The fast moving changes in the world in the past few years have forced us into deep introspection and sparked anxiety about the future. Have the changes in technology and its power to collapse time and distance really benefitted mankind, or is it exposing our latent biases? What explains the rise in national, ethnic, or religious rhetoric over common human concerns, neighborly love, caring for each other irrespective of caste, creed, or religious differences? What explains the global conservative backlash against modernity? Are Muslims the only community resisting the power of globalization to homogenize the world? Is there a connection between the rise of religious extremism across all religious faiths? Are there any common beliefs between the gun-toting Talibans in Afghanistan protesting the burning of Quran by a Christian pastor in Florida, or the cow-vigilantes in India or even the radical Buddhist monks in Myanmar and Sri Lanka spewing hateful rhetoric calling for the extermination of Muslims from their lands?
We cannot deny that these, and more such questions, have not troubled us recently. Pankaj Mishra, an Indian essayist, attempts to explain the rise in “the virulent expressions of rage” around us in his book Age of Anger: A History of the Present. The publication of this book in February this year is very timely as it attempts to explain the possible reasons behind the recent wave of anti-intellectualism that may have given rise to extremist identitarian politics around the world. In addition to winning numerous literary prizes for some of his fictional and non-fictional works, Mishra is a columnist for Bloomberg, and The New York Review of Book. Some of his books have been controversial (“If your writing collides with the conventional wisdom, there's going to be some kind of friction”), but they have also received strong and good reviews.
In Age of Anger, Mishra borrows Hannah Arendt's notion of the “common present” to explain the current global political unrest. He writes that in this shared “common present, advancements in technology and communication have redistributed wealth and power to create new hierarchies creating what Nietzsche had referred to as “men of ressentiment,” who share a “negative solidarity.” According to Mishra, the ressentiment is a reaction against both Western capitalism and Russian communism. Their failed promises created a vacuum rife for a third space where such angry identitarian politics could creep in.
The numerous acts of terror in Western metropolises like Paris and London and the mayhem and bloodshed in Asia and Africa, although underreported and garnering relatively less outrage worldwide, have come to define our “common present” (Hannah Arendt, “Karl Jaspers: Citizen of the World”). Although we live in a “common present,” “this common factual present is not based on a common past.” This creates a disjunct in the lives of global citizens. The inability of the different pasts to blend into a uniform common present is what causes ressentiment.
Mishra points out that life in our time with its growing sense of disillusion and disenchantment is not unique. Like Michel Foucault, Pankaj Mishra traces the origin of the world's current problems in the past, specifically the transition in the political and social systems around the world that were triggered by Enlightenment ideals emphasizing personal freedom and individual liberty for all. Sadly, in the current geo-political scenario, these ideals seem utopian and unattainable. Dismissing the “the clash of the civilization” hypothesis that is so often cited by many political pundits as the real cause behind the world's present troubles, Mishra identifies a crisis in (neo)-liberalism which restricted liberty to the elites and the surge in violence by disgruntled individuals as some sort of protest against the elites who control every aspect of life.
While offering us his understanding of history, Mishra punctuates his historical narrative with names and personal histories of numerous anarchists who waged ideological wars against the philosophes shaping European thought. Mishra takes us into the legendary animosity between Voltaire and Rousseau to explain the polarization of our times. While advocating enlightenment ideals, Voltaire had voiced new hope for mankind and celebrated democratic zeal; on the other hand, Rousseau was highly critical of the enlightenment promises. In highlighting the rift between their ideologies, Mishra offers readers an understanding into the current rift in politics between the right and the left. Identifying the Western way of life as one steeped in individualism, materialism and self-aggrandizement, Mishra stresses that anti-modern, anti-capitalist extremist ideologies, too, are laden with contradictions. It simultaneously criticizes and celebrates consumerism. How else can we understand Modi's call for Hindutva with his fetish for a $15000 Savile Row suit emblazoned with his name or Baghdadi's call for an Islamic caliphate while sporting a Rolex? Mishra unearths an interesting story of a developing friendship between Timothy McVeigh, the anti-government domestic terrorist executed for blowing up a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, and Ramzi Yousef, the Muslim terrorist behind the 1993 World Trade center bombing, while serving in the same prison. The point Mishra makes is that their crimes might have been different, but they shared the same ideology: disillusionment in the democratic promise of liberty, equality, fraternity.
Despite his disclaimer at the beginning that this book is not an intellectual history, Mishra does write a highly cerebral history of the changing ideologies in Europe and the sparring philosophes. The transition from monarchy to democracy in Europe, sometimes thrust on other nations like Iraq and sometimes voluntarily embraced by countries like India and China, may have caused widespread disenchantment in their citizens. For example, the concept of universal suffrage, embraced by many countries including some South Asian countries without undergoing the struggle that accompanied them in Europe, may have resulted in people experiencing ressentiment. The forced transition from their old ways of community living to a new capitalist way of living that values trade and commerce over other forms of sustenance created problems for people. Mishra adds that social media has compounded existing problems. Already denied a good material life, the illusions of better life created by social media has increased ressentiment, enabling people to vent out their anger through mean comments aimed at celebrities and people they consider living a better life.
For Mishra, the “pervasive panic” in the world, like our own experience after the Holy Artisan attack, can be traced back to anarchists in eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe. In fact, Mishra does bring up the Dhaka Holey Artisan happening in his book and aligns it with the numerous terrorist attacks in other parts of the world. He points out that there is an attempt by many political pundits to paint these attacks as mostly Islamic terrorist attacks, to present the problem as purely Islamic in nature, and to Islam's inability to adjust to the modern global world, but stresses that such a view lacks a nuanced understanding of the situation. The European anarchists were the true intellectual precursors of present-day terrorist organizations. Despite the similarities, Mishra warns us that “Our predicament, in the global age of frantic individualism, is unique and deeper, its dangers more diffuse and less predictable.” Mishra does not offer solutions, nor does he discuss ways in which this rage can be mitigated, but he certainly leaves us with plenty of foreboding about what is yet to come.
Afrin Zeenat is Assistant Professor at the Department of English University of Dhaka.