Age of Anger: A History of the Present by Pankaj Mishra (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2017)

On Nine-Eleven George W. Bush “awoke” to a reality he defined in the coming months as Good against Evil, with the “evil doers” a set (never precisely defined) of religious maniacs who “hate us”. In this reality he was joined by a host of pundits, elites of both major political parties, neo-conservative ideologues (many of whom served in the President’s cabinet or on his staff), religious leaders, huge portions of the cultural cognoscenti and much of the adult population of the United States. Bush’s vantage point as a “born again Christian” and a fundamentalist believer in the literal interpretation of the Holy Bible, was at the very least a major blind spot and bias running heavily against the Muslim World.

This widely held view entailed from its major premise the fact that the United States was at war with an abstraction called “Terrorism”. The premise (that Evil had caused terror) never presented itself for either analysis or evidentiary confirmation. Pretty soon, the “West” was battling clumsily a shadowy and elusive foe that took on many shapes and guises, a foe that shifted its location with facility and ease, a foe that constantly recruited young men, and later young women and even children, in dozens of foreign countries, and, later, in the major democracies themselves. Not long after that, the “West’ found the foe living in the slums of its major cities, riding its railways and busses, depositing bombs in its subways and underground stations. As if to goad the “West”, the foe beheaded its victims, sometimes on the Internet.

Missing from the debate in Western democracies was any sense of history, economics, sociology or politics; any analysis of the real struggles of the world beyond the myth of “evil-doing” and religious fervor. Into this miasma of dislocated hypotheses comes Pankaj Mishra, who in his perfervid, brilliantly insightful and beautifully written book—“Age of Anger: A History of the Present—offers readers a penetrating and accurate portrait of our present times. Mishra, author of “From the Ruins of Empire” and “And End to Suffering: The World of the Buddha” is a seasoned observer of the Third World scene, an astute philosopher and psychologist, and a grounded historian. “Age of Anger” is the single most well-reasoned, accurate and encompassing look at terror and “modernity” as dynamic particles caught in a dialectical dance of death, a dance that began as long ago as the Enlightenment, gathered steam in the 19th century during the Industrial Revolution, and accelerated after the disastrous Twentieth Century and its wars, holocausts, colonial Empires, imperial adventures, and “ism’s”.

In a nutshell, once mankind’s “old ways” (family, tradition, ritual, religion and agriculture) were destroyed by the scientific revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries, human beings became atoms subject to a “war of all against all” that was defined first by liberal republicanism and later by capitalism. Individuals, as Adam Smith would have it, were rational actors pursuing their selfish desires and subject to market forces come what may.   Mimetic desire rose as a “way of being”, a way that allowed men to believe they could have what they want, but more often showed them the doorway to failure, abjection, disappointment and ultimately rage. Elites grew on every continent, taking most of what was “good” or “valuable”, leaving the mass of men alone with their failed dreams. As the populations of these countries grew, so did the numbers of failed people. These days globalization is characterized by roving capital, accelerated communication and quick mobilization. “And now, with the victory of Donald Trump it has become impossible to deny or obscure the great chasm, first explored by Rousseau, between an elite that seizes modernity’s choicest fruits while disdaining older truths and uprooted masses, who, on finding themselves cheated of the same fruits, recoil into cultural supremacism, populism and rancorous brutality.”

These teeming masses consist largely of disappointed, resentful young men with nothing to do, who only know that the “good things” have gone elsewhere. They could be disengaged and hopeless Muslims in Egypt, disaffected veterans of America’s many wars, the mentally ill doomed to wander the streets of large cities. “Age of Anger” presents an entire philosophical and political history of this drift. Its main characters are philosophers (Descartes, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Hume, Locke), poets (Heine, the Romantics) and political thinkers (Voltaire, Schlegel, Goethe, Adam Smith). To know this history is to free oneself from the false hypotheses that currently drive Western responses. To know this history is to understand at bottom the hollowness at the center of the Western Project. To know this history is to understand our own biases, false doctrines, and moral failures. To know this history is to understand that this history unites the stories of ISIS fighters, Timothy McVeigh and the Orlando Shooter. To know this history (stretching back centuries) is to understand how futile it is to blame the “evil doers.”

“Age of Anger” is must reading in these desperate times.

Notes and Selections:

The age of anger is the age of “globalization”, plutocratic elites, and a struggling, resentful mass of “forgotten people”—Globalization—characterized by roving capital, accelerated communication and quick mobilization—has everywhere weakened older forms of authority, in Europe’s social democracies as well as Arab despotisms, and thrown up an array of unpredictable new international actors, from English and Chinese nationalists, Somali pirates, human traffickers and anonymous cyber-hackers to Boko Haram. In the age of globalization, ‘every country has become the almost immediate neighbor of every other country, and every man feels the shock of events which take place at the other end of the globe.’ Hate mongering against immigrants, minorities and various designated ‘others’ has gone mainstream. Grisly images and sounds continuously assault us in this age of anger; the threshold of atrocity has been steadily lowered since the first televised beheading in Iraq of a Western hostage dressed in Guantanamo’s orange jumpsuit…There is a pervasive panic, which doesn’t resemble the centralized fear emanating from despotic power. Rather, it is the sentiment, generated by the news media and amplified by social media, that anything can happen anywhere to anybody at a given time.

The struggling, frustrated, desirous mass being herded into the Hobbesian “present”—Thus, individuals with very different pasts find themselves herded by capitalism and technology into a common present, where grossly unequal distributions of wealth and power have created humiliating new hierarchies. This proximity, or what Hannah Arendt called ‘negative solidarity’, is rendered more claustrophobic by digital communications, the improved capacity for envious and resentful comparison, and the commonplace, and therefore compromised, quest for individual distinction and singularity. Today’s individuals are directly exposed to them (systems of exploitation) in an age of accelerating competition on uneven playing fields where it is easy to feel that there is no such thing as either society or state, and that there is only a war of all against all.

“Western Civilization” and its sanitized past—In the late nineteenth century, European and Japanese ruling classes began to respond to the damage and disruptions of the world market by exhorting unity in the face of internal and external threats, creating new fables of ethnic and religious solidarity, and deploying militaristic nationalism in what they claimed was a struggle for existence. Yet only on the rarest of occasions in recent decades has it been acknowledged that the history of modernization is largely one of carnage and bedlam rather than peaceful convergence, and that the politics of violence, hysteria and despair was by no means unique to Nazi German, Fascist Italy or Communist Russia. The sanitized histories celebrating how the Enlightenment or Great Britain or the West made the modern world put the two world wars in a separate, quarantined box, and isolated Stalinism, Fascism and Nazism within the mainstream of European history as monstrous aberrations.”

Timothy McVeigh foresaw our demagogic present—“Writing in a small town newspaper in 1992, McVeigh, then a young veteran of the First Gulf War, chillingly foresaw our demagogic present:

Racism on the rise? You had better believe it. Is this America’s frustrations venting on themselves? Is it a valid frustration? Who is to blame for the mess? At a point when the world has seen communism falter as an imperfect system to manage people, democracy seems to be headed down the same road. No one is seeing the ‘big picture’”

The sickening inertia of “modernity” as seen by Dostoyevsky in London, 1862—“Dostoyevsky’s writings capture the unnerving appeal of the new materialist civilization and its accompany ideology of individualism: how that civilization was helped much by its prestige as well as its military and maritime dominance. On a tour of Western Europe, he visited the International Exhibition. At the Crystal Palace he testified:

‘You become aware of a colossal idea; you sense that here something has been achieved, that here there is victory and triumph. You even begin vaguely to fear something. However independent you may be, for some reason you become terrified. Must you accept this as the final truth and forever hold your peace?’

“The success of its perpetually expanding capitalist bourgeoisie made unceasing motion, forward and onward, seem a political imperative for states and individuals alike. A small minority of Western Europeans had become the bearers and promoters of a civilization that confronted the rest of the world’s population with formidable moral and spiritual as well as political challenges.”

‘Look at these hundreds of thousands, these millions of people humbly streaming here from all over the face of the earth. People come with a single thought, quietly, relentlessly, mutely thronging into this colossal palace; and you feel that something final has taken place here, that something has come to an end.’

“In Dostoyevsky’s view, the cost of such spendour and magnificence as displayed at the Crystal Palace was a society dominated by the war of all against all, in which most people were condemned to be losers.”


—Echoes of Donald J. Trump

Keeping up with the Joneses and Underground Man as original sources of mimetic desire, aggression and revenge; in short, resentment—“Dreaming constantly of revenge against his social superiors, this creature of the netherworld luxuriates in his feeling of impotence, and projects b lame for his plight outward. Nietzsche derived from ‘Notes from Underground’ his specific understanding of ressentiment, and its malign potential as a particularly noxious form of aggression by the weak against an aloof and inaccessible elite.” “The Crystal Palace, as Dostoyevsky feared, portended a universal surge of mimetic desire: people desiring and trying to possess the same objects.”  “Homo economicus, the autonomous, reasoning, rights-bearing individual, that quintessential product of industrialism and modern political philosophy has actually realized his fantastical plans to bring all of human existence into the mesh of production and consumption.”


The Romantic revulsion at the Duty of Man—“…the Romantics who warned against the aggressive pursuit of material wealth and power at the expense of the aesthetic and spiritual dimensions of human life. The Romantics in turn were inspired by Rousseau’s contention that human beings have become the victims of a system they themselves have created. Or, as Mr. Pancks in Dickens’s “Little Dorritt” (1857) puts it, ‘Keep me always at it, and I’ll keep you always at it, you keep somebody else always at it. There you are with the Whole Duty of Man in a commercial country.’”


Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the champion of natural, non-economic Man—“Against the backdrop of near universal political rage, history’s greatest militant lowbrow (Rousseau) seems to have grasped and embodied, better than anyone the incendiary appeal of victimhood in societies built around the pursuit of wealth and power.”

Which explains the current broad “rage” against the World by colonial peoples, disappointed intellectuals and professionals and Third World politicians–“But Rousseau’s prescient criticism of a political and economic system based on envious comparison, individual self-seeking and the multiplication of artificial needs also helps us understand a range of historical phenomena: how and why a cleric like Ayatollah Khomeini rose out of obscurity to lead a popular revolution in Iran; why many young people seduced by modernity come to pour scorn on Enlightenment ideals of progress, liberty and human perfectibility; why they preach salvation by faith and tradition and uphold the need for authority, hierarchy, obedience and subject; or why, suffering from self-disgust, these divided men and women embrace conflict and suffering, bloodshed and war.”


The rejection of “The West” by tortured figures in the East and Elsewhere—“In an essay on Pushkin, Dostoyevsky underlined a tragic dilemma: of a society that assimilates European ways through every pore only to realize that it could never be European. The victim of feckless Westernization was someone one whose ‘conscience murmurs to him that he is a hollow man’ and who tends to languish in a ‘state of insatiable, bilious malice’, suffering from a contradiction…”

“Such a tortured figure often ended up searching for a native identity to uphold against the maddeningly seductive but befuddling West; and enumerating Western vices seemed to confirm the existence of local virtues.”

Anger makes way for demagogic hate (Trump,—“The world of mutual tolerance envisaged by cosmopolitan elites from the Enlightenment onwards exists within a few metropolises and university campuses; and even those rarefied spaces are shrinking. 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.”

The fate of Know-Nothingism—“It is now the fate of many more countries to suffer the avalanches of bitter know-nothingism, or myths, that (Ortega y Gasset) feared. Marshalling large armies of trolls and twitter bots against various ‘enemies’ of the people, the contemporary demagogues seem as aware as Marshall McLuhan that digital communications help create and consolidate new mythologies of unity and community.”

The fake-equality of commercial society invites resentment—“There is also something going on in societies defined by the equality of conditions. Claiming to be meritocratic and egalitarian, they incite individuals to compare themselves with others… Since actual mobility is achieved by a few, the quest for some unmistakable proof of superior status and identity replaces the ideal of success for many.” Hence—“the other” substitutes as victim lower on the “social scale.” This dialectic also produces the “failed universal”, the state as frustrated individuals substitute other identities for their own miserable lives.

Dostoyevsky’s Russian the exemplar of ‘resentment’ where violence was the only means of expression—“In a country (Russian, 1850) without a public sphere, where educated young men were trapped between an oppressive elite and a peasantry that had no contact with or means of knowing, violence came to seem attractive—the only available form of self-expression.”

And now, the Social Darwinist nightmare, endemic war, civil unrest, stateless terror zones, tribalist hatred of minorities, scapegoating, impending doom—“Billions of the world’s poorest are locked into a Social Darwinist nightmare. But even in advanced democracies a managerial form of politics and neo-liberal economics has torn up the social contract. IN the regime of privatization, commodification, deregulation and militarization, it is barely possible to speak without inviting sarcasm about those qualities that distinguish humans from other predatory animals—trust, co-operation, community, dialogue and solidarity.”

With Donald Trump, it is impossible to obscure the Truth—“And now with the victory of Donald Trump it has become impossible to deny or obscure the great chasm, first explored by Rousseau, between an elite that seizes modernity’s choicest fruits while disdaining older truths and uprooted masses, who, on finding themselves cheated of the same fruits, recoil into cultural supremacism, populism and rancorous brutality…They incite a broader and more apocalyptic mood than we have witnessed before.”