Not alone in anger

January 10, 2017 § Leave a comment

Important author Pankaj Mishra, in preparation of the upcoming non-fiction Age of Anger: A History of the Present, has recently published a note-worthy introduction of the new work in the Guardian. Responding to democratic publics voting against their interests, a nostalgia for simpler times or firm-handed leadership, & neoliberalism without alternative, Mishra surveys how “today’s landscape of hyperrational power has coerced a new & increasingly potent irrationalism into existence”.

The argument behind this survey is that the sphere of emotions is crucial to understanding new structural inequalities, the problems of western democracy, & how radical groups recruit, among pretty much any other phenomenon surprising the masses today. If the emotional weren’t excluded from liberal rationalism, that is to say, none of this would be surprising in the least. For Mishra, anger is the primary emotion of the present moment — as one might expect, whether from the title or from personal experience. Certainly, most of us feel angry about some of the many legitimate reasons current global order gives to be angry. For the first time since the world wars, people in the west don’t hold back in naming who they feel is to blame for their loss of security or power: the bursts of violence against muslims, women & trans-feminine people, national minorities, & other Others seem to be destined to continue to increase in number.

How this anger is cultivated in individuals is elaborated on through the concept of ressentiment. It is defined as the need to be preferred over others in a meritocracy, which is usually caused by humiliation & being encouraged to envy. With equal rights & democracy for base principles, the exprience of ressentiment expands on them by adding the following values: freedom is to have choice in the global marketplace but no choice to reject the global marketplace, democracy is a historical inevitability so intervention is a responsibility, & prosperity will bring equality whether from trickle-down wealth or from reduced vulnerability when threats faced by the lower-class disappear. The competitive aspect of this perspective — that someone must fail in order for someone else to succeed — is what allows for anger, jealousy, & fear to enter the social landscape; it is also what prevents “rational” organisation, as it was imagined to come about spontaneously, & what debunks the “sciences” that treat people strictly as rational actors.

The argument moves along: “Committed to seeing the individual self as a rational actor, we fail to see that it is a deeply unstable entity, constantly shaped & reshaped in its interplay with shifting social & cultural conditions”. Here, Mishra alludes to the return of identity politics [remodernisation] without naming it. He says that complexity/multiplicity of identity has to be suffocated in trying to develop the rational world order but, also, that this is a lie. Regretfully, “many intellectuals have embraced nostalgic fantasies of vanished unity” — in particular national unity & common identity, state projects today.

Ressentiment can be extended to understand the interactions between states or between a state & its subjects. It will probably take less convincing that states don’t always behave to maximise happiness for the largest number of people than it did regarding individuals. In international relations especially, it is evident that this is not a priority.

Fear, anxiety and a sense of humiliation were the principal motive of germany’s expansionist policy in the early 20th century — & it is impossible to understand the current upsurge of anti-western sentiment in china, russia & india without acknowledging the role played by humiliation.

While this is all very interesting, I want to turn the magnifying glass onto a group which is often spared scrutiny as one that might be perpetuating fear, anxiety, or humiliation — it is also a group I identify with — social movements of the Left.* The fact that we don’t ask these questions is a problem; it also leaves me rather alone with the Right’s criticisms: that the horsepeople of the apocalypse are actually on the side of the Left with fear-mongering regarding global warming, street violence against vulnerable groups, or elections of racist, ableist, misogynistic, homo- & transphobic demagogues. Its social movements are depicted as angry, yelling hordes with no alternatives to suggest just criticisms.

But does anger hinder or help the movements? First responses aren’t negative: the angrier people get, the more they talk about it & seek out others who are equally angry [which is no small feat for building solidarity], & the more likely they are to take direct political action [which is notoriously difficult to do]. An opinion is an emotion & an emotion a belief, after all. It’s also a really great way to enounciate problems in their intricacies/complexities from the point at which the personal & political overlap since, in anger, we don’t immediately attempt coherence but settle with description & cathartic repetition.

However, if we look deeper into the experience/expression of anger a different revelation surfaces. Anger is a continuation of the same values that divide people [no surprises there] & even when used to separate oneself from those that encourage the division between people, practising anger legitimises their way of thinking. Anger riles up the opposition & rallies the allies — it reproduces anger exponentially. Mishra is right; we are in an age of anger, our culture & media teach us how to get angry & even tell us why & at whom. I myself feel angry often [including at myself for not being able to upholding all of my ethical ideals in life — & the society of self-accountability tells me I alone am to blame].

Obviously, I believe we need to acknowledge that contradiction in Leftist anger & take other approaches seriously. One alternative is not even to fight for the experience of something else, like “love”, “forgiveness”, or “empowerment”, rather for the absence of experience altogether. I will go into this point further in my next post on Mark Greif’s article, “Anaesthetic Ideology”.


* Mishra doesn’t address this in the introduction, but might in the full book due on the 26th of January. The only criticism of the Left in the introduction is that it, like the Right, accepted utilitarian notions of progress.


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