“The Liberal Order Is the Incubator for Authoritarianism”: A Conversation with Pankaj Mishra

PANKAJ MISHRA BEGAN as an essayist in the early 1990s after moving to a Himalayan village in northern India, where he read prolifically and contributed essays to a number of Indian magazines. By the end of the decade, he was writing regularly for The New York Review of Books and other publications, often providing an unsparing look at the legacy of colonial rule in Asia by unpacking the myriad ways in which Western interests continued to penetrate former possessions. His widely acclaimed 2012 book, From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia, told the history of imperialism from the point of view of those subjected to its power, while his most recent offering, Age of Anger: A History of the Present (2017), which explores the foundations of violent nationalism and other ideologies, was long-listed for the 2018 Orwell Prize.


FRANCIS WADE: You have emerged as a prominent critic of empire and its foundations in liberal ideas of freedom and progress. Can you outline how your thinking has evolved, from your early writings on the topic to the present, and describe the major events that either reinforced or altered your position? 

PANKAJ MISHRA: I know from experience that it is very easy for a brown-skinned Indian writer to be caricatured as a knee-jerk anti-American/anti-Westernist/Third-Worldist/angry postcolonial, and it is important then to point out that my understanding of modern imperialism and liberalism — like that of many people with my background — is actually grounded in an experience of Indian political realities.

In my own case, it was a journalistic assignment in Kashmir that advanced my political and intellectual education. I went there in 1999 with many of the prejudices of the liberal Indian “civilizer” — someone who simply assumed that Kashmiri Muslims were much better off being aligned with “secular,” “liberal,” and “democratic” India than with Pakistan because the former was better placed to advance freedom and progress for all its citizens. In other words, India had a civilizing mission: it had to show Kashmir’s overwhelmingly religious Muslims the light of secular reason — by force, if necessary. The brutal realities of India’s military occupation of Kashmir and the blatant falsehoods and deceptions that accompanied it forced me to revisit many of the old critiques of Western imperialism and its rhetoric of progress. When my critical articles on Kashmir — very long; nearly 25,000 words — appeared in 2000 in The Hindu and The New York Review of Books, their most vociferous critics were self-declared Indian liberals who loathed the idea that the supposedly secular and democratic Indian republic, which prided itself on its hard-won freedom from Western imperialism, could itself be a cruel imperialist regime.

Writing about Kashmir was a strange and painfully isolating experience, but an absolutely crucial one. It made me see that, whether you are Indian or American, black, brown, or white, it is best not to get morally intoxicated by words like “secularism” and “liberalism” or to simply assume that you stand on the right side of history after having professed allegiance to certain ideological verities. Rather one should try to perceive the scramble for power, the clash of interests, that these resonant claims to virtue conceal; one should ask who is using words like “secularism” or “liberalism” and for what purposes.

The mendacity and hypocrisy of Indian liberals and even some leftists about Kashmir made me better prepared for the liberal internationalists who helped adorn the Bush administration’s pre-emptive assault on Iraq with the kind of humanitarian rhetoric about freedom, democracy, and progress that we originally heard from European imperialists in the 19th century. It was this experience in Kashmir that eventually led me to examine figures like Niall Ferguson, who tried to persuade Anglo-Americans that the occupation and subjugation of other people’s territory and culture was a wonderful instrument of civilization and that we need more such emancipatory imperialism to bring native peoples in line with the advanced West.

“Liberal modernity,” you’ve argued, “has prepared the ground for its destruction” by unleashing forces that are “uncontrollable.” Have these forces contributed to the resurgence of the right in countries where, thanks to modern liberalism, a premium is placed on the autonomy of the individual?

There are many ways to answer this question, and one’s choice will inevitably be determined by the political context of the day. There is no doubt that the individual freedoms central to liberalism ought to be cherished and protected. The question is how, and by whom? Are many self-declared liberals the best defenders of individual liberties? As it happens, many powerful and influential people who call themselves liberals are mostly interested in advancing their professional ambitions and financial interests while claiming the moral prestige of progressivism for themselves. They are best seen as opportunistic seekers of power, and they exist in India as much as in the United States and in Britain. Bush’s “useful idiots” (Tony Judt’s term) had their counterparts in India, where some liberals chose to see Prime Minister Modi as a great “modernizer.” They are happy to whisper advice to power, and they recoil from the latter only when power rejects or humiliates them — as in the case of Trump and Modi, who have no time for eggheads in general. The dethroned “liberal” then transforms himself into a maquisard of the “resistance” and prepares the ground for a Restoration where he’ll likely be hailed as a great hero. It’s a nice racket, if you can get into it.

As Trumpism and other authoritarianisms become powerful, their liberal critics engage in a kind of moral blackmail based on a spurious history: “Are you against the ‘liberal order’ which guaranteed peace and stability, and other wonderful things for so long?” The obvious answer is that your much-cherished liberal order was the incubator for Trumpism and other authoritarianisms. It made human beings subordinate to the market, replacing social bonds with market relations and sanctifying greed. It propagated an ethos of individual autonomy and personal responsibility, while the exigencies of the market made it impossible for people to save and plan for the future. It burdened people with chronic debt and turned them into gamblers in the stock market. Liberal capitalism was supposed to foster a universal middle class and encourage bourgeois values of sobriety and prudence and democratic virtues of accountability. It achieved the opposite: the creation of a precariat with no clear long-term prospects, dangerously vulnerable to demagogues promising them the moon. Uncontrolled liberalism, in other words, prepares the grounds for its own demise.

Weren’t liberal ideas of freedom and progress, as far back as the 19th century, being explicitly pressed into the service of racialized science, with its demarcation of “civilized” and “non-civilized” peoples?

Yes, liberalism as an ideology of the propertied white men comes into being together with institutionalized hierarchies of race and class and bogus distinctions between civilized and uncivilized peoples. It was clear, from John Stuart Mill as well as Thomas Jefferson, that individual rights and universal reason were the prerogatives of a tiny minority — settler colonialists who expanded and indulged their freedom at the expense of other people. Their victims, nonwhite peoples, were pointing out these fatal contradictions in the rhetoric of liberalism as early as the 19th century.

Today, of course, the question of liberalism’s relationship with imperialism — whether the former is contingent on the morally tainted successes of the latter and therefore tends to weaken when the empires totter — has become particularly urgent as non-Western powers emerge and an endless economic and political crisis forces Western liberal democracies to expose their racial and inegalitarian structures, their leaders resorting to explicit appeals to white supremacism. I wrote in 2015, in a survey of liberalism’s record in the non-Western world, that “liberalism” has come to be seen “as an unaffordable plaything of rich Westerners: the elevation into universal values of codes that long favoured a tiny minority, and are unlikely to survive the rise of everyone else.”

In this regard, one doesn’t need to draw upon the tradition of Asian and African thinkers. Listen to Max Weber in 1906:

The question is: how are freedom and democracy in the long run at all possible under the domination of highly developed capitalism? […] The historical origin of modern freedom has had certain unique preconditions which will never repeat themselves. Let us enumerate the most important of these. First, the overseas expansions. In the armies of Cromwell, in the French constituent assembly, in our whole economic life even today, this breeze from across the ocean is felt […] but there is no new continent at our disposal.

The Nigerian scholar Biodun Jeyifo has lamented the state of “arrested decolonization” in which many former colonies find themselves, whereby a native elite has furthered the imperial project by abetting Western economic expansionism. Did the arrival of liberal capitalism not end imperialism but rather extend it — perhaps in a quieter, more insidious way?

The postcolonial experience is a very complex one. The political movements against capitalist imperialism in Asia and Africa were often led by elites intellectually and emotionally shaped by the ideologies and epistemologies of their masters. At their most antagonistic and hubristic, they wanted to beat the West at its own game. Others wanted to survive in a world made by the West. They were all in a hurry to modernize, industrialize, urbanize, and somehow catch up with the Western powers that seemed to have taken such a long lead over their countries.

The problem for nearly all of these leaders was the meager resources and often the state of devastation they started out with. Decades, if not centuries, of exploitation has left them in a very poor state. Their social systems had ossified; intellectual life had dwindled. The materials to build a coherent nation-state were often missing. And then the first generation of postcolonial leaders could not, despite their best attempts, shake off their economic dependence on the West — something created by imperialism’s division of the world into center and periphery. Most of them saw virtue in socialism and a strong state control of the economy; hardly anyone in Asia and Africa was enamored of capitalism after the experience of the Depression. By the 1980s, however, decolonization had run into trouble. The structural political and economic problems of many Asian and African societies had become even bigger. At that point, the collapse of communist states brought an unexpected bonanza to Western intellectuals and policy-makers who had for years been arguing for the free flow of capital and goods and railing against the protectionist economies of Asia and Africa. And they were of course helped by a new generation of ruling classes who were ready to embrace the American dream of free markets and private enterprise.

We still need a sociology of these new elites — their connections to the US and Europe through networks of colleges, universities, think tanks, NGOs, foundations, and fellowships, and their ideological indoctrination at various institutions. Anecdotally, I can confirm that in India a whole new American-educated — or America-philic — class emerged to argue for untrammeled markets and to institutionalize their ideas. They often called themselves liberal, but they were also to be found on the Hindu right, and the traffic between the two camps was brisk.

Embedded in your critique of liberalism is a deep skepticism of contemporary human rights discourse and its links to a liberal free-market agenda. Are the two wholly at odds, and why does the former so often champion the latter?

Well, if you have lived in an Asian or African country and are knowledgeable about the history of imperialism, then you are reflexively suspicious of any kind of moralizing discourse about individual rights emanating from powerful countries. Let’s not forget that the French and the British were presenting themselves, as early as the 19th century, as protectors of women’s rights in barbaric nations. The rhetoric of free trade and free markets was very much part of a larger discourse of emancipating the individual.

In our own time, this discourse has been very useful in not only sanctioning old-style imperialist campaigns (tiresomely disguised, as before, as humanitarian interventions) but also in supplanting the aspirations for justice and equality between and within nations. Many people, especially Samuel Moyn, have argued rigorously and eloquently about the tendency to make a fetish of human rights while limiting its scope of operation to gross abuses by the state, using it to violate the hard-won sovereignty of nations, and giving a free pass to structural forms of violence, such as historically entrenched racial inequality or the inequality perpetuated by global capitalism. In that sense, it was too easy for political and corporate interests to champion human rights: it was a cause that did not challenge their power and influence; in many ways, it preserved them.

You say that economic inequality has been given a free pass by human rights advocates, but does that erase some of the agency at work here? Has it indeed been willfully neglected?

Yes, I don’t think inequality was a paramount issue until quite recently, when its politically calamitous consequences began to unfold. We were told, whether in India or the United States, that it is more important to make the economy grow and generate wealth, which will eventually trickle down, than to address substantive issues of inequality, how it comes about, how it perpetuates itself, what we can do to alleviate it.

One of the main cheerleaders of India’s economic liberalization was a deeply networked Indian American of the kind I mentioned earlier: a Columbia University economist and fellow of the Council for Foreign Relations named Jagdish Bhagwati. Bhagwati, who claimed to be the “world’s foremost free trader,” was as cozy with Modi as he was with the previous, more secular Indian prime minister. This man not only blatantly denied that there had been an increase in inequality or that India was turning into an oligarchy; he not only mocked people like Amartya Sen, who exposed inequality, as a wannabe Rosa Parks; he said that inequality is actually a good thing if you have mobility and that the poor tend to “celebrate” it. Arguing for less protections for labor, he upheld Bangladesh as an example that allows “firms to hire and fire workers under reasonable conditions and maintain a balance between the rights of both workers and employers.” This was after the collapse in April 2013 of a garment factory in Dhaka that killed more than a thousand people and exposed the way many unprotected workers in the globalized economy are reduced to slave-labor conditions. Bhagwati’s response to the decline in Indian calorie consumption, which obviously reflected increased hunger and poverty, was positively Marie Antoinette–ish: the poor were probably consuming more “rice and fruits,” and in any case, “malnourished families should be shifting their diet to more milk and fruits.”

It is probably unfair to single Bhagwati out, but you can find clones of him among ruling classes everywhere; his ideas bespeak an extraordinary callousness among policy-makers and opinion-makers. Of course, there were many small, under-resourced, and besieged human rights organizations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America that struggled against the injustice and inequality generated by neoliberal capitalism. But the well-funded human rights movement originating in the West did not challenge any of the verities of free traders and free marketeers, and the cruelties they perpetuated, until it was too late. Not doing so was a severe dereliction of duty. You could argue that the human rights movement became too much of an elite Western endeavor, naming and shaming selectively, as David Kennedy has put it. It became too aligned with the interests of the West’s political and corporate powers, and lost much of its insurgent energy.

Is that particular energy being reawakened? Are we seeing a movement emerge against overt human rights abuses by the powerful that at the same time acknowledges how liberal ideas can actually drive injustice, whether economic or not?

I think the answer is yes. Some of the most self-aware people in the human rights movement are beginning to move toward a more expanded notion of their work. But most of the necessary dissenting energy today is coming from outside large institutions and elite networks. I think we are finding out the extent to which even some of the best-intentioned people had adopted a complacent — and, for want of a better word, bourgeois — outlook on the world. They are now well entrenched — in the media and the NGOs as well as in politics and business. But they know now, post-Trump, that their analysis doesn’t hold, and that their intellectual hegemony has greatly weakened.

They won’t be supplanted so easily, and they won’t change their minds too radically. But then, I think the most promising aspect of the critique of liberalism that has emerged in recent years is the focus on fundamental systemic change. If we really do come anywhere close to realizing the ambitious post-liberal visions being outlined today, if we are able to conceive of an extensive democratization, then we won’t need the human rights movement to take up the banner of justice and equality.


Francis Wade is a journalist and author of Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim Other (Zed Books, 2017).