An interview with Pankaj Mishra

Boston Review: Wajahat Ali: Reflecting on recent events, could an argument be made that the disastrous Iraq War and the 2008 financial crisis have shifted the axis of power from the United States to rising Asia?

Pankaj Mishra: I don’t think Asians and South Asians have much cause for celebration if power is indeed shifting to the East due to the disastrous blunders of the United States. One still has to ask, whose power? And to whom is it shifting and who in Asia will it eventually benefit? We Asians have shown ourselves very capable of making the same kind of mistakes. I write from Japan, which has its own history of militarism and imperialism, and where the ghost of nationalism is yet to be exorcised. And we know about South Asia’s inability to defuse its toxic nationalisms or provide a degree of social and economic justice to its billion-plus populations.

WA: Your book focuses on late 19th-century cosmopolitan intellectuals, such as Jamal al din Afghani, Liang Qichao, and Tagore, who were early resisters to Western imperialism and colonialism. Do their lives and ideas inform and relate to the dissidents of today, such as the protestors in Tahrir Square, the revolutionaries in Syria, or civil society groups in Malaysia?

PM: People like al-Afghani, Liang, and Tagore were responding, in another era of globalization, to the growing predominance of a mode of political economy vindicated by the great power of the West and to the increasing violence and suffering of non-Western societies as they scrambled to organize themselves for life in the new, ruthless world of international relations. They were at the beginning of the process that we now seem more clearly in places like Egypt, Syria, or Malaysia—the formation of unwieldy and unviable nation-states over multicultural mosaics, the invocation of religious-ethnic solidarities (Malaysia), or the creation and eventual collapse of pro-Western military dictatorships (Egypt) to sustain and legitimize the rule of local elites. I think al-Afghani in 1890s Iran or Liang in early 19th-century imperial China would have recognized the daunting backdrop to ordinary struggles for freedom and dignity today—the general political fragmentation, the loss of the state’s legitimacy everywhere, and the rise of transnational elites who owe primary allegiance to themselves. [Continue reading...]

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