Bland Fanatics

By Pankaj Mishra

It’s a paradox, but Pankaj Mishra’s collection of essays critiquing the dominant political ideology of our time and the cheerleading done for it by intellectual and media elites seems a bit like picking on a soft target. Are there that many people, aside from those Mishra designates as “the bards of a new universal liberal empire,” who still believe in the myth of a benevolent liberalism raising all boats, promoting democracy, freedom, and human rights, and generally bringing light to all the dark places of the earth? Still believe, when, as Mishra summarizes at one point, “American pathologies – extreme concentrations of wealth, criminalisation of the poor, rogue security establishments, corrupted and dysfunctional politics and a compliant media – have been universalized, much more successfully than democracy and human rights”?

Mishra’s target isn’t so much liberal ideology itself, which can be hard to pin down (is it properly liberal, libertarian, or neoliberal?), as the “reality-concealing rhetoric” used to sell it. What he wants to expose is the “mask” of liberalism, or the performative theatricality of Englishness, or even, for that matter, the scramble of China’s ruling class to provide ideological legitimacy for its authority using whatever ancient or modern sources come to hand.

Of course we don’t have to believe the myth or the rhetoric, the propaganda or the lies. But if a lie works well enough, for enough people, then the public will go along with it. What happens, however, if, in a time of crisis – say with a shock to the financial system or a pandemic – the ruling class, liking to style itself a meritocracy, exposes itself as corrupt, malicious, and incompetent? Will breakdown lead to revolution, or collapse? Bets are being placed.

Review first published online April 27, 2021.

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