Which Way Are We Going?

Harry Borden/Contour by Getty Images
Pankaj Mishra, London, November 2014

In Pankaj Mishra’s portrait of our age, most people are angry: the white working class of the American rust belt betrayed by the metropolitan elites, the young high school and college graduates clinging to part-time jobs in Europe, and the terrorists who lived in the Paris banlieues. All of these different manifestations of rage, Mishra argues, have a common source: resentment at a “modernity” that promises equality and freedom and delivers only the dog-eat-dog brutality and competition of neoliberal capitalism. It was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Mishra argues, who diagnosed in the 1750s the resentment that has defined but also corroded the modern age ever since:

An existential resentment of other people’s being, caused by an intense mix of envy and sense of humiliation and powerlessness, ressentiment, as it lingers and deepens, poisons civil society and undermines political liberty, and is presently making for a global turn to authoritarianism and toxic forms of chauvinism.

If this is the hypothesis—and Mishra’s new book, Age of Anger, is widely discussed and much praised for his analysis—what are we to make of it? It’s not obvious that patriotic coal miners and steelworkers from Tennessee or Ohio share any resentments in common with jihadis. Young Europeans looking for jobs are unlikely to feel much kinship with the fanatics who shot up the Bataclan in Paris. Indeed, it’s not even clear that many of their fellow banlieusards share the jihadis’ quarrel with “modernity.” Few have joined their civil war.

There’s a lot of anger in this age of ours, but not all anger is the same and not all anger has equal justification. To describe terrorism as an act of anger, for example, may seem to imply that it has a justifying cause. In lumping together the anger of workers left high and dry by plant shutdowns, young people unable to find a secure job, and jihadi killers, Mishra fails to distinguish an anger that results in indiscriminate slaughter and has no justification whatever.

Mishra doesn’t bother with such distinctions, it seems, because he sympathizes with the anger of jihadists and believes it has some justification. At one point, for example, he says of the ISIS terrorists that they have “aimed at exterminating a world of soul-killing mediocrity, cowardice, opportunism and immoral deal-making.” Never, so far as I know, has a free and freedom-loving intellectual handed a gang of killers such a lofty worldview. Mishra would not justify terrorist acts—he would recoil at the very idea—yet in seeing its perpetrators as holy warriors against “modernity” he justifies their arguments.

Yet what exactly is this “modernity”? Mishra means “the unprecedented political, economic and social disorder that accompanied the rise of the industrial capitalist economy.” The dislocating convulsion that the West experienced between 1750 and 1850, he argues, is now sweeping through Asia, Africa, and the…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.