For the past 20 years, author Pankaj Mishra has been challenging traditional perspectives on politics and literature in diverse venues, from Indian periodicals like Outlook to the New Yorker magazine. His writing has exposed how India’s two main political parties have marginalized ethnic and religious minorities and failed to alleviate poverty in an era of rapid economic growth. He has also been a fierce critic of U.S. and European stances in the developing world, dispelling myths about military incursions in the Middle East and economic policy in Asia. He is the author Butter Chicken in Ludhiana, a travelogue, The Romantics, a novel, and Temptations of the West, a collection of reportage. While these path-breaking volumes gauge the effect of empire on contemporary individuals and cultures, his most recent book, From the Ruins of Empire, examines the initial impact of European imperialism on 19th and early 20th century Asia.
The proliferation and demise of European and Asian empires during this time period paved the way for a political and intellectual awakening in Asia, which, according to Mishra, was the “central event of the last century.” To elucidate this point, he gives voice to Asian perspectives on various international events, including Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt and the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, which had racist undertones and sent the world on a crash course towards World War II. From the Ruins of Empire provides an enlightening, uniquely global rereading of modern history, one that is crucial for those seeking to understand the overwhelming ideological and political conflicts that blight today’s world. The Rail’s Hirsh Sawhney had on an online chat with Mishra in mid-November.
Hirsh Sawhney (Rail): The media deemed the Arab Spring the “Facebook Revolution” and the “Twitter Revolution,” but aren’t these labels a little simplistic?
Pankaj Mishra: Yes, the media—especially in America—wrote about, as always, what it knows best, and what its English-speaking correspondents are equipped to understand most—so a few people from Cairo’s posh districts with Facebook and Twitter accounts became the face of the Egyptian revolution. Never mind the protests by working class Egyptians that preceded the Arab Spring and were a big component of the demonstrations in Tahrir Square.
Rail: And as your book makes clear, didn’t these movements have very deep intellectual roots?
Mishra: The intellectual and political awakening we saw has very deep roots. It began with the first exposure of Asians and Africans to the modern world, which was crucially facilitated by Western imperialism, and its political and economic structures and hierarchies. The question today is more or less the same question it was for many people in late 19th century: How to find a place of dignity for oneself in this world created by the West, in which the West and its allies in the non-West had reserved the best positions for themselves.
Rail: Are you suggesting that, despite the scholarship of thinkers like Edward Said, there might be more to the “East-West” divide than we might like to imagine?
Mishra: No, I think we need to move away from simple and emotional binaries of East-versus-the-West and talk of civilizational antagonisms and focus more on the role of ideas and institutions—how some of these originating in the West, and validated by the success of a handful of Western countries, came to be imitated by or imposed upon most of the “East” and what the consequences of that have been. For that is the world we are living in, one shaped by [forces like] industrial capitalism, the nation-state, and consumerism.
Rail: A large part of your book focuses on the cosmopolitan 19th century intellectual Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani, who was born in Iran. Al-Afghani claimed that the British financier who owned Reuters had economic interests in Iran, and therefore Reuters would inevitably produce biased news about this part of the world. This assessment of the 1800s might seem uncannily familiar to contemporary readers.
Mishra: Yes, the 19th century world of imperialism or early globalization is fascinatingly reminiscent of our own “free” markets and “free” media. Particularly, the deceptive ideology of the “free” market, the alliance between business and politics in the Western countries (you see that at its peak during the Opium War and then the first flexing of American imperial muscles in the late 1890s), and, as al-Afghani pointed out, decades before Edward Said and Noam Chomsky, Western reporting and representation of the non-West also comes to be deeply influenced by the economic and security interests of the West that are at stake in many Asian countries. So it would not do to present the Iranian as rational actors, focused on their own interests. No, they have to be presented as fanatics, blocking the path of reason (as defined by the West)—this was as true then as it is now.
Rail: Britain imposed its free market ideology through the Opium Wars, yet these wars did anything but engender freedom for the peoples of Asia. Is there a parallel between these conflicts and the United States’s promotion of democracy through armed conflict in the 20th and 21st centuries?
Mishra: I think the American project has to be differentiated from the British imperial one. It doesn’t rely as much on physical occupation—and can’t in a world where the idea of self-determination has become widespread. But it is essentially the attempt of a major power to maintain its hegemony, its superior position in the world through war, by empowering pliant native despots or local elites who have ample faith in the American ideology of free trade and willingness to do as they are told. As From the Ruins shows, Woodrow Wilson, who is widely regarded as the embodiment of liberal internationalism, was actually the clearest exponent of this new informal form of imperialism—and ended up cruelly disappointing so many Asians. As for “democracy-promotion,” the actual record is unsurprisingly very poor: look, for instance, at Latin America, the Congo, various parts of Africa, the Philippines, South Vietnam, and the Gulf monarchies.
Rail: Much of the Muslim world has been ruled by what you refer to as “kleptocratic” despots in recent decades, corrupt autocrats who have been sponsored by the United States. You describe a link between these rulers and the way politicized Muslims have been embracing religious ideologies in their quest for civil rights. Can you elaborate?
Mishra: The “secular” package in many Muslim countries has proven to be unappetizing—even in Turkey where it was imposed upon a devout population with much international acclaim, and in Iran and many other countries. Egypt, Indonesia, Algeria. The secular despots basically deny civil rights and seek to replace them with the promise of economic development, but often neither seems available. So the turn to Islam and Islam-inflected ideologies becomes inevitable.
Rail: It’s become a widely accepted notion that U.S. and European political and military activity has catalyzed political Islamist movements over the past few decades. One only has to turn to Iran or Afghanistan for clear-cut examples. But your book argues that western “encroachments” as far back as the 1800s were integral to the formation of politicized religious identities—the identities that are associated with the religious extremist groups that today make front-page headlines.
Mishra: Yes, I wanted to illustrate a different phenomenon. We are used to lectures from self-proclaimed spokespersons of the European Enlightenment about how Islam should be relegated to the private sphere in the modern world. I wanted to describe how under the impact of the 19th century Western imperialism, Islam was originally brought into the public sphere, and was gradually politicized, and how the advent of modernity in large parts of the world entailed the hardening of political-religious identity. For a lot of people in Asia, the secret of the West’s superior organization lay in its shared and homogenous religion, Christianity, and they tried to adapt this formula in their own countries. And not just in the Muslim world. Whether it is [the rightwing Hindu nationalist] Guru Golwalkar deriving inspiration from European fascists, the Ceylonese Buddhists becoming ethnically self-conscious, or [an Islamist activist such as] Maududi setting up a Leninist-style vanguard party, or Chiang Kai-shek dreaming of a Confucian state—these were all people responding to a specifically modern situations of how to gain and hold power through mass politics, and religious identity came in very useful.
Rail: Another figure you focus on is the Chinese intellectual Liang Qichao. When he visited the democratic United States in the early 1900s, his trip confirmed his belief in benign autocratic rule. Ho Chi Minh, a leftwing revolutionary, drew inspiration from the U.S. constitution. South Asia’s Iqbal, an ultimately Islamist poet and political figure, drew heavily from Nietzsche. What do these paradoxical amalgamations tell us about modern ideology?
Mishra: They show both the mobility of ideology and its centrality to political thinking in our times. Let’s not forget they constitute a unique phenomenon. Hannah Arendt says that the recourse to political ideology and history was little known before the 19th century. Previously, statecraft required an ethic, some proclamation of noble intent by the monarch or ruling class. But the masses didn’t have to be organized in the same way as they were in nation-states; there wasn’t the same pressure to make them competitive in the domestic or international arena. Before the age of modern imperialism, the vast majority of people didn’t live with the idea of competing ideologies or nation-states. They didn’t quite have the same idea of their past as the nationalist and imperial histories of today provide.
Rail: So the nation-state and imperialism gave individuals a new relationship with history, as the late historian Eric Hobsbawm also noted, and therefore with their societies. And this new relationship inflicted a psychic or emotional toll on them.
Mishra: That’s an excellent way to put it. In situations where you entered modern history as “losers,” and were forced to perennially try to “catch up” with the winners, this new relationship could only be tormented.
Rail: Critics say this type of deconstructive reading of history victimizes some while exculpating others who have suffered of their own accord or at the hands of their own kind. How would you respond to them?
Mishra: I would say that their own habit of thinking in East-West binaries has led them to misread a book that is not nor attempts to be a moral balance sheet of imperialism, [a book] that doesn’t even mention some of its most egregious crimes. Nor is it a comparative study of imperialisms. If it talks about Western imperialism much more than the imperialism of the Mughals or the Qing it is because the former, not the latter, largely made the world we live in. In any case there are plenty of Asians in the book attacking their own rulers and regimes. It is not a rousing manifesto for pan-Asianism or anti-Westernism. It is a book in which Tagore emerges unequivocally as a hero for his prescient critique of modern political-economic systems and ways of thought, whether in Asia or Europe. The timeline of the book does include the early disasters of “modernizing” Japan, but another book will of course be needed to describe the disasters that Asian elites inflicted on their populations—whether by Mao or by Suharto—and the crimes of post-colonial nation-states in Kashmir or in Tibet, both of which I’ve written about elsewhere.
Rail: Let’s talk about the crimes of the post-colonial world. When we look at post-colonial Asia—or Africa or South America for that matter—the intellectual and activist movements that helped put an end to colonialism haven’t necessarily remained causes for optimism or progress. The Indian Congress and the African National Congress, for example, were reformist movements that now replicate many of the corrupt practices that they had once sought to combat. What does the degeneration of these once hopeful institutions signify?
Mishra: It shows that the political outcomes people like Tagore or Gandhi or Liang were warning against—exploitative rule without the foreign exploiters—is a depressing reality in much of Asia and Africa. And in this context, it barely matters that some “democratic” countries, like India and South Africa, have regular elections, and many others, like China, don’t. We, in our supposedly post-colonial societies, have conceived of the same kind of economic growth that a few Western countries once excelled in, based on an instrumental view of nature as an infinitely exploitable resource, based on endlessly increasing and diversifying consumer demand, and not surprisingly we face a future of conflict provoked by growing inequalities and unmet demands—a future in which some will be super-rich, others will perennially strive or be reduced to a helot class until they erupt into violence.
Rail: So the oppressed has become the oppressor, and the violence of colonialism lives on. Can we do anything to halt these cycles?
Mishra: A post-coloniality based on mimicking the West or “catching up” with it was always going to lead to new forms of colonialism—internal colonialism, as in the dispossession of tribal communities in Central India by mining companies, or neo-colonialism of the kind we see China and India practicing in parts of Africa. Because the success of the West itself was built upon early conquest and appropriation of territory and resources around the world. So replicating the urban industrial societies of the West in massively populous, largely pre-modern countries was also always doomed to be an impossible project, politically, socially, and economically—and we can see it more clearly than the people in my book because the environmental constraints on it are so much more obvious than they were in the 19th century. There is plenty to learn from its failure and disasters, but the most urgent imperative before us is to stop blindly imitating other people’s ideas and actions. In that context, a history shorn of simple ideological oppositions—democracy versus totalitarianism, West versus the East, socialism versus capitalism—seems the first step towards clearly assessing our situation—at least showing how we got into the impasse we now find ourselves in.
Hirsh Sawhney is the author of a forthcoming novel, South Haven, and the editor of a fiction anthology, Delhi Noir. He has written for The New York Times Book Review, The Guardian, and The TLS. He teaches at Wesleyan University.