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Writer Pankaj Mishra. Courtesy: Getty Images.
Writer Pankaj Mishra. Courtesy: Getty Images.

Pankaj Mishra on liberals, Hindu supremacists, and the future of Left politics

The writer speaks to Lounge about his new book 'Bland Fanatics', the covid-19 pandemic, and its impact on geopolitics

Pankaj Mishra draws the title of his latest collection of essays from a remark made by the renowned American theologist and social thinker Reinhold Niebuhr, in 1957. “Among the lesser culprits of history," Mishra quotes Niebuhr, writing at the peak of the Cold War, “are the bland fanatics of western civilization who regard the highly contingent achievements of our culture as the final form and norm of human existence."

Not many would have guessed, in the 1950s, the explosive potential, or indeed the prescience, of this statement. Over half a century later, though, the ascendance of this special tribe is near complete. The devastations wreaked by them on the social, political and economic lives of nations remain shockingly pervasive. 

“Niebuhr could not have anticipated that the bland fanatics who made the Cold War so treacherous would come to occupy, at its end, history’s centre stage," as Mishra writes in the introduction to the just published Bland Fanatics: Liberals, Race And Empire. “Incarnated as liberal internationalists, neocon democracy promoters and free-market globalizers, they would blunder through a world grown more complex and intractable, and help unravel large parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America before sowing political chaos in their own societies." 

Written over a decade, the 16 essays in the book dissect the thorny legacy of the so-called bland fanatics—from Barack Obama to Gordon Brown, Niall Ferguson to Martin Amis, the crème de la crème of Western liberal intelligentsia appear in these pages. Each of these characters has—as an individual, or a cheerleader of certain schools of thought, or by being complicit with a set of decisions—exposed the hollowness at the heart of Western liberalism. Mishra’s quarrel with these people and their supporters is inflected by historical events that cannot be overlooked in any honest reckoning with our present.

Imperialism, racism and the expansionist agenda of the West continue to stretch their long arms into the 21st century, often in the form of supposedly well-meaning actions. The devastating wars on Iraq and Afghanistan, for instance, waged by the Western powers with the ostensible purpose of mitigating “human rights" abuses by dictators resulted in the killing of millions and gave rise to newer conflicts (in one essay, Mishra sets up a chilling parallel of these recent carnages with World War I, its origins and aftermath). Draconian laws signed by the Obama administration to appease the right paved the way for the excesses of Donald Trump’s regime. Likewise, the “intellectual Islamophobia" of the self-proclaimed protectors of European values seamlessly dovetailed into anti-immigration policies.

Mishra brings his vast learning to bear on each chapter, giving the reader a masterclass in history, politics, economics and international relations. He spoke to Mint about the book and the world we are living in. Edited excerpts: 

You present a sharp critique of liberal intelligentsia in the book. What is your view of the present state of liberal thought around the globe? 

It is a mess right now, busy flailing against what liberals like to call “populists" and “fascists" because its long hegemony, which started in 1945 and deepened after the collapse of communism in 1991, is over. The pandemic, coming soon after economic crises and far-right upsurges, has destroyed its persuasive power. It’s hard for anyone to argue today that there is no such thing as society, government is a problem rather than a solution or that “trickle-down" would in the end benefit everyone. Coordinated action by the state’s agencies and social justice are now on the political agenda, not hyper-individual entrepreneurship and the creation of private wealth.  

With the Black Lives Matter movement, the toppling of statues, and conversations about diversity, would you say there is a shift in the West’s hegemony over global cultures? 

Yes, the roots of Anglo-American power and prestige in slavery, imperialism and other atrocities can no longer be as successfully concealed as they once were. Too many people can see them today as clearly as M.K. Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore and other anti-colonial thinkers once did. This means that fewer societies are likely to take the US and Britain as role models and fewer individuals in Asia, Africa and Latin America are likely to establish their identity by affiliating themselves with the political and cultural power of the imperial metropolis.  

Has the pandemic been a tipping point for geopolitics? Could it rekindle an international turn to the left? 

The diagnosis that the intellectual left has consistently offered of contemporary politics and economy—the crisis-ridden nature of global capitalism, and the inevitability of uneven growth, inequality, hyper-nationalism and ethnic-racial supremacism—has been supremely vindicated. But this doesn’t by itself privilege the political left over its centrist and right-wing adversaries. The far-right has been the first option, in India as well as the US, for people who want to tear down the old liberal order. The lethal failure of the far-right in combating the pandemic has now created a fresh opening for the left. But it would be a mistake to underestimate the strength of the supplanted liberal-centrists and recently empowered far-right.  

Bland Fanatics—Liberals, Race and Empire: By Pankaj Mishra, (Juggernaut Books, 224 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>599.)
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Bland Fanatics—Liberals, Race and Empire: By Pankaj Mishra, (Juggernaut Books, 224 pages, 599.)

With the laying of the foundation stone of the Ram Mandir, Indian polity has taken a step away from its secular spirit. Do you think this moment was a historical inevitability, given the nation’s trajectory in the first 50 years of independence? 

When Congress leaders boast today of belonging to the party that first unlocked the gates to Ram Lalla, the political trajectory of the Indian nation state seems blindingly clear. M.A. Jinnah and other Muslim leaders were obviously right to fear that the secular rhetoric of Congress leaders concealed upper-caste Hindu dominance; they were right to suspect that Muslims would be second-class citizens in a Hindu-ruled India and that the ardent personal guarantees of Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru to pluralism would not be enough to insure against this outcome. The raj tilak of Narendra Modi at the Ram Mandir has with devastating finality vindicated the two-nation theory.  

What do you perceive to be the most pressing challenges for India in the coming few years? 

There are no good options in the political realm where Hindu supremacists reign unchallengeably. The government is as inept in its tasks of governance as it is effective in its ideological takeover of institutions. The mainstream media has suffered a devastating loss of courage and integrity. Attaining a degree of economic equilibrium while ensuring that the social fabric doesn’t get more tattered will be harder. There is some hope to be had from the small counterculture that has emerged in recent years, but we will need a lot more engaged art, literature, films and songs in the years to come.

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