The Anglo-American commentariat is full of lofty egos. Pankaj Mishra has developed a reputation as their great deflater. ‘Watch This Man’, the writer’s much-discussed 2011 London Review of Books essay on historian Niall Ferguson’s Civilisation, opens with an unflattering comparison of the author to The Great Gatsby’s Tom Buchanan, an old-monied bore (‘and boor’) who bemoans the demise of the white race, zips through the historian’s past admissions to being a ‘fully paid-up member of the neo-imperialist gang’, and ends with an observation that rings like a warning: ‘His next move shouldn’t be missed.’ Ferguson threatened to sue: ‘I am owed, I repeat, an apology.’ In ‘Fascist Mysticism’, his 2018 review of Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life – a book, Mishra writes, that shuttles between life advice (‘stand up straight’; ‘tidy your room’) and metaphysical machismo (‘consciousness is symbolically masculine and has been since the start of time’) – Mishra places Peterson in a broader European lineage of nineteenth-century ‘intellectual quacks’ who traded in ‘right-wing pieties seductively mythologised for our lost generations’. Peterson fired off a rant on Twitter. In the introduction to his newest book, Bland Fanatics, Mishra writes that the former journalist Boris Johnson – now lauded by some as an icon who demonstrates the heights to which those in Britain’s Fourth Estate can ascend (to say nothing of the pre-existing proximity to power and privilege that stalks the profession) – makes, along with Donald Trump, a duo of ‘blond bullies perched atop the world’s greatest democracies’. It may be fun to poke and prod at these pompous opinionators choking on their own self-regard, each endlessly prevaricating newspaper column taking them further from the self-understanding they purport to command. But the consequences of these men’s inability to understand the world they have tried to shape in their image have been disastrous. ‘The barbarians’, Mishra writes, ‘were never at the gate; they have been ruling us from some time.’
These essays are among the sixteen featured in Bland Fanatics, which compiles some of Mishra’s most celebrated essays and reviews produced between 2008 and 2020. These were years during which Western liberalism – a perennial interest of Mishra’s – appeared to reach its apotheosis. The election of America’s first Black president, a former community organiser whose appointment to leader of the free world signalled hope for a post-racial, post-Bush, post-Iraq, and post-financial-crash Change We Could Believe In. The collapse of these dreams in the intervening years has been frequently analysed: widespread economic immiseration; the resurgence of the far-right; Brexit; Trump; the popularity of bestselling self-help manuals that proselytise on the essential maleness of the human consciousness. Western consensus-shapers have taken to asking what went wrong in the history of liberalism – the likes of Tony Blair and Joe Biden urge a return to a stable centre. But Mishra sees the chaos of the past years as a belated but inevitable homecoming for a broken social and political ideology whose high-minded rhetoric espousing human rights, tolerance, and mutual respect has continually stood at odds with the violent disregard for human life that defined its practice. In 2008, as winds of renewal seemed to be blowing in the West, Mishra warned of the persistent blindness of the Anglo-American elite to their own bloody history: to them, ‘every event since the end of the Cold War – the rise of radical Islam, of India and China; the assertiveness of oil-rich Russia – has come as a shock’. These worldly elites, Mishra writes, ‘expose themselves as provincials, dangerously blundering around in a volatile world.’
Mishra is well placed to observe these hypocrisies. As a self-described ‘stepchild of the West’, he grew up in semi-rural India, near the northern city of Jhansi. His parents, he recounts in his 2017 book Age of Anger, have sensibilities ‘decisively shaped by their upbringing in a pre-modern world of myth, religion, and custom’, but Mishra’s own coming of age saw India conscientiously grapple with what it means to be a ‘latecomer to modernity’. Like many non-Western and ethnic minority writers seeking success in Western legacy publications, his literary career began through providing dispatches from his local travels, gently rendering intelligible ‘exotic’ worlds to benignly interested, predominantly white readerships. His first books – Butter Chicken in Ludhiana: Travels in Small Town India (1995), The Romantics (1999), and The End of Suffering: The Buddha in the World (2004) – were a mixture of fiction and non-fiction, and explored themes such as the changing face of modern India, spiritualism and modernity, and the meaning of dignity in the face of globalisation. Uniting them is a disquiet about where to find meaning in a world that has rendered myth and magic prosaic and non-Western cultural traditions curious and passé. Unlike many writers from such beginnings, Mishra has managed to break beyond the burden of representation and has spent the past few years examining the politicians, pundits, and ‘thought leaders’ who champion a romantic vision of Western civilisation — most famously Ferguson, but also the pro-globalisation champion Thomas Friedman (‘I want everyone to become an American’), Lionel Shriver, Mark Lilla, as well as a smattering of editors past and present at the Financial Times, The Economist and The Spectator. Like others before him, he has found a bonfire of disappointing vanities: ‘I have been described by you for thousands of years,’ James Baldwin told an audience at a forum on US nationalism and colonialism in 1961, ‘but time passed, and now, whether I like it or not, I can not only describe myself but, what is much more horrifying, I can describe YOU!’
Our parents inflict on us our original traumas; much of adulthood can be spent untangling their mixed inheritance, stepping out from their shadow. Millions around the world who, like Mishra, are ‘stepchildren’ of the West – ‘carried’ from non-Western cultures into the seas of ‘modernity’ – are confronted with an ever-widening gulf between them and their parents, who are themselves hopeful that their offspring will challenge the White Man in a way they never could. For many, the West itself can be the biggest spectre of them all. It’s common to be enchanted with it at first: the notions of democracy, human rights, and freedom command such a rosy glow. In the introduction to Bland Fanatics, Mishra remembers visiting Kashmir as a young writer: ‘I went to the valley in 1999 with many of the prejudices of the liberal Indian “civiliser”– someone who placidly assumed that Kashmiri Muslims were much better off being aligned with “secular”, “liberal” and “democratic” India.’ But, confronted by the realities of the military occupation, he discovered that nominally placing regions under the preserve of ‘progress’ does not, in fact, always bring about dignity. This troubling gap between rhetoric and reality – and this valorisation of labels of freedom and democracy over actual conditions of life on the ground – soon loomed everywhere. His experience in Kashmir, Mishra writes, ‘prepared me for the spectacle of the liberal intelligentsia cheerleading the war for “human rights” in Iraq’; ‘the vernacular of modernity coined in London, New York, and Washington, DC came to define the common sense of public intellectual life across all continents.’
Bland Fanatics takes its title from American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s Cold War-era warning, in 1957, against the ‘bland fanatics of western civilisation who regard the highly contingent achievements of our culture as the final form and norm of human existence.’ The essay collection, whose subjects include India’s free markets, the history of human rights, and the religion of whiteness, is organised around the themes of ‘liberals, the West, and the afterlives of empire’. Mishra admits that the definition of liberalism can be diffuse: in a review of academic Alexander Zevin’s history of Liberalism at Large: The World According to the Economist (2019), Mishra tracks the schism between the post-war liberals in the US and the UK, who supported state interventions to guarantee a modicum of social and economic justice, and the magazine’s own freedom-from-regulation strand that reigns today. Bland Fanatics takes on the strain of confident free-market liberalism that emerged out of the Cold War: one that believed it had conquered history, and was unafraid to pursue the military interventions and economic shock therapy measures to prove it. As a George W. Bush official reportedly said after invading Iraq: ‘We create our own reality’. Beyond policy, he also targets a certain posture: an unshakeable self-assurance that one is the prime mover of history, supported by a dangerous lack of reflexivity.
Mishra’s story of the West’s inability to understand itself doesn’t start in the 1950s, however. The long history of liberalism is inextricable from that of colonialism. The freedom and high quality of life experienced by a select few in Western liberal nations was always dependent on violent exploitation elsewhere. Or, in the words of John Stuart Mill, ‘despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement’. The means that have justified this end have been numerous: mass famines; massacres; pumping populations full of opium to address a trade imbalance. That even modern forms of liberalism have been racist projects can be seen in Woodrow Wilson’s 1918 Fourteen Points, the principles of international co-operation agreed by world leaders in Paris that rebuilt the world after World War One, which famously affirmed the rights of nations to self-determination. In an essay on Wilson, Mishra observes that though the US president ‘cast American interests abroad in highly moral, even mystical terms’, his project nevertheless precluded many non-white countries – the British stayed in Egypt; parts of China were given to Japan (then a Western ally) while hopeful nationalist representatives from India and Korea never made it to Paris – resulting in huge reserves of ‘bitterness and disappointment’ in the East. Decades later, in the 90s, globalisation – heralded by many elites at the time as a grand egalitarian project – produced further discontented souls. In his review of Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity (2012), Mishra finds much to praise in the New Yorker staff writer’s account of ordinary life in Mumbai, as she follows a group of scavengers. Though it was popular for Anglo-American broadsheets to laud the economic miracle of India, such narratives fail to account for the lives of the people like the ones in Boo’s book: those who have, she writes, ‘accepted the basic truths: that in a modernising, increasingly prosperous city, their lives were embarrassments best confined to small spaces, and their deaths would not matter at all.’
When asked about his thoughts on Western civilisation, Mahatma Gandhi famously replied ‘I think it would be a good idea.’ Mishra’s position towards Western liberalism feels similarly wry. His target is not so much the ideals themselves but rather the inability of its leaders to understand that their lofty rhetoric of rights, tolerance and equality do not correspond to any reality in the world: ‘liberal democracy is not what we have,’ Mishra writes; ‘at least, not yet.’ The stakes of refusing to interrogate one’s history are high. The West’s traditional liberals are now facing the double challenge of authoritarian strongmen globally, coupled with a rising young left who have little affection for their ideas, and refuse to buy into their narratives. Bland Fanatics points to the tragic irony in how the very same cheerleaders of Western civilisation may have in fact engineered their own decline. They have sidelined and pathologised well-needed movements to lift the lid of liberalism’s dirtier history – see any number of newspaper columns of the past few years pinning the Decline of Civilisation and Free Thinking on 19-year-olds who want to decolonise their university curricula – while maintaining a curiously welcome position towards illiberal leaders who satisfy their pro-market sensibilities – columns in The New York Times, Politico, and Bloomberg hailed the election of Narendra Modi in 2014 praising the BJP leader’s belief in efficient markets; Mishra tracks The Economist’s history of hostility towards popularly elected left-wing leaders in Latin America. In their refusal to recognise that their histories may not be as great as they believe, and in their stubborn belief that any rising power who wants to shoot into the future must do so by imitating themselves, the West’s leading liberal voices have not only witnessed an increasingly hostile world that threatens their cherished humanistic beliefs (even if they only really existed in rhetoric), but some have in fact paved the way for it.
‘A great correction is under way today,’ Mishra writes; ‘many of our exalted ideas about ourselves have collapsed.’ As the consequences of empire come trickling home — and more and more Westerners feel the precariousness, degradation, and disposability that has defined so many lives elsewhere — many icons of the liberal order, such as Blair and Hillary Clinton, spoke out in favour of immigration controls and ‘integration programmes’. Some may see this as a departure from the pluralistic tenets of liberalism. Others, particularly those who have long thought of liberalism as a rich white man’s game, would simply say: the mask has come off. Mishra’s account of the disorder that has gripped the West also reads as a document of masculinity. From his essays on Ferguson’s Civilisation to critic Mark Greif’s thoughtful ruminations on the crisis of the American man; from Salman Rushdie’s denunciations of his ex-wife’s ‘greed and ambition’ to Enoch Powell’s fantasies of imperium, you sense in these essays the rattling of a victorious ego in revolt, whose restless and inchoate ambition often leads it to seek domination; to conquer. While reading Bland Fanatics, I wondered what a similar collection centring on women, power and the West would feel like, particularly in the light of Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and Theresa May’s short-lived time as prime minister. Would it read very similarly, except filled with lazy claims that having women in leadership automatically begets peace? Reading Mishra’s histories of men in public life, I thought about the long absence of women from such opportunities, and the sad reality that women today who want such power are encouraged to imitate their male forebears. I long to see an alternative way of being in power. It is silly to believe that one individual, by dint of their gender, might usher in a better future; it’s wildly energising to hope that a collective, bounded by something beyond their own self-interest, might in fact see one through.
Our recent past, after all, shows how easily radical movements get watered down when folded into the centre. In an essay on the history of human rights, Mishra cites academic Carol Anderson’s account of how W. E. B. Du Bois’s attempts to secure economic rights and security for Black Americans (‘a mere ban on discrimination would not address centuries of devastation’) during the 1940s UN human rights revolution were shunted aside by white supremacists and Democrat allies alike, who feared the claims veered too close to Soviet-style socialism. Instead, activists settled for a narrower definition of legal equality. Nearly a century later, and this long-burning refusal to recognise that ‘equality’ in rhetoric amounts to nothing if it is not accompanied by vigorous efforts to transform conditions of life on the ground — and a wholesale revolution of the institutions that sustain it — has exploded in one of the greatest modern reckonings the West has seen yet. Mishra, as a specialist on India and China, writes incisively on the way modernity has been imposed from above by imperial pirate-nations, whether by gunboats or bloody occupation. This summer’s global Black Lives Matter protests challenged the earlier foundational form of colonial domination that presaged it: of people taken from their homes and transported in ships across the Atlantic; people whose names, families, and histories were taken away from them; people thrown into lives that made them question their personhood, whose descendants live in countries where they overwhelmingly find themselves in a fragile state of quasi-citizenship, dependent on whether the reigning political party finds it strategically convenient to shallowly stand with them or to scapegoat them.
The word ‘reckoning’ can be so unsatisfactory, manifest as it is today in PR-mediated brand statements, professions of individual guilt, and carefully curated television spots, that risk shrinking a monumental movement into a news trend. There is so much work to be done, and it cannot be led by the esteemed pundits who have dominated public conversation throughout our short, deeply convulsive, history. Mishra’s analysis of Anglo-American barbarism is cutting, though when restaged in consecutive essays, it can feel overwhelming in its circularity. It’s not quite the writer’s fault – it’s just that each time his subjects inch towards something that might look like insight, they turn back, doubling down to prop themselves up as vanguards for a world that is surpassing them each day. What might it really involve for the West to square the impossible circle presented by Bland Fanatics and to look at itself — to take off the mask it wears, and regard itself in all its ignoble truths?
Fiction points a way. In a lecture on nationhood, immigration and globalisation delivered in 2002 at the University of Toronto, Toni Morrison remarked on the long history of Africa being positioned as a mirror for European-American subliminal desires in the Western literary tradition. From the works of Joseph Conrad to Saul Bellow, Ernest Hemingway to Isak Dinesen, Morrison continued, the continent has long been ‘grist for Western mills, accommodatingly mute’: for these authors, Africa was positioned as either suitably threatening and benighted, or naïve and in need of instruction, so as to ‘support a wide variety of literary and/or ideological requirements’. But in his 1954 masterpiece Le Regard du Roi, Morrison argued, the Guinean author Camara Laye flips the script, summoning ‘a sophisticated, wholly African imagistic vocabulary from which to launch a discursive negotiation with the West’. In Laye’s novel, Clarence, a white European, arrives at an unnamed African country seeking favour with the king. As his protagonist hobbles across the country, hiding from debt collectors and choking on his own fear in a genial landscape (‘Laye’s Africa is not dark; it is suffused with light’), his quest for authority in a land that has never been his to claim becomes, instead, a ‘searing process of reeducation’. He experiences himself naked, without friends, without resources, or even a family name; he is ashamed and alone, stripped of protective armour. ‘The European’s refusal to meditate cogently on any event except the ones that concern his comfort or survival dooms him,’ Morrison says of Laye’s novel: ‘When insight finally seeps through, he feels annihilated by it.’
The novel’s ending, Morrison continues, points to a new kind of freedom, a world that breaks from the myopic meandering of Bland Fanatics’s worst subjects. Freedom, here, is not found in the ability to ‘create your own reality’, but rather in the willful dissolution of one’s defensive, fearful delusions to leap into a world far greater than oneself:
After many trials, enlightenment slowly surfaces in Camara Laye’s Westerner: Clarence gets his wish to meet the king. But by then he and his purpose have altered. Against the advice of the local people, Clarence crawls naked to the throne. When he finally sees the king, who is a mere boy laden with gold, the “terrifying void that is within” [him], the void that he has been protecting from disclosure, opens to receive the royal gaze. It is this openness, this crumbling of cultural armor maintained out of fear, this act of unprecedented courage that is the beginning of Clarence’s salvation, his bliss and his freedom. Wrapped in the boy king’s embrace, feeling the beat of his young heart, Clarence hears him murmur these exquisite words of authentic belonging, words welcoming him to the human race: ‘Did you not know that I was waiting for you?’