Grand Tamasha

Pankaj Mishra on the Crisis of Liberalism in India and the World

Episode Summary

Author Pankaj Mishra joins Milan to discuss the state of Indian democracy, the (absent) standard-bearers of Indian liberalism, and how the Cold War-era conception of democracy helped India geopolitically.

Episode Notes

Pankaj Mishra is the acclaimed author of numerous books of fiction and non-fiction. He is a frequent contributor to some of the world’s top publications the New York Times, New York Review of Books, Guardian, the New Yorker, and Bloomberg.  


His new book, Bland Fanatics: Liberals, Race, and Empire, focuses on the decay of Western liberalism but somehow manages to cover an array of topics from Salman Rushie to The Economist to British colonialism and Indian politics.  


Pankaj and Milan discuss the state of Indian democracy, the (absent) standard-bearers of Indian liberalism, and how the Cold War-era conception of democracy helped India geopolitically. They also discuss what the British Raj can tell us about Brexit and the future of big government, for good and for ill. 


Episode Notes: 

  1. Pankaj Mishra, Bland Fanatics: Liberals, Race, and Empire
  2. Pankaj Mishra, Age of Anger: A History of the Present
  3. Pankaj Mishra, “Coronavirus Will Review an All-Powerful State
  4. Ramachandra Guha, “The 50-50 democracy
  5. Ashutosh Varshney, Battles Half Won: India’s Improbable Democracy


Episode Transcription

Milan  00:11

Welcome to Grand Tamasha, a co-production of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Hindustan Times. I'm your host, Milan Vaishnav. Pankaj Mishra is the acclaimed author of seven books of fiction and nonfiction. He's a frequent contributor to some of the world's top publications, including the New York Times, the New York Review of Books, the Guardian, the New Yorker, and Bloomberg. His new book is called Bland Fanatics: Liberals, Race, and Empire, and it's a collection of essays focused principally on the decay of Western liberalism that somehow manages to cover an array of topics ranging from Salman Rushdie to the Economist to Brexit and British colonialism. In a recent review of his new book, The New York Times notes that Mishra "shakes up settled liberal assumptions and forces a reckoning with the outlook of those who feel ground down and chewed up by Western capitalism and imperialism." I'm pleased to welcome Pankaj Mishra to the show for the very first time. Pankaj, nice to talk with you.


Pankaj  01:01

Likewise. Thank you for having me.


Milan  01:03

So, I just want to jump right into your book. You write up at the top, in the introduction, the following passage: "Those trying to look beyond the exalted rhetoric of liberal politics and economics rarely found any corresponding realities." And then you go on to say that your own education in this glaring absence began through an experience that you had in Kashmir. Tell us a little bit about how your experience in Kashmir is related to this broader insight about liberalism.


Pankaj  01:31

Well, thank you, first of all, for asking that question, because in my experience of talking to people in Britain and the United States, when they asked me about how did I arrive at certain ideas or certain critiques, the assumption there is always that I'm actually part of, or have been part of, a long conversation in Britain and America, and that my Indian experience really is of no account in that conversation. Whereas so much of what I've written, whether for the New York Times or for the Guardian or on various subjects, actually is deeply informed by the fact that I grew up in India. I spent most of my adult life there and wrote extensively about Indian politics and Indian culture. And in this context, again - I mean, here's a book about Western liberalism primarily, but the education in this particular subject really began when I went to Kashmir in the late '90s. And I suppose what really happened to me, there and afterwards, was the realization that I had been living in a kind of propaganda regime, you know, which is a realization that is now very commonplace - that so much of what was claimed for Indian democracy, or Indian secularism, or even Indian liberalism, was not really connected to any known facts, and that instead of India embracing Kashmir and putting it on the path to progress and more democracy, what we actually saw, or what I saw in Kashmir in the late '90s, very straightforwardly was a military occupation. So, it was very difficult to relate the brutal realities of that occupation to this rhetoric that I also had internalized that, actually, "We are the good guys in Kashmir and the Pakistanis are the truly bad guys, and it serves the Kashmiris well, it's in their interest to stand with us Indians because we are the ones who can do good things for them, whereas the other guys basically represent the forces of darkness." And that assumption was profoundly shaken during my time there. And, you know, I think it really started me on a whole kind of journey altogether, a sort of intellectual journey and political journey where critiquing existing assumptions, critiquing existing ideas really became my primary task. And once I noticed that disconnect between high-flown, high-minded ideas and reality, then you can apply it to different situations around the world. And this is also how I came to be writing about the War on Terror. The response to the 9/11 attacks happened just sort of two years after I went to Kashmir, so it was a kind of natural progression from writing about Kashmir, writing about the sort of ideological deceptions there, to writing about the War on Terror, which, again, was underpinned and supported by this very inspiring - at one level - rhetoric of bringing democracy to these benighted peoples, and of "only if we have democracy there will we be able to fight terrorism effectively." And, you know, in this rhetoric, a whole bogus history of the British Empire was invoked, and how this empire was a civilizing force and it had produced a fantastically good administration, and perhaps we can do the same. And the British offered themselves as sort of, essentially, as counselors and guides to the Americans in Iraq and actually activists such in places like Basra. So, it made me more alert to this kind of rhetoric of imperialism, of occupation, which is supported by various intense statements of liberal good intentions.


Milan  05:52

Getting to these high-minded topics of democracy and liberalism - you note early on in the book that India benefited from a Cold War era conception of democracy, which, as you put it, reduced it to a morally glamorous label for the way rulers are elected rather than for the kinds of power they hold or the ways they exercise it. And it reminded me of what the historian Ram Guha has long talked about, that India is really only a 50-50 democracy. The political scientist Ashutosh Varshney has a different way of putting it: he says that the fatal flaw in Indian democracy is really the lack of it in between elections - that is, when the electoral spotlight is not shining on the population. If you sort of take a step back, reflecting on your days in Kashmir to where we are today, how would you characterize the state of Indian democracy in the year 2020?


Pankaj  06:42

Well, I think looking at Indian Democracy at work in Kashmir back then in the late '90s - and then, of course, afterwards, in the 2000s - was extremely worrying and concerning, because you knew - and many of us who were writing about these subjects knew back then - that whatever was happening in Kashmir, the complete breakdown of democratic norms - not just democratic norms, the breakdown of civilized norms - was going to affect the rest of India or the Indian heartland at some point. And it happened sooner than most of us thought. And, obviously, when you look around in 2020 and you see this incredible, extraordinary ideological takeover of various institutions, whether it's the media or the judiciary - well, a lot of this happened very early on in Kashmir and the northeastern states, where ordinary citizens, expecting justice, expecting recognition of the dignity and the individual rights from people in authority, were brutally rebuffed. And that is the situation in many parts of India today, that the expectation from democratic institutions, or so-called democratic institutions, is close to zero. So, I think that that experience of states or border states where a democracy was being systematically perverted, was an early reminder that this could happen and happen pretty dramatically in the Indian Heartland. And that also made you realize that perhaps we have overestimated the strength of Indian democracy, and that we saw in it things that were not really there, or that we also, in some ways, embraced a kind of Cold War rhetoric about democracy in which, as I said, the way in which you're elected becomes more important than what you actually do with the power that the electorate gives to you. And, of course, during the Cold War, obviously the propagandists of the "free world" were deeply interested in presenting democracy as a great option which obviously is morally superior to countries where you have essentially dictatorships of various communist regimes, various socialist regimes, and that a regime where representatives are elected is by definition superior. These questions about substantive democracy, or what really happens between elections - these questions were not much asked. I mean, it was just important to have elections. Like, you had those farcical elections in various sort of pro-American regimes like Vietnam and elsewhere where it was just enough that you have the elections, and it didn't matter whether the elections were rigged, and I think India benefited from that particular discourse, from that particular rhetoric, that because it's a democracy we don't really need to worry about whether ordinary citizens also experience authentic democracy. So, I suppose what I'm trying to say is that we have actually also constructed a narrative of Indian exceptionalism as influential and powerful as the narrative of American exceptionalism, I would argue, because it has actually prevented us in both cases - in India and America - from actually acknowledging some really awful realities, which is that, as in America, large parts of the population have been disenfranchised and they have been for a very long time - it's actually a real struggle for them to even vote. Racism is a huge problem. I mean, these facts have been around for a very long time. I think it's taken people decades to really acknowledge the seriousness of the problem. And I think likewise, in India, we have spent far too much time and energy in building this narrative of India as the singular democracy within the sea of dictatorships or authoritarian regimes, and I think that has actually prevented us from seeing how things were going really badly wrong in the '90s and 2000s. And, of course, what has happened in the last five or six years is not secret anymore.


Milan  11:41

You know, listening to you talk, I was also reminded of what another public intellectual had to say about the events of August 5th last year and the abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir - Pratap Bhanu Mehta, who wrote in The Indian Express at the time that the government thinks that it's going to Indianize Kashmir through this move, but instead, what we are going to see is the Kashmirization of India. Do you think that there's an element of truth in that?


Pankaj  12:07

Well, yes, absolutely. I mean, the fact is that this was being said many years ago. This was being said in the 2000s by various people who were writing about Kashmir, including Arundhati Roy - that it's very easy to think of Kashmir as someplace very much removed from us, but that reality is going to haunt us in India. And, unfortunately, those prophecies and those predictions have come true, and I think people have acknowledged this far too late. I mean, that is a problem - that we've woken up too late to this sort of growing pathology and these growing deformities in the Indian system. 


Milan  12:48

You argue in the book that Bal Gangadhar Tilak fashioned one of the most perceptive critiques of Western liberalism to emerge from India, and I found this particularly interesting. You said that Tilak defined liberation from material attachments, or “moksha,” as life's ultimate goal, and in your words, liberalism in this version was a system of duties and obligations; ethical conduct, not rational self-interest, came first. As you look at the landscape in India, who are today's standard bearers - are there any? - of this kind of liberalism that Tilak was writing about?


Pankaj  13:24

Ah, I wish I could point to several. I mean, I think it's actually difficult to identify - certainly in the political sphere - organizations or parties that embody that kind of “udarvad,” I think was the phrase. But I think it is actually important to emphasize that there was this other tradition, and it was emphasized, of course, in response to what was seen as an ideology of imperialism, not just in India, but also in other parts, in China as well - the notion that this particular ideology of individual rights is essentially the ideology of a successful, triumphant imperialist nation, and that for us, who are trying to build a nation state, trying to create some kind of national unity, what's more important to us is the idea of ethical conduct, is the idea of duty, is the idea of rights. Tilak, of course - I mean, and then, of course, there's Gandhi, who talks about duties and rights a lot. In fact, that whole discourse is very different. I mean, the Dalai Lama today talks about the importance of duties, and that is, you know, part of the whole kind of religious tradition. In Buddhism, duties are emphasized more than - I mean, I don't think there's a very strong discourse of rights at all in Buddhism. And so, Tilak and various others and people in China, they were drawing upon these sort of older traditions of coexistence, of social harmony, and saying, "What can we learn from those lessons?" And I think you know, even today, it's still hugely important, actually, to think of those ideas, think of those traditions as a kind of resource, really - things we can still learn from. The sad thing is, to answer your question, there are not that many organizations who promote those ideas or represent those ideas in our public life. But there are individuals - we see them all the time, we meet them, I'm sure you know them - who do live life according to some ethical principles, who are not interested in this possibility of endless expansion, fulfillment, growth, the pursuit of desire, the demand for rights - and, you know, rights, in this case, the rights of the powerful and the privileged. People who still believe in the virtues of compassion and solidarity, they're all around us. The sad thing is that our politics, our public life, doesn't actually feature - the way it's constructed today, it doesn't feature those individuals in any impressive, substantial way.


Milan  16:13

One of the essays in this collection reflects on the terrific book by the journalist Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, and one of the things that you say in the book is that her penetrating account of urban life in a Bombay slum kind of serves in a way as a useful antidote to the standard celebratory tomes on India's kind of linear teleological economic and political progress. But I'm wondering - if one plays devil's advocate, couldn't one say that there is a danger of underplaying or underemphasizing some of the hard-fought gains India has indeed made over the past, say, two or three decades, whether it's on poverty reduction, reducing infant mortality, trying to address issues of caste inequality, political inclusion, and so on and so forth? So, is there a worry that some of this gets glossed over in your mind?


Pankaj  17:07

I don't know if there's a real danger of that. And I think it's precluded by the fact that the weight of congratulatory tomes about India is so much greater than what has been produced by critics like myself. And, in fact, from the time I started publishing in the '90s, late '90s, mid-'90s, I found myself among a very small minority, and it's a smaller minority when you think of people writing in American and British publications and writing about India. And all my efforts, while writing for these newspapers and magazines about India, Indian realities, came to be in some ways dictated by the information analysis that existed there, all of which was indicating that India was on the path to irreversible progress and that all the indications - I mean, all the things you mentioned - say that this is going to be the Indian century. So, I was very aware that this has now become the default wisdom of our times that practically every magazine, even including the magazines and periodicals that I was writing for, was amplifying this message. And to many of us, it just didn't seem true, didn't ring true - it wasn't at all compatible with our experience of Indian realities. So, you know, you found yourself willy-nilly resisting that narrative, pushing back against that narrative. And, of course, there were people saying, "These people are completely out of touch, they should stick to fiction writing, they should do this, or they should do that." I mean, someone like Jagdish Bhagwati said that in the Indian Parliament about my work. So, there were powerful voices trying to essentially discredit me, discredit people like myself, and delegitimize me. So, I think in writing about Katherine Boo's book - it was originally published, I think, in the New York Times - I was, again, challenging this larger narrative, which, you know, obviously the book itself does much more eloquently than I could. And for that reason, it was an important book because, coming when it did, it sort of really challenged this narrative very eloquently. And because it's a very powerful narrative, it made many, many people think again this sort of absurd hope that they had placed in this narrative of India progressing continuously, irreversibly.


Milan  20:01

To kind of step back from India for a second and focus on the content of your new book, there are really two major targets that you're aiming at: imperialism and liberalism, and their connection. In today's era of COVID-19, it has become blatantly and obviously clear that what we are seeing in some sense is the combination of a process of moral and ideological decay or bankruptcy in how we think about modern democracy - which, you know, is quite the opposite of Francis Fukuyama, his famous assessment in The End of History about, you know, where we might end up with free market capitalism and liberalism and their total victory. How concerned are you that the alternative of whatever comes next could be worse than what in fact, has proceeded?


Pankaj  20:56

Well, it could be worse. I think that if history is any guide, it tells us that when liberal democratic regimes collapse, what fills the vacuum are the forces of darkness, are the forces of chaos, and this has happened far too many times. But at the same time, that does not mean that we should stick to a model or we should stick to a set of ideas that have proven to be so calamitous, that that failed, so comprehensively. I think another way of answering that question would be to say that perhaps the discourse of the end of history or the ultimate victory of liberal democracy was so strong - nearly as strong as the narrative of Indian exceptionalism - that, again, it blinded us too much to existing and potential sources of problems, of crises. I mean, the fact that right from the 1970s - we all know this now - wages had begun to stagnate, inequality had started to become a problem, and Fukuyama is writing in 1989, that actually the West has solved the class issue - "the West is fundamentally egalitarian" is the exact quote from his National Interest article. So, I think there's a degree of self-deception that - I mean, I'm sure he meant it sincerely, but really, looking back, can anyone seriously believe that the West had solved the problem of inequality back in the 1980s? But, you know, here was a well-connected figure in the intellectual establishment of the United States making those claims, and then a whole intellectual industry grew up around those claims, advancing them and taking them to different contexts. But, again, I think what really happened was that, if there are far too many people saying the same kind of things over and over again, simply because it's lucrative, simply because it buys them influence and authority in the think tanks, in various publications, because everyone wants to hear this message, then you're going to turn away from reality whatsoever at some point and become disconnected. So, Trump becomes a candidate in 2016 and starts to win his primaries, and everyone starts talking about the "left behinds," everyone starts speaking suddenly of the white working class - formulations like the "white working class" enter the discourse. It shouldn't have taken this long to realize that there was a big problem out in the hinterland with the outsourcing of jobs, unemployment, and so on and so forth. So, I guess what I'm trying to say is that I think all of us in many ways have been too trapped by certain mainstream discourses to be able to look beyond them, and actually look at lived experiences of ordinary people. The intellectual industry has become so specialized. It has, you know, brought us many rewards in many ways, and has put us in well-rewarded positions, but at the same time, maybe there has been a cost there - that it has actually disconnected us from the realities that we should ideally be checking up on practically every day.


Milan  24:25

Speaking of Donald Trump, you have this lovely line in the book where you say both Donald Trump as well as many of his opponents are fundamentally after the same thing: you write, the extension of "closing time in their own gardens in the West." In other words, Americans seem not to have gotten the memo that liberalism in America cannot be made great again, at least not in the way that it has been practiced in the past. Given that rather pessimistic assessment, what exactly are the stakes of this forthcoming election in about 30 days from now, in your view? Because if we were to see a Biden administration, do you expect essentially that we will end up in a very similar place because of a reversion to some kind of status quo?


Pankaj  25:13

I think there is already a pretty alarming precedent for this, which is the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008. Now, that was a moment of reckoning for many, many people that financialization, liberalization has not worked, it has almost brought the world economy down, we need to do something about it. But what actually happened was that the rich got even richer, and millions of people suffered, lost their homes, lost their jobs. And, again, you had a democratic president in the White House, much loved, very popular, but he did not really address the fundamental issues that had brought America to this terrible crisis. And, as a result, the stage was then set for a demagogue like Donald Trump. And, you know, likewise, Biden is going to assume power in a time of the most severe crisis the United States has faced, really. One can't even remember the last time it faced a crisis like this. The chances of failure are so high. And I think whatever Biden does - I do think that Biden has had to change many of his own kind of bold, neoliberal centrist positions because of the pressure on him from the left of the Democratic Party, and he can also recognize very well the reality in the United States right now, and he knows that we just cannot go on business as usual, and he needs to do stuff. But the chances of him doing well at this point are very, very low. And I think one cannot rule out, unfortunately, the fact that there would be another candidate, possibly more extreme and more talented, more gifted politically than Trump, waiting in the wings by the time the next election comes around. So, this is, unfortunately, one of those cyclical things that countries can get trapped into. And I feel like there's no really easy way out for the United States at this point.


Milan  27:32

So, let me turn attention to the country in which you're residing presently, Great Britain. I was fascinated by the analogy you draw between the hurried exit of the British Raj from India and the ongoing Brexit saga. Why does this analogy work, and what, to your mind, might it suggest about Britain's trajectory post-Brexit?


Pankaj  27:55

I mean, the broad point I was trying to make is that British political culture - which, if you grew up in India, you sort of have an instinctive admiration for because, from a distance, it looks very impressive, the rituals and ceremonies of Parliament, the so-called debates, the Prime Minister's question time - but what that pomp and circumstance conceals is really an incredibly competent power elite, a political elite, which historically has managed to pass on the costs of the immense blunders it makes to various people around the globe. So, if you look at what happened in various countries that the British occupied, colonized, and then left in a great hurry, whether it's Palestine or Cyprus, or indeed, India and Pakistan, it was criminal what they did in many of these places - I mean, not only the way in which these countries were ruled, but the way in which they departed these countries, creating gigantic problems for the people left behind to deal with, in every possible sense of the term. So, I think what Brexit has proven - I mean, again, this is something the anti-colonial activists of the 1920s and '30s used to talk about is that when these imperialist countries actually lose the power that they've gained by exploiting and colonizing other countries, things will become pretty bad in their own countries because all the source of their prosperity is the fact that they can pass on the consequences of their crimes to Indians and Palestinians and people in Kenya. There is no one to pass on consequences to [once you lose these colonies], so you suffer at home the consequences of the political decisions you make. And Brexit really is a classic instance of that: a completely out-of-control section of the Conservative Party has held the country hostage, has managed to push through its extremely radical agenda, helped by a pretty crazy right-wing press. I mean, I think you have to live in this country to realize just how fundamentally deranged and demented the right-wing press is, and it's overwhelmingly right-wing, the press here is - I mean, the broadcasting media is somewhat different, but even that is now being challenged by various Rupert Murdoch ventures. So, combined with a very self-serving, self-interested political elite, with a right-wing media, you're looking at immense self-harm. And, you know, that is what this country has inflicted on itself with Brexit.


Milan  31:00

So, I want to ask you, Pankaj, about the future. Damon Linker, writing in the New York Times, praises your book for its incisive critique of Western liberalism, but he also finds that it is somewhat silent when it comes to solutions. So, I want to give you a chance to respond to this: if the American-led so-called liberal international order didn't really do a good job of providing liberalism or much order in the end, what in your mind should replace it? How does one think about what a more ethical, more moral, more humane, more free regime? What might that look like?


Pankaj  31:37

Well, I think one can theorize about this endlessly, and speculate endlessly, but the so-called solutions that intellectuals are called upon to provide can really only emerge and should really only emerge from a democratic process. I mean, I haven't read the review that you mentioned yet - I'm just in the middle of something, so I plan to read all the reviews together in a few weeks' time - but I can sort of more or less predict what the review will say because people have said that kind of thing before about, "Okay, what is your solution if you've diagnosed the problem?" And I think I'm often tempted to say, look, you know, the world is experiencing a kind of extensive conflagration right now. I was one of those people who saw a little fire here and said, "Well, look at this, if you don't attend to it, it'll spread and spread and spread." Nobody paid any attention. I still kept saying, "Oh, there's a fire, there's a fire, there's a fire." Instead, people are pouring fuel into that fire - some of the very few people who are asking for solutions at this point were in positions of authority and influence, were peddling these ideologies of endless and irreversible progress, but they didn't pay any attention at that point. Now, suddenly, I'm being asked to become a fireman overnight and take my little truck to this extensive fire and say, "What are you gonna do about this, do you have any solutions?" So, it's a bit unfair, at many different levels, to suddenly expect people who have been mourning of this for a long time to then also come up with, you know, an ambitious solution. And then, you know, one of the things I've been arguing against in most of the things I've written is, what makes the intellectuals so uniquely empowered to provide solutions in that way - from, let's say, on top? What kind of connection does the intellectual really have with his or her society? And, as far as I can see, that relationship is primarily defined by a disconnect - the intellectual is increasingly disconnected from so much that is happening around him. I feel very uncertain about, you know, what's happening around me, I feel like I don't have a handle on this. I can critique to the best of my ability the existing discourses about the situation because they've been proven to be wrong in so many different ways, and I felt them to be wrong before, but, you know - also because our realities are so different, whether you're sitting in London, whether you’re sitting in Himachal Pradesh, or whether you're sitting in Washington, DC, and all those situations or those circumstances require particular responses that can only emerge from an experience of those circumstances or an experience of those situations. So, the idea that someone can universalize a solution sitting in a little study - that was precisely the problem with many of these humanistic intellectuals who were laying down prescriptions like the Washington Consensus, or deregulation, or privatization - assuming that, once again, what works in one particular context can also work in some other context. I mean, that is the whole definition of the "bland fanatics," really, the Reinhold Niebuhr phrase that I borrowed, which is to say, people who assume that the few contingent achievements of their society can be spread to other places. So, you know, if you're arguing against that kind of intellectual arrogance, then you should not fall victim to that by then trying to prescribe or offer ideological solutions. I would also say - I mean, I think you may disagree with this, but I think the most effective political and intellectual intervention of the last three, four years has been the Green New Deal, offered by a first-time Congresswoman. I mean, I think it's worth reflecting on, like, how did this happen? A person still in her twenties, if I'm correct, someone who's actively engaged, was pounding the pavements of a constituency, meeting people all the time, who's actively engaged in the political process and democratic process, who's been thinking, reflecting on these issues for a long time, and then comes together with a program that then suddenly becomes mainstream - or, at least, accepted by wide sections of American society - travels the Atlantic - this is a phrase now that is very current in Britain. Now, that is really an example of someone coming up with a solution. But again, you know, through the democratic process, through the political process. Of course, it has to go through a process of intellectual verification, and that it has, but in the end, it has to come through, it has to emerge naturally, in a political struggle, and it cannot be left to the intellectuals, really - you know, speaking as one - to come up with solutions. 


Milan  36:55

I mean, it kind of reminds me of that truism, you know, when you read big books by public intellectuals, they put together this this lovely work, and it's always the last chapter, chapter eight or chapter nine, which is on policy solutions, and it's universally regarded as the worst chapter of the book, and seems sort of tacked on at the end, and most people skip over it because it seems sort of forced and rather trite. I want to end this conversation by asking you about a column you wrote for Bloomberg, and this was back in March 2020, at the onset of this Coronavirus pandemic, and the title of that column was "Coronavirus Will Revive an All-Powerful State." And you had a really interesting insight that I want to close with, which is that you said big government is back in a big way, but that is going to work for both for good and for ill. And in the short run, this may be a very good thing, but you do seem very fearful about the implications in the long run. So, I could just ask you to kind of reflect on this differential assessment. Why might big government be good in the here and now but then in the long term be something we may come to regret?


Pankaj  38:04

Well, back in March, when I wrote this, it was clear that only states with effective capacity and resources can deal with the pandemic and its side effects and its aftereffects. It's only countries with strong state capacity that can really cope with something as destructive as this. And I think that has been proven right. To a large extent, we can see today that countries with strong social welfare systems, strong states like Germany or South Korea, have actually done much, much better than countries where there's far too much emphasis on the possibility that individuals pursuing their private interests will somehow create a kind of common good, and that the state needs to step back and governments need to step back and we need more deregulation and privatization, including our health services. I mean, that kind of thinking has obviously proven lethal in places like the United States and to a certain extent in Britain. So, I think in that sense, the assertion that the state, or states in general, will come to have a larger rule has been proven true. What has also been proven true is that many states will opportunistically use this moment to accumulate more coercive power, and that they have - we can see that in India, we can see that in China, and also elsewhere. And I feel like that is really something we have to be on our guard against because I think I wrote in that column that this has happened before. In many countries where the state became very dominant, very important, very intrusive in people's lives, those states ended up being essentially if not outright fascist then very close to it. And that is really the danger right now, that states have acquired so much power over the life and death of their citizens and this particular bio-power is something to be very afraid of because when states come into the possession of that, it enables them to come into all kinds of monstrous crimes. And, again, history has witnessed that. So, you know, I think the states have played a very crucial role in fighting off the pandemic in some contexts, but in other contexts, I think they have really become menacingly powerful.


Milan  40:57

My guest on the show today is Pankaj Mishra. He's the author of a new book called Bland Fanatics: Liberals, Race, and Empire. It's a collection of essays focused on the ills of imperialism and the decay of Western liberalism. He joins me on the phone today from London. Pankaj, thanks for coming on the show. It was great to speak with you.


Pankaj  41:11

Oh, thanks very much for having me. That was a great pleasure.