THE PHILOSOPHER RAYMOND ARON called the fall of Soviet Communism in 1991 “the end of the ideological age.” The Soviet Union’s defeat in the Cold War buried whatever sense of fatalism there was on both sides of the Atlantic about the future of humankind. New master narratives proclaimed the triumph of the West, the United States as the lodestar of human rights, and the inexorable march of the free market. The American political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s premise that liberal democracy constituted the “final form of government”—the “end of history”—exemplified the emphatic nature of this triumphalism.
But since 11 September 2001, there has been a growing sense of catastrophe in the West. Climate change is set to make life a living hell. Europe reels from the influx of refugees escaping war and poverty in such places as Syria. Western adventures in the West Asia have produced the barbarisms of the Islamic State and extremist violence on the streets of Europe. The global recession of 2008 has brought economic uncertainty to large sections of the middle classes, and exposed the ways in which globalisation has hollowed out working-class communities, widened the divisions between rich and poor, and privileged wealth creation over social welfare. In response, societies worldwide are drifting into economic and cultural protectionism, as right-wing strongmen and demagogues entrench themselves in countries such as Hungary, India, the Philippines, Russia, Turkey and the United States.
Pankaj Mishra’s new book, Age of Anger: A History of the Present, is a bracing and essential work that helps us understand how we have become “trapped in this danse macabre”—this dance of death. There is a sense of intellectual crisis, and political and media elites have been thrown into “stunned bewilderment,” as Mishra writes, by the buffeting of the liberal norms and institutions that have prevailed since the Second World War. His book attempts to make sense of the larger psychological underpinnings of this crisis in the context of the last three centuries of Western domination. It is the latest instalment in his larger oeuvre, which catalogues the emotional damage wreaked upon societies by the relentless march of capitalism and liberal modernity.
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