Whose Anger? A Review of Angrynomics

The recent ‘insurrection’ on Capitol Hill should put an end to any liberal illusions that 2021 would usher in, in Biden’s words, a return to decency. Surreal images of the QAnon Shaman roaming the US Senate may yet become one of the defining photographs of the Trump presidency. In many ways it is symbolic of the President himself – inchoate and unashamedly atavistic yet, emboldened by law and order, obstructive and corrosive.

Many of these themes are touched upon in Eric Lonergan and Mark Blyth’s short book Angrynomics. In many senses it is a timely book, published just weeks after the murder of George Floyd and in the midst of the largest global recession since the Second World War, these are fertile grounds for anger. Certainly there is very little to dispute about Lonergan and Blyth’s premise:

“We have an abject failure of policy. Rather than presenting a major programme of economic reform, the global political elite has offered nothing substantive, instead choosing either to jump on the bandwagon of nationalism or insist that nothing fundamental is wrong… The political classes, bereft of ideas, are now desperately peddling old ideologies and instincts, or pursuing bizarre distractions like Brexit.”

As a result of this abject failure, people are angry. They are either publicly anger or privately angry. That public anger either manifests itself in moral outrage (think, for instance, of an Extinction Rebellion protest) or tribal rage (for example, and this is used in the book, fans at a football match). Private anger, meanwhile, gives us an insight into the daily micro-stresses of people’s lives. This is the Lonergan and Blyth typology of anger.

Whose Anger?

While the authors are clear that “we need to draw a clear distinction between legitimate public anger and cynical manipulation of tribal anger for political ends” (22), their analysis often fails to live up to the task. Through the centrality of “legitimate moral grievances in the Rust Belt” in explaining the election of Trump (25) and the “real stressors” of immigration driving the Brexit vote (111-112), Angrynomics ends up sidestepping important discussions of race for an overly simplistic explanation of class.

Throughout the book Lonergan and Blyth flirt with addressing issues of race and racism but never quite manage it effectively. There are references to Trump’s “images of walls to keep out marauding criminalized immigrants” (25) and the emotive pull of ‘Take Back Control’ and the “struggle to protect the nation and the national economy against ‘outside’ forces” (41).  Yet their analysis of the anger propelling these events is partial, there is no mention of the fact that Trump voters were more affluent than Clinton voters in 2016 or the “affluent pensioners in the Tory shires” which drove the Brexit vote. Further still, there is no admission of the overwhelming rejection of these movements by Black and minority ethnic populations. Let alone the crucial fact that their socio-economic position is worse on both sides of the Atlantic.

As such Angrynomics ultimately falls foul to what Gurminder Bhambra has called ‘methodological whiteness’. Without a conception of both race and class, Lonergan and Blyth’s understanding of anger is incomplete. Mobilising the left-behind they invoke will not disrupt an unequal economic order, it will preserve a racialised status quo.

The Emancipatory Potential of Anger

Upon reading Angrynomics you could be forgiven for thinking that anger in politics was a recent phenomenon. While the authors regularly make references to the two eras of the post-1945 world – “the Cold War world of 1945-89 and the subsequent era of so-called ‘neoliberalism’” (28) – the public and private anger of previous generations is erased from this retelling.

This is perhaps a product of the authors’ view that “the system functioned quite well for about 25 years [in the post war era]” (40). Yet, again, this is a very selective view. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor outlines in her brilliant book From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, the post war era far from functioned well for Black Americans. Instead, basic rights were militantly fought for throughout the civil rights movement. In Taylor’s words, “Black people’s progress has always been propelled by the strength of the movements of ordinary Black people. Not only did the struggle of the 1960s transform the lives of African Americans, it was the pivot upon which all progressive movements in that era turned.”

Fully encompassing long histories of domination and racism (and the anger they elicit) may be beyond the scope of a short book but their complete omission surely precludes the possibility of building an equitable economy and politics for all. As Audre Lorde wrote almost 40 years ago, “women of colour in america have grown up within a symphony of anger, at being silenced, at being unchosen, at knowing that when we survive, it is in spite of the world that takes for granted our lack of humaneness, and which hates our very existence outside of its service.” This is without even mentioning the struggles and movements of those outside the Global North.

Lonergan and Blyth write that their “aim is not to make the world quieter or calmer just so that the rich can sleep sounder in their beds. The point is not to quieten the anger because it’s uncomfortable but to listen to its legitimate expression, learn from it, and build a less angry world. This is how anger becomes opportunity.” (16) Yet their relatively lengthy discussion of policy proposals at the expense of movement building and mass politics seemingly runs contrary to their aims. Good policy ideas will only ever get us so far. Despite an omission that deunionisation is a “root cause” of inequality (99), there is little focus on the potential of the labour movement or the kind of organising efforts that saw Democrats take control of the Senate.

Ultimately, the intuitive appeal of Angrynomics is effaced by the book’s blindness to questions of race and power. As the authors themselves note, in a divided and unequal world we should all be pissed off. The question, therefore, is not why are we angry? That largely answers itself. It is where and how can this anger be put to good use? What institutions enable effective demonstration and which divert our attention elsewhere? It is only by asking the right questions that we can get the right answers.

Liam Kennedy is a researcher at the Communication Workers Union and editor at Red Pepper. He tweets @liamkennedy92.

Photo by Clay Banks.

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