‘From the Ruins of Empire’: Interview with Pankaj Mishra

The central event of the last century for the majority of the world was the political awakening of Asia, writes Mishra.

The West has seen Asia through their "own perspective", leaving the experiences of Asian peoples [AFP]

In the prologue to his new book From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia, award-winning author and essayist Pankaj Mishra writes:

“The West has seen Asia through the narrow perspective of its own strategic and economic interests, leaving unexamined – and unimagined – the collective experiences and subjectivities of Asian peoples… [This book] does not seek to replace a Euro-centric or West-centric perspective with an equally problematic Asia-centric one. Rather, it seeks to open up multiple perspectives on the past and the present, convinced that the assumptions of Western power – increasingly untenable – are no longer a reliable vantage point and may even be dangerously misleading”.

Focusing on the trajectories of two itinerant thinkers and activists, the Persian Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-97) and the Chinese Liang Qichao (1873-1929) – as well as various other Asian intellectuals and leaders – Mishra gracefully challenges the West-centric narrative, positing that “the central event of the last century for the majority of the world’s population was the intellectual and political awakening of Asia and its emergence from the ruins of both Asian and European empires”.

This thesis enables crucial and otherwise inaccessible insights into contemporary history, including phenomena ranging from the formation of al-Qaeda to the rise of China.

I had the opportunity to converse with Mishra by email about his book, the transcript of which interview appears below.

As for the potential fertility of present-day imperial ruins, populations accustomed to deflecting the “uncivilised” charge onto non-Westerners would do well to reflect on obvious parallels between, for example, the current behaviour of the US military abroad and Mishra’s description of Napoleon-era French soldiers, who “while suppressing the first of the Egyptian revolts against their occupation, stormed the al-Azhar mosque, tethered their horses to the prayer niches, trampled the Qurans under their boots, drank wine until they were helpless and then urinated on the floor”.

Belen Fernandez: You explain at the start of From the Ruins of Empire:

“The form of this book – part historical essay and part intellectual biography – is primarily motivated by the conviction that the lines of history converge in individual lives, even though the latter have their own shape and momentum. The early men of modern Asia it describes travelled and wrote prolifically, restlessly assessing their own and other societies, pondering the corruption of power, the decay of community, the loss of political legitimacy and the temptations of the West. Their passionate enquiries appear in retrospect as a single thread, weaving seemingly disparate events and regions into a single web of meaning.”

You’ve discussed your own intellectual formation and travels in previous writings, such as your book Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet, and Beyond. What convergence of events and experiences compelled you to embark on From the Ruins of Empire?

Pankaj Mishra: Many things over the last decade. I’ll speak only about two here. The first was surely my visit to the Muslim-majority valley of Kashmir in 2000, where I witnessed a military occupation by a nation-state, India, that claimed the moral prestige of secularism but was actually oppressively Hindu majoritarian in all significant ways – that’s how it was perceived by Kashmiris who had long belonged to a cosmopolitan and syncretic culture.

That’s when I began to wonder why many Asian nation-states had turned out to be often more violent than the European empires in Asia they had replaced. And that was when I began to wonder – and this is a major theme in the book – if the political and economic models Asians had adopted from the West in their struggle for self-determination and dignity were disastrously unsuitable. 


 Kashmir’s economy shattered by conflict

I realised too that the post-colonial version of history I had grown up with – one that celebrated the nation-state’s emergence from foreign rule – was deeply defective and left out a lot of things.

The other thing that influenced me was the post-9/11 political climate in the West. How such a wide range of politicians, policymakers, journalists and columnists could re-embrace the delusions of empire – those you thought had been effectively shattered by decolonisation 50-60 years ago; how they could bring themselves to believe that the Afghans and the Iraqis were just longing to suck on the big sticks proffered to them by American soldiers, as [decorated New York Times foreign affairs columnist] Thomas Friedman inimitably recommended… 

All this was just staggering to me, and people like myself who share a reflexive suspicion of armed imperialists claiming to be missionaries.

So neither the neo-imperialist nor the post-colonial accounts of the world seemed accurate. Both had suppressed or neglected a whole range of ideas and personalities in the Asian realm, and I felt that it was time to look at them again, to see what they had to say to us.

BF: Last year, you reviewed Niall Ferguson’s Civilisation: The West and the Rest for the London Review of Books. This elicited a protracted tantrum from Ferguson, comprising libel accusations and a lawsuit threat.

How does the substance of your new book challenge the worldview of pseudo-scholars like Ferguson, who – as you point out – defined himself in 2003 as “a fully paid-up member of the neo-imperialist gang”, and endorsed neo-con Max Boot’s assessment that the US should endeavour to replicate in Asia “the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets”?

PM: I did not aim this book at the jodhpur-loving neo-imperialists or their arguments in favour of a renewed Western imperium. I have no interest in engaging with such absurd ideas, and, as we have seen in recent days, the pith-helmet fetishists can do a pretty good job of discrediting themselves.

I certainly didn’t want to get into a discussion about whether Western imperialism had its good side – the Asian thinkers and writers in my book share the simple assumption that a system that sanctifies large-scale violence, exploitation, slavery and racism is reprehensible, undesirable and, finally, unsustainable.

Most importantly, neo-imperialism has now exposed itself as strategically as well as morally bankrupt. It retains the potential to plunge the world into a terrible conflagration – an assault on Iran might provide the spark – but it cannot preserve American interests in a multi-polar world; it can only damage them beyond repair.

BF: There is a tendency, among members of the Western foreign policy establishment and intelligentsia, to reduce international phenomena to simplistic and ahistorical rhetoric and concepts – e.g. 9/11 = Muslims hate our freedom.

Were they to acquire a spontaneous interest in the matter, what might these characters learn from a study of al-Afghani, Liang and other late Asian thinkers that would better position them to interpret contemporary Islamic terrorism, the Arab Spring, the rise of China?

(The US ambassador to Afghanistan would presumably at least be spared further donations of $25,000 to the restoration of al-Afghani’s grave, which as you explain in the book occurred as a result of a fleeting post-9/11 conviction that the man represented an exemplary moderate, liberal and West-compatible Islam. You object: “The mercurial and brilliant al-Afghani was anything but this bland figment of sanguine imagination.”) 


 The 9/11 Decade – The Clash of Civilisations?

PM: Yes, a lot of money could be saved, and spent on worthwhile programmes in both the West and in Afghanistan, if the simple moral equations – mini-skirts versus Taliban beards – were replaced with an engagement with the history of the West in Asia, and the no less tormented history of post-colonial Asia.

One of the problems with these pseudo-culturalist and quasi-psychological accounts and binaries – these barbarians hate our freedoms etc, liberalism versus Islamofascism – is that they are unaware of their own long history.

Asians who felt the sharp edges of Western “values” such as liberalism-and there are many such figures in my book – knew very well these ideological tricks: foreigners justifying their brutal domination and racial humiliation of Asian peoples by pointing to their supposedly higher values of “civilisation”.

This is of course only one of the many things that Western policymakers could learn through reflecting on al-Afghani and Liang. 

However, the most important and very simple lesson there for American and European commentators who for a long time have assumed that everyone in the world is just waiting to become like them is this: how Asians have conceived over the last century and a half of their place in the world dominated by a small minority of white men.

This is what my book seeks to describe. In this basic quest for dignity and equality and release from humiliation – so obvious yet so rarely discussed – are grounded all the events that you speak of, whether the Arab Spring or the rise of China.

So unless you grant that people have conceived of their own fates, made their own trysts with destiny, without regard for what the West wants or how the West sees itself and judges non-Western peoples, you’ll always be a little bewildered by everything that happens in the world today, and will end up falling for simple, self-flattering notions like “they must hate our freedoms”.

The book addresses this massive incompatibility of historical memory and self-perceptions between the West and Asia.

BF: You write: “Globalisation, it is clear, does not lead to a flat world marked by increasing integration, standardisation and cosmopolitan openness, despite the wishful thinking of some commentators.”

You then detail some of its pernicious effects in contemporary India, such as that “failed crops and spiralling debt drove more than a hundred thousand farmers to suicide in the past decade”, a phenomenon that has much to do with free trade and World Bank structural adjustment policies favouring global corporations like Monsanto.

How is it that, in the face of centuries worth of evidence soundly obliterating the possibility that free trade is a catalyst for general prosperity, the discoverer of the flat world [i.e. Thomas Friedman] has turned his discovery into a runaway bestseller, in which he imparts statistics such as that “any Indian villager” will confirm the need for enhanced globalisation?

PM: Every age has its false prophets, its pied-pipers, but what does it say about our own age that its most famous global sage should be a flat-worlder? The history recounted in my book makes it clear that the “free market” was the creation of powerful nation states in Western Europe and then America that had accumulated several advantages over other countries, largely through imperial conquest, and that this allegedly free market was imposed upon Asian peoples with the help of gunboats (and local elites or compradors). 


 Farmer suicides escalate as rice prices drop

There is of course a great deal of continuity in the Western discourse of free markets: from the British merchants who lobbied for an assault on China in the late 1830s to Woodrow Wilson saying we must “batten” down the doors of countries that do not practice free trade to Friedman who wrote that the invisible hand must necessarily conceal an “invisible fist” or it won’t work.

So the coercion and profound inequality inherent in this practice of “free trade”, or the fact that it made a small transnational elite – foreign businessmen and their local collaborators – rich and impoverished many others, have always been obvious.

Why do so many people fall for grandiose moral claims – the ludicrous notion, for instance, that the free market is all about removing poverty? 

I think to answer that one has to examine, in addition to individual trajectories of journalists like Friedman, the synergies that developed between politicians, businessmen, academics and journalists in recent decades: how each of these figures came to boost the other, how policymaking and opinion-making came to be complementary, how intellectuals came to be professionalised, Davos-ed and Aspen-ised and ended up whispering advice to power, and how defective but profit-maximising knowledge was produced and then widely disseminated.

BF: In the section of your book on Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore in East Asia, we learn: “For Bhudev Mukhopadhyay, perhaps the most comprehensive nineteenth-century Bengali critic of the West, the innate human capacity for love had stopped, in Europe, at the door of the nation-state”.

What is the state of love in the world in 2012?

PM: Our capacity for uncritical love has been expended recklessly in recent years on the free market rather than the nation-state. This was the false god we were instructed to worship during the era of globalisation and most of us duly obliged, even the least resourceful and economically underprivileged peoples, dazzled by our new goods and gadgets, the routinely updated models of mobile phones etc.

In 2012, after four years of a crisis caused by rampant greed and which nobody knows how to end, we can see more clearly how a tiny minority has enriched itself, leaving many others feeling cheated, and exposed to deprivation and suffering. Their anger and frustration is prone to violent eruptions – we already see this happening in places like India and China, not to mention Greece and Spain.

“Our capacity for uncritical love has been expended recklessly in recent years on the free market rather than the nation-state. This was the false god we were instructed to worship during the era of globalisation.”

– Pankaj Mishra

BF: During a visit to Persia and Iraq in 1932, Tagore observed:

“[T]he men, women and children done to death there meet their fate by a decree from the stratosphere of British imperialism – which finds it easy to shower death because of its distance from its individual victims. So dim and insignificant do those unskilled in the modern arts of killing appear to those who glory in such skill!”

Can a study of Asian intellectuals help combat the empire-sustaining notion of a dehumanised “Other”?

PM: There is a lot more where that passage came from about the sacredness of the sky, the imaginative and philosophical meaning it has had for centuries to earth-bound humans.

The reason why I chose Tagore, who is not a systematic thinker or ideological system-builder and is better described as a poet and seer, was precisely these bits of writing – necessarily naïve and un-ideological and therefore so cognisant of modern horrors. Only someone with a rooted relationship with the world and a profound sense of the past could see the increasingly impersonal and brutal form of violence unleashed by “rational” men.

I can’t do better than quote some of Tagore’s own writings from this trip to the Middle East, which are particularly relevant to our Age of the Drone:

There is a British Air Force station at Baghdad. The Christian chaplain of that force gave me the news that they were daily bombing some Arab villages. Old men, women and children were being killed indiscriminately from the upper regions of British Imperialism; it was easy to kill them because the principle of Imperialism obscures the individual. Christ has recognised men as the sons of God; but to the Christian chaplain of the Air Force the Father along with his Son have grown unreal, they can no longer be discerned from the altitude of Imperialism… Besides, the desert-dwellers can be killed so easily from the air and their powers of retaliation are so inadequate that the reality of their death too grows dim. For this reason, armed men of the West are very prone today to forget the humanity of those who have not yet learnt their scientific methods of homicide.”

Of course – and this was the horrific scenario Tagore was warning against – many more people have now figured out the “scientific methods of homicide” and the terrorists of the East showed on 9/11 how easy it is to kill thousands from the air.

BF: Was there anything that surprised you during your research for the book?

PM: Mostly, how little I knew about my subject. Particularly, these pre-colonial cosmopolitan worlds of Asia – when people, ideas, religions, goods, travelled vast distances. These worlds were shattered by Western imperialists, but the first generation of Asian thinker I describe still had a good memory of it, and drew upon this long experience in their criticisms of Western models of politics and economy.

BF: Why is the book’s epilogue titled “An ambiguous revenge”?

PM: Well, precisely because the rise of Asia and its assertion of dignity and equality before the long-dominant West, means nothing if Asian countries like India and China and Indonesia follow the same script: conquest, exploitation, an instrumental attitude towards nature, dispossession and the worldwide scramble for resources that produced vicious conflicts in the last centuries.

The model of the imperial nation-state that made a few Western countries so uniquely powerful and prosperous can only spell political and environmental disaster on a gigantic scale if populous countries like India and China adopt it. But that is what we are looking at in the new century.

Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, released by Verso in 2011. She is a member of the Jacobin Magazine editorial board, and her articles have appeared in the London Review of Books blog, AlterNet and many other publications.