You may not have seen the commercials for the new Google phone, the Pixel, but even if you haven’t seen them, you’ve seen them. Lots of silver and white and bright colors. Beautiful people of every age, race, and ethnicity in soft, brilliantly dyed natural fibers, to a soundtrack of power pop. A gleaming, seductive vision of a frictionless world in which vibrant landscapes morph into one another, people are running through many-colored effusions of Holi powder, and #technology is the handmaiden of connection and fulfillment. The Pixel ads could be ads for Lexus, Bose, Hulu, or any of the twelve other smartphones that do exactly the same things the Pixel does.
The commercials make me uneasy, as these sorts of ads almost always do—as, in fact, they’re designed to do. They are distillations, in the form of thirty- or sixty-second desire bombs, of the fantasy that with the right stuff we can all have material security, creative fulfillment, control over our destinies, a tribe of cool friends, and a sense of belonging and place in the world.
Such a life looks amazing, and I don’t have it, which is why I’m made uneasy by seductive depictions of it. The anxiety is mostly mitigated, though, by my awareness that no one else has that life either. And I’m basically one of the people in the commercials. On Facebook my life can look like that. I’m in that income bracket. I live in one of those creative-class cities. I do interesting things like write book reviews for the Washington Monthly. And yet my life, which on good days feels like a healthy struggle, is nothing like the commercial. Because the commercial isn’t showing life at all but a fantasy of it designed to sell things.
So just think about all those people around the world who haven’t lucked into most of the genuine fruits of modernity, as I have. Who don’t know in their bones that the Google Pixel life is a lie, but instead fear that it’s real but just not for them. Or who know that it’s a lie but whose own lives are too impoverished, stifled, dreary, isolated, or impotent for them to experience the perpetual broadcast of that lie as anything other than an insult.
For these souls, lost and spinning in the space between what capitalism, industrialization, and liberalism have promised and what these forces of modernity have in fact delivered, what does the Pixel commercial provoke? Not just yearning and anxiety, but also rage, envy, anger, self-loathing, a deep sense of loss and humiliation—the whole toxic brew that Friedrich Nietzsche, back in the nineteenth century, diagnosed as ressentiment.
This return of ressentiment is the subject of Pankaj Mishra’s new book, Age of Anger. The changes of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, Mishra writes, have resulted in “a ‘tremendous increase in mutual hatred and a somewhat universal irritability of everybody against everybody else,’ or ressentiment. An existential resentment of other people’s being, caused by an intense mix of envy and sense of humiliation and powerlessness. 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.”
It’s this ressentiment, Mishra argues, that burns in the hearts of ISIS militants in Iraq and Trump lovers in America. It inflames Hindu nationalists in his own native country of India, as well as Putin-adoring Russians and EU-despising Brexiters. It’s the toxic solace, and fuel, of the millions or billions who have to live in a world that has sold them on the democratic, individualistic gospel, fired their imaginations with invasive fantasies of materialist utopias, and then profoundly, humiliatingly disappointed them.
The strategic innovation of Mishra’s book is to focus only occasionally on where we are now. Instead, he takes us back to earlier mass upwellings of ressentiment, and in particular to the intellectuals and ideologues who most adeptly diagnosed or exploited them. Nietzsche had a name for it, in other words, because he was seeing it in his own time as well.
Mishra goes back, for instance, to the eighteenth-century Frenchman Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who found his voice in reaction to the ideas of Voltaire and his fellow philosophes, those founding fathers of the modern, enlightened, individualistic self. “It was Rousseau,” Mishra writes, “who pointed out that the new dispensation, while promising freedom and equality, did much to hinder them. He sensed, earlier than anyone else, that the individual assertion mandated by modern egalitarian society could amount in practice to domination of other individuals; he foresaw its pathologies, flaws and blind spots, which made certain negative historical outcomes likely in practice.”
Dostoevsky arrived at related conclusions after an 1862 visit to London, where the splendor of the glittering iron-and-steel Crystal Palace—the Google Pixel of its time—cast such an awesome, humiliating shadow over the desperate lives of so many Londoners.
Look at these hundreds of thousands, these millions of people humbly streaming here from all over the face of the earth. People come with a single thought, quietly, relentlessly, mutely thronging into this colossal palace; and you feel that something final has taken place here, that something has come to an end. It is like a Biblical picture, something out of Babylon, a prophecy from the apocalypse coming to pass before your eyes. You sense that it would require great and everlasting spiritual denial and fortitude in order not to submit, not to capitulate before the impression, not to bow to what is, and not to deify Baal, that is, not to accept the material world as your ideal.
Over and over again, Mishra shows us Western and non-Western intellectuals and political ideologues grappling with the power, beauty, inescapability, and insult of this new paradigm, and all its radical departures from traditional modes of living, believing, loving, working, and understanding.
Some of his subjects buy into the modern ideal. Some live and write constructively within the tension between the allure and the abyss. Most react and reject, and develop theories and ideas that are clear antecedents of the antimodern and anti-enlightenment movements, ideologies, parties, and jihads with which we’re contending today.
It’s these reactionaries who most intrigue Mishra, whether they’re German and Japanese völkisch philosophers laying the groundwork for World War II, or Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the twentieth-century Indian theorizer of modern Hindu nationalism who was directly or indirectly responsible for the assassination of Gandhi.
Their ideas, Mishra makes clear, often leave devastation in their wake. He has no apologies to offer on their behalf, nor on behalf of their heirs in the GOP and the BJP. But he insists that some of the culpability for the crises of our age rests with those who would sell the promise of modernity but leave off the warning labels.
We have failed, he argues, to see clearly the poisoned seed at the core of modernity, which is the way that capitalistic, individualistic society has turbocharged the tension between our desire for wholeness and the incapacity of the world to fulfill it. This tension has been ratcheted up to an extreme degree, and the result is a death spiral of what French philosopher René Girard called “appropriative mimicry.” We see what others have. Seeing what they have, and the apparent pleasure they take in having it, we discover that we, too, want it. When we can’t have it, or get it but discover that it produces only more desire, we seek even more, or we rebel, or we live with a haunting sense of unease and anxiety. Mishra piles up so many examples of people enacting, identifying, and lamenting some recognizable version of this mimetic dance, across so many centuries and nations, that by the end it feels like a diagnosis impossible to deny.
ISIS is us. We are Nietzsche and Savarkar.
It’s such an overwhelming case, in fact, that the book itself becomes a victim of it, looping back in on itself and across time, tangling into such an evidentiary thicket that after a while it’s hard to differentiate one piece or strand of evidence from the next.
“It is much clearer today that his notions of Hindutva had been third-hand at best,” Mishra writes of the Hindu nationalist Savarkar, “deriving . . . [from] Mickiewicz, Saint-Simon and Lamennais, and from fin de siècle students and interpreters of Herbert Spencer.”
I am 90 percent sure that Mishra’s genealogy here is accurate, but it’s not because the book successfully imprinted me with a clear sense of how Savarkar stood in relation to Mazzini, Lamennais, and Spencer, or even with a clear sense of who each of these figures was. It’s because I know from his past work that Mishra is a brilliant and trustworthy writer and thinker. He seems to have read everything, and to have thought carefully about everything he’s read.
He’s one of the few contemporary writers I can imagine even having a chance of pulling off a book like this. That it doesn’t succeed, as a literary endeavor, is unfortunate but maybe not surprising, considering the scale of its ambition. Even the best writers sometimes bite off more than they can chew.
That said, The Age of Anger does persuade. And frighten. We should pay attention. We probably won’t. My Pixel just chirped at me. Ooh. Shiny.