Age of Anger: A History of the Present
Book of the week
(Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, $27)
Pankaj Mishra has just guaranteed himself a place among the most cited, and most criticized, public intellectuals of 2017, said Christopher de Bellaigue in the Financial Times. In his “vitally germane” new book, the Londonbased essayist and novelist destroys the notion that the grave challenges currently confronting the liberal-democratic West were spawned by forces outside its orbit. To Mishra, the growth of ISIS, the collapse of Syria, and the rise of Donald Trump all were triggered by a weakness at the heart of post-Enlightenment culture that has inspired angry resistance for centuries. Mishra, who’s both a self-described “stepchild” of the West and one of its thought leaders, brings to the past three centuries of global history “the kind of vision the world needs right now.”
“Age of Anger is especially scornful of clash-of-civilizations theorists,” said Eric Banks in Bookforum. In Mishra’s view, the grievances of militant Islamists, Hindu nationalists, and the American alt-right all were foreshadowed by a debate waged between two Enlightenment-era heavyweights. Voltaire, a cheerleader for secularism and free-market capitalism, was taken to task by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who warned that a culture that put the pursuit of individual self-interest above family, faith, and community would inevitably lead to alienation and anger among the many people the modern economy would leave behind. Rousseau’s writings thus foretold both the jihad-like violence of 19th-century Russian anarchists and the fetishization of German folk culture that prefigured Nazism. And now that market capitalism is pushing aside all older ways of life, Mishra tells us, movements born in resentment will only multiply.
But is the liberal-democratic project really so terrible? asked The Economist. Mishra is so focused on the violence it has unleashed that he discounts how much progress it has made in correcting social injustices. He also chides free-market liberalism for failing to create a perfect world, instead of recognizing that its intent is merely to allow the coexistence of people with different ideas and needs. “Politics is conflict; it will never reach the steady state that Mishra seems to yearn for.” Not that Mishra knows exactly what he does want, said Samuel Moyn in NewRepublic.com. He admits there’s no going back to the cultures that modernity has displaced, and that a solution will require profound thinking. Until then, “no one has discerned better than Mishra” just what our challenge is.