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Pankaj Mishra: Democracy is reasserting itself in a perverse way

Author Pankaj Mishra on why recent political leadership has taken the form of a backlash against the elite class, the relevance of Mahatma Gandhi, and how democracy and capitalism can coexist

Pankaj Mishra. Photo: Ullstein Bild/Getty Images
Pankaj Mishra. Photo: Ullstein Bild/Getty Images

From the election of Narendra Modi in India to that of Donald Trump in the US, the world seems to be heading towards greater polarization. The winners accuse the losing side of being apologists for what they consider a decadent and unjust system. Those who have lost are worried that the new order signifies intolerance, deceit and xenophobia. There is no consensus now on economic matters either. The high priests of capitalism are worried about populist threats to the forward march of globalization. What is to be made of all this?

Here is someone who describes himself as the “stepchild of the West" and thinks that the problem is not one of deceit, nor is it rooted in local factors. In his latest book, Age Of Anger: A History Of The Present, Pankaj Mishra, an acclaimed author and commentator, goes back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Friedrich Nietzsche, among others, to tell us that the answers to the most burning questions of today’s age—from why privileged Europeans are joining the ranks of Islamic State fighters to phenomena such as Brexit and Trump—are to be sought in the early history of capitalism in the West. Edited excerpts from a phone interview with Mishra, who was in Myanmar:

You started thinking about this book after Modi’s 2014 victory, finished writing it in the week in which Britain voted to leave the European Union, and it went to press at a time when Trump emerged victorious in the US election. Looking at these developments in retrospect, are you surprised? After all, the majority had a big reason to be satisfied with the status quo.

I think the first one (Modi’s election) was rather surprise than shock. But after that, one began to see a pattern in the way people were responding to misrule, being neglected and left behind. The experience of despair was bound to have some kind of a political consequence, which is what we are witnessing. I also think this is not over and we are likely to see more of it in Europe and elsewhere.

In a 2007 interview, you said, “You can move around the world but meet only people who speak your language, who share the same ideas, the same beliefs, and in doing so you can lose sight of the fact that the vast majority of the world does not think or believe in or speak the everyday discourse of the elite". Do you think the median voter in countries like India or the US is really worried about Modi or Trump? Does it make much of a difference to their day-to-day lives?

Unfortunately for many people, including those who voted for change, it would soon become evident that whatever change has come is for the worse and there is no positive change. In India, for example, demonetization is the biggest sign that change has come for the worse. People still have a lot of faith in democratic processes, and even though they might choose unwisely at times, that should not be used to undermine the whole process of democracy.

The other point you raise by quoting my interview is a much more serious problem. People who have been in charge of gauging the public mood, such as policymakers or journalists, at least for 15-20 years constituted an elite which unfortunately has become disconnected from the lives and aspirations of ordinary people. I think that by choosing politicians with a different kind of track record than one which had the membership of this class is a sort of backlash against this elite class, which has been so callous towards them.

Your book sees the “old West-dominated world order giving way to an apparent global disorder", marked by an acrimonious debate between those “whose lives are marked by Atlantic West’s still largely unacknowledged history of violence, and those who see it as the apotheosis of liberal modernity". Should we expect this to be the new normal? Is global liberalism under capitalism some sort of an oxymoron today?

To be more specific, there is obviously conflict between democracy, which is about equal rights, and a form of capitalism which basically assumes that inequality in certain circumstances is important so that people work harder. This conflict becomes critically acute when inequality becomes intolerable. What we are witnessing today is democracy reasserting itself in a perverse way. People are rediscovering democracy as a weapon to rebel against the elites who benefited from a very unequal form of capitalism. The two (democracy and capitalism) can coexist together if there are enough ways of pacifying the population at large, and making them feel that the state would be intervening to take care of their interests through redistribution.

You are transparent about the fact that your writings are meant for a very elite audience. This book basically suggests that things are only going to get worse. For the elite, this pessimism of intellect can at least be compensated by material well-being. What significance do such arguments have for those who are in the ranks of have-nots?

I think it’s the responsibility of politicians to posit an idea of growth that is politically and environmentally sustainable. The idea that everyone should be or ought to be consuming at the same level as a few Americans and Europeans is simply an absurd fantasy and is never going to be realized in a country like India. Of course, it would also have deeply destructive environmental repercussions. It is up to the politicians and technocratic elite to formulate a vision of life where you are able to meet the material expectation of a majority of citizens. Notions of India becoming a hyper-modern state with smart cities and bullet trains, which are based on imitating some ultra-modern states, are not going to help the political situation. Unless we have a different idea of individual agency and aspiration, things are going to get worse.

Given your emphasis on the need to cut down on consumption and limit aspirations, how important do you think the ideas of Mahatma Gandhi are?

Gandhi has always been relevant in all of these debates, and is even more relevant today. This is because long before people in the West or anywhere else saw it, he predicted that modern civilization was going to create a satisfied tiny minority, which was also capable of raising completely unrealistic expectations. He had accordingly devised a lifestyle and way of being in the world which was respectful of the environment, and emphasized cooperation rather than just individual autonomy and ambition. He also wanted individuals to be aware that there are other people and things around them on whom they are profoundly dependent.

Age of Anger—A History Of The Present: By Pankaj Mishra, 406 pages, Rs699. Publisher: Juggernaut

Your book’s title seems to be inspired by historian Eric Hobsbawm’s famous four-part series. What do you think would follow the ‘Age Of Anger’? Any plans to write one or more sequels?

No. I am not a historian and think of myself as a writer who deploys various genres to give opinions on matters of the day. So there is no Hobsbawm connection or influence to it. I think Age Of Anger is more directly inspired by the age of anxiety. There are no plans to write sequels and this book came out of a sense of bewilderment really, and I wanted to clarify my own anxieties and questions more than anything else. At some point in the course of my thinking and research, I began to feel that I had to take these to a larger audience, which is how all books are conceived. It’s a journey of exploration rather than a product of my being some professional historian or scholar.

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