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.