One of the troubles with writing A History of the Present is that the objects of study are still around to answer back. One of the benefits: that any given present is so much flux, all manner of things can be said about what brought it into being. Pankaj Mishra recently subjected the ideas behind his Age of Anger: A History of the Present (Allen Lane, 2017) to the scrutiny of a genteel mob: the Festival of Ideas audience.

Mishra’s book is a blistering interpolation that chains our own tumultuous era – linking back through myriad political movements and global malcontent – to a dispute between a couple of blokes in the eighteenth century.

For Mishra, this disagreement between Voltaire, an elitist intent on universal progress, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a resentful naysayer alarmed by the corrupting effects of civilisation, is a template for much subsequent conflict.

Failed promises of modernity; ‘enormous fantasies‘ of improved circumstance; deep humiliation felt by those ‘left behind‘ by the march of progress. These are to blame for the blood and tears being shed whenever and wherever ‘the promise of equality collides with the reality of inequality.’ Mishra’s book reels out case after case in support of this thesis, frequently deploying his favourite pundits: Alexis de Tocqueville, Alexander Herzen and Friedrich Nietzsche. For those of us with more favourable, more patterned views of the Age of Enlightenment, Age of Anger makes for a bruising read.

Evident in conversation, much more so than on the page, is Mishra’s willingness to give a little ground to those who question his pessimism; his characterisation of a world doomed to repeat vicious cycles of anger.

He accepts that ‘progress is a reality‘, but cautions that ‘we must be careful describing the trajectory‘. The arc should not be seen as irreversible nor inevitable. There are shades of John Gray in all this. (Gray indulges in less subtle Enlightenment bashing, whilst brandishing some of the very tools and freedoms forged in the Enlightenment.)

Mishra tells us that the presumption of progress made in Marxism has, ‘reproduced itself within Neo-liberalism‘. Those who point to the wholesale success of capitalism are similarly blinded by ideology. He gives the example of women’s rights in China. An uncomfortable truth is that many of these emerged under Maoist reforms, but they are claimed as successes for capitalism by those for whom competition is a dominant ethic. As Mishra puts it: ‘Progress is not something you can attribute to one thing or another.‘ Yet in a culture suffused with what theorist Mark Fisher called Capitalist Realism, there is stubborn refusal to recognise alternative social structures as delivering anything worthwhile. A collective poverty of imagination and ambition.

There is a paradox of progress: ‘progress brings with it a whole lot of discomforts that did not previously exist’. The more people come to expect more, the more they are dissatisfied. This generates, in excluded majorities, a ‘nihilistic undercurrent. Desire to punish. To humiliate, because they themselves feel humiliated.’ These people are ‘not just left behind, but pushed behind.

There is a perceived hierarchy; an elite of ‘rootless cosmopolitans‘ acting as gatekeepers to a better life. This language, so familiar from recent UK and US political upheavals, Mishra heard being used by Hindu nationalists and right-wing activists around the time of the Indian general election of 2014. For him, these are all echoes of that squabble between Rousseau, with his ‘deep ambivalence to Western modernisation‘ and his contemporary Voltaire, the ‘iconic modern figure of the metropolitan elite.‘ The range of historical events and periods in which Mishra detects such echoes is vast.

Rousseau plays an odd role in the book’s narrative. Despite his own highly questionable vision of an ideal society (something harsh and Spartan), despite the reigns of terror poured out by disciples like Robespierre, Mishra paints Rousseau with none of the pantomime villainy reserved for Voltaire and other ‘scoundrels who claim to speak on behalf of the people‘. It seems Rousseau is far too valuable a key to the book’s thrust not to be handled with some reverence – too much like the whistle blower Mishra tries to be for our own times.

Building on Nietzsche, and finding much inspiration from Herzen – who recognised that modern civilisation would only be available to a minority – Mishra sequences, unrelentingly, accounts of ‘left behind‘ peoples, exemplified by the condition of those living in the (pre-industrialised) states that came to form Germany. People who felt condescended to, not only by more ‘sophisticated‘ nations (like France) but also the attitude of the German ruling classes – falling over themselves to mimic French ways.

Together with the Nietzschean term ressentiment – a complex of envy, frustration, ill-ease and impotence – mimicry is an important concept for Mishra. In particular appropriative mimicry, central to modernisation, which has us coveting whatever it is we think dominant elites have which we’re lacking, whilst displacing traditional value systems and disrupting identity.

Mishra points to the way groups ‘insist on their cultural distinctiveness and moral superiority [yet begin] to resemble their supposed enemies in their pursuit of the latter’s ideologies of individual and collective success.’

Tormented mirror games‘ lock-together superficially sworn enemies. These can be driven by Freud’s narcissism of small difference: the effect of differences that loom large in the imagination precisely because they are so small. Mimetic desire can be concealed by invented traditions, but it ensures that ‘individuals with very different pasts find themselves herded by capitalism and technology into a common present’. (If you feel the need to flaunt your status with a grotesque piece of wrist bling, you’re in very bad company: Rolex watches are, apparently, de rigueur amongst the ISIS leadership.)

With ubiquitous ressentiment and mimicry we see Mishra setting everyone off on convergent, overlapping paths.  Purportedly opposed cultures seem to end up in the same mess – whatever their differing starting points. I wonder if he is offering us a one-size-fits-all history? This when he himself is so damning of those with one-size-fits-all world views.

His story is of reception in the ‘Rest‘ of ideas and ideals from the ‘Atlantic West‘; how – in reaction or sympathy – these have fed and led to radical and extremist movements, first in Europe and then in those parts of the world Mishra calls ‘latecomers to modernity‘.

Always pulling back to a genealogy of ideas firmly rooted in Europe, Age of Anger rarely explores in-depth how peoples across the world have blended and extended their own traditions within and alongside those more familiar to Western readers. Mishra’s vista is not syncretic – weaving traditions – it is more oppositional. We get a history of disregarded peoples with constant reference to a handful of influential Europeans. (This peculiar practice of using ideas sprung from the Enlightenment against itself.) Many unfamiliar, disregarded voices are surfaced and amplified in Mishra’s work – but they are always heard speaking in reaction to and against the shout of the modern.

Witness Mishra reporting Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s view of the Crystal Palace (housing the Great Exhibition of 1851); that its splendour is symbolic of a society ‘dominated by the war of all against all, in which most people were condemned to be losers.‘ Witness Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s lament for dim interiors and a Japanese aesthetic ruined by the advent of the lightbulb: ‘we have met a superior civilisation and have had to surrender to it, and we have had to leave a road we have followed for thousands of years.

Good use is made of foreign words – kultur versus zivilisation; geist versus espirit to underline how superficially similar terms have different resonances across cultural borders. In discussion Mishra notes how socialism means so many different things to different people. However, terms like liberal, democratic and Enlightenment – ones that have picked up and dropped much cultural baggage through time and place – aren’t given any nuanced treatment in his book. Mishra affords such words a permanence which jars with the fractious histories he applies them to.

When pushed – by event chair Andrew Kelly – to consider what optimism he holds for a world approaching ‘global civil war‘, Mishra admitted he has very little left. However, subsequent chat, and probative questioning by the audience, teased out more positive aspects of his position. Though unrepresentative of the tone of Age of Anger, the rest of the review is a reflection on these; ways of challenging and channeling the anger.

When Mishra owned up to harbouring a ‘deep suspicion‘ of the intellectual – my alarm at this Gove-like turn was quickly dulled by the humility he puts with it. He recognises that political classes, the media, the very literary establishment in which he is embedded – all these have proved inadequate at understanding the world’s ills, let alone prescribing remedies. It is sponsored and self-professed experts which Mishra has had enough of. He calls on us to ‘expose their affiliations’ and to subject them ‘to much more scrutiny. These people have taken in the vocabulary of the elite.

We ourselves should ‘recover a vocabulary‘ that breaks us free from institutions we have internalised. A vocabulary that legitimises reference to emotion and trust – one that challenges the ‘legitimisation of greed‘. I am reminded of the late John Berger – proud to have worked ‘free from institutions‘. How can we, ensconced in the system as we are, eke out pockets of generous and un-compromised creativity?

These days ‘it is difficult to find unaffiliated, freelance speakers‘, people like Hannah Arendt, Simone Weil, Czesław Miłosz – all of whom Mishra credits as ‘thinking without the structures of ideology’. Into this stable of public intellectuals worth listening to, Mishra adds Pope Francis. A surprising choice given the strong affiliation to a globally powerful institution.

Mishra cites the 2015 papal encyclical on the environment, Laudato si’, as ‘the most inspiring piece of intellectual criticism I’ve seen‘. The Pontiff – in particular Francis, ‘the first Third World pope’ – is given licence to talk from the heart; to speak of his feeling for the poor, the dispossessed. Yet, when others in public life speak in these terms, they are too readily accused of being a ‘Commi, a failed Commi, a Maoist‘: all epithets which have been flung at Mishra.

The other day I reassured a friend: ‘your heart is in the right place‘ – then began to worry the phrase might infer a weakness I’d not intended. After spending time with Mishra, I see my anxiety as a symptom of this angry age; the clamour of so much heartlessness. Having the intellectual bravery to keep your heart in the right place; recognising that you yourself (and that stranger over there) have one; these may be small moves towards recovering that better vocabulary Mishra favours.

Where Mishra feels most optimistic is in the ‘explosions of energy, an awakening amongst young people that something should be done.‘ The protests of the next generation – ‘unencumbered by prejudice and cliché’ – these may clear the way for building ‘new frameworks for understanding‘.

In defence of academia, and injecting more hope into the assembled crowd, an audience member challenged Mishra on this concern that problems exposed in his book aren’t already widely understood. ‘Hundreds of thousands of students pass through courses in the social sciences every year’, they study these themes of conflict and exclusion and ‘generally they go out with a set of progressive ideas; this should be acknowledged‘.

Listening to all this in the richly oak-panelled confines of the University of Bristol, I’m left wondering: once the gowned graduates have filed through this building, each clutching their set of progressive ideas, how will those sets be put to work, and in whose service? What of the ‘left behind peoples‘ still playing catch-up?’

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