In 2017, the Indian essayist and novelist Pankaj Mishra published a book entitled “The Age of Anger: A History of the Present”; his work intended to explore how we had arrived at a moment whereby Donald Trump could be elected President and Brexit could be seen as a viable option.
If anything, anger has only become more volcanic since 2017. It, along with anxiety, may be the most prevailing political emotions of our times. Look at social media: Twitter is full of rage. Confederate statues get torn down: defenders of those monuments rage at those who wish to see them removed, saying they are destroying history. Those who wish to see the symbols of racism and oppression removed counter with their own anger at those who wish to see these statues maintained.
President Trump apparently drinks rage for breakfast along with his morning coffee. He reaches for his mobile phone and posts semi-coherent tweets written in all caps. He shouts that he is harassed. His ardent supporters agree. A phenomenon of our time is film clips, spread on social media, of mainly white people getting angry in grocery stores, petrol stations, and street corners, shouting racial abuse.
Anger can be productive. If it is turned into movements that alter the status quo for the better, then it can change the world. The Civil Rights movement in America was born out of a righteous anger against a system that was oppressive and unjust. It took the catalyst provided by Dr. Martin Luther King and others to affect a change in the laws. We are better for it. There is evidence that some of the anger stirred up by the malignant death of George Floyd is having similar effects: police tactics are being reviewed, reform is considered necessary across the political spectrum. Furthermore, people are taking a good hard look at the symbols of white supremacy around them, e.g., Confederate statues and monuments, and realising how much of current culture is steeped in racial prejudice.
In Europe, discontent with the present order has sometimes had productive results: the big winner in France’s recent local elections wasn’t the far right, but rather the Greens. It may very well be that some people have realised that discontent by itself only goes so far, and solutions matter.
But for every Green victory in a French local election, there are many more manifestations of anger. On Twitter, I spotted a post which asked, “why are white men so angry?”
I believe that there is a misalignment between expectations and reality. We are taught by popular culture that we all should be attractive, wealthy, good looking geniuses, and in particular, white working class people have it in their popular memory that there was a time when one could go into a job without a university degree and yet have a decent standard of living. Technological changes, such as the introduction of robotics in manufacturing, and globalisation have knocked that old model flat. You are not going to be the person a model winks at in the pub if you work stocking shelves at an Amazon warehouse. You will find your wages buy less and less, and your children will be lumbered with debt just in order to get a decent education. Even with that education, they may not find a job that pays well. Unscrupulous politicians then prey on real world concerns and turn them toward phantom solutions. And when the fallacies are exposed, for example, electing Donald Trump to be President will make America Great Again, those who have most heavily bought into the fantasies would rather get angry at others than realise their own folly.
Anger dissipates, eventually. It is a difficult emotion to maintain for a long time because it is so tiring. Perhaps the key to a better era lay in is dissolution and then in a time in which people divest themselves of populist illusions. The signs from France are hopeful: perhaps we should look to preserving our world from the ravages of our behaviour. We are all in this together; anger without purpose has run its course and we are running out of time to address the issues that face humanity. If we do, perhaps we can look at this age of anger as a moment of madness, which led eventually to greater clarity.