This is a remarkable book. It is really deep, incredibly referenced, and fascinating at historical, political, and philosophical levels. Mishra reviews the 17th and 18th Centuries from the vantage of ressentiment – a term coined by Kierkegaard referring to the feeling that one’s options are limited by others and the development of negative feelings about those others.
I’m a social scientist and usually think of history as political science – based on the data that has been generated over the years. But Mishra is barely interested in data. His truth comes from literature. Mishra is completely familiar with a huge bibliography. I photocopied the index pages from Age of Anger – it’s a reading list for the next five years.
The book is in many ways an Encyclopedia of horror which omits the good news. Democracy promises freedom and equality but it does not and cannot deliver. Climate change has prevented India and China from ever succeeding. And yet there is so much good. But the story is fascinating and compelling.
Mishra reminds us, as he works his way through the past two centuries, that what we are experiencing today has been experienced, in almost exactly the same way, by everyone who has lived on earth. There’s a constantly changing dynamic between elite liberals, often seen as “soft,” (championed by Voltaire) and conservatives, who believe that life is a struggle, who do not believe in facts, and who create stories that are myths and fantasies (championed by Rousseau).
Mishra sees blame on both sides of the struggle and he reminds us that we need, forever, to work against racism, classism, sexism, and hatred. If you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem.
The fundamental theme, echoed by philosophers over generations, is that modernity and its political systems have not made people happy. Global capitalism has made people independent, selfish, and materialistic – but except for the very few, unsatisfied.
The writing is dense and it takes some work. There is a lot packed into every paragraph. I’ll never read a tenth of the books that Mishra knows well. But I know a bit more about them now.
As a primer on World politics from 1800-2000, and a projection of horrible things to come as anomie and anarchist violence grows, it’s a remarkable read.
Five out of Five stars. Highly recommended.