BOOK REVIEW: How globalisation has ‘deepened’ humanity’s ugly tendencies
Essayist Pankaj Mishra presents wrenching confirmation that humankind is irrational and cannot govern self-interest in a manner that overrides primordial motivations
Age of Anger: A History of the Present
Allen Lane, Penguin Random House
The world has never been more egalitarian; the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall heralded the triumph of free will, a liberal political order and open markets.
So why is there still a schism between classes and why does today’s proletariat mock — even hate — the political elite? Where does social media’s outrage and visceral, tribal indignation stem from and why is it proudly proclaimed — even by mild-mannered, sensible middle-class citizens in developed countries who have never had it so comfortable?
In attempting an explanation, essayist Pankaj Mishra focuses his lens on the sociological, philosophical and political forces unleashed by the mid-18th century Age of Enlightenment, which catalysed Europe into liberté, égalité and fraternité. Age of Anger picks over the bones of its effects two-and-a-half centuries later, presenting wrenching confirmation that humankind is irrational and cannot govern self-interest in a manner that overrides primordial motivations, even violently destructive ones.
The book is a kaleidoscope blizzard of ideologies, doctrines, sociopolitical theory and quotations from literature and intelligentsia. It is a revelatory tour de force in threading the connections from Voltaire and Rousseau to the German Romantics, who resurrected the spirit of volk, and the nihilism of Nietzsche and then unravelling a culmination in the bitter fruits of our angry era.
Mishra pays compelling attention to fin de siècle cynicism and pessimism, which seeded a quarter century of assassinations and acts of terror. The fanatics and nationalists achieved their apogee in the murder of Archduke Ferdinand, triggering the mechanised slaughter of the Great War. So the recent London, Moscow and Cairo terror attacks are echoes of hundreds of "propaganda by deed" missions perpetrated by the anarchists of 1880 to 1914, what Mishra calls "the first global jihad".
Anarchism’s intellectual progenitor, Mikhail Bakunin, believed that Europe’s lopsided modernisation, and the resulting inequality of wealth distribution, warranted mayhem as a response. A century later, too many parts of the globe are fertile ground for his belief in "destruction as a creative passion", sentiments echoed unsubtly today by right-wing US presidential puppeteer Steven Bannon and demonstrated by the terror of Islamic State.
Whether hatred of globalisation is leftist radical, reactionary right or based in theocracy, Mishra claims to understand it; he projects globalisation — inexorably twinned with rampant consumerism, decimation of natural resources and urbanisation — as an entirely negative force, causing freedom to be muddied into an illusion for people not part of an educated, mobile elite.
And secularism has left a spiritual void, dissipating peoples’ sense of rootedness and weakening societies’ moral guide-ropes.
Kierkegaard and Nietzsche first expounded the concept of ressentiment to convey the hostility of a despairing yet cynical pain, virulent because it seeks a scapegoat. Wherever people compete, they display an innate propensity to resent real or imagined rivals, captured by Iris Murdoch as, "It’s not enough to succeed. Others must fail."
Globalisation, in its pervasive and instantaneous connectedness, has exacerbated ressentiment’s constantly watchful, mimetic envy and caused it to fester into restless, despairing rebellion. Even in established western democracies — the epicentre of secular individualism and productive modernity — there is a re-erupting volk counterculture exemplified by the rise of Donald Trump and the critical mass of Marine Le Pen’s candidacy in France.
Ironically, the logic and rigour of one of his core arguments rebut the book’s title: firebrand leaders, representing all manner of narrow or nationalist interests, have frequently been ferociously angry during the 250 years under Mishra’s scrutiny, evidenced not least by two near-apocalyptic wars, the Holocaust and the more recent genocides of Rwanda and Yugoslavia.
Age of Anger is unbalanced. Progress and modernity have unequivocally brought tangible, measurable benefits to billions of people. Lifespans have increased significantly in almost all parts of the globe in the past half-century; since 1980 more than 500-million Chinese citizens have been ushered out of poverty; the EU has forged a boundary-less, peaceful cohesion for 70 years.
Social Darwinism, fascism, Stalinism and Maoism were some of the dire birth pangs of the postmodern world, but they were not the logical or inevitable extension of Enlightenment. Mishra’s oversimplification of cause and effect denies the very complexity of human motivations that he claims to explain.
Written predominantly before the surprise Brexit vote and the shock of Trump’s ascent, the Age of Anger must be acknowledged for its prescience. Depressingly, there is no message of optimism in its stop-start style and trenchant, probative, polemical streams.
History repeats itself and progress occurs in centuries-long patterns, discernible only in hindsight; short-term phases of positivity will only ever be a glossy overcoat to the tattered and torn crucible of a very recent past.
The essence of Mishra’s conclusion seems to be that too much reason and freedom has jeopardised the world and we are overdue another inevitable cycle of cleansing destruction, which — in the anarchy of near-daily terrorism, the jingoist, aggressive nationalism of Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Narendra Modi and post-truth Trumpism — has already begun.
Mishra does not attempt the hubris of offering a master plan towards global utopia, but if Age of Anger crystallises one thing, it is that 250 years of revolutionary change is not about to stop; we are on an accelerative arc of flux, whether rooted in a more inclusive and benign form of development or driven by darker emotions.
In the nuclear age, the only hope is that the 21st century brings a renewed enlightenment, which combines rationalism with deeper spiritual fulfilment in all parts of the globe.
Alternatively, we must pray for a future in which our children’s generation can forgive us, because, as David Mitchell writes in Cloud Atlas, "Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb we are bound to others, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness we birth our future."