We live in an Age of Anger, writes Pankaj Mishra. He sees it everywhere: “wars in Ukraine and the Middle East, suicide bombings in Belgium, Xinjiang, Nigeria and Turkey, insurgencies from Yemen to Thailand, massacres in Paris, Tunisia, Florida, Dhaka and Nice. Conventional wars between states are dwarfed by those between terrorists and counter-terrorists, insurgents and counter-insurgents; and there are also economic, financial and cyber wars, wars over and through information, wars for control of the drug trade and migration, and wars among urban militias and mafia groups” (4-5).
This is not to mention the upheaval and anger of domestic politics in many countries.
Mishra doesn’t think these are separate sources of anger. He sees a recurring pattern that had dogged modernity since its beginning: Modernity promises paradise; for some few, it delivers; for many it doesn’t, and the losers eventually lash out in disenchanted rage at a system that can’t keep its promises. They grab onto anything – often, a demagogic strong man – who promises to break the system to smithereens.But beneath this is modernity’s power to dissolve old securities. He quotes Tocqueville: “When no authority exists in matters of religion, any more than in political matters, men soon become frightened in the face of unlimited independence. With everything in a perpetual state of agitation, they become anxious and fatigued. With the world of the intellect in universal flux, they want everything in the material realm, at least, to be firm and stable, and, unable to resume their former beliefs, they subject themselves to a master” (quoted 26).
As in the 19th century, so today: “A moral and spiritual vacuum is . . . filled with anarchic expressions of individuality and mad quests for substitute religions and modes of transcendence” (27). “Alienated young men of promise” (29), resentful at the system that failed them, are ready to strike out in grand gestures of violence.