Book Review :  Age of Anger: A History of the Present by Pankaj Mishra

by Ashwani Kumar

Age Of Anger is vintage Pankaj Mishra, the literary iconoclast. He is also a maverick political thinker—edgy, sly and idiosyncratic—weaving a kind of witchcraft with the wounded frankness of prose. Unlike usual masterpieces where genealogical archives are scrubbed for table-top, hedonistic history writing and nihilistic political telos, he has presented a rare literary anthropology of the surviving fragments of rebellious ‘political unconsciousness’ in the divided modern world since 18th century onwards. In a profoundly illuminating and enticing operatic ‘dance macabre’, “to the great amazement of both the actors and spectators”, Mishra recreates an elegiac, philosophical history of the origins and spread of inequality and hatred.

With stunning visuals of flying corpses of metropolitan liberal elite and faithless, web-spidering ‘baby-faced millennials’ in the backdrop, his intriguingly blood-spotted lyrical score speaks to us in an estranged lover’s language about what Russian poet Osip Mandelstam (who died in Gulag) called, “My Age, My Beast”!

While reviewing the book, I almost fainted with a scary, epiphanic experience of sighting Byron’s Manfred, who whispered into my ears: “Must crimes be punish’d but by other crimes What I have done is done; I bear within. A torture which could nothing gain from thine”. Ah, reading this book is like admitting to our own complicity in the ‘forgotten conjectures’ about rising xenophobic furies of demagogues, populists and hyper-nationalists around the world. No wonder, Frantz Fanon has ultimately found his true heir in Mishra, a self-confessed ‘stepchild of the West’, without a Ferrari in Mashobra, a snow-capped provincial town in Himachal Pradesh.

This is not a book on the intellectual history of the ‘enlightenment and its discontents’ or the globalisation of zombie-ridden capitalism. Written in an intensely personal and incendiary political tone, it explores “a particular climate of ideas, a structure of feeling and cognitive disposition, from the age of Rousseau to our own age of anger”.

Every page of the book animates with the Nietzschean idea of ressentiment that occurs in a ‘reflective and passionless age’ and it accompanies an existential resentment of other people’s being and projection of a sense of one’s own inferiority/failure onto an external scapegoat. This is caused by a strangely dangerous mix of envy and sense of humiliation and powerlessness amidst the riches and ravages of modernity. Like a rogue flâneur, Mishra travels across a wide swathe of beautiful, but oil-spilled beaches of history of ideas from Romantics, anarchists (a rare combo of Bakunin and Lala Hardayal of Ghadar Party), and Russian nihilists to Herbert Spencer, Tocqueville, Karl Marx, Max Weber, Eric Vogelin, Faisal Devji, etc, to counter-revolutionaries of the RSS and ISIS. Like its secular rivals, the ISIS mobilises narcissism of small numbers and hatred against strangers locally and globally. In the words of Mishra, “it’s the canniest and most resourceful of all traders in the flourishing international economy of disaffection”. With a brilliant bibliographical essay at the end, this book promises to become a classic primer on courses in political theory and thought as well.

Demolishing the popular representation of “Rousseau as a prophet of totalitarianism” and his general will—volonté générale—as the proxy for majority tyranny, Mishra has resurrected him as the new-age guru of the dispossessed and disaffected masses, the so-called ‘universal waste’. The comparisons between Rousseau, ‘the sore loser’ of modernity, and Voltaire, ‘the representative of the victorious, ruling classes and their valuations’, are revealing. Known for visceral rivalry between them, they continue to shape the debate on winners and losers of modernity, capitalism and globalisation in the modern world. If Rousseau had claimed that “the metropolis was a den of vice”, Babasaheb Ambedkar famously followed up saying Indian villages were “a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow mindedness and communalism”.

Consider another comparison: seduced by the messianic and sadistic passion of modernity, Voltaire hailed London’s stock exchange as a ‘temple of secular modernity’; and closer home, Jawaharlal Nehru called large dams ‘temples of modern India’. Not surprisingly, both today stand discredited and disowned by the non-bourgeois elite and masses. Mishra also laments that post-colonial idealism seems to have disappeared with the collapse of socialism as an economic, political and moral alternative.

In short, this is a book about ‘today’s global civil war’—an imminent global disorder, a moment of singularity in which only an Ubermensch or charismatic ‘large and small prophets’ tragically offer escapes from the psychological and political horrors of Nietzschean ressentiment. To give you a sense of how this ressentiment has played out in our ‘heart of darkness’, I quote Mishra in some detail here: “billions of the world’s poorest are locked into a Social Darwinist nightmare. But even in advanced democracies a managerial form of politics and neo-liberal economics has torn up the social contract. In the regime of privatization, commodification, deregulation and militarization, it is barely possible to speak without inviting sarcasm about those qualities that distinguish humans from other predatory animals—trust, co-operation, community, dialogue and solidarity”. And this ‘political catastrophe’ has led, in the words of Baudelaire, to the globalisation of ‘universal ruin’, a reality paradox that lies at the core of this book.

Do not believe him if you are suffering from delusional ‘illusions of history’s winners’ like Italian poet and politician Gabriele D’Annunzio, who hated the ‘acrid smell of humanity’, or if you are persuaded by ‘bland fanatics of western civilisations’ like Trump, Marine Le Penn, and their clones around the world. Also, this book is not meant for you if you are a second-hand Marx follower with pre-owned unisex Prada jholas or claim to be a third-rated Leninist and Maoist, who still “mimic a Marxist dream of universal revolution”. Hidden in a trail of scattered ellipses in his cosmopolitan prose—sometimes contrived and encumbered with excesses of metonymy—his self-conflicted monologues of anger reveal why he relies “more on novelists and poets than historians and sociologists”. Don’t be surprised about the extreme savagery with which Mishra skins the politics of post-truth, because he is aware of the Nietzschean curse that “the snake which cannot cast its skin has to die”.

After the latest Ramjas incident in Delhi, it has become clear that nationalism—liberal or conservative—is a deeply troubled fantasy, if not an illegitimate idea because of the “growing 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”. Social scientists who attribute welfare outcomes to nationalism or sub-nationalism need to discard their dangerously flawed utilitarian thesis of social solidarity, as nationalism/sub-nationalism often degenerates into xenophobia and hatred of strangers/outsiders. I can now imagine why in the recently concluded Mumbai’s Kala Ghoda Lit Fest, our co-panelist, film director Dibakar Banerjee startled the audience when he said, “The world is now divided between haters and non-haters.” In the end, neither ‘regaining my religion’ (Hinduvta) nor ‘finding true freedom and equality’ (Hind Swaraj) promise redemption from the growing global disorder, democratic or authoritarian. As an agnostic patriot, I can’t help but conclude with TS Eliot’s hauntingly auto-annihilatory words: “It is better to do evil than to do nothing; at least we exist.” Thus, let’s do something. If after reading the book you feel angry, then “chew the sun and spit it out”!

Ashwani Kumar is a poet and professor of development studies at Tata Institute of Social Sciences. Presently, he is senior fellow, Indian Council of Social Science Research. He is also the author of My Grandfather’s Imaginary Typewriter. His next collection Banaras and Others is anticipated soon.

This review was originally published in Financial Express.