Book review: The shackles of liberalism

Pankaj Mishra writes how tenets of a western world are promoting unequal societies and economies

A file photo of people carrying a banner reading ‘Empower The Future’ during a demonstration in London. Policies in the so-called free enterprise economies are always skewed towards capitalists, the author says bloomberg
A file photo of people carrying a banner reading ‘Empower The Future’ during a demonstration in London. Policies in the so-called free enterprise economies are always skewed towards capitalists, the author says. (Image: Bloomberg)

The doctrines of liberalism and free markets are espoused as the panacea for problems facing any country. Author Pankaj Mishra thinks differently in his new book, Bland Fanatics. In his opinion, these principles have been used as a cover-up for something more diabolic like promoting ‘empire’, condoning racism, and encouraging a cozy relationship with capitalists.

Known to be a powerful, lucid and intelligent writer, basing his work on extensive research, Mishra uses his remarkable sense of history as an anchor for drawing up his arguments.

Written over a decade, the 14 essays in the book cover an array of subjects and people ranging from Salman Rushdie and Niall Ferguson to the more renowned Economist magazine. He combines history and contemporary times in right measure to deliver rather hard-hitting messages.

Let us peruse some of them. His argument is that liberalism being preached is one-sided and practised such that it exacerbates inequality, which is justified by the principles of free economics. USA, which is the bulwark of openness, has never been shy from the time of Woodrow Wilson to originate the doctrine of superiority, and the interference across the globe for access to mineral wealth is nothing short of imperialism through the back door. If we juxtapose the unequal terms in the WTO, one will agree with Mishra. Racism, prevalent even today in the USA, is a part of this culture of superiority and what we have witnessed of late vindicates the view.

One of his more poignant essays is where he attacks The Economist whose motto is to stand up for liberalism and freedom. He gives several instances where the journal has not lived up to this doctrine and this has been the case since 1843 when it was established. He calls The Economist as being a part of ‘British glamour elitism’. The staff is predominantly white and only recently had a woman editor. Most are recruited from Oxford and Cambridge and they genuinely believe that absence of diversity is a benefit as it produces assertive and coherent points of view!

Mishra’s tirade against both the USA and UK are interesting. Their continuous espousal of free markets, which includes privatisation and deregulation, was responsible for the collapse of Russia in 1989, which in turn led to the growth of leaders like Putin. Interestingly, he also brings out the very cozy relationships between the presidents and prime ministers of these countries with industrialists, which probably is a case everywhere. Therefore, the policies in these so-called free enterprise economies are always skewed towards capitalists, with there being a symbiotic relationship. The theory of the revolving door originated in these nations. We in India may also identify these relationships both at the government and industry levels. The IMF and World Bank are also organisations always headed by the elite and vindicate the view of Mishra of how the world order is controlled by the West.

He has a lot to say about Islamophobia prevalent across the globe and which is a creation of the West that has been exaggerated to the point of sounding real. The same has been extended by thought leaders like Niall Ferguson who talk of the colonisation of Europe by Muslims (Eurabia). This has created a deep distrust against a community, which is erroneous and has led to discrimination. He is probably right here because the kind of umbrage shown by these nations post 9/11 has not matched even when there have been meaningless deaths in the Arab world, especially Iraq, Iran and Syria. While not getting into details, he also takes a dig at the atrocities caused in Kashmir on grounds of countering terrorism.

However, even if the reader finds reason in Mishra’s writings, some things rankle. As these essays have been written at different points of time, the dynamics being spoken of have changed during this period. The essays are in general counterarguments to authors/institutions/leaders and hence could be difficult to assimilate for readers unfamiliar with them. For example, talking of leaders of the past may have less to do with what happens today even though it is true that history is often repeated. This is the problem with countering history through these pages, as the diatribe spoken of in the historical context may no longer hold today. Some issues of discrimination against Muslim women for their headwear are pertinent, though the views held by Bagehot or Wilson may not be too relevant. This is a problem when essays are written over time with history being an explanation. The author evidently thinks that this is not so.

Bland Fanatics is definitely an excellent book and intellectually stimulating for those with an inclination for history and holding a contrarian view on democracies and free markets. The idea drilled in along the way of discrimination against race, colour, religion and countries are real and hard hitting. He is clearly for more state action as every collapse of free markets does require government intervention, which is not fair, though inevitable. There will be many supporters of this view, especially after the financial crisis in the USA where losses had to be socialised to protect the capitalists. Even when it comes to dealing with the pandemic, the USA has failed because there has been limited state intervention, unlike in Europe and Asia, where governments were more proactive. Another proof that liberalism and free markets are bound to fail?

Madan Sabnavis is chief economist, CARE Ratings

BOOK DETAILS: Bland Fanatics: Liberals, Race and Empire by Pankaj Mishra
Pp 218, Rs599

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