Pankaj Mishra: 'Angry, frustrated people are making unwise political choices'

Pankaj Mishra's latest book, Age of Anger, is described as ‘a history of the present’. It begins, however, in the September of 1919, with Gabriele D’Annunzio’s occupation of the town of Fiume, along with 2,000 Italian mutineers.

D' Annunzio's speeches would go on to inspire both Mussolini and Hitler, and volunteers from as far away as India, Egypt and Ireland joined up to serve under him. His ‘reign’ ended in December 1920, after the Italian navy bombarded Fiume. But the mass movement he had inspired took seed in other places, picking up where D’Annunzio had left off.

Mishra uses the story of D’Annunzio to illustrate the idea at the core of Age of Anger — that the sentiment of rage and frustration we see around the world today, which manifests in the form of voting demagogues into power or the rise and spread of ISIS — is not really a ‘new’ phenomenon; that it has its roots in the economic and political revolutions of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Mishra began writing Age of Anger in 2014, after Narendra Modi was voted into power; he finished it in 2016, in the week that led to Brexit; it was printed the same week that Donald Trump was declared the US President Elect.

Pankaj Mishra (photo credit: Maya Mishra) began writing Age of Anger in 2014, after Narendra Modi won the elections in India

Pankaj Mishra (photo credit: Maya Mishra) began writing Age of Anger in 2014, after Narendra Modi won the elections in India

Mishra told Firstpost of the events that led to this book, “After Modi became the prime minister, anything seemed possible at that point. I lost my confidence in the political process not just in Delhi, but also in other places in Asia and Europe, where there was a manifestation of demagogues… Brexit didn't just come out of the blue, there was an environment that led to the vote. In the US, before Trump won the election, the (rise of the) far right was seen on TV, Twitter… so what we see is the electoral processes catching up with what is happening. Long before Modi became prime minister, (people on) social media and national TV were talking about the need for a saviour to save us from the corrupt. Angry, frustrated people who didn't receive the benefits of globalisation are making unwise political choices.”

Age of Anger follows Mishra’s previous book, From The Ruins of Empire, which looked at the emergence of today’s Asia. In an interview with Al Jazeera at the time, Mishra said he was struck by how certain Asian nation states had turned out to be more violent than the European regimes that had previously suppressed them. Working on that book, in a way, triggered the exploration in this one. “Ruins of Empire was about the anxiety that the catastrophic events of 20th century Europe might repeat in Asia, dealing a blow to democracy it may not recover from,” Mishra told Firstpost. “Age of Anger flows naturally from that anxiety.”

Among the hallmarks of this age of anger, Mishra writes in the book, is ‘ressentiment’ — the frustration and anger felt by those who have been left out of economic growth. It has created a 'community of the excluded' or less privileged — no matter which part of the world they come from. Mishra explained the phenomenon: “The world is (looked at) as a collection of nation states. But in a globalised world, we are looking at a whole other community — the disaffected, whether from India or the US, have the same mentality. Just as people who are members of the ‘global elite’ (do) — they subscribe to the same news outlets, social media networks. These communities transcend old borders, and what we have is a community of the angry and the disgruntled.”

One of the arguments that Mishra makes in Age of Anger is that it has been around for a long time, for around 200 years or so. He told us that what is remarkable today, is that it is manifest universally — and that we are aware it is happening universally. Modern means of communication mean this rage has intensified in a way that was not possible in the 19th century. This kind of militancy can express itself in a variety of ways: through armed rebellion, or the ballot box. And we haven't heard (or felt) the last of it.

“Whatever happens next, one hopes that we'll at least climb down from this very volatile situation we're in the midst of,” Mishra told us. “We have, at the helm of the US, a completely reckless man. In India, we have a prime minister who has taken a reckless gamble with demonetisation. Other leaderships in other places are gambling with people’s lives. It will be a while before we climb out of this age of anger…. I only hope that we won't stay in it too long.”

Age of Anger: A History of the Present by Pankaj Mishra is published by Juggernaut Books. Available in bookstores and Pages: 432, price: Rs 699 (hardback)

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Updated Date: Feb 05, 2017 11:12:18 IST

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