Pankaj Mishra’s excellent ‘state of the nations’ work actually contains nothing particularly new and is so much the better for it. The book publishers’ thirst for tasty new nuggets, hand-wringing confessions or outlandish new theories has the effect of distorting intellectual study as it is bent against the black hole of publisher’s profits. Freed from the hysteria of having to produce something shocking, Mishra is able to draw together the strands of 250 years of philosophical investigation to illuminate our current plight in a coherent, modulated and highly stimulating manner.
A potent antidote to Francis Fukuyama’s ‘The End of History and the Last Man’, Mishra reminds us that, on the contrary, history is alive and well and our encounter with the last man is likely to find him wearing a bomb vest. Whereas Fukuyama holds up Liberal Democracy as the shining beacon of Man’s endeavours, Mishra has other ideas. The Enlightenment that gave rise to the very Liberalism that Fukuyama so lauds is given a nasty little tweak in the ‘Age of Anger’. Quite apart from setting the individual on a path of self-discovery and intellectual and physical freedom, the Enlightenment, Mishra argues, has stripped us of any spiritual dimension in our lives – in the absence of the metaphysical mankind finds itself cast adrift in a sea of pure reason. Just as, so Mishra points out, Rousseau warned two and a half centuries ago. Add to this anchorless existence the bewilderment of the global economy, with its monoculture of consumer outlets and products, and the ‘anger’ of the title begins to make sense.
The notion that we are living in difficult times is an over-worn cliché as it doesn’t take much to argue this for almost any age in human history, but the early years of the twenty-first century have thrown up some interesting and unusual questions; not the least of which is, was Francis Fukuyama right? Al Qaeda, Isis, Trump, Brexit, Russian, Hindu and Scottish nationalism are further examples of why the answer is looking like no. ‘The Age of Anger’ may not be the beginning of the debate but it’s about the best summary of arguments yet written and an excellent jumping off point for further discussion.
All this aside, I decided to a give four stars was not because of content, which is definitely five star quality, but for the style. It took a good forty pages to get to grips with Mishra’s prose which would have been vastly improved by reducing the number of adjectives by around three quarters – more of an editorial issue than an authorial one granted, but slightly irritating nevertheless. Orwell would not have been happy.