The Epic Human Journey: Part 3, Endless Summer

Pankaj Mishra

Non-western modernity and the revolt against the West.

The fundamental challenge for the first generation of modern Asian intellectuals was to articulate a satisfying answer to this question: how could they reconcile themselves and others to the dwindling of their civilization through internal decay and Westernization while regaining parity and dignity in the eyes of the white rulers of the world. Many of the ideologies embraced by modern Asian peoples—secular nationalism, revolutionary communism, state socialism, Arab nationalism, pan-Islamism—developed as a response to the same stubborn challenge of the West. It links not only the Muslim Jamal al-Din al-Afghani to the Chinese Liang Qichao, but also al-Afghani to Osama bin Laden, Liang to Mao Zedong, the Ottoman Empire to present-day Turkey and pre-Communist China to the capitalist China of today.

Many of these thinkers judged Western-style politics and economics to be inherently violent and destructive forces. They knew that borrowing technical skills through a modern system of education from Europe wasn’t enough; these borrowings brought with them a whole new way of life. They demanded an organized mass society whose basic unit was the self-reliant individual who pursues his economic self-interest while progressively liberating himself from guild rules, religious obligations and other communal solidarities—a presupposition that threatened to wreck the old moral order.

These thinkers sensed that, though irresistible and often necessary, the modern industrial society and social freedoms pioneered by Europe would destroy many of their cherished cultures and traditions, just as they had in Europe itself, and leave chaos in their place. In the 1920s Zhang Junmai, the disciple of Liang Qichao and Tagore’s host in China, summed up some widely shared fears about the coming confrontation between two opposed modes of life:

The fundamental principles upon which our nation is founded are quietism, as opposed to [Western] activism; spiritual satisfaction, as opposed to the striving for material advantage; a self-sufficient agrarianism, as opposed to profit-seeking mercantilism; and a morally transforming sense of brotherhood rather than racial segregation … A nation founded on agriculture lacks a knowledge of the industrial arts, [but] it is likewise without material demands; thus, though it exists over a long period of time, it can still maintain a standard of poverty but equality, scarcity but peace. But how will it be hereafter?

As people like Zhang feared, the process of modernization was to have a drastic impact at the very least. It was to disrupt old economies of agriculture and handicrafts, barter and trade, and draw young people away to the squalor of new urban centres, sundering or loosening the religious and communal attachments that gave meaning to their lives and exposing their raw nerves to extremist politics. And all this was for a process which did not lead directly, even in the West itself, to a clear destination of happiness and stability, and which despite producing mass education, cheap consumer goods, the popular press and mass entertainment had only partly relieved a widely and deeply felt rootlessness, confusion and anomie.

Fearing or suspecting this fate for their societies, many Asian intellectuals became some of the most eloquent —and earliest—critics of modernity, using their own traditionalist conceptions of the meaning and purpose of human life to counter the assumption that economic liberalism, individual self-interest and industrialization could be the cure-all for the manifold problems of the human condition. With their anti-modern sensibility, which transcended conventional political categories and divisions, they anticipated Europe’s own thinkers, who were forced to re-examine their nineteenth-century belief in a progressively rational world by the slaughter of the First World War.

*

Praising European energy and initiative in 1855, Alexis de Tocqueville added, “European races are often the greatest rogues, but at least they are rogues to whom God gave the will and the power and whom he seems to have destined for some time to be at the head of mankind. Nothing on the entire globe will resist their influence.” This turned out to be true in more ways than de Tocqueville could predict.

White men, conscious of their burden, changed the world forever, subjecting its great diversity to their own singular outlook and in the process reducing potentially rich encounters with other peoples and countries to monologues about the unassailable superiority of modern Western politics, economy and culture. Successfully exporting its ideas to the remotest corners of the world, the West also destroyed native self-confidence, causing a political, economic and social desolation that can perhaps never be relieved by modernity alone.

In the end, Western efforts to modernize supposedly backward Asians, however sincere or altruistic, incited more resentment than admiration or gratitude. Expelled from their old social and political orders and denied dignity in a West-dominated world, aggrieved natives always wanted to beat the West at its own game. This is the point that the Chinese intellectual in André Malraux’s prophetic novel The Temptation of the West (1926) makes when he says, “Europe thinks she has conquered all these young men who now wear her garments. But they hate her. They are waiting for what the common people call her ‘secrets.’” Many of these secrets are now in Asian hands.

Television and the internet, and in particular the growth of virtual communities, have helped stoke an unprecedented intensity of political emotion around the world. It is no exaggeration to say that millions, probably hundreds of millions of people in societies who have grown up with a history of subjection to Europe and America—the Chinese software engineer and the Turkish tycoon, as well as the unemployed Egyptian graduate—derive profound gratification from the prospect of humiliating their former masters and overlords, who appear uncompromisingly wedded to their right to dictate events around the world. The images from Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, the deep Western financial crisis, and the brutal but inept military actions in Afghanistan and Pakistan all sustain a powerful sense of Western hypocrisy, failure and retrenchment.

No convincingly universalist response to Western ideas of politics and economy exists today, even though these seem increasingly febrile and dangerously unsuitable in large parts of the world. Gandhi, their most rigorous critic, is a forgotten figure within India today. Marxism-Leninism lies discredited and, though China’s rulers increasingly make gestures toward Confucian notions of harmony, China’s own legacy of ethical politics and socio-economic theory remains largely unexplored. And even if it is exportable to other Muslim countries, Turkey’s Islamic modernity doesn’t point to any alternative socio-economic order.

The “Washington Consensus” may lie in tatters, and Beijing’s Communist regime mocks—simply by persisting as long as it has—Western claims of victory in the Cold War and the inevitability of liberal democracy. But the “Beijing Consensus” has even less universal application than its Washington counterpart; it sounds suspiciously like merely a cynical economic argument for the lack of political freedom.

[Today], much of the emerging world now stands to repeat, on an ominously larger scale, the West’s own tortured and often tragic experience of modern development. In India and China, the pursuit of economic growth at all costs has created a gaudy elite, but it has also widened already alarming social and economic disparities. It has become clear that development, whether undertaken by colonial masters or sovereign nation-states, doesn’t benefit people evenly within a single territory, not to mention across larger regions.

Certainly China’s and India’s new middle classes have done very well out of two decades of capitalism, and their ruling elites can strut across the world stage like never before. But this apparently wildly successful culmination to the anti-colonial revolution has coincided with a veritable counter-revolution presided over by political and business elites across the world: the privatization and truncation of public services, de-unionization, the fragments and lumpenization of urban working classes, and the ruthless suppression of the rural poor.

As instructed by the Chinese premier, Mao’s son may well rest in peace in North Korea since his father’s great dream of national regeneration has been fulfilled. But there is no doubt that not just Mao but all the leaders of the Chinese Revolution would have rejected this strange denouement to their great venture, in which some Chinese people stand up while most others are forced to stand down, and the privileged Chinese minority aspire to nothing higher than the conveniences and gadgets of their Western consumer counterparts.

Sixty years after independence, India, with its stable and formally democratic institutions and processes, seems to have come closer to fulfilling the nationalist project of the first postcolonial elites. The Indian nation-state has grown stronger, with a voice in the international arena. It is an increasingly attractive place for Western corporate and speculative capital. Indian elites, like their Asian counterparts in Japan, are still content to make themselves a junior partner to the United States, implicitly affirming that the post-war international order will survive.

These Asian beneficiaries of globalization project an image of a confident and self-aware people moving as one toward material fulfillment and international prominence. But India displays even more garishly than China the odd discontinuities induced by economic globalization: how by fostering rapid growth in some sectors of the economy it raises expectations everywhere, but by distributing its benefits narrowly, it expands the numbers of the disenchanted and the frustrated, often making them vulnerable to populist and ethnocratic politicians. At the same time the biggest beneficiaries of globalization find shelter in such aggressive ideologies as Hindu nationalism.

The feeling of hopelessness and despair, especially about landless peasants, has led to militant communist movements of unprecedented vigour and scale—the Indian prime minister describes them as the greatest internal security threat faced by India since independence. These Mao-inspired communists, who have their own systems of tax collection and justice, now dominate large parts of central and northern India, particularly in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand, Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Orissa. Their informal secessionism has its counterpart among the Indian rich.

Gated communities grow in Indian cities and suburbs. The elite itself seems to have mutinied, its members retreating into exclusive enclaves where they can withdraw from the social and political complications of the country they live in. This is deeply troubling as up to a third of Indians live in conditions of extreme poverty and deprivation. More than half the children under the age of five in India are malnourished; failed crops and spiralling debt drove more than a hundred farmers to suicide in the past decade.

As India and China rise with their consumerist middle classes in a world of finite energy resources, it is easy to imagine that this century will be ravaged by the kind of economic rivalries and military conflicts that made the last century so violent.

The war on terror has already blighted the first decade. In retrospect, however, it may seem a mere prelude to greater and bloodier conflicts over precious resources and commodities that modernizing as well as already modern economies need.

The hope that fuels the pursuit of endless economic growth—that billions of consumers in India and China will one day enjoy the lifestyles of Europeans and Americans—is as absurd and dangerous a fantasy as anything dreamt up by Al Qaeda. It condemns the global environment to early destruction, and looks set to create reservoirs of nihilistic rage and disappointment among hundreds of millions of have-nots—the bitter outcome of the universal triumph of Western modernity, which turns the revenge of the East into something darkly ambiguous, and all its victories truly Pyrrhic.

Pankaj Mishra was born in India in 1969 and lives between London and Mashobra, India. When Mishra was twenty-three years old, he taught himself the craft of writing during five years of self-imposed study and seclusion in the Himalayan mountains. Now, he writes for The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and The Guardian. These excerpts are abridged from his most recent book From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia.

Comment on the article “Pankaj Mishra”

Displaying 1 - 1 of 1

Page 1 of 1

Anonymous

Wicked piece, Mishra.

"the pursuit of endless economic growth – that billions of consumers in India and China will one day enjoy the lifestyles of Europeans and Americans... It condemns the global environment to early destruction"

Have Western ideologies been reclaimed already by the East? Even if the West was to make radical changes in order to fix our environmental/ economic situation, there's no telling how much power and influence any other willing country/ party would be able to manufacture using the tried-and-tested Neo-Libertarian view on value.

Add a new comment

To comment or reply please Log In, Create An Account or post as Anonymous.