We are not living in happy times. Violence, famine and millions in flight from the arc of instability, from Central Africa to the Indian subcontinent, dominate the daily news. Post-colonial Islamism is bringing terror into the heart of the old colonising metropoles, such as London in recent weeks. Globalisation is shifting jobs from the West to cheaper regions of the world. The acceleration of global warming, and its denial, have terrified the scientifically minded.
The resurgence of religion in a world that had long been sculpted by the growth of impartial inquiry might have seemed improbable. Yet in the last couple of weeks alone we have seen Islamist terrorists murder Europeans in Europe, and wholesale murder by competing Islamic military factions in Afghanistan, Syria, Libya and beyond.
Above all, we are seeing the return of the kind of social and political rage that fuelled the rise of the right in the early 20th century. After the balmy days of Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history”, when open-minded, individualistic, human rights-mediated capitalism seemed to have beaten repressive alternatives, personal anger has returned to the political arena. Today, it has new dimensions including online anonymity and sleights of language that polish up old concepts such as racism and Nazism into anodyne new terms such as “alt-right”.
Mark Lilla, a Columbia University political scientist and writer for the The New York Review of Books among other publications, has written a powerful thought provoker on these themes. He has long been preoccupied with the history of ideas and the never-ending contestation provoked by the Enlightenment. His new book, tion, takes a narrow-focus look at the backlash against the idea of “progress”: the assumption since the 18th-century that historical change is always an advance.
Reaction, by his definition, is not necessarily caused by ignorance, anger or intransigence, and neither are reactionaries merely conservative. Edmund Burke’s most powerful argument, for example, was not simply that things were better in the old days.
“Burke,” Lilla writes, “considered the idea of history as an impersonal force carrying us to fixed destinations to be both false and dangerous since it could be used to justify crimes in the names of the future.” Liberal and socialist reformers, he adds in parenthesis, “had an additional worry, which was that it would encourage passivity”. History for Burke develops unconsciously over stretches of time, with unpredictable results.
The Shipwrecked Mind is a collection of several of Lilla’s NYRB essays that hang together nicely. He has three short sharp chapters on key 20th-century thinkers who illustrate his larger purpose: Franz Rosenzweig, Eric Voegelin and Leo Strauss, Jewish and non-Jewish thinkers whose arguments were disrupted and reformed by the rise of Nazism. Each saw the problems of their era as a breakdown in serious political thought, and promoted a return to an earlier, more holistic moment: not to rest there, but so Age of Anger: A History of the Present By Pankaj Mishra Hamish Hamilton, 416pp, $49.99 (HB) The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction By Mark Lilla NY Review Books, 168pp, $24.99