Book review: “The Age of Anger” by Pankaj Mishra

I will tell you straight away: for those like me who feel that the nineteenth century is unsurpassed in many things, this last book by the Indian novelist and essayist Pankaj Mishra makes for a great read, especially as a cultural history of ideas. The declared purpose of “The Age of Anger”, which carries the subheading “A History of the Present” is to put things into perspective and to understand how it could possibly come to this “great wave of paranoid hatreds” and such ruptures with the liberal world order and as Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and ISIS … Yes, you are seeing right, Brexit, Trump and ISIS all the same breath, because according to the author the root cause of all these phenomena and of the emergence of other “nationalist” movements elsewhere seems to be one: the anger and the ressentiment of the betrayed “masses” at the failed promises of the liberal, “civilized”, educated, progressive and bourgeois world order.

A recurring figure in this book is the French philosopher and novelist Jean-Jacques Rousseau, born in 1712 and probably the “first modern man” as Nietzsche would later call him, because Rousseau was a tormented soul, on one hand one of the most influential intellectuals of his time, on the other one deeply at odds with the intellectual establishment of his time, represented by his rival Voltaire, who served as the embodiment of the age of reason and the civilizing force of commerce. Rousseau, instead, in his “Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts” maintained that civilization did not have a net positive effect on man, making him the slave of the conventions of a fake society and empty materials pursuits. Rousseau, a spiritual father to the German Romantics and other late-comers to modernity, was the first to be animated by resentment at the achievements of a self-loving elite. Voltaire had put it very clearly: “We have never claimed we wanted to enlighten shoemakers and servant girls”.

So similar, yet so different … Voltaire and Rousseau clearly did not like each other a lot

Mishra himself, I have the feeling, enjoys to pose as an outsider: he was born in India and now he is a regular contributor to the Guardian and the New York Review of Books. The rhetoric of colonialism, of the arrogant and modern West destroying more ancient and materially poorer Asian and African cultures in order to expropriate their resources, clearly permeates much of his work. He sees the problems of the ideal of a progressive and, most importantly, liberal society based on capitalism and the freedom of individual enterprise: in theory everybody is equal, but some are more equal than others, to put it briefly. He correctly sees the hubris of a triumphalist global elite who monopolizes public discourse but at the same time he clearly is not ready to depart from the universal cozy bon ton of the liberal etiquette. That in this most liberal and most educated of all ages the promises of democracy, fraternity and equality seem to many no more than empty words does not seem to worry him much after all. The West faces huge problems like a wealth gap between rich and poor never seen before and, particularly in countries like France and Britain, a youth of Muslim background increasingly marginalized in the London or the Paris slums, often waiting to find a sense of purpose by joining the adventure of their life in places like Syria or Libya, but at times Mishra seems to be more disturbed by the reaction of angry white men full of envy against all this than by the problems themselves. In this, he is probably very much like Voltaire: education, progress and prosperity are the finest things in life, but those ignorant masses stink! Mishra will probably object to this, but he, like Atatürk, who single-handedly broke with the Ottoman past and transformed Turkey into a modern state, seems to think that “there are many countries, but there is only one civilization”.

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