The essayist and novelist on his latest book, Indian liberalism, the Hindu Rashtra and the evolving Western intellectual establishment
Pankaj Mishra is almost unique among Indian authors in having reflected consistently on modern history, contemporary politics and literary cultures, not only in India and South Asia but also in China, Anglo-America, Europe, West Asia, Southeast Asia and North Africa. His latest book, Bland Fanatics: Liberals, Race and Empire, is a collection of many of his important political essays and polemical pieces, published over the two decades since 9/11. In an interview, he discusses his current preoccupations.
I think the word liberal triggers hostility in India for reasons specific to Indias culture wars. Many of Modis critics claim to be liberal. They may not subscribe to many of classical liberalisms precepts, such as free trade. But they use the word and invoke its morally prestigious Western associations to present themselves as embodiments of a kind of udaarta tolerance and acceptance of different world-views.
For right-wingers, however, the word stands in for an English-speaking metropolitan class whose cultural hegemony they are fighting to overthrow. I think we should examine the genealogy of this word in India more closely, and who deploys it and for what reason. Its worth remembering that Nehru himself did not repeatedly claim to be a liberal in the way his present-day followers do. Nor did most significant figures of the freedom movement. I am not sure that many intellectuals and activists who work primarily in Indian languages describe themselves as liberal.
Yes, success and honour are almost exclusively reserved for those who flatter Western self-images and boosterish discourses prevalent in the West. I was often accused of making a living by running down India internationally when all I did was point to some serious problems confronting a vast majority of Indians. Ironically, those talking up the New India were being lavishly rewarded by the Western establishment that had bought into a fantasy of India as a great democracy, economic superpower, counterweight to China etc.
The propagandists are now in retreat, partly because the Western establishment has lost its old certainties in recent years, and spaces have opened up for discourses whether about imperialism and slavery or global capitalism, inequality and our ruined environment that it either suppressed or ignored. When The New York Times, which carried articles about the need for a new Anglo-American empire not so long ago, starts questioning with its 1619 project the accepted narrative of American freedom and democracy, the mainstream does not seem wholly resistant to some long overdue corrections.
Ideas often cross-pollinate in ways that would bewilder those who hold fast to moralising narratives about the rise of liberal democracy and Hindu Rashtra. The Nazis got many of their ideas about ethnic and racial supremacism from that great exemplar of liberal democracy: the U.S.. J.S. Mill assumed that Indians were a barbarian people, unfit for self-rule.
One reason why fascist mysticism remains potent is that it appears to address some stubborn pathologies of modern life alienation, isolation, anomie, powerlessness. Progress has become an Indian ideology in recent decades. But it is far from resolving (and might have aggravated) fundamental problems in the relationship of the self to the world, and the experiences of love, fear, hatred, and grief that are so often traumatic.
People will continue to seek palliatives for their pain and bewilderment in a variety of sources from Mein Kampf and QAnon to Aurobindos supra-mental consciousness.
I think the left in America is a very marginal force, shut out of both mainstream politics and journalism, despite, or perhaps because of, its formidable intellectual firepower. As such, it has the unique freedom to mount strong critiques of the establishment.
The new Barack Obama memoir is very revealing in this regard. He is obviously smarting over this tiny but intellectually vigorous lefts critique of his own establishment instincts. But the lefts critique is persuasive because Obama did little with the great energy for change that had exalted him to power; he missed the chance to boldly reform a corrupt and dysfunctional system, deferred too much to Wall Street and the old political and business elites, and ended up paving the way for Trump.
After that trauma, the left is naturally more suspicious of the deeply networked Democratic Party apparatchiks who are now in power and promise to restore normalcy. And lets not forget that nearly 75 million Americans voted for Trump, and Biden and Harriss victory is far from emphatic.
I feel that I have reached the end of the kind of writing that I began in the late 90s, with the nuclear tests and Kashmir, and then extended to the origins of 9/11, the war on terror, China and the fate of liberalism. In retrospect, those writings and the subsequent histories I published were my own attempt to understand a world that seemed to be dramatically changing and indeed unravelling, but which the triumphant assumptions of the intellectual and journalistic mainstream had made more or less incomprehensible.
Now, of course, the steady intellectual and political deterioration I wrote about, whether in India or in the U.S. and Britain, is no longer something that I have to repeatedly demonstrate to a sceptical readership. It is too painfully obvious. So, yes, it is time for me to explore other, more imaginative and personally fulfilling modes of writing.
The interviewer is an intellectual historian at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi.
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