Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger is a fascinating insight into the intellectual roots of our troubled times. It’s especially interesting on the psychological effects of rapid economic development. Mishra argues, controversially, that the anger we are seeing on the streets of developed and developing countries at the moment is linked closely to the economic and social changes brought about by capitalism – in other words to the successes of the development project over the past 30 years.
There have been so many horrific terrorist attacks in recent months, in the UK and elsewhere: it feels like this level of violence has never been seen before. But imagine a year when a series of murderous bomb attacks is just the beginning. Assassination attempts on heads of state follow; over the course of the next quarter century the rulers of Russia, the US, France, Italy, Austria and Spain are murdered. There are more bomb attacks on the French Stock Exchange and the French Parliament, and Barcelona suffers so many attacks it becomes known as the ‘city of bombs’. Those carrying out the attacks are accused in the press of harbouring a ‘fanaticism bordering on mysticism’, while they themselves believe that only acts of extreme violence can wake the world up and reveal its injustice and oppression. The future of Islamic fundamentalism or white supremacism in the twenty-first century? No – this was the period 1878–1914, the heyday of anarchist revolutionaries in the West.
In 2017, it’s hard not to feel that we are living in unprecedented times. The world seems to be spinning out of control, with ideas and institutions that have been built up over centuries suddenly called into question and threatened with destruction – whether by terrorists, despots or demagogues. But there are deep historical roots to our present troubles, and it’s these roots that Pankaj Mishra wants to explore in Age of Anger. Mishra focuses on the connections between disillusioned and occasionally violent outsiders of our times (Islamic fundamentalists, white supremacists, Hindu nationalists, and even angry voters in the US and the UK) and their counterparts from the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His core argument is that those who want to bring down our current liberal-democratic, capitalist civilisation are drawing on a long tradition of radical critique and violent action. The times we are living in are not so new after all.
Much of Mishra’s argument is based on the effects of ‘development’ on the modern world. He loosely follows Marx in emphasising the way capitalism mercilessly uproots people from older ways of life, forcing endless change and insecurity on people and increasing inequality. The free market globalisation we have seen over the past 30 years or so is an example of this: making many people richer on paper but at the same time increasing economic and social dislocation. But rather than looking at the economic effects, Mishra zooms in on the personal effect on individuals. The central figure of the book is what he calls “the alienated young man of promise”: the educated man (it is usually a man) from a rapidly developing country who is at first attracted by the bright lights of the city but ultimately finds it hollow and morally corrupt. Jean-Jacques Rousseau is the original of the type, “the greatest militant lowbrow of history and guttersnipe of genius”, as Isaiah Berlin called him. But Mishra also looks at German romantics from Johann Gottfried Herder to Richard Wagner, Italian nationalists such as Giuseppe Mazzini and Gabriele D’Annunzio, and Russian anarchists such as Mikhail Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin. These thinkers had a wide range of different ideas but what they shared was a view of modern industrial materialist society as false and hypocritical. They saw then, just as many see now, an enormous gap between the overblown promises of ‘civilisation’ or ‘development’ and the reality of materialism, inequality and oppression.
Many of these thinkers turned to nationalism and war as solutions to the moral and spiritual problems created by economic development. Rousseau stressed the virtues of patriotism, national dress and a citizens’ militia as a way of building shared values rather than selfish interests. German writers scorned French cosmopolitan ‘Zivilisation’ and idolised German ‘Kultur’. They believed that ordinary people – the ‘Volk’ – could revive the virtues lost by city dwellers, returning society to primal wholeness. Mazzini developed a quasi-religious form of nationalism based on “faith, duty, preaching, martyrdom and blood”, while the futurist poet Filippo Marinetti proclaimed war as “the world’s only hygiene”, the only cure for effeminate, corrupt modern society. Mishra traces the influence of these writers, especially Mazzini, on nationalist thought across the world, including that of Hindu nationalists, South Asian Muslims and Zionists. Their different, often mutually antagonistic creeds were all informed by Mazzini’s visions of national regeneration and new virility.
Age of Anger is a fascinating book, with lots of insights into our times, but I did have a few complaints with it. The style is frustrating; Mishra lurches from one thinker to another and back again, with little sense of a coherent, structured argument. Then there is the fact he tries to cover both developed and developing countries. It’s true that there is a lot of crossover between the two: capitalism is changing lives rapidly in Europe as well as in Asia and Africa; Hindu nationalists share a lot with white supremacists, and so on. But Mishra is at his best when describing the effects of rapid development on alienated individuals in ‘developing’ countries – from Germany, Italy and Russia in the nineteenth century to India and the Arab world in the twenty-first. His argument is less clear when discussing why people in relatively privileged and wealthy countries turn to anger and violence.
Still, Age of Anger makes a very convincing case that movements we tend to see as irrational – connected with mental illness or a ‘medieval’ outlook, say – are grounded in real processes of rapid economic and social change. The solutions nationalists and terrorists put forward are repulsive, but they are reacting to real problems in society, and to deny these problems is to risk letting them grow even worse.