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Age of Anger: a history of the present

Our society — not just South Africa — seems to have become increasingly violent. People are angry. Political and economic exclusion has often been pinpointed as the reason for the anger and resentment of our times. Chris Chatteris SJ reviews the 2017 treatise by Indian novelist and thinker, Pankaj Mishra, Age of Anger: A history of the present, who explains that the current extremist movements are inspired less by religion than they are by exclusion.

If you’re looking for a book to confirm your cherished perspectives on modern history, then do not read this one. The quirky subtitle is the clue that this is going to be a rather different read by a writer who isn’t afraid to skew a few commonly accepted ideas. He may even believe that history does repeat itself.

However, if you’re looking for an extremely wide but tightly woven tapestry of the important ideas from the Enlightenment to the present, then read it. Mishra ranges with effortless globality across the philosophies and thinkers of the modern era. He begins with Voltaire and Rousseau in Europe, but also takes the reader all over Western Europe and beyond, to Russia, to the Americas and Asia, showing how intellectuals and their ideas influenced one another and how their notions were and are realised in practice, often in unintended ways. It’s a very ‘catholic’ history of ideas, and a stunning literary tour de force.

Ressentiment — the resentment born of envy and frustration

If there is a keyword in the text, it is ressentiment, that damnably difficult French word that is so hard to translate and was much pondered by Nietzsche.  ‘Resentment’ is too mild. Nietzschean ressentiment is the deep envy, rage and hostility of frustrated individuals and groups who feel they have lost out to and been victimised by others. It is the sentiment of ex-slaves and it can easily explode into violence.

Nietzschean ressentiment is the deep envy, rage and hostility of frustrated individuals and groups who feel they have lost out to and been victimised by others.

Mishra takes Rousseau as someone whose life embodied ressentiment. Unlike Voltaire, whom he hated, Rousseau was an outsider among the philosophes of the Enlightenment and did not prosper as Voltaire did. Mishra describes Voltaire as an intellectual social climber who became the darling of the salons and who actually enriched himself in true bourgeois fashion, even as he scandalised the bourgeoisie. So you have a new bourgeois elite which emerges from the Enlightenment and you have those who are excluded, not just socially like Rousseau, but also economically.

So, was the Enlightenment was a good thing? Yes, but we gloss over its unintended evil fruits. If, as Voltaire happily did, you produce ideas which unmoor people from traditional forms of life with their stabilising cultural and religious values, Mishra argues, why would you not expect at least some of these ideas to be taken to completely haywire extremes and produce horrors like Robespierre’s Terror in the French Revolution, the amoral monster that was Napoleon, the two World Wars, and mechanised genocide?

Is extremism more than religious violence?

This is a rather politically incorrect view among the bien pensants of today who like to blame pre-scientific beliefs and particularly, belief in God, for all the violence in the world. For them, belief and traditional cultural practices, far from being a curb on the fanatical and bloodthirsty side of humanity, are the very reasons for it.

Christopher Hitchins (God is not Great) and Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) spring to mind. But Mishra asks such thinkers the awkward question as to how one finds meaning in a ‘non-purposive’ world as he puts it. Reason is all very well, but whose reason and is reasoning sometimes so abstract that it is heartless? Is abstraction human and can it sometimes become inhuman? (A question explored in a recent essay in America by Michial Farmer).

The Enlightenment produced, among others, the wonderful idea of universal human rights. What was so bad about that? The notion of universal human rights is not a bad one, but what happens, Mishra asks, when the obscene inequalities made possible precisely by the scientific advances and the economic theories of the Enlightenment push millions of people into a vast economic underclass with no hope of the égalité, fraternité and liberté promised by the Enlightenment?

The Enlightenment made possible the Industrial Revolution and ever since, we have been struggling to manage the ressentiment that the losers in this system (the vast majority) have experienced. In other words, there were terrible, unintended outcomes and it was perhaps Nietzsche who best foresaw what the Death of God combined with a new religion of material progress would produce in modern humanity.

The Enlightenment made possible the Industrial Revolution and ever since, we have been struggling to manage the ressentiment that the losers in this system.

One thing it produced, Mishra argues, was the nihilistic anarchism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He describes that era in a way that reminds us how uncomfortably familiar it is when we look at the terrorism of our own time, whether it is the so-called ‘Islamist’ brand or American mass shootings. Forget about ‘Clash of Civilisations’; the perpetrators of these acts of violence are today, as then, moved by ressentiment and they believe, as the anarchists and political assassins did, that spectacular acts of terror will set in motion a violent revolution which will destroy the current order and then, somehow, something new and better will emerge. 

It gets worse. Mishra argues that whereas Europeans and North Americans were ultimately able to emerge from the terrible downsides of the Enlightenment with relatively stable governments and equitable economies, the rest of humanity who face the same problems today, are unlikely to be so lucky.

Given the sheer scale of the problem, the billions of excluded poor in Asia, Africa and South America, and given the constraints on economic growth due to environmental degradation and climate change, and given the complete failure of world leaders to effect any serious system for the redistribution of wealth, Mishra thinks we are in deep trouble. The rage will continue and it will continue to be manipulated by populist politicians as it was in the 1930s and we all know how that ended.

I end with an interesting passage that Mishra writes on Pope Francis, which is worth quoting because it sums up much of his thought.

The most convincing and influential public intellectual today – Pope Francis – is not an agent of reason and progress. In a piquant irony, he is the moral voice of the Church that was the main adversary of Enlightenment intellectuals as they built the philosophical scaffolding of a universal commercial society. He has acquired his moral stature largely because the ostensibly autonomous and self-interested individual, unleashed by the advance of commercial society, confronts an impasse. The contemporary crisis stems in large part from the failed universalisation of this figure, and its descent, in the age of globalization, into either angry tribalism or equally bellicose forms of antinomian individualism.

the age of anger: a history of our age, Pankaj mishra

This is not a comfortable book to read, especially for South Africans, but a timely one which puts its finger on the dark side of our modern Zeitgeist.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.