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‘Bland Fanatics: Liberals, Race and Empire’ review: The age of illiberalism

It would be a truism to say that liberalism is in crisis. Not too long ago, when the Iron Curtain fell, the West’s — and by default the world’s — foremost intellectuals proclaimed the “end of history”. That is, human civilisation had apparently reached the end point of its socio-political evolution.

This end point, we were told, is a society organised on the principles of individual freedom, democracy, and free market capitalism. Peddled by a set of predominantly Anglo-American intellectuals, this cocktail of ideas and ideologies, clubbed under the rubric of liberalism, has largely shaped the 20th century.

For half a century, it did face a challenge from communism. But when the communist bloc collapsed in 1989, history, presumably, ended, and the entire non-Western world was set to remake itself in the image of the liberal West by embracing democracy and the free market.

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Discredited idea

However, in the thirty years since history ‘ended’, not only did this not happen, the exact opposite has come to pass: illiberalism has reared its ugly head in the West’s own backyard. How do we explain this?

While the flag-bearers of liberalism do not have a cogent answer to this question, they continue to remain influential. These dogged evangelists of a discredited liberalism are the eponymous ‘bland fanatics’ of Pankaj Mishra’s new book. According to Reinhold Niebuhr, the American theologian who coined the term, they are “fanatics” because they regard “the highly contingent achievements” of western civilisation as “the final form and norm of human existence.”

In Bland Fanatics: Liberals, Race and Empire, Mishra has selected and repurposed previously published essays to advance a searing critique of western liberalism. In the 16 essays that make up this volume, Mishra uses the works of liberal ‘thought leaders’ — from economic historian Niall Ferguson and clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson to Salman Rushdie and The Economist magazine — as a point of departure to expose the undercurrents of racism and illiberalism that permeate actually existing liberalism.

Mishra argues that liberalism has always been the handmaiden of powerful national elites. From the 17th to the 19th century, it was politically aligned with white supremacy, slavery, genocide, and imperialism. It played a dual role for the imperialist states. At home, liberalism’s paeans to individual liberty served to protect the class interests of the propertied elite by creating an ideological front against socialism. Abroad, liberal shibboleths about progress helped recast colonial conquests as a civilising mission, ‘the white man’s burden’. This legacy of liberalism as an all-weather ideological armour to protect the interests of domestic power elites has been replicated across geography and time.

Hypocritical stance

Mishra zeroes in on historical moments that illuminate the discrepancy between what liberalism preaches and what it does. One such was the ‘Wilsonian moment’ of 1919. When the American President, ahead of the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, made a passionate case for national self-determination and democracy as one of the founding pillars of a new world order, anti-colonial leaders all over the world were filled with hope.

Indian, Korean, Egyptian and Chinese nationalists even sought a meeting with Wilson in Paris. Not only were their overtures rebuffed, they had to endure the humiliation of seeing their white liberal messiah play along as European imperialists carved up colonies amongst themselves.

Quoting Ereze Manela, author of The Wilsonian Moment, Mishra writes that “Wilson’s apparent complicity with old-style imperialists united many educated Asians in what Manela calls “cynical hostility to Western civilisation.” But liberals in New York and London remained unperturbed. On the contrary, they utilised the ‘Wilsonian moment’ to generate an enduring ideological cover for American empire-building and white supremacy: liberal internationalism.

Politics of resentment

Having carried out combat missions against the “barbarism” of the Orient in the colonial era, and the barbarism of communism in the Cold War era, liberal internationalism needed a new enemy in the post-Cold War era. It had no problem manufacturing one: Islamo-fascism.

Western liberals who justified the torture and killing of brown bodies in far-off nations in the name of a ‘war against terror’ are now aghast to see their countrymen respond to the brown immigrants in their midst with xenophobic rage — a rage that has given a new lease of life to an old politics of resentment. This ‘populist’ politics seeks legitimacy by presenting liberalism (and in India, secularism too) as the decadent ideology of a self-serving elite. If today, “blond bullies and bunglers are perched atop the world’s greatest democracies,” concludes Mishra, it is because “the barbarians, it turns out, were never at the gate; they have been ruling us for some time.”

Bland Fanatics: Liberals, Race and Empire; Pankaj Mishra, Juggernaut, ₹599.

sampath.g@thehindu.co.in

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