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Age of Anger:
A History of the Present

by pankaj mishra 
farrar, straus and giroux, 320 pages, $26

Despite the subtitle of his book, Pankaj Mishra is not interested in understanding the past or the present. His aim, instead, is to dispose of those who voted for Trump, Brexit, Netanyahu, or Modi, arguing that they are deluded by resentment. A cascade of quotations carries him forward: Gandhi, Marx, Girard, Sorel, Mazzini, Rousseau, Nietzsche, Tocqueville, and Wagner all appear in motley array. Mishra does not make any attempt to contextualize or elucidate their disparate views; it is enough to invoke their authoritative names against these deplorables. Nearly the only canonical author not invoked by Mishra is Machiavelli. This is a shame, for one epigram from Machiavelli’s Life of Castruccio Castracani would have been instructive: “When someone was boasting of having read many things, Castruccio said: ‘It would be better to boast of having taken them to mind.’”

On one important point, Mishra is right: Contemporary liberal democracies have failed to live up to their promises of universal liberty, equality, and fraternity. Liberalism cannot help but disappoint, because it creates similar, competing desires in every population it conquers. It replaces settled social arrangements with restless striving for the same material success, ensuring that some will inevitably be left unsatisfied and enraged. More dubiously, Mishra argues that this failure has led voters to indulge in “ressentiment,” which he defines as “an existential resentment of other people’s being.” Fascism, Islamist terrorism, and the election of Donald Trump, among many other things, all fall under this broad heading.

Mishra is at his best when discussing the intellectuals of the Muslim world. He approaches their positions seriously and sympathetically, something he is unable to do for others. “In the postcolonial age of escalating egalitarianism,” he writes, “the Islamists stood for republicanism, radicalism and nationalism—the real thing, or almost. They offered dignity.” Mishra defends this provocative observation carefully and often convincingly, and he goes on to show how and why Islamist thinkers rejected Enlightenment individualism. Although typically Westernized themselves, they came to believe that the importation—or imposition—of Western liberalism would only destroy their societies, without offering a solid foundation for any alternative. In many cases, these Muslim critics of liberal modernity were not especially observant themselves, but turned to Islam as the only available indigenous base for building authentic rather than ersatz communities and cultures. One need not agree with every particular of Mishra’s argument to find his explanation of the antagonism between Western and Muslim societies helpful. Muslim ­intellectuals in the postcolonial context saw, rightly, that liberal modernity was not universal but instead an aggressive form of Western imperialism.

Oddly, Islamism is the only “real” nationalism that can offer “dignity,” in Mishra’s view. Trump won simply because of racism. Brexit is a case of “ethnic-racial nationalism.” Millions of diverse Modi voters were motivated exclusively by the hatred of Muslims. And while Israelis may not quite be the new Nazis, “the fanatical ethno-nationalists in Israel today . . . echo almost exactly the rhetoric of anti-Semites in mid-twentieth-century Germany and France.” And on and on across the world. Mishra resists Enlightenment liberalism and its oligarchic elite, yet he labels everyone who engages in similar criticism a fascist—with the bizarre possible exception of Islamists. This mode of argument, as vicious as it is careless, should demonstrate that it is Mishra himself who is motivated by ressentiment. How is ritualistically pronouncing every political opponent a Nazi not a form of scapegoating?

Mishra credits Rousseau’s attack on the Enlightenment as the original, if unacknowledged and misinterpreted, intellectual source for these various nationalist and populist movements. He is sympathetic to part of Rousseau’s critique and finds in it the highest articulation of the current anger against “a civilization built upon endless competition, desire and vanity.” By his account, Rousseau was the first to articulate the “psychology of ressentiment.” Only toward the end of the book does Mishra admit that Rousseau never used the word. This is more than a minor problem. Mishra must mischaracterize Rousseau’s thought because he wants to repeat certain parts of Rousseau’s critique of modernity without accepting his conclusions or remedies.

Rousseau rejects bourgeois liberalism not because it breeds Mishra’s ressentiment, but because acquisitive individualism corrupts and enslaves. Rousseau laments society’s distortion of natural man’s peaceful, contented love of self (amour de soi) into the selfish, domineering self-love (amour-propre) that measures the self in terms of status. For Rousseau, amour-propre is not simply a psychological phenomenon but also a historical one. It is bound up with the development of civilization, the invention of property, inequality, and the establishment of society itself. The rise of amour-propre predates the Enlightenment, but Enlightenment liberalism, in fully liberating individualistic amour-propre, further enslaves mankind by making self-worth dependent on social recognition.

The corrupting tendency of amour-propre is quite different from ressentiment. Those ruled by amour-propre accept subjugation willingly, not resentfully. As Rousseau says, “I know that enslaved peoples do nothing but boast of the peace and tranquility they enjoy in their chains and that they give the name ‘peace’ to the most miserable slavery.” As Allan Bloom, Rousseau’s translator, once put it:

[The bourgeois] is the man who, when dealing with others, thinks only of himself, and on the other hand, in his understanding of himself, thinks only of others. . . . The bourgeois distinguishes his own good from the common good. His good requires society, and hence he exploits others while depending on them. He must define himself in relation to them. The bourgeois comes into being when men no longer believe that there is a common good, when the notion of the fatherland decays.

The last sentence suggests why Mishra cannot fully embrace Rousseau’s critique of the Enlightenment. For Rousseau, the only way to escape modern slavery under amour-propre is the restoration of a strong political community along the lines of ancient Sparta. In such a state, a citizen’s loyalty to the common good will supersede his selfish amour-propre, thereby creating the conditions of political freedom. Because it is impossible to return to the natural peace of amour de soi after the invention of property and inequality, the only way to overcome amour-propre is through politics, according to Rousseau. Our personal liberty needs to be replaced by a freedom to legislate in community. Personal pity must give way to a commitment to political justice. But this implies a strong divide between citizen and noncitizen. Indeed, Rousseau does not hesitate to commend the Spartans’ hostility to foreigners. Nor does his notion of the common good offer much space for dissenters. It may even find some value in scapegoating heretics, the better to cement solidarity. Mishra, of course, cannot accept any of this. He distorts Rousseau because he wants to embrace Rousseau’s critique of selfish liberalism while still remaining a good, cosmopolitan liberal.

Mishra’s confusion is typical of today’s left, which has never recovered from the collapse of communism. Although Marx offered a utopia without boundaries in theory, in practice he supplied a vigorous communitarian sense of justice reinforced by class struggle. When the left abandoned the dream of international communism, with its revolutionary sense of political community, it replaced it with the meaningless slogan of “universal humanism.” Today the left claims to oppose “neoliberalism” in the name of this “universal humanism.” But insofar as universal humanism does not recognize the legitimacy of any political community between the individual and the world, it is merely neoliberalism by another name. Rousseau understood that any genuine alternative to liberalism must be built on a renewed political community. However, Mishra’s brand of leftist politics, by delegitimizing all forms of political community, only strengthens neoliberalism and its universal, post-political view of the future.

Rousseau may not have used the term ressentiment, but Nietzsche did. Mishra applauds Nietzsche’s “specific understanding of ressentiment, and its malign potential as a particularly noxious form of aggression by the weak against an aloof and inaccessible elite.” It is true that Nietzsche saw ressentiment as motivating the aggression of the weak against the strong. Yet he hardly saw it in the way that Mishra does. For Nietzsche did not view ressentiment as a consequence of liberalism’s betrayal of its own ideals. On the contrary, he saw liberalism itself as one expression of ressentiment: “The last political noblesse in Europe, that of the French seventeenth and eighteenth century, collapsed beneath the popular instincts of ressentiment.” For Nietzsche, it is ressentiment that lies behind the morality of political liberalism and its revolt against the older, noble elite. Yet Mishra quotes Nietzsche without any apparent awareness of this. He ignores Nietzsche’s suggestion that it is the liberal elite, with its “rabid mendaciousness and rage of ‘noble’ Pharisees,” which traffics in ressentiment most of all. “‘We alone are good and just,’ they say, ‘we alone are men of good will.’” Liberalism is not undone by ressentiment, in Nietzsche’s interpretation, but attains and maintains power by changing the direction of it. “You alone are to blame for yourself!” the new morality instructs its subjects, who must depend upon the priestly elite for their salvation. In this way, ressentiment inevitably erodes whatever freedom and self-assertion is left in liberalism, so that only the rage and mawkishness remain.

In the end, although Mishra may not have a lot to say about Nietzsche, Nietzsche may have a lot to say about Mishra.

Julius Krein is editor of American Affairs.