Introducing the first must-read of our frightening new era: Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger: A History of the Present. Over some 340 pages, Mishra—a celebrated Indian novelist and essayist—describes a rising tide of populism, xenophobia, and rage, and how it is lifting demagogues from West to East. Mishra’s working term for the feeling sweeping our world comes from Nietzsche: ressentiment, or “existential resentment . . . caused by an intense mix of envy and sense of humiliation and powerlessness.” The result, he writes, “is the sentiment, generated by the news media, and amplified by social media, that anything can happen anywhere to anybody at any time.”?How did we get to this troubling place? Mishra’s most fascinating argument is that we certainly can’t blame 9/11 or Al Qaeda or ISIS. We are not where we are because the modern enlightened West has been pitted against backwards-looking fundamentalists in the Middle East. Rather, the election of Donald Trump, the vote for Brexit, the rise of nationalism in Europe, and spectacular acts of Islamic terrorism are all of a piece. Mishra draws on a huge range of 19th-century thinkers and novelists to make his point that the last two centuries of so-called progress have left people from every part of the world (mostly men) feeling disastrously left behind. It’s a bracing read and is causing a stir among critics. I happen to be a friend of Mishra’s, the lucky beneficiary of hundreds of his book recommendations, so I called him at his home in London to ask about the origins of his latest work.
Is there a personal reason why you wrote Age of Anger??It was the election in India in May 2014 of Narendra Modi, who for years and years had been on the fringes of political life, a figure much disdained—much despised—for his alleged involvement in a massacre of Muslims in 2002. It was really shocking to see someone [like that] suddenly being described by large numbers of very intelligent people—including journalists and commentators and, most importantly for me, people in my own family—as a great leader, who could sort things out and make India great, if not great again. It was a big shock to realize that democracy can elect someone implicated in mass murder.
Modi’s election actually made you sick, didn’t it??It did. The fact that cherished friends and members of my own family voted for him really sent me into a spiral of depression. For weeks I was paralyzed, I couldn’t think, I just couldn’t drag myself out of this hole that I found myself in. I’m sure a lot of people in America have had similar physical manifestations of shock and despair and anguish at Trump. At some point I embarked on a project of thinking and reading. I decided, I really need to think my way out of this.?That’s when this book began to take shape. I went back to the 19th century and started to read about demagogues from that era. People obviously think of the 1930s as the high point of totalitarian or authoritarian regimes, but I think the 19th century is a crucial period, when the stage was set for people like Hitler and Mussolini. It was amazing to go back to that period and find the same kind of rhetoric, the same kind of accusations against rootless cosmopolitans, the same claims on behalf of the “people,” as it were. I began to realize that what is happening now is not unprecedented. That oddly became a source of consolation.
Because you realized we could move past this??Exactly. Yes.
Is there something specific or different about America in terms of this history you’re talking about??America basically went from strength to strength in the 19th century. It did experience demagoguery: the demonization of immigrants, talk about building walls, keeping out dark-skinned people, and Jews. But all of that was steadily resolved as America began to emerge as a powerful, fully industrialized country at the end of the 19th century: a coherent nation with a clear self-image. So many of its problems could be seen as essentially resolvable. What we’re seeing now is America losing its exceptional character and rejoining the history of the modern world, which is a pretty tormented one.
And is a big shock to Americans.?Yes, it’s a big shock. And I think one reason is that in these situations we typically feel what is happening is completely unprecedented—it’s like a meteor from outer space has landed. Our first impulse is to say, well this can’t happen here, it must be the Russians who did it, it must be some conspiracy. Of course the Russians had a role in the U.S. election, but people like Donald Trump are also as American as apple pie. There are several precedents in America’s own recent history for Trump’s kind of rhetoric—including someone like Patrick Buchanan very recently. Trump follows in that tradition of xenophobic nationalism. He’s definitely not an un-American phenomenon.
So who do you we look to as a source of hope in all of this??Pope Francis. He is someone who is extremely sensitive to the cost of progress, especially its costs to the human soul. I think many of us have allowed ourselves to be distracted by social mobility and things like GDP growth and various statistics that show people being lifted out of poverty—shopping malls are opening up in India and China, that sort of thing. On the other hand, Pope Francis is very much concerned with what happens to the human spirit during this process of competing with and imitating other people. He seems credible, in his moral authority—more so than ambitious, secularized, religion-disdaining, upwardly mobile intellectuals—who thought that progress was inevitable and irreversible.
I noticed that some people who have written about your book get stuck on your line about the history of modernity being mainly a history?of carnage and bedlam. They argue that life has gotten much better in the last one hundred years. Can you explain what you meant??It’s astonishing that people object to this line because it’s a well-documented fact that the 20th century was the most violent in history. For the first time we had machine-led slaughter of human beings on an extensive scale, and I’m not just talking about the Holocaust, which is the classic case of industrial killing, but the two world wars. Why did the world wars occur? The simplest answer is because Germany felt that it had fallen behind Britain and the United States. First Germany industrialized itself hectically, throwing up all kinds of political pathologies that helped the rise of Hitler. Then Germany fought two wars that killed millions of people.?So when I say that the history of modernization—or the history of catching up—is one of carnage and bedlam that is what I mean. Modernity does certainly benefit a lot of people, but it also causes a lot of suffering, and has caused a lot of violence. So we definitely need a sense of both history and tragedy when thinking about how we’ve gotten where we are.