The ‘Democratic’ West & Free Market Success are Modern Fictions

An exclusive excerpt from Pankaj Mishra’s new book ‘Blind Fanatics: Liberals, Race, and Empire’.

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An exclusive excerpt from Pankaj Mishra’s new book.
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(This is an exclusive excerpt from renowned essayist and novelist Pankaj Mishra’s new book, ‘Bland Fanatics: Liberals, Race, and Empire (Juggernaut, 2020), on the mythmaking in the West about the successes of Western liberal democracies and their economic policies, and how this approach poorly analyses developments in India and the rest of Asia.)

For decades, India benefitted from a Cold War-era conception of ‘democracy’, which 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.

As a non-communist country that held routine elections, India possessed a matchless international prestige despite consistently failing – worse than many Asian, African and Latin American countries – to provide its citizens with even the basic components of a dignified existence. The halo of virtue around India shone brighter as its governments embraced free markets and communist-run China abruptly emerged as a challenger to the West.

Even as India descended into Hindu nationalism, an exuberant consensus about India was developing among Anglo-American elites: that liberal democracy had acquired deep roots in Indian soil, fertilising it for the growth of free markets.

For a writer of my background, it became imperative to challenge this unanimity – first at home, and then, increasingly, abroad.

The Myth of The ‘Democratic’ West

In many ways, India’s own bland fanatics, who seemed determined to nail their cherished ‘idea of India’ into Kashmiri hearts and minds, prepared me for the spectacle of a liberal intelligentsia cheerleading the war for ‘human rights’ in Iraq, with the kind of humanitarian rhetoric about freedom, democracy and progress that was originally heard from European imperialists in the nineteenth century. It had long been clear to me that Western ideologues during the Cold War absurdly prettified the rise of the ‘democratic’ West.

The long struggle against communism, which claimed superior moral virtue, had required many expedient feints.

The centuries of civil war, imperial conquest, brutal exploitation and genocide were suppressed in accounts that showed how Westerners made the modern world, and became with their liberal democracies the superior people everyone else ought to catch up with.

What I didn’t realise until I started to inhabit the knowledge ecosystems of London and New York is how evasions and suppressions had resulted, over time, in a massive store of defective knowledge about the West and the non-West alike. Simple-minded and misleading ideas and assumptions, drawn from this blinkered history, had come to shape the speeches of Western statesmen, think tank reports and newspaper editorials, while supplying fuel to countless log-rolling columnists, television pundits and terrorism experts.

It may be hard to remember today, especially for younger readers, that the mainstream of Anglo-America in the early 2000s deferentially hosted figures like Niall Ferguson, and arguments that the occupation and subjugation of other people’s territory and culture were an efficacious instrument of civilisation, and that we needed more such emancipatory imperialism to bring intransigently backward peoples in line with the advanced West.

Astonishingly, British imperialism, seen for decades by Western scholars and anti-colonial leaders alike as a racist, illegitimate and often predatory despotism, came to be repackaged in our own time as a benediction that, in Ferguson’s words, ‘undeniably pioneered free trade, free capital movements and, with the abolition of slavery, free labour’.

Never mind that free trade, introduced to Asia through gunboats, destroyed nascent industry in conquered countries, that ‘free’ capital mostly went to the white settler states of Australia and Canada, and that indentured rather than ‘free’ labour replaced slavery.

The fairy tales about how Britain made the modern world weren’t just aired at some furtive far-right conclave or hedge funders’ luxury retreat. Mainstream television, radio, and the broadsheets took the lead in making them seem intellectually respectable to a wide audience. Politicians as well as broadcasters deferred to their belligerent illogic.

The BBC set aside prime time for Niall Ferguson’s belief in the necessity of reinstating imperialism. The Tory minister for education asked him to advise on the history syllabus. Looking for a more authoritative audience, the revanchists then crossed the Atlantic to provide an intellectual armature to Americans trying to remake the modern world through free markets and military force.

Of course, the bards of a new universal liberal empire almost entirely suppressed Asian, African and Latin American voices.

And the very few allowed access to the mainstream press found that their unique privilege obliged them to, first of all, clear the ground of misrepresentations and downright falsehoods that had built up over decades.

This often frustrating struggle defined my own endeavour, reflected in the pages that follow. It was hard to avoid, for the prejudices were deeply entrenched in every realm of journalistic endeavour, looming up obdurately whether one wrote about Afghanistan, India or Japan.

An Oriental ‘Miracle’

To give one example: in Free to Choose, a hugely influential book (and ten-part television series), Milton and Rose Friedman had posed a seductive binary of rational markets versus interfering governments (what came to underpin World Bank and International Monetary Fund reports, policies and prescriptions for the next two decades).

Friedman, who inspired the ‘Chicago Boys’ re-engineering Chile’s economy after the CIA ousted Salvador Allende in 1973, sought intellectual vindication in East Asia, claiming that Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore had succeeded owing to their reliance on ‘private markets’.

In The End of History and the Last Man, Francis Fukuyama echoed this assertion, arguing that East Asia’s economies, by ‘repeating the experience of Germany and Japan in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, have proven that economic liberalism allows late modernizers to catch up with and even overtake’ the West.

This fable about the East Asian ‘miracle’, then, became central to mainstream reporting about Asia.

It did not tally at all with the historical record, which showed that state-led modernisation and economic protectionism were as central to the economies of pre-war Japan and Germany as to post-war East Asia; more recently, the long traditions of technocratic governance in East Asia have proven crucial to its relatively successful response to the coronavirus pandemic while Anglo-American free-marketeers lethally flounder.

But such facts about ‘state intervention’, as blithely ignored in the New York Times as in the Economist and the Wall Street Journal, seemed to engage very few people.

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