In a conversation with Kamila Shamsie, Pankaj Mishra says: [A] part of me doesn’t understand why we are so shocked and appalled by the excesses of the NSA. Have we forgotten about the Cold War and the innumerable hot wars, not to mention the numerous assaults on ordinary moral sense by the “free world”?
Our tolerance of the intolerable found a low threshold as early as the late 1950s with the grotesque excesses of McCarthyism, which destroyed so many honest lives, and then with the insane nuclear arms race and confrontations. That’s when the Dr. Strangeloves first emerged, and the shape of the sinisterly invasive and the ferociously armed national security states people in the West live under today was fixed. No wonder that Václav Havel wrote, remarkably, while living under a repressive communist regime that Western Cold Warriors wishing to get rid of the political system he belonged to were like the “ugly woman trying to get rid of her ugliness by smashing the mirror which reminds her of it.” “Even if they won,” Havel said, “the victors would emerge from a conflict inevitably resembling their defeated opponents far more than anyone today is willing to admit or able to imagine.” And that the West would eventually construct its own Gulag “in the name of country, democracy, progress, and war discipline.”
Alas, Havel’s prophecy seems too close to the actuality of the free world today — Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, rendition, torture, extrajudicial killings by drones. All this going on while the plutocrats at home grab a few more yachts and mansions. And the NSA actually is the least shocking among the many recent flagrant subversions of democratic values.
We’ve seen an institutionalized conservatism in most mainstream periodicals, if not small magazines, since the 1980s, and a general depoliticization everywhere disguised by the strident partisanship of politicians and lobbyists. It’s only in recent years with younger writers and magazines like n+1, The New Inquiry, The Baffler, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Tin House, and others that some of those older traditions of American dissent have been revitalized. Otherwise, an ironic but superior knowingness was the hegemonic intellectual and literary mode for a long time.
Not surprisingly, despite all the immense cultural power accumulated in New York and London, which keeps so many of us fixated with Anglo-American writing, the writers who have radically expanded our ideas of literature and of the individual self and the world at large in the post-WWII era have mostly come from the “suburbs” or the “periphery” — Borges, Paz, Camus, Neruda, Miłosz, Szymborska, García Márquez, Lessing, Naipaul, Gordimer, Achebe, Atwood, to take some very different examples, and the evidence becomes even more formidable if you include Irish writers.
Today, practically every country outside the West is undergoing an intellectual, political, and cultural churning, from China to Bolivia, Egypt to Indonesia, but we haven’t really had, after the 1960s, a major oppositional culture in Western Europe and America. The Occupy movement was so startling and welcome partly because it was the first such eruption of mass protests in decades. That’s one of the many reasons why we, especially those of us in depoliticized and pacified societies, need to cast a colder eye at our self-perceptions, now and in the past, as sentinels and embodiments of Enlightenment virtues of reason, dissent, and skepticism. And it is this capacity for relentless self-criticism that should be — everywhere — the true measure of intellectual freedom and cosmopolitanism, not the entrenched cultural power and self-congratulatory moral rhetoric of some people in countries long accustomed to telling other societies what to do and how to behave.
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...]
William Dalrymple writes: On 13 April 1919 a large group of Punjabis protesting against British rule gathered in the Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar. They were incensed at the arrest of two of their leaders, and for 24 hours the city had been consumed by riots. At five in the afternoon, General Reginald Dyer marched into Jallianwala Bagh with 140 troops, most of them Gurkhas, but with a few Sikhs and Baluchis as well. Having blocked the exits, they fired into the peaceful and unresisting crowds until they had exhausted all their ammunition. Official estimates put the casualties at 379 killed and 1,200 injured. Popular estimates put the casualties as much as 10 times higher.
The massacre was a major turning point for the Indian freedom struggle and, along with Gandhi’s Salt March 11 years later in 1930, was one of the two forces that gave India’s march towards independence its unstoppable momentum. For a generation of Anglophile Indians brought up on British propaganda that British rule was just and uncorrupt, and that it had replaced centuries of arbitrary tyranny at the hands of brutal Muslim invaders, Jallianwala Bagh was a moment of revelation. Rabindranath Tagore immediately gave back his knighthood. The Nehrus were radicalised overnight. Gandhi lost his faith – intact until that point – in British justice, and wrote that he had “underrated the forces of evil” in the British empire.
But Jallianwala Bagh was by no means the worst atrocity committed by the British in India. Following the British conquest of Bengal in 1757, the province was left devastated by war and high taxation, then stricken by famine. According to Edmund Burke, the women of Bengal suffered mass rape at the hands of East India Company tax collectors. Certainly the wealth of Bengal rapidly drained into British bank accounts, while its prosperous weavers and artisans were coerced “like so many slaves” by their new British masters, and the markets flooded with British products.
More horrific still were the actions of the British army sent into Afghanistan in 1842 to take revenge for the massacre of troops during the retreat from Kabul earlier in the year. All the villages in its path were looted and torched and the women were raped. When the army got to Kabul the city was deliberately consigned to the flames. [Continue reading...]
Pankaj Mishra writes: It wasn’t an incredible photo-op, and it’s unlikely to be included in this month’s valedictory roundup of 2012 highlights. In fact, it was barely reported.
One of this year’s most remarkable events, however, was the agreement between the Philippine government and the insurgent group Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
If successful, it may not only terminate decades of secessionist violence in Mindanao, the second largest island in the Philippines; it may also inspire hope in a wide swath of Asian countries damaged, politically as well as economically, by internecine conflicts.
Divide-and-rule European imperialists, favoring one ethnic group and persecuting or neglecting another, or drawing arbitrary lines in the sand or the grass, originally transformed social and religious differences into political antagonisms within Asian societies. Their local opponents — mostly educated natives — hardened religious and ethnic identities by turning them into a basis of anti-imperialist solidarity.
In the end, the principle of self-determination was widely exported from relatively homogenous Europe to multicultural Asia, where it was embraced by rising native elites. The result was the proliferation of hastily and poorly imagined national communities — unwieldy nation-states where patchworks of relatively autonomous groups and individuals with multiple, overlapping identities had existed.
Since then, postcolonial rulers eager to hold on to their inheritance — centralized states, administrations and large, resource-rich territories — have made the map of Asia bleed red. [Continue reading...]
George Monbiot writes: Over the gates of Auschwitz were the words “Work Makes You Free“. Over the gates of the Solovetsky camp in Lenin’s gulag: “Through Labour – Freedom!”. Over the gates of the Ngenya detention camp, run by the British in Kenya: “Labour and Freedom”. Dehumanisation appears to follow an almost inexorable course.
Last week three elderly Kenyans established the right to sue the British government for the torture that they suffered – castration, beating and rape – in the Kikuyu detention camps it ran in the 1950s.
Many tens of thousands were detained and tortured in the camps. I won’t spare you the details: we have been sparing ourselves the details for far too long. Large numbers of men were castrated with pliers. Others were raped, sometimes with the use of knives, broken bottles, rifle barrels and scorpions. Women had similar instruments forced into their vaginas. The guards and officials sliced off ears and fingers, gouged out eyes, mutilated women’s breasts with pliers, poured paraffin over people and set them alight. Untold thousands died.
The government’s secret archive, revealed this April, shows that the attorney general, the colonial governor and the colonial secretary knew what was happening. The governor ensured that the perpetrators had legal immunity: including the British officers reported to him for roasting prisoners to death. In public the colonial secretary lied and kept lying. [Continue reading...]
Pankaj Mishra writes: The British empire, George Orwell wrote, was “despotism with theft as its final object”. So what has made imperialism an intellectual fashion in our own time, reopening hoary disputes about whether it was good or bad? After five years as a colonial policeman in Burma, where he found himself shooting an elephant to affirm the white man’s right to rule, Orwell was convinced that the imperial relationship was that of “slave and master”. Was the master good or bad? “Let us simply say,” Orwell wrote, “that this control is despotic and, to put it plainly, self-interested.” And “if Burma derives some incidental benefit from the English, she must pay dearly for it.”
Orwell’s hard-won insights were commonplace truisms for millions of Asians and Africans struggling to end western control of their lands. Their descendants can only be bewildered by the righteous nostalgia for imperialism that has recently seized many prominent Anglo-American politicians and opinion-makers, who continue to see Asia through the narrow perspective of western interests, leaving unexamined and unimagined the collective experiences of Asian peoples.
Certainly, as Joseph Conrad wrote in 1902, “the conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.” Two years after Conrad published Heart of Darkness, Roger Casement, then a British diplomat, revealed in a report that half of the population of Belgian-ruled Congo – nearly 10 million people – had perished under a brutal regime where beheadings, rape and genital mutilation of African labourers had become the norm. Such overt violence and terror is only a small part of the story of European domination of Asia and Africa, which includes the slow-motion slaughter of tens of million in famines caused by unfettered experiments in free trade – and plain callousness (Indians, after all, would go on breeding “like rabbits”, Winston Churchill argued when asked to send relief during the Bengal famine of 1943-44).
The unctuous belief that British imperialists, compared to their Belgian and French counterparts, were exponents of fair play has been dented most recently by revelations about mass murder and torture during the British suppression of the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya in the 1950s. Nevertheless, in one of the weirdest episodes of recent history, a Kipling-esque rhetoric about bringing free trade and humane governance to “lesser breeds outside the law” has resonated again in the Anglo-American public sphere. Even before 9/11, Tony Blair was ready to tend, with military means if necessary, to, as he put it, “the starving, the wretched, the dispossessed, the ignorant” around the world. His apparently more intellectual rival Gordon Brown urged his compatriots to be “proud” of their imperial past. Sensing a sharper rightward shift after 9/11, many pith-helmet-and-jodhpurs fetishists boisterously outed themselves, exhorting politicians to recreate a new western imperium through old-style military conquest and occupation of native lands. [Continue reading...]
Dan Glazebrook writes: “The less they see of us, the less they will dislike us.” So remarked Frederick Roberts, British general during the Anglo-Afghan war of 1878-80, ushering in a policy of co-opting Afghan leaders to control their people on the empire’s behalf.
“Indirect rule”, as it was called, was long considered the linchpin of British imperial success, and huge swaths of that empire were conquered, not by British soldiers, but by soldiers recruited elsewhere in the empire. It was always hoped that the dirty work of imperial control could be conducted without spilling too much white man’s blood.
It is a lesson that has been re-learned in recent years. The ever-rising western body counts in Iraq and Afghanistan have reminded politicians that colonial wars in which their own soldiers are killed do not win them popularity at home. The hope in both cases is that US and British soldiers can be safely extricated, leaving a proxy force of allies to kill opponents of the new regime on our behalf.
And so too in Africa.
To reassert its waning influence on the continent in the face of growing Chinese investment, the US established Africom – the “Africa Command” of the US military – in October 2008. Africom co-ordinates all US military activity in Africa and, according to its mission statement, “contributes to increasing security and stability in Africa – allowing African states and regional organizations to promote democracy, to expand development, to provide for their common defense, and to better serve their people”.
However, in more unguarded moments, officials have been more straightforward: Vice Admiral Robert Moeller declared in a conference in 2008 that Africom was about preserving “the free flow of natural resources from Africa to the global market”, and two years later, in a piece in Foreign policy magazine, wrote: “Let there be no mistake. Africom’s job is to protect American lives and promote American interests.” Through this body, western powers are resorting to the use of military power to win back the leverage once attained through financial monopoly. [Continue reading...]
Chris Hedges writes: When civilizations start to die they go insane. Let the ice sheets in the Arctic melt. Let the temperatures rise. Let the air, soil and water be poisoned. Let the forests die. Let the seas be emptied of life. Let one useless war after another be waged. Let the masses be thrust into extreme poverty and left without jobs while the elites, drunk on hedonism, accumulate vast fortunes through exploitation, speculation, fraud and theft. Reality, at the end, gets unplugged. We live in an age when news consists of Snooki’s pregnancy, Hulk Hogan’s sex tape and Kim Kardashian’s denial that she is the naked woman cooking eggs in a photo circulating on the Internet. Politicians, including presidents, appear on late night comedy shows to do gags and they campaign on issues such as creating a moon colony. “At times when the page is turning,” Louis-Ferdinand Celine wrote in “Castle to Castle,” “when History brings all the nuts together, opens its Epic Dance Halls! hats and heads in the whirlwind! Panties overboard!”
The quest by a bankrupt elite in the final days of empire to accumulate greater and greater wealth, as Karl Marx observed, is modern society’s version of primitive fetishism. This quest, as there is less and less to exploit, leads to mounting repression, increased human suffering, a collapse of infrastructure and, finally, collective death. It is the self-deluded, those on Wall Street or among the political elite, those who entertain and inform us, those who lack the capacity to question the lusts that will ensure our self-annihilation, who are held up as exemplars of intelligence, success and progress. The World Health Organization calculates that one in four people in the United States suffers from chronic anxiety, a mood disorder or depression—which seems to me to be a normal reaction to our march toward collective suicide. Welcome to the asylum.
When the most basic elements that sustain life are reduced to a cash product, life has no intrinsic value. The extinguishing of “primitive” societies, those that were defined by animism and mysticism, those that celebrated ambiguity and mystery, those that respected the centrality of the human imagination, removed the only ideological counterweight to a self-devouring capitalist ideology. Those who held on to pre-modern beliefs, such as Native Americans, who structured themselves around a communal life and self-sacrifice rather than hoarding and wage exploitation, could not be accommodated within the ethic of capitalist exploitation, the cult of the self and the lust for imperial expansion. The prosaic was pitted against the allegorical. And as we race toward the collapse of the planet’s ecosystem we must restore this older vision of life if we are to survive. [Continue reading...]
George Monbiot writes: The conviction of Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia, is said to have sent an unequivocal message to current leaders: that great office confers no immunity. In fact it sent two messages: if you run a small, weak nation, you may be subject to the full force of international law; if you run a powerful nation, you have nothing to fear.
While anyone with an interest in human rights should welcome the verdict, it reminds us that no one has faced legal consequences for launching the illegal war against Iraq. This fits the Nuremberg tribunal’s definition of a “crime of aggression”, which it called “the supreme international crime”. The charges on which, in an impartial system, George Bush, Tony Blair and their associates should have been investigated are far graver than those for which Taylor was found guilty.
The foreign secretary, William Hague, claims that Taylor’s conviction “demonstrates that those who have committed the most serious of crimes can and will be held to account for their actions”. But the international criminal court, though it was established 10 years ago, and though the crime of aggression has been recognised in international law since 1945, still has no jurisdiction over “the most serious of crimes”. This is because the powerful nations, for obvious reasons, are procrastinating. Nor have the United Kingdom, the United States and other western nations incorporated the crime of aggression into their own legislation. International law remains an imperial project, in which only the crimes committed by vassal states are punished. [Continue reading...]
Johan Galtung, Norwegian sociologist and the principal founder of the discipline of peace and conflict studies.
David Wearing writes: Every so often, a memorable phrase enters the discourse, providing a telling insight into some of the deeper assumptions held in our political culture. One such term, now mostly forgotten, is the “Vietnam syndrome.”
The Vietnam war claimed the lives of 58,000 US soldiers, seriously damaged Washington’s prestige as an imperial power and caused untold hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths in Indochina, which had been subjected by America’s forces of liberation to levels of aerial bombing last seen in the second world war.
Over subsequent years, those keen to see the US again exert its military might in the world lamented the stubborn persistence of a “Vietnam syndrome” among the public and many policymakers. The latter were increasingly unconvinced of the practical feasibility of military action, while the former saw the potential human costs as intolerable and, in many cases, were resolved to actively oppose a repeat of the Vietnam experience.
It is worth reflecting on the fact that a widespread popular aversion to the horrors of war – something one might regard as quite healthy – should come to be repeatedly described as a “syndrome”; a collective psychological defect that would hopefully be overcome at some future date. This is perhaps unsurprising, given that state violence has long been a highly valued policy tool, as indicated by the vast resources devoted to it, out of all proportion to genuine needs of “defence.”
After the comprehensive defeat of a disobedient former ally, Saddam Hussein, in the 1991 Gulf war, George HW Bush declared euphorically, “by God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all!” Many senior Republicans spent the next few years cultivating various fantasies about what could be achieved the next time an opportunity arose to let US forces off the leash. Such an opportunity was presented to them on 11 September 2001.