Debunking Liberalism

Pankaj Mishra, Bland Fanatics: Liberals, Race and Empire

Verso, 224pp, £16.99, ISBN 9781788737333

reviewed by William Eichler

In his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama argued that the post-Cold War liberal settlement represented the apotheosis of humanity’s political development. The time was ripe for such bold pronouncements. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, public intellectuals in Europe and America became convinced liberal democracy and capitalism had triumphed for good. Fascism had been defeated by the Allied powers and half a century later, faced with the military muscle of NATO and the cultural power of the American dream, communism succumbed. Humanity, as Fukuyama put it, had reached ‘the end of history’. Liberalism had won the day.

Today, liberalism’s global triumph is in question. During the Cold War, the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr warned liberals like Fukuyama of the dangers of hubris. ‘Among the lesser culprits of history,’ he wrote, after condemning fascists and communists, ‘are 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 Indian essayist Pankaj Mishra, whose new collection of essays Bland Fanatics: Liberals, the West, and the Afterlives of Empire draws its title from Niebuhr, has spent two decades questioning the ‘contingent achievements’ of liberalism and warning of its bloody underside. The crisis of the liberal order has not come as a surprise to him and these essays, each one a rebuke of what he has called ‘western triumphalism’, are signposts from the past ten years pointing to the current disorder.

Mishra’s scepticism of liberalism is born out of personal experience. In 1999, he visited Kashmir under the assumption that the valley’s Muslim population was better off aligned with India, a secular democracy, rather than the Islamic state of Pakistan. While travelling in the region, he came up against the ‘brutal realities’ of India’s military occupation and was soon disabused of what he calls the ‘prejudices of the liberal Indian civiliser’. He came to see that the rhetoric about democracy and secularism and free markets touted by the Indian state and its apologists disguised social upheaval and inequality on the subcontinent and violent colonial rule over Kashmir, ‘where security forces had unlimited licence to massacre and rape’. He reported as such in the Hindu and the New York Review of Books and was ‘vociferously’ castigated by ‘self-styled custodians of India’s “liberal democracy”’.

This experience prepared Mishra for the arguments he would later encounter in the ‘knowledge eco-systems of London and New York’. The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, led to a good deal of column inches and airtime dedicated to elucidating the virtues of the liberal West. As the United States, supported by the United Kingdom, invaded the Middle East ostensibly to export democracy, fly-by-night experts on the Muslim world queued up to offer their thoughts on why ‘they’ hated ‘us’ (the subject of an insightful essay on Islamophobia in this collection). What Islam needed, these experts declared, was a dose of Anglo-American liberalism. Free markets and democracy would drag the barbarous Islamic other to the sunlit uplands of liberal modernity. On the ground, meanwhile, coalition forces attempted to violently overhaul entire societies as part of a modern civilising mission. The results were catastrophic.

‘In many ways,’ Mishra writes in the introduction to his latest collection, ‘India’s own bland fanatics, who seemed determined to nail their cherished “idea of India” into Kashmiri hearts and minds, prepared me for the spectacle of a liberal intelligentsia cheerleading the war for “human rights” in Iraq, with the kind of humanitarian rhetoric about freedom, democracy and progress that was originally heard from European imperialists in the nineteenth century.’

The main argument of Bland Fanatics is that liberals — centrists in today’s parlance — look back over the last two centuries and see only the march of western progress. They are convinced, according to Mishra, that during this period the West discovered Niebuhr’s ‘final form and norm of human existence’ in the shape of liberal democracy and capitalism. These same liberals also believe, we are told, that it is the duty of western powers’ to force the rest of the world to catch-up, regardless of the specific histories of those being ushered into the iron cage of modernity. Mishra argues that this is a self-serving, ‘blinkered’ history, one that leaves out the ‘centuries of civil war, imperial conquest, brutal exploitation and genocide’ that went into building the iron cage in the first place. It is also, he adds, a view of the past that blinds centrists to the problems of the present and the catastrophes waiting for them in the future.

The traditional narrative of liberalism’s history, the one that shapes the world view of those liberals Mishra dismisses as ‘Western ideologues’, goes something like this: the modern age originated with the Reformation but took shape in 18th-century Europe. It was during this tumultuous century that commercial society began to emerge and Enlightenment ideas found political expression in the American and French revolutions. As the old order slowly lost its grip, religion and tradition were dethroned and science and commerce, both pursuits practiced by rational individuals, were elevated to take their place. This gradual unfolding marked the birth of what the Anglo-American philosopher Larry Siedentop calls an ‘individualised model of society’ in the North Atlantic countries. Over the last two centuries, these countries have stood as a beacon of liberty the rest of humanity can use to navigate the treacherous waters of history.

Mishra is less sanguine. ‘The story of liberal democracy as a story of expanding freedom is a fairy tale’, he told Fukuyama in a debate in 2018 on the crisis of liberalism. He argues that, contrary to the idealistic history offered by Siedentop et al, western modernity and all the rhetoric about democracy and freedom that goes with it, is an imaginary construct which attempts to disguise capitalist exploitation and racist imperialism. In a schematic history of the last three hundred years, scattered across the essays in Bland Fanatics, we learn that in the wake of the Reformation, capitalism emerged in Europe and created a new order based on social upheaval, stark inequalities and an alienating individualism. The desire for national prestige, combined with the needs of capital, then drove Europeans to violently subjugate Asia and Africa in pursuit of resources, conquests which led white people to place themselves at the apex of a racial hierarchy of their own making. This was how the West was won, according to Mishra. Not so much a beacon of liberty as a lantern aimed at luring other countries into the rocky shallows before the looting begins.

Western liberals, of course, do not see it this way. In his 2018 debate with Mishra, Fukuyama insisted that while it was true that the West’s past was replete with all sorts of crimes (not his words), the direction of travel was positive. The basic idea behind western modernity — the combination of liberal democracy and capitalism — remained the ideal way of organising society, all societies. Mishra argues that this Panglossian confidence is dangerously misguided. It leads western liberals, he says, into repeated attempts to refashion a diverse world in their own image. It also results in them overlooking the stores of resentment generated by the very socio-economic and political order they defend — stores which sit like powder kegs beneath the liberal edifice. Such a limited, self-serving historical imagination is why, he suggests, centrists are always surprised when the explosion finally comes and they are left sieving through liberalism’s wreckage wondering where it all went wrong.

One such explosion was the First World War. Western liberals look back on the 19th century as the era of ‘the long peace’ – a peace that came to a bloody end in the mud of the Somme. Mishra, however, argues that this nostalgic view of the past is a liberal myth. In reality, the pre-1914 world was only a belle époque for a few white men in the metropolitan centres of the West. For everyone else, it was characterised by the violent conquest of foreign lands and the destabilising expansion of capitalism under the aegis of the trans-Atlantic powers. This expansion, we learn, led to increasing levels of competition between the liberal states and latecomers to capitalist modernity, such as Germany, that wished to challenge their hegemony. The eventual result was war and the collapse of the liberal order. Out of this cataclysm, a new politics of resentment was born and demagogues emerged to surf the resulting wave of anger. Liberalism, in other words, created the conditions for its own demise.

The same is true this time around. After the Cold War, liberals were as triumphant as they were at the end of the 19th century. Again, Mishra argues, this was a self-serving illusion. The post-1989 liberal order was dominated by a United States which promoted the rapid opening up of markets across the globe and the evisceration of social safety nets everywhere. After 9/11, Washington also embarked on a second round of democracy promotion with the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, invasions that bore a striking resemblance to the civilising mission of the earlier European empires. These factors, which played out against the background of (again) great power competition and the 2008 financial crisis, have served to undermine the liberal order and give rise to a nationalist revival. Again, liberals are responsible for liberalism’s collapse.

It’s a compelling argument. The centrist explanation of why the post-Cold War period of liberal hope gave way to a time of demagogues and reactionary nationalism tends to focus on Putin or social media or some other bad actor. It rarely questions the systemic flaws in the liberal order itself. Mishra may be overstating it when he writes, ‘The barbarians, it turns out, were never at the gate; they have been ruling us for some time.’ But he’s not entirely incorrect.

Mishra’s interpretation of the modern age, however, seems to me to be too pessimistic. He believes, as he explained to me when I interviewed him a couple of years ago, that there is little to redeem modernity. ‘It has unleashed a lot of violence around the world,’ he explained. ‘That is broadly the history of the last two hundred years.’ No one would deny that modernity — a ‘fateful simultaneity of spring and autumn’, as Nietzsche described it — has given rise to countless horrors. But it strikes me that there is much that should be preserved. True, the ideas of the Enlightenment went alongside colonial brutality and capitalist exploitation. But while they fed into the racist notion of France’s mission civilisatrice, they also inspired the Haitian Revolution that sent the French packing. Mishra is one of the most insightful critics of modernity but he tends to focus on its autumnal tendencies and is, perhaps, too nostalgic for what came before. The legacy of the Enlightenment is, I think, more nuanced.
William Eichler is a freelance writer with an interest in the history and politics of the Middle East.