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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > February 2017 > Rage against the elites

Rage against the elites

A breathless attempt to root the political anger engulfing the world in the 18th century is too sweeping, says Stefan Collini

Age of Anger: A History of the Present by Pankaj Mishra (Allen Lane, £20)

The constant temptation in immediate commentary on world events is to overreact and overexplain. At the moment, we are being told that our world has been turned upside down, that democracy doesn’t work, that human motivation has changed, that evidence has ceased to matter, and any number of other over-heated simplifications. Just as media scare stories can generate a spasm of panic-buying, so dramatic headlines can provoke a frenzy of panic-writing. Faced with this froth, we turn gratefully to a book that promises to view the turmoil of the present in the longer and calmer perspectives of history.

Pankaj Mishra has already won many admirers for his trenchant critiques of the kleptocratic and ethnocentric forces determining the political economy of the world, but now he is offering us something more ambitious still—a diagnosis of the global convulsions of the present that is rooted in a reading of cultural and intellectual history from the 18th century onwards.

This necessarily prompts us to reflect on how the past may best shed light on the present. Are we looking for a pattern, even the continued operation of the same causes in changed circumstances? If so, what exactly do we gain by learning that some things in the past were in some ways similar to what we have now, though also quite different? Or are we trying to inoculate ourselves against error by demonstrating that the familiar categories and generalisations through which we try to understand the present all make assumptions about the past that are superficial, misremembered, or just wrong?

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In Prospect’s February issue: Tom Clark and Luke Harding examine the attacks facing democracy. Clark reviews two books on democracy and suggests a new intellectual assault may be on the horizon. Harding looks at Russia’s attempts to derail the democratic process by focussing on its technical frailty. Melissa Deckman asks why women voted for Trump, while Duncan Bell charts the story of the Anglosphere and suggests Brexiteers are indulging in an old fantasy. Also in this issue: Matthew Harries asks if it’s time to ban the nuclear bomb, Adam Mars-Jones looks at the way we perceive aliens in films and Elizabeth Pisani explores the role of activists in changing the perception of Aids and its pushing for treatment.