Am I right to be angry?

Malcolm Bull

  • Age of Anger: A History of the Present by Pankaj Mishra
    Penguin, 416 pp, £9.99, February 2018, ISBN 978 0 14 198408 7

In The Passions and the Interests, published in 1977, Albert Hirschman revisited the 18th-century argument that the pursuit of worldly self-interest might be the most effective way of controlling destructive emotions like anger. The pursuit of interests that are constant and predictable potentially offers an escape from the see-saw effect of trying to curb one passion with another. And because trade, unlike status, is not a zero-sum game, everybody should be able to pursue their economic interests simultaneously without coming into conflict. Over time, commerce will ensure peace by demonstrating the sheer inutility of anger, and the violent passions that lead to war will atrophy.

Writing on the cusp of the era of neoliberal globalisation, Hirschman could have had little idea that these same arguments were going to be repeated uncritically for the next forty years. But he sounded a note of caution even so. These may have seemed like persuasive arguments for capitalism at a time when Europe was riven by pointless dynastic wars. But when the ‘reality of capitalist development was in full view’, the idea that ‘men pursuing their interests would be forever harmless’ had to be revised. Far from subduing the passions, the interests incite new ones. In particular, as economic growth impoverished some and enriched others it became clear that ‘those caught in these violent transformations would on occasion become passionate – passionately angry, fearful, resentful.’

Over the past decade it has become commonplace to claim that the world is divided between the passionless few in whose interests it is run and an angry multitude whose interests are ignored. And in this regard, Pankaj Mishra’s account in Age of Anger is not particularly novel. Recent political events have made it impossible to ignore the division between ‘an elite that seizes modernity’s choicest fruits while disdaining older truths and uprooted masses’ and the ‘latecomers to modernity’, the ‘resentful stragglers’, who seek refuge in ‘cultural supremacism, populism and rancorous brutality’. But the way Mishra positions himself in relation to this divide is unusual. Unlike most postcolonial critics active in the Anglosphere, he is not the product of an elite western education, but an Indian autodidact who read back issues of the New York Review of Books discarded by his local library, introduced himself to its late editor Barbara Epstein at a lecture in Delhi, and then became an accomplished essayist in his own right. As a vertical invader, he can claim with stark plausibility that he feels ‘sympathetic to both sides’.

Mishra says the idea for the book came to him in the light of remarks Nietzsche made about the conflict between ‘the serenely elitist Voltaire and the enviously plebeian Rousseau’: ‘On one side stood the “representative of the victorious, ruling classes and their valuations”; on the other, a vulgar plebeian overcome by his primordial resentment of a superior civilisation.’ So where Voltaire was ‘an unequivocal top-down moderniser’, Rousseau saw ‘how the Enlightenment programme of willed, abstract social reform could cause deracination, self-hatred and vindictive rage’, and ‘argued against any optimism about collective progress’. Anticipating anti-globalisation activism, he was ‘presciently critiquing the neoliberal conflation of free enterprise with freedom’ and claiming that ‘individual liberty was deeply menaced in a society driven by commerce.’

Nietzsche’s contrast between Voltaire and Rousseau isn’t framed exactly like this. In his account it is not Voltaire but Rousseau who was the optimist, and not Voltaire’s ‘moderate nature’ but ‘Rousseau’s passionate follies … that called forth the optimistic spirit of the revolution’. However, the transposition means that unlike John Gray (with whom he otherwise has much in common), Mishra can follow a straight line from the Counter-Enlightenment, tracing the legacy of Rousseau from the German Romantics, through the European nationalists and anarchists of the 19th century, to their more recent fundamentalist and populist imitators. It isn’t always clear how everything fits together in this loose-jointed argument, but Mishra makes a very convincing case for the importance of Mazzini, say, to a variety of Asian nationalists: Gandhi and Savarkar in India, Liang Qichao and James Sanua in Egypt (figures explored in his fascinating book of 2012, From the Ruins of Empire).

Mishra’s model isn’t just Rousseau himself, but the superfluous man of 19th-century literature who reappears in all modernising countries: the ‘alienated young man of promise’, who has been ‘educated into a sense of hope and entitlement, but rendered adrift by his limited circumstances, and exposed to feelings of weakness, inferiority and envy’. Today, he claims, ‘hundreds of millions of people’ are ‘condemned to superfluousness’, and live confined to ‘the anteroom of the modern world, an expanded Calais in its squalor and hopelessness’.

It is easy to see why someone might make a connection here. Mishra cites Turgenev’s Rudin, the ‘wandering outlaw of his own dark mind’, who on the last page of the novel dies making a suicidal revolutionary gesture on the barricades in Paris in 1848. Turgenev claimed to have based the character of Rudin on the anarchist Bakunin, which may seem to make him a suitable model of today’s suicidal attacker driving his van into a crowd. But in many ways Rudin seems more like Turgenev himself. He isn’t particularly angry and he emerges as an articulate defender of Enlightenment values when Pigasov attacks them. If he doesn’t champion civilisation it is, he says, only because it doesn’t think it needs a champion.

To generate his account of superfluity Mishra fuses the superfluous man of Russian literature, characterised by his aimlessness and socially confused identity, with other models of superfluity, ultimately derived from economics. On the one hand, there are the owners of surplus capital who seek profit without engaging in useful labour; on the other, people who have been made permanently idle by economic change. In the early 20th century it was taken for granted that both classes should be eliminated (even Keynes called for ‘the euthanasia of the rentier, of the functionless investor’) and that, ideally, the elimination of the former would effect the disappearance of the latter.

One way to achieve this was established in the era of imperial expansion, when, as Hannah Arendt puts it in The Origins of Totalitarianism, ‘these two superfluous forces, superfluous capital and superfluous working power, joined hands and left the country together.’ The outcome of this in the first era of globalisation around 1900 was that the elimination of superfluity in the colonial power created new forms of superfluity in the colonies as traditional ways of life were marginalised or displaced. It is this development, which initiated a steady increase in the level of inequality between nations, that Mishra seems to be using as his primary model when he thinks about global modernity. But the second era of globalisation a hundred years later has worked rather differently. The direction of global capital flows has changed and so too has the pattern of migration. Whether it is the people who are following the money, or the other way round, it is sometimes hard to say. But either way, superfluous capital and superfluous people flowed from poor to rich countries, creating a new superfluous class in the old rich world.

The winners and losers in global modernity have not remained the same throughout. In the first period almost everyone in the West derived some benefit from the ruthless exploitation of the rest of the world. In recent years the winners have been the transnational capitalist class and the Asian middle class, and the losers (other than the perennial losers at the very bottom) have been the lower and middle classes in Europe, the US and Japan, now relegated to an upper mezzanine floor in the world system. It isn’t clear that deracinated members of the Russian gentry have much in common with those in the Jungle at Calais, but their fate certainly prefigures that of the forgotten white working class in the US and Europe. In The Golovlyov Family (1880), Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin describes how after the abolition of serfdom a sort of doom hung over the minor gentry as ‘divorced from the stream of life, and without a position of leadership … they simply sit on their ramshackle estates, waiting to disappear.’

This complicates the picture. The transnational capitalist class may have a shared set of interests, but it doesn’t follow that those outside it are united by the same passions. The citizens of somewhere may have different interests from the citizens of nowhere and from each other. Indeed, those in the rising Asian middle class have strong reasons to want globalisation to continue. But Mishra elides these differences. One of his refrains is that in our global civil war, ‘identity has long been interchangeable’ and ‘gun-owning truck drivers in Louisiana have more in common with trishul-wielding Hindus in India, bearded Islamists in Pakistan, and nationalists and populists elsewhere, than any of them realise.’

This is exemplified by the book’s final coupling of the Oklahoma bomber, Timothy McVeigh, and Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, who planted the bomb at the World Trade Center in 1993 and is the nephew of the subsequently even more notorious Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. The pair ended up in adjoining prison cells, and apparently recognised that a psychological affinity existed between them. Yet on any global class analysis they were on opposite trajectories. McVeigh was a veteran of the first Iraq war, a drifter with poor grades who couldn’t hold down a job. Yousef, in contrast, though originally from Pakistan, had studied in the UK, and before becoming a professional terrorist was a computer engineer at the Ministry of Planning in Kuwait. If Yousef had established himself in the US instead of trying to blow it up, he could easily have been getting the jobs McVeigh (also a computer enthusiast) might have liked but wasn’t qualified to obtain. Their respective relationships to modernity were quite different: McVeigh was superfluous in a way that Yousef, in some ways a typical representative of the rising Asian middle class, is not.

The divergence has a bearing on a question that Mishra does not ask: to what extent is the anger he describes justified? This is surely a legitimate concern. Gogol claimed that without anger ‘not much can be said,’ because ‘only in anger is the truth uttered.’ But anger erupts for all sorts of reasons, many of them trivial or inappropriate, and it is surely fair to ask whether ‘Angry of Tunbridge Wells’, for example, has any reason to be angry at all. The Latin proverb, Iuppiter iratus ergo nefas, ‘Jupiter, you are angry; therefore you are wrong,’ has some currency as a putdown in 19th-century Russian literature, and Rudin comes out with it in the course of his defence of the universal values of the Enlightenment.

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The idea that anger puts you in the wrong, even if you weren’t already, has a long pedigree. Seneca thought anger ‘the most hideous and frenzied of all the emotions’ because it rushes to judgment and seeks revenge at any cost. More recently, Martha Nussbaum has argued that anger is ‘highly likely to lead us astray’ rather than enable us to act in a way that will benefit us or anyone else. But it isn’t self-evident that they are asking the right question. In an interesting article, ‘The Aptness of Anger’, published recently in the Journal of Political Philosophy, Amia Srinivasan argues against this ‘counterproductivity critique’. To concentrate on the idea that counterproductive anger ‘by definition is not in the self-interest of the oppressed person’ ignores the possibility that anger might be instrumentally counterproductive but nonetheless intrinsically apt.

According to Srinivasan, for anger to be apt it ‘must be directed at a genuine normative violation’, and (for the angry person) it must be properly motivated and proportional to the cause. However, given that many terrible things have happened in the world, this suggests that it might be perfectly apt for everyone to be very angry all of the time. And that anyone who was inexplicably enraged would only need to be reminded of some sufficient cause for their anger to be justified as well. So, something else may be needed, perhaps a ‘proximity condition’. For example, even if everything Virgil said were true, someone who wanted to pull down the Acropolis because of the trick the Greeks played on the Trojans with that horse might seem a little deranged. What makes ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ more persuasive isn’t so much the structure of the argument but the fact that its components are rather more joined up: the motivating injustice, the targeted symbol, and the agents of retribution (who might plausibly claim still to be affected by the original injustice).

Proximity is clearly significant, but it is messy, because it is so difficult to specify the degrees and types of proximity that might be relevant. For example, it isn’t clear that a period of ecotourism in Brazil will make your anger about logging in the Amazon more apt than it was before. On the other hand, we accept that a relative of the victim of a crime is liable to be more angry, and more aptly angry, about the crime than a passer-by who happened to witness it. But if a proximity condition applies more on the basis of a shared identity with the victims rather than proximity to the harm itself, it isn’t so much a proximity condition as an identity condition.

Perhaps some people have more reason to be angry than others in the same circumstances simply because of who they are. When someone tries the ‘Iuppiter iratus’ line on Arkadina in The Seagull, she retorts: ‘I am not Jupiter, I am a woman.’ And she may have a point. Anger that simply reinforces existing hierarchies of power is rarely appropriately motivated because those who wield the thunderbolt are unlikely to be the victims of harm. In the abstract, there is nothing about Jupiter or any other ‘angry white male’ to suggest that there’s anything particularly apt about their anger because any harm they suffer is not routinely mediated through the categories that define who they are, whereas, as Srinivasan notes, for a woman or a black person in the United States, it may be quite the opposite. As James Baldwin said in 1961, ‘to be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.’

This seems to be the line of argument implicit in Mishra’s account, and it has not been welcomed by those whom Mishra, via Reinhold Niebuhr, calls the ‘bland fanatics’ of ‘the religion of universal progress’. But when Michael Ignatieff accuses Mishra of ascribing a ‘lofty worldview’ to terrorists (‘a gang of killers’), the comment seems wide of the mark. Mishra isn’t claiming that there was anything especially apt about the fact that Yousef, a Pakistani, bombed the World Trade Center because of events in Palestine, or that McVeigh bombed the Federal Building in Oklahoma in retaliation for the police and military raid on the Branch Davidians (a group with whom he had no connection) in Waco, Texas. It is rather that on account of their identity as losers in the global civil war unleashed by modernity they are among those who have something to be angry about. What they do about it is a different matter.

The angry aren’t necessarily those who have never benefited at all from economic growth, and the difference in the trajectories of rising and declining global classes may affect what might be said about the aptness of their anger. The victims of the historical injustices of imperialism, still recovering from centuries of invasion and expropriation, are one thing; but people in the top ventile of global income distribution, whose chief grievance is a relative reduction in their income growth rather than an absolute reduction in their incomes, would not appear to have suffered a normative violation of the kind that might make their anger in any way appropriate. On the contrary, one of the things that is well known to make people unreasonably angry is downranking, some real or imagined reduction in status, and it was precisely this sort of passion, engendered by slights to honour, that the early modern turn to the interests was intended to overcome.

However, unlike the Slavophile Russian gentry of the 19th century, today’s declining social classes constitute the demographic majority in rich democracies, which means that any anger they feel may well prove to be disproportionately influential at a global level. In fact, there is some reason to think that inappropriate anger may generally be more productive than the other sort. If you are aptly angry as a result of being the victim of normative violation, it implies that you are unable to protect yourself from harm, which suggests that your anger is unlikely to be productive because you lack the means to make it so. Conversely, if you have the ability to instrumentalise your anger successfully, then it is less likely to be apt, because you are more likely to have had the means to protect yourself from the kind of harm that would make you aptly angry in the first place. So what if apt anger tends to be unproductive and vice versa? Is that a problem?

Srinivasan suggests that situations where ‘victims of oppression must choose between getting aptly angry and acting prudentially’ themselves constitute a second-order injustice, which she calls ‘affective injustice’. But is it not also an affective injustice to be forced to choose between inappropriate anger and unproductive inaction? It is a dilemma that parents with small children often face, and one reason they might want their children to behave better is to save themselves from the affective injustice of becoming angry for no good reason. So which is worse? The ‘invidious choice between improving one’s lot and justified rage’ may in some ways seem preferable to the choice between not improving one’s lot and unjustified rage. After all, something that is intrinsically inappropriate but instrumentally productive is generally held to be wrong, whereas putting aside otherwise appropriate emotions for prudential motives is the basis of rational behaviour.

This is surely the true nature of the injustice experienced by the declining classes of the rich world who no longer have anything to trade, and it is not necessarily a trivial one. To be forced into a position in which you have to give vent to passions you might otherwise disavow, or vote for candidates you might otherwise find abhorrent, simply in order to further your own interests is a form of moral harm. And since, as Seneca noted, pretending to be angry is often just as effective as being angry, there is a strong incentive to work yourself up into a fake rage every time you need something, which isn’t just infantilising but corrupting as well.

Mishra is sensitive to the inner conflicts of a global civil war whose ‘Maginot Line runs through individual hearts and souls’, but he nevertheless mixes up those who are angry because they have suffered harm with those who cannot get what they want without getting angry. Both may suffer an affective injustice, but for very different reasons. There is an important distinction to be made between people who, though fortunate in the past, now find themselves unable to further their interests effectively without getting angry or at least pretending to be, and people who really have suffered harm, but whose anger is liable to be ineffectual or to sabotage the gains they are otherwise making. To suggest that we live in an undifferentiated age of anger disguises a more complex and, except for the fortunate few, more disturbing picture.