Among the Deceivers

Bland Fanatics: Liberals, Race, and Empire BY Pankaj Mishra. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 224 pages. $20.

The cover of Bland Fanatics: Liberals, Race, and Empire

TWO FIGURES OVERLOOK A SACRED RIVER: both qualify as students, yet one is more experienced by far. He attempts to bridge the difference with a lesson. Pointing to the wastelands on the right bank, he defines it as sunyata, the void. Then, turning, points at the city opposite. An enormous maze of temples and houses, the dwellings of deities and castes: that is maya, illusion. “Do you know what our task is?” A test. “Our task is to live somewhere in between.” We have two versions of the scene, but in each case the younger student is described as “terrified.”

Originally transpiring in North India during the winter of 1988, the scene would take almost a decade to reach Western eyes. Detailing long days spent absorbing the intelligence of a major critic, “Edmund Wilson in Benares” announced, in spring 1998, a fresh voice in the stuffy warrens of the New York Review of Books. Not yet thirty years of age, its author, Pankaj Mishra, narrated how, in his youth, a season spent immersed in Wilson’s works had given rise to a perspective much like the critic’s own: wide-ranging, historically attuned, unafraid of bluntness. High caste but lower middle class, Mishra framed his experience within the context of a lost generation of Indian students. Instead of offering escape from the “grimly foreclosed future” of a land whose dysfunction and decay occasioned “rage and desperation,” the provincial higher education they received, in heightening their insecurity and self-awareness, intensified their misery and fury. By submitting to an authoritative cultural historian from far America as a “Guru”—his own, half-serious diction—Mishra sought relief from Asian realities; this was both a way out and a way to be somebody sure.

Yet the peace required for careful emulation had come at a price. On a campus split between embittered student factions of low caste communists and high-caste Hindu nationalists, the safety of one’s person was uncertain: Rajesh, an older graduate, bigger than most on campus, owning many pistols, guaranteed his fellow Brahmin’s health free of charge. A mingled sense of awe, discomfort, and obligation lingers over Mishra’s recollections of his superior, whose fluency in violence coincides with a capacity for insights into life and literature exceeding the author’s own. It was Rajesh who drew, as his interlocutor only later can, parallels between Wilson’s essay on the France of Flaubert’s Sentimental Education and the decrepit politics and morals of late–Cold War India; Rajesh who recited classic Urdu poetry by heart before dismissing it as socially useless; Rajesh who lectured extempore by the Ganges on sunyata and maya. (Both he and his lecture recur in Mishra’s 2000 debut novel, The Romantics, set during the same period.) Much later, Mishra learns Rajesh did more with his strength than just defend bookworms; he made ends meet through contract killings. It took the sacrifice of a literal assassin to provide the optimal conditions for the aspiring literary critic, not to mention optimal material for the aspiring novelist.

The meaning of Rajesh is uncertain, ambivalent, volatile. If Wilson represents the peace and civilization Mishra craves and Rajesh stands for the bloodshed and disorder Mishra dreads, how is it that Rajesh is a better reader of Wilson than Mishra? Why is it that Mishra’s knowledge of Wilson—and Mishra’s entrée into the NYRB, a publication created in Wilson’s image—requires Rajesh’s mediation? United by a keen awareness of the high potential for violence in a social order defined by extreme inequality, Mishra’s writings, then and later, attempted to resolve these questions by recollection and citation. One potential deferral of the assassin’s path is to study more, think hard, write down memories of the process. His reputation minted off the strength of “Edmund Wilson in Benares” and The Romantics, Mishra published, in the 2000s, a book hybridizing personal impressions with a biography of the Buddha (An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World) while filing long reports on South Asian politics for journals in New York and London.

The 2010s witnessed a turn toward historical surveys. From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia (2012) looked back on late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth century thinkers of Persia, India, and China who sought revisions of their native culture that could meet the moral-political challenge posed by Western domination; Age of Anger: A History of the Present (2017) looped the European past into the Eastern present, exhaustively detailing its thesis of modernity as an ideological hall of mirrors. Now housed in London, Mishra has reached the point where his summary judgments can be treated as authoritative by a Western audience. Yet the basis of those judgments was established long before his name began to carry weight. Over the course of an exceptional career, he has continually picked at the knot joining ambitious fancies in the global center to the peripheral, bloody business that enables them—the dialectic of great expectations.

If thinking harder and studying more can curb the spread of violence, might it follow that ignorant clichés amount to apologia for murder? Mishra’s new book Bland Fanatics: Liberals, Race, and Empire offers ample proof in the affirmative. Dating from 2008 to the present, its sixteen articles have already been published in the most prestigious liberal journals of opinion of the Anglosphere: half in the London Review of Books and another quarter in The Guardian, with the remainder split between the New York Times, the New York Review of Books, and the New Yorker. This choice of venues signals more than mere success for Mishra: the thirteen book reviews and three historical essays comprising Fanatics are united by a focus on the ideologies endemic to the selfsame world to which their author had gained entrance. “What I didn’t realise until I started to inhabit the knowledge ecosystems of London and New York,” Mishra explains in his introduction, “is how evasions and suppressions had resulted, over time, in a massive store of defective knowledge about the West and the non-West alike.” That the peoples of the Global South lived under different material circumstances than those of the North had always been self-evident; privileged access to the cultural centers of the wealthy world revealed that the disparity extended deep into the realm of historical memory. Periods that the South could not but recall in terms of death, grief, and deprivation were celebrated by the North as halcyon days replete with prosperity, progress, and high moral purpose. The proceeds of imperial plunder—one recent estimate puts it at $45 trillion from India to Britain alone—could easily pay to have the process celebrated, sanctified. The journalists and intellectuals summed up in Bland Fanatics comprise a kind of sacrificial priesthood, the Jesuits of English-speaking capital; faced with their smarmily distorted pictures of the past and present, Mishra has assumed the grueling labor of iconoclasm.

Tanya Goel, Fractal 10, 2020, digital drawing for lenticular print, 60 x 46".
Tanya Goel, Fractal 10, 2020, digital drawing for lenticular print, 60 x 46″. Courtesy the artist and Nature Morte.

Though its author describes a “frustrating struggle” to “clear the ground of misrepresentations and downright falsehoods,” Bland Fanatics has its pleasures—order, for one. The book opens in the past to better build up to the present: thus the first half of its set list commences with Mishra’s 2011 overview of the Scot and imperialist historian Niall Ferguson for the London Review of Books, the second half with his 2018 interrogation of the Canadian chauvinist mythographer Jordan Peterson, before closing with a chronicle of Brexit’s origins published late in 2019. “Liberal” may be the vaguest term in Western discourse: aware of this, Mishra differentiates between centrists and reactionaries. Identifying the line of inquiry in each essay, he has artfully arranged them into alternating sets so that the book is structured as a sort of double-decker sandwich—the rightists serving as the bread, the left liberals as the meat, cozily insinuating what Mishra describes as the “short distance from the centre-left to the reactionary right.” Every sentence is assembled with meticulous thought. The words stand at attention, fixed in place by an unsparing moral gravity. Negative reviews never lapse into gratuitous by-blows. What the English have often flattered themselves saying they did, Mishra, as an English writer, really does: his duty. His careful discipline shows him to stand clear of the crisis of the Anglo intellectual that he narrates. Small wonder that Ferguson assumes the aspect of a bête blanche in Mishra’s eyes, name-checked disapprovingly in the introduction and four other articles along with the LRB shoot-down: having graduated from densely informed histories of the Rothschild family and World War I to blithely vicious advertisements for the Iraqi slaughterhouse, the Scot exemplifies the plaque accumulating in the brain trust of the transatlantic set.

The crusaders of the liberal world have been bland for some time—Mishra takes his title phrase from Reinhold Niebuhr, who coined it in 1957. But that they grow dimmer by the day seems a new development worth noting. The declension from 2000s Ferguson, who for all his faults retained some vestigial knowledge of how to argue from empirical grounds, to 2010s Peterson, purveyor of exhortations, archetypes, and just-so stories liberated from all possibility of rational contestation, comes across all the more clearly when exposed to Mishra’s usual method of critique. Availing himself of a daunting arsenal of past quotations, Mishra confronts the subject with his late-modern antecedents: Ferguson matches the Nazi sympathizer and fearmonger of declining white supremacy Lothrop Stoddard; Peterson, a whole herd of European protofascist mystagogues, “hyper-masculinist thinkers” who “saw compassion as a vice and urged insecure men to harden their hearts against the weak (women and minorities) on the grounds that the latter were biologically and culturally inferior.” The effect is to deflate the subject’s grandiose pretensions to originality while gesturing toward the bloodier, more soiled implications of his thinking.

Yet it seems clear that, for all its elegance, a criticism that relies on widening historical context and gesturing toward unsavory associations grows less effective as its subjects edge further toward rank illiteracy, amnesia, and assault. Blimps like Ferguson can be leveled easily enough by the facts and logic Mishra wields, but what about—to borrow an unlovely phrase from Peterson—the “weasels”? Burrowed in the mythic depths of a society’s unwritten constitution, no printed ray of rational reproof can strike them down. Supplementing Ferguson’s partial record of Western trailblazing and triumph with a more thorough detailing of “the role of imperialism’s structural violence in the making of the modern world,” Mishra reveals the right-liberal discourse of benevolence and progress for a vacuous alibi. But he can do this only because such a discourse was proffered to begin with, and only because some history, however one-sided, had been proposed to legitimize it. Peterson, a cultural theorist with no history beyond the mouthing of a litany of Communist atrocities, is consequently less exposed.

Canada’s foremost psychologist is hardly isolated when he navigates by shaded and unquestionable verities of power; if anything, Mishra’s method in Bland Fanatics seems fated to spotlight the unreasoning believer that lurks in every liberal brain. When the tropes of liberal history are revealed as myth, Islamophobes, Brexiteers, and The Economist’s robotic pundits fade. Nor do progressive personalities escape withering. A review of Salman Rushdie’s fatwa memoir Joseph Anton holds up the once-great novelist as a pompous dope, a West-is-best fanatic glad to cherish the company of political mass murderers, provided that they share with him a hatred of Muslims and a love of Salman Rushdie. Ta-Nehisi Coates, famed for reparations, fares better, but not by much. Though appreciating Coates’s gifts as a fellow student of history, Mishra finds him too flattered and uncritical regarding the billionaires and other assorted illuminati at The Atlantic’s Aspen Ideas Festival; in the presence of la nouvelle bourgeoisie noire swanning about Barack Obama’s White House like drones above a Pashtun wedding, “his usually majestic syntax withers into Vanity Fair puffs.”

Even Mark Greif, Mishra’s peer in intellectual stature, n+1 cofounder and author of a survey of liberal intellectuals concentrated on the discourse of “man,” doesn’t quite escape chastisement for collusion by neglect: “Based on a limited selection of mid-century figures and texts, his history neither traces the crisis of man to its roots in Europe nor broadens out to show how a fundamentally derivative discourse was diffused, translated and consumed in another socio-economic and geopolitical context that of an imperial power making the world safe for consumer capitalism.” The fundamental might and goodness of American humanity, in spite of history—surely this is no less an article of faith than Peterson’s mystic missives from the deep North claiming that “the soul of the individual eternally hungers for the heroism of genuine Being.” Reading through the academic Samuel Moyn, Mishra names the post–Cold War cult justifying the West’s heroic sieges, subversions, and invasions of non-Western states “a human rights anti-politics miraculously placed beyond political economy.” That phrase immediately expands to fill the book. Human lives most definitely matter, but when the definition of humanity depends on power, how, exactly, will you claim your rights?

IN “FIRST LOVE,” an n+1 essay from 2005, Mishra wrote wistfully of a youth spent enthralled by Soviet propaganda. India’s underdevelopment—moral, military, and material—was undeniable; only the USSR offered a narrative fusing social justice, strength, and industry into one compellingly historic program. Once the subject of his passion fell apart, what took its place? An End to Suffering flirted heavily with the West. Marxist thinking was reproved for inattention to the individual: seeing exclusively in simplistic aggregates, devoid of moral content, it was “beautifully neat,” “pure optimism.” The Buddha was commended, like some especially perceptive left-liberal intellectual, for aiming “to redirect individuals from the pursuit of political utopias to attentiveness and acts of compassion in everyday life.” America circa 2000 “could persuasively claim a high moral purpose”; the September 11 attacks appeared to be the work of “a malevolent divinity.” To judge by the books since, and Bland Fanatics in particular, that flirtation never blossomed into romance. When Mishra, tracing Alexander Herzen’s trajectory, refers to “many disenchanted close observers of the West from the keenly imitative East,” he surely numbers himself among them. But whether he has replaced his lost illusions of Whitelandia with something more substantial remains open to doubt.

Mishra is no nihilist. Sourced in his experience of the casualties of campus and Kashmiri warfare, an unwavering ethical commitment to identifying and refusing every facile Manichaean formulation that could sanction violence runs through his work. The rigor of his writing indicates deep-rooted principles, developed independently; no one can oblige him to break from them. Yet guided by his vision, where does one arrive? An exercise in world-historical pessimism, Age of Anger pounded readers with the vision of “ressentiment as the defining feature of a world where mimetic desire . . . endlessly proliferates, and where the modern promise of equality collides with massive disparities of power, education, status and property ownership.” Reducing modern experience to the scale of Modi, Twitter, and Baghdadi while declaring that “there is, plainly, no deep logic to the unfolding of time,” Mishra effectively consigned humanity and history itself to the category of the undead. Bland Fanatics supplies much irrefutable proof that “Europe’s long peace” has been “a time of unlimited wars in Asia, Africa and the Americas”; that behind the whited sepulchres of free speech, free trade, and free elections lies a juggernaut’s progression, the “process of capitalism’s emergence and globalisation whereby a small minority in Europe and America acquired the awesome power to classify and control almost the entire human population.” The Far Right rages through its tears, and liberalism is a smirking mask reactionaries wear to hide from self-reflection; communism is, if not dead, missing in action. Thus history, lacking justice and logic, is the wasteland—a void. For all of their incessant teeming, ideologies are no more than mental constructs—illusion. How can one live somewhere in between?

Mishra’s praise for journalist Katherine Boo’s reportage on the Mumbai slums—“a reflective sensibility, subtly informing every page with previous experiences of deprivation and striving, and a gentle scepticism about ideological claims”—applies equally to his own writing. He has never lost his youthful sympathies with the dispossessed. But sympathies are not convictions to live by, and skepticism alone cannot convince anyone that life has value. To be fair, the book review, regardless of length, remains a fundamentally constricted form: tethered to another author, one can only range so far without disturbing its integrity. Negations of reactionaries, buttressed by huge blocks of historical documentation, are as much as Bland Fanatics can offer: the intellectual parallel of retired Soviet armor flattening a ceaseless row of PT Cruisers, radioing beforehand to announce that actually, there were cars that looked just like them in the ’30s.

Yet regardless of the medium, style suggests an ideology by other means—in this case, fatalism. What else, when a reader is so often made to feel the inevitable weight of history but not its excitement and contingency? In mimicking the logic of the monolithic social mechanism one critiques, a more complex view of the dynamic governing organic systems over time recedes; the magic of the real collapses into doom. Mishra’s predilection for a home-brewed discourse of man—“Davos man,” “mimic man,” “homo economicus,” “homo atlanticus,” “now universally emergent Underground Man”—speaks to a sublimation of titanic myth more than any confidence in human reasoning. “What has become clearer since the coronavirus crisis is that modern democracies have for decades been lurching towards moral and ideological bankruptcy,” he announces in his introduction to Bland Fanatics, striking a tone much like a liberal moralist. But when, faced with the atrocious historical record he himself provides, were such societies ethically solvent at all? The threat faced by today’s elected governments is not the depletion of some strategic moral reserve, but actual bankruptcy—that and nothing else, not even well-tempered demolitions in the LRB, will constitute the ultimate rebuttal of their manufactured thinkers.

The East, it was once held in Washington and London, found definition only in passivity, negations of the will. Despotic, impotent, depraved, and inhuman, enthralled by dimwit priests and sages murmuring obsolescent cant, Orientals had no place in history outside of being penetrated and possessed by WASP man—infected by his optimistic, active faith in human progress. Yet since World War I an irony has gradually unfurled. Entertainment and police work have effectively reduced the activism of the UK and US general populations to zero—and at their own request. The high priests of Anglo-America, with their repetitious verbal rites and violent interventions innocently uplifting individuals’ inviolable liberty to choose, chase, and reproduce their interests, now virally expire in an assessment of the human spirit even more infinitesimal than those calculated by a Grand Inquisitor or Vedic sage. It’s clear that Mishra has done much to enlighten the workings of “the power that cannily assigns inescapable destinies to individuals in line with their capacity to be competitive and profitable while at the same time paying lip service to universal progress, equality and liberty.” What’s unclear is whether he believes that intellectuals in the West have any task other than exposing the emptiness and lies on which that power depends, or any potential to do something other than serve its purposes. For all its substantial virtues, Bland Fanatics is only an intermission: book reviews remain the poorest way to pay the world back for your knowledge of it. It’s the next act that counts. Fictional or historic, a river flows, and Rajesh awaits a different answer to his riddle—if there is one. Only in the future can you find a proper way to repay the sacrifices of the past.

Frank Guan is working on a history of the United States.