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Interview: Pankaj Mishra on Deconstructing Far-Right Populism, COVID-19 and Global Crises

7 20 8
20.10.2020

Pankaj Mishra labels his most recent book Bland Fanatics – Liberals, Race and Empire (Juggernaut 2020) as a Gramscian book. It is a collection of razor-sharp critical essays against the “discredited evangelists of liberalism”, who, according to the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, consider “the highly contingent achievements” of Western civilisation as “the final form and norm of human existence”.

In this long conversation, which took place in Italy, Mishra explores the relationship between today’s political predicament in India and Italian fascism, the worsening status of democratic debate, the collapse of the Anglo-American way, along with China’s real role in the world, the crisis of journalism, Donald Trump, Matteo Salvini, the climate crisis and the COVID era.

Pankaj Mishra. Courtesy: www.pankajmishra.com

You have asked rhetorically if Britain or America are democracies. You’ve said democracy is discussion, persuasion, debate. But, debate is all over the internet, and it does not seem to work. You’ve said that we all need a good dose of seriousness. How can it come about, with which instrument?

I think what the internet has done is basically fragmented the public sphere into incredible numbers of bubbles, which people can inhabit, and within which they can create their own version of reality. Democracy needs some agreed upon notions, some sense of solidarity and community, some sense that we are in this, all of us, together. And that has been missing for a very long time, because societies everywhere, and not only in the West, have invested too much in a very hyper individualist notion, whereas the individual’s energy and entrepreneurial skills were by itself enough to create a functional society. All the given number of individuals in a society, all of them working to pursue their interests were expected to contribute to the common good. If you think about it, it almost seems like magic.

The ‘thousand points of lights’ of Bush senior?

Yes, that idea which emerged in the US in the 1980s, which I’ve sort of consistently critical of, has shown to be an utterly lethal idea, especially now in the wake of the pandemic. So, by seriousness, I mean recovering some notion of solidarity and compassion without which societies anywhere are unsustainable. This notion that greed is somehow good, or the pursuit of private interests amounts to a common good…all these notions that became mainstream in the last three decades or so are really incredibly dangerous ideas and are really what has brought many of us to this very sorry path right now.

You have pointed out the damages done by the “bumbling chumocrats in charge” in Bland Fanatics, and you have spelled out the slow but persistent failure and weakening of anglobalisation which rests its roots in white supremacy and brings about institutionalised poverty. Do you really think it is the end of the Anglo-American century? Is the Yellow Peril finally here? Should I learn Chinese?

I think the United States and Britain became extremely powerful culturally and ideologically starting in the 1980s while at the same time their economies were beginning to decline, in fact, the American economy had started to decline much earlier, the British as well, there was some creation of private wealth in the 1980s and 1990s. The media was very fascinating by that new wealth that was created and so the media failed to cover the fact that real incomes were declining, wages were stagnating, the middle class was starting to suffer. But while all this was happening, Anglo-America was accumulating an unprecedented amount of cultural power and ideological power. What do I mean by this? I mean American and British periodicals, The New York Times, The Guardian, The Economist, The Financial Times became globally important and influential in a way they had never been before. And what were these newspapers doing? They were all becoming mouthpieces for these Anglo-American ideologies of deregulation, privatisation, the American way is the best. It was always assumed that the American way is the model for everyone else to follow.

So, here you have a perfect storm. You have this enormous political consensus in Washington and in London, backed by the World Bank, by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the administrations in both countries, and then you have the Fourth Estate, the media, which is cheerleading this consensus in different parts of the world and prescribing to other societies in other parts of the world how to live the Anglo-American way. That is all really now collapsed. I think it is safe to say. I am generally careful about pronouncing in such categorical terms.

How has it collapsed?

Well, because it has proven to be catastrophic, that particular model of hyperindividualism, of letting social welfare systems, not just letting them decline or degenerate, but actually accelerating the degeneration, because ‘we don’t need them, they are creating entire generations of idles and scroungers, and therefore we need to do away with them’. Of course, in the absence of a proper public health system, you would be extremely vulnerable to something like COVID-19. And not to mention, even before the pandemic, the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit results that had already shown what the disaster of the last 20 years of deregulation and privatisation had been.

The Washington consensus had some of its most influential victims it seems on the western side of Washington D.C. We’ve seen populist revolts in Latin America, we saw Yeltsin floundering and then Putin coming to power, we saw autocrats rising in various other parts of the world, including India. But finally, it also happened in the very places that had exported these ideologies, in Angloamerica. And I think there’s no real going back. Of course, the media is still being run by the very same people who were cheerleading deregulation, and privatisation and the Washington consensus all these years. So, they are very much ensconced: how they can change, and whether they will change is a different question.

The owners of the media?

And the people who work for it. That’s also important. I think people in senior editorial positions.

Can they?

I think they probably can’t.

Because their mind is already set?

Yes. The only thing they seem to be capable of doing is of dreaming of some kind of restoration. Of returning back to things as they once were. You know, for many people, and I include myself in this category, the last 20 and 30 years have been exceptionally good. So, even though large numbers of people have suffered a relative decline in living standards, opportunities, many people have actually benefitted from three decades of globalisation, especially people who speak English, people who can work and write for international periodicals.

So, journalists have come to prefer the status quo that to many people seems utterly intolerable, so I think there’s a real gap that has opened up between the way many people within the journalism profession see the world and experience it and the way the people they are supposed to write about and cover it experience it. Which also explains why the media has been in such a state of shock and trauma for the last many years, with the election of Donald Trump and Brexit.

Volunteers from Mercy Angel and their helping hand team pray before performing the last rites of a COVID-19 victim, at Khuddus Saab burial ground in Bengaluru, Saturday, July 11, 2020. Photo: PTI/Shailendra Bhojak.

So, that brings us to the next question. You said the media bubble feeds the idea of a competitive race, which is the worst system to battle a virus, like Covid-19. Do you think the media bubble could change this and how?

No, the media bubble cannot change. This is also in answer to your question about what the solutions are. As a writer, I really feel it is not my place to prescribe, largely because I believe that prescriptions given with no regard for local circumstances with specific regional, national factors, have really brought us to this situation. It was this arrogant prescribing by people sitting far away in places like Washington and London, who had no idea about what life was in places like India, but insisted that free markets is the way to move forward, or cracking down on trade unions was the way to go forward. I feel like we should move away from this arrogant way of prescribing, and really focus on the lived experiences of people and to see what solutions can emerge from those experiences.

As a writer, my job is to attend to those experiences, and as a writer, one of my experiences of the media and of the world of journalism there I do feel more ready to prescribe, and even though it may feel like a joke, I do feel like people in senior editorial positions right now in the media either should listen to more young voices or they should give way for those younger people. That they are, at least in my experience, are simply unable to understand this new world that we are living in right now.

I think if you have grown up in the 80s and 90s in the ideological regimes of Reagan and Thatcher, and the world doesn’t make sense to you now, that’s fair enough, but then…do you want to hang around? Feeling completely bewildered by everything that is happening around you or do you want to gracefully exit? Leave your position open for younger people whose future is definitely much more important than the future of people who are now in their 50s and 60s, so if there is one prescription I would make is: have more young voices in the media and in journalism and in senior positions right now. Because the media is in a serious........

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