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The ‘western model’ and its discontents: an interview with Pankaj Mishra

The Indian essayist Pankaj Mishra believes that the west has lost the power to create a world after its own image. What is the future of the ‘western model’?

Pankaj Mishra, Flickr/Palestine Festival of Literature 2008. Some rights reserved. Pankaj Mishra, Flickr/Palestine Festival of Literature 2008. Some rights reserved.William Eichler: You recently wrote in the Guardian, adopting a phrase used by two editors of the Economist, that the 'western model' is broken. Could you explain what you mean by the 'western model'?

Pankaj Mishra: It's shorthand for certain assumptions, certain expectations that elites in western Europe, and in the United States since the early twentieth century, have used to define the evolution of their powerful nation-states. They try to apply these so-called lessons from their own history to the rest of the world, including places that they themselves have dominated. I'm speaking here specifically of western Europe, of Britain and France, where a particular teleology, which intellectuals, thinkers and statesmen in these countries have observed in their own history, is then applied to other countries in other parts of the world. The basic assumption is that these societies can also progress, and arrive at western-style liberal capitalism and democracy, using the same techniques and going through the same stages that we have gone through.

It's very much a model that is dependent upon certain provincial historical generalisations, certain historical assumptions, that are applied to the rest of the world. These assumptions, though, are derived really from the history of a tiny part of the world: western Europe and the US. It has had many incarnations, as I said in the Guardian piece, from the Economist arguing from the mid-nineteenth century onwards about the importance of free trade to Henry Luce talking about the American century and then W.W. Rostow advocating modernization theory down to the Washington Consensus. Since the Cold War, there has been a renewed stress on, and an ideological certainty about, some of these notions that what worked well for a small part of the world can also work well for everyone else.

WE: You argue that this 'western model' became globalised as a result of imperialism. What are the differences between western and non-western imperialism?

PM: The key difference is capitalist expansion through industrialism. This defines the history of the last 200 years and has driven the search for resources, territories and markets. If you look at the history of the Ottoman Empire or the Qing Empire you'll find plenty of evidence for varieties of capitalism, for a market economy, but you would not find this frantic urge to expand, to continually find new resources in different parts of the world, not just in your neighbourhood but on the other side of the globe. The British empire, for example, was active in the Fiji Islands as well as the Caribbean and India, not to mention Australia. None of the other empires of the past had that kind of reach or that kind of hunger. Even if you could somehow prove that they had the aspiration, the ambition, you would have to prove that they had the means, which they certainly did not.

WE: The depth of colonial penetration seems to be a key factor when discussing imperialism. How deeply did western imperialism affect non-western societies?

PM: It radically changed – some might say devastated – these societies. Many of them, such as China, had enjoyed periods of economic growth and relative political stability for a very long time before the Europeans arrived and those societies were thrown into chaos, civil war and political unrest. You might say that many of them have never really recovered from the particular trauma of facing this European invasion.

It was also not just a military invasion; it was cultural, moral and intellectual as well. There was the trauma of having to adjust to the fact of European power, to this particular modern world that European power had made. I don't think we have witnessed that kind of radical social and economic engineering before in human history. So in terms of, to use your phrase ‘depth of penetration’, this turned out to be a project of remaking the world that was really unprecedented.

Liang Qichao. Wikimedia Commons/Tung Wah News. Some rights reserved. Liang Qichao. Wikimedia Commons/Tung Wah News. Some rights reserved.WE: In your book From the Ruins of Empire (2012) you talk about how Asian intellectuals responded to this process. What were their main reactions?

PM: There were people trying to resist that power by upholding some sort of nativist tradition or set of nativist ideas. There were people who said: let’s take selectively from Europe and combine it with what we already have. And there were others who said we have to completely overhaul our societies, nothing of the past should be allowed to survive. Those were the radicals and we saw that with the communists in China and Atatürk in Turkey, and indeed elsewhere over the twentieth century.

This was the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. 100 years later we are in a different world altogether and the past that people could still invoke convincingly in the nineteenth century is lost. It's now invoked by fanatics and fundamentalists of various sorts who have never lived in that premodern world and who have no experience of it whatsoever. They were trained politically and ideologically by modernity, so when they invoke the past they are really invoking a figment of their imagination, often based upon some ill-digested western scholarship. They have no real experience of it, unlike many of the people who I write about in the book. And so one has to emphasise that there is a big difference between how those people responded, or tried to respond, and the way people respond today.

WE: How did the intellectual challenges posed by western power affect post-colonial societies?

PM: The important thing to note here is that decolonization must be understood in the context of the Cold War. It was against this backdrop that these countries were decolonized and started to develop modern economies and started to create for themselves new nation-states. The 1940s and 1950s was a time when they were trying to convert these heterogeneous societies into nation-states and this enormous task was undertaken under great geopolitical pressures where countries had to make choices between communism and joining the free world.

Not only that but the range of internal challenges was staggering so in that context anything that was said or thought in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century had very little purchase. So even some of the more influential thinkers of the time were systematically disregarded. The most prominent example is Gandhi. If you look at post-colonial India, you ask: do we see any evidence of Gandhi's political or social programme in post-colonial India? I think you'll find very few of Gandhi's ideas have survived or very little of Gandhi's ideas have been developed into enduring institutions. If you can say this about such an influential figure, then what to say of all the others who were not as influential?

WE: What were the main internal issues that these new nation-states had to deal with in their attempts to ‘catch up’ with the west?

PM: If you are trying to create a nationalist identity in a country like India, which is essential to creating a nation-state, you are already running into all sorts of problems because the country is internally incredibly diverse. Look at Europe and how much violence and ethnic cleansing it had to undergo before it arrived at its present shape where you can say these societies are relatively homogenous. At some point they were much more fragmented and there were much smaller political units and so a lot of violence had to be done before Europe arrived at its present shape. Europe had all the time to do that – centuries in fact – when it was not threatened by any force from outside or only threatened periodically, say, by Arabs, but even that was a very localised threat and wasn't a threat to the way of life or political structures.

Now in the post-colonial world you had to create some degree of national coherence. You had to build up an industrial economy very fast because that was how you survived. Otherwise you were in danger of going back to being a country that would be looted for its resources by the  powerful capitalist industrialised nations. So industrialisation seemed to many of these nations as absolutely key to any kind of sovereignty, and there were so many related tasks such as having a proper army or having a proper police force.

Some countries were fortunate in inheriting from old colonial structures some semblance of a security establishment but that had its own problems, like in India where the police did not become part of democratic India and remained this essentially colonial and brutal institution. The policeman is still one of the most hated public figures in India today. So there were all these problems that these countries had to deal with. And they had no time, they had to do it immediately.

Eighteenth National Congress of the Communist Party of China. Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved. Eighteenth National Congress of the Communist Party of China. Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.WE: There is a lot of discussion about the decline of the west and the rise of the rest. But you are sceptical about this whole process. In From the Ruins of Empire you describe it as “something darkly ambiguous” and you have also written elsewhere that the BRICS, commonly cited as the most important emerging powers, are unable “to offer an acceptable moral and political alternative to Western hegemony.” Could you expand on this?

PM: I think both of these notions – the decline of the west or the rise of the rest – are incredibly inane at many levels. They can be disproven in any number of ways. Economically you could look at the size of the American economy and the size of China's economy: there are still huge gaps in terms of power and living standards and there is no guarantee that those gaps will be bridged. I'm not even talking of India which is 20 years behind China. There are all kinds of social and political problems that countries like China are yet to face. One can easily mock these notions of decline and fall or the rise of China by simply pointing to some of these very obvious empirically verifiable facts.

But I think I was making a different argument which is to say that if we do not come up with an alternative to a model of political and economic development that has caused so much ruin and violence in the world, then whether you are in the west or the east we are doomed to live with the same kinds of violence which we have already seen in other parts of the world. In that sense, the rise of the east makes absolutely no difference.

I think you could argue that some people are well-off. They can strut around the world and claim equality at the UN security council. They can say we also want a seat here, we also want a place at the World Bank and the IMF and if those are denied they try and set up their own world bank like China tried to do with the help of other countries. This so-called decline of the west and the rise of the east is a bonanza for these kinds of globalized elites who want a place at the high table but most people in these countries are looking at a very uncertain, very dark future.

So I think I would be more admiring of this so-called assertion of previously trampled upon peoples if these countries who have had their sovereignty violated innumerable times in the last 100 years had also come up with a new way to ensure dignity and freedom for all of humanity. But the fact is they have not. They are simply trying to adapt for their own purposes certain techniques of achieving wealth and power, which include modern modes of capitalist imperialism. If not imperialism in other countries then internally, whether it’s dispossessing tribals in central India of their land or developing Tibet, they are doing more or less the same kinds of things that imperialists from other parts of the world have done.

The decline of the west is a narrative often invoked by neurotic supremacists in the west; likewise, the rise of the east is the preferred narrative of the megalomaniacal easterner. And there is a perfect synergy between the two narratives. So we hear a lot about them and decline-and-rise seems to be the dominant narrative. But once you start looking at what decline and rise really mean, what success really means in this context, then we'll have a very different perspective on these narratives.

WE: You have argued that “the world of cohesive nation states is now passing, more rapidly than we could have imagined. As in the early twentieth century, the elemental forces of globalization have unravelled broad solidarities and loyalties.” And in your response in the Guardian to the Charlie Hebdo massacres, you also wrote that globalization has brought about a “negative solidarity of mankind”. Could you explain what you meant? And what have been the consequences of this unravelling of “broad solidarities and loyalties” and the “negative solidarities” that this has led to?

PM: The old idea of the nation-state was, in many ways, an ideal or normative state that people talked about. Growing up in India in the 1970s and 1980s, I experienced what one would call today a sort of national culture where you had the sense that, broadly speaking, we were in it all together, that the rise and fall of the country affected all of us and, very importantly, it affected all of us equally because we were all more or less at the same socioeconomic level. Some were, of course, much, much poorer but if the country was doing well it was likely that all of us would be helped along.

Now whether this was an illusion in the mind or whether this was something actually happening is a separate matter altogether. That was the feeling and that's how nations are created and sustained. They are essentially invented communities that tell successful lies about themselves and this is what we were all doing and have been doing for a long time.

I think, though, that now the illusions have shattered. Our societies have become more atomized. Everyone is supposedly on his own and out for himself. And everyone is supposed to want what the richest and most powerful people in the world have. At the same time, we've become much more aware that there is extreme inequality in the world today and that national economies are globalized and rigged against most people. We continue to behave as though we are still working within the boundaries of nation-states but the elites have broken free. They now belong to a transnational culture. Today's New York Times has a front page cover story which is part of an investigative series about real estate in New York and what it is doing is tracing these very expensive purchases of New York real estate back to the countries where this money is coming from. The latest instalment is about an Indian real estate tycoon who basically duped people in India who gave him money to build condos and apartment blocks and he went ahead and bought himself an apartment worth millions of dollars in New York.

This is just an example of the elites breaking free and this would have been impossible in the India I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s because at a very basic level it was impossible to take money out of the country unless you were extremely well connected. And even then it was really difficult. Now these things are possible. Capital is mobile, more so than labour, and as we know political elites are now accountable to a great extent to business men who actually help pay for the elections. These are democratic countries we are talking about, not the outright kleptocracies.

So those solidarities that I was aware of in India back in the 1970s and 1980s and the idea that we were working within a national culture to resolve problems, such as those facing women in the work place, the lower middle classes, the working classes or low castes, all these problems have become diffused. They haven’t gone away but their importance in the public realm has diminished because of globalization and the neoliberal idea that we are all basically individual entrepreneurs. This is an extraordinary notion which has dominated our minds, deluded many people and depoliticized our cultures at large – while of course a small number of people grow rich and powerful. And what are the implications for the politics of these countries? Scotland was one illustration. Catalonia is another. There are many others all around the world. There are enough re-politicised people saying that this process has gone on for far too long and that wherever we are or however small our region is we need to come together and take control of our particular destinies.

The other side of that phenomena is that the Internet has created this illusion that we are all neighbours. We are all invited to participate in this large extended public sphere where we are all talking to each other all the time from our respective national, ethnic or religious backgrounds. And not just talking to each other but constantly confronting each other. This is because of the way capitalism works. It constantly creates relations of inequality while knitting the world closely together and brings people necessarily into relations of confrontation. I think that again has created the sense that we are now living together on this planet sharing a common present, but actually our interests and priorities radically diverge and our values also conflict.

That is what I mean by “negative solidarity”. It is not a solidarity anyone assented to. In a nation state you take a pledge of allegiance to the constitution at various stages of your life and you are a citizen.  This solidarity of this particular membership of the global world that we are all now part of…we did not ask for this at all. It is something imposed upon us from the outside.

WE: Is this the reason behind the growth of conservative movements across the world? Are figures, such as Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, trying to recreate these older solidarities?

PM: In one sense, it's not really conservatism because in many of these places there is not much to conserve. These are essentially political movements manipulating remnants of the progressivist ideologies, infusing them with the idioms of ethnic and religious identities. Even when they invoke the past, even when Putin talks about Orthodox Christianity or Erdogan invokes a mythical past or Hindu nationalists talk about Vedic science, they are still modern movements. The fact is these are elites trying to manipulate public opinion in their respective societies and they are using a variety of ideological and rhetorical means to do that.

From the outside you might sense some contradictions in their positions, like Erdogan supporting various businessmen who are ruthless capitalists and who are changing the face of Turkey, while at the same time talking about Islamic values. But I think at a fundamentally different level altogether these contradictions often work; they make people feel that they are not being completely uprooted by the modern world, that they can be capitalists at the same time as being devout Muslims. I think ostensibly conservative movements like that have become particularly successful because their appeal lies in their promise to resolve many important tensions and ambivalences in the lives of many of their followers. Older parties who only talk about right wing economics or left wing economics are finding it really hard in large parts of the world because they really don't have a very effective vocabulary at this point with which to address the existential challenges before many people in these societies transitioning to the modern world.

Islamic State fighters, Anbar, Iraq. Wikimedia Commons/Ritsaiph. Some rights reserved. Islamic State fighters, Anbar, Iraq. Wikimedia Commons/Ritsaiph. Some rights reserved.WE: In a recent essay in the Atlantic, Graeme Wood argued that ISIS is an essentially medieval organisation. He writes: "there is a temptation to rehearse this observation – that jihadists are modern secular people, with modern political concerns, wearing medieval religious disguise – and make it fit the Islamic state. In fact, much of what the group does looks nonsensical except in light of a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse." Is this a convincing analysis of the ideology of ISIS?

PM: There has been a lot of fascinating discussion in academia about whether our categories and oppositions of secular-modern and religious-medieval are so watertight after all. I don't want to get into this. But it is instructive to look at how many people in the Muslim world interpreted the statements and actions of American statesmen right after 9/11, especially the more Christian-fundamentalists among them – how they concluded that a new crusade against Islam had been launched. So a similar charge of medieval legality and apocalyptic mentality can also be levelled – and more convincingly – against the ultra modern-seeming perpetrators of endless wars and torture. Let's not assume they represent sweet reason, otherwise Guantanamo would have been closed a long time ago, the 'torture memo' would never have been written. Much of this kind of interpretation arises from our particular location in the world.

The important question for us is: is it useful? Does conclusively identifying ISIS or the Shia militias fighting it as a product of the Dark Ages, or invoking theological categories, do anything apart from satisfy our desire to feel morally superior and justified in unleashing extreme violence around the world? Or does it make more sense to consider ISIS along with very similar eruptions of political-religious fury in the last century and a half: from the Taiping rebellion and the Mahdi and Boxer uprisings to Hindu, Sikh, Jewish and even Buddhist millenarianisms in recent decades? If we do this, then we can start to identity ISIS as the symptom of a wider social and political breakdown in its region which inevitably produces various DIY interpretations of scripture and a crazy utopianism. We can then also predict that the transition to a new order would continue to produce such movements. This at least helps us calibrate our response; the theological interpretation on the other hand, or the pathological obsession with Islam, seems largely useful to exponents on all sides of holy war.

WE: In your Guardian essay on the 'western model', you write: “Looking at our own complex disorder we can no longer accept that it manifests an a priori moral and rational order, visible only to an elite thus far, that will ultimately be revealed to all.” But without an “a priori moral and rational order” isn't there a danger of cultural pluralism slipping into moral relativism and cultural nativism?

PM: I think we have to undertake a careful attempt to find a place between different kinds of triumphalist fundamentalisms. The right wing fundamentalism that mostly comes from the technocratic business and political elites and the mainstream media says that there is only one way to spend one's time on this earth: to accumulate lots of money, to consume all kinds of new products, to work in an office or a factory – hundreds of millions of people are raised from poverty while car sales shoot up. The other fundamentalism is the cultural nationalism that you find in Putinism, Erdoganism or Hindu nationalism. I think you'll find that both of them have a particular teleology in mind.

Essentially, these are fundamentalisms which are positing this great redemption somewhere in the future and asking you to sacrifice your present for it. I think my attempt is to undermine the teleological assumptions and to say: actually, where we are right now, this is it. We have to live in the present. We cannot commit crimes, kill or dispossess people, for the sake of some future which may never come. Human life is a very complex thing, not assessed by poverty statistics, and human desires are very ambiguous and ever-shifting, not amenable to easy fulfilment. I’m attacking this notion of a rational order which some of us can see right now but eventually everyone will love when they see it. This is what tyrants of different kinds have said throughout the modern era, whether it was Stalin or Mao or Hitler, not to mention any of the smaller figures or the so-called “civilisers” of the 19th century. The Iraq war was the most recent example of this kind of catastrophic thinking. In 2015, we simply cannot afford to keep believing in these fantastical projections. We have to be much more sceptical of these notions that we have internalised.

Pankaj Mishra’s From the Ruins of Empire is published by Penguin.

About the authors

William Eichler is an editorial assistant and freelance journalist who lives and works in the UK. He has an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Nottingham, and reviews academic books on the Middle East for the LSE Review of Books. You can follow him on Twitter: @EichlerEssays.

Pankaj Mishra is an Indian essayist and novelist. His latest book is From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia.


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