Age of Anger

What America’s violent transition to modernity has in common with the rise of Islamic extremism.

Supporters cheer for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump during a campaign rally at the Freedom Hill Amphitheater November 6, 2016 in Sterling Heights, Michigan.
Supporters cheer for Donald Trump during a campaign rally on Nov. 6 in Sterling Heights, Michigan.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

“Islam needs a Reformation,” went a popular but bizarrely ahistorical refrain in the mid-2000s. Some extreme voices still repeat it today. Forget the notion that anyone can dictate the transformation of a faith as decentralized and diverse as Islam: Do the pundits who say this not know what the European Reformation was actually like? A bloody, 130-year-long series of religious and political convulsions marked by repression, terrorism, fundamentalism (on the part of Protestants as well as Catholics), and war, that’s what. The Thirty Years’ War alone killed as many as 11 million people.

How soon we forget: This could be the motto of Pankaj Mishra’s new book, Age of Anger: A History of the Present. You can tell that Mishra began the book with a particular argument in mind, and that events—specifically, the Brexit vote in Britain and the presidential campaign of Donald Trump—overtook the author and bent the book into a different shape. Mishra, a columnist at Bloomberg View and the New York Times Book Review, wants to remind Westerners of our own painful, violent transition to modernity and to emphasize that much of the turmoil in the developing world is a symptom of the same ordeal. Contrary to the assertions of those pundits who evoke “a worldwide clash of civilizations in which Islam is pitted against the West, and religion against reason,” we are witnessing—in the chaos, conflict, and alarming extremism around the globe—a replay of our own history. It’s a history we’ve chosen to erase from our collective memory, replacing it with a delusional cover story about the “peaceful convergence” of Western nations on “a benevolent Enlightenment tradition of rationalism, humanism, and liberal democracy.” But in reality, Mishra points out, “the history of modernization is largely one of carnage and bedlam.”

The observation that militant Islamic fundamentalism is a modern phenomenon is not new; the popular historian Karen Armstrong has repeatedly written, most memorably in 2000’s The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, that fundamentalism arises in reaction to a rapidly changing world. Without that vertiginous change, it wouldn’t occur. But in Age of Anger, Mishra further points out the resemblance between jihadis and lone-wolf terrorists such as Timothy McVeigh (who described “science” as his religion) and Orlando nightclub shooter Omar Mateen. The same roiling passions that drive such young men have also fueled, Mishra argues, the rise of nationalist demagogues in India, Turkey, and Thailand. Most tellingly, the whole lot harkens back, with often eerie similarities, to the revolutionaries and revanchists that harrowed Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

This is a framework that pushes aside conventional, familiar divisions of left and right to focus on the profound sense of dislocation and alienation that spawned (and still spawns) movements ranging from fascism to anarchism to nihilism. All of these responses are animated by an upsurge in “ressentiment,” which Mishra defines as “an existential resentment of other people’s being, caused by an intense mix of envy and sense of humiliation and powerlessness.” No Westerner can read that description in 2017 and not think of the election of Donald Trump and a campaign that seemed defined far less by what the candidates advocated than by who voters hated most. Not only is the rest of the world undergoing a bone-rattling allergic reaction to modernity, but America continues to reel from it as well.

In Age of Anger’s preface, Mishra explains that he started planning the book in 2014, “after Indian voters, including my own friends and relatives, elected Hindu nationalists to power.” Growing up in what he describes as “semi-rural parts of India, with parents whose own sensibilities seemed to have been decisively shaped by their upbringing in a pre-modern world of myth, religion and custom,” he can attest to “the ruptures in lived experience and historical continuity, the emotional and psychological disorientations and the abrasion of nerves and sensibility that have made the passage to modernity so arduous for most people.”

Instead of experiencing themselves as enmeshed in a web of family and social traditions, obligations, and support (a web that, Mishra acknowledges, could be oppressive), people throughout the world have come to understand themselves as individuals endowed with rights, pursuing their own desires and advantages in a merciless, globalized competition with other individuals. This has been, Mishra claims, “a massive and underappreciated shift worldwide.” The modern individual is encouraged to aspire to the wealth, status, fame, and power on constant display via mass media, even when getting all of that means jettisoning other, older sources of meaning, leaving the places where their families have lived for generations and loosening once-sacred ties. More often than not, they will learn that the rewards of this system are reserved for a few, that the economic expansion of the past 200 years was more of a fluke than an abiding condition, and that emerging economies will never reap as much as the economies that got there first. The expectation that, as Mishra puts it, “the future would be materially superior to the present … nothing less than this sense of expectation, central to modern political and economic thinking, has gone missing today.”

On the other hand, even those who seem to have secured a leg up in the global rat race can turn vehemently against the modern dream. The ranks of ISIS have been fattened with recruits from Tunisia, “the most Westernized among Muslim societies,” in Mishra’s words, and there are British women, “including high-achieving schoolgirls,” who have willingly joined an organization that institutionalizes purdah and rape. Westerners have produced explanations for Islamist militancy that consistently fail to account for whole swaths of the people who succumb to it. Some blame the religion itself, but most of the perpetrators of ISIS’s terrorist attacks in Europe, for example, have not been particularly devout and have had no religious education. ISIS’s success at recruiting educated young people from solidly middle-class families undermines the claim that it capitalizes on economic and political despair. The poor and the comfortable join up. Have-nots may be retaliating against a social order that invalidates them because it regards material success as the only marker of worth, but as Lily Tomlin once observed, even when you win the rat race, you’re still a rat.

There are two aspects to Mishra’s argument. One is that the Western model of secular rationalism—whether it takes the form of democratic capitalism or state socialism—promises equality, opportunity, and dignity for all and then fails to deliver on that promise. The other is that the malaise of modernity afflicts even the privileged because the promise itself is hollow. A modern commercial and consumerist society is incapable of providing individuals with the sort of meaning derived from the traditional commitment to family, faith, and community that they sacrificed to chase after it. This second line of thought he traces all the way back to the 18th-century Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who made such criticisms at the birth of the Enlightenment. Facing off against Voltaire—“an unequivocal top-down modernizer”—and his fellow philosophes, Rousseau “tried to outline a social order where morals, virtue and human character rather than commerce and money were central to politics.” It was also an order in which women were relegated to the home, men were expected to exhibit a militarized patriotism, and outsiders were regarded with reflexive suspicion. (Rousseau’s notion of the ideal society was Sparta.)

Mishra doesn’t endorse this exasperating philosopher’s vision, but he regards Rousseau’s ability to anticipate “the moral and spiritual implications of the rise of an international commercial society” as prescient. The philosopher foresaw, he writes, “the modern underdog with his aggravated sense of victimhood and demand for redemption.” One consistent manifestation of this ressentiment across many seemingly different ideologies is an insistence on the retrenchment of gender roles by angry men who feel emasculated by having to compete with, and sometimes lose to, women. Another is the rancor of provincials toward rootless cosmopolitans. Rousseau, “history’s greatest militant lowbrow,” felt like a bumptious arriviste in the Parisian society where Voltaire reigned. He mistrusted cities and professional intellectuals, and his ideological offspring would go on, in the 19th century, to plant bombs in nightspots and to assassinate tsars, kings, and presidents. “Then, as now,” Mishra writes, “the sense of being humiliated by arrogant and deceptive elites was widespread, cutting across national, religious and racial lines.”

Age of Anger is a short book into which a lot of intellectual history has been packed. Apart from Rousseau and a few other major figures such as Nietzsche, Mishra writes, he has chosen to focus on “relatively neglected German, Russian, and Italian thinkers, whose eclectic ideas infused other frustrated latecomers to modernity with a messianic sense of destiny.” (He opens the book with the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio who, in 1919, with the aid of a couple thousand followers, took over the town of Fiume for more than a year, establishing a proto-fascist “free state” and inventing the stiff-arm salute now associated with the Nazis.) The middle of the book could be heavy sledding for anyone lacking a passing familiarity with figures such as Fichte, Bakunin, and Kropotkin, but the chapters on how these European writers affected subsequent generations of leaders in India, Turkey, and China make it worth the effort. Only occasionally does Mishra explicitly address the rise of Donald Trump and similar demagogues in Europe and the U.K., but anyone reading Age of Anger with them in mind will find that nearly every page illuminates the current political climate of “cultural supremacism, populism and rancorous brutality” that has left many feeling sideswiped and bewildered. A constructive answer to the situation is another matter. That will require, Mishra writes, “some truly transformative thinking, about both the self and the world.”

Read the rest of the pieces in the Slate Book Review.

Age of Anger: A History of the Present by Pankaj Mishra. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.