Scott Neigh's Reviews > Age of Anger: A History of the Present

Age of Anger by Pankaj Mishra
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A far-ranging and clever book that convinced me of its core thesis but left me with some questions and considerable ambivalence about some of the things surrounding that.

The book sets out to understand some key elements of our current moment – particularly the growing prevalence of terrorism (understood broadly), and the rise of the increasingly vocal and vicious far-right nationalisms that have attained state power in places as diverse as the US, India, Hungary, the Philippines, and Brazil, and have managed to have a profound impact on mainstream politics in many other places (*cough* Brexit *cough*). The key to understanding these things, the author argues, is for liberals in the West to stop believing the myths about the history of Western liberalism and its supposed enlightened, nonviolent emergence that were promulgated particularly during the Cold War, and to recognize that all of this violence – of liberal capitalist modernity itself and of those whom it excludes – has a clear precedent during the system's formative years within the West.

The Enlightenment and its aftermath gave us a conception of the world composed of atomized individuals, each maximizing their own self-interest, as well as a range of promises related to justice, liberty, and opportunity. That combined with capitalism's power to dissolve earlier social forms and deprive people of the stability, identity, and meaning that those provided while not actually allowing the vast majority of people to realize anything close to the promises that the rhetoric of liberal-democratic capitalism makes. Aspiration to that promise, disconnection from any alternative, and exclusion from its realization produces resentment, and a widespread and relatively stable structure of feeling organized around that unrealizeable desire and resentment. This is true within the core capitalist societies – it was somewhat less true during the unprecedented and probably unrepeatable boom-plus-limited-redistribution in the middle of the 20th century, but it was very much true before that and is becoming increasingly true since. And it is true in a different way in societies that have more recently been violently disconnected from their traditional forms, dazzled with promises, and then excluded much more thoroughly than ordinary people in the West from whatever (often questionable) benefits capitalist modernity might offer.

The book traces a trajectory beginning with Rousseau (whose work included some very valid and important critiques of the key voices of the Enlightenment, as well as some much more dubious stuff) through German Romanticism and various other tendencies to both the particular form of violence we call terrorism today as well as the hateful collective fantasies of reactionary nationalism. This was true in the 19th and early 20th centuries in places like Italy, Germany, and Russia. And it is true in a lot more places now. The structure of feeling produced as an expanding capitalist modernity shaped the more peripheral areas of Europe in the 19th century is very similar to what it is producing on a much broader scale in the Global South today. And of course, this disconnection between what is promised and what most people can realize is becoming increasingly sharp everywhere, and the same structure of feeling is also fueling both so-called 'lone wolf' white nationalist/violent misogynist terrorists and far-right blood-and-soil political movements within the most powerful capitalist countries. Importantly, this disconnection is not just about money and stuff, but also about identity and feeling and belonging. The overall picture this book paints is of a world marked by violent, predatory capitalist modernity and a range of violent, terrible, and equally modern reactions to it, with no clear path to any sort of alternative.

The author's facility at shuttling among years, eras, generations, and thinkers, as he draws similarities and traces out lineages, is impressive. As I said, I'm fairly convinced by the book's core thesis; I think it is a useful way to understand the relevant elements of our current moment. But I have some reservations.

For one thing – and this is perhaps petty – I don't love the way he uses the term "anarchism." It's based on Bakunin and bomb throwers who claimed that label in the late 19th and early 20th century, but it is largely disconnected from what anarchist politics look like in the early 21st century. He uses it to capture a particular relationship to terrorist violence that is about carnage that symbolically targets the old order but that has no thought or care to building anything else. While it captures something that was an earlier part of one strand of anarchist politics, and I'm certainly open to seeing a role for the structure of feeling he identifies in contemporary anarchist politics more broadly, the way the book uses the label comes across like an unnecessary and unnuanced generalization. This may be symptomatic of a broader tendency to paint with broad strokes in a way that excludes the kind of reading of past and present that might help us move forwards. (And I say this as someone who has drawn political nourishment over the years from elements of broader anarchist and anti-authoritarian traditions, but who also has my own deep ambivalences about much of the political action that happens under big-A Anarchist banners today.)

My more substantive concern is the lack of space the book leaves for any kind of politics that will not inevitably be drawn into either neoliberal defence of a violent and horrible status quo or modes of individual or collective response to it that might have varying mixes of reactionary and liberatory rhetoric attached to them but that will, functionally, end up collapsing into an ultimately destructive politics of escalating *ressentiment* that are just as much part of capitalist modernity as what they oppose. Now, I have no objection to recognizing that both the left and the right have mobilized in the space enabled through this structure of feeling, and that you can point to plenty of historic left projects that may have sounded better on paper than their reactionary counterparts but that ended up somewhere in the crowded terrain between useless and awful. We need to acknolwedge and learn from that. I also really appreciate the way that the book's keen knowledge of who read and was influenced by what shows that there has frequently been much more cross-pollination and ideological murkiness across political tendencies than a shallow engagement from a far future decade often allows. But while I agree with the book's final sentence that there is a "need for some truly transformative thinking, about both the self and the world," I strenuously do *not* agree with the implication that there is nothing valuable to be learned as we do so from earlier efforts, particularly earlier left efforts, to address the violence and harm inherent to capitalist modernity. I'm not sure the author actually thinks that, to be honest, but it certainly seems to be implied by his refusal to identify anything in earlier generations of ordinary people coming together to improve their lives that was useful or inspiring or worthy of taking up and adapting. If we can't draw constructively on what our ancestors have done, beyond naming the faults in all of them, then what do we have to stand on? If all of the "truly transformative thinking" that might lead to something better has to start from zero and happen only from this point forward, I think the world is out of luck.

Don't get me wrong, this is an important book and one worth reading. Just be sure to expect one of those books that's all about the problems, and not much about what we might actually want to do in response.

[This review was also published here.]
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Reading Progress

January 30, 2019 – Started Reading
January 30, 2019 – Shelved
February 7, 2019 – Finished Reading

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