Pankaj Mishra’s ‘Age Of Anger’ Is A Flawed But Fascinating Intellectual History
Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger: History of the Present is a history of modernisation and its travails.
Mishra is right to argue that attempts to modernise traditional cultures involve, as in Italy and Germany, considerable psychic dislocation.
The book’s failing, however, is its lack of historical context and slipshod understanding of America.
British writer of immense learning, Pankaj Mishra has authored a new book, Age of Anger: A History of the Present, that reflects an extraordinary breadth of reading. It opens as a conventional work of intellectual history – in this case, the history of modernisation and its travails – but soon becomes more of a collage of aperçus organised around themes laid out by the path-breaking critic of modernity Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the 1920s Iranian writer Jalal al-Ahmed and the Italian poet-cum-Duce Gabriel D’Annunzio, among many others.
For instance, Mishra pits Rousseau’s finicky quest for authenticity against Voltaire’s heirs, “the mimic men” who try to replicate Anglo-French manners and mores. Mishra sees Voltaire as primarily a champion of enlightened despotism, while Rousseau is presented as a clear-eyed critic of liberal rationalism and cosmopolitan pretension. Mishra is sympathetic to al-Ahmed’s obsession with the “psychic damage” or “Westoxification” imposed on the Islamic world by western colonialism. He’s fascinated by D’Annunzio, who, in the wake of the First World War, choreographed a disastrous fascist future that paved the way for Mussolini. D’Annunzio was the first Italian politician who “decked out his supporters in black uniforms and stiff armed salutes.” He cheered on the Italian armies as they conquered the Ottoman provinces that came to be called Libya and which, Mishra notes, “suffered the world’s first aerial bombing” in 1912. Libya became the testing ground for the “New Man theorized by Nietzsche and Sorel.”
Mishra’s loosely connected pearls of insight about “belief, mindsets and outlooks” are tied together by his anti-anti-Communism, an outlook echoed by today’s anti-anti-Islamicism, exemplified in the pages of the British Guardian, which paints the Muslim world as the victim of western liberalism. Mishra’s disdain for the liberal ideals of progress and reasoned choice, understood as excesses of individualism, will be familiar to readers of Elie Kedourie on nationalism, Jacob Talmon on the creation of secular salvationism, Christopher Lasch and John Gray on the paradoxes of “progress” and William Pfaff on the pent-up violence of the modern world. But his discussion of the Nazi origins of Hindu nationalism will be eye-opening to many readers.
Mishra’s intermittent account of how the writings of Giuseppe Mazzini, the liberal nationalist founder of modern Italy, inspired nationalists in India and China places the problem of modernisation in an illuminating context. On a darker note, Mazzini influenced Georges Sorel, whose anti-liberal paeans to the power of myth excited would-be dictators on both right and left. Sorel saw in the working class the collective incarnation of the Nietzschean superman. Mussolini first read Sorel’s work on violence when he was a socialist, but he continued to incorporate his ideas as he moved to develop fascism.
Mishra is right to argue that attempts to modernise traditional cultures involve, as in Italy and Germany, considerable psychic dislocation. It can produce a burning anger fuelled by the emotional displacement of communal cultures fractured by the demands of economic individualism. But Mishra goes off the rails when he tries to assimilate the acquired insanity of Islamic jihad into the pains of modernisation. Modernization – as in Iran – offered an alternative to the meld of entitlements and resentments borne of Islamic claims to rule over infidels. Islam has always been a political theology of the sword. Muhammad wasn’t responding to modernisation when he slaughtered the Jews of Medina.
The book’s failing is its lack of historical context and slipshod understanding of America. Mishra insists on seeing constitutionalist America, which had little interest in Britain’s Benthamism, as a utilitarian nation. He sees early twentieth-century “social Darwinism” as an American right-wing ideology when its appeal, as the great historian of liberalism Eric Goldman documented, was almost entirely to the liberal Left. Reading Mishra’s repeated references to Timothy McVeigh, one might think that the 1995 Oklahoma City bomber had inspired an army of imitators comparable in size and strength to al-Qaida. Mishra writes that “centuries of civil war, imperial conquest and genocide in Europe and America” has been downplayed in the West, which suffers from a lack of self-criticism. It’s hard to take such an assertion seriously. Can Mishra really be unaware of the epidemic of political correctness and self-hatred infecting the universities and the broadsheet press?
Mishra disdains the new nationalism as an expression of irrationalist urges, concluding, in the words of Alan Bloom, that “fascism has a future.” But he has nothing to say about the EU autocracy that’s governed Europe so ineptly. He seems unaware of the close connection between liberal nationalism and the practice of democracy. He’s similarly contemptuous of Donald Trump, proclaiming his administration a disaster even before the New York real-estate dealer took office. Trump may well turn out to be a failure, but Mishra seems not to grasp the connection between Barack Obama’s insistence that Islamophobia is as great a problem as terrorism – a view that Mishra shares – and Trump’s rise to power. Similarly, the EU, which proclaims itself an expiation of past nationalist excesses, has unwittingly midwifed a new nationalism.
A book lacking a conventional structure, Age of Anger repeatedly circles around the subject of modernisation. Mishra doesn’t so much conclude as exhaust his conceptual repetitions. Nonetheless, Age of Anger is well worth reading, even if it’s best approached like a rich buffet that should be selectively sampled.
This piece was first published on City Journal, and has been republished here with permission.
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