Age of Anger: A History of the Present, by Pankaj Mishra

Maybe once or twice a year I’ll read a book so striking that when it ends I’ll go back to page one and start all over. This is one of those books. It is one of the most powerful books on history and politics I’ve read in quite awhile.

The book covers the rise in populism worldwide, such as the election of Donald Trump in the U.S. and the similar rise of fundamentalist Hindu Prime Minister Narendra Modi in India. To explain the rising tide of nationalist populism Mishra describes the historical precedents and the philosophical roots of the movement.

He begins in a surprising region, starting with Italy and the rise of Gabriele d’Annunzio, a sort of proto-Mussolini. Like Mussolini he began as a writer and later was considered one of the great Italian heroes of the first world war. After the war he was outraged that the allied powers gave away the region of Fiume, which is now part of Croatia. He and 2,000 soldiers seized the region and demanded to be annexed by Italy. When that failed they declared it an independent state. From there he tried to organize an alternative League of Nations that would represent oppressed nations such as Ireland. The takeover was eventually thwarted in 1920 when Italy used its navy to bombard the area.

d’Annunzio was an inspiration to both Mussolini and Hitler over the next two decades. Both even took the title he used in Fiume, where he called himself Duce. This translates as “leader” in English and Fuhrer in German. d’Annunzio in his turn was inspired by Giuseppe Mazzini, who with Giuseppe Garibaldi helped cram all the different city states and principalities on the Italian isthmus into a single nation while fighting off other European powers.

Mishra describes a general sense of returning to the root nature of a nation or people, a philosophy that started with the writings of Swiss/French philosopher Jacques Rousseau. In his writings he developed the idea that governments had grown to stifle the true nature of human beings through artificial divisions of wealth and justice. Mishra shows how this basic theme ends up sprinkled through the writings of Marx, Hegel, Spencer, and the anarchists and revolutionaries who sprang up in the 19th and 20th centuries.

In periods of financial or political turmoil, such as economic depressions or colonization by foreign powers, there tends to be a general looking back to times when a nation or culture had its own greatness. When these times arise people are willing to give up democracy for dictatorship (seen as firm leadership) if it means that they can participate in a sense of national greatness.

In Italy’s case this meant contrasting centuries of invasions by the Holy Roman Empire, France, and other countries with the past wonders of the Roman Empire. In Germany a hatred for things feminine, French, or Jewish began in the late 19th century. These two dreams of greatness allowed Mussolini and Hitler to take power.

Mishra shows how these same ideas and energies have ignited similar movements in India, in Europe through the increased interest in right-wing nationalist parties, and throughout the Middle East. It also appears in the growing “alt-right” nationalism beginning its rise in the U.S.

The author points to several similarities in the movements no matter where they rise. One of the most interesting may be a growing drive for anti-feminism. There’s a growing desire to bring back a “natural order”, and this is expressed in male/female relations (rape in India, “family values” in the U.S.) as well as “old religion” (extremist Hinduism in India and fundamentalist Islam in the middle east) and returns to old cultural values and language.

What Mishra has been able to do is to pull a deeper explanation about changes in the world than dragging out superficial explanations such as “they hate our freedom” or dismissing some religions or cultures as being naturally backwards. Instead, an increasing sense of stress and disorientation through economic disenfranchisement or manipulation by colonial powers drives a longing for secure icons of the past. So it’s not so much that imams in the middle east have been able manipulate people so much as that war and colonialism created stresses that push people toward those imams for a sense of security and belonging.

The west in general and the U.S. in particular have managed to become magnets for hate by trying to mold the rest of the world into its own image, pushing values on societies rather than simply offering examples that other cultures can adopt or reject to reflect their own values. At the same time the west has experienced its own sense of disorientation through economic recessions and depressions, opening up areas of stress and dissatisfaction that can lead to lashing out at available “evils” such as foreigners, feminism, or foreign enemies.