Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger wants to explain how we got to a world in ‘a pervasive panic… that anything can happen anywhere to anybody at any time’. Everything seems to be spinning out of control, and hatred, racism, violence and lies have become common currency everywhere. Facts have become irrelevant and ‘individuals with very different pasts find themselves herded by capitalism and technology into a common present’.
Mishra, an accomplished and well known Indian/English writer, comes from semi-rural India. He is ‘a late comer to modernisation… a step-child of the West’. He explains to his readers the less familiar crisis of ideas in non-western states. He argues that Ayatollah Khomeini was an entirely modern leader. His Iranian nation was ‘derived from God’s mind’ as interpreted by the Ayatollah, for which no parallel exists in historic Shiite piety. In India a violent Hindu extremism led to Hindutva (Hinduness), founded by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (1883–1966), a political movement which preached violence against Muslims and women and one of whose fanatics murdered Gandhi. Prime Minister Narendra Modi leads the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), which inherits many aspects of Hindu extremism.
Mishra argues that Islamic terrorism has little contact with traditional Islam. ‘It is made and unmade by globalisation, unmoored to any specific causes, but full of dreams of spectacular violence.’ He comments that the contemporary terrorist moves
through the mundane places and practices of everyday life — motels, bars, gyms, internet chat rooms, Facebook posts, YouTube videos, Twitter timelines and private car rentals…. Global jihadists as well as ‘domestic’ terrorists are unmistakable products of the modern era.
How has this terrible violence arisen? Mishra argues that
in advanced democracies a managerial form of politics and neo-liberal economics had torn up the social contract. In the regime of privatisation, commodification, deregulation and militarisation, it is barely possible to speak without inviting sarcasm about those qualities that distinguish humans —trust, cooperation, community, dialogue and solidarity.
Those values have given way to a world-wide resentment felt by those excluded, cheated, threatened and deceived.
The hollowed-out remains of democracy offer the new demagogues freedom from any restraint. The use of social media has accustomed the publics in advanced countries to believe nothing that the ‘elites’ tell them. In the case of Donald Trump, his lies seem not to have harmed him, and may indeed have helped him. Mishra explains this in these words:
In their indifference to the common good, single-minded pursuit of private happiness and narcissistic identification with an apparently ruthless strongman and uninhibited loudmouth … people [are] gratified rather than appalled by trash talk and the slaughter of old conventions. Certainly the new horizons of individual desire and fear opened up by the neo-liberal world economy do not favour democracy or human rights.
The similarity of these reactions in different societies creates the terrible feeling that the world has begun to slither into chaos or dictatorship.
The contemporary crisis and its meaning makes up part of the Age of Anger; the rest is a daring attempt to explain the long-term origins of our present unrest. Mishra argues that these crises and rejections of modern society have been present from the 18th century. This existential indictment of traditional western culture raises an extraordinary range of questions. Mishra sees the Enlightenment as an ideology of privilege, which established a self-serving elite among the bourgeoisie not unlike the elite today. Voltaire is the villain and Rosseau the critic of the Enlightenment, and their rivalry can be seen again and again in the evolution of western society.
The great bulk of the book, then, deals with the past, not the present. It traces in detail the reaction of the German romantics, the invention of gymnastics by Friedrich Ludwig Jahn as patriotism of the body, Herder and Wagner, the Russian nihilists and terrorists, Mazzini and D’Annuzio in Italy, Herzl and Jabotinsky in the growth of Zionism, Bakunin and the anarchists, Marx and Engels. These and countless others like Heinrich Heine testify to the evils of capitalism, as do the disappointed young men in the European empires. The texts are to show us where western society went wrong and why.
In making these points, though, Mishra ignores the huge transformation of the world between 1789 and 1914: the explosion of industry and commerce, the sharp rise in the prosperity of the mass of the people in the 19th century and the first global order based in London. The critics of these developments are treated with subtlety and deep erudition, but their globalised world — the railroad, the telegraph, the steamship, the mass press — are not. Marx and Engels expected misery to bring about revolution, not that by 1913 the best paid German workers would be chocolate makers. The German Social Democratic Party had become the largest party in the Reichstag and in 1914 European society enjoyed prosperity in an unprecedented form.
Mishra’s use of the texts of the critics of the Enlightenment and capitalism is sensitive and illuminating, but he tends to be casual in setting them in context. Great texts belong to particular times and places, and since history is the systematic study of humanity in time, when things happen and in which order really matters. Mishra correctly argues that the Lutheran pastor Johann Gottfried Herder was an early critic of the Enlightenment, but his most famous work of 1769, Über den Ursprung der Sprache (Concerning the origin of language), argued that language was man–made not divine. He won a prize with an enlightened argument from the Prussian Academy of Sciences, an enlightened institution. Immanuel Kant was the greatest intellectual of his age and he embodied the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment looked different before the French Revolution and after.
The Enlightenment was broader and more effective than just its French interpretation. In Italy, Cesare Beccaria’s Of Crimes and Punishments (1764) attacked brutal treatment of prisoners, torture and the death penalty, and was a monument to enlightened humanity which has yet to improve conditions in British and American prisons. Mishra neglects the Scottish and English enlightenments; Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature of 1739 demolished the idea that human beings could know anything beyond the evidence of the senses. Hence no knowledge of God is possible. This work, together with Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Wealth of Nations of 1776, created the intellectual framework of the world that Mishra projects. It was Hume, not Voltaire, who awakened Kant from ‘his dogmatic slumbers’.
Adam Smith contributed the other part of Mishra’s Enlightenment: the division of labour and basic analysis of the world of free trade. Smith was not naïve about the new wealthy he described. ‘People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.’ Not much has changed in the business model since Smith’s time
The real enemies of Enlightenment in Germany were not the handful of middle- class intellectuals but the Junker nobility, a rigid body of noble landlords who constituted the backbone of the Prussian army until the time of Hitler. They served the Prussian king and the most brilliant of them was Otto von Bismarck. They engineered and planned the first world war and blamed the Jews and the socialists for their defeat. They engineered the fall of Chancellor Brüning in 1932 because he threatened to liquidate their great estates to pay off their debts. In the vacuum which they had caused Adolf Hitler became German Chancellor in 1933. Aristocratic officers in the Wehrmacht organised the last European noble rising in July 1944 in the plot to assassinate Hitler.
The world that is now crumbling began in 1944. An American occupation force governed western Europe. The establishment of American financial dominance at Bretton Woods in 1944 and the Marshall Plan, the possession of the atomic bomb, an intact, hugely productive consumer goods industry in the USA, and the threat of communism led to American world hegemony.
The collapse of the Middle East, as Mishra very sharply points out, led to disastrous instability and not the final victory of the American way of life. The West squandered its wealth and damaged its reputation in wars to impose its way of life in ‘the war against terrorism’. These ‘crusades’, as Islamists rightly call them, all failed; and that’s how the Anglo-Americans destroyed the Arab world and their domestic systems. George W. Bush believed that God wanted the world to be ‘democratic’ on the American model.
Pankaj Mishra’s book makes a powerful case for the influence of a certain group of anti-rational and anti-commercial ideas which have influenced our world. They were always there among critics of bourgeois liberalism, but Mishra’s contribution is to show us how these ideas have become ‘viral’ and what that means for all of us.
Jonathan Steinberg is the Walter H. Annenberg Professor of European History at the University of Pennsylvania.