Roundtable XX-44 on Age of Anger: A History of the Present

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H-Diplo Roundtable Review
Volume XX, No. 44
2 July 2019

Roundtable Editors: Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins and Diane Labrosse
Roundtable and Web Production Editor: George Fujii

Pankaj Mishra.  Age of Anger:  A History of the Present.  New York:  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017.  ISBN:  9780374274788 (hardcover, $27.00).



© 2019 The Authors.

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License.


Introduction by Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins, Yale University

Democracy is dying. The liberal word order has reached its end. Identity politics are to blame, or perhaps Russia is. Fascism has returned. Tyranny now reigns. All of these claims, made today by politicians or scholars turned watchmen, invoke the horrors of the past to sound the tocsin of clear and present dangers. A history of the present is by its nature a speculative exercise, not only because using historical analogies to compare the present to the past is rarely convincing, but also because the political assumptions of such histories themselves have an unacknowledged agency.

Histories of the present that promote the politics of fear—that Islam is a scourge of the West, or that the Kremlin determines U.S. elections—engender anxiety and, in turn, create the conditions for exceptional political actions. Both the so-called populists as well as their antagonists want to save ‘the people.’ Histories of the present are often histories of fear. These stories are dangerous because, like insecticides, they try to block unpalatable political outcomes, but end up killing off new thought as well. To explain how actual people actually feel and think is anathema to the program.

But some rare histories of the present do ask the public to reconsider the structure and sources of contemporary events. They are not histories of fear, but histories of utopias, sentiments, institutions, and power.

This is why Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger: A History of the Present is significant. Before either Donald Trump’s election or Brexit, Mishra set himself the task of explaining the causes of our global discontents: “wars in Ukraine and the Middle East, suicide bombings in Belgium, Xinjiang, Nigeria and Turkey, insurgencies from Yemen to Thailand, massacres in Paris, Tunisia, Florida, Dhaka and Nice” (4).  Such atrocities have coincided with the growing appeal and political successes of rightwing populist and authoritarian leaders as represented by Viktor Orbán, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Jair Bolsonaro, Rodrigo Duterte and numerous others. Their rise has been inseparable from the traditionalism they espouse, as represented, in particular, by their emphatically masculine grievance, the spectacle of everyday violence, and their purported defense of ‘family values.’

Age of Anger shows how the process of modernization throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth-century in Europe led to a reactionary backlash amongst those excluded from its promise of freedom, stability, and prosperity; “It was from among the ranks of the disaffected that the militants of the nineteenth century arose―angry young men who became cultural nationalists in Germany, messianic revolutionaries in Russia, bellicose chauvinists in Italy, and anarchist terrorists internationally,” as the book’s blurb suggests. These angry men imagined a past golden age that had been destroyed by racial, religious, and ideological enemies. Society, they argued, must be defended. And it could only be made pristine again by erasing their foes.

What we see today, argues Mishra, is a reiteration of this story on a grander scale. As villages, towns, cities, and states are being torn asunder through rabid individualism and a barbaric pursuit of wealth, the least of these are left adrift in a demoralized world, uprooted from tradition but still far from modernity―with the same terrible results. Mishra’s end product is not a history of fear but a global history of alienation. And even as it makes recourse to the history of ideas to defend its thesis, it does so for the purpose of shedding light on why the multitudes of modernity have been, and continue to be, so embittered towards it.

H-Diplo is thrilled to host this forum devoted to Age of Anger and to have three discussants of such high regard. In his comment, Faisal Devji raises the question of how convincing Mishra’s attempt is to draw historical parallels between past ages of anger and the current one. He suggests that what might be considered today as a return of class, race, and nationality, might in fact represent their moment of disappearance. Or as he puts it, “Perhaps, then, the anger Mishra analyses proceeds not from the recrudescence of old identities but their vanishing.”

Shruti Kapila, praises Mishra for recognizing the importance of sentiment in historical analysis, while posing the question of how the age of anger is to be politically evaluated today in light of its Enlightenment heritage. Provocatively, she suggests that we move beyond Enlightenment, an idea past its expiration date, and onto other horizons better able to deal with both the present reality and whatever the future might bring. 

Finally, Thomas Meaney asks what political alternative Mishra envisions. Describing Mishra’s politics as being broadly on the political left, Meaney observes that the word “socialism” barely appears in the book. “What kind of human beings,” he asks, “could conceivably band together to achieve headway against our resentment-breeding political and economic order?” Meaney poses this question in light of a larger debate on the left concerning the legitimacy of nationalism as political strategy to advance the cause of socialism, and the odds of whether socialist and democratic commitments can be adequately adjusted to address the climate and other related crises. Perhaps this is what makes Mishra’s history of the present so unusual: it is an empathetic and descriptive attempt to explain the plight of the enraged, rather than a prescription for managing their anger.

Mishra offers a rich response to his interlocutors that sheds light on the development of his own political thinking since the publication of Age of Anger



Pankaj Mishra was born in Jhansi, India, in 1969 and educated at the University of Allahabad and Jawaharlal Nehru University. In 1992, he moved to a village in Himachal Pradesh and began to write. He is the author of several books, including From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 2012), and contributes frequently to American and European periodicals.

Faisal Devji is Professor of Indian History and Fellow of St. Antony’s College, Oxford.

Dr Shruti Kapila teaches and researches on modern Indian history and global political thought at the Faculty of History, and Fellow and Director of Studies, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Widely published on political thought, the history of science, race and psychoanalysis, and does commentary for international and Indian national media. Her book Violent Fraternity: Global Political Thought in the Indian Age will be published by Princeton University Press in 2019.

Thomas Meaney is a visiting fellow at the Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen in Vienna.



Review by Faisal Devji, St Antony's College, University of Oxford

Time for Trouble

Pankaj Mishra has the uncanny ability of sensing the arrival of new historical circumstances, his Age of Anger being published almost simultaneously with the Brexit vote and Trump election. Following similar and unexpected transformations in other parts of the world, these events appear to signal the dominance of anger in the political as much as social mainstream. Not the least interesting characteristic of this situation is that puts countries in Asia and Africa, Eastern Europe and the Middle East, at the forefront of politics globally. America and Western Europe seem to have abandoned their long-established role as pace setters to trail behind, at least in this phenomenon. And yet, Mishra points out, the politics of anger has decidedly European roots going back to the eighteenth century.

Unlike most writing on the subject of anger in contemporary politics, Mishra does not provide it a purely sociological or short-term explanation. Particular economic, demographic, or cultural changes, he thinks, are insufficient in accounting for it. For whatever the immediate causes of such anger, crucial is the fact that it depends upon an historical narrative first broached during the Enlightenment. Anger in contemporary politics, he argues, emerges from a specifically modern narrative of human perfectionism by way of economic planning and political emancipation, both of which promised freedom and wellbeing for all. The betrayal of this promise, among its leftist as much as liberal supporters, is what makes for anger in global politics—and the corresponding shift of its votaries to the far right.

As modern ideals of progress have become globalized, therefore, so has the sense of betrayal produced by them, with the consequence that the anger once seen in European nihilism and anarchism, or in communism and fascism, has taken hold in the rest of the world and returned from there to its place of origin. Mishra’s account, then, is primarily about the experience of a certain kind of temporality, one whose relentless movement forward gives rise to anxieties about being left behind or unable to catch up with rival nations, ideologies, races, or religions. Such fears arise out of the very interchangeability of these competing groups, with each afraid of following the trajectory of another—or even desirous of modeling its history on that of an oppressor, as colonized peoples often did.

The far right, therefore, decries Europe’s colonization by immigrants from its own former colonies, while the latter dread suffering the fate of Europe’s Jews—as they once had of indigenous peoples and blacks in America. In both cases anger is spurred not by the differences and distances between rival nations, races, or religions, but instead by their disavowed intimacies. These are in turn made possible by the peculiar temporality of historical narrative, which cannot but compare even when it contrasts. And Mishra is primarily concerned with the sense of belatedness that is characteristic of non-Western societies, whose efforts to repeat or even skip over the history of European modernity go back to the nineteenth century.

European imperialism had often justified itself by upholding a pedagogical mission to usher its subjects into modernity in the fullness of time. Its colonized subjects just as frequently proclaimed their readiness to embark upon this project immediately. Meanwhile, Russian communists like Vladimir Lenin argued that the ‘uneven development’ which had introduced capitalism into non-Western countries, before their bourgeois and proletarian classes had time to develop, allowed them to evade Europe’s historical trajectory and surpass it in a revolutionary transformation. The problem Mishra faces, however, is how to account for the repetitive nature of this phenomenon. What does it mean for anger in our times to refer so obsessively to its own history?

Whether among political actors or commentators, there exists an apparently compulsive desire to describe the present as some version of the past. We are either said to be reliving the period preceding the First or the Second World War, or indeed even the Cold War. Fascism and dictatorship, we are told, have reappeared along with racism, misogyny, and militarism. Or perhaps they had never gone away but were lurking in our unconscious for the right moment to be released. Apart from the fact that all these events rehearse only the history of Europe, our inability to imagine different futures even of a negative kind is troubling. But perhaps this neurotic resort to history serves only as a psychic disavowal of the fact that the things we desire or fear have in fact vanished.

Both the left and the right, for instance, proclaim the return of the working class to politics, whether in Brexit or Trump. In doing so they ignore decades of studies tracking the collapse of a proletariat in the de-industrialized West and the emergence of a service economy in which workers do not constitute a class in any traditional sense. They also ignore perhaps more relevant Marxist categories such as the lumpenproletariat, made up of the disaggregated remnants of declining classes, or indeed the masses that have either abandoned or not yet attained class identity. Shouldn’t we be suspicious if American conservatives invoke a working class they had denied for decades, one that has replaced the equally mythical middle class as the favourite of both America’s political parties?

If recent events have shown us anything, it is that the ‘rational’ interests of old political classes and categories appear to have disintegrated in a way that has allowed great political parties like that of the Republicans to be taken over by outsiders and hollowed out from within in the teeth of opposition by their old elites. The same thing seems to have happened to India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The political right, in other words, is being destroyed and remade at the moment of its greatest success, while the left whose defeat should impel change, remains in a kind of stasis both in the UK and U.S. In the meantime, venerable parties in countries like France have gone down to defeat while power shifts to new ones in an unprecedented transformation.

While analysts devote themselves to discovering the political ‘rationality’ of these startling events, they should consider the possibility that the interests making for such rationality have themselves dissolved. Interests had been defined by the existence and therefore protection of some kind of property, whether landed, movable or even existential. These varieties of property were themselves made possible by the state as the collective representation of national property as well as the guarantor of its individual forms. But in the global arena these forms of property are no longer dominant, with the result that interests and their rationality have been deranged as they have become more and more integrated into the circuits of capital.

I have suggested above that what we see as the return of class or race, nationality, or even sexual identity to politics actually represents their moment of disappearance. Nationalism, for example, seems to have been riven in two, with the kind defined by old-fashioned sovereignty manifested in the UK Independence Party (UKIP) or far-right parties on the continent. Their rivals are Scottish, Basque, or Catalonian forms of nationalism, whose condition of possibility is the existence of the European Union. These movements are non-sovereign in character because they presume a shared currency and defense. Perhaps, then, the anger Mishra analyses proceeds not from the recrudescence of old identities but their vanishing. And so their obsession with history is nothing but a sign of this disappearance.

How might we understand this situation? Arjun Appadurai’s 2006 book, Fear of Small Numbers,[1] was one of the first studies to recognize the novelty of anger in contemporary politics. In it he argues that it is not the big numbers or looming threat of the enemy that gives rise to anger but rather the reverse. It is the pettiness of the problem these enemies apparently pose that Appadurai claims inspires as much as infuriates those who want to make a final effort and close the gap between their shameful present and a future ironically represented by someone else’s past—a gap represented by the offensive minority’s small numbers or influence. Even more shameful is the thought of being threatened by such groups in the past whose history is so crucial to our identity.

The problem is that such majorities do not in fact fear an enemy who has been rendered abject, and so all kinds of efforts are needed to compensate for its smallness. In narratives of violence against minority groups, this may require invoking their greater numbers outside national borders or their superior fertility and conversion of one’s fellows inside the country. Such a view is commonly entertained about both Muslim and non-Muslim minorities in different parts of the world. But what can never be compensated is one’s own initial fear of an enemy who no longer matches up to his reputation. This is why such anger is insatiable and independent of all political logic, though it can of course be instrumentalized for other ends.

In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, anger against Muslims in the U.S. was not widespread and had certainly not become politically acceptable. That was when al-Qaeda was genuinely feared, and the country in a panic about anthrax attacks and hoaxes of various kinds. Only after American security was seen as triumphant once again did Muslims become the objects of public anger—precisely because they no longer posed a threat. In India, a perennial subject of Mishra’s writing, Muslims similarly do not match up to the fearsome image conjured up in the Hindu militant’s historical imagination. Their very abjection then becomes the spur to anger, almost as if the humiliation of having once been ruled by such an unworthy foe is too much to bear.

One way of dealing with the enemy’s abjection is to take on his former identity oneself. This is clear enough in the mirroring form that so much violence takes, with foes being ‘punished’ in the same way they had ‘hurt’ us. This adoption of the enemy’s persona allows for the displacement of one’s own responsibility, something that Islamic militants also routinely do in disclaiming guilt for ‘retaliating’ against the alleged enemies of Islam, while at the same time enjoying a perverse intimacy with them. For if the foe is not equal to his reputation then one must take on his role as if in an act of mourning. Yet this just produces more anger, not least because history in such a narrative of enmity can never be fully avenged.

Anger, Mishra points out, comes out of the peculiar experience of historical temporality, in which neither return nor repetition is possible. And yet the politics that he traces to the Enlightenment is singularly focused on historical repetition, doomed as this is to betrayal. Whether as a model or threat, our own past, or those of others including our enemies, is marshaled in support of this politics. Since referring to Walter Benjamin’s characterization of this situation in Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus has become a cliché, let me end with Gandhi as one of the few anti-historical thinkers of modern times. History was a record of violence, and its role in the constitution of contemporary identities made them equally violent.

Historical consciousness, argued the Mahatma, was unable to inhabit either the present or attend to the future, whose possibilities it invariably narrowed rather than opened up in some version of a self-fulfilling prophecy. And so Gandhi’s great mission was to find a way of living without history, or at least limiting what he thought was its disastrous role in envisaging and indeed producing the future in an inevitably treacherous act of hubris. Rather than opposing good history to bad, in other words, or correct history to incorrect, Gandhi saw historical consciousness as being central to the violence of modernity as a form. Given Mishra’s diagnosis of anger in our own times, perhaps this criticism of historical narrative, and the existentially vital place it occupies in modern life, should be our concern as well.



Review by Shruti Kapila, University of Cambridge

In 1932, the League of Nations tasked Albert Einstein to engage an intellectual eminence to address the question of war and its prevention in human life. The physicist of the century chose Sigmund Freud, a fellow Jew and, like him, the maker of a new field of human knowledge, psychoanalysis. Freud is still rather all too well-known or more aptly has become an obscene caricature who has much to say about desire, love, and sexuality. Yet, as even a passing familiarity with his writings would tell us, Freud was equally if not more fixated on questions of hatred, antagonism, and death as the organizing drives of humanity and regardless of scale; of the private certainly but also significantly in their planetary dimensions from family, community, and religion to nations.

In addressing the topic of Why War?, Freud outlined in a pithy set of letters the work of preservation and unity or love with the drive to kill and destroy or the death drive and their mutual potency for humanity. Freud’s point was a simple one, even though it is hard to fully integrate. In short, it is love objects alone that can incite hatred. The ambivalent but ultimately reversible play between love and hatred causes war but also offers the potential for peace. Neither optimistic about the League of Nations’s powers to prevent war nor sanguine about human nature, Freud further pointed to the necessity of authority and leadership in political life.

Elsewhere, and in the same time period, Freud had exemplified this crucial ambivalence of love and hatred and their expression in leaders and masses. There were masses with leaders and then there were leaderless masses. The Pope and the army defined for Freud leaderless masses par excellence as obedience trumped all other emotions. But leaders who commanded masses did so because of identification. As an aspect of self-love, such leaders were unassailable because the masses identified with them, even if their lives were nothing like the lives of those who followed them. In the Age of Trump, and even Erdogan, Modi, Putin and several others, Freud makes for a compelling reading, with sentiment forming the centrepiece of political life.

Pankaj Mishra, the autodidact and ace public intellectual of our times, however, decided in his latest book, which is written self-confessedly in the age of Trump and Modi, to turn not to Freud, who unravelled its inheritance, but straight to the gods of modernity and to the Enlightenment itself. Mishra has organised his latest book on the work of sentiment and anger in particular. Most critics of his book --and there have been several, their critiques all notably unfair – have taken issue with Mishra primarily for his interpretation of the Enlightenment. The carping critics seem to ask whether Mishra really knows his Rousseau? And did he get Voltaire wrong? Or even more seriously, and in the vein of the antiquarian, what could all this even have to do with the Age of Trump?

In touching and demystifying the gods of the Enlightenment, Mishra seems to have caused much discomfort in those who seem to keep a watch over or seek to control its legacy. Surprisingly, neither critics nor acolytes of his new book seem to have registered the return to the importance of sentiment that the Age of Anger refreshingly articulates and argues for. After all, even Adam Smith discussed commerce in the language of sentiment and at the very height of the moment of humanity’s so-called end of darkness and entry into the light of knowledge.

For a decade at least, Mishra has outsmarted academics – historians, theorists, and philosophers—in sniffing out emerging academic debates and trends and then issuing landmark interventions from his widely read essays that singularly take down influential mediocrities to books that influence but escape the cloisters of academic prose.[2] Mishra’s last book, From the Ruins of Empire, was a reconstruction of some of the most important nineteenth century non-Western thinkers from Egypt, India, and China, and while it was an early intervention it nevertheless gave a fillip and public life to the emerging academic field of global thought that seeks to dethrone the West as the natural habitus of modern political ideas.

Age of Anger goes, by contrast, to the original scene and iconic debate of modernity and its legacy from then to now. If there was the expansive, well-connected, metropolitan and even cosmopolitan Voltaire who compelled France and the world to think of freedom, then the provincial origins of his critic and nemesis Rousseau, Mishra reminds us, forced us to think not only of obligations but importantly Rousseau articulated a profound sense of  resentment. Resentment then was the sentiment that engulfed those who had been left behind and were forced to catch up with the forward moving tide of history, thus destined not only to bear it but if possible ideally, pace Mahatma Gandhi, overcome their crucial resentment.

Rousseau then prefigures in Mishra’s account in nourishing romantic nationalism, almost as a compensation (Mishra does not deploy this term) and an ideology for those who were not privileged enough to enter the ‘Age of Enlightenment’ as its first born. From the figurehead of 1848 revolutions Giuseppe Mazzini and early twentieth century proponent of Hindutva or political Hinduism Vinayak Savarkar to a smattering of other historical actors and contexts, all suffer from aching resentment that is the lot of the late comer that Mishra brings to life. And he does so as an instructive reminder to the contemporary condition of globalisation.

In discussing his new book soon after its publication in a public debate held in Mishra’s presence at Cambridge in March 2017, the German historian Christopher Clark quipped that reading Mishra’s account of the late comer, with figures ranging from Russia, Germany, Italy to India it seemed that they had all definitely arrived late to a party only to discover that the original guests had in fact committed suicide![3]

Like all good jokes, as Freud would say, this goes to the heart of the matter. While romantic nationalism and the cringe of late arrival have suffused the grand if compensatory but influential ideologies—from romantic nationalism in the nineteenth century to even Cold War modernization theory and socialist developmentalism—all have sought to ‘leap frog’ into a future while finding hospitable contexts in nations such as India, Italy, and Russia that were originally kept out of the Enlightenment. Yet crucially, the degradation of the original inheritors or the West in their own catastrophic wars in the twentieth century sits uneasily with Mishra’s account of a long and enduring genealogy of the Enlightenment.

The twentieth century was famously Nietzschean in that it sought to confront, combat, and overcome the past. Violence more than resentment or even antagonism more than anger and hatred as a manifestation of love, have all singularised it as a century of ruptures. Freud then sitting in the heart of bourgeois Europe in Vienna and with the couch as his instrument could launch a searing attack on the ideals of modernity without giving up on it entirely. Simultaneously, after centuries of overseas expansion and the retailing of brutal wars beyond its borders, Europe frenzied into a mass killing machine in a short but decisive three decades.

At the whimpering end of this last violent century, globalisation became the force, the name, and disposition for commerce, the arts, and politics, as zeitgeist and as a point of closure to a century of violent antagonism. Historians, given their trade in dating games, often quibble whether it was 1989 that witnessed the breaking of the wall between Europe’s own domestic Eastern and Western frontiers and that declared the triumph of freedom and capitalism that in effect ended the hostile century. Others, though, would argue that it was in fact the globalisation of violence and the audacious taking down of the Twin Towers in 2001 that effectively ended if only again violently the last century. Regardless of whether one chooses 1989 or 2001, globalisation is what is at stake in calling curtains on the last century.

Resentment then, according to Mishra, through the retelling of Rousseau, helps explain those left behind by globalisation. Assured in their nativism and romanticism, those inveighing with anger against the LME (liberal metropolitan elite) have rousingly installed Trump in America and Modi in India. Luckily, Mishra does not take solace in the crude Marxist comfort-blanket of false-consciousness, thus does not argue that those who have voted against their self-interest know not what they have done. If the forbidding DC corridors have barbarians in their midst, then the infamous but more zealously cloistered power chambers of Lutyens Delhi—named after the architect who bequeathed British imperial grandeur to Delhi at the moment of its demise—now has a provincial prodigal atop its high domes.

But is it anger that has installed the inheritors of Rousseau? Anger is but a symptom and at best an expression of the sentiment that rules it, namely hatred and antagonism.

In the last two decades globalisation became a celebrated consensus. From Cool Britannia to Incredible India! and from erstwhile empires to former abject subjects, all remade themselves as open to business, cultural mixture, and worldly exchange. Such boisterous bonhomie glossed over not simply inequality that the best-seller of our times by Thomas Piketty compellingly details but has finally brought antagonism and thus politics to globalisation.[4]

After all, politics is but the arena of a battle between more than one idea, viewpoint, and vision of the future. To this extent, the ‘age of anger’ has ushered in a political rather than a battle of sentiments alone. It has certainly cast doubt on technical prowess, especially that of the thrusting banker, the intrepid investor, and the cold economist that globalisation installed and celebrated. It is the political, stupid!

Thus, it would be more accurate to say that rather than the justly reviled 1% that very arguably looks the same everywhere, it is instead those that live with the consequences of globalisation who have finally said something consequential about it, even if inchoately and in anger. But it is not that those who are newly left behind and find themselves alone who have spoken. Instead, it is those like in Modi’s India or Trump’s America or even in

Brexit Britain, who have most to gain or lose from it that have caused a breach in the consensus on globalisation.

The ‘age of anger’ or, more aptly, this global arc of antagonism, should not be the cause of despair. Rather, in injecting a debate, causing a rupture, in forcing an evaluation, globalisation has finally found a political utterance and on the global stage from India to America, Britain, to Turkey. It has finally broken down the vertical speed of the Enlightenment and the comfort of consensus.

Critics of Mishra’s Age of Anger simply betrayed anxiety over its ownership. In its ruins, the Enlightenment appears not only quaint but ultimately incapable of addressing the new future, anger and all, of the twenty first century. The dream of some and the stuff of nightmares for many, the Enlightenment is finally, over. Freud or no Freud, we can thank Mishra for rendering the Enlightenment not as the age of freedom but the bygone era of envy.



Review by Thomas Meaney, Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen,Vienna

Pankaj Mishra is one of the more unusual and difficult to characterize intellectuals of our age. In his early writing—books of reportage and a political novel—he appeared as a possible heir to V.S. Naipaul: a writer who interpreted the world by testing his own impressions against it, as well as against the received opinions of the liberal cosmopolitan consensus.[5] But whereas Naipaul changed from an anti-colonial avenger into a grand old man of letters, whose hauteur and disdain seem to have been his way of coping with his hard landing into the metropole, Mishra never traded away his sympathies with the periphery. In his literary criticism, Mishra is more political and historically-sensitive than most of his peers; in his political commentary, he is hostile toward the mutations of Cold War liberals and neoliberals, whose missionary work he identifies as the source of widespread discontent. Although broadly in agreement with the much of the political left, his writing shows—for the most part—an unwillingness to submit to any passing or inherited idiom, or to participate too avidly in any project of alignment. A curious feature of Mishra’s trajectory has been why he did not continue to pursue his inquiries into the contemporary world more often in the novel form, in which he is adept. Perhaps the present demands more explicit reckonings. In The Age of Anger, he has chosen a form that has long been the province of liberal mandarins: intellectual history.

Here Mishra goes further than much of his past work by attempting not merely an intellectual, but an emotional history of what he calls “the global civil war (5).” On one side of the divide are the cosmopolitan elites who have championed the market and globalization; on the other are those who have suffered, or at least perceive themselves to have suffered, at the hands of elites who pursue their interests under the cover—and sanction—of purportedly universal goods: connectedness, growth, mobility, etc. Although Mishra himself is hardly averse to economic, sociological, or anthropological analyses of popular grievances, much less structural accounts of the rise of anti-systemic movements, he approaches these problems by asking some basic questions: How does it feel to have a mind and body consumed with resentment? How do the carriers of this feeling cope with it? What is it that animates their blessed rage for order or disorder?

One of Mishra’s main contentions is that our age has a series of illuminating precedents. At the turn of the nineteenth century, as monarchist, czarist, and other authoritarian regimes collapsed, there was a widespread worry among liberals and conservatives that a major period of vengeance was upon them. The tremulous premonitions of Alexis de Tocqueville about the coming democratic tsunami appeared well founded. In the lead-up to the First World War, a leftist such as Max Eastman could take the old liberal critique as a badge of honor, happily affixing the title “The Masses” on his new journal. Liberals internationalists mobilized against this development. President Woodrow Wilson, submitting to Allied pressure, even allowed American troops to be sent to Russia, where they joined the effort to kill off communism in the cradle. By the interwar years, Ortega y Gasset would help pioneer the type of polemic that liberals would engage in again and again for the rest of the century. His The Revolt of the Masses was a work of prophetic bathos that rallied its readers against barbarous workers who would destroy the civilized class above them, and the idyllic one below them, with their new, powerfully cohesive ideologies. For Mishra, however, as much as for liberal mandarins like Isaiah Berlin, the primal scene of this confrontation was the Enlightenment. Voltaire figures for Mishra as a member of the righteous progressive elite, a kind of proto-Stephen Pinker. Rousseau, meanwhile, is proto- René-Girard, attuned to the psychology of resentment and mimetic desire that his contemporaries did not yet have the emotional equipment to feel. There is something disappointing about Mishra’s attempt to recast the Enlightenment, yet again, as morality play, with two opposed sides, even if he accords different marks to the main players. The point of retrieving the thought of a figure such as Rousseau would seem to be lost if means dwelling on his nostalgia for ancient, individual-annihilating communities, rather than his imaginative experiments about future polities that could reconcile the individual and society. In this sense, the debate between Adam Smith and Rousseau might have been more fertile territory. Mishra is most impressed by the German responses to the French Enlightenment, suggesting persuasively that the Germans have never been quite at home in modernity. In their less cleanly articulate but often more reaching thought, Mishra treats German thinkers such as Johann Gottfried Herder, who rebelled against the first wave of the French “civilizing mission,” as a forbearer to today’s anti-globalist dissenters. (Oddly, Mishra retails something close to Berlin’s Herder, passing over Herder’s own vision of cosmopolitanism, which was meant to make the world safe for particularism).

Mishra’s book will draw comparisons with the last great “geography of anger”—Arjun Appadurai’s the Fear of Small Numbers—which appeared in the midst of the George W. Bush administration and a few years after the Gujarat pogrom.[6] But the books are as interesting for where they differ as much for what they share. Appadurai focused on a specific type of anger among majorities in modern nation states against perceived minorities who live within their borders (or threaten something within those borders), no matter that such minorities have often consisted of people who have lived there for centuries or longer. Appadurai shows how the very concepts of ‘minority’ and ‘majority’ were produced by colonial regimes in order to make the populations more legible and by applying and fixing western categories (religion, language, physiognomy, pastoral habits) to peoples whom they treated like butterflies, with identities that could be pinned down forever. He shows how this kind of cataloging became live tinder during the post-colonial decades, when many self-regarding majorities targeted minorities as a way to purify or consolidate or concretize their own, highly dubious identities. This phenomenon was only accelerated by thorough-going marketization that made the nation and ‘ethnic’ or ‘religious’ majorities only more potent sources of identity in a sea of uncertainty. Appadurai’s book is, in other words, about a violent dialectic at the heart globalization, especially the novel, exterminist impulses to which it gives rise within societies.

Mishra’s account of anger stretches farther back than Appadurai’s. It finds the overriding cause in the western promise of progress itself, which is bound to betray those who relentlessly pursue its credo or fuel the anger of those who know they will never be able to acquire the same degree of recognition that modernity promises them at every turn. Mishra sees violence as a mimetic response to the violence of globalization and the emptiness of its mantras. Much as domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh felt that the U.S. government had become a tyrannical scourge in the homeland, and mirrored the type of violence that the state used abroad, so, too, do Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) recruits aim to satisfy their craving for recognition and power that they believe their societies deny them. They even make a point of attacking Enlightenment idols (theaters, concerts, newspapers, etc.). Though this may be irresponsibly impressionistic, I have sometimes wondered whether the discontent one senses among Turkish-Germans in Berlin, compared to the fiercer resentments apparent among Algerian—or Malian-French in Paris, may have something to do with the greater degree of disappointment that France’s Enlightenment rhetoric encourages, as opposed to the less lofty view of the German state which, while it has rarely tried hard to integrate foreign workers and their children, also never promised them as much.

Mishra’s account has been criticized for amalgamating too many different types of anger, from too many sources; ISIS recruits, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh bachelors, pyro-rioters in banlieues, and Trump voters, who may not all be animated by common phenomena, and, more importantly, differ radically in their global position and power. If one were to blend Appadurai and Mishra’s approaches—a fruitful exercise, I think—the Trump phenomenon might possibly be an instance of last-ditch majoritarian projection: a minority, white, propertied group, who, operating out of various degrees of resentment and self-consciousness, are making, in their eyes, a kind of reckless, but necessary, Pickett’s charge to win a demographic and soon-to-be resource war. Hence the concern about crowd size (it is critical to many of them that they believe they are still a majority) and the border (a more flexible, bare, featureless, acquisitive specter of basic Non-Americanness seems to be replacing more specific demons of the recent past as the United States’ preferred enemy).

Today the political left, which was designed to organize the opponents and victims of the market-centered world, has lost so much of its power to the right. Some have suggested the power of right-wing anti-systemic movements is that they have the luxury of ideological coherence: they can plausibly say that they are pro-democratic, because they want people to ‘decide’ about, for instance, taking in refugees and making the welfare state serve a select group. Many across right can now even afford to take more heterodox views on global capitalism than in previous decades. I am curious whether Mishra views the contemporary success of the right, and the relative feebleness of today’s left, in the same terms. Which does he believe is more politically exigent: to try to deplete the sources of anger and resentment or to properly channel it?

To take a different tack: the word socialism barely surfaces in Mishra’s book. Why? In the period he most concentrates on—the nineteenth century—socialism was the defining way to think about how to collect the grievances of the masses. In some of his previous writing, Mishra has looked favorably at socialists of earlier periods. At other moments he has glimpsed with hope upon more charismatic figures, such as Joko Widodo of Indonesia, who once promised a social revolution of street workers and the marginalized. Does Mishra think that socialism has a future, or does his reluctance to take up its banner signal a wariness about what recovering the socialist tradition might entail? Does he think the socialism of the recent past is worth drawing on substantially, or does he believe it requires a more fundamental return to its initial commitments, shearing it of the ideological residue and more strictly economic perspective of the nineteenth century? (To reduce this to a German stand-off, the former view has been powerfully expressed by Wolfgang Streeck, the latter by Axel Honneth).

I have in the past taken Mishra to be a nostalgist for the type of socialism that last existed in the 1970s, minus its poor environmental record. But that attempt to pin him down was, I now think, too caustic, ungenerous, and impatient. I would like to know how he would square socialism with the defense of a deeper, yet more anti-imperial cosmopolitanism that he celebrated in his last book. The left in Europe and elsewhere appears to be breaking into two significant formations, one more comfortable, or at least reconciled, with the nation as the only first step left for justice here and now (Streeck); the other more intent to see the scurry back to the nation as a failure of imagination (Honneth). The “climate of ideas, a structure of feeling, and cognitive disposition” (28)—these are at the front and center of the Age of Anger. But what type of human beings could conceivably come together to achieve headway against our resentment-breeding political and economic order? Even many of the most ardent opponents of the global elite today tend to partake in some form of market mentality, some degree of neoliberal subjectivity. Can the already infected adequately oppose the present logic, or does it require the birth of an entirely new sensibility?


Author’s Response by Pankaj Mishra

I am honored and much moved by these comments from such illustrious writers and thinkers. Age of Anger was widely reviewed on publication in January 2017—but most of the responses in the mainstream media were more usefully read as defiant assertions of its endangered ideological orthodoxy. The anchor of the BBC’s prime time current affairs show was openly incredulous that I would question the universal progress signalled so clearly by the lifting of hundreds of millions of Indians and Chinese out of poverty. The New York Times’ reviewer accused me of issuing “angry bromides” about the “Western model,” adding, “let’s say a few kind words for neoliberalism.” The critic at the Economist wondered why I was complaining about the West since I “sup at the tables of the Western intelligentsia.” An acolyte of Isaiah Berlin who reviewed my book in the New York Review of Books was scandalized by my apparent sympathy for Daesh. A luminary of the Murdoch-owned London Times accused me of favouring head-hunters in Borneo over Western civilization.[7]

Only a couple of reviews noticed the book’s provenance in an experience of India. I started to write Age of Anger not long after May 2014, when a Hindu supremacist accused of presiding over the mass-murder of Muslims became India’s most powerful prime minister in decades. Hindu supremacism under Narendra Modi had surged on the back of failed promises. The country’s first postcolonial elite had very scantily delivered on the country’s founding promise of democracy and development, and a more recent guarantee, underwritten by the country’s neo-liberal ruling class, of general prosperity through stout fidelity to the principles of the market, had flopped more spectacularly. In fact, recent years in India had witnessed the proliferation of a social jungle, marked by exploitation and inequality, in which a state stigmatized by corruption scandals and weakened by global crises increasingly appeared to lack authority and legitimacy. Not for the first time had a failed experiment in economic liberalism, which benefitted the few at great expense to the many, created a reservoir of frustration and resentment, and an opening for fascistic and semi-fascistic movements and demagogues.

Modi, backed by India’s richest people and even some self-proclaimed ‘liberal’ intellectuals, was attempting to rebuild a weakened state and nationalist ideology through a refurbished program of cultural nationalism, with some new values, ideals, historical myths, and symbols. In this venture, Modi and his toadies have succeeded beyond measure—almost as well as the Italian fascists who took over Italy’s failed modernization and nation-building projects from liberal-democrats. They have not only made the state re-assert its sovereignty through violence and ruthless discriminations; they have also made society an exuberant participant in this sovereign power by granting the power of life and death to lynch mobs, and by encouraging hate-filled trolls on social media to go after ‘traitorous’ minorities and liberal elites.

This state-directed vitalist barbarism is a formidable new power in a country full of angry and frustrated young men; and, boosted by Silicon Valley’s innovations, it has already blown away all old political and ethical criteria. But Modi, shockingly extreme to many members of the Indian elite, induced déjà vu in me. This was not only because of Hindu supremacism’s openly avowed and easily recognizable pedigree in Europe’s far-right movements. For someone with my social background---dispossessed Brahmin gentry with natural affinities to reactionary politics---Modi was someone profoundly and unnervingly intimate. Adolf Hitler features in Thomas Mann’s incandescent 1939 essay “That Man is My Brother,” as a semblable, “a man possessed of a bottomless resentment and a desire for revenge,” who “rouses the populace with images of his own insulted grandeur, deafens with promises, makes out of the people's sufferings a vehicle for his own greatness,” but who is nevertheless “a brother—a rather unpleasant and mortifying brother.”[8] Modi sparked this same appalled self-recognition in me.

Thomas Meaney’s apposite questions—‘What does it feel like to have a mind and body consumed with resentment? How do the carriers of this feeling cope with it?’—were never abstract or remote for me. As a child I had imbibed the prejudices of semi-rural upper-caste Hindus who believed themselves to be under threat from all quarters: from an ostensibly secular and supercilious English-speaking elite as well as politically assertive low-caste Hindus. At college in a declining provincial city I encountered people whose sense of an inimical world and feelings of personal inadequacy were much greater and politically more volatile than my own.

With this formative experience of minds and bodies consumed by resentment, I was drawn to exploring the “climate of ideas, a structure of feeling, and cognitive disposition” rather than (re) writing a history of ideas or cataloguing their content. Perry Anderson acutely remarked of Ernest Gellner’s theory of nationalism that “whereas [Max] Weber was so bewitched by the spell of nationalism that he was never able to theorize it, Gellner has theorized nationalism without detecting the spell.”[9] Writing after Modi’s enthronement, a moment of great personal trauma (suffered again with his recent re-election), I became obsessed with understanding the seemingly ever-renewable spell of nationalism or ethnic-religious chauvinism, on writers and intellectuals as much as the masses. I was interested specifically in some contagious states of minds and mentalities. Hence, the centrality of Rousseau to Age of Anger as a figure whose revulsion against the mores of metropolitan Paris finds a global resonance, from the German-speaking peoples to the ideologues of the Iran’s Islamic Revolution. Shruti Kapila puts it better: Rousseau’s “nourishing romantic nationalism” acted “almost as a compensation and an ideology for those who were not privileged enough to enter the ‘Age of Enlightenment’ as its first born.”

I had been taking notes in the years before 2014 for a book on the shared experience of belatedness: starting with Germany, and then Russia and Italy, before radiating out to Japan and the postcolonial world. I hoped to examine the intellectual affinities (and political pathologies) that bound people in these countries as they entered the (very deeply rigged) race for wealth and power (and how a remarkable number of them became the most acute diagnosticians of modern maladies). Age of Anger, though written in response to an emergency, is largely a product of this endeavour to write an emotional history of uneven development. Faisal Devji is right to say that it is “primarily about the experience of a certain kind of temporality, one whose relentless movement forward gives rise to anxieties about being left behind or unable to catch up with rival nations or ideologies, races or religions.”

It seemed to me that the early political, economic, and technological revolutions had privileged certain countries—Britain, France, and the United States---in the race for wealth and power, forcing the rest into a reaction that was ambivalent at best and treacherously confused at worst: loathing of the new imperial hierarchy of nations and peoples, and resentment of economic and cultural superiority, but also an envious desire to steal the secret of their superiors’ success, and supplant them. In country after country, from nineteenth-century Prussia to postcolonial Indonesia, this enlisting into the march of history took the form of an ideological mobilization—the construction of a nationality or ‘people,’ the centralization of the state’s powers, rapid-fire industrialization and militarization, and often many radical and calamitous short-cuts, such as China’s Great Leap Forward, all in an effort to be not left behind.

Of course, this large-scale national mobilization and ferocious international competition was not what a universalizing ideology of progress first articulated during the late eighteenth century had envisaged. While not excluding the possibility of conflict, it posited a far more benign outcome to the global diffusion of individual reason and competitive commerce. So did the prophets of neo-liberal globalization in our own time as they reconfigured society into a marketplace, encouraging human beings to think of themselves as entrepreneurs.

Indeed, a naïve vision of enlightened universalism became hegemonic again during the age of capitalist exuberance that began in 1989 and ended in 2007. During this intellectually and artistically regressive fin de siècle, when, as Kapila writes, “globalisation became the force, the name, and disposition for commerce, the arts, and politics, as zeitgeist and as a point of closure to a century of violent antagonism,” many Steven Pinkers came to flourish at all levels of the government, the media, and the knowledge industry in general. Busy prescribing how the ‘Muslim world’ or other backward societies should progress, hardly any of them reckoned with the possibility of a political and economic breakdown in the heart of the fully modern West.

It became clearer as I was writing Age of Anger that the remorseless logic of uneven capitalist development had not only shaped the trajectory of a majority of the world’s population—the so-called latecomers to modernity—and generated such ‘catch-up’ and apparently ‘aberrant’ ideologies as Nazism, Italian Fascism, and Japanese militarism. With China turning the economic tables, it was also starting to have devastating political consequences, as the phenomena of Brexit and Trump and Le Pen underlined, for the apparent winners of modern history. Many among them had made the nasty discovery that liberal democracy and capitalism, their evidently ‘normal’ and superior political and economic structures, had cruelly betrayed their promise of freedom and prosperity.  

Meaney points out that Age of Anger “has been criticized for amalgamating too many different types of anger.” This might seem a serious flaw, given the objective differences in “global position and power” between a Modi-voting Hindu and a Trump-voting American. But I was much less interested in drawing up a taxonomy of political disaffection and anger than in narrating the subjective experience of uneven development under conditions of intense global competition and rivalry, where political and material interests are tightly pressed together, each appearing to constrain the other. This experience is one in which, as Devji points out, fears of falling behind or failing to catch up “arise out of the very interchangeability of competing groups conceived as interests, with each afraid of following the trajectory of another.”

Thus, the far right in Europe, which is haunted by the spectre of colonization by the immigrants from Europe’s own former colonies. At the same time, the latter fear being treated like Europe’s Jews, who had once dreaded suffering the fate of indigenous peoples and blacks in America. “In both cases,” as Devji writes, “anger is spurred not by the differences and distances between rival nations, races or religions, but instead by their disavowed intimacies.” One could add to this list the upper-caste Hindus who are driven to vote for Modi out of fear of relegation into the ranks of the low-caste Hindus and poor Muslims. Age of Anger details several instances of these mimetic fears shared among apparent enemies across categories of class, race, religion, and nationality.

They seem independent of all considerations of political rationality, and easily instrumentalized by demagogues. Such an insidious cunning of unreason raises the question: what is to be done?

Lurching out of a short-lived episode of faux-Enlightenment, or the age of Pinkerism, where progress seemed guaranteed and ruling classes everywhere had only kind words to say about neoliberalism, we actually find ourselves even further away from the possibility of human emancipation. With manmade climate catastrophe becoming imminent, Devji’s distrust of historical consciousness for dangerously over-producing the future seems salutary. Socialists as well as Pinker-ists may have consistently exaggerated the human goods that can be realized in the world as it is, and Kapila is right in one sense to say that “the dream of some and the stuff of nightmares for many, the Enlightenment is finally, over.” But if we take Enlightenment to be “man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity”, then this “task”, and “obligation” as Kant defined it, is never fulfilled; it has to be continually renewed by every generation in ever-changing social and political conditions.

For many young people in the United States aghast at the immaturity, myopia, or pig-headedness of the boomer generation, socialism constitutes a new horizon of hope. Meaney remarks on its absence in my book, writing that “in the period he most concentrates on —the nineteenth century — socialism was the defining way to think about how to collect the grievances of the masses.” I would go further and say that the fundamental promise of democracy—equality—could only be realized through socialism. The set of ideas that emerged in response to a widespread distress of the working classes preserved the ethical core of Christianity against the Social Darwinist ethos of industrial capitalism. Any weakening of its principles of compassion and solidarity were bound to lead to large-scale suffering, as can be witnessed in our own age, when capitalism, somewhat defanged after 1945 by social-welfarism in the west and protectionist economies elsewhere, again turned feral, devastating the environment as well as workers’ rights.

Of course, socialism, as articulated in the U.S., is primarily a plea for some human decency, even though the gendarmes of the ancien regime in the ‘legacy’ periodicals, and the lumpen-scholars of Quillette, make it seem like the harbinger of mass purges and executions. It can only be welcomed by outsiders like myself who have long despaired at Americans’ seeming acquiescence to their state of capitalist savagery. And who can fail to acknowledge the urgency of the Green New Deal? I wrote shortly after the 2015 attacks on Charlie Hebdo that “we may have to retrieve the Enlightenment, as much as religion, from its fundamentalists, and the task for those who cherish freedom is to reimagine it – through an ethos of criticism combined with compassion and ceaseless self-awareness – in our own irreversibly mixed and highly unequal societies and the larger interdependent world.”[10] The only suitable modern ideology for a steadily uninhabitable earth is green socialism.

Still, for those of us from countries that lived with a version of what Shruti Kapila calls “socialist developmentalism” the current appeal of socialism reminds us, inevitably and soberingly, not only of the scale of its historical defeat, but also its inadequacies—its hubristic faith in human mastery over nature and its simple-minded view of individual desires and motivations. (A book like Martin Hägglund’s This Life is welcome precisely for its attempt to draw an image of human fulfilment that can stand as a persuasive indictment of our societies, and offer a moral and spiritual foundation for socialist practice today).[11] I am also inclined to wonder, with Faisal Devji, whether the left’s search for class solidarity, whether nationally or transnationally, tragically marks its permanent disappearance. In India, for instance, the experience of blocked social mobility, poor private and state education, have created conditions not for class struggle, but a mass exodus into the smartphone’s screen, where Modi joins Bollywood stars and social media influencers in offering endless possibilities of consumption and virtual self-aggrandizement.

Too many conventional premises of political action have been eroded by the advance of markets and technology into the most intimate spheres of our lives. Even the most sensitive and intelligent people seem to have become perilously inured to living in a cacophonous society/marketplace---one that forces people into bitterly fierce competition with each other, and leaves them stewed in envy, resentment, and fear, existentially and spiritually at each other’s throats. The permanent state of warfare on Twitter in that sense reflects a broader sociopathy.

Meaney astutely identifies a big though under-noticed problem: that “even many of the most ardent opponents of the global elite today tend to partake in some form of market mentality, some degree of neoliberal subjectivity.” “Can the already infected,” he asks, “adequately oppose the present logic, or does it require the birth of an entirely new sensibility?” My own book stresses the more stringent requirement, ending with a compressed and somewhat discouraging anthropology of the digital, and calling for some “truly transformative thinking, about both the self and the world.” This might seem an utopian flourish, putting too much faith in our willingness and capacity for re-education. But can it be doubted that many of our self-perceptions, habits, and assumptions will have to be radically altered if our world is to remain inhabitable for future generations? It is true that the task at hand is the defeat and marginalization of the far-right. But it is worth remembering that the moral and intellectual choices facing us are far wider than those presupposed by the need for political victory.



[1] Arjun Appadurai, Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006).

[2] See Pankaj Mishra, “Watch this Man,” on Niall Ferguson’s historical writings in the London Review of Books 33:21 (2011), 10-12 and more recently on Jordan Peterson “Jordan Peterson and Fascist Mysticism,” New York Review of Books 19 March 2018,

[3] Panel Discussion on Age of Anger with Pankaj Mishra and responses by Christopher Clark, Faisal Devji and Gary Gerstle convened by Shruti Kapila under the auspices of the History Faculty Seminar, ‘Global Intellectual History’, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, 7 February 2017.

[4] Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2014).

[5] Pankaj Mishra, The Romantics (New York: Random House, 2000); Butter Chicken in Ludhiana: Travels in Small Town India (New Delhi: Penguin Books India, 1995).

[6] Arjun Appadurai, The Fear of Small NumbersAn Essay on the Geography of Anger (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006).

[7] Franklin Foer, “Apocalypse Now: What’s Behind the Volatile Mood of Today’s American — and European — Voters,” New York Times, 13 February 2017,; “The deep roots of modern resentment,” The Economist,; Michael Ignatieff, “Which Way Are We Going?,” The New York Review of Books, 6 April 2017,; Justin Marozzi, “Books: Age of Anger: A History of the Present by Pankaj Mishra,” The Sunday Times, 5 February 2017,

[8] Thomas Mann, “That Man is My Brother,” Esquire, 1 March 1939.

[9] Perry Anderson, ‘Science, Politics, Enchantment,’ published in John A. Hall and Ian Jarvie, eds, The Social Philosophy of Ernest Gellner, Poznan Studies in the Philosophy of the Sciences and the Humanities, Amsterdam 1996.

[10] Pankaj Mishra, “After the Paris Attacks: It’s Time for A New Enlightenment,” The Guardian, 20 January 2015,

[11] Martin Hägglund This Life (New York: Pantheon, 2019).

Categories: Roundtable, H-DiploPub