“These governments and these ruling classes are incredibly incompetent”: Pankaj Mishra on Corona and the West
Looking back from the year 2050 – what is the verdict of history about these Covid months?
I think the pandemic will be seen as having accelerated a process that was already deeply advanced – the decline of Western ideological and intellectual hegemony. The material decline started a long time ago, but the hegemony was still intact through the years of decline. It is about time to stop talking about the West as a cohesive and coherent entity at this point. The West is really an invention of the Cold War and should have been retired a long time ago, back in the 1990s.
What is this concept of the West that you talk about?
The United States provided the economic muscle. And Britain was helping out with the ideological and intellectual firepower. And ruling classes around the world looked up to these two countries as essentially models of enlightened governance. But these governments and these ruling classes are incredibly incompetent as we can see now once more with COVID-19. They have been incompetent for a very long time, but in the past the consequences of their blunders were borne by remote peoples whether it was in Vietnam or in Iraq, in Palestine or in Kashmir.
The idea of the West was always connected to the ideals of the enlightenment.
The notion that the West is an inheritor of the enlightenment or that the west is a sort of custodian of liberal values again can be traced back to the Cold War when there was this need to create an intellectual pedigree for the free world. We tend to forget that the enlightenment was sharply questioned before the Cold War, before even the Second World War. It was two famous Germans who institutionalized the process of interrogating the enlightenment: Adorno and Horkheimer.
And present moments of crisis?
The pandemic, the Black Lives Matter protests, the election of Donald Trump have all revealed the weaknesses and frailties of the political system – it is very difficult to go back to the old ideological construction of the West and piece it together. All of these constructions rely upon people believing in them. There is a loss of credibility and legitimacy.
You see a whole ideology of progress and enlightenment being used to justify imperialism.
You explored the contradictions and delusions of the West in your book “From the Ruins of Empire”. What are the colonial roots of today’s concept of globalization?
If we would pay more attention to anticolonial thinkers of the 19th and 20th century, it would become clear that what they are really talking about is a process of appropriation, of conquest, of dispossession. They are also marveling at the ideological apparatus that is growing up around these acts of violence, seeking to justify those acts, using reason to describe a large part of the population as irrational, as quite like children in the inability to rule themselves – they need to be led essentially by white men. You see a whole ideology of progress, of enlightenment being used to justify imperialism.
And this changed, not least of all with Covid?
Many more people are able to separate the reality from the rhetoric. How is it possible for a black person to be killed in the way George Floyd was? I don't think reading up on the enlightenment or the nobility of the founding fathers is going to be very helpful. The whole narrative lie is broken, and it will be very difficult to repair it and reinstate the intellectual and ideological hegemony of Anglo-America.
Can you explain the failure of India in the pandemic?
Like in the United States, the failure to cope with the pandemic was part of a larger continuing failure of the political system, of the bureaucracy, of the administrations to respond to an emergency like this. Like in the United States, the public health systems were not up to scratch. India was seen as an example of a successful free market economy that is finally taking its place amongst the great nations of the world with its free-market reforms and its privatized utilities and services – but all that has been proven to be utterly false.
India believed what it heard about itself?
In many ways the bluff of India as a great capitalist success story has been called. A lot of us knew that all along, but the pandemic has really exposed it. Of course, another fact is that India has an utterly incompetent ruling party and a prime minister who posed a lockdown with only four hours of notice. And then you had that really gruesome spectacle of more than a hundred million migrant workers who were completely trapped. They had nowhere to go. This is really in many ways the end of the India story.
There was never really a race between India and China. This race was also a creation of the Anglo-American propaganda industry. There was a lot of investment in the idea of India being a counterweight to China and the notion that India's democracy can still be our ally. A lot of these notions were built on fantasy. India can only be an international player if it is economically strong. And it is not economically strong. It is not militarily strong. It is not diplomatically strong either. It can´t even maintain close relations with its neighbors.
Covid exposed a flaw in the projection of geopolitical power structures in the 21st century?
We have to examine many of these pre-coronavirus notions. Notions that people in international relations or in mainstream punditry or in journalism have been mechanically working with without ever thinking it through. It is a testament to the extraordinary success of concepts of ideas bred in London and New York and disseminated through its very influential media and think tanks to the rest of the world. There is very little independent thinking about many of these issues. Perhaps now with the intellectual breakup of the West we will have more opportunities to think more rationally and clearly about many of these issues.
One last question. Can you complete this sentence: For me, this is personal because –
it affects three countries that I'm intimately connected to; and all three countries have done disastrously in coping with the pandemic - whether it's India, Britain or the United States.
Pankaj Mishra is a writer and lives in London