When Marine Le Pen visited Quebec City last March, she said: “I keep wondering who defends Quebec identity, who defends sovereignty, the right of the people to express themselves freely.”
It was with that visit, friends say, that Alexandre Bissonnette became politically active, using social media to heed Le Pen’s call by attacking refugees and voicing support for Donald Trump.
Bissonnette’s far-right enthrallment allegedly would lead to an act of terrorism, when a gunman opened fire at a Quebec City mosque last Sunday, killing six – yet one more event that, like a shout that wakes us in the night, speaks of some mysterious, impotent rage, now finding its terrifying expression.
In Age of Anger: A History of the Present, the novelist and historian Pankaj Mishra takes on the task of theorizing the source of that rage, which he posits as the animating force of our historical moment. The Brexit referendum and Trump’s election are merely the most ostentatious outbursts of what Mishra calls a “global civil war” in which the also-rans of modernity seek vengeance in a directionless danse macabre.
Focusing on the structure of feeling behind events allows Mishra to perceive continuity where others see definitive breaks. When viewed through the prism of resentment, the “Leave” voter is intelligible to the Orlando nightclub gunman, and calls for a caliphate echo those to make America great again. Even more broadly, our global convulsions are discernible in earlier revolutions, beginning with the rise of the industrial capitalist economy in the 19th century. Originating in Europe, the resentment inspired by the modern economic condition “is now infecting much vaster regions and bigger populations,” Mishra writes. Age of Anger probes the roots of what it sees as a distinctly modern rage in order to sketch a history of our present world gone mad.
Mishra is hardly the first to identify anger as the spirit of the times, but his book is distinguished by its dogged pursuit of that spirit into its modern origins. Essential to his story is the period of the Enlightenment, which initiated the inexorable spread of Western industrial capitalism across the globe, a process that has culminated in the very globalization that movements of resentment, such as Brexit, seek to reverse. The spread was not only imperially enforced, but was assisted by what Mishra calls “appropriative mimicry,” in which nations emulated English-style industry, and disenfranchised individuals likewise imitated those at the centre of power.
Along with industry, nations appropriated a “new currency of values,” an ethic of material acquisition and achievement. This brand of radical individualism was sustainable for the powerful few, but not for the many, and the friction sparked a new psychology of resentment. Mishra identifies Jean-Jacques Rousseau as the first great spokesman of modernity’s have-nots. Scorned by the Parisian intellectual elite, Rousseau recast the Enlightenment’s ideals of civility and progress as morally corrupt, and “anticipated the modern underdog with his aggravated sense of victimhood and demand for redemption.”
As a novelist with a finely honed literary sensibility, Mishra is especially good at accessing the psychology behind the texts under study. The reader isn’t given the impression of ideas emerging in pristine condition from the brows of major thinkers, but rather of a messy, deeply personal and neurotic process. If Rousseau articulated the condition of “the uprooted outsider in the commercial metropolis, aspiring for a place in it, and struggling with complex feelings of envy, fascination, revulsion and rejection,” it’s because he himself felt those things. The personal and political are conflated in Mishra’s book, allowing us to see how anger becomes ideology.
Europe is central to Age of Anger – as it must be, when identifying the roots of a homogeneous global culture – but what astonishes is Mishra’s mastery of both Western and Eastern sources. As if tracing the course of a literary influence, his paragraphs range from German Romanticism to Hindu nationalism, Zionism to Japanese imperialism. Mishra’s world-encompassing method reinforces his vision of a civil war being waged between elites and those who resent them, rather than by conventional nation states or religions. Mishra rightly shows impatience with theorists of the so-called “clash of civilizations” between Christianity and Islam, reminding us that the Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh, befriended the first World Trade Center bomber, Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, who said of McVeigh, “I never have [known] anyone in my life who has so similar a personality to my own.” What joins them is the legacy of earlier anarchistic thinkers such as Mikhail Bakunin, who identified freedom with “a joyful passion of destruction.”
It’s important to keep in mind, however, that in many of these cases, the angry are merely the perceived victims of modernity. By any measure, Alexandre Bissonnette occupied a privileged place in comparison to the community he allegedly targeted. What seems missing from Mishra’s book is an exploration that goes beyond a critique of how industrial capitalism generates inequality, and accounts for why even those in relative positions of power and security so easily see themselves as victims. Arguably, it’s the greater equality of our society that leads to this rage; when you’re accustomed to pride of place, equality feels like oppression. In the case of white people railing against feminism and “political correctness,” just as in the case of Bissonnette, one hears not the authentic cry of the have-nots, but rather the ugly resentment of those who already have, but want still more.
Within the homogeneity of industrial capitalism, in other words, there remain shades of legitimacy to various griefs. In this way, Mishra’s compulsion to perceive continuity somewhat blurs his depiction of this supposedly new kind of anger. It’s one thing to say that capitalism has created great inequality, but surely inequality – and the resentments it inspires – has been with us since we jealously crouched before the watering hole. So why does Mishra only trace anger as far back as the Enlightenment? If we’re being asked to dissolve distinctions between Rousseau and McVeigh, then what makes a distinction between Rousseau and his precursors tenable? By Mishra’s method, every age seems like an age of anger, and so what’s unique – if anything – about “the present” of his subtitle, goes unidentified.
That said, a book has to have covers. Within its chosen parameters, Age of Anger will likely stand as the most comprehensive analysis of those whom the Russian writer Alexander Herzen called “uninvited guests at the feast of life” – those who are reshaping history with spasmodic blows of the hammer. As protesters take to the streets in an effort to reverse the vandalism, Mishra’s book leaves us to wonder: Can we fight anger with anger, or will we have to find a new emotional engagement to usher in another age?
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