Modernization has created an angry world

I think the world is locked into struggle between a heartless corporate neoliberalism and a rage-filled blood-and-soil nationalism, neither of which offers hope for the human future.

Pankaj Mishra, author of AGE OF ANGER (2017), said this is part of a conflict of ideas that originated with Voltaire and Rousseau in the 18th century and is still going on, all over the world, today.

Voltaire taught that if you give up your outworn prejudices, superstitions and customs, and embrace science, reason and commerce, you will gain the power to determine the course of your life, as well as enjoy a rising material standard of living.

His enemy, Rousseau, spoke for all those who were angry because this bargain was not kept, or because they rejected the bargain in the first place.

They included millions of people in Europe and North America in the 19th century and also billions in Asia and Africa in the 20th and 21st, who have been uprooted from village communities and left to fend for themselves in an unforgiving global economy.

Voltaire, although a brave defender of religious and intellectual freedom, despised the ignorant masses.  He admired “enlightened” despots, such as Frederick the Great and Catherine the Great, for trying to force their unwilling subjects to adopt modern—that is, French—ways of life.

Rousseau cared nothing for modernization.  His ideal was an imaginary Sparta, an austere, primitive and close-knit society of brave warriors.   He thought it unimportant that Spartan warriors were predatory and merciless to others.  What mattered was their comradeship with each other, and also their manliness.

Another theme of Rousseau, in contrast to Voltaire, is the need for manliness and the corresponding need to keep women in their place.   Once again, this is an example of Rousseau wanting something he didn’t have.  He was never able to fulfill the traditional role of the male, which is to be a protector and provider for women and children.


The first important heirs of Rousseau were the German nationalists and romantics who arose in opposition to French power and French philosophy.

Napoleon invaded Germany, Italy and Spain in the name of the universal ideals of the French Revolution—liberty, equality and brotherhood.

German nationalist intellectuals, such as Father Friedrich Ludwig Jahn and Johann Gottlieb Fichte,  rejected universal ideals.   They believed in German exceptionalism.   German elites, they said, were seduced by effeminate luxury, the quest for riches and abstract cosmopolitan ideas detached from the life of the common people, the Volk.

Pankaj Mishra

Their ideal Germany was like Rousseau’s Sparta.   Nationalism for them was a religion that overrode any lesser loyalties.   Love of Germany for them consisted of hatred of Germany’s enemies, such as the French, and of any element within Germany that undermined the unity of the nation.

The Italian nationalist, Guiseppe Mazzini, preached an ecumenical kind of nationalism.  Every nation, he said, has its own special genius, and deserves to be independent so it can be true to its genius.

Two of Mazzini’s admirers were the rival Indian nationalists, Mohandas K. Gandhi and Vinayak Damodar Savarkar.

Gandhi, it seems to me, represented Rousseau’s ideas at their best.   He invented an Indian nationalism and reinterpreted Hinduism in a way that related to lives and traditions of the Indian common people.   He rejected modernization.  He sought, probably impractically, to foster an economy based on village life and the spinning wheel, not globalization and textile mills.

The nationalism of Savarkar, an upper caste Hindu with little contact with the common people, was called Hindutva.  It consisted of hatred of foreigners and little else.  Savarkar said Muslims and Christians should be driven out of India, and Jews and Parsees forced to either convert to Hinduism or accept second-class citizenship.

He called on Hindus to abandon humility, self-surrender and forgiveness and embrace hatred, retaliation and vindictiveness.  His program was to “Hinduize politics” and “militarize Hinduism”.

Savarkar was imprisoned in 1910 for involvement in the murder of a British official and later confined to his village.  From there he organized the nationalist Hindu Mararabha party with a paramilitary wing, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).   An RSS member assassinated Gandhi in 1948, probably with Savarkar’s knowledge.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a disciple of Savarkar.   He is a lifelong member of the RSS and his Bharatiya Janata Party is affiliated with the RSS.   He was chief minister of Gujarat province in 2002, when a Hindu mob killed up to 2,000 Muslims and drove out up to 200,000 of them.  No one was ever punished.

As Prime Minister, he is an advocate of Hindutva, the idea that India is a nation of Hindus, and Hindus only.   Muslims are persecuted and suspected beef-eaters have been lynched.   Some extremist Hindus even dislike tourist visits to the Taj Mahal, because it was built by a Muslim ruler.

Modi is not an enemy of modernization.   His nationalism is perfectly compatible with economic globalization and crony capitalism.   This is not unique, Mishra said.    Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Turkey’s Reccip Tayyip Erdogan and Donald Trump also combine crony capitalism with enemy-seeking nationalism.


The other important form of rage against modernization is terrorism.

Mishra’s example of a pure terrorist is Timothy McVeigh, who set off a truck bomb that destroyed a government building in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1995, killing 168 people including 19 children.

McVeigh is often depicted as a Christian fundamentalist, probably because he is a white man of Protestant heritage with a short haircut.  But he was, in fact, an atheist.

He said he set off the bomb to avenge and atone for the deaths of innocent Iraqis in the Gulf War of 1993, in which he served.  If children died in Tulsa, that was “collateral damage,” the same as the deaths of children in the U.S. bombings of government buildings in Baghdad.

His other justification for his attack was to strike back against a government that threatened his freedom.  He carried around a long quote from John Locke about how anyone who threatens your freedom threatens your life, and it is therefore morally lawful to kill in defense of freedom.

In prison, he became friends with Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, who was convicted of attempting to destroy the Twin Towers in 1993.  Yousef said McVeigh’s personality resembled his own more than anybody else he ever meant.

Yousef was the son of a Pakistani father and Palestinian mother.   His cause was to avenge the deaths of Muslims and Arabs by killing Israelis and Americans.   He did not observe Muslim religious practices, such as prayer or fasting.   His goal was destruction.

Mishra says terrorists such as Youssef are part of a history not of Islam, but of terrorism.  That history begins with the nihilists in mid-19th century Russia, continues through the anarchist dynamiters and assassins of the late 19th and early 20th century and the radical leftist and Communist bomb-setters of the 1970s and 1980s, and ends with the “gangsta Islam” of ISIS.

All of these different kinds of terrorists had all given up on the possibility of reforming what they saw as a hopelessly rotten society.   Their only goal was to destroy the old in hope that something better might arise.

Mishra, too, sees little hope in the heirs of either Voltaire or Rousseau.  The only public figure he praises is Pope Francis, because the Pope’s humanitarianism is rooted in a transcendent religion.


I read Mishra’s book on the recommendation of Judy Bello, whose The Deconstructed Globe web log is a good antidote to official propaganda concerning Syria and the Middle East.   She recommended it as a comment to my book note on John Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger.   The Jimmy Porter character certainly fits Mishra’s profile of alienated and angry men (and they’re all men).

Modernization is not a complete failure.   The world is a better place, in many ways, than it was in the days of Voltaire and Rousseau, and this is largely due to science, reason and commerce.   The achievement of independence by nations from foreign rule is a good thing, not a bad thing.

But Mishra is surely right in pointing out that the promise of an ever-rising material standard of living can’t be kept and that, even if it could be kept, human beings do not live by consumption alone.

Even the prosperous West is full of ordinary people who think their work has no meaning and philosophers who think life has no meaning.   Mishra is right to call for “some truly transformative thinking about both the self and the world.”   His book does not offer a cure for the world’s ills, but it is a good diagnosis.


Welcome to the Age of Anger by Pankaj Mishra for The Guardian.

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3 Responses to “Modernization has created an angry world”

  1. Edward Says:

    “rage against modernization is terrorism”

    I think this is a problematic statement involving a nebulous notion of “modernization”. Terrorism is usually defined as violence against civilians for political goals. By this criteria the U.S. government is guilty of terrorism although the press never uses this language. What might be meant above is stateless groups acting against state authority. I still don’t really see modernization as the issue and this essay doesn’t describe McVeigh’s motives in those terms.

    Incidentally, the official story about the Oklahoma bombing may be a lie. The counterstory is that Germany had an undercover agent in McVeigh’s white nationalist group and the FBI was aware of a plot but botched stopping it– hence the official lie. The explosion was caused by explosives planted in the building rather than a truck bomb. I don’t recall the evidence for this story.


    • philebersole Says:

      Terrorism can be a political tactic and it can be an expression of rage. My post was about the latter kind of terrorism.

      Bolsheviks, fascists and so-called national liberation movements, starting with the IRA, used terrorism as a tactic to spread fear and compel obedience.

      Osama bin Laden used terrorism as a tactic to provoke the United States into getting involved in a quagmire road.

      The “propaganda by the deed” described by Mishra among the Russian nihilists and Bakuninist anarchists did not have a specific objection – just a hope that the rotten old society would be destroyed and something better would come after.

      The “lone wolf” killers of today, whether white supremacists, supporters of ISIS or something else, also have no specific political objectives. Their actions are an expression of rage.

      I have not studied the critiques of the official report on the Oklahoma bombings. For the purpose of this post, it is sufficient that Timothy McVeigh admitted what he did and gave his reasons.


  2. philebersole Says:

    An acquaintance who read this post sent me the following e-mail.

    You are almost completely wrong about McVeigh. You also know nothing of the atrocities he committed against surrendering Iraqi troops in the 1st Gulf War. You put far too much credence in your dubious interlocutors. I have nothing else to say.


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