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 Middle East with the same destabilizing effects. Just as the dislocations of industrial capitalism triggered revolts, uprisings, and terrorism in the West, he argues, the same dislocations are engendering avenging rage in the East. “This militant secession from a civilization premised on gradual progress under liberal-democrat trustees—a civilization felt as outrageously false and enfeebling—now rages far beyond Europe.”
This version of modernity is relentlessly dystopian. “The history of modernization,” according to Mishra, “is largely one of carnage and bedlam rather than peaceful convergence.” This is Max Weber’s “iron cage” of modernity, the industrial capitalist machine that “led,” Mishra writes, to “world wars, totalitarian regimes and genocide.”
Let’s consider the work that this tiny word “led” is obliged to perform in Mishra’s analysis. The chain of causation that produced world wars, totalitarian regimes, and genocide in the twentieth century has occupied historians for generations, and they have concluded that these terrible occurrences deserve careful analysis and were not inevitable. Industrial capitalism “led” to war, totalitarianism, and genocide only if you leave leadership, contingency, folly, and failure out of the story, in other words if you leave out politics. To say that “modernity” led to world wars, totalitarian regimes, and genocide, without showing the clear connection to actual history, is to rely on invective.
Modernity does include imperialism, exploitation of man by man, oppression of women, racism, colonial conquest, and war. It also includes—a random selection—the formal abolition of slavery and the slave trade, the invention of sulphonomides and penicillin, the development of treatments for cancer, the near elimination of polio, universal declines in the incidence of tuberculosis, sharp falls in child mortality, the right to vote for women, staggering advances in physics, chemistry, and biology, and the ordinary, inadequate, decencies of the welfare state. Modernity also includes human rights, self-determination, and decolonization. Imperialism, pace Marx, is a contingent rather than necessary feature of capitalism. You’d never know, from Mishra’s denunciations of colonialism, that the last European empire, the Portuguese, collapsed in 1974; the last empire of them all—the Soviet Union—disappeared in 1991.
Progress of this sort lets no one off the hook: inequality, injustice, and environmental despoliation all remain, but to ignore what modernity has made possible for a large part of humanity gives the violent nihilists of our time a victory they do not deserve. Mishra carries the attack on modernity so far as to attempt to deny clear if modest gains for the world’s poorest people. Millions of Chinese and Indians, he writes, “will never enjoy in their lifetime the condition of a civilized urban existence.” Age of Anger never bothers to engage with clear evidence to the contrary. Hundreds of millions of Indians, Chinese, and Africans have been lifted out of absolute poverty in the last two generations. Mishra could have argued about the absence of human rights in countries such as these, but he is not drawn to engage in detail with them.
Since modernity is actually a multifaceted accumulation of dark and light, progress and retrogression, Mishra’s analysis quickly becomes tangled in its own contradictions. In one part of the book, modernity is castigated for its creative destruction. Here he draws on traditional conservative nostalgia about capitalism’s impact on custom, tradition, and rural order. In other places, his indictment is from the left, directed against capitalism’s creation of new inequalities. In still other places, it is no longer capitalism’s creative destruction that is at fault. Rather it is economic stagnation that is to blame: “In an economically stagnant world that offers a dream of individual empowerment to all but no realizable dreams of political change, the lure of nihilism can only grow.” He begins one sentence crediting modernity with overturning “entrenched prejudices” against women, only to conclude the same sentence observing that the overthrow of these prejudices “is one major source of male rage and hysteria today.” Which side, one might ask, is Mishra on? He seems to want to have it both ways. Here too he does not engage with the contradiction he puts forward.
His critique draws heavily on Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality of 1755. Mishra argues that if we return to Rousseau’s indictment of early capitalist alienation and resentment, we can better understand contemporary discontents. “Rousseau’s prescient criticism of a political and economic system based on envious comparison, individual self-seeking and the multiplication of artificial needs…helps us to understand…why a cleric like Ayatollah Khomeini rose out of obscurity to lead a popular revolution in Iran.” Using Rousseau to understand Khomeini is bizarrely unhelpful. Any actual explanation of Khomeini’s rise might want to include the fall of Mohammed Mossadegh, the interference of the CIA, the cruelty and violence of the Shah, the Shia revival, and Khomeini’s political skill in exile. In other words, it is Iranian politics and Western governments’ arrogant and incompetent interventions, not Rousseauian ressentiment, that explain the Iranian revolution.
More broadly, modernity as a concept has no capacity to explain ressentiment, anger, and violence. It can be forced to deliver explanations only if you ignore all of its positive impulses and if you ignore, as Mishra does, such drivers of history as politics, contingency, and folly.
Mishra makes much of the fact that the anger toward the West in the Middle East and South Asia today replays the anger of Russians and other Eastern Europeans lagging behind the industrializing West in the nineteenth century. But he misses what contemporary Russian revolutionaries, like Alexander Herzen, saw with such painful clarity: that Russian resentment lay not with “modernity” itself—railways, telegraphs, banks, and capitalism—but with the fact that it was imposed from above by an absolutist regime intent on blocking other aspects of modernity—“the moral check on power, the instinctive recognition of the rights of man, of the rights of thought, of truth.”
Mishra thinks that liberalism has betrayed the values that Herzen praised so poignantly because it has become a political apologia for capitalist progress. On the contrary, the wisest liberals of the cold war era, Karl Popper and Isaiah Berlin, always warned against linking liberalism to historical narratives of progress, capitalist or otherwise. In their view, it was Marx’s attempt to ground his revolutionary politics in a “science of history” that, more than any other factor, led communism to become an intellectual tyranny everywhere it was tried. It was Berlin, after all, who loved to quote Herzen’s great remark to the effect that history has no libretto.
So it is always a good idea to resist triumphalist narratives of history, for example, the conceit that the end of the Soviet Empire would usher in an age of liberal capitalist democracy everywhere. It is always important to question the alibis that narratives of progress offer for the dark side of capitalism. But it serves no useful intellectual purpose to substitute dystopian narratives that are equally distorting.
Mishra inveighs against “clash of civilization theorists”—presumably Samuel Huntington—and other unnamed “intellectual robots” who keep “recycling such oppositions as backward Islam versus the progressive West, Rational Enlightenment versus medieval unreason, open society versus its enemies.” In place of these false oppositions, however, he substitutes the dubious cliché that capitalist modernization everywhere is a story of “invasions, unequal treaties, assassinations, coups, corruption, and ruthless manipulation and interference,” in which the dominant West is invariably the aggressor and the East is invariably the virtuous but hapless victim.
Mishra’s analysis concludes with a call for “transformative thinking,” suggesting that the root of the populist anger of the age lies in modernity itself and the resentment it ignites. The result is that his argument effectively precludes any possibility of a political response. If modernity is the problem, what is the cure? We are modernity and we have been so since Rousseau. Modernity endures because it emancipates as well as crushes, frees as well as imprisons. Above all, it is not a malign fate that can only be endured. Modernity is a reality shaped by human will, capitalist, anticapitalist, liberal, conservative, socialist, all pulling in different directions to produce the vast and fragmented reality in which we have to live.
What is missing in Mishra’s vision is any account of the influence of political will in changing the course of modernity in the years ahead. He is right when he says that we are currently living through “an extraordinary if largely imperceptible destruction of faith in the future—the fundamental optimism that makes reality seem purposeful and goal-oriented.” But you cannot reconstruct faith in the future if you give no credit to what political faith has actually achieved in the past. You would not know, reading Age of Anger, that democratic struggles for the right to strike, the right to vote, and the right to equality for countless excluded, despised, and marginalized peoples have enlarged the circle of political inclusion for millions of citizens.
A writer of Mishra’s passion and erudition might actually have engaged with what needs to be done, here and now, to make modernity fulfill its so often betrayed emancipatory promise. He calls for “transformative thinking,” but offers us only passionate fatalism and angry resignation. He does not consider what could be done: getting money under control in politics, defending the rule of law from predatory cliques, fighting for the rights of migrants and refugees, finding decent jobs for those left behind by economic change, reestablishing the norm that everyone, especially corporations and the super-rich, pay their fair share of taxes, getting nations together to slow the pace of climate change. The list is long and accomplishing any of it depends on faith in the capacity of men and women to work together to secure their objectives.
It hardly needs to be said that history does not appear to be on the side of liberal and progressive ideals. We are in the full gale of a conservative counterrevolution that could last for some time and reshape modernity in a reactionary direction. If this is the situation, Mishra’s analysis may be taken to imply that the best we can hope for is to be acute but futile observers, while the worst would be to give up political activity altogether. What is agonizing about our current situation is not that it is hopeless but that it could have been different. It is the contingency, the sheer avoidability of the current situation, that should rekindle faith that it can be changed in the future.
We’ve had an unforgettable lesson in the importance of political agency and the dire consequences of failures of political leadership. Had political leadership in the Remain camp in Britain or the Democratic Party in the United States mobilized constituencies in time and got out their vote, we would not be ruled by people with such a determination to move us in the opposite direction. In both cases, a different outcome was only narrowly defeated. Mishra’s analysis, which removes political agency from the story of modernity, makes it impossible to grasp that our present situation could have turned out very differently. We need to remember this if we are to recover the faith in ourselves that we need in order to shape the future in the direction of progressive ideals.