Book Reviews

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Deconstructing “the violent anarchism of the disinherited and the superfluous”

The Age of Anger: A History of the Present by Pankaj Mishra traces the current unrest in the world to a Nietzschean ressentiment (the morality of the defeated which gets twisted into a destructive, transformative force) that he thinks has been festering since many countries moved to an industrialized economy.

Mishra, a columnist and book reviewer, is an exceptional writer with an uncanny ability to unravel historic trends through writers and thinkers of the day. He builds the compelling case that modern humans, especially, are gripped by resentment as the promise of individual fulfillment — a common narrative in western democracies and beyond — is found to be unachievable and, in fact, is actively suppressed by current socio economic systems.

It’s a world in which ideas of individual self worth and a path to fulfillment are dangled like a carrot but wealth extraction and inequality beat all hope of actualization out of us like a stick wrapped in barbed wire. “…the modern religions of secular salvation have undermined their own main assumption: that the future would be materially superior to the present.”

It is a powerful, disheartening read (“the history of modernization is largely one of carnage and bedlam rather than peaceful convergence”) that seeks — and in my opinion, finds — cause for not only the surge in populism, driven by misguided anger, in America (“societies organized for the interplay of individual self-interest can collapse into manic tribalism, if not nihilistic violence”) but also the rise of Islamic extremism (“An existential resentment of other people’s being, caused by an intense mix of envy and sense of humiliation and powerlessness”).

Perhaps unintentionally, Mishra calls up another Nietzschean concept: eternal returns (that history is a series of similar infinite recurrences). This issue of anger and resentment, he argues, has been a constant motivating force since the dawn of the industrial age, when we traded embedded (and probably stultifying) community for doomed self-advancement.

It certainly rings true today as we see far too much of evidence of “the many uprooted men who raised their failure to adapt themselves to a stable life in society to the rank of injustice against the human race…” in the angry voters the rise of violent extremism, both groups roiled by “the incendiary appeal of victimhood in societies built around the pursuit of wealth and power…” Both share “the same amalgam of self-adoration and self-contempt…” along with “intellectual insecurity, confusion and belligerence.”

The result? “The world at large — from the United States to India — manifests a fierce politics of identity built on historical injuries and fear of internal and external enemies.”

He doesn’t offer much in the way of solutions other than a cautious imperative “to form a society and a state that provide for community — a source of belonging, identity and security — while also securing rights and freedoms for individuals without them fragmenting into self-interested atoms.”

And he warns against “political magicians” who would “beguile angry masses with promises of superhuman action and mythopoeic visions of a radiant future…” while orchestrating a “bizarre lurching between victimhood and chauvinism.” It might be too late, because ultimately, he fears that nationalism could “become a seductive but treacherous antidote to an experience of disorder and meaninglessness.”

The words of Bakunin, noted anarchic thinker and mentioned often in The Age of Anger, ring true today — “You will have to confess that ours is a sad age and that we all are its still sadder children.” The anger swirling around us is proof enough of that. Worse, these troubling times are of our own making.