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.
His argument is that we can better understand these phenomena if we return to the late-18th and 19th centuries, when various groups expressed similar rage and disappointment at the failure of the Enlightenment to deliver universal peace and prosperity. This prompted many of the best minds of those centuries to be critical of superficial forms of rationalism, exploring instead the darker recesses and contradictions of human personality—figures such as Rousseau, Herzen, Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche. We need to return to the insights of these figures, argues Mishra, if we are to replace the one-dimensional model of rational economic man that guides our current thinking with a more adequate understanding of human motivation. Only then shall we be able to get to grips with the profound forces that are currently threatening to re-shape the world.
The discussion moves very swiftly backwards and forwards over large tracts of time and space (18th-century St Petersburg, 19th-century Paris, 20th-century Tehran, 21st-century Delhi…), mentioning an astonishing array of names who wrote in various European and non-European languages. Inevitably, none of these places, periods and writers can be given any really sustained attention. But the sweep of Mishra’s argument and the confidence of his
judgements are initially exhilarating, while several of his claims are intuitively appealing. He is surely right that global capitalism promotes ideals of life which, in reality, only a small proportion of the globe’s population can attain. He is right that this mismatch provokes feelings of frustration, humiliation and anger, and that these sometimes take political form. And he may be right that some of the current politics of frustration bears some resemblance to some of the kinds of revolutionary or anarchist violence perpetrated across Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
“Mishra wants to develop a model of human psychology that can acknowledge resentment, antagonism and self-contradiction”
Quite what, beyond these relatively familiar points, he is arguing is harder to say. Mishra insists that his book “is not offered as an intellectual history… Rather, it explores a particular climate of ideas, a structure of feeling, and cognitive disposition, from the age of Rousseau to our own age of anger.” The several dead metaphors hovering behind this sentence (climate, structure, disposition) make it difficult to be sure just what the alleged continuity involves, but it does seem to propose something strikingly stable and long-lived.
Historians (and others) use the formula “the age of x” very readily, but in Mishra’s case one cannot help wondering whether the whole thesis isn’t made almost self-confirming by describing one pole of the comparison as “the age of Rousseau” and the other as “the age of anger.” It would be no less plausible to identify the period as running from, say, “the age of Kant” to “the age of equal rights,” which would suggest a quite different interpretative framework.
Speaking of a “climate” of ideas is a familiar metaphor, but if it is to carry this much weight, then we may legitimately ask to see some comparative rainfall statistics. (I should say that the book does have an enormously impressive, wide-ranging and up-to-date “Bibliographic essay,” though it is cast in a discursive form that means there is mostly no way to find proper references for the statements in the text. Mishra is not to blame for this: it seems to be the conventional wisdom of current commercial publishing that “ordinary readers” will be scared off by any sign of scholarly apparatus.)
Two fundamental questions must always be asked of any commentator offering such an encompassing analysis of their own times. First, to whom is it addressed? And second, where do they place themselves on the map of the present that they have provided?
On the first question, it is surely clear that Mishra is not addressing himself to the various groups whom he sees as representatively expressing the “anger” of his title—the jihadists, the supporters of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the voters for Brexit and for Donald Trump, and so on. After all, as a remedy for the supposed masses’ hatred of the supposed cultural elite, prescribing a stiff dose of reading in some of the most complex works of modern European thought seems an unlikely winner.
More plausibly, the book is enjoining “us” to revisit figures such as Rousseau, Nietzsche and company in an attempt to develop a model of human psychology that can acknowledge the centrality of resentment, antagonism and self-contradiction. He is recommending, first, that those who analyse and comment on these various political phenomena should refine the tools of their trade; and second, that thoughtful readers of 400-page books on history and social theory deploy this kind of more complex psychological model in trying to understand the world around them. Those are admirable, if familiar, goals—most writing of this kind is addressed to such readers—but then we are bound to wonder whether his target readers are actually unreflective prisoners of a simplified form of alleged Enlightenment rationalism.
And this points towards the answer to my second question. Mishra implies that he occupies that cherished location of the contemporary radical critic, “the margin,” and that this book is written “from the perspective of those who came late to [the modern world], and felt, as many people do now, left, or pushed, behind.” That may represent a salutary form of self-discipline, but if we could speak at all accurately about such a thing as a “cosmopolitan intellectual elite” (a doubtful term), we would have to recognise Mishra, a regular contributor to such publications as the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books, as one of its core members.
But perhaps in that case his various characterisations of the state of the modern world should make more allowance for the existence of people like him (who would include, for some purposes, people like me and maybe people like you, too). For example, he is prone to talk of “a chasm of sensibility between a technocratic elite and the masses,” but he presumably doesn’t consign himself (or his readers?) to either half of that reductive binary. The very existence, and still more the likely success, of his book suggests such schematic pigeon-holing can’t be the whole story. I entirely agree with him that far too much policy discussion is at present dominated by an etiolated model of economic calculation, but the implied readers of his book are actually much more likely to be found criticising this ideology than propagating it.
The unsteady character of the book’s self-positioning is matched by the unsteady character of several of its arguments. It is unhelpful to be working with a reductive version of supposed “Enlightenment rationalism” in the 18th century and to be exaggerating the monopolistic position of “economic reasoning” in the present.
But what most weakens the logic of Mishra’s case is to treat the second of these as the inevitable outcome of, indeed as almost indistinguishable from, the first. This is the “climate of ideas” he claims to be exploring, in which case I’m sorry he didn’t do a bit more of that “intellectual history.” For the truth is that not only was the thinking of figures such as, say, Hume and Diderot far from naively rationalist, but in addition it only had complex or indirect connections with early 19th-century versions of political economy, which in turn were far from identical to late 19th-century neo-classical economics, which itself evolved and met with other influences before being ossified into late 20th-century business school orthodoxies from which much current policy takes its inspiration, and so on. For these and other reasons, Mishra’s key claim is, at the very least, disputable: the diverse reactions of various Romantic and 19th-century figures to some of the disappointed expectations of the 18th century often only bear a partial or superficial resemblance to the various responses to the effects of global capitalism by the dispossessed in the contemporary world.
Some of Mishra’s attempts to flesh out the connecting history don’t exactly help, either. For example: “The triumphs of capitalist imperialism in the 19th century had fulfilled on a grand scale Voltaire’s dream of a worldwide materialist civilisation knit together by rational self-interest.” Gosh—who knew that Voltaire was actually one of the “Chicago boys”? Or this: “Nineteenth-century Europe, having abandoned its old social order, lurched with its new religions of power and wealth into the age of Social Darwinism; its masses, mobilised by strongmen through large states, then went on to participate in an extensive slaughter in the early 20th century.” There’s “the long 19th century” done in a sentence. There is a lot of this kind of thing in Mishra’s book. These century-hopping assertions are not wholly wrong, of course, but the brush is so broad that at moments it becomes hard to believe anything genuinely illuminating can be painted with it.
Some of the more specific claims can be unnervingly imprecise, too. In generalising about the “Cold War” character of Anglo-American scholarship in the 1950s, Mishra writes: “The diversity and contradictions of the Enlightenment were squeezed out in its standard liberal version—for instance in Peter Gay’s commercially successful two-volume history in the 1950s,” a charge supported by the observation that “Gay almost entirely ignored Rousseau, the devastating internal critic of the Enlightenment.” There are, no doubt, various criticisms that could legitimately be made of Gay’s account, but as a matter of fact his two volumes were first published not in the 1950s but in 1966 and 1969, the second volume concluding with an extended discussion of Rousseau.
As I’ve already made clear, I entirely agree with Mishra’s implicit premise about the inherently destructive instability of capitalism, and I’m hardly the person to object to a reasoned critique of the facile economism of so much policy-making and media discussion. I’ve also admired other things Mishra has written (such as a memorable evisceration of Niall Ferguson on world history) and obviously I’m keen to see the glib clichés of contemporary public debate confronted by the findings of serious historical scholarship. But, sadly, I have to report that this book, though written with great learning and brio, may not serve these excellent causes all that well.
In the Preface Mishra tells us: “I began work on [this book] a few weeks after Donald Trump entered the presidential race in the United States. I finished writing it the same week in 2016 that Britain voted to leave the European Union.” This statement is presumably intended to underline the topicality of his engagement, but it also indicates the remarkable speed with which he completed this book, and perhaps that accounts for the summary character of some of the writing. Addressing a particular political moment and writing good history are both laudable aims, but it’s not always so easy to do both at the same time.