Déjà vu?

Shahab Saqib on Pankaj Mishra's latest offering, which tries to make sense of our Age of Anger

Déjà vu?
Is there something familiar about what we are witnessing today – the global rage and violence that are stalking our world on a very large scale? From the sudden rise of messianic nationalisms and religious fundamentalisms to authoritarian regimes across the globe, from civil war in Syria to crisis in Ukraine, the world seems to be impregnated with neo-fascism.

Pankaj Mishra, London-based Indian writer who is the author of several books, including the well acclaimed From the Ruins of Empire, answers in the affirmative. In his new book, Age of Anger: A History of the Present, Pankaj Mishra attempts to dissect our ‘age of anger’ by subjecting (liberal) modernity and neo-liberalism to a kind of critique that traces the roots of the current state of global disorder to the beginning of the Enlightenment.

In the past few decades much of the debate about the perceived (and otherwise) threats to Western ‘civilisation’ has revolved around Islam, or what is now called ‘radical Islam’. Islam was invented as the new ‘Other’ after the collapse of Soviet Union and eventual triumph of ‘liberal democracy’, which was proclaimed as the final stage of human history. Subsequently, liberal capitalism and democracy as a perfect form of human government became a model for others to follow. It was zealously preached that the non-Western world had to go through the same historical process that occurred in Europe. Along with this, much of the crisis and violence recurring in the other parts of world was explained by the usually-taken-for-granted, simple and often misleading categorical binaries: modernisation vs traditionalism, progressivism vs non-progressivism, secularism vs theocracy, and so on. Beginning from Pinochet’s Chile, these countries were exposed to neo-liberalism using a ‘’shock therapy’’ (in Naomi Klein’s words). It was believed that with this shock therapy our world would set off on a long march towards universal emancipation, solving all of its contradictions. But, recent developments have shown otherwise: the global order and the doctrine that it is based on lie in a shambles.

It is against this background that Pankaj Mishra writes his new book in which he tries to move beyond simple explanations by deconstructing the above mentioned categories. He offers a broader framework to make sense of our current predicament. To answer the question raised earlier, Mishra probes deeper into history beginning from the 18th  century up to the present, and writes what he calls an ‘’emotional history’’ by investigating the “climate of ideas, structure of feeling” of our age. So, the primary focus of his work remains on subjective experience, paying closer attention to “beliefs, mindsets and outlooks”.

The central thesis from Mishra is that embedded within modernity, with all its contradictions, is the logic of what he calls resentment - a term he has borrowed from the 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Mishra returns to the West’s experience of modernity to shed light on our own age.

As the process of modernity and accompanying revolutions undermined the old feudal order in Europe, a new commercial society came into being, seemingly opening up new horizons with promises of liberty, equality and unlimited growth. Mishra says that modern ‘liberal democratic’ society based on free-market capitalism and rational self-interest has failed regularly to deliver what it promised. As a result, a vast majority of people was left adrift, uprooted from traditional social and religious structures, bonding, community and identity. These people, as outsiders, did not feel at home in the rapidly changing world and that created ressentiment, ‘’an existential resentment of other people’s being, caused by an intense mix of envy and sense of humiliation and powerlessness’’. Provoked by this ressentiment and the rage against the dominant order, these atomised individuals erupted into messianic nationalisms, anarchism, religious cultism and nihilistic terrorism in 19th century Europe, aiming to create a New Man and a New Order.

Now that a vast majority of the population is confronted with the senseless logic of permanent exclusion in a neo-liberal world, we are witnessing the return of that rage, and once again, as Mishra writes, the “modern promise of equality collides with massive disparities of power, education, status, and property ownership”.

It could be said that what we’re experiencing at the moment in the non-Western world is not something completely new as it echoes the West’s own violent and turbulent transition to modernity. Mishra takes India as an example which, according to him, is now plunging deeper into modernity. Globalisation is withering away with the ‘nation-state’ and its sovereignty, undermining the post-colonial nation-building ideologies and intermediate social and religious institutions that had once served as a shield against the shocks of modernity. In consequence, society, politics and traditional social solidarities have eroded, leaving behind isolated individuals lost in the abyss of the global economy - vulnerable to all kinds of fascist ideologies and movements.

The critique of the idea of a rational, autonomous and ‘self-interested’ individual reappears time and again as a reader moves through the book. Mishra says that individuals, contrary to what Enlightenment philosophers such as Montesquieu, Adam Smith, Voltaire, and Kant had thought, do not always pursue their material interests rationally; rather a vast majority, as uprooted outsiders in commercial metropolis aspiring for a place in it, have to struggle with complex feelings of fear, dismay, envy, fascination, rejection, revulsion and anger when they come face to face with the brutal process of modernity.

This resonates clearly with what Marxist academic Marshal Berman wrote aptly in his book All that is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity. He writes that modernity at first sight appears to be uniting all mankind, but it is a “paradoxical unity: a unity of disunity” where we all find ourselves in an environment “that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are” and that “pours us all into a maelstrom of perpetual disintegration and renewal, of struggle and contradiction, of ambiguity and anguish.”

These feelings of contradiction, ambiguity, anguish and fear were expressed clearly by a number of intellectuals, novelists and artists in Europe who were close observers of the world in which industrial, scientific and intellectual revolutions were bringing unprecedented changes. Mishra pays enormous attention to a number of them, such as Rousseau, De Tocqueville, Dostoevsky, Herzen, and Nietzsche, to name a few. Among them, Genevan philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, also an intellectual inspiration for Mishra and one whom he draws upon heavily, was the most important - having formulated a number questions and problems regarding the Enlightenment and the new commercial society. He resisted the temptation to euphorically celebrate them as Voltaire did. Disagreements between Voltaire, ‘representative of the victorious ruling classes and Rousseau the ‘vulgar plebian’, on the question of the meaning of modernity for outsiders and backward people, illuminates some of our own perennial problems, according to Mishra.

Quite expansive in its scope, with a great commentary on a number of figures from history, the book indeed offers many insights into the complexities of our world. Bizarre and controversial as it may seem, the claim that theorists of Zionism, Hindutva and Islamism share a common pedigree and that they are intellectual heirs to their Enlightenment counterparts is nonetheless thought-provoking. In this, according to Mishra, they were children of the very project of Enlightenment; not an aberration from it as usually believed.

The book, however, is not without flaws. Rather than building on the central thesis and offering a coherent doctrine, it reads more like general account with sweeping generalisations. This becomes more problematic when modernity is invoked to explain almost everything where, instead, Mishra could have reframed today’s global crisis into a concrete socio-historical conjecture. This does not mean that Mishra lacks a clear grasp over the issues at hand, but that the whole argument is lost under the weight of homogenously imposed assumptions and interpretations on an (otherwise) non-homogenous European intellectual tradition.

Mishra is a pessimist at best - as he does not offer any solutions. Accordingly, he says, more catastrophic events will follow in the time to come. Mishra insists on reexamining the dominant inherited categories through which we have so far understood ourselves and the world around us.

I think that alone makes it a must-read.

The writer is PhD Scholar of Law at King’s College London. He can be reached at Twitter @sufi_shahab