Pankaj Mishra, “Age of Anger: A History of the Present” (2017) – One thing you can say about Pankaj Mishra- he has good taste in enemies. Niall Ferguson tried to sue him; more recently, mainly due to his inability to parse the multiple meanings of the word “romance,” Jordan Peterson declared his interest in physically fighting him. It’s no coincidence that two of Mishra’s signal public beefs have been with the leading (pseudo-)intellectual defender of the British Empire, and a guy who would’ve been a very common type of white-settler Dominion jingoist dullard had he been born a few decades earlier.
If he had to pick an occupation to put on his tax return, more than historian, or essayist, or novelist, Mishra could put down “critic of empire.” He’s an inheritor of decades of anti-colonial and postcolonial thought generated by the first few generations of intellectuals to emerge from, to borrow the title of another of his books, the ruins of empire. So Mishra takes on the time-honored role of ruffler of metropole-pedant feathers, and he’s pretty good at it. He’s also a popularizer, which means a couple of things. He places the thought generated by earlier grapples with empire in a more contemporary context. He is also something of a bowdlerizer… though truth be told, if you’ve ever read some of these postcolonial theorists, you’d have to admit they could use some “reductionism” into an idiom people can actually read.
You see both the merits and the flaws in his approach in “Age of Anger,” where he attempts to explain our current moment of mass populist/reactionary/nihilist rage through reference to earlier periods of angst over modernity. In Mishra’s view, modern history is defined by a few dynamics that went into motion in the 18th century. Arguments between Voltaire and Rousseau prefigure the general arguments about whether Enlightenment modernity is worth it or not, if the benefit of the narrow few who appreciate Enlightenment thought really is everyone’s benefit. The harsh adjustment of Germany, Italy, Russia, Japan, and India to 19th-century industrial modernity — the death of God, the rise of nationalism, class conflict, et al — prefigures the crises occurring throughout Africa and Asia today. The McVeighs and Al-Awlakis of today’s worlds are essentially copies of the Emile Henrys and Underground Men of Dostoevsky’s time.
The flaws are obvious enough. Mishra is an arch-lumper, and I say this as a guy who tends to lump rather than split himself. He slides between the mid-19th century and the early-21st in the space of a paragraph. His evidence is almost entirely cultural, and more broad (admirably broad) than deep in that vein. Complex situations with significant material factors become duels between different modes of feeling and thought, especially Voltaire’s bien-pensant liberalism and Rousseau’s ressentiment, appearing again and again in different guises. It’s all the eternal return of the demons modernity suppresses, spurred on by the inequalities and general angst modernity produces.
Most cultural and intellectual histories are much, much more careful than this- they restrict themselves to what they can prove, which typically involves painstakingly putting together archival evidence and finely-grained readings of context. This is to avoid doing an injustice of the specificities of historical situations, and to avoid the sort of overgeneralization that tends to undermine a thesis. You can see why this is important, reading this. Especially when the best he can come up with for what to do about the way modernity seems to just generate rage and alienation is to go “:shruggy emoticon: modernity, huh? Whaddaya gonna do??”
But the book also has substantial merits, also clear after reading so many delicate, finely-wrought, and quite slow cultural and intellectual histories. Mishra’s a good prose stylist. He does fine work popularizing the findings of historians who have traced some very peculiar circuits of radicalism in the nineteenth century, between anarchism, nationalism, socialism, and proto-fascism, and shouts the historians out in a solid bibliographical essay. He has a long chapter on the experience of German romantic nationalism that serves as a very competent gloss, the kind of thing it could make sense to assign to undergrads in a core course to get the basic lineaments across (and in which to look for holes).
Moreover, his basic point — that maladjustment to modernity isn’t a problem of specific cultures, but is inherent to the project of modernity as a whole — is well-taken. The issue is, what then? It’s pointless to try to tell someone how to write a book differently. But I think an approach that injected some materialism into the subject would have had to have reckoned with the ways the material accomplishments of modernity really have changed humanity’s potential, and like any potential, it can be used for better or for worse. To paraphrase a certain birthday boy, critics of modernity have described and furrowed their brow at the modern world- the point is to change it into what it can and should be. ***’