Pankaj Mishra's breathless attempt to root the political anger engulfing the world in the 18th century is too sweepingby Stefan Collini / January 17, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
Age of Anger: A History of the Present, by Pankaj Mishra (Allen Lane, £20)
The constant temptation in immediate commentary on world events is to overreact and overexplain. At the moment, we are being told that our world has been turned upside down, that democracy doesn’t work, that human motivation has changed, that evidence has ceased to matter, and any number of other over-heated simplifications. Just as media scare stories can generate a spasm of panic-buying, so dramatic headlines can provoke a frenzy of panic-writing. Faced with this froth, we turn gratefully to a book that promises to view the turmoil of the present in the longer and calmer perspectives of history.
Pankaj Mishra has already won many admirers for his trenchant critiques of the kleptocratic and ethnocentric forces determining the political economy of the world, but now he is offering us something more ambitious still—a diagnosis of the global convulsions of the present that is rooted in a reading of cultural and intellectual history from the 18th century onwards.
This necessarily prompts us to reflect on how the past may best shed light on the present. Are we looking for a pattern, even the continued operation of the same causes in changed circumstances? If so, what exactly do we gain by learning that some things in the past were in some ways similar to what we have now, though also quite different? Or are we trying to inoculate ourselves against error by demonstrating that the familiar categories and generalisations through which we try to understand the present all make assumptions about the past that are superficial, misremembered, or just wrong?
In Age of Anger, Mishra proposes that what he sees as an epidemic of protest and violence sweeping the contemporary world is, above all, an expression of the rage and resentment felt by those who have been let down by the promises of progress and prosperity. As responses, this anger and these acts of violence are not rational calculations of self-interest: they are, rather, repudiations of such instrumental reasoning in the name of deeper, more visceral, human needs and urges.