Review of Pankaj Mishra, 2017, Age of Anger: A History of the Present, Allen Lane.
In a recent brief article titled “On Rages, Disgusts and Nauseas” the Argentine philosopher María Julia Bertomeu evokes Aristotle’s thoughts on anger when discussing the nauseating, infuriating “constant lying” of her country’s rulers, and singles out some important distinctions Aristotle makes in his Nicomachean Ethics. Anger isn’t a bad thing per se. It“partially listens” to argument but there are different kinds of anger and some are vindictive. “We call bad-tempered those who are angry at the wrong things, more than is right, and longer, and cannot be appeased until they inflict vengeance or punishment”(Book IV). In his stimulating, sobering and sometimes amusingly pithy Age of Anger: A History of the Present, Pankaj Mishra’s focus is modernity rather than antiquity so he doesn’t discuss Aristotle. Shocked by two recent events in particular, Brexit and Donald Trump’s election campaign, he is concerned with people who are full of ressentiment, the vengeful ones in a contemporary version of what Aristotle was describing.
Mishra’s angry people are those who have been left behind in the “advances” of modernity, and cheated by rampant individualism in which something calledindividual freedom is celebrated in a neoliberal global economy which is steadily stripping away basic freedoms from all but a very few. But the dispossessed tend to be more enraged at what has befallen them than at the people and institutions responsible for their woes, partly because the guilty parties have plenty of resources, including a pliant media, to cover their tracks. In his account of the warping of socialconcepts in the cauldron of modern economic “progress” and the resultant shaping of today’s angry, violent people Mishra goes back to eighteenth-century France, describing how western patterns (set by, and in response to the Enlightenment, imperialism, and the industrial revolution, for example) were repeated around the world when “modernization”—no smooth process but one of “carnage and bedlam”—was imposed in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Today’s form of all this, “a global turn to authoritarianism and toxic forms of chauvinism”, has elicited a logical but destructive human response of retaliation against such a system.
Mishra’s history of ideas runs from Rousseau, to the Romantics, the Russian nihilists, D’Annunzio and radicals like Bakunin, to name a few. Beneath today’s simplistic “layer of quasi-religious rhetoric” lurk
[…] deep intellectual and psychological affinities that the gaudily Islamic aficionados of ISIS’s Caliphate share with D’Annunzio and many other equally flamboyant secular radicals in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: the aesthetes who glorified war, misogyny, and pyromania; the nationalists who accused Jews and liberals of rootless cosmopolitanism and celebrated irrational violence; and the nihilists, anarchists and terrorists who flourished in almost every continent against a background of cosy political-financial alliances, devastating economic crises and obscene inequalities (10-11).
Some critics are unhappy with the connections he finds between radical Islamic thinkers and European critics of Enlightenment rationalism, between Rousseau and Timothy McVeigh, ISIS and Trump. In India, Mohandas Gandhi (at least to begin with) and Vinayak Savarkar, were influenced by Mazzini, but in very different ways. For Gandhi his ideas meant community and a network of moral obligations, while in Savarkar, who conspired in Gandhi’s assassination, they inspired the chauvinism of the Hindutva (the Hindu Volk) movement of which the extremist Narendra Modi is a terrifying recent product, supported by rich and poor alike thanks to a “lurid narrative of Muslims humiliating Hindus” (257). Thishighly complex account of the roots of violence, and perhaps even the end of “civilization” as we have hitherto fantasized it, may be indigestible for some but it is also nourishing food for thought for anyone who reads it attentively. It’s not an easy read, but it’s not an easy subject either. And, given the subject, “easy” probably wouldn’t be a good thing.
Timothy McVeigh didn’t have to read Rousseau to be influenced by some of his ideas in whatever distorted form they’ve come down to us. Perhaps the longing for rational, uncomplicated, prêt-à–porterexplanations of everything only heightens the helpless bewilderment of many who are horrified by the havoc irrational humankind is wreaking on this planet and against its own and other species. Indeed, McVeigh is a good place to start as an instructive embodiment of the anger Mishra is talking about. On 19 April, 1995 Timothy McVeigh set off two bombs in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, and just below a day care centre. He killed 168 people (19 of them children) and injured nearly 700 more. A white, middle-class, former US soldier, a “domestic terrorist”—and accordingly depicted as a disturbed “lone wolf” and not among the usual suspects, the evil “aliens”—he is extracted from the context of his social environment and depicted as the kind of psycho an otherwise civilized system unfortunately throws up from time to time.
However, as Mishra insists, McVeigh saw himself as a “noble survivalist” (a figure clearly reflected in World Economic Forum reports talking about the “resilient” as opposed to the “redundant” members of society, especially in its 2016 Report). A list of grievances he cited in his trial includes, “the FBI raid on Waco, Texas, US military actions against smaller nations, no-knock search warrants, high taxation and gun-control laws” (277). These items should raise questions, not so much about the mass murderer’s state of mind but about the society he is so angry with that he destroys hundreds of lives to make his point. He quotes Jefferson and Locke, in the latter case, “I have no reason to suppose that he who would take away my liberty, would not, when he had me in his power, take away everything else” (277). He is a frontier-man defender of freedom and, as Mishra points out, “In America, it was never a sign of extremism to believe that the government is the greatest enemy of individual freedom” (283). And neither does believing that our institutions are enemies of freedom necessarily mean you’re a loose-cannon crackpot. Wouldn’t the World Bank be an enemy of the freedom of a lot of people? In its zeal to make the world safe for capitalism, it is now saying that creditor states should do away with basic rights so that workers won’t be altogether abolished (but merely reduced to a freedomless zombie-like existence) by automation.
For McVeigh, politics was a “zero-sum game of all or nothing with few moral restraints, while inciting disaffected individuals worldwide into copycat acts of extreme violence…” (284). He was no loner in understanding this and, indeed, before being executed in 2001, he befriended Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, who masterminded the first (failed) attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, aiming to kill 250,000 people. Like McVeigh, Yousef presented himself as a righteous avenger when he spoke of killing civilians at his trial in 1998: “You went to more wars than any country in this century, and then you have the nerve to talk about killing innocent people.” His context is one in which, not long afterwards, the so-called war on terror “aimed to abolish war as an institution with specific laws and rules…[It] criminalized the enemy and put him beyond the pale of humanity” (124). It had allowed Madeleine Albright’s unruffled response in December 1996 (when she was US Secretary of State) to a question on “60 Minutes” about one of the awful statistics of US sanctions against Iraq, the “sacrifice” of approximately 500,000 Iraqi children: “the price–we think the price is worth it”.Aside from lex talionis implications, these words spoken by Yousef are true and could be pronounced by any ethically sound citizen indignant at the atrocities being committed by his or her leaders.
What both Timothy McVeigh and Ramzi Ahmed Yousef understand all too well is that real-world politics is not ares publica, a public affair, a commonwealth, or a democratic republic. However, the ensuing rage only “partially listens” to argument, and red mists of fury in the “age of anger” veil the fact that what should be inquired into and rectified is the “global turn to authoritarianism” (aka “security”). The world’s disaffected people, without power or social and economic wherewithal, lash out against other victims because they feel alone, abandoned and impotent, and can’t even begin to understand or contemplate changing the system itself. Theirs is a similar mentality to that of Trump voters who thought he’d be a “wrecking ball” to bring down “the system”, without understanding that “the system” is basically people like him, the notorious 1% who are well out of their reach (they even have bunkers in remote places with helicopters and sniper towers for when the apocalypse finally comes). And now Trump is ensconced as chief stoker of the flames of ressentiment, fuelling them with xenophobia, attacks on the media and the (other) establishment, and exalting lies and greed.
Was McVeigh’s mental state emphasized in order to draw attention away from the arbitrary power he objects to? Was he really a Bakunin-style monad who “severed every link with the social order and the entire civilized world”? No. His religion was “science” and he wasn’t indifferent to the irony that he faced the death sentence when he’d once “got medals for killing people” in cold blood, in what was called a “turkey-shoot” in Iraq: “I didn’t kill them in self-defense… these were human beings, even though they speak a different language and have different customs” (280).
One of the disturbing points that Mishra drives home is that Enlightenment ideas and those of their opponents can be brandished by both progressive and reactionary causes, so Romantic nationalism spawned Nazism and Fascism but it also bolstered the processes of decolonization, although the price was that democratic liberalism (which was neither democratic nor liberal, at least in the sense of “unprejudiced”) had to be adopted in the new nations, whose leaders soon learned that they, too, could personally profit from the system. He eschews the “stultifying dualisms” (50) of facile, essentially Eurocentric, conventional divisions of left and right in his efforts to get to the roots of the profound malaise that spawned (and still spawns) movements ranging from fascism to anarchism to nihilism,and people who are alienated from political systems, from other people and from the planet itself, if one is to judge by the rate at which humans are wrecking it. In doing so he pinpoints one of the great intellectual and moral problems today: ideological frameworks. “Clashing by night, the ignorant armies of ideologues endow each other’s cherished self-conceptions and projected spectres with the veracity they crave. But their self-flattering oppositions collapse once we cease to take them at face value and expose the overlaps between them” (50).
Crossing disciplinary bounds, Mishra’s absorbing history of the entanglement of modern political ideas shouldn’t be dismissed as practising what one reviewer ungenerously called “Ideengeschichte, a method of approaching the past that treats prominent, “big-name” thinkers as representatives of wider historical trends and interprets the present through a genealogy of their writings instead of situating them in the material and cultural context of their own time”. The Age of Anger is a most admirable, truly painstaking attempt to understand thorny questions like, how was it that Timothy McVeigh and Ramzi Ahmed Yousuf found fellowship in justifying their acts of terror in almost humanitarian terms? The point Mishra makes with his wide-ranging history of ideas and their disastrous consequences is that “such chance encounters and coincidences have defined the global arena since the 1840s; they constituted a kind of globalization from below […]” (285).
This book presentsa constant challenge, coming from many angles of the project of modernity. If today’s discontents understand that the assumption that the system of modern liberalism that followed the Enlightenment is the best of all possible worlds—as trumpeted in the influential clash-of-civilizations (or “West is best”) dogma—is dangerously arrogant, then readers are invited to understand that present forms of violence aren’t aberrations. They belong to a global system that is taking no society along any path of freedom, justice, dignity and reason. Because of its foundations in an often criminal accumulation of economic and political power in very few hands, it cannot but head for more and more institutionalized and retaliatory violence and all kinds of injustice. Mishra unflinchingly, with his usual unusual combination of depth, breadth and intellectual courage, tackles the aetiology of the pathologies of this much-touted system.
The really big question behind all this is what kind of social structure can beget and tolerate such things? And, once this is established, what can be done about it? To return to Aristotle, he observes in the Nicomachean Ethics (Book II, 1109a.27), that “[…] anyone can get angry—that is easy—[…] but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for every one, nor is it easy”. So how do we get angry “in the right way”? First, moral psychology is one thing and it is important to understand what anger is and where it comes from. But nuts-and-bolts thinking is also required. Yes, it is difficult to identify the causes of discontent which, essentially economic, are masked in cultural forms. Nevertheless, thorough knowledge is needed about institutional designs and embedded social structures in order to put a stop to, and prevent in the future the situations that are making people so desperately angry that they commit the most horrible crimes: the greed, lies, arrogance and authoritarian brutality of politicians, and the corollary of marginalization and even condemnation to redundancy of large swathes of the population (refugees, working poor, minorities, to begin with). We must unearth the mechanisms of inequality that is so gross, so shameless that in 2017 the richest 1% owned more than half the world’s wealth, and it’s not stopping there because they also own the means of production. We need to know which laws, declarations and institutions, already in place, supposedly protect us and, for example, to see through the perversion of the way in which human rights are currently wielded, understand the radical nature of universal rights, and claim them. If they really were for everyone, then everyone would enjoy the most basic right of all, the guaranteed means of material existence (with, say, a universal basic income funded by progressive tax measures, the best possibility we have so far). If the rights set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or, let’s say, the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man, really were respected, racism and exclusion would theoretically become history, as would abuse of the state’s repressive machinery because, as the latter document (Article 12) prescribes, it would be “established for the good of all and not for the personal advantage of those to whom they shall be intrusted”.
At the end of his book, Mishra calls for“some truly transformative thinking, about both the self and the world” (346). He has done the groundwork, has sounded a clarion wakeup call. The “surplus population” of 185,000 displaced, abandoned people in the Kakuma refugee camp of the Turkana Desert may be able to think transformatively but they can’t speak out. But a lot of us do have the means to try to take up Pankaj Mishra’s moral challenge.