Bland Fanatics: Liberals, Race, and Empire
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020)
For the better part of 30 years, since the Indian-born writer Pankaj Mishra’s essays began appearing in English-language periodicals such as the New York Review of Books, he has been sharpening an extraordinary critique of liberalism that grows more relevant with each passing year.
In 2006, he published Temptations of the West, a series of on-the-ground dispatches from India, Pakistan, and Tibet. Six years later, his shrewd—and, for many Western readers, including myself, revelatory—book From the Ruins of Empire charted the revolts against Western imperialism across Asia, from Turkey to China. Mishra followed that in 2017 with the widely lauded book Age of Anger, which traces the intellectual foundations of the worldwide backlash against modernity that characterizes Trumpism and terrorist organizations such as ISIS.
His latest books of essays, Bland Fanatics, which collects writings published mostly in the 2010s, focuses on the failures of Western liberalism, its mainstream media, and the bankruptcy of its most revered intellectuals. We spoke with Mishra on the occasion of the book about liberalism in disrepute, the lessons of Antonio Gramsci, and the usefulness of certain literary styles.
Pac Pobric (Rail): In a discussion organized by The New Republic in October, you suggested there were certain aspects of liberalism worth salvaging. Yet many of its recent critics—citing slavery, colonialism, and capitalist exploitation—argue that it was born poisoned, and that the only solution is to discard liberalism altogether. What would you say to these critics? If there are certain ideals worth retaining, how can they be divorced from the ugliest aspects of liberalism's history?
Pankaj Mikshra: What I meant to say was that the values liberals claim for liberalism—individual freedom, tolerance, civility—are hardly exclusive to any one tradition, and that people all around the world can uphold them without compromising them with a tainted history of slavery and imperialism. The problem for a long time has been that we are unable to think beyond the impasse of Anglo-American liberalism, or invoke other political and philosophical traditions. The utter bizarreness of this insularity will come into view when you consider the long span of human history, the different ways in which people, even in the modern era, have organized their society, politics, and economy.
Rail: One essay in Bland Fanatics on the Economist is especially critical of that magazine’s insularity, and its desperate attempts to map old liberal ideas onto contemporary problems. You write: "Liberalism is not so much in crisis as are its self-styled campaigners." How do you distinguish between a crisis of liberalism, strictly speaking, and the hand-wringing of publications like the Economist?
Mishra: The Economist or the Financial Times are best seen as upholders of the status quo, rather than platforms for exploring complex problems of society and politics. A serious misunderstanding results when people start to credit them with oracular wisdom or even objective opinion. You only have to notice the revolving doors between their editorial offices and banks, corporates, and politics. An eye-opening book in this regard is a memoir [The Powerful and the Damned] just published by the FT’s recently departed editor [Lionel Barber]. He never met a powerful and wealthy man he didn’t adore, and his paper predictably got nearly everything—from the financial crisis to austerity and beyond—wrong.
This endowing of moral and intellectual cover to the establishment has little to do with liberalism. This is certainly not what John Stuart Mill had in mind. Quite the contrary. Those who invoke the moral prestige of liberalism while indulging in, or endorsing, grossly illiberal practices represent the real crisis of liberalism. They are the reason why even the most honorable traditions of liberalism have fallen into disrepute, and come to be widely seen as rank hypocrisy.
Rail: Yet some of your critics, such as Malcolm Bull and Michael Ignatieff in separate reviews of Age of Anger, have questioned certain conflations that you make that liberals would never allow. Do you see any particular utility to distinguishing between the anger of jihadis fighting for ISIS with the anger of Rust Belt American Trump supporters?
Mishra: I don’t recall these reviews, but I do remember the argument in my book, derived from René Girard, of how mimetic desire makes supposed enemies resemble each other. Steve Bannon asking for Anthony Fauci’s beheading on YouTube is no aberration. As I wrote, the jihadists, Hindu, or white supremacists “insist on their cultural distinctiveness and moral superiority precisely because … they have started to resemble their supposed enemies in their pursuit of the latter's ideologies of individual and collective success.”
In other words, in an irrevocably globalized world, fueled by widely shared desires for wealth and power and other material advantages, many important distinctions that held in the past begin to fade, some extraordinary resemblances arise between ostensible rivals and enemies, and it is precisely then that these ideological warriors start insisting even more on their differences. Some pedantic and obvious point about different contexts and motivations for anger doesn't disturb this deeper psychological truth.
Rail: You suggested in an interview with the Indian publication The Wire that although Bland Fanatics is not a Marxist book, it may be a Gramscian book, and that it borrows from certain Marxist traditions. Which of those traditions do you feel may still be useful and relevant?
Mishra: The essays in Bland Fanatics are fundamentally about an extraordinary cultural hegemony, something that Gramsci of course theorized better than anyone: a theory that Stuart Hall, among other Marxists, applied brilliantly to the new era in modern history that began with the Reagan-Thatcher ascendancy in the 1980s. In other words, a whole way of seeing ourselves and other people in the world came to be altered by a hyper-individualistic worldview. And it no longer mattered who was in power: Thatcher or Blair, Reagan or Clinton, Labour or Conservative, Democrats or Republicans. The idea that the principles and rules of the marketplace can be extended to all realms of human activity; the notion that there is no such thing as society, only individuals, and that these other individuals are competitors; the expectation that the rest of the world has no choice but to emulate these Western breakthroughs in democracy and capitalism—all these foolish and dangerous notions began to rapidly colonize our moral and political imaginations in the 1980s, and the media became their ideological vanguard.
This is the main reason why it has become easier to envisage the end of the world than the end of capitalism. By the way, a lot of personal experience shapes what I write. I remember how, starting in the late 1990s, practically every book authored on India by a UK or America-based writer or foreign correspondent admiringly measured India’s approximation of Anglo-American democracy and capitalism. Skeptical voices were drowned out or marginalized. Dissenters like Arundhati Roy were viciously mocked. You’ll remember that a similar consensus was maintained about Russia in the 1990s where the Harvard Boys were at work, supported by the mainstream media. Looking back at the catastrophic triumph of this mentality, I am not surprised that the essays in my book, written from the late 2000s, came to be primarily concerned with it.
Rail: It strikes me that, stylistically, your most recent writings (Bland Fanatics, Age of Anger, From the Ruins of Empire) are very different from earlier books of yours, such as Temptations of the West, which you wrote as a reporter in a certain literary nonfiction style. The newer writings are more compact and perhaps more polemical. Is it possible that a certain style of writing is better at elucidating certain problems?
Mishra: It may have to do with my own sense of urgency. I mean, many people like myself watched aghast in the 2000s as Anglo-America veered from one disaster to another, from the war on terror to the financial crisis, inflicting so much pain on inhabitants of North England and America’s Rust Belt, as well as Iraq and Afghanistan. By the end of that decade, I had begun to realize that my work as a literary non-fiction writer had reached an impasse, in the sense that it was no longer adequate to the realities it sought to describe.
I had actually never felt very comfortable in this role, as the form of literary non-fiction itself seemed hostage to a certain conservative view of the world, best exemplified by V. S. Naipaul, and though materially well rewarded, had some built-in intellectual deficiencies. Something more informed by scholarship, something more analytical and sharper, was needed. From the Ruins of Empire, which was the first book in this mode, came out of a scandalized awareness: that most readers in English were almost wholly oblivious of the intellectual and political roots of modern Asia. Much worse: mainstream platforms from the BBC to the New York Times were busy peddling arrant nonsense from the likes of Niall Ferguson and Michael Ignatieff that the world needed a new Anglo-American empire.