Pankaj Mishra’s “Age of Anger: A History of the Present” was published over a year ago and has received extensive coverage. However memory is fleeting in this short-attention-span era and so I thought it important to shine a spotlight on a book that makes important points about the long-standing debate on the nature and benefits of “modern Western” thought, the so-called liberalism that embodies such ideas as the rationalism of science and free markets.
In his review in the New York Times, Franklin Foer wrote:
The fact that the book contains only a smattering of references to the new president strangely enhances the credibility of its doomsaying. Mishra didn’t scramble for a theory to fit the facts. He has a highly developed understanding of the psychic and emotional forces propelling illiberalism’s spread across the globe, a movement united by a sense of disappointment, bewilderment and envy — the spiritual condition that Nietzsche diagnosed as ressentiment. An anger that Mishra both interprets and shares.
This book presents itself as a “history of the present.” His premise is that broad swaths of the globe are retracing the past, reliving the same traumas and violent dislocations that accompanied Europe’s transition to modernity in the 18th and 19th centuries. A trauma felt most acutely by the “young man of promise” in the countries late arriving to capitalism and Enlightenment, especially Germany and Russia. The prospect of freedom and cultural transformation stirred unachievable expectations, which predictably ended in humiliation and rage.
This self-righteous West, Mishra argues, obscures its “own bloody extraordinarily brutal initiation into political and economic modernity,” as it arrogantly presses the rest of the world to make that same difficult progression.
In his essay for The Guardian in December 2016, Mishra wrote:
The largely Anglo-American intellectual assumptions forged by the cold war and its jubilant aftermath are an unreliable guide to today’s chaos – and so we must turn to the ideas of an earlier era of volatility.
It is a moment for thinkers such as Sigmund Freud, who warned in 1915 that the “primitive, savage and evil impulses of mankind have not vanished in any individual”, but are simply waiting for the opportunity to show themselves again.
Certainly, the current conflagration has brought to the surface what Friedrich Nietzsche called “ressentiment” – “a whole tremulous realm of subterranean revenge, inexhaustible and insatiable in outbursts.”
By contrast, the fundamental premise of our existing intellectual frameworks is the assumption that humans are essentially rational and motivated by the pursuit of their own interests; that they principally act to maximise personal happiness, rather than on the basis of fear, envy or resentment.
If there is one thing I’ve learned, the hard way, during my career in business is that the rational, technical, number-crunching, “it’s just business” mindset and set of behaviors is but an island in a larger ocean of ego-driven, bias-laden, instinctual impulses that is the basis for public and private lives, including supposedly rational matters such as who we hire, what projects get approved, who we vote for and so on.
Business people are especially prone to donning masks of rationality and yet so much of what happens in organizations is often irrational yet covered over with a veneer of techno-jargon, buzzwords and other props such as PowerPoint presentations.
Franklin Foer continues:
The antihero of Mishra’s tale — the prophet who best anticipated the crises of our times — is Jean Jacques Rousseau. And a primary source of his greatness is his hatred of Voltaire. Mishra paints Voltaire as the archetypal elite intellectual, and the worst villain of them all.
Voltaire celebrated reason as society’s highest virtue. That is, he believed that society should reward talent and brains, not inherited titles. He trumpeted trade and consumerism in language that anticipated the 1990s boosters of globalization. His writings and personal example set terms for the liberalism that would ultimately prevail in Europe.
All this, in Mishra’s view, makes Voltaire a world historic hypocrite. Mishra charges Voltaire with creating a society that benefited thinkers like himself, at everyone else’s expense. Voltaire preached tolerance but cozied up to authoritarians, especially Catherine of Russia, and apologized for their violent misdeeds.
Thanks to his connections, he lived a cosseted life and made a small fortune from financial speculation and the watches he manufactured. Voltaire is portrayed as the spiritual forefather of Davos, Thomas Friedman and all the other clubbable paragons of neoliberalism.
Mishra calls him a “paid-up member of the globally networked elite.”
Rousseau, the graceless outsider, could see straight through Voltaire’s cosmopolitan suavity — and he shredded him.
More to the point, he understood the underlying pathologies of the rising capitalist civilization that Voltaire championed.
The market society, Rousseau warned, would dangerously unmoor individuals. He saw how humans aspired to surpass one another in wealth and status, which meant they were capable of great cruelty.
The modern world weakened religion and the family, the emotional buffers that provided comfort. Without these supports, individuals came to depend on the opinions of others for their sense of self-worth, which inflicted terrible cases of insecurity, envy and self-hatred.
This, in Mishra’s argument, remains the nub of the world’s problems: “An existential resentment of other people’s being, caused by an intense mix of envy and sense of humiliation and powerlessness, ressentiment, as it lingers and deepens, poisons civil society and undermines political liberty, and is presently making for a global turn to authoritarianism and toxic forms of chauvinism.”
I would not make the argument that Rousseau is a role model or template for our thinking. There are many potentially toxic implications if one extends his line of thinking (see the blog piece on the book The Cave and the Light.)
But the turmoil we see around the world is not new — it has been centuries in the making — and this book does a good job of reminding us that the issues of our time were not caused by social media, technology, or by any particular politician or company. Rather, we are dealing with the unfinished business of the French Revolution, colonialism and capitalism.