Age of Anger

Pankaj Mishra (2017)

Pankaj’s new book might well have been subtitled, ‘An Anthology of Terrorism’.  And at times it’s not the most cohesive one, reading more like a smattering attempt to capture every act of politically subversive violence, and a checkered description of the perpetrators and their inter-relationships, since the Enlightenment.

But looking through this somewhat ramshackle layer of narrative exposes an uncut gem of substance.  Pankaj makes the case that the same fundamental processes that are giving rise to the likes of Brexit, Erdogan, Hofer, Le Pen, Orban, Trump and Wilders simultaneously explain ISIS.  Ressentiment, in a nutshell:

“… where individual dissatisfaction with the actually available degree of freedom constantly collides with elaborate theories and promises of individual freedom and empowerment.”

To elaborate, qua Pankaj:

“The palpable extremity of desire, speech and action in the world today … [springs from] the mismatch between personal expectations, heightened by a traumatic break with the past, and the cruelly unresponsive reality of slow change.”

“Indians and Chinese will never enjoy in their lifetime the condition of a civilized urban existence that a few millions in Europe and America enjoyed intermittently through the 19th and 20th Centuries.” It’s not quite clear to me whether Pankaj feels the modernisation project is moribund because it is materially unattainable (ecology, inequality, etc.), or rather whether it is forever out of reach because of some kind of inner contradiction: “But self-assertion and mimesis [= imitation à la Veblen’s ‘conspicuous consumption’] in the absence of clear norms and ends prove to be self-defeating: they entangle human beings in open-ended processes that ceaselessly provoke anxious uncertainty.”

This, we are given to understand, creates a (the?) space for demagogues to fill, whose appeal “lies in their ability to take generalized discontent, the mood of drift, resentment, disillusionment and economic shakiness, and transform it into a plan for doing something.”

We globalized citizenry increasingly suffer, feels Pankaj, from “an extraordinary if largely imperceptible destruction of faith in the future – the fundamental optimism that makes reality seem purposeful …”.  This reminded me off something Pope Francis said recently about the contemporary European geist, “Europe is now a ‘grandmother’, no longer fertile and vibrant”.

Now my first reaction on encountering this grande sweep of a nihilist brush was that, actually, many economically emergent folks currently walking about are positively buzzing with energy, innovation and hope.  But then this perhaps exactly plays into Pankaj’s argument, as these winners are coming to symbolise to many an increasingly unreachable cadre, desperate attempts at mimesis notwithstanding.  Or maybe he’s just too cynical?

There’s one more thing that should be said for ‘Age of Anger’: it provides one of the most powerful antidotes to the sickeningly naive and simplistic Islamophobia, often perpetrated by otherwise well-informed people,  that seeks to anchor the roots of much modern violence in the Quran.  So if you have somehow come to conclude that there is something special about Islam, something that occupies an upstream causative bead in the chain towards modern trends of terror, then definitely read this!

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