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Understanding the Origins of Our ‘Age of Anger’

Mar. 28, 2017
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bookreviewageofanger

Mention Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Donald Trump and the president might tweet something nasty about France’s current president. And yet, even if Trump never read a single word by the 18th-century French philosopher, Rousseau may have set the stage for his ascent. In Age of Anger: A History of the Present (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Indian essayist Pankaj Mishra identifies Rousseau as the first great articulator of resentment by those who felt left behind and pushed aside by the new elites of the modern world.


A creative intellectual history from the Enlightenment through the present, Age of Anger critiques ideas that triggered the 20th century’s ideological wars and continue to surface, even in the political realignments of the new millennium. Mishra links ISIS, Brexit and the tea party as reactions—differing in the temperature of their anger and the range of their targets—against globalization and the assurance that transnational capitalism has established the best of all possible worlds.


Mishra chronicles the brutality and imperial arrogance at the heart of the modern project that began in France, spread to England and flourished in America. Witnessing its birth, Rousseau denounced the moral corruption and high-handed self-interest of the emerging lords of industry and finance. Alas, his prescription included a dose of misogyny and militant xenophobia.


Focusing on the present, Age of Anger evaluates the “bland fanatics” of modernity who suddenly find themselves in retreat before the forces of religious fundamentalism and secular resentment. Mishra writes that for the market society’s left-behinds, even if the relative material prosperity of the majority has actually risen over time, the desires and expectations engendered by consumer culture will always be painfully unfulfilled. Rousseau never raised his hand in violence, but his most infamous acolyte, Maximilien Robespierre, turned the French Revolution into a watchword for terror.

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