Pankaj Mishra’s new book ‘Bland Fanatics’ is a hard hitting critique of American and European liberalism
Though the essays were written for a Western audience, the book is a good read, and helps the reader to understand the workings of the world as well as India in a much better way<em><b><br></b></em>
Following his much acclaimed book The Age of Anger, Pankaj Mishra is back with another book titled Bland Fanatics: Liberals, Race and Empire. This book is a collection of sixteen essays which have appeared over the course of a decade i.e. from 2008-2019 and published mainly in leading journals in the United States and the United Kingdom.
The book discusses wide ranging themes like the rise of Donald Trump, the COVID-19 pandemic, Salman Rushdie, Jordan Peterson, The Economists magazine and Brexit etc. In discussing topics from politics to culture, liberalism to the end of liberalism and imperialism to neo-imperialism, the author moves from Delhi to Mumbai to Cairo, Washington to Paris to Beijing and traverses from the eighteenth to the twenty first century.
Despite covering a broad range of topics distributed over a wide time period, the articles in the book are unified through ideas like liberalism, race and empire which is also the subtitle of the book. The book discusses and traces their history, contemporarily and future trajectory in the most forceful manner. Just like Mishra’s other works, Bland Fanatics takes you on an intellectual override and in the course of doing so digs out a wealth of interesting and often surprising information and connections.
Mishra shows that the political ideology of liberalism is intertwined with the ideology of race and colonialism and that they are not only intertwined but all are a product of one single concern i.e. the maintenance of White supremacy across the Globe. The ideology of liberalism was actually just born in response to the communist threat in the aftermath of the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution.
The principle of ‘Free Market’ - which essentially is a disguise for White supremacy - considered as the harbinger of peace and prosperity, was only pushed through armed occupation and gunboat diplomacy in former colonial countries. This colonial legacy keeps itself intact, as the United States and the NATO, the self-proclaimed champions of democracy, fought countless wars to batter down several countries in the name of development and democracy. Vietnam, Yugoslavia, the Gulf War, toppling of several Latin American governments are just a few examples of the continued legacy of gunboat diplomacy from the era of high colonialism.
Exposing the hypocrisy of rich, racist and power hungry liberals, the author shows that liberalism, which is “flatteringly identified with cosmopolitan tolerance, has long been more at home with nationalism, imperialism and even racialism”.
Each of the essays is a hard hitting critique of American and European liberalism, whose roots as the author repeatedly shows by quoting from books and speeches of spokespersons of Western liberalism, is deeply racist and based on White supremacy.
Slavery, genocide, mass bondage and White supremacy, says Mishra, is the ‘original sin’ of Americans; a ‘sin’ which came to take its revenge upon the White liberals through Donald Trump. Have you ever wondered why the American liberal order protested against the rise of Donald Trump? The answer, according to Mishra, does not lie in saving the great American democracy; the American liberals declared Trump as “a president who ‘openly’ disdains basic constitutional norms”. The reason lies in the qualifiers ‘openly’; Donald Trump just discarded the ‘veil’ which was kept intact by the likes of Clinton, Bush and Obama.
The book is also a critique of “self-proclaimed liberals of post-colonial Asia and Africa whose efforts at top-down modernization ended up reinforcing the repressive colonial state” and thereby exaggerated inequality and simultaneously gave birth to masculine toxic nationalisms. The liberal phrase mongering of liberty, fraternity and equality proved to be nothing but hollow as it constantly frustrated the dreams and aspirations of millions while the wealth of top 1% across the world grew at a fast rate. In such a system, Mishra says, “demagogues would routinely emerge to offer the exhausted and cheated masses the opiate of nationalism”.
India, Europe and America are going through some similar phenomenon such as growing Islamophobia, rise of masculine nationalism, fear mongering by the ruling dispensation and an unprecedented economic crisis. The world is more connected than ever, not only in economics, but also through the reactions which a crisis ridden system is generating.
For example, we have been hearing the Hindutva fear mongering phrase ‘Hindus are in Danger’, but do we know that this has its origin at the beginning of 20th century and in the West? In 1917, the US President and also the founder of ‘Liberal Internationalism’, forcefully stated the intention to ‘keep the White race strong against the yellow, and to preserve white civilisation and its domination of the planet’. The White race was considered to be under threat from Chinese, Indians, Africans and Latin Americans as anti-colonial movements in colonial nations grew and challenged White domination of the world.
In India, we have come across Hindutva’s narrative of ‘Love Jihad’, and the threat of Muslim population overrunning that of the Hindus. But do we know that similar narratives are being pushed by the right wing in Europe and Americas with help from the pens of ‘liberal’ authors? Or do we know that for one Jaggi Vasudev ‘Sadhguru’, who calls himself a spiritualist and is legitimising Hindutva’s fascist mythology in India, there is one Jordan Peterson, voted as the foremost public intellectual in West, who is doing the same for Americans? Probably not.
And here Mishra beautifully provides a linkage to seemingly disparate phenomenon. Mishra has used some terms and phrases for these people, like “intellectual quacks”, “vendors of spirituality”, “healers of modern man's soul” to basically highlight those who have appeared in the public domain in the last few decades and won huge following with their shallow mystical/spiritual rhetoric by articulating the fears and failures of a huge chunk of alienated masses produced by the free market.
Even though his latest book is less interesting than Mishra’s previous works like Age of Anger (2017), From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia (2012) or Temptations of the West:
How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet, and Beyond (2006), chiefly because it is a collection of essays, Bland Fanatics keeps the reader engaged as it makes you question several of your previously held opinions.
How many of us know that Max Weber, one of the founding father of sociology was also a vile racist, who lamented the loss of White power; or how many of us know that terrorism, a concept that has come to dominate post-9/11 geopolitics was first used as a policy employed by one German Lt. General Lothar von Trotha in Africa? Throtha made his reputation by “slaughtering natives and incinerating villages” and called his policy terrorism, which according to him, ‘can only help’ in subduing the natives. Later, his services was employed by imperialist Germany to crush the ‘Yellow Peril’ in China between October 1900 to spring 1901, as Germany was looking to carve out a chunk for itself from the Chinese cake.
Also, how many of us know that the word robot has its origin in a Czech play from the 1920s titled R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) by K. Capek? The word is derived from robota which means ‘forced labour’, and is therefore a perfect representation of humans being reduced to mere tools of production in the neo-liberal economic order.
Though the essays were written for a Western audience, the book is a good read, and helps the reader to understand the workings of the world as well as India in a much better way.