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Beyond Anger

John Fanning
There is now a steady flow of books trying to explain what Derek Mahon, in a welcome recent return to poetry, referred to as “the age of unbeauty, rage and anger”. One of the first out of the traps was Pankaj Mishra’s The Age of Anger. Mishra is an Indian-born writer now based in London. And his book reflects its title: it’s an angry, polemical work that offers some fresh insights into the current nihilistic mood which has resulted in the rise of an alarming number of demagogues around the world. For Mishra the main culprit is the extreme free market capitalism which has been in the ascendant since the 1970s which, combined with new technologies, has disrupted lives without providing the so-called “trickle-down” compensating effect that apologists of the system have always promised. This has been a consistent theme since the 2008 recession, but the value of Mishra’s book is that it broadens the debate by taking a much longer time perspective and a much wider geographic angle. He believes that the roots of our present discontent lie in the nineteenth century, when the great European powers sowed the seeds of the modern globalised economic world by extending their reach in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. He has no illusions about the brutal reality of imperialism, which involved the ruthless exploitation of indigenous resources for the benefit of Western powers and blatant racism towards indigenous populations. Nor has he any truck with contemporary revisionists like Niall Ferguson, who argue that on balance colonised nations were net beneficiaries of this process. Mishra uses two historical examples to illustrate his thesis. In the first he traces the disruptive effects of modernisation back to the eighteenth century French philosophers Voltaire and Rousseau. The former he casts as a moderniser and proto-free-marketeer, while the latter believed that the new commercial society led by callous elites was exacting too high a price in terms of inequality and insecurity. In the second example, from the nineteenth century, Mishra argues that the resentment of those left behind created the “alienated young men of promise” who seek to assuage their anger in acts of terrorism, memorably portrayed in Dostoevsky’s Underground Man. Underground men, often descendants of those exploited by the colonial powers in the nineteenth century continue to stalk Europe and the US today. Mishra employs the term ressentiment, what Nietzsche referred to as “a whole tremulous realm…



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