The history of the west is not the history of the world

Pankaj Mishra's From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia undertakes the difficult ethical exercise of discovering real world history, against the noisy western cries of 'progress' and economic growth. Book review.

In a recent interview at the London School of Economics, Pankaj Mishra describes the basic aim of his new book, From the Ruins of Empire, in the following terms: “The least this book can do is to impart a sense of how some of Asia’s most educated people responded to Western encroachment on their lands, how intelligent and sophisticated their response was to that encroachment, and how that response has shaped the world we live in today for better and for worse. In short, the history of the West is not the history of the world.”

Pankaj Mishra, From the Ruins of Empire

There are many very influential Western-values crusaders who believe the opposite, among them Michael Ignatieff, apostle of what as early as 1932 the Surrealists called “murderous humanitarianism”, hate-mongers like the US media star Ann Coulter (who infamously declared “We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and covert them to Christianity”), the “Islamofascism” wordsmiths (who equated Saddam Hussein with Hitler) like the Tony Blair coterie, or militarists like Colin Powell who once described NGOs as “an important part of our combat team”.

Prominent in this group, partly because he is so media-coddled, is Niall Ferguson, a self-described “fully paid-up member of the neoimperialist gang”, a drum-beater for a New American Empire, who touts the rise of the West as a great historical phenomenon based on “easy access” to resources in far-flung parts, dispossession, slavery and subjugation being minor considerations in the process. He has a penchant for the grandiose. Hence, the rise of the West is “the pre-eminent historical phenomenon of the second half of the second millennium after Christ”, a sweeping pronouncement in which the bias seems to be clear enough in his WASP timeline. He believes that “civilisation” should be measured by sustained improvement in the material quality of life, but neglects to ask for whom and at what price for others.

The material upshot of this materialist view is a world in which 17 per cent of the population consumes 80% of its resources, 358 billionaires have assets exceeding the combined annual incomes of countries that account for 45 percent of the global population, and one in seven people go hungry. There are many statistics showing this fast-increasing disparity. What kind of material “progress” is this shrinking circle of privilege, even in Ferguson’s own terms? It belies the values the West trumpets and, in this ethical absence, it is bad economics since by nurturing rampant greed it has led to the befuddlement (among experts) and generalised hardship of today’s “crisis”.

At one level, this is a most engaging book, full of fascinating people, situations and anecdotes. However, what makes it exceptional, in both senses of the word, is the perceptive moral standpoint of the thinkers who inform it, not least because it suggests that Western analysts and policy makers would do well to wonder whether, in today’s situation of money-powered government that is ever-less interested in the well-being of citizens, sound economics and ethics might go together.

Only a “fully paid-up member of the neoimperialist gang” could write a book called Civilisation: The West and the Rest, a title that attests to the decline of civilisation in the civil sense of the word. Niall Ferguson has been hailed by the Times as “the most brilliant historian of his generation” but Mishra is not so easily impressed, and has pithily exposed his limitations in the London Review of Books. But Ferguson’s intellectual attributes are less important than the unexamined postulates of pro-Western historiography that he peddles.

In this regard, Mishra’s book goes much further than the aims he outlines. It is nothing less than a challenge to the West’s most cherished notions: Enlightenment values, civilisation, progress, democracy, and the category of “West” itself. Shifting cultural frontiers have been a constant concern in all Mishra’s work, starting with his remarkable Butter Chicken in Ludhiana: Travels in Small Town India (written in his early twenties). This focus raises important questions. What is the West? Is it a political or economic entity? What is its cultural substance? What does the West mean in an era of uneasy, fluid geopolitical alignments? Do Germany and the PIGS, given their widening economic and political disparity, still belong under the same banner?

More than timely, this book is urgent because it is a reminder of Hegel’s warning in his Introduction to Philosophy of History that “Peoples and Governments have never learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it”. All around the world we have clear signs that it is time we did start to learn, but learning from history is a moral exercise and the moral way of thinking was shed long ago in the materialist West.

This is what makes the ethical emphasis of Mishra’s book so striking. It is not just that the discomforting word “moral” and its kin-words appear so often. The whole approach is moral – but far from moralistic. It is about learning, seeking the moral of the story, starting with the steadfast critical perspective from which Mishra inquires into human actions, motivations and their results. He does not shrink, then, from noting that today’s rising powers are reproducing some of the West’s most grotesque features and he explains how this has come about. 

While Ferguson takes the “killer applications” of technological knowhow as a benchmark of civilisation, Mishra’s chroniclers and their painfully acquired knowledge anticipate Walter Benjamin who wrote that “There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism” (Theses on the Philosophy of History [1955]). If we recognise this inherent barbarism, we are then faced with a further problem raised by the Spanish philosopher, José Ortega y Gasset (1883–1955) – “Barbarism is the absence of standards to which appeal can be made”. We should then ask where our standards have gone and how we can recover them.

From the Ruins of Empire opens (pp. 15–17) in May 1798 with the tragicomic story of Napoleon’s quest to conquer Egypt after realising that “Europe is too small”. He travelled there with “a large contingent of scientists, philosophers, artists, musicians, astronomers, architects, surveyors, zoologists, printers and engineers”, all marshalled as bearers of the French Enlightenment to “the backward East”. The future Emperor made a fool of himself before the backward ones by hinting at a “mass French conversion to Islam” and then scuttling out of this religious rebirth at the realisation that wine and circumcision were the two great obstacles. Not long afterwards, with the first revolts against the occupation, French troops “stormed the al-Azhar Mosque, tethered their horses to the prayer niches, trampled the Korans under their boots, drank wine until they were helpless and then urinated on the floor.” Hegel was right. The same kinds of offences are still being committed today in the Islamic outposts of empire.

In 1860, Britain’s Lord Elgin, wishing to teach the Chinese a “severe lesson”, ordered his troops to set fire to the Beijing Summer Palace, which burned for two days, obscuring the sky with dense black smoke. One English witness observed (p. 31) that, “the red flame gleaming on the faces of the troops engaged made them look like demons glorying in the destruction of what they could not replace.” No wonder the poet Rabindranath Tagore was later to sum up the illusion of the glorious imperial “burden” of instilling Enlightenment values in (some) subalterns as “the torch of European civilization was not meant for showing light but to set fire” (p. 210).

This book tells the story of intellectual resistance against the humiliation conquered peoples suffered under European domination, detailing how thinkers in several countries struggled to learn from their experience, which suggests that Hegel’s rule applies more to victors than vanquished. Even as they sought to assimilate Western notions of modernity, these non-Western intellectuals – Tagore, Liang Qichao, Jamal al-din al-Afghani, Ho Chi Minh and Sun Yat-sen, to name a few – did not hold up a mirror reflecting the splendid raiment of the Emperor but quite another one showing how the technologically sophisticated West, so often guided by ignorance and arrogance, went wrong.

One of the West’s defining features since 11 September 2001 has been the so-called War on Terror. It has fostered the idea of a primitive clash-of-civilisation in which Islam is the enemy unless it is located in a biddable, oil-rich country. This doctrine is designed to cement Western power, and is damaging in many ways: it fuels the burgeoning Western arms industry, reshapes the American empire into the “lily-pad” form of military bases all around the world, “justifies” massive widespread land grabs by several countries because basic needs like food and water have become a “security” issue, and has resulted in a monstrous death toll among the “Rest”.

Mishra has done a great deal to undermine this Manichean framework and to emphasize the complexity and plurality of the Islamic and broader non-Western worlds. He offers fascinating accounts of far-ranging historical events in the words of thinkers from Japan, China, Turkey, Iran, India, Egypt, and Vietnam, showing how these little-known but deep-rooted ideas have re-emerged in some of today’s phenomena and movements, ranging from the Chinese Communist Party, al-Qaeda and the global jihad of political Islam through to Indian, Japanese and Turkish nationalism and the Arab Spring. The consistency of this history, which is so much at variance with the standard fare, should shock western-educated readers into asking how it came to be so relevant today.

Could we not heed Hegel’s warning, learn from history, begin to shed our imperial dogma, and accept that Western-imposed processes of change are patently taking the form of rapid destruction of the human and natural worlds? Instead of intoning the mantra “West is Best”, would it not be more “civilised” (from the Latin civilis, relating to the citizen, what befits the citizen, with a social sense of courteous, considerate manners) to revisit our Enlightenment values, especially freedom, justice and human dignity, and try to take them beyond the lip service of all the international declarations? History shows that oppressed human beings have always believed in their universality, a fact underscored by revolutions and all sorts of revolts, and poignantly highlighted by the suicides of those like Mohamed Bouazizi who preferred death to a life in which these rights were denied. Should we fear that self-immolation is the last light of civilised values?

Prescience and a sound, sense of economic history prevail in this book, showing up the fact that glorifying the empire tends to be a rather fuzzy business of vague, sometimes rhyming (in vintage Dr. Seuss style – “one thumb, one thumb drumming on a drum”) abstractions like “West” and “Rest”. Being forced to bow in humiliation and physical distress before imperial demands gave wonderful clarity to the accounts of Mishra’s chroniclers. Gandhi (pp. 35–36), for instance, gives a master class in economic history, and a depiction of the underbelly of “progress”, in his Declaration of Independence (1930):

Village industries, such as hand spinning have been destroyed … and nothing has been substituted. … Customs and currency have been so manipulated as to bring further burdens on the peasantry. British manufactured goods constitute the bulk of our imports. Customs duties betray partiality for British manufacturers, and revenue from them is not used to lessen the burden on the masses but for sustaining a highly extravagant administration. … [T]he system of education has torn us from our moorings.

This is just one version of the havoc wrought in many countries, which were also linked by the fact that the spoils from one were used to finance the subjugation of others. A starving and deeply-indebted India, for example, funded the British occupation of Egypt, the invasion of Ethiopia and the conquest of Sudan.

The Confucian Liang Qichao also saw the connections. In a document titled “On the New Rules for Destroying Countries” he describes “the endless subtle ways in which European merchants and mine-owners had progressively infiltrated and undermined many societies and cultures” including “spiralling debt (Egypt), territorial partition (Poland), exploiting internal divisions (India), or simply overwhelming adversaries with military superiority (Philippines and the Transvaal)” (p. 159). He advised people who believed that opening “mining, railroad, and concessionary rights to foreigners is not harmful to the sovereignty of the whole” to inform themselves about the Boer War.

Rabindranath Tagore saw the same situation from a slightly different angle, warning that modern civilisation, “built upon the cult of money and power, was inherently destructive” (p. 230). The darkness of destruction also appears in one of Muhammad Iqbal’s poems: “Its gasses so obscure the sky / They blind the sun’s world-seeing eye” (p. 210). They never resounded in metropolitan drawing rooms but these prophetic words spread quickly among people with an oral tradition, who saw and suffered pre-Hiroshima forms of devastation.

Meanwhile, the itinerant sage Jamal al-Din Al-Afghani sounded the alarm about Western financiers (p. 109):

What shall cause thee to understand what is the Bank? It means the complete handing over of the reins of government to the enemy of Islam, the enslaving of the people to that enemy, the surrendering … of all dominion and authority into the hands of the foreign foe.

Nowadays, banks do not confine their activity to plundering the “Rest”. Call it crisis or criminal fraud, almost everyone in the world is now affected by the same mechanisms described by al-Afghani. The tide of “progress” is difficult to contain. It tends to sweep everything before it, as Mishra points out:

Thinkers as varied as Nehru, Simone Weil and Hannah Arendt were to observe how by the 1930s, the barbarities inflicted on native populations in Asia and Africa – concentration camps, poison gas attacks, systematic murder – were transplanted to the heart of Europe, and unleashed on Europeans themselves (p. 254).

Naturally, the views of Asian thinkers do not mesh well with the narcissistic history of the Western nation state, which is simplified when not distorted and unreceptive to ambiguity and ethics. There are other reasons too. Sometimes the gentlemen of empire were described in very unflattering terms. They were “wild animals who see no difference between good and evil … insane in their lust, drenched in alcohol from head to foot”, in the words of the nineteenth-century Indian thinker Swami Vivekananda (p. 36). Another Indian writer, Aurobindo Ghose, lashed out at the humanitarian posturing of the imperial overlords with a lesson in political economy and the role of culture: “Pharisaic pretensions were especially necessary to British imperialism because in England the Puritanic middle class had risen to power and imparted to the English temperament a sanctimonious self-righteousness which refused to indulge in injustice and selfish spoliation except under a cloak of virtue, benevolence and unselfish altruism” (p. 223).

The conventional story is that, thanks to modern communications, science and democracy, the West sets the standard of "progress" for the “Rest”. Hence, if India and China have adopted laissez-faire capitalism it is because they finally became “civilised” enough to realise that they must mimic the West in order to succeed. The lesson, it is implied, is that West is Best. In this intellectually enthralling and beautifully-written book, Mishra differs and concludes with a warning:

The hope that fuels the pursuit of endless economic growth – that billions of consumers in India and China will one day enjoy the lifestyles of Europeans and Americans – is as absurd and dangerous a fantasy as anything dreamt up by al-Qaeda. It condemns the global environment to early destruction and looks set to create reservoirs of nihilistic rage and disappointment among hundreds of millions of have-nots – the bitter outcome of the universal triumph of Western modernity, which turns the revenge of the East into something darkly ambiguous, and all its victories truly Pyrrhic (pp. 309–310).

The choice we have is stark, between the difficult, ethical exercise of discovering real history and learning from it or remaining in an infantile state of denial, “drumming on a drum”.

About the author

Julie Wark is the author of Manifiesto de derechos humanos  (The Human Rights Manifesto – Ediciones Barataria, 2011) and is an advisory board member of the international political review Sin Permiso.

Read On

Pankaj Mishra's website

Buy From the Ruins of Empire on amazon