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

★★★★☆ (4/5)

A few thoughts penned whilst reading the book

As Diderot asserted, ‘all things must be examined, debated, investigated without exception and without regard for anyone’s feelings … We must ride roughshod over all these ancient puerilities, overturn the barriers that reason never erected, and give back to the arts and the sciences the liberty that is so precious to them.’

This excerpt showcases the inherent arrogance of scientific pursuit which has pitted science against religion for centuries. This innate need to quantify and measure all phenomenon, irrespective of their source, their existence, and to nullify anything not befitting their own concocted definitions. Within this lies the vice of control which man has been trying to master for eons. Why must religion be considered imposing on the liberties of arts and sciences? Naturally, only through a thorough understanding of history can one deduce that until the dawn of modernization, religion heralded and honored pursuits in arts and sciences alike.

The British prime minister, Theresa May, warns that ‘if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere’.

Modernization has also marshaled extremes among other mischief. On one hand we have contemporary education teaching ‘internationalization’ of the self, instructing and preparing students to be enlightened citizens of the world, irrespective of national boundaries. On the other hand we have unctuous politicians indoctrinating minds of those very citizens, preaching supreme loyalty to the state alone. Does this not lead to a moral (and identity) crisis, which seems to be a cardinal issue of the modern age?

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

History of Violence in the West

  • German and then Italian nationalists called for a ‘holy war’ more than a century before the word ‘jihad’ entered common parlance, and young Europeans all through the nineteenth century joined political crusades in remote places, resolved on liberty or death.

  • The original eighteenth-century fantasy of a rationally organized and logically ordered world: the expectation that reason would replace tradition and drift as the determining element in history.
  • Their irruptions of militarism and fascism were explained away as pathological aberrations rather than as outcomes of improvised political solutions to the problem of catching up with an expansionist Atlantic West.

  • Voltaire also keenly endorsed Catherine of Russia’s plan to ‘preach tolerance with bayonets at the end of their rifles’ in Poland. Exhorting Catherine to learn Greek as she prepared to attack the Ottoman Empire, he added that ‘it is absolutely necessary to chase from Europe the Turkish language, as well as all those who speak it’.
  • The class of commoners in France to which Voltaire belonged had felt most acutely the mismatch between their sense of personal worth and the limited scope allowed to their abilities by the existing order. By the time of his death, he had put far behind the humiliation of being thrashed by the minions of a French nob. He parleyed on equal terms with princes and ministers. He had shown by personal example that the hero of the newborn secular society was the entrepreneur– intellectual as well as commercial.

The Prevailing Conundrum

  • It has become progressively clearer that political elites in the West, unable to junk an addiction to drawing lines in the sand, regime change and re-engineering native moeurs, don’t seem to know what they are doing and what they are bringing about.

  • Unquestionably, forces more complex than in the previous two great wars are at work. The violence, not confined to any fixed battlefields or front lines, feels endemic and uncontrollable. More unusually, even this war’s most conspicuous combatants– the terrorists– are hard to identify.
  • The malfunctioning of democratic institutions, economic crises, and the goading of aggrieved and fearful citizens into racist politics in Western Europe and America have now revealed how precarious and rare their post-1945 equilibrium was. It has also become clearer how the schemes of human expansion and fulfilment offered by the left, right, or ‘centrist’ liberals and technocrats rarely considered such constraining factors as finite geographical space, degradable natural resources and fragile ecosystems.
  • Anglo-America made the modern world in the sense that the forces it helped to disseminate– technology, economic organization and science– are still overwhelming millions of lives. A particular ‘experience of space and time, of the self and others, of life’s possibilities and perils’ that the critic Marshall Berman called modernity has become universal, cutting ‘across all boundaries of geography and ethnicity, of class and nationality, of religion and ideology’.
  • They have abandoned the most traditional sectors of their societies, and have succumbed to the fantasies of consumerism without being able to satisfy them. They respond to their own loss and disorientation with a hatred of modernity’s supposed beneficiaries; they trumpet the merits of their indigenous culture or assert its superiority, even as they have been uprooted from this culture.

  • They have mutated into the apparently more sophisticated claim that the clash of civilizations occurs within Islam, and that Western interventions are required on behalf of the ‘good Muslim’, who is rational, moderate and liberal.
  • Radical Islamists or Hindu nationalists insist on their cultural distinctiveness and moral superiority precisely because they have lost their religious traditions, and started to resemble their supposed enemies in their pursuit of the latter’s ideologies of individual and collective success. They are driven by what Freud once called the ‘narcissism of small difference’: the effect of differences that loom large in the imagination precisely because they are very small.
  • ISIS, born during the implosion of Iraq, owes its existence more to Operation Infinite Justice and Enduring Freedom than to any Islamic theology. It is the quintessential product of a radical process of globalization in which governments, unable to protect their citizens from foreign invaders, brutal police, or economic turbulence, lose their moral and ideological legitimacy, creating a space for such non-state actors as armed gangs, mafia, vigilante groups, warlords and private revenge-seekers.

  • Burdened by uncontrollable social unrest, and irreversible climate change, Indians and Chinese will never enjoy in their lifetime the condition of a civilized urban existence that a few millions in Europe and America enjoyed intermittently through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Culture of Individualism versus Collectivism and Communality

  • The culture of individualism went universal, in ways barely anticipated by Tocqueville, or Adam Smith, who first theorized about a ‘commercial society’ of self-seeking individuals.
  • Most newly created ‘individuals’ toil within poorly imagined social and political communities and/or states with weakening sovereignty.

  • Walter Benjamin wrote, the self-alienation of humankind ‘has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order’.
  • Modernization, mostly along capitalist lines, became the universalist creed that glorified the autonomous rights-bearing individual and hailed his rational choice-making capacity as freedom.
  • The French critic Raymond Aron, though resolutely anti-communist, termed American-style individualism the product of a short history of unrepeatable national success, which ‘spreads unlimited optimism, denigrates the past, and encourages the adoption of institutions which are in themselves destructive of the collective unity’.

  • When Voltaire was born in 1694, the philosophe had denoted a secluded figure, remote from the frivolity of the court. By the time he died in 1778, the philosophe referred to someone who actively shaped society. ‘The spirit of the century,’ as Voltaire himself noted
  • In Rousseau’s bleak vision, ‘sincere friendship, real esteem and perfect confidence are banished from among men. Jealousy, suspicion, fear, coldness, reserve, hate and fraud lie constantly concealed under that uniform.’ This pathological inner life was a devastating ‘hidden contradiction’ at the heart of commercial society, which turned the serene flow of progress into a maelstrom.
  • Contra Hobbes and Locke, Rousseau refused to believe that the obligations to civil society could be derived from self-interest, the preservation of life or the enjoyment of private property. For socialized human beings were prone to deceive and to exploit others while pretending to be public-spirited.
  • Rousseau had argued that human beings live neither for themselves nor for their country in a commercial society where social value is modelled on monetary value; they live for the satisfaction of their vanity, or amour propre: the desire and need to secure recognition from others, to be esteemed by them as much as one esteems oneself.

The Leap of Reason

  • Man did not presume to make his world; he was rather made by it. The world itself was seen as unchanging. Thus, there was no such thing as politics as we understand it: an organized competition for power, or contentious notions of equality and justice, identity and citizenship. All legitimacy derived from God and the timeless natural order.

  • They seemed to replace God with man armed with critical reason.
  • Homo economicus, the autonomous, reasoning, rights-bearing individual, that quintessential product of industrialism and modern political philosophy, has actually realized his fantastical plans to bring all of human existence into the mesh of production and consumption

  • Finance money is ‘at once the weakest and most useless for the purpose of driving the political mechanism toward its goal, and the strongest and most reliable for the purpose of deflecting it from its course’. Liberty was best protected not by prosperity but the general equality of all subjects, both urban and rural, and balanced economic growth.

Brewing Resentments

  • But the racism and misogyny routinely on display in social media, and demagoguery in political discourse, now reveals what Nietzsche, speaking of the ‘men of ressentiment ’, called ‘a whole tremulous realm of subterranean revenge, inexhaustible and insatiable in outbursts’.
  • An existential resentment of other people’s being, caused by an intense mix of envy and sense of humiliation and powerlessness, ressentiment, as it lingers and deepens, poisons civil society and undermines political liberty, and is presently making for a global turn to authoritarianism

  • The key to mimic man’s behaviour lies not in any clash of opposed civilizations, but, on the contrary, in irresistible mimetic desire: the logic of fascination, emulation and righteous self-assertion that binds the rivals inseparably. It lies in ressentiment, the tormented mirror games in which the West as well as its ostensible enemies and indeed all inhabitants of the modern world are trapped.
  • Claiming to be meritocratic and egalitarian, they incite individuals to compare themselves with others and appraise themselves in an overall hierarchy of values and culture. Since actual mobility is achieved only by a few, the quest for some unmistakable proof of superior status and identity replaces the ideal of success for many. Consequently, the pitiless dichotomy of us-versus-them at the foundation of modern nationalism is reinforced.

  • Kierkegaard first used the term precisely in The Present Age (1846) to note that the nineteenth century was marked by a particular kind of envy, which is incited when people consider themselves as equals yet seek advantage over each other. He warned that unreflexive envy was ‘the negatively unifying principle’ of the new democratic ‘public’.

The Revolutionist

  • The revolutionist, as he gleefully described this figure in 1869, has ‘severed every link with the social order and with the entire civilized world; with the laws, good manners, conventions, and morality of that world. He is its merciless enemy and continues to inhabit it with only one purpose– to destroy it.’ In actuality, too, motley groups of anarchists and nihilists revolted against, in Nikolai Berdyaev’s words, ‘the injustices of history, against false civilization’; they hoped that ‘history shall come to an end, and a new life, outside and above history, begin’.
  • This soldier-citizen, according to Rousseau, is superior to the inhabitant of cosmopolitan society because he can explain his every action in terms of shared values rather than selfish interests. His moral self-assurance derives from the fact that he is not motivated by private amour propre. His egoism is reoriented towards collective public ends; and though he may become a xenophobe, he at least lives at peace with himself and with his immediate neighbours

Extremist Narratives and Propagators

  • D’Annunzio created a politics of outrageous rhetoric and gestures– politics in the grand style. He invented the stiff-armed salute, which the Nazis later adopted, and designed a black uniform with pirate skull and crossbones, among other things; he talked obsessively of martyrdom, sacrifice and death.
  • Uprooted iconoclastic men with their great dissatisfactions and longings for radical equality and stability have made and unmade our world with their projects of extreme modernity (often paradoxically pursued by imitating ancient and medieval society), and their fantasies of restoring the moral and spiritual unity of divided human beings.

  • As it happens, no European country stokes ideological xenophobia today more than the one to which Rousseau advised ‘an exclusive love of country’ and the necessity of national strength and character: Poland.
  • The idea of ‘propaganda by the deed’– now manifest universally in video-taped, live-streamed and Facebooked massacres– grew naturally from the suspicion that only acts of extreme violence could reveal to the world a desperate social situation and the moral integrity of those determined to change it.

  • Like the early Zionists, who embraced many anti-Semitic stereotypes, these late nineteenth-century Indian nationalists internalized British clichés about Indians as weak, unworldly and unmanly. Longing for martial valour, these men were too fastidiously conscious of their high-born status to turn into a boldly left-wing revolutionary intelligentsia, like the Russian one. The political ideology that seemed a natural fit for these educated, progressive but marginalized Hindus was a radicalism of the right.
  • ‘Nothing makes the Self conscious of itself,’ Savarkar wrote, ‘so much as a conflict with [the] non-self. Nothing can weld peoples into a nation and nations into a state as the pressure of a common foe. Hatred separates as well as unites.’…..In his world view, revenge and retribution were essential to establishing racial and national parity and dignity. But the Hindus needed to have proper enemies against which to measure their manly selves.

  • Believing in Mazzini’s notion that ‘ideas ripen quickly when nourished by the blood of martyrs’.
  • Modi, who believes that ancient Indians flew aeroplanes, combines his historical revisionism and nationalism with a revolutionary futurism. He understands that resonant sentiments, images and symbols rather than rational argument or accurate history galvanize isolated individuals.

Quotations

  • The political therapy offered by Cecil Rhodes– ‘he who would avoid civil war must be an imperialist’– had become increasingly seductive
  • Oscar Wilde hailed ‘sin’, an ‘intensified assertion of individualism’, as a necessary release from boredom, stagnation and mediocrity.
  • According to Girard, the most eloquent contemporary theorist of mimetic rivalry, the human individual is subject, after satisfying his basic needs, to ‘intense desires, though he may not know precisely for what. The reason is that he desires being, something he himself lacks and which some other person seems to possess. The subject thus looks to that other person to inform him of what he should desire in order to acquire that being. If the model, who is apparently already endowed with superior being, desires some object, that object must surely be capable of conferring an even greater plentitude of being.’

  • “We resent everyone … who run at our side, who hamper our stride or leave us behind. In clearer terms: all contemporaries are odious.” Emil Cioran
  • Montesquieu thought that commerce, which renders ‘superfluous things useful and useful things necessary’, would ‘cure destructive prejudices’ and promote ‘communication between peoples’.
  • Voltaire also accused Rousseau of wanting to turn human beings back into ‘brutes’: ‘To read your book,’ he said, ‘makes one long to go on all fours.’
  • Khomeini railed against the whole notion of appropriative mimicry: ‘As soon as someone goes somewhere or invents something, we should not hurry to abandon our religion and its laws, which regulate the life of man and provide for his well-being in this world and the hereafter.’

  • War is an inevitable form of the struggle for existence, and blood will always be the best warm rain for great ideas …

By Tocqueville

  • That the actual experience of individual freedom in itself can provoke a desperate longing for a ‘master’, as Tocqueville put it
  • Tocqueville captured the phenomenon of invisibly creeping despotism in atomized societies devoted to the pursuit of wealth when he wrote that people ‘in their intense and exclusive anxiety to make a fortune’ can ‘lose sight of the close connection that exists between the private fortune of each and the prosperity of all. It is not necessary to do violence to such a people in order to strip them of the rights they enjoy; they themselves willingly loosen their hold.’

Extracts from Literature

  • As he wrote in his last, unfinished book, Reveries of a Solitary Walker (1782), ‘I had never thought the liberty of man consists in doing what he wishes, but rather in not doing that which he does not wish.’
  • In Heirs to the Past (1962), by the Moroccan novelist Driss Chraïbi, a French-educated North African outlines the tragic arc of many relatively privileged men in postcolonial societies: I’ve slammed all the doors of my past because I’m heading towards Europe and Western civilization, and where is that civilization then, show it to me, show me one drop of it, I’m ready to believe I’ll believe anything. Show yourselves, you civilizers in whom your books have caused me to believe. You colonized my country, and you say, I believe you, that you went there to bring enlightenment, a better standard of living, missionaries the lot of you, or almost. Here I am– I’ve come to see you in your own homes. Come forth. Come out of your houses and yourselves so that I can see you. And welcome me, oh welcome me!
  • To be governed is to be watched, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, regulated, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, checked, estimated, valued, censured, commanded by creatures who have neither the right nor the wisdom nor the virtue to do so. To be governed is to be at every operation, at every transaction noted, registered, counted, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorized, admonished, prevented, forbidden, reformed, corrected, punished. It is, under pretext of public utility, and in the name of the general interest, to be placed under contribution, drilled, fleeced, exploited, monopolized, extorted, squeezed, hoaxed, hunted down, abused, clubbed, disarmed, bound, choked, imprisoned, judged, condemned, shot, deported, sold, betrayed, and to crown all, mocked, ridiculed, derided, outraged, dishonoured. That is government; that is its justice; that is its morality.

Points to Contemplate

  • There is a pervasive panic, which doesn’t resemble the centralized fear emanating from despotic power. Rather, it is the sentiment, generated by the news media and amplified by social media, that anything can happen anywhere to anybody at any time. The sense of a world spinning out of control is aggravated by the reality of climate change, which makes the planet itself seem under siege from ourselves.

  • The two ways in which humankind can self-destruct– civil war on a global scale, or destruction of the natural environment– are rapidly converging.
  • True socialism, which rested on spiritual self-sacrifice and moral community, could not be established in the West, for the ‘Occidental Nature’ had a fundamental design flaw: it lacked Fraternity. ‘You find there instead,’ Dostoyevsky wrote: a principle of individualism, a principle of isolation, of intense self-preservation, of personal gain, of self-determination, of the I, of opposing this I to all nature and the rest of mankind as an independent autonomous principle entirely equal and equivalent to all that exists outside itself.

  • ‘Ancient politicians spoke incessantly about morals and virtue, ours speak only of business and money’.
  • ‘Financial systems make venal souls.’
  • Then, to be adequate for its contacts on every side, the lowliest will have to possess much greater knowledge and capacity than it does today. The countries which … acquire this knowledge first will leap ahead in wealth and power and splendour, and even be capable of casting doubt on the others.
  • As Atatürk put it, ‘there are different countries, but only one civilization. The precondition of progress of the nation is to participate in this civilization.’
  • He argued that the histories of nations operated according to their own principles and could not be judged by the standards of the Enlightenment.
  • According to this pioneering German Romantic, the Enlightenment and science had given an ‘intellectual education’ to man but left undisturbed his ‘inner barbarian’, which only art and literature could redeem.
  • Man was alienated from nature also because modern technology and mechanical physics made nature into an object of mere utility, a vast machine, depriving it of magic, mystery or beauty.
  • The task of securing individual freedom could not be entrusted to such ideological abstractions as class and state
  • This vision of universal uplift seems another example of intellectuals and technocrats confusing their private interest with public interest, their own socio-economic mobility as members of a lucky and arbitrarily chosen elite with general welfare.
  • To understand their promptings, and the perils they pose, we have to examine the specific conditions– inequality, the sense of blocked horizons, the absence of mediating institutions, general political hopelessness– in which an experience of meaninglessness converted quickly into anarchist ideology
  • In anticipating these disconnected and unrelated figures, Bakunin, one of the socially derailed and self-exiled figures of the nineteenth century, saw further than his contemporaries: to the waning of developmentalist and collectivist ideologies, a broader scope for the individual will to power, an existential politics and ever-drastic and coldly lucid ways of making or transcending history.
  • Rousseau was among the first to sense that a power lacking theological foundations or transcendent authority, and conceived as power over other competing individuals, was inherently unstable. It could only be possessed temporarily.

  • Above all, we need to reflect more penetratingly on our complicity in everyday forms of violence and dispossession, and our callousness before the spectacle of suffering.
  • But, as Kierkegaard pointed out, the seeker of individual freedom must ‘break out of the prison in which his own reflection holds him’, and then out of ‘the vast penitentiary built by the reflection of his associates’. He absolutely won’t find freedom in the confining fun-house mirrors of Facebook and Twitter. For the vast prison of seductive images does not heal the perennially itchy and compulsively scratched wounds of amour propre.
  • And amour propre can quickly degenerate into an aggressive drive, whereby an individual feels acknowledged only by being preferred over others, and by rejoicing in their abjection– in Gore Vidal’s pithy formulation, ‘It’s not enough to succeed. Others must fail.’

Beautifully Constructed Sentences

  • Meanwhile, selfie-seeking young murderers everywhere confound the leaden stalkers of ‘extremist ideology’, retaliating to bombs from the air with choreographed slaughter on the ground.

  • Clashing by night, the ignorant armies of ideologues endow each other’s cherished self-conceptions and projected spectres with the veracity they crave. But their self-flattering oppositions collapse once we cease to take them at face value and expose the overlaps between them.
  • Called the Rousseau of the Iranian revolution, he invoked a quasi-Rousseauian trinity of Azadi, Barabari, Erfa’n– ‘Liberty, Equality and Spirituality’. In this formula, liberty and democracy could be achieved without capitalism, equality without totalitarianism, and spirituality and religion without clerical authority.

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