John Gray

From Rationalism to Ressentiment

Age of Anger: A History of the Present

By

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There is, plainly, no logic in the unfolding of time.’ Pankaj Mishra makes this sceptical observation in order to undermine the theories of history that have inspired Western thinkers and leaders over the past two centuries or more. In the late 18th century, the Enlightenment philosophers Voltaire and Diderot celebrated the modernisation of Russia carried out under Catherine the Great as an advance towards a universal civilisation based on reason. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Marx and Lenin predicted the downfall of capitalism, but they too believed humanity was moving, via a succession of dialectical conflicts, towards a higher stage of development.

Drawing on different economic theories but the same intellectual playbook, The Economist welcomed a new era in history in 1992, when, one year after the Soviet Union was formally dissolved, it assured its readers that there was ‘no serious alternative to free-market capitalism as the way to organise economic life’. Whether history was unfolding via enlightened despotism, proletarian revolution or the inexorable spread of market forces, there could be no doubt that it was propelled by an inner logic.

Mishra’s richly learned and usefully subversive book presents a different and more accurate view. Growing up in semi-rural India in a family that in some ways belonged in ‘a pre-modern world of myth, religion and custom’, his earliest readings were in Hindu classical literature and Buddhist philosophy. His way of thinking, he tells us, has been shaped by Western influences – though not those of Anglo-American liberalism. Describing himself as ‘a step-child of the West’, he is fascinated by countries and writers riven by struggles about what it means to be modern: ‘I find myself drawn most to German, Italian, Eastern European and Russian writers and thinkers.’

In a wide-ranging and absorbing survey, he uncovers some unexpected and intriguing crossovers between ‘western’ and ‘eastern’ thinking:

Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of ‘pure’ Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the ‘New Jew’, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a ‘New Life’ in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the nineteenth-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term ‘survival of the fittest’. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally, ‘the father of the Turks’) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or ‘Americanism’; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s ‘corporatism’.

As Mishra notes, it was Nietzsche, more than any other thinker, who inspired these exercises in cultural appropriation. Age of Anger reinterprets modern intellectual history ‘from the age of Rousseau to our own age of anger’ using the German philosopher’s idea of ressentiment. Nietzsche deployed the term to capture the mood of envy and hatred that he believed fuelled the ‘slave revolt in morality’, in which the ‘master-morality’ of classical European antiquity was overturned by Judaeo-Christian values. An essential part of ressentiment is that those who are possessed by it define themselves in relation to others they cannot help feeling are superior. Mishra finds this same ambivalence in the traumatic encounter of non-Western cultures with the power of the West.

Driven by ‘an amalgam of self-admiration and self-contempt’, intellectual and political leaders in Russia, China, India, Africa and the Islamic world responded to the incursions of imperialism by attempting to transform their societies along Western lines. Rejecting traditional elites and values, they imbibed Western ideologies, such as Marxism and Social Darwinism. By emulating the West, they hoped to defeat it. Instead, they have succumbed to the West’s pathologies and disorder. Summarising his central thesis midway through the book, Mishra writes, ‘The key to man’s behaviour lies not in any clash of opposed civilizations, but, on the contrary, in irresistible mimetic desire: the logic of fascination, emulation and righteous self-assertion that binds the rivals inseparably. It lies in ressentiment, the tormented mirror games in which the West as well as its ostensible enemies and indeed all inhabitants of the modern world are trapped.’

This is not the first time Nietzsche’s idea of ressentiment has been used to illuminate the differences between Eastern and Western cultures. Max Weber used it in his writings on the sociology of religion, arguing that Christianity was a world-changing faith whereas Hinduism and Buddhism tended towards fatalistic acceptance and withdrawal from history. Mishra’s originality lies in using the idea to interpret the clash between East and West. The conflict has been dialectical, he suggests – for non-Western societies, a process of mimicry based on self-division. Anti-colonial writers and movements internalised Western values and ways of thinking, even as they despised and rebelled against them. Aiming to resist or destroy the West, they ended up parodying it.

Rightly, Mishra believes that the political convulsions of the past century and a half were often foreshadowed in literature. He points to Dostoevsky as a pivotal figure. Notes from Underground is a bitter polemic against the utilitarian rationalism that Dostoevsky saw embodied in the Crystal Palace, a proto-version of the Millennium Dome built in London for the Great Exhibition of 1851. Dostoevsky’s novella contains an analysis of the psychology of ressentiment that has applications in politics. The Bolsheviks wanted to ‘catch up with and overtake’ the West, beating it at its own game. By doing so, they could exorcise their sense of backwardness. In the process, however, they became more like the Western civilisation they despised. The idea of ressentiment also helps us to understand why Putin’s shift to an anti-Western stance has made him such a popular leader.

The example of Russia suggests a footnote to Mishra’s account of the contemporary scene. Far from creating a universal civilisation based on reason, he argues, it has produced an uprooted world that mirrors its own chaos. All this may be true, but traditional cultures have not gone away. However much it may have been distorted in Putin’s hall of mirrors, Russia’s sense of separateness from the West has returned as a factor in geopolitics. Even as Western power has produced a global culture of ressentiment, old divisions have revived in changed forms. Here Nietzsche, with his strange idea of eternal recurrence, is once again the thinker who captures the paradoxical quality of our time. There may well be an unfolding logic in history, but it is a logic of unending repetition, in which the past returns in unexpected guises to dispel visions of a new world.

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