Pankaj Mishra Takes On The Eschatology Of Liberal Democracy

by | October 20, 2014

The expectation of a fairly imminent Second Coming persists in certain quarters. In other quarters, it was replaced in the last century by almost equally millenarian notions about an imminent global triumph of secular liberal democracy, although the geopolitical turbulence of recent years has at least dampened such expectations. The Indian writer Pankaj Mishra suggests that this disillusionment was always more or less inevitable:

In the 21st century that old spell of universal progress through western ideologies – socialism and capitalism – has been decisively broken. If we are appalled and dumbfounded by a world in flames it is because we have been living – in the east and south as well as west and north – with vanities and illusions: that Asian and African societies would become, like Europe, more secular and instrumentally rational as economic growth accelerated; that with socialism dead and buried, free markets would guarantee rapid economic growth and worldwide prosperity. What these fantasies of inverted Hegelianism always disguised was a sobering fact: that the dynamics and specific features of western “progress” were not and could not be replicated or correctly sequenced in the non-west.

Mishra expounds his views in a Guardian essay which, although long, is very much worth reading. I certainly don’t agree with every word of it – the suggestion that the world is presently “in flames”, for one thing, seems like an obvious exaggeration. However, Mishra’s general argument about the limits of globalization is highly persuasive. Without even delving into the question of whether “western ideologies” might face cultural barriers to being adopted in other parts of the world, he notes that they emerged in a distinctive historical context. The extent of their ability to take hold in the absence of that context is at best questionable:

It should be no surprise that religion in the non-western world has failed to disappear under the juggernaut of industrial capitalism, or that liberal democracy finds its most dedicated saboteurs among the new middle classes. The political and economic institutions and ideologies of western Europe and the United States had been forged by specific events – revolts against clerical authority, industrial innovations, capitalist consolidation through colonial conquest – that did not occur elsewhere. So formal religion – not only Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, and the Russian Orthodox Church, but also such quietist religions as Buddhism – is actually now increasingly allied with rather than detached from state power. The middle classes, whether in India, Thailand, Turkey or Egypt, betray a greater liking for authoritarian leaders and even uniformed despots than for the rule of law and social justice.

I suppose the natural counterargument would be that particular historical conditions may have driven Western people to stumble on concepts that are valuable in a wide range of situations, perhaps even all situations. Written language, after all, appeared in the specific milieu of ancient Mesopotamia but now enjoys worldwide, cross-cultural popularity. Some ideas are very good ones, with broad applicability. However, my inner voice whispers that if liberal democracy fell into that exalted category it would be doing better in places like Thailand, Turkey and Egypt (nothing I’ve read suggests that India is flirting with authoritarianism in the same way, but perhaps I’ve missed something).

When I look back at the sweep of history, or around at the modern world, the dominant impression is one of heterogeneity – a variety of different political and economic arrangements proving suited to the needs of particular populations inhabiting particular times and places. Secular(ish) liberal democracy has served Canada pretty well since around the middle of the 20th century, but to suggest that it’s the ideal system for the entire world in perpetuity requires a degree of faith – and arrogance – that might as well be religious.

10 thoughts on “Pankaj Mishra Takes On The Eschatology Of Liberal Democracy

  1. billybob

    When someone use words like “socialism and capitalism” and
    makes statements like “that with socialism dead and buried, free markets would guarantee rapid economic growth and worldwide prosperity” I tune out quickly.

    When you use “isms” you turn the complex into the simple and in doing so make the article useless.

    It is a useless personal rant.

    1. Corwin Post author

      To be fair, though, the sentence you quoted was just Mishra’s brief summary of a perspective he wanted to critique – he wasn’t putting forward his own ideas in those terms.

      In any case, I don’t think “isms” are entirely avoidable in discussions that focus on ideas. Statements about “capitalism”, for example, may not apply to every conceivable form of capitalism, but they can still be useful generalisations if they accurately describe some prevalent capitalist tendencies. And we’d be pretty hopelessly adrift on this site if we couldn’t talk about “atheism” now and then.

      1. billybob

        Ask PZ what atheism is, for him its a conflation of
        the lack of belief in a god, his humanism, his secularism and whatever else he fancies that day.

        “isms” exist because they take something complicated
        like economics and simplify it for our limited intelligence.

        “isms” are like religions they can be anything you want.

        “isms” involve a group so they quickly become meaningless except as a slogan to fool and control the rubes.

        I am an atheist, that means I don’t believe in the
        supernatural. That is simple useful info.

        The world is many shades of gray there is no black and white.

        1. Corwin Post author

          I think “isms” are necessary not so much because of our limited intelligence as because we need efficient ways of describing and classifying ideological viewpoints in order to have constructive discussions. I fully agree with you about shades of grey, but I see plenty of value in attaching labels like “socialism” and “monarchism” to particular regions of the multidimensional greyscale continuum.

          If I tell you I’m a socialist, you may not be able to work out whether I’m favour of nationalising the entire economy or just significant parts of it, but you can be pretty confident that I see a large and active public sector as desirable. If tell you I’m an atheist, I might or might not also be a humanist, but you can be pretty sure that lack of belief in gods will be part of the mix. Labels can sometimes mislead and oversimplify, but they often convey useful information. The idea that they’re meaningless and infinitely malleable seems exaggerated.

  2. Bubba Kincaid

    Nor does it seem like the ideal system to be able to bring ourselves to genuinely support in the rest of the world.

    Maybe we need to climb that hill, before we can pass judgement on our successes.

    1. Corwin Post author

      I don’t really feel any compelling need to tell the rest of the world, and especially the non-Western world, how to conduct its affairs. Canadian diplomats ought to be able to discuss our experience with liberal democracy without trying to harangue other countries into adopting the same system.

  3. Bubba Kincaid

    Whoa slow down! Don’t jump to telling the rest of the world. I’m still at whether we even truly have the will to support it anywhere other than for ourselves.

    1. Corwin Post author

      I’m not sure how we’d go about lending “support” to any particular political system on a worldwide scale except by trying to persuade other countries to adopt it. Accordingly, it’s hard for me to see any important difference between having the “will to support” liberal democracy and “telling” others to get on board with it. Would you care to elaborate on the distinction you have in mind?

  4. Bubba Kincaid

    It’s ok, take a minute. I’ll be here.

    Here’s a hint: I don’t mean militarily or by spending money.

    Let me know if you need another hint.

    1. Corwin Post author

      I suspect it might be easier for both of us if you were to just go ahead and tell me what you mean!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.