Economic grievances and racial animus compete as the two shorthand explanations for Trump’s rise, and among the president’s liberal critics, it is a near article of faith that the former rationale is overly generous, while the latter is more accurate and (bonus!) more damning. After all, it is simpler and more righteous to call out the horrifying rhetoric of pro-Trump white nationalists than to Piketty your way through diagnoses and remedies for economic inequality.
Pankaj Mishra’s “Age of Anger” is a book about many things, a sort of intellectual history of history itself. But if there is one convincing conclusion that emanates from these pages, it is that these alternative explanations are not competing; in fact, they are barely alternatives. The two are bound together, reinforcing each other in cycles that long pre-date the Trump phenomenon.
What the world has endured in the quarter-century since the end of the Cold War — the triumph of political liberty and economic globalization, only to be followed by financial crises, populist movements and transnational terrorism — is but the latest iteration, on a wider scale, of what has happened for centuries. “The unprecedented political, economic and social disorder that accompanied the rise of the industrial capitalist economy in nineteenth century Europe, and led to world wars, totalitarian regimes and genocide in the first half of the twentieth century, is now infecting much vaster regions and bigger populations,” Mishra writes. “Societies organized for the interplay of individual self-interest can collapse into manic tribalism, if not nihilistic violence.”
Those impulses can take the form of 18th-century revolutions, 19th-century anarchist movements, 20th-century ethnic cleansing, and 21st-century terrorism and nationalism. Viciousness and prejudice flow from economic dislocation, and in turn feed it. History privileges no right side, and its arc can bend so far that it loops back upon us.
“Now with the victory of Donald Trump,” Mishra writes, “it has become impossible to deny or obscure the great chasm . . . between an elite that seizes modernity’s choicest fruits while disdaining older truths and uprooted masses, who, on finding themselves cheated of the same fruits, recoil into cultural supremacism, populism and rancorous brutality.”
There is nothing worse than partial modernity. And all modernity, it turns out, is partial.
Mishra is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and he writes like he’s trying to remind you of that. Every novel or manifesto by some 19th-century Russian philosopher, post-Enlightenment Italian literati wannabe or Hindu nationalist ideologue merits a few pages or at least a few sentences. Straddling the line between erudition and showing off, this book makes you feel smarter for having read it, even if you feel a little stupid first.
Mishra paints in thick, furious strokes, then lingers on minute details. Together, the French and Industrial revolutions conspired to produce capitalist modernization, “the universalist creed that glorified the autonomous rights-bearing individual and hailed his rational choice-making capacity as freedom,” Mishra writes. Faith in science, economics and rationality began to overpower faith in, well, faith, as Enlightenment thinkers “hoped to apply the scientific method discovered in the previous century to phenomena beyond the natural world, to government, economics, ethics, law, society.” This new faith would also yield the cult of “development” — equating progress with the inexorable advance of science and industry, and the requisite downgrading of tradition and religion.
If that had worked, this book would not exist. However, “instead of harmonizing socially mediated interests,” Mishra writes, “an increasingly industrialized economy created class antagonisms and gross inequalities.” Fyodor Dostoyevsky grasped the conflict; Mishra recalls how, during a visit to Paris, the Russian writer caustically concluded that “liberté” was just for millionaires, “égalité” did not exist for the poor in French justice and “fraternité” was a joke in an atomized, isolationist society. The petty, bitter protagonist of his “Notes From Underground” (1864) embodied the frustrations of the left behind.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “history’s greatest militant lowbrow,” and Friedrich Nietzsche, “the prophet of restless young men everywhere,” emerge as Mishra’s town criers of resentment (or “ressentiment,” the author insists) — that feeling when “the modern promise of equality collides with massive disparities of power, education, status and property ownership.” As solutions, one gave us the strongman; the other, the superman.
For Rousseau, only a militaristic, patriotic spirit — a forerunner of cultural nationalism — can combat avaricious elites and harness the “incendiary appeal of victimhood in societies built around the pursuit of wealth,” Mishra writes. Nietzsche’s contrasting response to the failings of economic modernity was hyper-individualized — a personal revolt against authority, offering “an unprecedented scope for human beings to reshape the world: to create, in effect, one’s own objects of desire, values, ideology and myths,” Mishra explains. And individual violence can prove particularly alluring, he notes darkly, when it seems “the only available form of self-expression.”
The nationalist approach would take shape in Germany’s embrace of Volk (the people), “an organic national community united by a distinctive language, ways of thought, shared traditions, and a collective memory enshrined in folklore and fable,” as Mishra describes. Feeling marginalized by France’s cultural, political, economic and military ascendancy, “subjugated and dishonoured Germany came to generate that strange compound we have subsequently seen in many countries: harmless nostalgia for the past glories of the ‘people,’ combined with a lethal fantasy of their magnificent restoration.”
It is not enough to make a nation great, you see — it must be made great again.
This would mutate over time from affirmations of German spiritual and aesthetic superiority to ethnic nationalism and, finally, “into an existential politics of survival.” Anti-Semitism formed a deadly part of that politics, as German intellectuals linked the power of the Volk to the inferiority of the Jew, Mishra writes. “Weren’t the Volk spontaneous, unpretentious and immune to the contagion of modernity?” they asked themselves. “Weren’t they opposed to the devious money-grubbing Jews and the effete, sophisticated ruling classes that chased after alien gods?”
Hatred and prejudice would root themselves in governing structures, Mishra writes, as “this exhausted and resentful state of mind prepared the ground for the authoritarian state.” And authoritarian states and totalitarian leaders would afflict Europe well into the 20th century.
Mishra surveys the globe, particularly his native India but also China, Russia, Europe and the Americas, showing how both nation-states and individuals inflicted unspeakable violence in the backlash against modernity, putting the lie to its inexorable spread. “Since actual mobility is achieved only by a few,” he contends, “the quest for some unmistakable proof of superior status and identity replaces the ideal of success for many.” From anarchists to Nazis to the Islamic State, “the history of modernization is largely one of carnage and bedlam rather than peaceful convergence.”
The apparent calm of the post-World War II Pax Americana is regarded as an outlier here. “American elites, singularly undamaged and actually empowered by the most destructive war in history, idealized their exceptional experience — of individual self-seekers achieving more or less continuous expansion under relatively thin traditional constraints — into a model of universal development,” Mishra writes.
This obliviousness was compounded in the euphoria of the post-Cold War moment, despite countless warnings: ethnic cleansing in the Balkans and Rwanda, a far-right resurgence in Europe, Timothy McVeigh in America, and a financial crisis throughout Asia. Even 9/11 only “sharpened an old divide,” Mishra writes. “How could, it was felt, people be so opposed to modernity, and all the many goods it had to offer around the world: equality, liberty, prosperity, toleration, pluralism and representative government.”
But the failures of the model — moribund wages, spiraling inequality, an unraveling financial system — would become evident. “In the neo-liberal fantasy of individualism, everyone was supposed to be an entrepreneur, retraining and repackaging himself or herself in a dynamic economy, perpetually alert to the latter’s technological revolutions,” Mishra writes. Instead, “economic shifts, literacy and the communication revolution bring more people out of abject poverty into a landscape of hope and aspiration — and then cruelly abandon them in that limbo.”
In a Thursday news conference, Trump declared that “this country was seriously divided before I got here” — and he is more right than he knows. With his appeals to America’s forgotten men and women, Trump is more consequence than cause; the pillars of his campaign and his early actions as president reflect the forces that have long driven retrograde nationalist leaders. Islamophobia empowers the new demagogues of our time, “just as popular anti-Semitism did during the crises of modernizing Europe,” Mishra writes. So does hatred for transnational, cosmopolitan elites, who “conveniently embody the vices of a desperately sought-after but infuriatingly unattainable modernity: money worship, lack of noble virtues such as patriotism.” Refugees, migrants and asylum seekers, “this class of the excluded,” serve their purpose, too, as the “feared ‘others’ in unequal societies.”
Mishra foresees a lengthy conflict out of this mix of economic displacement, political resentment and racial scapegoating. “Future historians may well see such uncoordinated mayhem as commencing the third — and the longest and strangest — of all world wars,” he cautions, “one that approximates, in its ubiquity, a global civil war.”
That sounds ominous, even if I’m not sure what it means. Davos Men vs. nationalists, united across borders? Or simply the steady expansion of that terrain “between serene elites and mute masses,” as the author puts it, the space “from where almost all modern militants have emerged”? Mishra doesn’t get too specific, nor offer solutions for the crises he identifies, merely calling for “some truly transformative thinking, about both the self and the world.”
What does appear clear is that Trump’s permanence in the White House is almost irrelevant to the strains and fractures underlying the age of anger. In Mishra’s dense yet oddly riveting book, Trump is just one more data point — and anger feels less a symptom of a particular age than a timeless, chronic condition.
I’m not sure the title is right.