The Liberal Establishment Is ‘a Stranger to Self-Examination’

The Liberal Establishment Is ‘a Stranger to Self-Examination’

The Liberal Establishment Is ‘a Stranger to Self-Examination’

A conversation with Pankaj Mishra about Biden’s closer-than-expected victory, the sterile state of mainstream intellectual culture, and his new book Bland Fanatics.


How might we explain to youths, who have witnessed a world turned upside down by Covid-19 and the rise of strongmen around the world, the liberal triumphalism of the 1990s and 2000s? How might they, for instance, respond to Francis Fukuyama’s pronouncement at the end of the Cold War that “what we may be witnessing [is] the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”?

Pankaj Mishra’s new collection of essays provides one provocative answer: Such triumphalism is akin to a religious creed or faith, one that presumes that the superiority of Western-style liberal democracy will eventually be absorbed by the rest of the world, which will evolve toward it just as the Anglo-American sphere did. Mishra describes such liberals, borrowing from the Cold War realist thinker Reinhold Niebuhr, as “the bland fanatics, of western civilization who regard the highly contingent achievements of our culture as the final form and norm of human existence.” Mishra’s new book, Bland Fanatics: Liberals, Race, and Empire, grapples with the history and legacy of this brand of liberalism, specifically as it relates to colonialism, human rights, Islam, and various writers, such as Jordan Peterson, Niall Ferguson, and Salman Rushdie.

I spoke with Mishra about the book. Along the way, we discussed the new generation of liberal intellectuals, liberal internationalism, America’s state of forever war, Donald Trump administration, Black Lives Matter, and what Joe Biden’s administration might have in store.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins: It is interesting that you rely on a Cold War liberal, Reinhold Niebuhr, for the notion of bland fanaticism. What do you mean by it?

Pankaj Mishra: The phrase “bland fanatics” is from a book Niebuhr published in 1959, a year before Walt Rostow launched his manifesto for modernizing, actually Americanizing, the non-Western world. It identifies a tendency in the Anglo-American sphere that strengthens through much of the 20th century and becomes especially powerful after the end of the Cold War—the tendency to assume that the world has no option but to converge on the superior political and economic models pioneered by the English-speaking nations, the United States and Britain. In the words of Thomas Friedman, the corporate guru of our time, “I want everyone to become an American.” I think Niebuhr was a Cold War liberal in the sense that he shared Cold War liberalism’s antipathy to communism. But he was also a Christian realist and a critic of liberalism in its universalizing mode, especially of its hubristic projects.

I should also say that my deployment of Niebuhr or Raymond Aron, another Cold War liberal, is strategic. I found myself swimming against the current in the journals I was writing for—journals shaped by and suffused with Cold War liberalism and not exactly eager to host its criticism. As a result, I frequently quoted from critics who are not easily categorized as leftists and rightists. It’s worth returning to some of these figures, anyway. We tend to forget how Czeslaw Milosz, who escaped from a communist culture of propaganda, was shocked by the conformism of intellectuals in America. Kazin in his diaries is constantly noting with horror and disgust how writers like him from humble backgrounds are being seduced by money and power in the postwar period.

DSJ: There is an interesting passage in the introduction of Bland Fanatics in which you state, “The global history of the post-1945 ideologies of liberalism and democracy, or a comprehensive sociology of Anglo-American and Anglo- and America-philic intellectuals, is yet to be written, though the world they made and unmade is entering its most treacherous phase yet.” Why is this the case?

PM: One immediate difficulty of this task—and I mean to be matter-of-fact rather than sarcastic here—would be that the reckless minds in question are little more than cymbalists accompanying the Pentagon’s war marches. We are not looking here at intellectuals exposed to painful experiences and tormenting choices, such as Heidegger, Schmitt, and Croce—people who made disastrous political choices and also, while reflecting on an experience of calamitous breakdown, fundamentally changed the way we think about many things. You can’t say the same about, for instance, Christopher Hitchens or the clercs of the old New Republic, the in-flight magazine of Bill Clinton’s Air Force One, the aficionado of race science, the interventionist with important hair, or that self-proclaimed laptop general who clearly wished to fight for liberalism to the last drop of Arab blood. Randolph Bourne punctured such gross male egos of imperialism more than a century ago.

When I speak of a possible sociology of an intelligentsia, I am more interested in how intellectuals in less triumphalist societies and cultures—in India, China, Indonesia, Brazil, Peru, and Chile—came to be infatuated by Anglo-American ideologies. How did they make that turn from postcolonial modes of resistance to the imperial modes of political economy, from Bandung to the Washington consensus? A whole class of comprador intellectuals emerged in countries across the globe to assist the Americanizers. We need an updated global version of The Power Elite or The New Class to understand the facilitating networks of Ivy League universities, think tanks and foundations, wonkfests, and the Anglosphere’s publications.

DSJ: How do we make sense of the fact that many young centrist liberals in the vein of Yascha Mounk and Thomas Chatterton Williams seem to have critiques of identity politics, critical race theory, etc. that have much in common with an alt-right publication like Quillette and various elements of the Trump administration’s recent criticism of higher education? In other words, why do centrist liberals of this nature always seem more preoccupied with the left than the right?

PM: I think we can get too distracted by minor doctrinal disputes between self-proclaimed centrists and right-wingers and miss the fact that the default intellectual culture in Anglo-America is overwhelmingly right wing. It tends to take reactionary and anti-left positions and has done so for a long time. The names can change. People can switch institutional affiliations. But the defense of the establishment and the US-led liberal order and other Cold War verities such as classical liberalism, Western values, the Enlightenment, and Zionism remains their primary task. This is the legacy of the lucrative conformism noted by Alfred Kazin and Czeslaw Milosz.

In that sense, we are looking not so much at independent thinkers as an intellectual service class—Tony Judt’s phrase in his late anti-establishment phase. There is a profound difference, for instance, between Walter Lippmann and Francis Fukuyama, William Pfaff and Thomas Friedman. And if you look at sponsors of many of these ventures like Quillette, the trajectory of someone like Mounk, who was employed by Tony Blair in an outfit partly funded by Saudi Arabia, or the constellation of the Enlightenment-monger Steven Pinker, in which Bill Gates and Jeffrey Epstein both revolved, the money trail and ideological commitments linking various ruling classes will come into view.

The left has no such grand networks and sponsors—George Soros is on the left only in Trump’s fervid imagination—and it was mocked and ridiculed into the margins for decades. Today, however, it poses the biggest challenge to the service class’s new and old members, morally and intellectually, and now, increasingly, politically. Hence the hysterical complaints about cancel culture from deeply embedded members of the old establishment. They never had to worry about simultaneous challenges from a lumpenized, anti-intellectual far right and an intellectually resourceful left.

Also, the center has become a preferred space for many right-wingers, including the never-Trumpers, because the right wing itself has become so foul, aesthetically as well as politically. At the end of the day spent whining about the left, you don’t want to be seen hanging out with the Dinesh D’Souzas and Ben Shapiros and other Proud Boys of the mind. You still want to bask in the moral prestige of liberalism, carefully preserved through the Cold War and afterward, and you want to be published in its surviving outlets.

DSJ: There is a liberal tendency to completely cut off America’s forever wars from the populist revolt. The typical move is to blame the reaction on nativism, identity politics, critical race theory, etc. You point to the writings of Mark Lilla, Yascha Mounk, George Packer, and others. And yet it was often the marginal that resonated profoundly with Trump’s anti–Iraq War stance—many of whom had voted for Barack Obama. What blinds centrist liberals and liberal internationalists from the reality that those disdained by elites are smart enough to realize something they do not: Spending billions on wars has implications for domestic welfare. To cite your reference to the early 20th century writer Joseph Roth, “What is it that allows European states to go spreading civilization and ethics in foreign parts but not at home?”

PM: In order for the service class to remain suitably employed, it has to keep faith with the overall geopolitical posture—the US or the Pentagon and State Department as protector of the international liberal order. It is not possible to discard this without courting self-extinction. Accordingly, when faced with demands for substantive justice, these intellectuals can only retreat into Cold War reflexes—shout loudly about the threat to democracy from neofascists and authoritarians and dismiss challenges to their power from below as practitioners of identity politics.

This curious charge that nonwhite peoples are vulnerable to a sterile identity politics or politics of recognition was, of course, made well before Lilla and Fukuyama turned it into useful talking points for the mainstream scribes. It pops up in Isaiah Berlin’s famous discussion of liberty. Preferring freedom from interference over the power of self-determination, Berlin did not or could not engage with what positive liberty might mean to newly liberated or forged societies and nation-states, except Israel. To do so would have meant acknowledging Europeans and Americans as racist imperialists—simply inconceivable when you are fighting this allegation from your adversary in the Cold War. So all Berlin said—and he never even uses the words “colonialism” or “anti-colonialism” while writing at the height of decolonization—is that the nonwhite peoples wish to secure “recognition” rather than true liberty, which, of course, white males like him are busy figuring out. One sign is that they prefer to be rudely treated by people of their own race than those “cautious, just, gentle, well-meaning administrators from outside”—Berlin’s code words for white imperialists.

Of course, the nonwhite nations and peoples were always fighting for true liberty, but—and you see the same reflex in Lilla and his acolytes—misrepresenting them as misguided, as dupes of identity politics, remains crucial in presenting the male white liberal as the guy who really knows what liberty is and how to achieve it for everyone in the whole wide—white?—world.

I see the same self-preserving reflex at work even among commentators who have sincerely reexamined their past errors. I appreciate that Peter Beinart has changed his mind about Israel and advanced an important conversation among the Jewish American population. But something about the admiration for his belated wisdom strikes me as excessive. After all, Beinart’s magazine once helped drive that wisdom into the political wilderness back in the 1990s and 2000s. Edward Said was viciously persecuted by the East Coast’s liberal as well as right-wing media and had a reliable refuge only in The Nation. Palestinian voices are still not adequately represented anywhere in the media. It seems we are always being asked to wait a decade or two for centrist pundits and white liberals to atone for their past blunders—whether on Vietnam, Iraq, or Netanyahu—and achieve true insights. Intellectual and moral progress will be faster if we learn to listen to their victims.

DSJ: Your essay “Why Do White People Like What I Write?” is quite critical yet at the same time respectful of Ta-Nehisi Coates. When this piece appeared two years ago, you faulted him for not being mindful of the connection between race and international political economy. Now we have witnessed wide mainstream acceptance of Black Lives Matter in the United States, and the movement has turned into a global one, even having, as you know, an influence in India. As one of the major intellectual influences on BLM, do you still stand by your critique of Coates, given the global turn to BLM?

PM: I think I was pointing to a striking absence in Coates’ writings. How even a sensitive and intelligent writer like him does not relate the African American experience to the history of Asia and Africa. In the past, African American leaders and artists—W.E.B. Du Bois; Nina Simone; Richard Wright, who actually traveled to and wrote about Bandung; and many others—were keen to establish links of solidarity with peoples elsewhere struggling against racial-ethnic supremacism. Many non-Americans naturally expect the BLM movement, which has been wonderfully effective in some ways, to have a solidly internationalist outlook, especially since the US has become even more deeply and disastrously entangled in the affairs of other countries in recent decades.

I wonder if there is a generational gap here. Muhammad Ali refused to fight in Vietnam, but Spike Lee’s new film about African American soldiers in Vietnam, for instance, has some of the most awful American clichés about the Vietnamese and nonwhite foreigners in general. The leader of The New York Times’ 1619 Project claimed in a tweet that African Americans are “fighting for democracy abroad.” Such naive Americanism is conspicuous, not least because of the extraordinary international solidarity for BLM, which is, sadly, not reciprocated. Muslims in Kashmir and Gaza may have taken time off from their intense battles for survival to declare themselves its supporters. Beyonce and Jay-Z and many other rich and famous and powerful African Americans have nothing at all to say about the dispossession of Palestinians and the destruction of Yemen, let alone the government-supported lynching of Muslims and Dalits in India or the corralling of Uighurs in China. The cult of Obama as the first Black president, which Coates initially promoted, is disappointing, too. Here is a figure who not only expanded George W. Bush’s imperial prerogative to assassinate foreigners by drones but also did little to mitigate the ordeal of African Americans ruined by the financial crisis and who now tweets from his mansion on Martha’s Vineyard about how law-abiding Bush was and pleads at election rallies that Joe Biden is no socialist.

By the way, I think the influence of BLM internationally can be overstated. In India it became a fashion accessory for many Bollywood film stars, who remained silent throughout the rape and lynching of Dalits and Muslims and the systematic degradation of Kashmiris by Narendra Modi’s regime. These are people who love to have selfies taken with Modi and make money by endorsing skin-whitening creams. BLM will do well to rid itself of such supporters.

DSJ: Let’s talk about the political way forward. I think a lot of people are curious about your constructive political vision, especially since so many of your essays are famous for their critiques, in particular those on Ferguson and Peterson. One thing that struck me about your writings, especially on India, is that they seem rather sympathetic to the role that local traditions can play in, to use the language of Karl Polanyi, resisting a world of impersonal market forces and technocrats. Can you elaborate on this?

PM: There was always something grotesquely tyrannical about wanting to reduce the incredible plurality of cultures and ways of life to a single model of an American-style society built around endless consumption. You didn’t need to spend time in Tibet or the Amazonian rain forests to realize the need for what James Scott calls “local knowledge.” We now confront everywhere the horrific environmental and political costs of this reckless project of Americanization. Where we go from here depends on how we conceive of the past and future. As I see it, the task has barely begun.

To those who say that I don’t offer any constructive solution—and the charge is usually made in bad faith by members of the service class who have always disliked but can no longer dismiss my critiques—I want to ask if we have done enough criticism, the starting point of any new creation and the primary task of a writer, as distinct from an activist. Is it an exaggeration to say that we have been living in an incredibly provincial and complacent intellectual culture, originating in the Cold War, whose main assumptions we haven’t fully interrogated, let alone overthrown? Octavio Paz once wrote that “the characteristic feature of modernity is criticism.” This might seem very vague, but it is actually a precise definition. The venture of being modern required the forsaking of old habits of ancestral worship and the end of reflexive deference to figures of authority. Yet we have turned some 18th century white men with wigs into plaster saints, and it isn’t just far-right Republicans who insist on originalism. Many of our most influential thought leaders want us to prostrate ourselves before the Enlightenment.

I am not even talking here of think tanks and mainstream journalism and other intellectually barren knowledge systems that service the political and business classes. These have long been stultified by the assumptions that history has ended, globalization is unstoppable, and the world yearns for American leadership. The result of this extensive surrender to superannuated verities is that a great part of mainstream intellectual culture today seems wholly sterile, worse than premodern. How rare it is to be stimulated by its products, to find anything of value in its periodicals. And this isn’t because scholarship has suddenly become mediocre. On the contrary. The frustrating thing when you look at the pages of The New York Times, The Guardian and Financial Times, to take three of the more tolerable periodicals, is that they can do so much better, can easily replace their aging thumb-suckers and youngish logrollers. It’s just that little or no effort has been made to accommodate the new sophisticated scholarship on a range of issues. And here even the respectable intellectual journals like The New York Review of Books and London Review of Books are to be faulted.

DSJ: You have expressed fondness for Martin Hägglund’s This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, which calls for a postcapitalist system in which the state is subordinated to the democratic interests of society as a whole rather than the private interest of a few. This would require collective ownership of the means of production, established through a global alliance of democratic states. Some would write off the book as pure utopia. Why are you attracted to it?

PM: I was first exposed to Marxism at a study circle in my provincial university, and the first texts I encountered were Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 and Grundrisse. I still haven’t lost the conviction—echoed in This Life—that Marx was concerned above all with securing spiritual freedom. The doctrinaire aspects of the later Marx can be tedious. What remains perpetually fresh and regenerative in his work is its double inheritance of Christianity and Romanticism, which allows us to acknowledge new realities, such as widespread environmental degradation, and to break out of economistic frameworks that emphasize redistribution without really trying to overthrow oppressive modes of labor. What I found very attractive about Hägglund’s book is his reinterpretation of Marxism for a secular age and secularized audience without losing Marx’s vision of a broader spiritual liberation from modern forms of coercion. I also liked its emphasis on social interdependence, something that connects the Buddhist to Marxist tradition.

DSJ: Reading your new book, one has the impression that Western blindness to liberal fanaticism is in part due to general ignorance of non-Western writers. You mention, for instance, that “subordinate peoples simply realized, well before Arendt published The Origins of Totalitarianism in 1951, that peace in the metropolitan West depended too much on outsourcing war to the colonies.” What advice would you give readers hoping to enrich their knowledge of the world beyond the canon of Western thought? What authors would you suggest they read?

PM: Yes, it has long been a source of despair and exasperation to me and many other people that the intellectual archive created out of two world wars, the economic crises of the ’20s and ’30s, and the Holocaust is routinely prioritized over the insights of people exposed early and directly to fundamentally violent political and economic systems. A figure like Gandhi had a broader experience of the world, in three different continents—Asia, Africa, and Europe—than the Frankfurt school theorists when he wrote of the mass deceptions and hidden violence of Western democracies. And Hannah Arendt hadn’t started writing about British concentration camps in South Africa when Jawaharlal Nehru declared fascism as the twin of Western imperialism. The anti-colonial thinkers I wrote about in From the Ruins of Empire weren’t dipping into Carl Schmitt when they spoke of the connections between international law and imperial domination.

What I am trying to say is that I can recommend any number of writers—and I already have—but we won’t get anywhere without becoming aware of and addressing some deep discrepancies of intellectual life. To take one instance, Rabindranath Tagore wrote some of sharpest critiques of competitive nationalisms and imperialisms—of Japan as well as the United States—in the 1910s and 1920s while Thomas Mann and many other German, French, and Italian writers were still going on about the glories of their civilizations. I see that Mann’s rancorous and tediously long screed Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man, which he himself later denounced as Goebbelsian, is being retranslated into English and published as an NYRB Classic. I doubt if Tagore’s still incandescent Nationalism, published a year earlier, would receive a similarly prestigious imprimatur.

The left has its own blind spots. Faisal Devji recently pointed out how Judith Butler in her recent book The Force of Nonviolence ignores the “non-Western or minoritized figures and struggles” associated with her subject, relying instead “on a small number of familiar European authorities instead.” In other words, lots of Walter Benjamin but no Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. Devji’s own review is one sign that things are changing, if not fast enough. Young scholars are breaking down narrow old frameworks of thought and prejudice. I doubt if you can honestly cling to them after reading, to take two recent examples, Adom Getachew’s Worldmaking After Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination and Priya Satia’s Time’s Monster: How History Makes History.

DSJ: The two words I keep hearing many use to describe Biden’s closer-than-expected defeat of Trump for the presidency are “relief” and “normalcy.” The idea seems to be that though Biden leaves much to be desired, he will nevertheless begin a process of healing and reconciliation that will not only return the United States to political and social normalcy but also restore the so-called liberal international order. What does seem clear in postmortems of the election is that liberals have a strong sense of normalcy and a penchant for being caught off guard by the success of populists and not just in this country. What is your thinking about this and the US elections in general?

PM: I think it is safe to say that many of those who voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020 voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012. The outsidery candidate who offers to terminate business as usual—after shocking exposures of political and financial malfeasance and such calamities as the war on terror, Hurricane Katrina, and the financial crisis—was obviously attractive. Obama came to power on the back of a deep and widespread yearning for change and was uniquely empowered but then chose to cement his membership in the ruling class while talking a lot of emollient nonsense about bipartisanship. Is it so surprising that Trump then emerged to channel those frustrated and increasingly bitter desires for change? And to direct them against a complacent establishment that imagined itself in the best of all possible worlds with an Atlantic-reading Black man in the White House? I think the old establishment, which ranges from the center-right to the right, has been caught off guard everywhere, in India and Britain as well as the United States, by the vigor and depth of the antiestablishment revolt. A stranger to self-examination, it blames the left, a marginal force at best, for its plight. Biden’s election would accelerate that trend—and we should never forget that the demonizing of the left has facilitated much politics and intellectual work in the US since the Cold War.

Having seen off the far right’s electoral challenge and secured a kind of restoration, the old establishment and its trumpeters in the media are going to turn on the left even more viciously than before. The attacks have already started, to the shock and dismay of people like [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] and others in the Democratic Party who worked so hard for Biden’s victory and scored some successes of their own. Biden himself is set to disappoint—cruelly. His limitations and those of his Obama-lite confrères are plain, as is the scope of the economic challenges before them. Moreover, as the nearly 70 million votes for Trump attest, antiestablishment fervor is not exhausted—not in the US, not in India, not in Britain, not in Italy, and definitely not in France.

Do you remember how, back in 2016, [President Emmanuel] Macron was hailed as the great hope of the liberal order, a French [Tony] Blair, more intellectual and literary than Obama? How did that particular restoration go? Look at Macron now, despised by almost every constituency and trying to salvage his chances in the next election by approximating [National Front leader] Marine Le Pen’s position on Islam. Biden is much more closely associated with the discredited old order than Macron and much less suited to be its savior. Also, I don’t think we have seen the last of Trump and his tweets. The desire for normalcy, essentially a state of affairs in which gross inequities reign behind a veil of sophistication and civility, is what brought us Trump in the first place. The pursuit of normalcy now might bring us Trump 2.0 or a clone more competent and toxic than the original.

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