“Blind, Self Righteous and Provincial”: PANKAJ MISHRA’s Critique of the West

Less than four years after the withdrawal of ground troops from its soil, coalition air strikes once again darken the sky of Iraq in an effort to contain the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). As the self-proclaimed caliphate floods international headlines with reports of ethnic cleansing and brutal executions, it is difficult to know whether to feel a vague sensation of impending doom, or an exhausted déjà vu. If we are standing upon a precipice, it is a familiar one.

Meanwhile, as the media laments “Western apathy and indecisiveness,” writes the Indian novelist and essayist PANKAJ MISHRA, “there is almost no examination of the antiquated assumptions of order and control” that ground the European mentality. For Mishra, the emergence of ISIS can be traced to a larger collective pathology. The Western promise of human rights and economic progress has not been delivered to many parts of the developing world. It is now time to question the concept of the nation state altogether.

Lauded by The Economist as “the next Edward Said,” Pankaj Mishra has voiced a timely critique of Western imperialism and the “East vs. West” mentality. Mishra began his career of letters from the sleepy Himalayan village of Mashobra, submitting essays and book reviews to Indian literary publications. Today, he is a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books, the New York Times, and The Guardian amongst others. Though he writes with the measured cadences of an Oxford don, Mishra is not afraid of confrontation. A blistering article he wrote for the London Review of Books on the historian Niall Ferguson almost prompted a libel suit when it was published.

While in England, Mishra occupies a studio in a Victorian schoolhouse in North London. It is full of light and scantily furnished: two bookshelves, a bamboo armchair, and a Persian rug. During his discussion with Dominik Gross about the reorientation of East and West in the 21st century, the 44-year-old writer spoke for about an hour before removing his sunglasses.

82-87_Pankaj Mishra.inddDOMINIK GROSS: Mr. Mishra, half the world is on the move, and the economy is globalized. We live in a multicultural society, yet, in Europe, one still has the feeling of living in an intellectual bubble full of pale faces. What’s going on?

PANKAJ MISHRA: You’re sensing the downside of power. For a long time Europeans saw themselves as the world’s teachers. They thought that the European Enlightenment was the light that would pull the entire world out of the tunnel. This Europeanization of the world is in one way an extraordinary success. No other language even approaches the breadth of English. Over the last 300 years, parliamentarianism, the planned economy, and the free market have been spreading around the world. But on the other hand, everything that had been going on in these other parts of the world for over thousands of years was of no interest at all to the Europeans for a very along time. A culture that thinks it can transfer its own ideas onto others, and assumes that they will embrace it, runs the danger of becoming blind, self-righteous, and provincial.

By its own definition, the “West” defines itself as being distinct from the “East.” Does this “East” even exist?

The problem with cardinal points is that they overlap. The “East” is also in the South, and there is even a bit of North in the East, namely Japan. I would describe the East as a part of the world that was late to enter the process of modernity. Industrialization, secularization, and urbanization were exported from Western Europe to the rest of the world throughout the 19th century, or forced on it by European imperialism.

Is the history of the East unthinkable without the West?

No, but we have to be clear about the fact that this self-definition is artificial. That is, of course, true for the West as well. Identities don’t appear out of nowhere. They thrive on encounters with the Other. During the time of the crusaders, Christianity was already defining itself as distinct from Islam. For European colonialism it was the same. That’s where the West developed its feeling of superiority towards other cultures.

You accuse the West of arrogance and ignorance. But isn’t it possible that the strong appeal of the European values of the Enlightenment – freedom, equality, human rights, and fundamental rights – derive from the fact that they express something universal, that they serve basic human desires? Just think of the peaceful demonstrations at the beginning of the Arab Spring in 2011, or the so-called Saffron Revolution in Burma in 2007.

You are making huge leaps! If you want to be cynical, you could also say that the same people who brought on the downfall of the old dictator Mubarak in Egypt in January 2011 are the ones who now support the new military despots surrounding Abdel al-Sisi. Are the universal values of the French Revolution being realized by this regime change?

Let’s stop looking for reasons to congratulate ourselves, and try to look at these upheavals around the world in their specific contexts.

In your opinion, what is actually going on in Egypt?

The nation state – another idea that came out of the experience of the French Revolution – simply does not work in many places.

Egypt is an example of a failed, post-colonial nation state. The county did not succeed in establishing its own independent economy and a corresponding political system. And it is not the only one. Many former colonies in Africa, Asia, and South America are going through something similar. In these places, it is not the success but rather the failures of the Enlightenment that have become evident. The nation state – another idea that came out of the experience of the French Revolution – simply does not work in many places.

But with all these Islamist regimes being supported by major powers, we Europeans have no other choice but to support liberal proponents of the Enlightenment.

You are misunderstanding it. The so-called liberals in Egypt today are not the same liberals who fought for democracy in 19th century Europe. Most of them are members of the ruling classes, allies of the military. These people aren’t fighting for freedom, equality, and democracy, but rather for a regime that represents its own interests. If you want to help, then you have to support the working class that forms the backbone of these demonstrations. The Egyptian trade unions went on strike long before the revolution even began.

Why were so few in Europe interested in that at the time?

Because European liberals are not able to find these people. They don’t speak English, they don’t speak any European languages. So the media portrays the English-speaking people who are good at Twitter and Facebook instead. These people are presented as liberal simply because they are tolerant of women who go out unveiled, of young people who drink alcohol, or of homosexuals. They may look like liberals, but from a political point of view, they are anything but liberal, because they are first and foremost defending their own privilege.

Are you saying that Europe’s cosmopolitans, who don’t speak Arabic, Mandarin, or Hindi, should just stand by as the world on the other side of the Mediterranean gets ploughed?

The big question is: How do values such as equality, freedom, and dignity actually come into play in the context of, say, Egypt? Should these values be defended everywhere at all times by the people in the West?

Of course!

But these ideas are not just values of the Enlightenment. People all over the world, not just in Europe, have been fighting for these ideas and rights for centuries. They are rights that are supposed to be universal. No one can claim a monopoly on them. And yet today it is difficult to demand these rights without including the whole package that the West thinks is needed to secure them: modernization through free markets, economic growth, the creation of nation states. At this point, we know that these factors – considered so indispensible by the West – have only brought dignity, freedom, and equality to a very small minority of people.

Is Islamism the East’s answer to an Enlightenment that was led astray by imperialism? In From the Ruins of Empire (2012), you wrote about the “revenge of the East.” Is ISIS’s campaign for an “Islamic State” an example of that?

ISIS recruits ride in armed trucks in Syria, 2014.

ISIS recruits ride in armed trucks in Syria, 2014.

I don’t know if Islamism can be understood as a response to Western colonialism, but its temporary success should certainly not be seen as a sign of the right way. I believe it is more an extreme symptom of the moral and intellectual confusion that we are all suffering from today. If you take a look at the program of the Islamist movement, it is clear that they are reproducing the political pathologies of modern times. The caliphate that the extremists in Syria and Iraq are now fighting for is just a sick variation on the Western idea of the nation state.

Then what revenge are you talking about?

In my new book, I tried to describe how people in Asia today want to see their identity as distinct from the West, which they think humiliated them. But I make it clear in my book that idea of revenge is dumb. It is the clinging mentality of a “clash of civilizations.” The constant comparisons between the East and West, the orchestration of a competition between nations – China against the U.S., the U.S against India, India against the rest – just don’t do justice to the complexity of our world.

Do you see the current success of radical Islamist groups – such as ISIS – as a sign of total failure on the part of our current social regime?

Not only that, but, more specifically, the failure of the nation state, which became the main institutional guarantor of security and economic well-being in the 20th century in Asia and Africa. The history of the nation state in Europe is one of incredible violence – wars, invasions, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. Until 1945, large parts of Europe were in a worse way than the Middle East today, but we strangely tend to forget all of that. So now you have non-state actors in collapsing states offering – in their own brutal way – some semblance of law and order to afflicted peoples. Unfortunately, this trend will be hard to reverse since capitalism in general only further undermines the nation state.

Is the self-perception of the West as a reservoir of democracy and human rights a myth?

It is not a myth in the sense that democracy and human rights have flourished in the West. The problem is that these achievements have been impossible to extricate from a long history of violent imperialism, which is usually suppressed when people in the West ask others to follow their model. It is important to look closely at this history of institutional violence in the West to understand the violence in the world today, but we don’t do that. The “rise of the East,” the “decline of the West” – these are meaningless ideas. We think of the West as a paradigmatic case of achieved peace and human rights, and we think of everyone else as people who ought to strive to recreate the West’s achievements without miraculously inflicting any violence on upon themselves and others.

Do you have any ideas?

“But we have to develop political and economic strategies that liberate the East from having to imitate the West. From a global point of view, the idea of economic growth is a failed, worn-out Western fetish.”

I’m afraid I can’t offer anything on the spot. But we have to develop political and economic strategies that liberate the East from having to imitate the West. From a global point of view, the idea of economic growth is a failed, worn-out Western fetish.

How can you be so sure?

Even in the societies of industrialized countries, discontent is widespread. Economic growth is no longer reaching many people there either. Even in the U.S. – which is the motherland of growth ideology and the free market—there is growing anger over social inequalities, not to speak of the experiments in Great Britain. Even on the continent, social democracy has been widely dismantled.

The Western model of economic growth is one that inherently demands competition. Can the East develop successful, new economic policies independently from the West? Doesn’t our “globalized” context mean that, on some level, we all sink or swim together?

In a “Europeanized World,” as Paul Valéry called it, there is no escaping the effects of European and American models of economy and politics. I don’t see the East as predisposed to come up with brilliant solutions. I think it may be best to drop all talk of East and West in this context. Young people in Spain tomorrow are as likely to produce a good new policy as young people in Hong Kong. The important point is that any process of disentangling from the global economy must embody a different ethic, a new conception altogether of the good life. Are we ready to do that? I suppose that the Tibetan nomads and monks – or forest-dwellers in India – are, but what about the rest of us?

Promises of growth and prosperity can still win elections, albeit not by the Social Democrats. That’s how the Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi achieved a landslide victory in India this spring.

These ideas continue to have a strong appeal in new contexts. In India, many still have the feeling they are “sitting in the waiting room of history,” as they say. Even if we are living in a “globalized” world, on the national level we are all still free to make our own mistakes. It makes me think of the people in my village in northern India. They are just out of college and want to work. All around them, they see despairing older people who failed to find a job. So when a new guy shows up and promises millions of new jobs, technical development, and prosperity, they vote for him. They have only a few urgent concerns: a stable life, financial security, and moderate prosperity.

With his promises, Modi got as far as your village in the Himalayas, where you go to write.

The problem with these kinds of villages – and not just in India – is the idea that one’s real life is waiting somewhere else. In India, when you move from a village to a slum in Delhi, the economists say you have risen socially. You get fed into the statistics on economic growth rates. Your income rises dramatically. But within a short amount of time, this economic improvement gets cancelled out by inflation and housing prices in Delhi. So now you’re living in a slum in Delhi, you breathe polluted air, and drink contaminated water. Your family is far away because you can’t afford to bring them to the city. You can’t marry either. At some point you realize that it was better in the village. Some go back.

Is it possible to spare villagers of this disappointment?

Policies for these people would have to consider how to make their lives in a village meaningful.

82-87_Pankaj Mishra.inddIs it possible to stop the move towards the megacities of the world?

Globalization also means that the very same knowledge that is at universities in Harvard or Columbia is also reaching universities and think tanks in India. It is passed on through the Internet, television, and newspapers. Urbanization is being propagated everywhere. The goal is to have ninety percent of the Indian population live in the cities, although they are already bursting at the seams.

Perhaps this is happening because the cities offer other enticing things besides economic privilege: a life free from the antiquated traditions of family life, no marriages arranged by the parents. Instead it offers parties, sex before marriage, contemporary culture, a self-determined life, especially for women.

Of course. But it would be wrong to insist on the contrast between an unyielding rural tradition and a dynamic, modern, urbanity. There is an exchange going on between these different spheres. So-called traditional family and community values are currently undergoing a change as well. Naturally, there are villages – especially in northern India – where tradition seems predominantly repressive, where there are terrible caste hierarchies and violence against disadvantaged classes. But in the cities, the realization of one’s dreams is hardly certain. There are many places in Delhi where no one will rent you an apartment if you are Muslim. But don’t misunderstand me – there should always be people who crave a different and more fulfilling life who should be free to leave and go somewhere else.

You were one of them.

Yes, I left too.


I wasn’t fleeing the village. I grew up in the so-called “modern” sector of India. I attended normal schools, some of them English, in the states Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Maharashtra. But I wanted to leave the career path that was set for me, that would have turned me into a civil servant, doctor, or engineer.

In your first novel, The Romantics (1999), you describe the confusion of a young Indian student in the holy city of Varanasi, who encounters bohemian Westerners in a guesthouse, all of whom completely fail in their effort to become true, ascetic Indians.

It was an ironic book. I was interested in the construed fantasy of the Other, and the yearning to realize it. A much greater challenge than putting oneself in the position of a fantasized Other is to go through life without these kinds of fantasies. This was the realization that the romantics had to face in the end.

But almost every journey thrives on a curiosity of the Other that is fed by one’s own fantasies. That is what brings people together.

The fantasy is certainly a stimulus. But at some point you have to grow out of these ideas – that was what my book was about. That is an important moment in life. Every Bildungsroman begins with that. You have to leave these fantasies behind. Otherwise, they grow into phantasms, and you produce all kinds of illusions about yourself and your place in the world.


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