Pankaj Mishra on the Violent Transition to Modernity

Pankaj Mishra, leading global thinker, on violence and history.

Pankaj Mishra on the Violent Transition to Modernity

Age of Anger by Pankaj Mishra. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 416 pages.

IN HIS FINAL YEARS, the late historian Tony Judt spilled much ink lamenting the decline of Western social democracy. In a series of articles and talks that culminated in his final book Ill Fares the Land (2010), he argued that in an age of market fundamentalism, the achievements of the European welfare state had been vastly understated. Not only did its social safety nets underpin the long economic boom of the decades after 1950, but by promoting equitable growth, they also foreclosed the return of extremist politics to Europe, ushering its industrialized western half into a halcyon era of prosperous security.

Consequently, Judt viewed the eclipse of the welfare state by privatization and free market economics in the late 20th century with great consternation. In his last public speech in late 2009, he expressed concern that the embrace of the market faith was pushing Europe and North America toward a new “age of insecurity” — one foreshadowed by the financial catastrophe of 2008. “Few in the West are old enough to know just what it means to watch our world collapse,” he said. “Why have we been in such a hurry to tear down the dikes laboriously set in place by our predecessors? Are we so sure that there are no floods to come?”

Well, the deluge is here. In the United States, a wave of populist nativism has swept Donald Trump into the White House. Across the Atlantic, the ghosts of nationalism have returned, casting shadows over the future of the European Union. The same, and worse, is happening in places that never enjoyed the benefits of European-style social democracy in the first place. Cultural chauvinism is resurgent in Russia, India, and Turkey, while large parts of the Middle East are in the grip of chaos and a horrifying extremism. Everywhere, Pankaj Mishra argues in his new book Age of Anger, the driving force is the same: a deep disillusionment with economic globalization and its beneficiaries, which, far from spreading prosperity and “universal civilization” around the globe, have created dislocation and inequality on an unprecedented scale.

At the same time, this provocative book argues, our current malaise is nothing new. The world’s present turmoil — from the rise of ISIS in the Middle East to the populist forces reshaping global politics — echoes the West’s own violent transition to modernity two centuries ago. If Western pundits persist in seeing these changes as unprecedented, it is because they cling to a faith that under the influence of modernization, the world is slowly converging toward “a benevolent Enlightenment tradition of rationalism, humanism, and liberal democracy.” But as Mishra argues, these assumptions overlook both the contingency of the current liberal order — what Tony Judt came to recognize as a late 20th-century “parenthesis” — and the West’s own “extraordinarily brutal initiation into political and economic modernity.” In simplifying history, he writes, we have adopted a dangerous illusion.

Mishra may well be the ideal writer to diagnose our current moment. For more than two decades, the Indian essayist has grappled with the epochal question of what it means to be modern. His first book Butter Chicken in Ludhiana (1995) chronicled the effects of the global free market on the rhythms of small-town India. In From the Ruins of Empire (2012), he documented how Asian intellectuals grappled with the challenge of Western imperialism, responding with a mixture of resentful mimicry, cultural humiliation, and reactionary nationalism. Like the British philosopher John Gray, Mishra has become one of the most interesting public intellectuals in the West: a sort of anti-Thomas Friedman who tears down the reigning clichés of our political and intellectual elites.

Written after Narendra Modi’s election in India and completed right before the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, Age of Anger offers a scathing broadside against the historical provincialism of our current moment. Since 1989, Mishra writes, we have lived in an Age of No Alternatives, in which all the key questions about human affairs are deemed to have been settled. Francis Fukuyama famously argued the collapse of the Soviet Union had led us to the “end of history,” a world in which the prosperity and liberal democracy of postwar Western Europe and North America was seen not as a hard-won contingency, but as something like the resting state of humanity. These “bland fanatics of Western civilization,” as the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr termed them, posited a self-reinforcing pattern of global convergence: as economic growth accelerated, national borders would melt away and societies in Asia, Latin America, and Africa would become, like Europe and North America, more secular and rational.

These “dangerously misleading ideas,” Mishra argues, not only elided the “carnage and bedlam” that accompanied the West’s own transition to modernity; they have also made us spectacularly ill-equipped to explain the current global turmoil. Trying to account for the rise of al-Qaeda and the spectacular violence of ISIS, Western pundits have fallen back on cultural explanations, many positing “a worldwide clash of civilizations in which Islam is pitted against the West, and religion against reason.”

Age of Anger argues that the roots of our current turmoil lie much deeper: in the contradictions of modernity itself. Since its origins in 18th-century Western Europe, Mishra argues, secular modernity has held out the promise of freedom, equality, and the transcendence of history — only to repeatedly fall short of the mark. Everywhere, the creation of a modern commercial society has been experienced as both a dizzying excitement and a wrenching dislocation. Disrupting old religious and social structures, but often failing to fulfill its own promises of emancipation, it has created powerful countercurrents of what Nietzsche termed ressentiment, “an existential resentment of other people’s being, caused by an intense mix of envy and sense of humiliation and powerlessness.”

Mishra traces this contradiction back to the 18th-century Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one of the first Enlightenment thinkers to take aim at its shortcomings. A gruff outsider once described by Isaiah Berlin as “the greatest militant lowbrow in history,” Rousseau repeatedly faced off against Voltaire and the philosophes, staunch advocates of secular rationality and the commercial society then emerging in Britain and France. Rousseau argued that the urbane philosophes — forerunners of today’s TED-talkers and “networked elites” — had deposed superstition and religion only to replace it with an alienating new world of wealth, privilege, vanity, and endless striving. In its place, Rousseau tried to articulate a social order in which “virtue and human character rather than commerce and money were central to politics,” a community in which “the tension between man’s inner life and his social nature could be resolved,” even if this part of his argument remained somewhat vague.

While Rousseau’s existential yearning had its own dark side — Mishra shows how it would inspire future generations of exclusionary nationalists in Germany and elsewhere — he was the first person to think seriously about the problems of the new secular, commercial society. He saw “the deep contradictions in a predominantly materialist ethic and a society founded on individuals enviously emulating the rich and craving their privileges.” Conducting a swift tour through the work of key 18th- and 19th-century thinkers — from Diderot and Dostoyevsky to Rimbaud and Tocqueville — Mishra charts the march of commercial society as it migrated eastward to Germany and Russia, and then, at the point of a Western gun, to societies in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. As he shows, ressentiment was never far behind.

It is this, Mishra writes, that connects today’s terrorists — from lone-wolf operators like Timothy McVeigh to the bearded scions of al-Qaeda and ISIS — to the generation of anarchists and messianic revolutionaries that emerged from the maelstrom of modernizing Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries. These include half-forgotten figures like Giuseppe Mazzini, who promoted militant nationalism as a replacement for religion, and the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, who saw history as a blank slate on which the visionary individual could inscribe his own destiny through theatrical acts of violence.

Mishra depicts the smartphone-toting fighters of ISIS as radically modern figures, “the canniest and most resourceful of all traders in the flourishing international economy of disaffection.” Poorly versed in Koranic scripture, they resemble less the flock of the seventh-century Prophet than the followers of Gabriele D’Annunzio, the Italian nationalist poet, who, in 1919, took over the Adriatic town of Fiume and proclaimed a proto-fascist “free state,” complete with black uniforms and the raised-arm salute — a comic opera preview of the real fascisms to come.

Today, as power’s center of gravity shifts east, Mishra argues that the West’s own fateful experience of modernity is playing out globally. From Egypt and Syria and the slums of Mumbai, hundreds of millions of people “herded by capitalism and technology into a common present” have become marginal to the workings of global capital, creating powerful new vectors of ressentiment. It has also returned with a vengeance to the West, the homeland of secular modernity, where “the mythic Volk” — “Make America Great Again” — “has reappeared as a spur to solidarity and action against real and imagined enemies.”

We live in revolutionary times. In Age of Anger, Mishra has produced an urgent analysis of a moment in which the forgotten and dispossessed are rising up to challenge everything we thought we knew about the state of the world. It will be a time of “blunt reckonings,” Mishra writes, one calling “for some truly transformative thinking, about both the self and the world.” Beyond this, he offers little in the way of solutions. But the wisest response may be to accept that the modern contradiction is unsolvable, and get to work erecting bulwarks against the deluges to come.


Sebastian Strangio is a journalist and author focusing on Southeast Asia. He is also the author of the book Hun Sen’s Cambodia (Yale University Press, 2014).

LARB Contributor

Sebastian Strangio is a journalist and author focusing on Southeast Asia. Since 2008 he has roamed widely across the region and his writing has appeared in Foreign Policy, The New York Times, the New Republic, Foreign Affairs, and The Atlantic, among many other publications. He is also the author of the book Hun Sen’s Cambodia (Yale University Press, 2014). He currently splits his time between Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and Chapel Hill, North Carolina.


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