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«We have to acknowledge the deep crisis within the democracy»

The Indian writer Pankaj Mishra talks about the fire in Kensington, the English and French elections, the political situation in India and the US, and what he likes best about England: ordinary decency.

Indian author Pankaj Mishra: «Inequality received a new sanction, a new legitimacy.»
Indian author Pankaj Mishra: «Inequality received a new sanction, a new legitimacy.»
Hendrik Schmidt, Keystone

The «Washington Post» called the fire in the Grenfell Tower «a symptom for the crisis of Western democracy because of the systematic neglecting of the poor». Can you elaborate?

I think this tragedy, atrocity rather, in particular very vividly highlights the obscene inequality in the UK. The ways in which public services have been outsourced, marketised, commodified - even the local government, the Borough of Chelsea and Kensington, has been acting as an agent for real estate. Now, this is the consequence of three decades of a vision in which society consists of self-interested individuals. «There is no such thing as society» as Margaret Thatcher said. We are today essentially harvesting the bitter fruit of this ideological seed: the ideas, the ideologies that went rampant in the 1980s and then went truly global after the fall of the Berlin Wall. With the discrediting of communism and its monstrous manifestations in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe what was also eliminated was the notion of collective welfare, of social welfare. And inequality received a new sanction, a new legitimacy. This attitude led to the situation after Hurricane Katrina [in New Orleans in August 2005 during the second George W. Bush term, JMB]. The USA has always been very different from Western Europe in having a very weak, sometimes non-existent safety net. The Grenfell Tower tragedy shows how a country that after 1945 was at the forefront of building a social welfare state has fallen so far behind, has abolished so many regulations that ensured health and safety. In fact, it was determined, ideologically driven, to abolish those regulations. You know that kind of cladding is banned in many countries.

Boris Johnson was a terrible mayor of London, even though he is hailed as a gentle, benign person.

He’s a nasty piece of work.

Even the «Financial Times» noted after the fire that the Anglo-American world had become victim of its own arrogance.

Look: I have been saying these things for a long time. When I see this written by Ed Luce in the «Financial Times» I want to ask these people, «Where were you all the time? Why did you not offer this critique early on? Why only now, when the crisis is staring at us in the face? When a country like Britain commits a spectacular act of self-harm like Brexit? When the United States elect a figure like Donald Trump?» It’s too late for that kind of critique. The Anglo-American world has become victim of its own arrogance, its own ignorance of its own history, let alone the history of the rest of the world. It has constructed a fantastical, flattering vision of its own history and has been completely deluded by it. Brexit, for instance, fuelled a fantasy of empire: that we were once great imperialists who brought benefits to the rest of the world. And now we can re-establish links with those people - and ignore Europe altogether.

You live in England and northern India, I think in a small community. What do you notice is happening to you when you make the trip back to your country of origin?

Well, these are obviously two very different realities. Both shaped, structured by long histories, in one case a small rural community with some shared customs, traditions, largely of agriculture. And the other one is an imperial metropolis, the capital of the modern world in many ways. You can’t think of two realities more different from each other. And I am privileged to negotiate the tensions between the two places, be aware of the realities of these two places and keep them in my head. Not having my thoughts framed by living in only one reality, which is the case for most of us. So that is what I feel is missing in so much journalistic intellectual discourse. What has happened to the provincial, the outsider, the person from the rural areas? Now that we have Brexit and Donald Trump was elected, these people become politically important. They were important all along, but nobody was listening to them. Now they make their anger and their disaffection known. So it’s really important to listen to what these people say: that they don’t want this radical and disruptive change in their lives. That the metropolitan elites in almost all ruling classes in countries like Britain or America come from a very narrow class. The same thing is happening in a state like India where people’s lives are shaped by forces people cannot identify: opaque, remote, aloof. And as a result, many become vulnerable to simple solutions like «if you vote for Mister Narenda Modi, he will solve our problems. He seems like someone who can deal with this».

«Brexit, for instance, fuelled a fantasy of empire: that we were once great imperialists who brought benefits to the rest of the world.»


He seems dangerous.

This is what demagogues always do. They offer themselves as solutions to complicated problems. Of course they have their own agenda once they manage to seduce the masses.

India is a state with an ambiguous future, isn’t it? It can develop into something good or bad. What is your take?

I feel very bleak at this moment about India’s prospects. It’s in a spiral of some kind where the possibility of recovery is very low. The consensus, the hegemony of this Hindu, chauvinistic, Indo-supremacist movement is such that it will not be challenged in a long time. And the longer it stays the more it will insinuate itself into the mainstream.

We always hear about this awful violence from men towards women in India, especially in Delhi. Where does that hatred come from?

The kind of violent misogyny that you see now which results in attacks on women such as that rape incident four years ago which was a horrific crime: the ferocity of this violence often comes from young men who are rural migrants in the city, who left their homes at a very young age. In fact, the person who assaulted the woman was someone who had left his home at the age of nine or something. And had already been deeply brutalised by his life on the margins in Delhi, living in slums, being abused, probably being sexually abused, which is often the case. So, you are looking at a large population of young men who are adrift in the large city. For whom the country’s institutions have no place. These are unaccommodated men, and their numbers are growing. And they have been forced to embrace the modern world, find a place for themselves, of dignity, and also for their families. Failure makes them more and more angry and frustrated, especially against people who seem to be getting ahead of them. Minorities are often scapegoats - and women. Because women in India very slowly are acquiring a more prominent place in the workplace. Also in the public sphere. There are many more women out there on the streets. And for people from conservative religious backgrounds who are unemployed and working in menial positions: to see these women moving around freely, having proper jobs, this has become a source of great frustration and rage. So a lot of misogyny comes from men unable to enter the modern world. And feeling rage against those who seem to be more successful than them.

There is an argument that comes up time and time again in your latest book [«The Age of Anger. A History of the Present» New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux]: this elite that we are part of likes to think in terms of, you know, liberté, égalité, fraternité. But we do not see or realise that this will never be true for everybody. But the people who are the losers of globalization realise it. And this is where their hatred comes from.

Society has been globally structured with all these ideas, right from the early 19th century, after the revolutions of Europe, spreading around the world through imperialism, through global capitalism. These ideas that individuals will hold these societies together and whose benefits will be distributed to all the others. Now, these promises might work for small countries in Western Europe - some of them. But to take that to a country like India is a ridiculous fantasy. And yet what we see today is that the entire world is not in the grip of this particular ideological vision. We have given up everything in India: our particular mode of economy, of society, of living together - and embraced this particular ideology that promised us individual emancipation, that offers liberty, equality, fraternity. But on completely different grounds. So, if the conditions and those grounds are missing, if you don’t have economic growth, if you’re not an imperialist power, how are you going to realise those ideals? You know, this is the challenge that many countries face.

«This is what demagogues always do. They offer themselves as solutions to complicated problems. Of course they have their own agenda once they manage to seduce the masses.»

What struck me during the Irak war: How stupid the American troops were for not protecting the museums, that is the history of the country. And while I’m at it: don’t you think that people all over the world love American films, American music? Hollywood is the best propaganda machine America has. And that it has done little to work with that, right?

But it’s also true that Hollywood has lost a lot of its influence. Today there are a lot of competitors - Mumbai cinema, Turkish soaps, Thai pop. So there are a lot of cultural centres today which compete with and often overshadow Hollywood. It only makes 5 per cent of films in India for instance. In Europe, Hollywood is still dominant. But in many other countries it doesn’t have the same presence it used to have. There was a time in the 80s, obviously because of its advanced distribution system and its cultural power, America was able to export a lot of its cultural artifacts. But the ones that are still universal and universally liked - whether it is Bob Dylan or Beyoncé - are people who offer critique of the American system. Conservative or patriotically American cultural products don’t travel very far – they’re not meant to. This is not to say that people are listening to Bob Dylan because they want to engage in a critique of America.

No, it’s because he’s a great artist.

Yeah. Absolutely.

Coming back to the last elections in Britain: Would you say that they contain a - however small - reaction both to Brexit and Donald Trump’s election? Theresa May suffered a significant defeat, Marine Le Pen did surprisingly badly in the French elections, Geert Wilders was not elected for Prime Minister in the Netherlands.

You know, I feel oddly more hopeful about Jeremy Corbyn’s narrow loss or limited success than I do about Emmanuel Macron’s overwhelming victory. Because in the French case I think the solutions on offer are essentially doomed solutions, taken from the ideological arsenal of neo-liberalism. And they will not work, I think we can be certain about that. You could call Corbyn’s policies unrealistic. But what is more important is that he is offering a new way of thinking about politics – at least new in today’s context. After three decades of emphasis on selfish individualism, of private wealth creation, all these things that led to this fire in Kensington - here someone comes and says, ‘Look, we have gone far too much down this narrow alley. We need to emerge, to look at ourselves, at our politics, why it is so poisonous, why it is so full of people shouting at each other, conducting a charade in parliament, not having a serious debate about how people should be able to live in this country.’ So people like Corbyn are saying that, and the fact that a lot of young people responded to his message, that makes me much more hopeful in a way than this technocratic re-engineering that Macron is proposing. Which may be briefly popular, also because of his tactics, he resisted Marine Le Pen, and for that reason he has been hailed. But it remains to be seen whether he can introduce some new tone into French politics and society. Corbyn and to a certain extent Sanders, what they were trying to do was change the tone. And they succeeded to a large extent.

But Bernie Sanders has never been vetted, so we don’t know what he would have been like as a nominated candidate. But you are right, is is interesting that these older men find so many young followers who passionately believe in them.

What is fascinating in generational and sociological terms is that those older men belong to the last moment of idealism in the West - which was in the 1960s and early 70s. They were trained to think about such things at that time. After that we’ve seen some incredible ideological and intellectual conformity at the highest levels of politics and journalism. And for many young people who are now worried about the future, it’s obviously this other model of solidarity, of compassion, of thinking beyond oneself, thinking about social bonds, personal relationships, all of these thingsto which they are obviously much more attracted than this failed model of individuals pursuing their special interests.

I saw the «Occupy Wallstreet» movement in New York, but it was mostly older people, and it looked sad. Do you thing it might become more active again?

The fact that that kind of ideological or intellectual inheritance is still alive is quite remarkable. There are certain moments when the time and the conditions are right. And that, I think, is when a new cycle has to begin and older ideas come into circulation again and become attractive to a generation which has no prejudice in their minds about socialism or communism. They are not haunted by fear that if they have in America, you know, where they thought when we have social security the next thing we will have is the Gulag. This was the rhetoric for much of the last six decades.

When we talk about hatred we have to talk about the Internet. Such a brilliant instrument for equality. And what a terrible instrument for Fake-News and bullying it has become. Do you think this will be corrected or correct itself?

No, I don’t think it will. There has to be a recognition that this enlightened model of individuals communicating with each other, settling their differences rationally, was a hopelessly idealised vision. It invested too much in certain channels, mostly economical. And it paid very little attention to values and human needs. This expectation that you have, that the more ability you have to communicate, that somehow democracy, all the good things, social welfare, information which is supposed to be benign is going to spread and therefore lead to a better, harmonious society, this is an ideological fantasy. Thoreau used to say that in the 19th century about the telegraph. But now we have this growth of Fake-News over these channels of digital communication that are used to spread them, sometimes deliberately in the interest of parties. So we have invested too much in this notion of free speech, communication, having in mind an ideology of progress.

Every new technology is ambiguous. As the Nazis proved with radio.


Back to America. Do you think that Robert Mueller and his jurists will find something that will lead to an impeachment of the President? They seem to be extraordinarily capable and bound by the Constitution and nothing else.

I don’t have much faith in an existing system correcting itself. I don’t think people will realise that it was all a big mistake and they should not act in this manner, and use modern technology differently. I think the split has already happened, and it is very late to reverse this process. Once Donald Trump has access to the nuclear codes we should all become very sceptical of democratic processes, the role of the media, of the legislators. The United States has really been a dysfunctional political society for a long time. This is merely the latest and the most dangerous symptom.

Trump boasted that he could shoot someone on 5th Avenue in Manhattan and still get elected. And he got elected. That would have been unthinkable until he came along.

Absolutely. Many of our standards of truths, many of the senses that we need to inhabit a democratic society - they really have been shattered by this man and the people behind him. I honestly don’t know how we will recover a language in which we can speak as a united political community. It’s fragmented, it’s atomised, polarised at this point. What we see now is people shouting at each other, accusing each other. I would like to have a positive, optimistic outlook on this, but I really can’t see it. Like in India, I just can’t see how we could recover from this situation. Unfortunately, there are no historical examples of societies recovering from this.

It’s just exhaustion after a war.

It’s just exhaustion after a war - which has already happened in Europe. It was after 1945 that societies began to think of other values, of cooperation and social welfare. About the problem of inequality. We don’t read and learn from history.

I would like to talk to you about Sigmund Freud whom you mention repeatedly in your new book. His theories have been largely discredited, yet he won’t go away. What do you think has remained from what he thought and did?

For someone like him in that tradition - or Robert Musil whom I read and re-read many times - I found Freud very valuable because he was writing from the same capital of modernism which was Vienna. Analysing, reacting, responding to this particularly dominant model of the individual which is, again, hyperrational. And he is saying that we don’t really understand what goes on inside anyone’s soul. That this model does not help us understand that. Freud was also a man of science. So I find it fascinating that these people are using the authority of modern science to say that the so-called scientific rational model of man is deeply flawed. And what Freud calls the Unconscious tells us a lot more about what motivates human beings, what shapes their actions and intentions. Now that is not a new discovery, Buddhism has said that for many centuries. But it is a new discovery in the context of modernising Europe which has put so much emphasis on this essentially bourgeois idea of the self-seeking individual, driven by a rational comprehension of the world. This is very much an Enlightenment idea.

Also Freud refused to promise some kind of healing like so many spiritual leaders do.

In «Civilization and its Discontents» [«Das Unbehagen in der Kultur», 1930, jmb.] he makes clear that we achieve civilisation through repression of impulses and desires. And this is the situation today. That’s the way human beings are structured, and in that respect he is absolutely crucial to our understanding of the human individual. He injects a kind of sophistication into our self-learning. Otherwise we are left with this incredibly simplistic, simple-minded notion that is reductive in many ways. Freud’s kind of criticism of the Enlightenment expands our notion into complexity. So we can also understand the strange political phenomena that we were witnessing from the late 19th century onwards. And now we are witnessing the rise of demagogues everywhere, the scapegoating of minorities, people projecting their wishes, fears and hopes and aspirations onto leaders. This is what Freud discovered.

A friend of mine who is a correspondent for the African continent told me that in Africa there will never be real democracy because of the standard of education. So you can easily buy votes. Do you think this might happen to us as well if the political degradation goes on like that?

Democracy is in a crisis, there is no doubt about that. And further away from inspirational meaning which was that democracy can only work in a small city or a small state with a whole lot of face-to-face relationships, where you are familiar with everyone who lives in your community. And you know the people who take decisions. This business of one person representing so many others that they become abstract and lose contact. And then of course manipulation, either through outright bribery like your friend says or through the media deceiving people, giving them false promises like we have seen with the Brexit campaign; this turns democracy into something that is now very clearly led by demagoges who have come to power legitimally.

«Many more people read these absolutely disgusting tabloids like the ‹Daily Mail› and the ‹Sun›, full of lies, falsehoods, malicious disinformation, vicious propaganda.»

Democracy has become too weak to defend itself against its enemies within itself.

Very much so. We have to acknowledge the deep, deep crisis within the democracy. The democracy itself is throwing up monsters that want to essentially destroy what is true democracy, which is consensual building, bringing people together, caring for their welfare. Democracy is producing majoritarianism, leaders, movements that insist that the political community should be built excluding minorities and demonizing other people.

It always amazes me how people can vote for a cause or a president against their own interests.

People voting for Trump is a fascinating phenomenon. Like when people voted for Modi. The insights of Adorno and Horkheimer in their first major book about authoritarian personalities are still relevant. For many people who feel powerless, who short-cutted many socialisation processes, underdeveloped people, a strong man like Trump or Modi offers some kind of a psychological compensation for their psychical injuries. What these people are most afflicted by are insecurities, humiliation, fear. And he is like a trash-dog, a destroyer of every convention, every rule or decorum that we know of. But he brings a kind of relief to many of these people who feel that he, in some ways, finally is speaking up for them. Freud would have been brilliant on the interaction between Trump and his voters.

But, and I know this sounds cynical, he is authentic in a way that Hillary Clinton never was.

Yes. He always was marginalized by the Manhattan elite. Even though he is rich. So when he attacks the «New York Times» or the elite he is also representing a lot of other people and not just uneducated people, but also relatively rich people who are rising economically, but lack social manners, intellectual capital and feel they are not sophisticated enough. So he taps into all kind of sentiments, not just economic inequality, but social and cultural inequality as well. His appeal is very broad-based, it’s not just people thinking too much globalisation, our jobs are going away. It’s always complex with demagogues, it was complex with Hitler, too.

Before we round up our conversation I would like to go back to England. What is it that you like about it the most?

The best thing about England is embodied by figures like George Orwell. An emphasis on ordinary decency. The vast majority of British people I had dealings with are profoundly capable of that. And express it in their day-to-day relationships, encounters, with each other, with foreigners, with strangers. And that to me is something that holds this society together. But it is also something that has been under assault. Because of the frame of the social fabric, the unravelling of many things that used to hold people together. What is really under threat today is the England that produced someone like George Orwell. And generated these ideas. It’s not the traditional parlamentary democracy which today is really a sham. The way in which politicians have become disconnected from the people they are supposed to represent, the way they form a political class, a political culture. There is hardly an English quality paper apart from the «Guardian» or the «Financial Times», and the «Guardian» is struggling and hemorrhaging money. Many more people read these absolutely disgusting tabloids like the «Daily Mail» and the «Sun», full of lies, falsehoods, malicious disinformation, vicious propaganda. This dominates the journalistic and political cultures. Politicians like Tony Blair for a long time have courted the chief editor of the «Daily Mail». This is also what I like about Corbyn. He is not at all interested in cozying up to people like Murdoch or speaking their language. This is where the new tone of his comes from.

This is what Robert Mueller thinks, the special prosecuter into the Russian connections of Donald Trump and his team: If you live by the press, you die by the press.

That is true. So that has been one of the most depressing aspects of my time in Britain. But the appearance of somebody like Corbyn shows that the tradition of decency that Orwell represented is not dead. A lot of people still believe in these values. After the campaign for Brexit and since then, this country has been in a spiral of some kind. But I feel that there is some hope yet, and that is largely provided by young people who also do not want to be left alone on some fortress island where English nationalists run the show.

When Margaret Thatcher died, Ian McEwan wrote this piece in the «Guardian» where he said one had to be grateful because she inspired so many books and films and so forth. One could say the same about Donald Trump. The «Washington Post» for instance has become a much better paper in the last two years.

I agree. The good thing to come out of things like Brexit or Trump is that more people will become aware, politicised. Citizens will discover their democratic responsibility. Not just to vote, but to become participants in their societies. And have a stake in the future of their societies. We have become so apathetic, so uninterested in politics. People don’t join political parties, they don’t organise, they don’t march, they don’t vote, this has been a trend for a long time. Today we are seeing a new kind of energy. And that to me is a positive moment.

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