by Pankaj Mishra (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 224 pp., $27)
Few recent clichés are so foolish or self-serving as the one that describes Islamist terrorists as “medieval.” It’s a label that has accompanied almost every terrorist attack since September 11, 2001, absolving its proponents of attempting to understand what drives human beings to mass murder. Better simply to relegate them to the long night before the Enlightenment’s dawn. Thus, on the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg described al-Qaeda’s ideology as “tyrannical and medieval.” In a 2016 interview about ISIS with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, President Donald Trump announced, “This is like medieval times.” Recent attacks in France have been described in newspapers as “barbaric” or “medieval-style.”
As a gut reaction to the brutality of these attacks, like the recent beheadings of a teacher in Paris and a woman in a church in Nice, the reflex is understandable. In the always more orderly world in our minds, no civilized person could commit an act so gruesome and violent. But the world is not tailored to our beliefs, and the majority of the perpetrators of these attacks are anything but strangers. They are cosmopolitan, often educated, and almost always banal in their backgrounds. The 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta studied at the Goethe Institute in Cairo, then at the Hamburg University of Technology. David Headley, the man behind the 2008 Mumbai massacre, was born in Washington, D.C. and worked at a pub in Philadelphia before getting into the drug trade. Mohammed Merah, who shot seven people in Toulouse and Montauban in March of 2012, was a petty criminal who liked designer clothes and on at least one occasion tried to join the French “Army.” Even the “barbarians” of ISIS, with their digital magazines and studied use of social media, often strike one as more millennial than millenarian.
The German poet-critic Hans Magnus Enzensberger, in an influential essay, described the modern terrorist as one of myriad “radical losers” produced by the chaotic process of globalization, in which science, progress, and capitalism have gradually turned what was for many a reliably static world into a bewilderingly fluid one. This process, while generating significant and even revolutionary contributions to the world’s health, prosperity, and knowledge, has also, Enzensberger writes, “made sure that inequality is constantly demonstrated to all of the planet’s inhabitants around the clock on every television channel. As a result, with every stage of progress, people’s capacity for disappointment has increased accordingly.”
One way of understanding the underlying motivations of Islamist terrorists, then, is to recognize their resemblance to other, more familiar anti-moderns: the superfluous or “underground” men of czarist Russia, the conservative reactionaries in Wilhelmine Germany, the Italian futurists who glorified war and eroticized machinery. Like them, Islamist terrorists have responded violently to the inequitable march of modernity, indulging their feelings of stinging ressentiment. The Indian essayist and novelist Pankaj Mishra, in his acclaimed Age of Anger: A History of the Present (2017), offered a useful definition of the term: an “existential resentment of other people’s being, caused by an intense mix of envy and sense of humiliation and powerlessness.” Mishra thinks that “ressentiment, as it lingers and deepens, poisons civil society and undermines political liberty, and is presently making for a global turn to authoritarianism and toxic forms of chauvinism.”
According to Mishra, the triumphalist and self-serving narratives that flourished from the end of the Cold War until around the September 11 attacks (a historical period that Martin Amis has recently called “the twelve-year hiatus”) blinded the West to the ambivalent, even destructive features of the globalizing process. As the world has grown increasingly interdependent and interconnected, “individuals with very different pasts find themselves herded by capitalism and technology into a common present, where grossly unequal distributions of wealth and power have created humiliating new hierarchies.” Unsurprisingly, then, the pressure to imitate Western-style societies has provoked a counterrevolution in many parts of the world.
In a dizzyingly peripatetic narrative, Age of Anger traced these and other dissenting writings about modernity, from Rousseau and Nietzsche to Georges Sorel and Gabriele D’Annunzio. Much of this narrative will already be familiar to readers of Fritz Stern, Marshall Berman, John Gray, or Hannah Arendt, to name just a few of the historians and scholars on whose work Age of Anger is built. Yet Mishra’s account had a fierce originality of its own. More likely to draw on works of literature than on economic or sociological analyses, Mishra was primarily interested in the patterns of “mental and emotional behavior” to which modernity gives rise. This allowed him to plausibly map out a kind of psychological geography of ressentiment, one that reveals unexpected connections between writers and thinkers who may not appear to have much in common. Thus we encountered the Punjabi poet Sir Muhammad Iqbal, who infused Islam with the insights of Nietzsche; Swami Vivekananda, who applied the ideas of Herbert Spencer to his revivalist notion of a more masculinist Hinduism; and Nishida Kitarō, the eminent Japanese philosopher who wrestled with the ideas of Kant, Fichte, and Hegel.
By uncovering these shared ideas and assumptions, Age of Anger assertively shattered the rigid binary categories of the “West and the Rest”, a phrase picked up by Mishra’s bête noire, the English historian Niall Ferguson. “Closer attention to beliefs, mindsets and outlooks releases us from ideological and often moralizing categories,” Mishra wrote. This enables us to see that, for better or worse, the world’s “populations, however different their pasts, have been on converging and overlapping paths.”
Bland Fanatics: Liberals, Race, and Empire, a new selection of Mishra’s essays from the last decade or so, doesn’t extend so much as sharpen the themes of Age of Anger. The targets this time are the “Anglo-American delusions” that “climaxed” in the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump. These include the privatization and trade deregulation of the 1980s, which helped pave the way for the recession of 2007–08; the “clash of civilizations” narrative that gained popularity after 9/11, pitting an enlightened West against a barbaric East; the catastrophic wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have diminished the chances of democratic government in either country; and so on. Yet Mishra, rather than submit these events to serious scrutiny, simply lets them form a kind of ideological backdrop, blithely assumed rather than vigorously demonstrated.
Instead, Mishra focuses on the purveyors of these “Anglo-American delusions,” many of whom happen to be his distinguished contemporaries: Christopher Caldwell, Jordan Peterson, Edward Luce, Salman Rushdie, and Niall Ferguson, among others. Of these writers, I count at least three who have resorted to a public airing of their grievances after finding themselves on the receiving end of Mishra’s pen: Niall Ferguson, who threatened a lawsuit; Jordan Peterson, who threatened physical violence; and Edward Luce, who wondered on Twitter why Mishra “gets the attention he gets.”
Someone, clearly, has struck a nerve.
I wonder why that is. In Age of Anger, Mishra describes himself as a “step-child of the West,” a tacit admission that he bears at least a trace of the ressentiment that he identifies in other latecomers to modernity. “I grew up in semi-rural parts of India,” he explains, “with parents whose own sensibilities seemed to have been decisively shaped by their upbringing in a pre-modern world of myth, religion, and custom.” He first made a name for himself reporting from various parts of India, telling a rather different story of the country’s embrace of economic liberalization than any of the “miracle of democracy” chatter printed in Western magazines and newspapers. During a visit to Kashmir in 1999, for instance, Mishra saw firsthand that the world’s largest democracy was behaving much like the imperialist power it had liberated itself from in 1947. “The brutal realities of India’s military occupation,” he writes in the introduction to Bland Fanatics, “forced me to revisit many of the old critiques of Western imperialism and its rhetoric of progress.”
These experiences might explain the cannonades of vituperation Mishra often discharges in his prose, usually aimed in the general direction of the Anglo-American liberal establishment. I say “general direction” because it isn’t always clear who Mishra has in mind when he inveighs against “the demagogues of our age,” the “bards of a new universal liberal empire,” or, simply, “racists, ultra-nationalists or imperialists.” One can always venture a reasonable guess, I suppose, though intellectual combat tends to be more effective if one opts, to use a liberal interventionist metaphor, for precision engagement.
But perhaps the reason Mishra provokes such ire is because he repeatedly misrepresents viewpoints he doesn’t agree with, thereby breaking what George Scialabba has called “the golden rule of polemics:” to state your opponents’ view as persuasively as possible. In this respect, Bland Fanatics is a catalog of infractions. Paul Berman, in Terror and Liberalism (2003), does not “reprimand those unwilling to join the new crusade for liberalism in the Middle East.” Mark Lilla does not say in The Once and Future Liberal (2017) that cultural studies are “primarily to blame” for Trump’s election. Anders Behring Breivik’s neo-fascist manifesto doesn’t “reproduce” the arguments against multiculturalism articulated by Samuel Huntington or Pascal Bruckner.
There is more. Reviewing Mark Greif’s The Age of the Crisis of Man (2015), Mishra dismisses mid-century American criticism as “a white man’s discourse, an affirmation of his privilege to define the ends and means of life without being bothered by women and non-whites.” Nonsense. Dwight Macdonald’s journal Politics, to give just one example, published essays and articles on racial prejudice in the army, the forcible internment of Japanese Americans, the prevalence of sexism in popular culture, and the treatment of homosexuals in American society. In “Responsibility of the Peoples,” published in the March 1945 issue of Politics, Macdonald stressed the connection between the Holocaust and colonial genocides in Africa. I very much doubt Mishra is ignorant of this, so why write something so blatantly untrue?
His most damning offense comes in the essay, “Why Do White People Like What I Write?”, in which he disparages Ta-Nehisi Coates for contributing to The Atlantic (“better known for its oligarchic shindigs than its subversive content”) and for having “white liberal fans”—perhaps forgetting that, in addition to being a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in London, Mishra himself has written for such agents of subversive content as the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, and Bloomberg Opinion, where he is a regular columnist. Hypocrite lecteur!
These lapses are cause for regret, because at his best Mishra is a more interesting and erudite writer than most of the “bland fanatics” he bats about in the book's essays. He is customarily sharp on the similarities between Jordan Peterson’s intellectual populism and the 19th-century Zionist critic Max Nordau’s bestselling screed from 1892 about the weakening of masculinity, Degeneration. In “The Man of Fourteen Points,” an appraisal of Woodrow Wilson and the birth of “liberal internationalism,” Mishra is at his best: deeply learned, piercingly clear-sighted, and absolutely devastating. The book’s concluding essay, “England’s Last Roar,” uses George Orwell, Enoch Powell, and the novelist J.G. Ballard to offer a caustic account of the decline of Englishness.
What’s more, in its broad strokes, Mishra’s indictment of contemporary liberalism rings true, at least to this reader. The problem is that he stated his case far more convincingly in Age of Anger, a book in which he extended his imaginative sympathy even to odious ideologues and crank thinkers in a genuine attempt to grasp our complex and intractable present. Bland Fanatics, by comparison, is pickled in contempt and condescension. The specter of “homo economicus, the autonomous, reasoning, rights-bearing subject of liberal philosophy,” haunts Mishra’s book like a straw man run amok, freeing its author of the full burden of argument. Moreover, it sours his usually lucid prose: The phrase “drumbeat of neo-liberal ideas” is repeated almost verbatim (“drumbeat of Western values”) on adjacent pages, while references to the “smelly past of ethnocide” and “the ongoing stink of corporate venality” suggest not so much a reasoned engagement with ideas as a contest of passions.
Lionel Trilling, in his preface to his 1950 work, The Liberal Imagination, suggested that “a criticism which has at heart the interests of liberalism might find its most useful work not in confirming liberalism in its sense of general rightness but rather in putting under some degree of pressure the liberal ideas and assumptions of the present time.” Assuming this is the kind of criticism to which Mishra aspires—a criticism committed to the values of liberalism but opposed to its current practices—then he will have to do more than issue knee-jerk denouncements of the high priests of the liberal establishment. Anything less would be a betrayal of his very considerable gifts as a political essayist.
Morten Høi Jensen is a contributing editor of American Purpose. He is the author of A Difficult Death: The Life and Work of Jens Peter Jacobsen (Yale University Press, 2017) and has written for The New York Review of Books, Commonweal, The Point, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other publications.
American Purpose newsletters
Sign up to get our essays and updates—you pick which ones—right in your inbox.Subscribe