Age of Anger

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coverI absolutely love historical face-offs, such as Delacroix vs. Ingres, Corbu vs. Frank Lloyd Wright, Keynes vs. Hayek. Over time, historians oscillate on crowning the winners. Recently, it is apparent that Hamilton has an edge over TJ (“Hamilton”) and, Burke over Paine (“The Great Debate”), but who knew that Rousseau was beating Voltaire? To explain how anger became the zeitgeist and how ISIS, Brexit and Trump are manifestations of a backlash against globalism, in “Age of Anger,” Pankaj Mishra takes the reader on a journey through 18th century philosophy, 19th century anarchy, 20th century genocide and 21st century terrorism and rise of nationalism. Mishra presents the shadow side of modernization and an alternative to the sunnier Fukuyama version of the world (the Enlightenment, imperialism and industrial and information revolutions resulted in the triumph and spread of market capitalism and liberal democracy). To show the ubiquitous and boundary-free nature of globalism’s dark side, Mishra tours the world, and presents examples from India, China, Russia, Europe and America. His review of western history highlights a process in which material wealth has become the metric of success, thus invalidating and disinheriting those who don’t achieve it and stripping them of self-worth. When traditional sources of meaning (family, faith, community, religion…) are usurped by this competition for power and wealth the disoriented, disillusioned, victims of modernization are left with anger, frustration and a need for redemption. The result is “ressentiment,” the phenomenon of projecting resentment on to an external enemy, which explains the current reversion to tribalism, cultural suprematism, populism, chauvinism, racism and rise of authoritarianism. In contrast to Voltaire (who Mishra presents as a complacent, solipsistic, sell-out snob), Rousseau presciently predicted that the victims of modernity would retaliate, as he always saw the danger in a process that prioritized commerce over virtue and a world in which money shaped politics.

I loved this book but suspect Mishra ignores some optimistic, Fukuyamic facts from the last few decades to strengthen his argument (i.e., we have seen more people exit poverty than anytime in history, life expectancy and literacy are up and democracy has spread). I’m also skeptical of his anti-Voltairian position and bet the tide of history will turn again and portray Voltaire (along with TJ and Paine) in a more positive light. With great sadness, I do agree with Mishra that the make America great again type nationalism is a dangerous fraud as any demonization of the other, conceals the real sources of suffering and leads to violence.

Nicole Charbonnet

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