The Malign Incompetence of the British Ruling Class

By Pankaj Mishra
The New York Times, January 17, 2019

Edited by Andy Ross

Britain made a calamitous exit from its Indian empire in 1947 when it left India partitioned. The British exit from the EU is proving to be another act of moral dereliction by British rulers. The Brexiteers, pursuing a fantasy of imperial strength and sovereignty, have repeatedly revealed their hubris, mulishness, and ineptitude over the past two years.

In a grotesque irony, imperial borders imposed in 1921 on Ireland have proved to be the biggest stumbling block for the Brexiteers chasing imperial virility. Britain itself faces the prospect of partition if Brexit is achieved and Scottish nationalists call for independence. English Brexiteers were initially oblivious to the volatile Irish question and contemptuous of the Scottish one.

People in Ireland are aghast over the aggressive ignorance of English Brexiteers. Business people everywhere are outraged by their cavalier disregard for the economic consequences of new borders. But none of this would surprise anyone who knows how the British ruling class first drew lines through Asia and Africa and then doomed the people living across them to endless suffering.

The malign incompetence of the Brexiteers was precisely prefigured during the rushed British exit from India in 1947. Up to one million people died and huge refugee populations trekked across the new borders between India and Pakistan. Just a few months after the botched partition, India and Pakistan were fighting a war over the disputed territory of Kashmir.

The mention of Winston Churchill stiffens the spines of many Brexiteers today. Churchill, a fanatical imperialist, worked harder than any British politician to thwart Indian independence. He displayed a similarly imperial insouciance toward Ireland, sending countless young Irishmen to their deaths at Gallipoli in 1915 and unleashing paramilitaries against Irish nationalists in 1920.

The rolling calamity of Brexit has cruelly exposed the folly of imperialism. As partition comes home, threatening bloodshed in Ireland, secession in Scotland, and chaos in Dover, ordinary British people stand to suffer from the exit wounds British imperialists once inflicted on millions of Asians and Africans. The British ruling class is toast.

Mahatma Gandhi

By Pankaj Mishra
New Yorker magazine, October 2018

Edited by Andy Ross

Mohandas Gandhi: "Politics encircle us today like the coil of a snake from which one cannot get out, no matter how much one tries. I wish therefore to wrestle with the snake."

Gandhi, known as the Mahatma (an honorific meaning "great soul"), became famous worldwide as a practitioner of nonviolent resistance.

Gandhi invented satyagraha, meaning nonviolent direct action. The aim of satyagraha was to arouse the conscience of oppressors and invigorate their victims with a sense of moral agency. Satyagraha literally translates as "holding fast to truth" and obliges protesters to keep an open mind. Gandhi: "We will never all think alike and we shall always see truth in fragments and from different angles of vision."

Gandhi thought democracy in the West was "clearly an impossibility so long as the wide gulf between the rich and the hungry millions persists" and voters take their cue from dishonest newspapers.

Gandhi said people in the West "imagine they have a voice in their own government" but in fact were “being exploited by the ruling class or caste under the sacred name of democracy." Even in nominally democratic states: "Industrialism depends entirely on your capacity to exploit, on foreign markets being open to you, and on the absence of competitors."

Gandhi critiqued modern civilization for its refusal to recognize limits. He counterposed a civilization organized around self-limitation and ethical conduct: "The only real, dignified, human doctrine is the greatest good of all, and this can only be achieved by uttermost self-sacrifice."

Gandhi: "Just as one must learn the art of killing in the training for violence, so one must learn the art of dying in the training for non-violence .. The very right to live accrues to us only when we do the duty of citizenship of the world."

Gandhi was a devout Hindu. His vow of celibacy and his penchant for wearing a loincloth and spinning cotton made him seem like an Indian mendicant. In fact, he was, as Pope John Paul II once said, more of a Christian than many people who say they are Christians. His heroes included Emerson, Thoreau, and Ruskin. He corresponded with Tolstoy, who called him his spiritual heir.

Gandhi saw the dangers to human freedom from economics and technology. He saw the link between European imperialism in Asia and Africa and totalitarianism in Europe. He saw that new conceptions of social interdependence, individual agency, and cosmopolitan responsibility were needed to save the world from the delusions of individualism and collectivism.

Gandhi devised satyagraha, a mode of resistance that infused mass politics with a moral imperative to end the vicious cycle of violent antagonism and to prepare the ground for mutual toleration. He claimed that those engaged in satyagraha were true warriors.

Gandhi tempted violence in order to convert it by the force of suffering into something quite unexpected: "The penetration of the heart comes from suffering."

Gandhi believed that society is much more than a social contract between self-seeking individuals underpinned by the rule of law and structured by institutions. It is actually founded upon sacrificial relationships, whether between lovers, friends, or parents and children. He saw that public life organized around private interests is always likely to degenerate into a war of each against all.

Gandhi was assassinated on January 30, 1948. He consummated his duty to sacrifice himself for others.

AR Gandhi has been one of my great heroes since 1983.

Against the Brahmins

By Pankaj Mishra
Boston Review, May 2013

Edited by Andy Ross

The Indian embrace of global capitalism has led to cruel inequality. To examine the experience is also to begin to learn what kind of politics and economy work best for our complex societies. It is to move away from a visions of Asia in which countries like India are competing in a race to Western modernity.

We need more democracy in India. Unlike in America, democracy in India has always been attached to the promise of equality, to social and economic justice, to the welfare of the poor and underprivileged caste groups. The real question is: What kind of democracy?

Religion becomes a basis for identity and community in electoral politics when other forms of association are weak or nonexistent. So there will always be politicians making appeals to religious solidarity, and there will also be extremists seeking to channel militant disaffection. The question is whether those opposed to extremists can deploy their traditions creatively in their quest for justice.

Writers and intellectuals have become too professionalized and too concerned not to upset their peers. The result is a stultifying sameness in the intellectual public sphere. You have a whole class of writers and journalists saying the same things over and over again.

The Ruins Of Empire

By Pankaj Mishra
The Guardian, July 27, 2012

Edited by Andy Ross

The new revisionist histories of empire contain next to nothing about how people in Asian countries endured the ravages of western imperialism.

In 1900, British atrocities during the Boer war and the suppression of the Boxer rising in China provoked the pacifist poet Rabindranath Tagore to compare such bards of imperialism as Rudyard Kipling to mangy dogs.

In 1907, Aurobindo Ghose was harsher: "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."

In 1906, Japanese art historian Kakuzo Okakura wrote: "European imperialism, which does not disdain to raise the absurd cry of the Yellow Peril, fails to realize that Asia may also awaken to the cruel sense of the White Disaster."

In Germany, Hitler envied the British venture in India — what he called "the capitalist exploitation of the 350 million Indian slaves" — and hoped that Germany would impose a similarly kleptocratic despotism on the peoples and territories it conquered in Europe. In 1940, Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, said Nazism was the twin brother of western imperialism.

For many people in Asia, the two world wars were conflicts between Europe's rival empires. They were thrilled in 1905 when Japan defeated Russia. Then, 36 years later, Japan struck the decisive blow to European power in Asia. In about 90 days beginning in December 1941, Japan overran British, American, French, and Dutch possessions in east Asia, taking the Philippines, Singapore, Malaya, Hong Kong, the Dutch East Indies, much of Siam and Indochina, and Burma. By early 1942 they stood poised at the borders of India.

Shortly before Singapore fell to the Japanese, the exiled Dutch prime minister Pieter Gerbrandy told Churchill and others that "Japanese injuries and insults to the White population ... would irreparably damage white prestige unless severely punished within a short time". The Japanese were finally bombed into submission, but they had already destroyed the aura of European invincibility.

Singapore's founding father Lee Kuan Yew said Asians had learned "that no one — neither the Japanese nor the British — had the right to push and kick us around".

Ferguson's Civilisation

By Pankaj Mishra
London Review of Books, November 3, 2011

Edited by Andy Ross

Civilisation: The West and the Rest
By Niall Ferguson

Niall Ferguson's books are known less for their original scholarly contribution than for containing some provocative counterfactuals. In Britain, his bluster gained substance from a general rightward shift in political and cultural discourse. But his apotheosis came in the United States, where he was elevated to a professorship at Harvard, primetime punditry on CNN and Fox, and high-altitude wonkfests at Davos and Aspen.

In 2006, Ferguson discovered Chimerica, an alliance between China and America, with two complementary halves: "Profligate West Chimericans cannot get enough of the gadgets mass produced in the East. They save not a penny of their income and are happy to borrow against their fancy houses. Parsimonious East Chimericans live more humbly and cautiously. They would rather save a third of their own income and lend it to the West Chimericans to fund their gadget habit and keep East Chimericans in jobs."

For Ferguson, civilisation is best measured by the ability to make "sustained improvement in the material quality of life". Six killer apps — property rights, competition, science, medicine, the consumer society, and the work ethic — are the operating software of Western civilisation that enabled a few small polities at the western end of the Eurasian landmass "to dominate the rest of the world".

Ferguson asks why the West broke through to capitalist modernity and became the originator of globalisation but presumes that this was the inevitable result of the wonderfulness of the West and the hopelessness of the East. He does not discuss how many of his apps could turn literally into killers. The raising of conscript armies strengthened monarchical despotism in the East. Notions of absolute property rights turned millions of communitarian peasants in Asia into cheaply hired hands. Modern medicine could only be darkly ambiguous in Asia as populations expanded without corresponding economic growth.

Ferguson: "By 1913, the world ... was characterised by a yawning gap between the West and the Rest, which manifested itself in assumptions of white racial superiority and numerous formal and informal impediments to non-white advancement. This was the ultimate global imbalance."

Ferguson notes that the Resterners are now paying Westerners the ultimate compliment of imitating them. His book is immune to the tragic view, just as it is to humour and irony.

Ferguson, 2011: "The West has suffered a financial crisis that has damaged not only the wealth of the Western world, but perhaps more importantly the legitimacy, the credibility, even the self-esteem of the West."

AR Ferguson is too gung-ho in favour of Western orthodoxy but I find his views on civilisation interesting anyway. The six killer app thing is too trite.

Modernity's Undoing

By Pankaj Mishra
London Review of Books, March 31, 2011

Edited by Andy Ross

In her novel Look at Me (2001), Jennifer Egan has a character say the "narrative of industrial America began with the rationalization of objects through standardization, abstraction and mass production" and has concluded "with the rationalization of human beings through marketing, public relations, image consulting and spin."

The virtues of the realist tradition can be combined with a modernist esthetic of fragmentation and dissolution. Look at Me was one such synthesis. Its carefully interlinked characters cover a broad social canvas. Its various sincere first-person and satirically edged third-person narratives describe a multiplicity of small narcissisms. It's a funhouse mirror maze.

Egan had previously published The Invisible Circus, a novel, and a collection of short fiction, Emerald City. These books describe the vulnerability and unexpected self-reckonings of the provincial in New York and the American abroad. Egan, born in 1962, seemed like an expatriate. Her short fiction shows a mastery of elliptical dialogue.

In her new novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, with its more unorthodox narrative, Egan fully realizes her vision of the impersonal tyranny of a mass, technicized society. Describing the lives of people in and around the rock music business, it spans roughly half a century, from the 1970s to a menacingly dystopian 2020. Several interlocking developments specific to this period form the political and cultural background to the book's diversely alienated characters: the neutralization of the counterculture, the decline of family capitalism, the rise of corporate political and economic power, and of credit-fuelled high-end consumption, which together lead to a state of mass depoliticization where even the obsession with personal identity turns into competition between consumer status groups.

Egan never loses her interest in characterization. By forgoing omniscient, all-explaining narration, Egan seems to get at a deeper interiority. And by rapidly shifting scene and voice, she saves herself, and her reader, the tedious tasks of scene-setting and plot advancement. The many instances of physical and moral decay in the novel remind us that in a culture centrally obsessed with youth and beauty, time is a particularly vicious thug.

A Visit from the Goon Squad commemorates not only the fading of a cultural glory but also of the economic and political supremacy that underpinned it.

Obama's AfPak Fantasy

By Pankaj Mishra
The Guardian, December 11, 2009

Edited by Andy Ross

Barack Obama's idea of sending 30,000 more soldiers to help subdue the Taliban, reinforce the corrupt regime in Kabul, and assassinate more people in Pakistan until the inevitable American retreat, seems a particularly incoherent fantasy.

The Taliban may now choose to lie low for a while. The general respite from violence may even prove long enough for Obama's intellectual courtiers to declare that the surge in Afghanistan has "worked".

In his long speech on Afghanistan, Obama barely mentioned Pakistan and did not refer to India. Pakistan has fought three wars with India over Kashmir, and India's military occupation of the Muslim- majority valley remains the biggest recruiting tool for jihadists in Pakistan.

In 1971, India facilitated the secession of Pakistan's easternmost province (now Bangladesh), provoking Pakistan's army and intelligence officials to pursue a policy of creating "strategic depth" against India by seeking Pashtun clients inside Afghanistan.

In the 1990s, Pakistani officials who helped supply the mujahideen during the CIA-led anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan turned to fuelling the popular insurgency in Kashmir. Throughout the decade, Pakistan's intelligence agency, the ISI, trained and financed militant Islamist groups for jihad in Kashmir.

A month before he was elected, Obama said that "working with Pakistan and India to try to resolve the Kashmir crisis in a serious way" were "critical tasks for the next administration".

Pakistan's leaders will play the same charade with Obama that General Musharraf's foreign minister once frankly described as, "First say yes, and later say but". They may well launch a few token crackdowns on militants but are unlikely to abandon the possibility of allowing some to remain in order to unleash them later on Kashmir.

AR  I see this obsession with Kashmir as quite absurd. Why should we care whether a few Muslims in Kashmir live under Indian or Pakistani rule? There are already over a hundred million Muslims in India. Pakistan must learn to live peaceably with India. The only real difference between them is the official status of Islam. The fact that India is a thriving business success and Pakistan an impoverished and almost failed state proves to me that Islam is the disaster here. Perhaps Pakistanis should disestablish Islam and reunite with India.

Culture Of Fear

By Pankaj Mishra
The Guardian, August 15, 2009

Edited by Andy Ross

Is Europe about to be overrun by Muslims? According to Christopher Caldwell, "minorities can shape countries. They can conquer countries. There were probably fewer Bolsheviks in Russia in 1917 than there are Islamists in Europe today."

Apparently it's not only Islamist revolutionaries, but also rapidly breeding Muslims who are transforming Europe into "Eurabia". Didn't Yasser Arafat call the wombs of Palestinian women "the secret weapon" of his cause?

Caldwell stops short of speculating what Europe would or should do to atone for its folly of nurturing a perfidious minority. The Canadian journalist Mark Steyn, does not hesitate: "In a democratic age, you can't buck demography ... if you can't outbreed the enemy, cull 'em."

At a conference a couple of years ago, I saw some of Anglo-America's leading academics, journalists and columnists denounce Ian Buruma, Timothy Garton Ash and other liberal commentators with even more bitter passion than they spent on what Caldwell calls "the penury, servitude, violence, and mediocrity of Muslim societies worldwide".

The lone representative of the Muslim world at the event, a Turkish scholar, complained in his newspaper column about "Islamophobia". According to Austria's extreme-right Freedom Party, Turkey is not welcome in Europe because "there was no Enlightenment and no Renaissance in Turkey" and "one of the most important values of Europeans, tolerance, does not count in Turkey".

Recall that Austria was, in living memory, a major collaborator in the Nazi scheme to murder and enslave millions of Europeans. Genocide during the second world war followed by ethnic cleansing were what finally resolved Europe's longstanding minority "problem".

Soon afterwards, the continent began to acquire a new foreign population. Western Europe's resurgent postwar economies needed cheap labour, which turned out to be readily available in Asia and Africa. These immigrants were expected to work hard in their mostly menial jobs and then return to their respective countries. Living in their urban ghettos, they were rarely expected to become full citizens.

Surveys and opinion polls repeatedly reveal the average European Muslim to be poor, socially conservative, unhappy about discrimination, but generally content, hopeful about their children and eager to get on with their lives. Initially high, birthrates among Muslim communities across Europe are falling as more men and women become literate. Exposure to secular modernity has also weaned many of these immigrants away from traditional faith.

Ordinary Muslims in Europe are far from thinking of themselves as a politically powerful community. The idea of a monolithic "Islam" in Europe appears an especially pitiable bogey when you regard the varying national origins, linguistic and legal backgrounds, and cultural and religious practices of European Muslims.

Unemployment, discrimination and other disorientations make young Muslims in Europe vulnerable to globalised forms of political Islam. But it is a tiny minority that is attracted to or is ready to condone terrorist violence. Not surprisingly, most of these Muslims live in Britain, the European country most tainted by the calamitous "war on terror" that David Miliband now concedes was possible to see as a war on Muslims.

Caldwell claims to like Islam for its "primitive" vigour, which he speculates may just revitalise "drab" Europe. Indeed, an obsession with sexual virility and racial purity runs through his book, where he wonders why Europeans today feel so "contemptible and small, ugly and asexual" before Asians and Africans.

Caldwell seems incensed by Europe's self-loathing white liberals: "For the first time in centuries, Europeans are living in a world they did not, for the most part, shape." Fear and anxiety darken every page of Caldwell's book. A more thoughtful conservative could have examined valuably how neoliberal capitalism, while enriching Europe's translational elites, has frayed the continent's old cultures and solidarities.

The everyday choices of most Muslims in Europe are dictated more by their experience of globalised economies and cultures than their readings in the Qur'an or sharia. Millions of Muslims coexist frictionlessly and gratefully with regimes committed to democracy, freedom of religion and equality before the law.

For many of these Muslims, the urgent questions are whether the old-style liberalism of many European nation-states can accommodate minority identity and expressions of cultural and religious distinctiveness. Some think not. In 2004, France's ban on the wearing of headscarves in public schools bluntly clarified that Muslims will have to renounce all signs of their religion in order to become fully French.

This expectation of identity suicide has a rather grim history in enlightened Europe. Many Jews in the 19th century paid an even higher cost of "integration" than that confronting Muslims today in France. Those Jews who suppressed the Torah and Talmud and underwent drastic embourgeoisement became even more vulnerable to malign prejudice in post-Enlightenment Europe's secular nation-states.

Multi-ethnic Europe is an immutable fact. It needs a more inclusive, open-ended identity, one derived more from its pluralistic and relatively peaceful present, and supranational future, than its brutishly nationalist and imperialist past.

AR  Caldwell has started a useful public conversation about Islam in Europe that we should not try to avoid. European culture and civilization are global treasures, whatever their faults and failings from a Gandhian perspective. Swamping Europe with Muslims will devalue that treasure unless the immigrants can be peaceably and productively integrated. This may not be easy.

The Afghan Fiasco

By Pankaj Mishra
The Guardian, August 8, 2009

Edited by Andy Ross

Afghanistan is now a bigger fiasco than Iraq. Things looked hopeless even four years ago when I visited some British soldiers near Mazar-e-Sharif. The soldiers were generous with their time, and friendly to someone they suspected to be unsympathetic. They joked about a lot, but they also spoke seriously and unaffectedly of the reconstruction work they were doing.

I had seen enough of Afghanistan outside their compound to know that their endeavours, though well- intentioned and vigorous, were rendered futile by the fact they were largely seen as invaders in a country notoriously hostile to foreign armies. The daily humiliations of a prolonged military occupation had become as intolerable as the oppressions of the Taliban to ordinary Afghans.

AR  Afghanistan without the Anglo-American presence was already a fiasco. If the natives cannot learn to see the intervention constructively and accept a well-intentioned effort to help, they will simply go under in the emerging globalized world.

Obama's Bulldozer

By Pankaj Mishra
The Guardian, June 16, 2009

Edited by Andy Ross

Much has been made of Pakistan's "denial" of the threat posed by the Taliban. Many Pakistanis remember how the blowback from the CIA's anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan ravaged their country. Pakistanis now accuse the United States for pursuing its failed war on terror in Afghanistan into Pakistan, reinvigorating the extremists it had helped to spawn.

Pakistan's civilian-military elite has been naturally reluctant to fight too hard to redeem the blunders of its ally. Covertly supporting extremist groups, elements in the army and intelligence have tried to maintain their room for manoeuvre in both Afghanistan and Kashmir. But the idea that Pakistan, with its ethnically and politically diverse population, is ready to surrender to fanatics led by Pashtuns is a paranoid fantasy.

Pakistan is more than capable of dealing with violent extremists if it can sort out its mixed loyalties. Institutionally distrustful of the United States, which recently turned India into its main Asian ally with an extravagant nuclear deal, Pakistan has continued to incite extremists against the America-backed, pro-India regime in Kabul and Indian interests in Kashmir.

The United States has the opportunity to urge India and Pakistan to a comprehensive political solution in Kashmir and to acknowledge that Pakistan will never tolerate a hostile ruler in Kabul, especially if backed by India.

After the anti-Soviet jihad, Pakistan's generals sought "strategic depth" in Afghanistan against India. The United States can reasonably expect responsible behaviour from Islamabad only if it treats Pakistan as a power with inalienable interests, rather than as a nuclear-armed "rogue" state.

AR  The shamelessness of Pakistan's misuse of American funds to bolster its position in fratricidal disputes with India, for example over Kashmir, could blow back on Pakistan. The United States could use the issue of the insecure nukes to topple the whole corrupt mess in Islamabad and turn Pakistan into the main battlefield in the fight to exterminate the jihadists.

World Literature

By Pankaj Mishra
The Guardian, April 18, 2009

Edited by Andy Ross

At the London Book Fair this year, India has been anointed the "market focus country", with a special program designed to provide "opportunities for international business", shorthand for the western publishing industry.

Only incorrigible puritans will deny that the book, once ingested by the machinery of publishing, distribution and publicity, turns into a commodity like any other, no matter how otherworldly or ascetic the original authorial impulse may have been.

Meanwhile, the Indian government has taken to projecting India's own version of "soft power" by sponsoring book fairs and festivals. The market for go-getting business books or wonkish tomes by corporate moguls posing as philosopher kings has grown dramatically in China and India.

The "boom" in Indian writing in English is due not only to the rise of a new generation of talented writers but also to the vastly increased preference for "ethnic" literature among the book-buying public of western Europe and North America.

For some decades now we have lived within a global consumer economy that exalts the idea of all cultures and societies eventually converging on a single norm. Cultural palates in this flattened world can only be progressively homogenised. Happily, financial capitalism and free trade have not done away with national languages and literatures.

AR  A globalized consumer-industrial complex can promote convergence by flattening all world literature into English "translations" that do for ideas what British "curry" does for the exotic delights of Indian cuisine. Brave new world!

American Literature

By Pankaj Mishra
The Guardian, February 21, 2009

Edited by Andy Ross

The United States has stumbled from a disastrous war into its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. As John Gray pointed out, intellectual and cultural hegemony quickly leaks away when its true basis, economic success, ceases to exist.

The United States had already begun in the early 20th century decisively to shape the experience of western modernity. And when it emerged stronger and richer after the second world war, while Europe lay in ruins, its culture had no rivals anywhere in the world. Europeans confronted it with mingled feelings of fascination, envy, longing and resentment.

The "special relationship" between Britain and America could only become imbalanced as the decline of the British empire coincided with the exhaustion induced by the second world war. I am often struck by the anxious inferiority many well-educated British people display towards the United States, particularly Londoners dazzled by New York, when many postcolonials are accustomed to regarding Britain's old imperial cosmopolis as the true capital of the western world. It is as though metropolitan western Europe was more thoroughly Coca-colonised than any other part of the world.

However, the outlook for American literature seems brighter than at any time in recent decades. The present crisis will likely incite a fresh re-evaluation of values, styles and genres.

AR  Europe is Coca-colonized by choice. American culture is European culture brought to its highest "perfection" in a melting pot of ancient European animosities and traditions. What survives the meltdown is fit to refashion Europe in a survivable form for the globalized postcolonial world. But American literature is nowhere near rich enough to outshine the European literary heritage.

The Banality Of Democracy

By Pankaj Mishra
The Guardian, February 11, 2009

Edited by Andy Ross

In its assault on Gaza, as President Shimon Peres confirmed, "Israel's aim was to provide a strong blow to the people of Gaza so that they would lose their appetite for shooting at Israel". Writing in the New York Times, Thomas Friedman explained that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was meant to say "suck on this" to the Muslim world.

Democracy has proved no guarantor of political wisdom, even if it remains the least bad form of government. In 2006, the Palestinians voted for Hamas. Given the chance, majorities in many Muslim countries would elect similarly intransigent Islamist parties to high office.

But majority opinion in older and presumably more mature democracies often makes much of the devastation caused by terrorists and dictators seem minor by comparison. Initially, Americans overwhelmingly supported George Bush's catastrophic forays in the Middle East. Operation Cast Lead was blessed by a remarkably high proportion of Israelis.

When the Israeli historian Tom Segev judged Israeli "apathy" towards the massacre in Gaza as "chilling and shameful", he brought on deja vu among Indians. In 2002, the Hindu nationalist government of Gujarat supervised the killing of more than two thousand Muslims. The state's chief minister, Narendra Modi, who green-lighted the mass murder, seemed a monstrous figure to many Indians. They watched aghast as the citizens of Gujarat re-elected Modi by a landslide after the pogrom. In 2007, Modi again won elections with contemptuous ease.

As the Israeli right looks likely to be the latest electoral beneficiary of state terror, it is time to ask: can the institutions of electoral democracy, liberal capitalism, and the nation-state be relied upon to do our moral thinking for us?

It is thoughtlessness and apathy rather than malicious intent on the part of majorities that helps their representatives to perpetrate or cover up such atrocities as Gujarat, the blockade of Gaza, or the occupation of Kashmir. But Hannah Arendt's concept of "the banality of evil" refers precisely to how a generalised moral numbness among educated people makes them commit or passively condone acts of extreme violence.

AR  Let us keep a sense of proportion. Atrocities in modern democracies are small by historical standards and are quickly aired and discussed exhaustively enough to make similar events less likely in future. India and Israel are surely among the more benign actors on the world stage. Always look on the bright side of life!

Literature And Politics

By Pankaj Mishra
The Guardian, January 10, 2009

Edited by Andy Ross

Terrorist attacks on the west have shocked some Anglo-American writers out of political torpor and into an ideological battle against what they call "Islamofascism". If this noble battle involves some "collateral damage" and harassment of Muslims and other swarthy foreigners, too bad, since western civilisation itself is at stake.

The views of writers such as David Grossman in Israel or Arundhati Roy in India demand respectful attention even when they provoke sharp disagreement. For they have often spoken out against the ominous transformations within their countries: the emergence of powerful revanchist movements, the suppression of religious minorities and occupied territories with brute force, and the diffusion of a shrill media culture on the American model.

AR  The "shrill media culture" is precisely what you need to combat "ominous transformations" within a country. You can count on someone to blow the whistle if things go bad.

Not So Novel

By Pankaj Mishra
The Guardian, December 6, 2008

Edited by Andy Ross

In a recent article in the New York Review of Books, Zadie Smith seeks to liberate the novel from the middlebrow tastes of publishers and critics. Still, Smith's vision is limited to the works of a few white Anglo-Americans. It disregards the mutations in the traditional novel's metaphysic brought about by writers from India, Africa, Ireland, Pakistan, South Africa, Australia, and Canada. It seems to have no place for African Americans, immigrants in the United States, or even British Asian novelists.

One doesn't have to read too widely among some of the varied manifestations of the anglophone novel to conclude that rumours of its infirmity are greatly exaggerated. Far from following a single literary mode or genre, novelists from the post-Anglo-American world employ a kitchen-sink pragmatism. Occasionally, the form of the novel itself enacts a rejection of the old bourgeois novel with its social certainties and fixed existential identities.

Many such novels emerge from places in the anglophone world that were previously not much heard from. They are driven less by metaphysical concerns, or the artistic program that Smith attributes to Tom McCarthy, to "shake the novel out of its present complacency", than by an urgency that is broadly political. Very few people read or write novels in order to figure out the true future of the novel.

AR  Novels are an endangered art form in a world of electronic media. But they will survive for long enough to ensure that I find buyers for my next one, I hope.

Writers And Politics

By Pankaj Mishra
The Guardian, November 1, 2008

Edited by Andy Ross

In Saul Bellow's novel Herzog, the tormented intellectual protagonist addresses a letter to Adlai Stevenson, the unsuccessful Democratic candidate for president in 1952 and 1960: "Dear Governor Stevenson, I supported you in 1952. Like many others I thought this country might be ready for its great age in the world and intelligence at last assert itself in public affairs." But Stevenson lost both elections by a landslide to Dwight Eisenhower, who won, as Herzog put it, "because he expressed low- grade universal potato love".

Nearly half a century later another young candidate for president has charmed many writers out of political despair and indifference. The endorsements for Barack Obama keep rolling in, and it is easy to understand why. Obama not only seems a providential intervention in American politics, he is also a writer of great skill and emotional power.

Obama appears to be a writer possessed of the sense of the tragic limit and unpredictability of human action. And for writers who dream of wielding a transformative power with their work, watching one of their kind ascend to the West Wing is undoubtedly thrilling. It seems that intelligence finally has a chance of asserting itself in public affairs. But the odds against its success are still enormous.

Obama will be the president of a deeply conservative country, which was persuaded to choose a black intellectual over a war hero and hockey mom only by the fear of economic collapse. Indeed, Obama's own tough talk about taking the supposedly "good" war in Afghanistan to Pakistan is likely to trap him into a disastrous course of action.

Obama appeals subliminally to a powerless intelligentsia at least partly because he appears, with his superior intelligence, wit and learning, to hold himself aloof from the dingy realm of politics. But those who avidly await Obama's political apotheosis next week must now also brace themselves for the melancholy spectacle of a promising writer's swift decline.

AR  I enjoyed reading Herzog about thirty years ago but I think the syndrome of hoping for more "intelligence" in public affairs is eternally doomed to disappointment.

In Search Of Monsters

By Pankaj Mishra
The Guardian, October 4, 2008

Edited by Andy Ross

Obscured by the American economy's slow-motion train wreck, the war on terror has stumbled into its most treacherous phase with the invasion of fiercely nationalistic and nuclear-armed Pakistan.

In late 2003, the American journalist Dexter Filkins came across an Iraqi village called Abu Hishma in the Sunni triangle. Rubble-strewn and "encased in razor wire", Abu Hishma resembled, Filkins wrote, "a town in the West Bank". The local American commander Nathan Sassaman bulldozed homes and called in air strikes, and was fond of proclaiming that "there is no God — I am god here".

According to Filkins, Sassaman is very impressed by a book entitled The Arab Mind, by Raphael Patai. Apparently, Patai says that the only thing the denizens of the Middle East understand is force, pride and saving face, and Sassaman believes that, "with a heavy dose of fear and violence, and a lot of money for projects ... we can convince these people that we are here to help them".

More surprisingly, the historian Bernard Lewis assured Dick Cheney that "in that part of the world, nothing matters more than resolute will and force". The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman exhorted the United States to act "just a little bit crazy", since "the more frightened our enemies are today, the fewer we will have to fight tomorrow". Assistant Secretary of State Richard Armitage told Pakistani diplomats that the United States would bomb their country "back to the stone age" if it did not withdraw its support for the Taliban. The idea seemed to be validated by the Taliban's swift capitulation.

Iraq was next. After the U.S. army reached Baghdad, as the Iraqi resistance unexpectedly intensified, the defeat in Vietnam began to prey on Bush's mind, unravelling his syntax as he harangued his commanders in Iraq: "Kick ass! ... We must be tougher than hell! This Vietnam stuff, this is not even close. It is a mind-set. We can't send that message. It's an excuse to prepare us for withdrawal ... There is a series of moments and this is one of them. Our will is being tested, but we are resolute. We have a better way. Stay strong! Stay the course! Kill them! Be confident! Prevail! We are going to wipe them out! We are not blinking!"

Ahmed Rashid was clearly the most despairing among the journalists accompanying the march of folly. He described how a combination of selfish motives and reckless actions by the United States facilitated the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

According to Rashid, Pervez Musharraf's regime in Pakistan may have pulled off one of the biggest swindles in recent history by persuading the Bush administration to part with $10 bilion in exchange for mostly empty promises of support for its "war on terror". Confronted with a choice between regressing to the stone age and meeting crazy Uncle Sam's demands, Musharraf's regime adopted a policy of dissembling that the then foreign minister outlined as "First say yes, and later say but". Since 9/11, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan's rogue spy agency, has continued to provide sanctuary and military support for the Taliban while occasionally arresting some al-Qaida militants to appease Washington.

Tariq Ali says that the post-9/11 project of "nation-building" in Afghanistan was always doomed. Ali prescribes scepticism against strategists and journalists who blame Pakistan for increasing attacks on western forces in Afghanistan.

Dismissing the alarmist cliché that jihadis are very close to getting their grubby fingers on the country's nuclear button, Ali points to the deep and persistent unpopularity of religious parties in Pakistan. The jihadis would only get that far, he asserts, if "the army wanted them to".

Filkins writes with obvious fascination about Ahmed Chalabi. In many ways, Chalabi vindicates John Quincy Adams's warning to his young nation in 1821 against European-style imperialist adventures: by going "abroad in search of monsters to destroy", America would "involve herself beyond the power of extraction in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy and ambition".

AR  Musharraf's "swindle" strikes me as a strategic blunder. Obsessing about an imaginary Indian threat while supporting wild fundamentalists is an act of irresponsible statecraft sufficiently grave to warrant the wholesale replacement of the political establishment in Pakistan. If the crazies take over and the United States starts bombing, we shall be well on the way to a clash of civilizations as bad as anything in Huntingdon's dreams.

Violence In India

By Pankaj Mishra
The Guardian, August 7, 2008

Edited by Andy Ross

Fareed Zakaria describes India as a "powerful package" and claims it has been "peaceful, stable, and prosperous" since 1997.

But the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) in Washington reports that the death toll from terrorist attacks in India between January 2004 and March 2007 was 3,674, second only to that in Iraq. Since 1989, more than 80,000 have died in insurgencies in Kashmir and the northeastern states.

Politicians and the media routinely blame Pakistan for terrorist violence in India. The Indian elite's obsession with the "foreign hand" obscures the fact that the roots of some of the violence lie in the previous two decades of traumatic political and economic change, particularly the rise of Hindu nationalism.

Muslim isolation and despair is compounded by the inherent unfairness of the Indian criminal justice system. For example, the names of the politicians, businessmen, officials, and policemen who colluded in the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat in 2002 are widely known. Some of them were caught on video proudly recalling how they murdered and raped Muslims. But justice continues to evade most victims and survivors of the violence.

A disaffected minority of Indian Muslims has begun to heed the international pied pipers of jihad. Gung-ho members of the Indian middle class clamour for Israeli-style retaliation against jihadi training camps in Pakistan. But India can retaliate only by risking nuclear war with its neighbour.

AR  I like Zakaria's show on CNN and agree with his boosterism for India. Whatever India's faults, and they are many, it beats Pakistan as a healthy and functioning national institution any day. Indeed, because the main contrast between them is the centrality of Islam, I see the pair as a showcase study for the dysfunctionality of Islam in the modern world.

The Churchill Wannabes

By Pankaj Mishra
The Guardian, January 8, 2008

Edited by Andy Ross

Pakistan stumbled into postcolonial life with an army as its strongest institution. Pursuing their own agenda, western cold war adventurers and their local allies deeply damaged Pakistan's frail society. Three million Afghan, mostly Pashtun, refugees poured into Pakistan, along with cheap guns and drugs. Political Islam acquired a radical edge from the CIA-sponsored anti-communist jihad in Afghanistan.

The United States cancelled its aid program to Pakistan before the last Soviet soldier left Afghanistan in 1989 and went on to impose sanctions on Pakistan for its nuclear program. In 2001, diplomats and ex-generals raged against U.S. selfishness in leaving Pakistan to sort out the post-Soviet mess in Afghanistan. The jihad strangled Pakistan's democracy, endowing the military intelligence establishment with a sinister extra-constitutional authority.

Pervez Musharraf's promises to the United States could only be empty. Military and intelligence officers who had staked their careers on making reliable Pashtun friends were unlikely to launch more than a few token assaults on the Pak-Afghan borderlands. But the Bush administration persisted in the hope that the Pakistani military could be bullied or bribed into scoring successes in the global war on terror.

Many generals and spies probably couldn't believe their luck as they received billions of U.S. dollars for yet another phoney war. Paranoid western visions of crazy Islamists getting hold of Pakistani nukes ensured a steady flow of cash, which the military mostly spent on objectives not remotely resembling those drawn up in Washington.

Doubtless the Churchill wannabes that have proliferated since 9/11 would fight on their laptops to the last drop of Afghan and Pakistani blood. Intoxicated by their own clichés, they remain blind to how their warmongering in the cause of democracy in Afghanistan and Pakistan has boosted the most militaristic elements there.

AR  If the Pakistani generals "couldn't believe their luck" then, they may find it hard to believe their bad luck when the "crazy Islamists" really do take over the state machine and bring it crashing down to Afghan levels of incompetence. Perhaps the present political elite in Pakistan will have the grace to welcome an American rescue in that unfortunate eventuality.

A Paranoid Obsession

By Pankaj Mishra
The Guardian, December 8, 2007

Edited by Andy Ross

The paranoid obsession with Muslims dates back to 2001, when the violence once unleashed on places such as Afghanistan and Pakistan on behalf of the "free world" began to penetrate even the highly protected societies of the west. Almost every day newspaper columnists berate Islam. Martin Amis confided a revenge fantasy about Muslims to an interviewer from the Times.

Last week in the Guardian, Amis professed his attachment to the "beautiful idea" of a multiracial society. But before we could admire this lofty sentiment, Amis was off defending Mark Steyn against self-righteous liberal relativists who apparently render "undiscussable" the urgent subject of "continental demographics".

Whether Amis or any other individual is racist is barely relevant. We should be more concerned that ideas regarded as intellectually null and morally abhorrent in any other context are not only accepted and condoned but also celebrated as bold truth-telling. The "public conversation" about Islam proposed by Amis should not be avoided.

AR  Amis was out of his depth on this issue, but many of us floundered for a while before we began to understand the new sociopolitical landscape.

The End Of Innocence

By Pankaj Mishra
The Guardian, May 19, 2007

Edited by Andy Ross

On September 11, 2001, terrorists from the Middle East who destroyed American immunity to large- scale violence and chaos also forced many American and British novelists to reconsider the value of their work. Ian McEwan claimed: "I wanted to be told about the world. I wanted to be informed. I felt that we had gone through great changes and now was the time to just go back to school, as it were, and start to learn." Martin Amis confessed: "The so-called work in progress had been reduced, overnight, to a blue streak of pitiable babble. But then, too, a feeling of gangrenous futility had infected the whole corpus."

In December 2001, recalling the mood of the decade after the end of the cold war, Don DeLillo described how "the surge of capital markets dominated discourse and shaped global consciousness" and how "the dramatic climb of the Dow and the speed of the internet summoned us all to live permanently in the future, in the utopian glow of cyber-capital." On 9/11, he wrote, "parts of our world have crumbled into theirs, which means we are living in a place of danger and rage."

A connoisseur of political conspiracy and historical traumas, DeLillo seemed a pioneer among writers staking out territories of danger and rage. But the resonant views on terror, conspiracy, mass society and art he previously articulated through his characters are metaphysical rather than political. These theoretical formulations were likely to prove inadequate before foreign terrorists dealing in mass murder. Not surprisingly, DeLillo ends up relying on received notions about Muslim "rage".

Most of the literary fiction that self-consciously addresses 9/11 still seems underpinned by outdated assumptions of national isolation and self-sufficiency. The "reconsiderations" DeLillo promised after 9/11 don't seem to have led to a renewed historical consciousness. Composed within the narcissistic heart of the west, most 9/11 fictions seem unable to acknowledge political and ideological belief as a social and emotional reality in the world.

AR  I don't expect the narcissistic fictionalists of pre-9/11 Anglo-American literary culture to be the ones to assimilate the new clash of values. Even my own deeper philosophical take on the clash is stretched to a painful extreme as I try to digest the new reality.

The Politics Of Paranoia

By Pankaj Mishra
The Observer, September 17, 2006

Edited by Andy Ross

"Force does not work the way its advocates seem to think it does. It does not, for instance, reveal to the victim the strength of his adversary. On the contrary, it reveals the weakness, even the panic of his adversary and this revelation invests the victim with patience."
— James Baldwin

Millions, probably hundreds of millions, of people in societies historically subject to the West derive profound gratification from the prospect of humiliating the Anglo-American alliance that continues to believe so uncompromisingly in its right to dictate events around the world.

This explains why, five years after 9/11, the Taliban and al-Qaeda appear to be resurgent and the terrorist methods of organisations such as Hizbollah and Hamas enjoy unexpected legitimacy.

Where will all this rage and distrust end? Are we hurtling towards the kind of wars that made the previous century so uniquely bloody? How can we change policies that have so comprehensively failed?

Martin Amis asserts: "The impulse towards rational inquiry is by now very weak in the rank and file of the Muslim male." Such clichés about non-western peoples (they are all very irrational out there) and strident belief in "Western" rationality are now commonplace in elite liberal-left as well as conservative circles in the government and media.

Harold Evans, the former editor of the Sunday Times, asked us to accept severe constraints on our civil liberties since we confront something called the "new Salafist totalitarianism", a "barbarism" apparently more "invidious" than German fascism. But words like "Salafist totalitarianism" and "Islamofascism" do not deepen our understanding of the diverse nature of Muslim societies or of the schisms and contradictions within those we call radical Islam.

People obsessed with the threat of "Islamofascism" fail to notice that a loose network of fanatics and criminals hunted everywhere around the world resembles little the modern nation-state that in less than six years caused the death of tens of millions of people across Europe.

With the end of the Cold War, history seemed to have ended. The writings of Martin Amis in the pre- 9/11 decade reveal a deepening fascination with celebrity, pornography, and anti-communism in the West, but no sign of any meaningful engagement with the politics, religions, and literatures of the East.

We need to find new forms of co-existence in an interdependent and highly politicised world. The disaster in Vietnam will seem nothing in comparison to the consequences of America and Britain's failure to accommodate themselves to new geopolitical facts they cannot alter.

AR  There's nothing wrong with paranoia if you're being attacked. This is a fight, and a flourish of rhetoric of the "Islamofascist" variety is what we need to raise consciousness worldwide. The forces of technology and globalization demand far more responsible and organized leadership than the Islamic world in its current form has any reasonable hope of providing, so the present hegemonists of the Anglo-American and European and East Asian zones must pull together and do the necessary. If Islamists get in the way, well, too bad for them.