Pankaj Mishra

Age of Anger

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Age of Anger Summary

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Age of Anger: A History of the Present (2017), a non-fiction book by Indian author Pankaj Mishra, seeks to explain the rise of political movements fueled by anger and resentment across the Western world. These movements, Mishra argues, range from Trumpism and Brexit to Islamic terror groups like ISIS. Contrary to political thinkers like Francis Fukuyama, Mishra believes that violence and disorder are endemic to the modern world and have come as a direct result of capitalism and liberal democracy’s spread around the globe. London’s Literary Review magazine found Age of Anger “absorbing, richly learned, and subversive.”

Mishra frames much of his thesis as a rebuke against two of the most dominant political theories of the late 20th century: Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History” and Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations.” According to Fukuyama, the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 marked “the end of history as such: That is, the end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” Under this theory, liberal democracy and free-market capitalism represent such a triumph of governance that no other system will ever overtake them on a significant scale. Meanwhile, Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations theory argues that in the new world order following the Cold War, wars will be fought not between countries but between civilizations, namely Western civilization and Islamic civilization.

According to Mishra, both of these theories are wrong to place Western civilization in a “benevolent Enlightenment tradition of rationalism, humanism, and liberal democracy.” Instead, Mishra argues, “The history of modernization is largely one of carnage and bedlam.” In part, this is because fundamentalist movements—from Islamic extremists like ISIS to the Hindu nationalists who rose to power in Mishra’s home country of India in 2014—are usually reactions to the kinds of rapid changes that modernization brings. A sense of alienation and dislocation arises that can take many forms on the political right-left spectrum, from fascism to anarchism. What they all have in common, Mishra points out, is that they are fueled by what he calls “ressentiment.” By the author’s definition, ressentiment is “an existential resentment of other people’s being, caused by an intense mix of envy and sense of humiliation and powerlessness.”

Mishra traces much of this to the 18th-century Enlightenment idea that all individuals are endowed with basic rights, the same ideas upon which the United States and the other liberal democracies that followed were built. However, the rise of individualism has come at the expense of family and community-based traditions and support systems. People leave their homes to chase their dreams of wealth, leaving themselves culturally uprooted. Moreover, when they find, as most of them do, that wealth and opportunity are reserved for a precious few, they look for some group to blame for their lack of advancement and resentment sets in. Even those who have succeeded, joining the ranks of the middle and upper classes, often reject the modern order. Mishra notes that few explanations of Islamic militant fundamentalism account for why so many ISIS recruits come from relatively comfortable backgrounds. Tunisia, for instance, which Mishra calls “the most Westernized among Muslim societies,” has become a top source for ISIS recruits.

The main reason for this, Mishra suggests, is that the promise offered by modern liberal democracies of wealth and comfort is, even when fulfilled, a hollow one. He credits the 18th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau with anticipating the problems of modernity all the way back at its birth. Rousseau “tried to outline a social order where morals, virtue, and human character rather than commerce and money were central to politics.” Without those values, Rousseau suggested, the world would be plagued by “the modern underdog with his aggravated sense of victimhood and demand for redemption.” As for the targets of this resentment, Mishra writes that in most cases they make up one of two forms: women, who are frequently blamed by men for hindering their opportunities by way of betraying entrenched gender roles, and arrogant cosmopolitan elites.

Mishra doesn’t seek an answer to the question of how to alleviate the cultural resentments that the modern world has created. He does, however, note that these resentments seem to be spreading beyond the traditional terrorist havens like ISIS and al Qaeda into movements like Donald Trump’s presidency and Brexit. While these movements are deeply rooted in the philosophical groundswells of the Enlightenment Era, they have grown more severe in recent years, as Mishra characterizes the world as having “a broader and more apocalyptic mood than we have witnessed before.” However we choose to address this climate of “cultural supremacism, populism, and rancorous brutality,” it will demand “some truly transformative thinking, about both the self and the world,” Mishra writes.