Understanding the Age of Anger – Review of Pankaj Mishra’s book.

Not the environment for me today but another big theme of our age. This time the story of “extremists” across the world, and a review of a book that our Serious Book Club (HK) has been reading.

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“The state of negative solidarity, as Arendt suspected, has become an   ‘unbearable burden’ provoking ‘political apathy, isolationist nationalism, or  desperate rebellion against all powers that be’. Political and economic life seems to have no remedy for the emotional and psychological disorders it has unleashed”.

To me this book, whatever its flaws, does take us a long way to understand the situation we are now in. And it helps, because rather than creating fear and hostility towards some groups it will help us to a painful understanding.

 

 

What is behind this anger of some groups in society – that leads to seemingly senseless violence? Suicide bombs, explosions – Damascus to Barcelona; Bali to Nairobi. Has there always been this resentment that is played out through religion or race? This is the question that Indian essayist, journalist, Pankaj Mishra, seeks to answer. Underlying  his answer is a challenge to those who take the view that this anger something peculiar to Islamic countries.  He looks at commonalities across the world and across time from Italian Fascism to Al Baghdadi’s ISIS.

The expansive intellectual breadth of the book with this arc of political thought spanning the 19th/20th    is impressive if also frustrating. It can at times seem just like showing off.  But what about the thesis? It seemed to lead to different views on our book club.  For example, does Mishra think that economic exclusion underlies the “ressentiment” as he calls it. Or is it a genuine human need for a common culture, tradition, moral certainty? Some thought the book not fully formed – hopefully with a little more time, the thinking will crystallise further.

Some of my fellow book club members saw the book as still in gestation, with ideas as yet uncrystallised. To my mind the book is a sturdy sapling of thought vital to our understanding of our current situation.  I will try – no doubt with only partial success – to explain why this is so.

Firstly, Mishra challenges the dichotomous view of recent history – the last 200 years or so. He takes us back to the advent of modern industrial society and the French revolution. Most of us may simply remember the tricolour and the slogan of “liberte, egalite and fraternite”, and associate it with turning the corner towards a stable secular liberal democracy. We tend to see this as rooted in the “European enlightenment” which we regard as grounded in reason and one half of a divergent development: progress and freedom in the West; and poverty and religion in the East. We hear the constant refrain about the Islamists who want to drag the west back to its scarily religious dark ages. I remain and expect I will forever be exasperated by this view of history where people have definitive views but know so little real history.

Mishra shows that even at the time of the French Revolution, European thinking was pulled in 2 ways: one that saw progress in simple terms – votes, rights and to some extent were guided by reason etc; and others who instead saw the new era as one of loss of tradition and village life. Emotion, feeling were recognised as vital. He portrays this as beginning with the debate between Voltaire, the patrician intellectual, and Rousseau “the indignant outsider”. Within Rousseau’s thinking was also an attack – a hard attack on the new elite and a more populist bent than that of Voltaire.

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He introduces us to the German thinkers in a Sophie’s World format –  from Kierkegaard to Herder and Fichte and Nietsche –  romanticising the the past, appealing to race and nation as well as community and ritual, and attacking the elite now associated with Paris. But it was not always a positive appeal; instead very often in a form of what Arendt calls “negative solidarity”.

The nasty side was the colonial thinking of racial superiority. It culminated in Nazi Germany – preceded by Italian Fascism – once again populist and anti- intellectual. But often supported by another elite – the commercial elite.  In our modern era, we have the alt-right from those responsible for Oklahoma to  Charlottesville and also the followers of the Islamic State – also violently moral.

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Secondly, Mishra brings out both the economic as well as the psychological aspects of “alienation” in modern society. Whether we’re talking about industrialising UK or the rustbelt of the US, there are the losers in terms of economic progress. But another dimension is the loss of social status and moral certainty. People maybe young people in particular like and need boundaries. They may receive this from a gang one day and ISIS another. He also brings in a tendency to violence, a tendency to destroy like Bakunin’s anarchist tribe, based on an appeal to raw anger.  So this 2-limbed explanation emerges: economic status on the one hand and on the other the need for social status, belonging and moral certainty. Without these, people are discontent – filled with “ressentiment” – and open to the appeal of violence.

“Thus the majority see social power monopolized by people with money, property, connections and talent; they feel shut out from both higher culture and decision-making…Many people find it easy to aim their rage against and allegedly cosmopolitan and rootless cultural elite”.

To my mind, despite its breadth, the books is a little lacking in its analysis of the impact of the late 20th century post-colonial power structure. It does recognise the inequality and “the superfluous young people condemned to the anteroom of the modern world, an expanded Calais in its squalor and hopelessness”. But I think more is needed to understand this. Why no Fanon here when trying to understand anger and violence? Though I expect many readers would yawn at the thought of yet another philosopher.

Perhaps more importantly – though it is a lot to expect – there are no answers given as to how to transcend this anger? This question brought to mind my recent holiday in Bali – a counterfactual to the above, where people still live and belong to villages, they take part in village meetings – in their Kantor Desa. Not a vote for an elite but active participation and for women and for men. There are also regular rituals rooted in Bali’s own religion. It seeks to work well but is seemingly difficult in our mass city structures. Post-colonial Kenya to my mind is another success of a positive unifying narrative. I know some may query that but if you look below the feelings aroused for elections, I suspect you will recognise there is some truth in this. In my next blog, I’ll explain these alternative structures  – looking at how they may create identity and belonging, perhaps even moral certainty. Can we bring social-political structures into our society to address these other social needs, without the nastiness and brutality of “negative solidarity” with its hate and superiority? And is that sufficient or is addressing economic inequality the answer?

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