How can we explain the roots of the surge of seemingly speculative, distrustful hate toward “otherness”—the bigotry, intolerance, and extreme nationalism fueled by rage—that is sweeping the globe?
Award-winning writer Pankaj Mishra explores these topics in his recent book, Age of Anger: A History of the Present, and at a March 2 event hosted by Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.
Mishra argued that recent social unrest and political anger around the world—from protests and Brexit to extremist violence and the marginalization of large groups of people—is in many respects a replay of early twentieth-century history. He suggested that society has erased its own turbulent past from its collective memory, and that “extravagant expectation[s]” have caused widespread disillusionment surrounding modernization and economic progress.
He posited that society has entered an “age of anger” in which individuals presume a certain perception of what progress is and become resentful when they never seem to achieve it.
“At some point the accumulated frustrations become politically toxic,” Mishra said in the public conversation with Paul Elie, Berkley Center senior fellow and editor of two of Mishra’s books. “We’ve been promised a lot by the ideologies of progress—which have been broadcast from all different directions—and we find that most of these promises are unfulfillable.”
Age of Anger, Past and Present
Mishra linked the frustrations in the United States, United Kingdom, and right-wing-friendly France to the anger in Turkey, India, and the Philippines—and he examined the roots of the current “global pandemic of rage” by gazing back to the eighteenth century, during the initial rise of industrial capitalism, to sketch a history of the present.
Recalling the past, he drew parallels from the mid-1900s—angry young nationalists in Germany, Soviet revolutionaries, and Mussolini-led populists—to today’s global tensions.
The Driving Forces behind Violence
“Locating the roots of militant violence or terrorism in a particular religion is really a catastrophic mistake,” he said.
Instead, a fusion of certain factors, including political instability, economic decline, and lack of freedom and prosperity, is what Mishra theorizes as the driving force behind militant recruitment around the world in both the past and present. Not religion.
“With Muslim countries, many of them, you’re looking at absolutely devastated societies—failed states. It’s not surprising at all that they’d generate these young men who want to go out and [join] various death cults,” Mishra said. “We’ve seen this over and over again, and there’s nothing at all Islamic about this.”
Mishra recently returned from a month-long trip to Myanmar, where he witnessed Buddhist monks who supported the notion of ethnic cleansing.
“The reason why even Buddhists have resorted to ethnic cleansing and extreme forms of violence…has very little to do with religion or religious texts,” he said. “It has to do with certain, very specific socioeconomic factors.”
From Division to Unity
Though many people feel the global community is experiencing a sudden wave of divisiveness, Mishra proposed that these divisions are merely mental constructions in which individuals self-create the notion of “us versus them,” something he suggested is exacerbated by the long habit of focusing solely on “winners of history” rather than the losers as well.
“One of the ways in which we can transcend these great conflicts and divisions of our time…is by learning to recognize wisdom and experiences in places far outside our circles and particular groups and identify them and talk about them meaningfully,” he said.
Mishra is the author of several books ranging in topic from Buddhism and globalization to modernization and the West. His work has also appeared in the Guardian, the New Yorker, and the New York Review of Books. His full biography can be found here.