Review: Age of Anger by Pankaj Mishra (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017)

By C. Derick Varn

Pankaj Mishra is erudite and compelling as a writer, and yet, I have almost never been more frustrated by his writing or a popular critique of the Enlightenment.  Mishra’s critique of globalization goes back to the Enlightenment’s philosophes and the various reactions and ressentiment that it exposes when the promises of development are realized upon.  Yes, neoliberal snottiness and whiggish history plays villains, but Mishra wants to see this as a psychological development between modernity and its periphery.  He traces 18th and 19th century reactions of Germany, Russia, and Italy as well as the parallel developments in Zionism, then in Iran, India, and among various kinds of Islamism, throwing in overlaps with Timothy McVeigh and Donald Trump.  In short, Mishra attempts a grand theory of ressentiment.

Mishra places blame everywhere and nowhere for globalization’s elitism and the nationalism that emerges in reaction. After using Gabriele D’Annunzio as a cautionary anecdote,  Mishra starts with the now obviously naive declarations of the end of the history and then jumps backwards to the conflict between Rousseau and Voltaire.  Mishra’s sympathies are deeply with Rousseau even though he paints Rousseau as increasingly populist and even conservative in his battle with the philosophes. Mishra then jumps ahead to the Iranian revolution, Ataturk and Hitler, Herzl’s use of social Darwinism and his original liberal German nationalism, and the Mazzini inspired everyone from Hinduvtaists to Jabtinsky. 

Mishra, however, traces genealogies in ways that link Islamists to Orthodox Christian thinkers, and shows that anti-Western thinkers were deeply schooled in Western thought.  He also condemns the “compradors” such as Niapal and Rushie for lacking all nuance in their defense of the Enlightenment.  Yet I am giving Mishra more of an argument that he allows.  His genealogies are not maintained and often done by jumping between historical moments and movements to traces analogies and letting the juxtaposition stand as argument.  By doing this, he is able to conflate different kinds of Enlightenment, modernity, and reactionaries.  Religious nationalists and racialists are seen as having some response to the Enlightenment.

Mishra knows that capitalism and secularization have created brutal competitions, but he seems unwilling to go the way of Marxists in dealing with the limitations of capitalism. He condemns Marxism as mirroring capitalist thinkers belief in progress and essentially putting Protestant eschatology into a secular form, but Mishra doesn’t argue this from Marx’s words or even his actions but just asserts it.  He, however, oddly defends Leninism, and still even more oddly doesn’t mention Adorno or Horkheimer’s similar critiques about the “Dialectics of the Enlightenment” nor does Mishra talk about the differences of Latin America’s experience of liberal modernity compares and contrasts with India and Iran, Russia and Germany.

Furthermore, Mishra far, far too often just name-drops and uses short hand to stand in for an argument.  Take the following paragraph:

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” I Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti- imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th- century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

Everything becomes everything else because they seem to rhyme or have overlapping influences even if the answers are diametrically opposed. Mishra has given himself a impossible task:  to explain the move from rationalism to ressentiment without completely condemning the “West” or the response to it.  Moving the definition of modernity and the precise ways it fails around, Mishra’s anecdotes are often insightful but his conclusions are milquetoast.

He does not explore masculinity and supposed feminization, he condemns Modi and Trump but is sympathetic to the romanticism and populism of which they seem like modern representations.  Mishra’s argument that

“The key to man’s behaviour lies not in any clash of opposed civilizations, but, on the contrary, in irresistible mimetic desire: the logic of fascination, emulation and righteous self-assertion that binds the rivals inseparably. It lies in ressentiment, the tormented mirror games in which the West as well as its ostensible enemies and indeed all inhabitants of the modern world are trapped.”

Yet there are better and more coherent articulations of this:  Isaiah Berlin’s histories of Russian and Counter-Enlightenment thought, Camus’s critique of revolutionary nihilism, even banal books like “Jihad Versus McWorld” from a decade ago are as insightful and far more sustained in their argument.  This doesn’t mean that Mishra isn’t worth-reading: he is, but he ultimately doesn’t maintain his own argument and seems to think his he shows enough rhyming history, the point will be made for him. 

In short, I am disappointed because this book starts to show how developing world and the West replicate the dialectic of Enlightenment that plagued “the West” itself, and it can’t keep its focus long enough to prove the point. Instead, one gets bloody-history quick cut with dread, which is justified, but with universal theory of the views of progress in trying to explain everything, doesn’t actually explain things very deeply at all.


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