Age of Anger: Pankaj Mishra in conversation with Tom Holland

Historian Pankaj Mishra talks about his book Age of Anger with historian and broadcaster Tom Holland

Tom Holland in conversation with Pankaj Mishra about his book Age of Anger

In his book, Age of Anger: A History of the Present, Pankaj Mishra explores the historical forces behind the 21st-century rise in populist nationalist politics and disillusionment with ‘western’ culture around the world – including in the heart of the west itself. Tracing their roots back to the Enlightenment of the 18th century, he argues that we need to look deeper into history to fully understand a diverse set of present-day global crises.

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Born in northern India, Mishra graduated with an MA in English literature from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. During the 1990s he contributed literary essays and reviews to publications including The India Magazine. His first book, Butter Chicken in Ludhiana: Travels in Small Town India (Penguin, 1995), combines travelogue with an exploration of the social changes wrought in India by the process of globalisation. This concern with the impact of global forces on peoples around the world animates much of Mishra’s work, including From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia (Allen Lane, 2012), which was shortlisted for several major international literary prizes.

Pankaj met the author and broadcaster Tom Holland to discuss the major arguments of his new book. Holland has written extensively on historical subjects as diverse as the ancient world and global Islam, and presents the BBC Radio 4 series Making History.


Tom Holland: When did the ‘age of anger’ start?

Pankaj Mishra: In a way, it began in 2014 with the election of Narendra Modi as prime minister of India: a man accused of mass murder becoming leader of the largest democracy in the world.

That’s when I began to think that we had entered – or perhaps that we had always been living in – an age of anger, in which all kinds of irrational events began to erupt.

Modi & The BJP: A brief history

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which leads India’s ruling National Democratic Alliance coalition government, is a rightwing party formed in 1980 with policies informed by Hindu nationalism (around 80% of India’s population is Hindu). Narendra Modi, leader of the BJP, was elected prime minister in May 2014. Formerly chief minister for Gujarat state, Modi has been accused of complicity in widespread anti-Muslim violence that flared across Gujarat after 59 people, mostly Hindu pilgrims, died in a train fire alleged to be a result of arson committed by a Muslim mob.

TH: You’re Indian yourself, though you now live in Britain. What links do you see between Modi’s India and Britain?

PM: Modi’s election was the first sign that things were going wrong with politics and economies, and that we were in for a pretty difficult time. Watching him emerge out of disgrace, I had a sense that – as has subsequently been the case with the result of the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump – so many of our certainties and ideas about democracy and the will of the people were going to be overturned.

These phenomena are manifested differently, and have very local causes, but one aspect common to them all is anger: a sense of frustration and resentment evident in practically every political culture in the world today.

TH: There may be causes specific to the past decade – economic turbulence, increases in immigration and so on – but your book is a study of the past 200 years. In what way do you see the current ‘age of anger’ as having its roots in something much older?

PM: As I started to read and think about it, I quickly realised that I would have to consider a much longer span of history. So I went back to the beginning of the modern world, when its value systems, technologies and ideologies first emerged in western Europe and then spread to practically every corner of the globe.

If one was to pinpoint a particular moment when the modern world began, one has to go back to the late 18th century and start with the figures who first formulated the ideas and the ideals that we cherish today – even if they are very problematic ideals. These are ideas associated with what we’d now call the Enlightenment, which were institutionalised in the ideals of the French Revolution. Many different countries then attempted to ‘catch up’ with the ideals and systems of western Europe –a process now manifest almost universally.

One thing the present shares with the late 18th century is a distrust of elites

TH: You structure your analysis of the Enlightenment around two key figures: Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. What is emblematic about them and their rivalry?

PM: That was the genesis of the book. We think about modern history so much in terms of class conflict, east versus west, imperialism and racism – but one thing the present shares with the late 18th century is a distrust of elites. There’s an idea that there is a well-educated minority of people who are imposing their value systems on us, and who want us all to follow their prescriptions for society.

The difference between Rousseau and Voltaire is that the former was an outsider in Paris, someone who challenged the prescriptions that were being handed down by the Enlightenment philosophers. He, quite rightly, saw Voltaire as being the embodiment of this particular kind of arrogant reason.

TH: Normally Voltaire is cast as a gadfly who took on the elites, who challenged the Catholic church, who was the outsider. But you cast him as sycophantic towards despots such as Frederick the Great and Catherine the Great. Are you saying that Voltaire is the prototype for what angry people might now describe as the ‘metropolitan elite’?

PM: He’s certainly one of the first embodiments of that kind of confidence and serenity. He was hostile towards tradition, and thought that religion was a huge source of oppression.

We now think of a lot of his attitudes as classically modern: his belief in commerce, for instance, and his own enrichment through trade. It’s not surprising that he’s an iconic figure for modernity and the modern world. In that sense, I felt that the conflict between Rousseau and Voltaire was much more meaningful than we often assume.

TH: So Rousseau was kicking back against enlightened superiority – but what did he believe mattered instead?

PM: His invocation of ‘the people’ as, essentially, victims is very important. He practically invented the idea that ‘we, the people’ are being victimised by this metropolitan elite.

The birth of the modern world was marked by exhortations to change and urbanise, and what Rousseau was saying was: “Well, what about us – the people? Here we are, living our simple lives, being religious in a kind of naive way. Why are you coming in and forcing this process of change upon us?”

Rousseau was very much opposed to the idea of change, seeing it as very disruptive, as forcing people to be something that they could not properly be. He summed up very early on many of the themes with which we are still struggling today.

Tom Holland in conversation with Pankaj Mishra about his book Age of Anger
Tom Holland Pankaj Mishra discuss the rise of 21st-century enmities. “To understand the experiences of Indians or Russians today, we have to go back to the first people who felt excluded from modernity”, says Mishra (Helen Atkinson / Yellowsnapper)

TH: We tend to think of this form of modernity as being unsettling for people in non-European civilisations, but you describe the German reaction to Napoleon’s invasion as “the first jihad”.

PM: Yes – and this was a really important point for me. When you come from somewhere such as India – and I experienced this with my previous books – whatever you say is identified too complacently with ‘the east’, or with Asia, and people start thinking of this whole question in terms of east versus west.

What I was trying to say here, by invoking Germany, is that there was, once upon a time, a ‘west’ from which Germany was excluded, a ‘west’ by which Germans felt humiliated. So if you want to understand the experiences of the Russians or the Indians or the Chinese today, let’s go back to the first people who felt excluded from modernity.

TH: And it’s the Germans, in the wake of their humiliation at the hands of Napoleon, who really developed ideas of nationalism that would also be fed into the mix.

PM: Absolutely. Napoleon, in a way, initiated a process – of a kind of mimetic politics – of which we still haven’t seen the end. The French invented the nation state with a strong military and a sense of patriotism, and everyone – even those opposing Napoleon – wanted to be like him and to adopt his methods.

TH: What’s crucial, particularly in light of what we’ve been saying about Modi, is the German, Romantic idea that the key to being authentic lies in the deep past. German poets and philosophers looked back past the Enlightenment to the primal origins of the Germans, for instance.

PM: Absolutely – and it was at least partly a response to the assertion that the past is of no consequence, or something to be outgrown. In the German-speaking provinces, people were actually quite close to their pasts.

At the same time, they started inventing genealogies for those pasts – which in a way was the beginning of modern nationalism. Practically every nationality in the world emerged from some sort of fraudulent claim of that kind, and it became a great existential necessity for people who came late to the modern world. Practically everyone wants to be seen as a teacher for the rest of humanity, and you can see, in almost comic terms, that every people thinks they are the chosen ones.

TH: Russia is a nation that did not become an organic part of what we might call the modern west. You cast it as the paradigm of a society that has confronted this turbulent process – that it blazed a course for other civilisations.

PM: I think that Russia is hugely important in that respect. In a way it was an early example of the tormented process of becoming more like the west with which countries in Asia and Africa are still struggling. It’s a process that inflicts psychic injuries: you start to essentially dislike the people that you want to be more like. So you can never quite escape this oscillation between self-hatred and a hatred projected towards the west, towards the people who are your models.

You can see this manifested in the unresolved identity of Russia’s people today: do they belong to Asia or Europe? Do they want to be more like the west, or refer to a particular past and religion that entitles them to a very distinctive identity?

This also manifests itself in political terms. Russia was a largely peasant country trying to become modern. That unleashes the particular pathology of the educated young man, outside of the power elite and disconnected from the peasant masses by virtue of education, who becomes a revolutionary. We have seen this pattern – of educated young men turning to radical causes – in one country after another in Asia and Africa, most prominently in Muslim countries.

TH: Do you think, then, there is a response to the pressures of modernity that generates terror as a kind of escape?

PM: There are obviously many factors at work, but essentially the pressure to be something other than what you are, a pressure to conform to a different mode of life, always leads to a reaction and a backlash.

It can take many different forms: people declaring holy war, as in 19th-century Germany, or engaging in what we now call jihad – a war for freedom, as we see with the Chechens in mid-19th century Russia. It can also take a much more insidious form: that of self-hatred, finding various agents of modernity around you – whether Jewish people or rootless cosmopolitans – and unloading your hatred on them.

TH: And, of course, despite the differences it felt, at least Russia shared its religion – Christianity – in common with ‘western’ powers. Presumably, the implication of all of this is that psychic tensions are much greater in non-Christian civilisations.

PM: Muslims in the 19th century were aware of the fact that, wherever they travelled in a large swathe of territory, they’d find mosques and Muslim rulers, and saw themselves as part of the larger cultural world. For those people, the experience of modern forms of imperialism was even more humiliating.

Something I really wanted to point out was that even the Germans, who share so much with their neighbours, came up with the most vicious response to French imperialism and Napoleon. They worked up the most vicious forms of hatred, and some of their best writers and thinkers dealt in the language of hatred. So it’s important to understand – though not condone – some of the pathological reactions that emerge from non-Christian, non-western parts of the world because of the external pressures caused by changes of lifestyle, language and politics.

What we’ve been seeing is a kind of pushback to that, which cannot be neatly mapped along east–west lines.

The turmoil that we used to locate in Iran or Iraq, India or Egypt, is now erupting within the heart of the modern west

TH: Yet, having said that, there is obviously a cultural division between the western world and the Muslim world – even though to talk about it in monolithic terms is, of course, ridiculous. How has the Muslim world experienced being absorbed into European colonial empires, and the cultural influences brought by western dominance?

PM: The processes are more or less simultaneous: the loss of political sovereignty is accompanied by a loss of intellectual confidence. Germany might have been a very different place, for instance, if it had been occupied for more than a few years. Countries in the Muslim world have, in some cases, been occupied for decades. To have had a kind of cultural colonialism at work all that time is bound to have had an impact.

TH: Does this mean that, for non-western civilisations, the ambition to return to a pre-modern form is hopeless?

PM: It’s a total fantasy. Too much has changed for us to plausibly imagine ourselves as becoming, for instance, less modern, more Muslim or more Hindu. One reason why so many nationalisms and religious fundamentalisms are so violent today is because there’s an awareness that the project is hopeless. There has been too big a break in the way in which we think about the world: the sense that our horizons are defined in terms of a presence of a God – and that everything surrounding us is his creation – is gone. We are all irredeemably secularised, no matter how hard we try to be religious.

TH: A charge that might be levelled against you – ironically, because you’re from India – is that yours is a very Eurocentric perspective. Essentially, you’re saying that it’s almost impossible for people to escape western European influences.

PM: I don’t find the charge of Eurocentricism that offensive. My argument is that, actually, we’ve not been Eurocentric enough – that we have not explored enough the way in which Eurocentricism has pervaded practically every religion and ideology in the past 200 years. So I’d say: thank you – I’d actually like to be more Eurocentric.

TH: At the start of the book you describe yourself as a “stepchild of the west”. Presumably, then, this book is personal for you – not just a study of the past 200 years, but also a study of tensions that exist within you?

PM: That’s very insightful. In many respects this history feels very intimate, because it’s a way of understanding the strands of my own identity, of recognising the tensions and contradictions within my own being. This history has made me who I am, and worked upon people I love, including my parents: it both made them a bit lost and gave them chances that their parents did not have.

TH: There’s a sense that Modi represents a kickback against what the British and previous Islamic rulers brought – an attempt to revert to a primal form of Hindu civilisation. That desire to cast off foreign influences and claim back indigenous control is a response to western supremacy that we see a lot across the world, but the irony is that, in a sense, it is also what Brexit is about. Perhaps the processes unleashed by the west in other civilisations are now unleashing similar processes in the very heart of the west.

PM: That’s absolutely true. What that process has done, in the past year or so, is destroy a lot of our old categories of thought and familiar oppositions: liberalism versus fundamentalism, secularism versus religion, Islam versus modernity.

What we are witnessing today is the turbulence and turmoil that we used to locate in Iran or Iraq, India or Egypt, erupting within the heart of the modern west. We’ve seen people making essentially fundamentalist claims of needing to ‘take back’ their country: essentially, a fantasy of a sovereign people who have their own well-defined culture and to which outsiders can never belong. Now that we’ve seen those fantasies emerge volcanically in Europe, I’d argue that we need to be more Eurocentric – while recognising what we mean by Eurocentricism is changing profoundly.

Pankaj Mishra is an essayist, historian and author. His latest book is Age of Anger: A History of the Present (Allen Lane, 2017)

Tom Holland is a critically acclaimed historian and presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Making History. His books include Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar (Little, Brown, 2015)

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This article was taken from issue 2 of BBC World Histories Magazine, first published in February 2017