Pankaj Mishra is in the vanguard of writers interpreting the bewilderment of contemporary times. He brings to this lucid study the full force of historical context and sensitive understanding of the intellectual sources that have influenced modern-day western and Asian political predicaments.
Age of Anger seeks to explain the forces that have shaped the allure of Hindu supremacists and the Islamic State in South and West Asia, the forces that have led to Brexit in the UK and have put Donald Trump in the White House.
Mishra asserts that these disparate developments are the result of disruptions that first emerged in the early 19th century when the West moved towards an industrial capitalist economy and mass politics. This transition into modernity caused cataclysmic ruptures that included anarchist and nihilist violence, the two world wars, totalitarian regimes and genocide in the next century. It is now threatening vast regions in Asia and Africa that were first exposed to modernity through western imperialism and are now seeking to join the same globalised political order.
The imperialist push for modernity was contested by “traditionalists” in Asia, like Tagore and Gandhi, who anticipated the disruptions that would be caused by the Western models of development that would disrupt traditional philosophies and social institutions. They were overwhelmed by others like Nehru, Mao Tse Tung, Sukarno and the Shah of Iran, who accepted the western vision of unilinear progress. But, instead of delivering the promised El Dorado, almost all developing societies experienced “massive under-development, untold exploitation and oppression”.
Today, Mishra notes, we have “a democratic revolution of aspiration”, accompanied by “longings for wealth, status and power”. However, the uneven distribution of the fruits of globalisation has generated what Mishra refers to as Ressentiment, an expression of “existential” envy in society emerging from “massive differences in power, education and property ownership”.
This has encouraged modern-day politicians to veer towards the “politics of outrageous rhetoric and gestures” and channelising “the swamp of fear and insecurity” by focusing on Muslims as the dangerous and threatening “other”.
Thus, unlike earlier responses to domestic acts of terror, the US response to the attacks of 9/11 was the “global war on terror” that placed these acts of Muslims “in some non-human never-never land”, outside the framework of the modern secular world. Islamophobia replaced the anti-semitism that had accompanied modernising Europe in the last century.
Mishra makes the interesting observation that jihadi ideologues have been impelled in their world-view by the same concerns emerging from the disruptions caused by globalisation where governmental failures lead to a loss of their legitimacy, opening doors to strong non-state actors. Thus, ISIS has mobilised this same ressentiment into a militant rebellion, emerging, in Mishra’s words, as “the canniest and most resourceful of all traders in the flourishing international economy of disaffection”.
Mishra notes the extraordinary “spiritual and political affinity” in prison between Timothy McVeigh, who carried out the Oklahoma bombings in 1995, and Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, the Palestinian-Pakistani, who had perpetrated the first attack on the World Trade Centre in New York two years earlier. They were joined together, McVeigh said, in a common response “to the crimes of the United States against the rest of the world”.
Mishra places present-day jihadi violence within the “longer history of fanaticism and zealotry in the defence of traditional society threatened with extinction by a modern power”. This commenced with German resistance to Napoleon’s military, the Indian uprising of 1857, the revolt of the Mahdi in Sudan and the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900. But, votaries of the “civilising mission” have justified their violence as seeking the “larger good”.
Contemporary governments now face the same challenges of meeting the limitless aspirations of their citizenry which are generally far beyond the capacities of existing institutions to deliver, leading to defeat, humiliation and resentment. Hence, they are resorting to “old-style nationalism”, combining promises of material change with appeals to identity and community.
It is on this basis that Trump has entered the White House: will he be able to transform the lives of the disadvantaged and the marginalised who voted for him? Or, will he be another “opportunistic prophet” who promised much but delivered nothing to those already angry with contemporary politics and politicians?
(The author is a former diplomat)