You Can Only See Liberalism From the Bottom
Why Pankaj Mishra sees the ideology’s limits more clearly than its most powerful fans.
There was a time, not long ago, when the United States seemed home to the best and the brightest. Its scientists won Nobel Prizes, more than any other country by an enormous margin. Its technology firms blazed paths to brave new worlds. Its studios dominated global entertainment, disseminating dreams worldwide. So-called lesser countries endured “brain drain”—the outward stream of their most educated citizens. The United States, by contrast, was the churning sea of talent and enterprise into which all those rivers flowed.
The fall has been fast and, one might add, furious. Today, the image of the country is less the wise sage than the village idiot. During a terrifying pandemic, its president peddles quack cures, his uninspiring opponent appears out of touch, an eviction crisis looms, and more than a third of the populace reports that it would refuse a free vaccine if offered. As other countries return to normalcy, the United States prepares ineffectively for a second wave. It already accounts for a fifth of COVID-19 cases worldwide; the virus has killed nearly 200,000 of its inhabitants. Taiwan, by contrast, has kept its death count under 10. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, which has seen only 88 of its citizens die, has a better contact-tracing system than the United States.
How can a country with so much power and so many resources be so astonishingly inept? It’s the paradox of our times, made more baffling by seeing the former world leader, Britain, in a similar state. One theory is that this is all somehow a fluke. Trumpism is an aberration, a “blip on the long arc of history,” as Donald Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama put it. Once responsible leadership is restored, the Nobel laureates and Silicon Valley geniuses will retake the reins.
Another, more troubling theory is that incompetence is not a bug but a feature. The fact that the United States has so much power is precisely the problem. If you can make bad decisions without paying the costs, you will probably make them repeatedly. Privilege has blinded the country’s cosseted elite, indulging its delusions by protecting it from their consequences. The reckless disregard for reality is nothing new, in this theory. It has plagued U.S. leadership for decades, though the costs have usually been paid by other countries. The difference now is that the chickens are returning to roost.
That second theory is not a popular one. But like many unpopular theories, it has had a Cassandra: the Indian-born essayist, novelist, and historian Pankaj Mishra. Well before Brexit, Trump, or COVID-19, he sounded the siren. Anglophone leaders, inhabiting a hall of mirrors, were becoming dangerously detached from the actual world. The problem was not partisan but general, and it was reaching a crisis. Mishra has been beating this drum for more than a decade. His new collection, Bland Fanatics, lays out the case in essays dating back to 2008. Reading them now, while trapped in an apartment surrounded by strategic reserves of canned food and toilet paper, it’s hard not to think: You know, he might have had a point.
If there is one event that undergirds Mishra’s worldview, it’s World War I. The century preceding it had been an exceptionally calm one in European history—a “hundred years’ peace,” the economic historian Karl Polanyi called it, during which leading countries fought each other only rarely and briefly. With peace came prosperity, and by 1914, John Maynard Keynes remarked, even the middle classes possessed “conveniences, comforts, and amenities beyond the compass of the richest and most powerful monarchs of other ages.” Europe appeared the height of civilization and Britain the apex.
Or, at least, that’s how it looked from London. From Beijing, Léopoldville, and Calcutta, the view was different. Europe’s hundred years’ peace had been a century of invasion, subjugation, and outright slaughter in the world beyond Europe. Mishra mentions, among other atrocities, Belgium’s extractive rubber regime in the Congo, the hundreds of thousands killed in the U.S. conquest of the Philippines, and the massacres of the Herero people in German South West Africa (tantamount to genocide, Germany has since admitted). All this, he implies, was the price of those “conveniences, comforts, and amenities” that middle-class Westerners blithely enjoyed.
When World War I broke out, its ferocity took Europeans aback. Displaying a sort of “imperial insouciance,” they had largely ignored the capacity of their own governments for mindless brutality. But nothing about the war was surprising to those in the colonized world, Mishra argues. Africans and Asians knew European boasts of civilization to be hollow. World War I was merely the “extreme, lawless and often gratuitous violence of modern imperialism” boomeranging back on its perpetrators.
The pattern of World War I is the one to fear today, Mishra warns. Just as in 1913, the world’s leading intellectuals, many now located in the United States, believe unflinchingly in the rightness and universal applicability of their values. And, just as in 1913, they have maintained that self-assuredness by taking an extremely selective view of the world. In essay after essay, Mishra excoriates the liberal thinkers of the Anglophone world for what he takes to be their narcissism—“their own mind-numbing simplicities about democracy, its enemies, friends, the free world and all that sort of thing.” The deficiencies of such smug doctrines have been readily apparent in the global south for decades, Mishra believes. There, the United States pursued freedom and democracy by backing despots, meddling in elections, opposing wealth redistribution, and enforcing austerity. Now, a century after World War I, such scourges afflict the United States, too, putting liberalism’s failures on vivid display.
What’s so bad about liberalism? Mishra is not exactly illiberal: He approves of at least some versions of freedom, democracy, and human rights. His objection is less the creed than to its priests. Mainly, he notes how frequently the advocates of liberalism have papered over racism. Talk of freedom and rights, Mishra notices, usually comes with a tacit addendum: but only for some.
Inarguably, the prophets of liberalism have left an ambiguous legacy. John Locke’s theories about the consent of the governed did not prevent him from championing the dispossession of American Indians. John Stuart Mill offered what remains the most enduring statement of the liberal creed, yet he served the British Empire and felt despotism to be a “legitimate” form of government for “barbarians.” Woodrow Wilson spoke for self-determination but launched a 19-year military occupation of Haiti. You can trace a chain of hypocrisy from Thomas Jefferson keeping his own children enslaved to George W. Bush’s disastrous so-called liberation of Iraq. One time and perhaps it’s an accident; 17 times and it starts to look like a pattern. Whenever the full extension of liberal freedoms threatens the privileges of the powerful, liberal leaders have sought to restrict those freedoms because they have never truly been comfortable with the consequences of substantive equality.
That large contradiction at the heart of the liberal project has carried dangerous consequences, in Mishra’s view. To accommodate it, liberals have adopted a “blinkered history,” screening out the inequalities, violence, and racism endemic to their preferred system. This is how Niall Ferguson, an open defender of empire, becomes an in-demand pundit. Or how Thomas Friedman, who has variously championed the Iraq War, Israeli airstrikes on civilian areas, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, still commands respect as a paragon of common sense.
It would be better, Mishra feels, to listen to voices from the global south—he is particularly attentive to Asian intellectuals and earlier wrote a thoughtful book about them, From the Ruins of Empire. It’s not that Asian thinkers have rejected liberalism outright; it’s rather that they’ve always known its limits. Observing the close historical relationship between liberal ideas and imperial practice has led Indian, Chinese, and Japanese writers to political creeds that were more complex, less universalizing, and less fanatically individualistic. Mishra, who identifies as a “stepchild of the West,” finds much to affirm in the more circumspect, conflicted, and self-aware intellectual worlds of Asia. He feels similarly at home among the gloomy 19th-century thinkers of Russia and Germany, who also found themselves caught in liberalism’s undertow.
This is not just about diversifying the global intelligentsia. Seeing things from the vantage of the stepchildren, Mishra argues, reveals how insufficient the liberal obsession with formal processes has been. As Mohandas Gandhi argued, democracies could be only “nominal” so long as the “wide gulf between the rich and the hungry millions” persisted. Obsessed with procedural justice but largely unbothered by economic inequalities, liberals nodded politely as “kleptocratic oligarchies” took root in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, Mishra writes. And now, on cue, the oligarchs have seized the Oval Office.
Bland Fanatics puts Mishra in the ring with opponents of various sizes. Yet the ones who draw out the fighter in him are not the crude villains. Confronted with Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychologist who has urged the equivalent of the paleo diet in sexual relations, Mishra does his duty. (“And you call me a fascist?” Peterson replied on Twitter. “You sanctimonious prick. If you were in my room at the moment, I’d slap you happily.”) It is, however, in response to well-intentioned, serious thinkers that Mishra’s analysis comes into sharpest focus.
The most probing essay in Bland Fanatics is on Ta-Nehisi Coates. Mishra sees in Coates a fellow stepchild, whom he regards with evident sympathy. Having grown up in Baltimore during the crack epidemic and seen a friend killed by police in college, Coates knows full well the violence that liberal democracy allows. Yet Mishra believes Coates, now a literary star, is falling too easily into the gravity well of the liberal intellectual sphere. This happened to Salman Rushdie, a “helplessly Anglophiliac Indian” whose later career has been marked more by hobnobbing with celebrities than giving voice to subaltern perspectives. “For a self-aware and independent-minded writer like Coates,” Mishra writes, “the danger is not so much seduction by power as a distortion of perspective caused by proximity to it.”
Mishra sees Coates teetering on the cusp of the Anglosphere’s delusions, particularly in his writings about Obama. Coates regards Obama as a “deeply moral human being” whose presidency was the “most incredible of eras.” Coates’s 2017 book, We Were Eight Years in Power, contains a memorable and gushing account of Obama’s BET-hosted farewell party: Naomi Campbell strutting about “in a sleeveless number,” Common lighting up the stage, a sense of achievement pulsing through the air. Reading it, it’s easy to share Coates’s pride. Yet Mishra rolls his eyes at this gathering of millionaires; it’s just the same self-satisfied celebration of an ascendant elite, only now racially diverse. Coates’s portrait of the Obama years, Mishra continues, is “remarkable for its missing interrogations of the black president for his killings by drones; despoliation of Libya, Yemen and Somalia; mass deportations; and cravenness before the titans of finance who ruined millions of black as well as white lives.”
Such facets of power are all too easy to miss from a party at the White House. And that, for Mishra, is ultimately the problem. Perching atop the commanding heights doesn’t give you a better view; it gives you a worse one, because benefiting from a stark inequality tends to rob you of perspective. Without any intellectual ventilation, without taking seriously the warnings of those with other vantages, you’ll end up where we are, with “blond bullies” presiding over Washington and London and a baffled elite unable to do anything about it. The barbarians were never at the gate, Mishra observes. They were inside it, and they’ve been “ruling us for some time.”