Modernity and its discontents

Stanly Johny | Updated on January 11, 2018 Published on May 07, 2017

Title: Age of Anger: A History of the Present Author: Pankaj Mishra Publisher: Juggernaut Price: ₹699

Pankaj Mishra sees the rise of the violent far-right as a failure traceable to the Enlightenment

In 1989, when the Cold War was dying, American political scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote an essay in The National Interest titled “The End of History?” in which he announced the triumph of western liberalism. Soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he expanded the essay into the book, The End of History and the Last Man, in which he argued that the “universalisation of western liberal democracy” is the “final form of human government” that signals the endpoint of humanity’s socio-cultural evolution.

In less than three decades, the liberal order is in crisis. Democracies are electing leaders who have nothing much to share with liberal values. In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan keeps winning elections including a mandate to change the country’s constitution that gives him more powers despite his repressive rule. Narendra Modi is perhaps the most popular politician in India.

British voters stunned the world last year when they voted “yes” to their country leaving the European Union. The US, one of the oldest democracies in the world, elected Donald Trump, who made headlines during the campaign for many wrong reasons ranging from Islamophobia to sexism, as its 45th President.

On the other side of the political spectrum, the world is witnessing terrible violence, being unleashed by groups such as the Islamic State. Fukuyama was wrong. The history didn’t end. But what explains today’s maladies?

This is the question Pankaj Mishra is trying to address in his latest book, Age of Anger. Mishra writes he started thinking about the book in 2014 after “Indian voters, including my own friends and relatives, elected Hindu supremacists to power, and Islamic State became a magnet for young men and women in western democracies”.

Blame it on Voltaire

This rise of extremism, in his view, is not an aberration from modernity, but a replay of history. “The history of modernisation” , he argues, “is largely one of carnage and bedlam”. “The unprecedented political, economic and social disorder that accompanied the rise of the industrial capitalist economy in nineteenth century Europe, and led to world wars, totalitarian regimes and genocide in the first half of the twentieth century, is now infecting much vaster regions and bigger populations.”

To understand the carnage, “we must return” to the period of modernity’s advent. To be sure, modernity made huge promises to the mankind. It promises to promote equality and human dignity and promises to separate the government from irrational ideals.

For the 18th century man in western societies, who was living under the repression of both religion and state, these promises opened new avenues for life and dignity. But Mishra argues that modernity failed to deliver these promises.

Liberal economists would argue that a society would move forward with economic modernisation. Mishra is trying to locate this argument in the 18th century. He attacks French enlightenment theorist Voltaire, who celebrated reason, trade and consumerism. Mishra calls him a “paid-up member of global networked elite” and “an unequivocal top-down modernizer”. And to put this argument in a historical perspective, he invokes the 18th-century Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who was highly critical of the capitalist civilisation that Voltaire supported.

Historical hypocrisy

Mishra says Voltaire idealised tolerance and freedom, but hardly stood for it. He was close to dictators like Empress Catherine the Great who was dictating enlightenment to others. But Rousseau, on the other side, is critiqued by modern thinkers for his views on women and militarism. His ideal society was Sparta.

Mishra, though not endorsing Rousseau’s views, still finds him as an anti-hero of Voltaire, someone who stood for the first victims of enlightenment project, and thereby draws the reader’s attention to the fact that discontents of modernity were there in its advent itself. Rousseau “tried to outline a social order where morals, virtue and human character rather than commerce and money were central to politics,” Mishra writes. But as we know, it was Voltaire’s version that shaped the modern world. And it evolved along with its discontents.

The contradictions within modernity have been discussed a lot — the contradictions brushed under the grand carpets of promises. And once such promises fail, these discontents will re-emerge, with more force and anger. We are living in such an age, according to Mishra. Age of Anger is in fact a continuation of Mishra’s previous book, From the Ruins of Empire, in which he traced the eastern intellectuals who remade Asia and by doing so exposed the structural flaws in the West’s perceptions about the East. In Age of Anger, he looks for roots of today’s many crises, dispelling the popular myth that the rise of the political or violent far-right, be it Trump, Modi or Abubakr al-Baghdadi of the Islamic State, is actually an anti-modern phenomenon. For Mishra, this represents the failure of modernity.

Despite the book taking a close view of one of most complicated phases of intellectual history, Mishra’s style of writing and the clarity in arguments make it a thoroughly enjoyable read. Still, the central problem of the book is that it makes a timeless, universal argument about modernity that’s anchored in a particular point of history. Could he have written the same book four years ago, say, before the rise of ISIS, before Trump or before Brexit?

In the early 1990s, when Fukuyama predicted the triumph of western liberalism, many, at least those who were on the Centre and Right, found those arguments convincing in the prevailing global political atmosphere. Mishra’s attacks on modernity carry similar conviction in the present age of anger. But will it survive the test of the time, is the question.


Pankaj Mishra is the author of six books of fiction and nonfiction including, most recently, From the Ruins of Empire. He writes frequently for the New York Times, New York Review of Books, Bloomberg, among other publications.

Published on May 07, 2017
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