This is a review of Pankaj Mishra’s Bland Fanatics, published in the Observer, 2 August 2020.
‘What is it’, the Austro-Hungarian novelist Joseph Roth asked rhetorically in 1927, in a preface to his book The Wandering Jews, ‘that allows European states to go spreading civilisation and ethics in foreign parts but not at home?’ Forty years later, as American cities burned while American bombs rained down on Vietnam, James Baldwin made a similar point, though reversing Roth’s formulation. ‘A racist society,’ he wrote, ‘can’t but fight a racist war – this is the bitter truth. The assumptions acted on at home are also acted on abroad.’
The relationship between the internal and the external policies of western liberal democracies lies also at the heart of Pankaj Mishra’s work. The Indian-born novelist and essayist has, over the past decade, become an important and illuminating critic of liberalism and globalisation.
Bland Fanatics is a collection of essays published over that time that range from excoriations of Niall Ferguson and Salman Rushdie, to a study of US president Woodrow Wilson’s hypocrisy over his support for national self-determination, to an unpacking of the irrationality of Western attitudes to Islam.
Two themes link the essays. The first is the hollowness and bad faith of liberalism. In the early 1960s, the Irish academic and politician Conor Cruise O’Brien observed that those in former colonies in Africa and Asia were ‘sickened by the word ‘liberalism’’, seeing it as an ‘ingratiating moral mask which a toughly acquisitive society wears before the world it robs’. Had more western intellectuals paid attention to such hostility, Mishra suggests, had they recognised ‘liberalism’s complicity in western imperialism’, they might have been better prepared for the current challenges facing the liberal tradition.
This leads to the second theme in Bland Fanatics – the significance of the non-Western world in shaping history and blindness of western liberals to that world. Mishra takes aim at ‘prettified’ histories of the ‘rise of the democratic West’ in which ‘centuries of civil war, imperial conquest, brutal exploitation and genocide’ are glossed over in accounts of ‘how Westerners made the modern world and became with their liberal democracies the superior people everyone else ought to catch up with’.
Mishra’s writings have been important in exposing the narrow parochialism of western intellectuals and in bringing the history of the rest of the world into discussions of European and American history and politics. There is, though, a narrowness to his own approach, which raises as many questions about Mishra’s critique as he does about liberalism.
It is striking, for instance, that there is barely a mention of class in Bland Fanatics, except for the odd line deriding the Brexit pretensions of the British ruling class. To write 16 essays on the problems of liberalism, and the character of its current crisis, without discussing its impact on the working class or the role of the working class in the contemporary anti-liberal tumult, not only in Europe and America, but globally, seems extraordinary.
In an essay on the African-American writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, Mishra chides him for viewing the rise of Donald Trump as an expression of a ‘whitelash’ from those who ‘feared the black man in the White House’, pointing out that ‘Trump also benefited from the disappointment of white voters who had voted, often twice, for Obama, and of black voters who failed to turn out for Hillary Clinton’.
Yet Mishra’s own account of the rise of Trump, and of populism more broadly, seems implausible and contradictory, too. In his previous book The Age of Anger, Mishra linked the fury that had brought populist leaders to power to that which underlies Islamist terror and sectarian violence, seeing them all as expressions of what Kierkegaard and Nietzsche called ressentiment, ‘the existential resentment of other people’s being, caused by an intense mix of envy and sense of humiliation and powerlessness’. The roots of such resentment Mishra traced back to the backlash against Enlightenment rationalism and the refusal of liberals to acknowledge the importance of community, identity and authenticity.
It was a provocative thesis, exhilarating in parts but infuriating, too, in its flattening of historical nuance. It is, for instance, one thing to recognise the importance of community and identity and the anger created by the atomisation of societies. It is quite another, though, to view the desire for community as an expression of what Mishra calls ‘the persistent power of unreason’ or to see all forms of inchoate and half-articulated rage as drawing upon the same historical source.
In any case, in Bland Fanatics the argument has shifted. Mishra argues here (in an essay written the year after The Age of Anger was published) that the election of Trump represents the ‘last and most desperate phase’ of a journey that moves through ‘colonialism, slavery, segregation, ghettoisation, militarised border controls and mass incarceration’. This is a very different historical lineage to that in The Age of Anger and one shaped by the actions of the elite, not by the feelings of those who resent their exclusion from the world created by that elite.
What is missing in Bland Fanatics is any attempt to analyse liberalism in the round. Were there any historical gains from the emergence of liberalism? What, if anything, is worth saving from the liberal tradition? How should we assess the tension between Enlightenment ideals, from which many anti-colonial movements drew inspiration, and the practice of European colonialism that denied those ideals to the majority of people in the world? Such questions are ignored by Mishra.
There is much that is valuable in Mishra’s writings, opening up as they do new perspectives in the debate about liberalism and about the relationship between the west and the global south. It’s a pity that there is also much that obscures even as it illuminates.