Is there a history of anger – a connection between the bomb-throwers and shooters of the 19th century and the operatives of our own day? In this highly topical polemic, Pankaj Mishra describes a global pandemic of rage. He thinks the phenomenon of continuous terrorist attacks can be attributed to ressentiment – a word taken from the French by Kierkegaard, with no ready meaning in English beyond the sense that chippiness can somehow exist to the power of a thousand, morphing into permanent, murderous rage.
The 18th-century philosophers Voltaire and Rousseau may have hated each other, but their tombs are in the crypt of the Left Bank’s Panthéon in Paris. There’s a statue of a smiling Voltaire, while Rousseau’s tomb is decorated with a hand bearing a torch. Mishra concedes that both men remain important to us, but not in the way we’d like to think. Voltaire, in his interpretation, is a precursor of neoliberal snottiness, a nouveau-riche snob, an elitist and admirer of progressive tyrants, while the countercultural, proleish, permanently enraged Rousseau gives good reasons for the current plague of world violence.
Rousseau got the habit of anger on the road from Paris to Vincennes while pondering an essay on the function of culture in the creation of society. He became convinced of the unfairness and inauthenticity of the contemporary world of salons and knowledge. The perception of superficiality turned him into “the world’s most militant lowbrow”. Mishra thinks that the world abounds in anonymous Rousseaus incubating such moments of self-discovery. What do these rebels think of the world’s growing, toxic inequality? How do they react to punitive wars perpetrated by rich nations in the name of freedom and democracy? Or indeed to the casual wrenching of millions and millions from traditional poverty? The new underground men (according to his account, violence still appears to be a predominantly male vocation) inhabit a trackless, confusing modernity in which contemporary life offers little in the way of hope or guidance beyond the smartphone and police batons. They have no reason to care very much when the rest of us think.
Others, such as Sir Isaiah Berlin, or indeed Albert Camus, have tracked the currents of revolutionary nihilism. But they were writing during the cold war, and inevitably their analyses carried a degree of west-east bias, and were confined to an examination of the European past. Mishra writes well about Germans such as Herder, or Dostoevsky and Turgenev, but his book comes into its own with the analysis of post-Islam and India’s Hinduism. It’s clear to Mishra that the so-called Muslim fundamentalist uprisings of our time are heirs to the earlier European revolts. We should pay attention, to be sure, to the bigoted, primitively formulated millennial Muslim rhetoric of Isis and fellow Islamists, but see these upheavals primarily as responses to the contemporary condition.
Blame for the epidemic, Mishra concludes, can be spread in every direction. Did anyone, for instance, imagine that mass literacy could be combined with the blocking-off of individual opportunity without terrible consequences? Or that the removal of traditional belief systems would somehow lead to a universal acceptance of our own worldview? Or that the trickle-down theory of economic growth cannot mean much if you’re trapped by inconsequentiality?
Nonetheless, I feel that Voltaire was a better, less complacent man than Mishra is prepared to allow. It was Voltaire who campaigned against the judicial murder of Protestants broken on the wheel after show trials. His fellow liberals believed in justice, even if this wasn’t always achieved. The liberal idea got us all through the last century, with its terrible wars, enriching entire populations in a way that Mishra won’t acknowledge. By no means all of the western enlightenment project is demeaning or ridiculous. If it was as foolish as Rousseau believed, and as Mishra now concludes, it would have collapsed in ruins long ago.
• The Age of Anger by Pankaj Mishra is published by Allen Lane