on to the next subject with little discernible connective tissue. I got the feeling that one does when a child is given the opportunity to show a new person his room; moving excitedly from one object to the next, rapidly (and partially) explaining what something is before moving on to the next thing that catches his eye.
There are so many ways that this book could have been more properly structured. For example, the author could have selected a few regions or countries or groups or individuals to serve as case studies for why they are filled with this contemporary rage. There are so many examples to choose from. Al Quaeda is a great example because bin Laden was upset about how coalition troops were stationed in Saudi Arabia. Talk about how Japan was forced to modernize and trade with the West. Talk about how Arab countries were ashamed because they lost the Six Day War to an Israel backed with Western technology. Talk about how modern Iran has been victim to Western incursions and had their democratically-elected leaders overthrown by foreign coups. Pick a few that suit your aims and talk about how those events impact the present. A few, well-selected, in-depth case studies would have greatly aided in the author's thesis.
Next, this book would have greatly benefitted from inter-disciplinary work. I acknowledge that the author cited numerous philosophical, literary and religious texts. However, very few readers are intimately familiar with the works of Rousseau or Locke. The inclusion of obscure Indian religious texts is assuredly a conceptual bridge too far. What I had in mind in particular was the use of psychology. If you are going to talk about individuals being consumed by rage, it would be beneficial to talk about what occurs physiologically when someone is angry. Why do they become angry? How much is one's environment involved? Are there factors that make individuals more or less susceptible (education, geography, age, socio-economics, genetics, etc) to fits of rage? Perhaps talk about certain people that became consumed with rage (terrorists, politicians, writers, etc) and do a deep-dive into what made them tick.
Another considerable gripe that I have with this book is the overall pedantic vibe that emanates from the pages. Most pages are filled with references to esoteric information, obscure SAT-style words, lesser-known Latin terms in Italics, and B-list historical celebrities. We get it, author - you're a smart guy (or at least someone that has access to a thesaurus set to max difficulty). You don't need to wow me, seriously. I am a firm believer that writers should not water-down their vocabulary when writing. I'm a big boy and can clap-out the challenging words. However, when these vocabulary and reference land mines are interspersed throughout clunky prose, then you do your readers a tremendous disservice.
The statements made by the author throughout the work are haphazardly painted in broad strokes and are unsopported by evidence. For example, what does one make of this statement:
"The early impact on Africa's tradition-minded societies of a West organized for profit and power is memorably summed up by the title of Chinua Achebe's first novel, Things Fall Apart (1958)".
Okay, forget that I, along with most high school students, have read the aforementioned book. The part that I want to know is how does anyone make such a sweeping, non-sensical generalization based on the title of a book? (I did point out that the editor failed this author, right?)
With all that being said, I am in my own 'Age of Anger' after having attempted to read (1/3 of) this book. I feel cheated out of a learning experience on a topic that is urgent and noteworthy. I guess I will have to wait for some other author to come along a produce a more structured, lucid analysis of modern angst.
"They have counterbalanced their loss of nerve before the political challenge of terrorism with overreaction, launching military campaigns, often without bothering to secure the consent of a frightened people, and while supporting despotic leaders they talk endlessly of their superior ‘values’ – a rhetoric that has now blended into a white-supremacist hatred, lucratively exploited by Trump, of immigrants, refugees and Muslims (and, often, those who just ‘look’ Muslim). Meanwhile, selfie-seeking young murderers everywhere confound the leaden stalkers of ‘extremist ideology’, retaliating to bombs from the air with choreographed slaughter on the ground."
We live, as they say, in "interesting times." Many of us are trying to make sense out of what swirls around us. For those, Mishra has a big answer that not only explains the present but spans the past several centuries.
He certainly sees Voltaire as self-interested hypocrite who could preach tolerance while sitting on the laps of dictators. He gives several shout-outs to Rousseau for his exposure of this hypocrisy as well as predicting what would happen if we ventured far down the road of pure capitalism.
Mishra highlights the current world of a small circle of "haves" and a much larger circle of "have-nots." In this larger circle are the dispossessed, the refugees and those without hope for a better life. He points out that much of what we see in ISIS was part of post World War I Italy.
"Today, as alienated radicals from all over the world flock to join violent, misogynist and sexually transgressive movements, and political cultures elsewhere suffer the onslaught of demagogues, D’Annunzio’s secession – moral, intellectual and aesthetic as well as military – from an evidently irredeemable society seems a watershed moment in the history of our present: one of many enlightening conjunctures that we have forgotten."
And I am grateful to him for tying some of the present to elements of the past. We must ask ourselves if our actions or beliefs have contributed to where we find ourselves now. Bakunin and the Russian Revolution is another stop along the trail for Mishra.
"Many of Bakunin’s anarchist and terrorist followers revealed the depth of a revolutionary lust that has broken free of traditional constraints and disdains to offer a vision of the future – a lust that seeks satisfaction through violence and destruction alone. Incarnated today by the maniacs of ISIS, it seems to represent absolute evil. But, as Voegelin once argued: This new absoluteness of evil, however, is not introduced into the situation by the revolutionary; it is the reflex of the actual despiritualization of the society from which the revolutionary emerges. The revolutionary crisis of our age is distinguished from earlier revolutions by the fact that the spiritual substance of Western society has diminished to the vanishing point, and that the vacuum does not show any signs of refilling from new sources."
Yet, in defining the smugness of liberal democracy, Mishra is seemingly at a loss to suggest anything to replace it. He can point out that there is value in "tradition" and a society with religious values may offer some grounding, but whether or not his diagnosis is sound, he seems (after more than 600 pages) unable to define a path to peace and prosperity for more of us.
Thanks, but I could have appreciated this point of view in a more condensed version.
Very well written history on the challenge to modernity by tribalism, romanticism, fascism, and nihilism. It is the complaint against the materialistic modern secular liberal enlightenment dream. It has been countered by these movements since the 1700s in various ugly irrationalities. They seem to flare up just after times when cosmopolitan elites thought they had everything sewed up. It characteristically values tribe, violence, manhood, spirit, action, irrationality, wildness, blood, and soil. It seems these movements have existed as a challenge to the enlightenment rationality and cosmopolitanism and although take different forms in times and places it is the same reactionary retreat from the kingdom of reason. We are in a time where it has the upper hand again be it Brexit, Trump, Modi, Putin the forces of anger are on the march.