Book of the week: Backlash against democracy is nothing new

Cover of Age of Anger: A History of the PresentAge of Anger: A History of the Present
by Pankaj Mishra
Published by Allen Lane, £20
(Buy at Amazon)

The past few years has seen a swing away from liberal democracy. In the Middle East, the pro-democracy protests of the Arab Spring gave way to the savagery of Islamic State. Populist and far-right movements have surged in the West, putting Donald Trump in the White House and Marine Le Pen on the cusp of the Élysée.

In Age of Anger: A History of the Present, Pankaj Mishra argues that this backlash against democracy and globalisation is nothing new. Ever since the enlightenment began in the 18th century, there have been periodic backlashes against free trade, capitalism and an open society, he says. What’s more, cheerleaders for these ideals underestimate their drawbacks, and in many cases only support them for selfish reasons. For example, the French philosopher Voltaire was an elitist who only wanted a place alongside the aristocracy for himself, and was horrified by the idea that “shoemakers and servant girls” could themselves deserve rights.

Mishra’s long-term historical approach is a refreshing contrast to those who solely blame short-term causes, such as Syrian refugees or the delayed after-effects of the great financial crisis. It’s hard to deny the family breakdown and creeping inequality are  serious problems, and are undermining the very framework needed for enterprise and trade to flourish. However, Mishra’s pessimism is perhaps excessive.  After all, despite recent setbacks, nearly everywhere in the world is more democratic, and significantly richer, than it was 40 years ago.