Ressentiment, Past and Present: On Pankaj Mishra’s The Age of Anger

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, founding father of the Counter-Enlightenment (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

It’s been less than half a year since the election of Donald Trump, and only two and a half months into his actual presidency, but already our cultural space is being bombarded by slates of books seeking to explain his presidency, written, edited, and published it seems as fast as a Slate article or one of Donald Trump’s Muslim bans. In most cases these books are opportunistic, either hastily scrawled by some poor ghostwriter and then sent to the printing presses or else compiled of pre-published articles written during the campaign, with epilogues and prologues tacked on for coherence and a bit of novelty. But in the case of Pankaj Mishra’s The Age of Anger: A History of the Present, the fact that the book happens to so perfectly explain Trump is seemingly accidental, since as Mishra notes in the Preface, it was already at the printers by November 8, 2016. Yet maybe this prophetic quality is not accidental but inevitable, and a testament to just how insightful and intelligent Mishra’s analysis of our political age really is.

Despite its subtitle, The Age of Anger focuses largely on the past and seeks to explain our current political crises through an intellectual history of the Enlightenment and its discontents. Beginning with Rousseau, who’s deep envy of the cosmopolitan, individualistic, and commercially-minded Voltaire he cites as the first example of an anti-Enlightenment philosophy, Mishra catalogues an emerging feeling of ressentiment, “an existential resentment of other people’s being, caused by an intense mix of envy and sense of humiliation and powerlessness,” which, “as it lingers and deepens, poisons civil society and undermines political liberty, and is presently making for a global turn to authoritarianism and toxic forms of chauvinism.” Though he begins and often returns to 18th and 19th century Europe, Mishra’s book has an admirably global scope, and he discusses the role of this ressentiment in nationalist and religious uprisings all the way to the present, from the 19th century’s German Romantic nationalism to 21st century’s Islamic fundamentalism, Hindu nationalism, and Western white supremacy. But Mishra doesn’t just argue that these are unconnected movements with a common historical parallel — instead he details how many of their founders and proponents, both early Islamist radicals and early Hindu nationalists alike, actively read the same European writers and were thus directly inspired by the same European ressentiment. In this way, his book makes powerful argument that our current age’s disparate angers, far from being the product of some clash of civilizations, have at their root a common tradition as old as the Enlightenment — a resentment first articulated by Rousseau, subsequently developed by various European nationalists and Romantics, and ultimately turned by anarchist Mikhail Bakunin into a powerful, destructive philosophy, advocating violence and celebrating the individual will to power, the historical antecedent of contemporary terrorism and, ironically (but also perhaps inevitably) authoritarianism.

Central to Mishra’s argument is the idea of mimesis — the notion that those gripped by resentful hatred will ironically (or, again, perhaps inevitably) mimic the very groups they claim to vehemently and often violently oppose. Voltaire might have been Rousseau’s bitter rival, but the latter’s philosophical emphasis on freedom and moral integrity is just a reflection of the former’s belief that such freedom and integrity can be gained from a liberal, rational, capitalist world. The German Romantics might have hated Napoleon and his French Empire, but they also envied his individualism and his embodiment of a French nationalist spirit (thus Napoleon’s complex position as a figure of both the Enlightenment and Romanticism). Today, Islamic terrorists both hate and mimic the West, while Western white supremacists and Hindu nationalists do the same to the Islamic terrorists. Even the Enlightenment itself participated in this mimesis by replacing the religious ideology they actively opposed with their own absolutes of progress and individualism. And even Bakunin’s anarchism, despite seeming like the ultimate rejection of all ideology, is really itself a mimetic reflection of Enlightenment liberalism’s promise of individual freedom. Thus, as Mishra puts it, “the key to mimic man’s behavior lies not in any clash of opposed civilizations, but, on the contrary, in irresistible mimetic desire: the logic of fascination, emulation and righteous self-assertion that binds the rivals inseparably. It lies in ressentiment, the tormented mirror games in which the West as well as its ostensible enemies and indeed all inhabitants of the modern world are trapped.”

On it’s surface, Mishra’s argument doesn’t seem that original. On the American left, neoliberals and socialists alike have long identified the same counter-Enlightenment tradition that Mishra does, most recently Jacobin in an article by Landon Frim and Harrison Fluss. But the problem with such articles is that they still believe the answer is simply a return to the Enlightenment — for the neoliberals, this means Adam Smith, and for the socialists this means Marx. But as Mishra insightfully argues, the Enlightenment has never been enough. The modern world its forces created left a profound emptiness, a hollowness, a widespread dissatisfaction and alienation. Sadly it was the right that filled in this hollowness — with terrorism, with authoritarianism, with nationalism.

This then is the most devastating aspect of Mishra’s argument: as we follow his unfolding of the anxieties of our modern age and trace their development from Rousseau to ISIS, we realize that there is a dark kernel of truth in the diagnoses of these anti-Enlightenment prophets. As Mishra quotes writer after writer, from Nietzsche to Dostoyevsky, all laying bare the empty soul at the center of liberal capitalist rationalism, we can’t help but agree, that yes, there is something missing. Call it spirituality, mysticism, whatever. I certainly feel it as I struggle in this increasingly unequal world to balance being a writer and still feeding myself — “hustling” as millennials have with ironic fondness come to call it, hoping every two weeks that the check from my sporadic teaching gigs will be enough to cover my bills, hating myself for wanting what wealthier people can afford, and wondering if there isn’t something more to life than just this endless cycle. And if I’ve felt this as a privileged college graduate with a decent-enough job and the freedom to read books like this and review them, then I don’t doubt that others far worse off than me have felt it too — the woman who works on an assembly line in Mexico City and makes TVs for the petty bourgeois or the Pakistani worker who gets paid inhuman wages to toil on an oil rig or at a World Cup construction site in Qatar. I’m not a racist or a religious fanatic, so I’m not seduced by the fantasies of the right like others might be — but what then is the answer to this profound alienation?

Liberal capitalism argues that the answer is in the marketplace, and that capitalism’s freedom will in turn lead to human freedom. But it’s clear from the massive and rapidly growing inequality that this is a failed system. As Mishra says, “we may pretend to be entrepreneurs, polishing our personal brands, decorating our stalls in virtual as well as real marketplaces; but defeat, humiliation and resentment are more commonplace experiences than success and contentment in the strenuous endeavor of franchising the individual self.” Socialism possibly provides a different possibility. The explosive popularity of Bernie Sanders in 2015 and 2016, and, post-election, the increasing popularity of Jacobin, Chapo Trap House, and the Democratic Socialists of America suggest maybe there’s an answer there. But sometimes I find an emptiness at the heart of socialism too, at the heart of all its prescriptions. It’s not enough to simply laugh at ironic podcasts and tell people to “organize” and get them to sign up for listservs and pay $27 a month to vague and undefined groups using their Act Blue accounts. To combat the menace that Mishra has identified, the xenophobia, the nationalism, the anger of our age, we need a vision as meaningful as what the counter-enlightenment created, one that makes people feel like they’re a part of something greater than their limited selves — but without all the violence, racism, misogyny, religious fundamentalism, and authoritarianism that propelled Donald Trump to victory.

Mishra doesn’t really offer a solution, but that’s not his goal. His implied solution though is that our response to movements like ISIS or white nationalism can’t simply be political but has to be intellectual and moral as well. Still though, we’re left with that the question: what is the solution? What is the spiritual answer, the vision that can fill the emptiness, that can give humanity a meaning outside of bleak modernity? As others once put it, what is to be done?

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