Monday, October 27, 2014

Pankaj Mishra and his discontents...

Pankaj has an op-ed in the NY Times. Friend Sardul Minhas prodded me to say something about it, but I was short of time and just gave some general comments about the Pankajist worldview and it's discontents. These comments are quick and off the cuff, so almost as superficial as Pankaj Bhayia's op-ed, but they sort of add to my earlier longer rant about his book, and my earlier article about Pankaj and Arundhati Roy. Read them all and you will start to see what I mean (or at least, where I am coming from). Trust me :) 

Before I go on, let me say that India hypernationalism is at least as real as Pakistani or American or Chinese hypernationalism and can be almost equally crazy. Like those hypernationalisms, it is mostly held in check by real-life constraints and need not trigger world war three, but world war three is not inconceivable. Shit happens. So I do not mean to imply that all is well and will forever remain well in the Indian subcontinent with the BJP in power (and of course anyone who says all was well before the BJP came to power must be joking). But I do think some of the doom and gloom is overdone and a lot of it is just hyperventilation that provides no good analysis as to why this phenomena has grown, what it may become, and what can be done to moderate or counter it's possible short, i dont think there is nothing to fear, but I do think that the Pankajist worldview is neither an adequate analysis, nor a rational prescription for it's cure.

Pankaj seems to believe (or knows it is fashionable to believe) that the worship of strength and material progress is a serious mistake and therefore all of recent Western history (with its abundant displays of strength and material/organizational progress, however defined) was a very bad thing. But he also believes the equally fashionable meme that the weak should “stand up for their rights” and fight back and defeat the strong….since I have not seen any evidence to suggest that he has some well-developed theory of Gandhian resistance, how is this circle to be squared? Given belief A, belief B requires the acquisition of strength and at least some material/organizational progress (how else will anyone be able to overcome the amoral West?) but it so happens that the constituency of “strength and material/organizational progress" in India is one that Pankaj cannot afford to be associated with. He has little trouble with non-Indian strength-worshippers like Jamaluddin Afghani (a minor and ineffectual fascist whom he portrayed, historically inaccurately, as one of the great exemplars of Asian resistance to Western domination), but in India his home is in the liberal elite Left, and the "strength and progress" idea, while very much present in the traditional Left, is not one that the postmodern Left is comfortable with...besides, the strength part is now mostlymonopolized by the Hindutvadis, so there are problems with admiring Indian anti-Westernism and strength-worship that do not arise for Pankaj when he is talking about Muslims or Chinese who want to become strong like the West. Incidentally, Japan remains a sore spot of Pankaj; perhaps because of his initial Leftist orientation or because the rise of Japan does not fit his preferred picture of "East tries to Westernize and falls flat on face", he completely skipped Japan when discussing his version of the rise of Asia from the ruins of Empire. Anyway, given these ideological limitations, what is to be done? His options include:

 1. Westernization has been and forever will be a disaster for non-Western nations. The apparent weakness of "Eastern" nations is actually strength; a sign of moral superiority, closer to nature, deeply rooted, psychologically sound, more humane etc etc. Gandhi had some such beliefs. Of course Gandhi also believed that if we stick to our (moral) strengths, we can “defeat” the apparently stronger West. But this defeat will not look like the usual victory and defeat looks in war. Valid or not, this would be a relatively consistent (and very attractive) set of beliefs. But many elements of this system are anathema for the Left (like Gandhi's embrace of the people's ancient religon and religious myths, his lack of interest in physical strength, and his un-Marxist view of history), so Pankaj cannot comfortably take a Gandhian position against the West (though he can say patronizing nice things about it).

2. Westernization has been and forever will be a disaster for non-Western nations. They must find their own unique way forward. They have unique cultures and cultural strengths and these are embedded in their language, their culture, their myths, their religions… and they must build from these, etc. But this is what a lot of the Hindu right is saying, so it certainly cannot be Pankaj’s choice either.

3. Or Pankaj can drop the whole Eurocentric post-Marxist framework and start from scratch. He might then find that "Westernization" is not so exclusively Western. A lot of it is just progress in human knowledge (always incomplete and prone to errors) and any individual or group can acquire and make use of past discoveries in human knowledge, whether they happen to have been made in Europe or Central Asia or Japan, and build on those.... that maybe the flaws we see in the West are not that foreign either, but are human characteristics, and their larger organized expressions (armies, conquests, wars, colonization, cultural and literal genocides, megalomaniacs, liars) are not really some unique and novel Western invention.... If strength and scientific progress are diseases, then we are all prone to falling victim to their allure....and so on. But that would be such a departure from the postcolonialist postmodern post-marxist universe in which Pankaj operates, its not really a choice either. What if his audience no longer buys his op-eds?

It’s a tough place to be in.  Hence the confusion.
btw, he started with Naipaul, betting that his audience would have little or no clue about Naipaul's actual views about Indian history and the rise of the BJP. I think this move shows Pankaj is not dumb and he sometimes takes risks. Those are worthy qualities ;)
Or it may mean that Naipaul's earlier expression of admiration for Pankaj (as a literary critic) has created a soft spot. Human nature being what it is...

I initially posted these thoughts as a facebook comment and asked some questions on 3quarksdaily (where Pankaj's article was up on the blog). One of the responses (from someone named Sundar) was as follows:
I doubt if I fit the profile of Pankaj's intended readership, but here goes:

I think the Indian left (and Pankaj in particular) has become irrelevant. The Left parties have been decimated even in their citadel of West Bengal, where they had unleashed a reign of terror for 25 years. (If you think that is an exaggeration, you should learn more about life in Rural West Bengal). It is another matter that the TMC is continuing their tactics.

Intellectually, the left has been in shock since their utopias of Russia and China have moved on. Hence their desperate attempt to use any issue they can get their hands on: Environment, Caste etc. Their last gasp was their infiltration of the centrist Congress party via Sonia Gandhi's unconstitutional NAC.

They are terrified that Modi has put together a workable coalition of various caste groups which aims to control parliament for the foreseeable future. They don't know how to deal with Modi: he comes from the very groups that they claim to represent. But he represents a new kind of India, one which does not want handouts from elite controlled parties.

Whether Modi's electoral coalition will hold in the next Lok Sabha elections, I don't know. But if it does, the India left's worst nightmare will come to pass: A world where they are simply irrelevant. A Bourgeois India that hasn't heard of Pankaj Mishra and his ilk. And doesn't care.

My answer had some more questions, which I will post here in the hope that someone will attempt some answers:
I think you are right, though out of loyalty to my youthful ideals and deference to my friends /peer group I would assign a less positive valence to this decline and fall... Anyway, follow up questions : since higher education and public intellectuals in India share (consciously and unconsciously) many of the historic assumptions, ideals, paradigms etc of the Left, what does the
 future hold in that area? Will they modify their beliefs and carry on? Will there be a circling of the wagons and a vicious fight with the newly powerful right, followed by an auto da fe? Will the crazier Hindutva historians replace our familiar Marxist intellectuals as most of my friends seem to fear? And will all this play any role in "real life"? 
Inquiring minds want to know :)

Finally, a word from my better half (who has higher IQ and EQ): I must not just criticize Mishra. I must also say what he would be good at; so here goes: I think he would be an excellent literary critic if he could just give up his urge to push his (fashionable, but ultimately irrelevant) political agenda in every thing he writes. I know, "the personal is political" and all that, but comrade, that too may just be fashionable claptrap. Take a deep breath. Let go...

PS: Given the current political conflicts within India (with which I have only an outsider's connection), it is inevitable that an attack on Pankaj will get positive responses from his supposed ideological opponents in the BJP (I say "supposed" because Pankaj actually shares their emotional antipathy towards the West and has some sympathy for their counterparts in other Asian countries, just not in India itself). Just to keep things clear, I am mostly Left-of-Center in my politics and extremely left of center on most social issues (though somewhat right of center on state intervention in social issues, whatever). I do hope a left-of-center alternative survives and thrives in Indian politics, not just because my own inclinations (mostly) lie that way but because the total dominance of any one ideology is always a problem. Best to have some balance and some competition. Finally, I do realize that all who identify as leftists are not as Eurocentric/Europhobic and confused as Pankaj. 
Oh, and about the Hindutvadis, I think there are some obvious problem areas in their quest to become the leaders of resurgent and powerful India: I am saying nothing original if I say that the "Muslim question" is one of them. In my case, the concern is not that they will try to "Indianize" Islam well beyond what current Indian Muslim leaders would consider desirable... I think that is the eventual fate of Indian Islam and I see no great reason to abhor that possibility. My concern is that they will mess up the "soft landing" that is the "desirable option" in this process. i.e. I think a soft landing is possible (and desirable) but the way the BJP has evolved, they may not be the best people to achieve it. More on that some other day, but I do want to add that to me this is not a specifically "Muslim" concern. It is an Indian concern. In numbers, in solidarity, in civilizational consciousness, in cultural contribution, etc Indian Muslims are not an insignificant component of India. A "hard landing" would hurt everyone and the outcome is by no means guaranteed to be in the Hindutvadi's favor. Softer approaches would work better for everyone, not just for the Muslims. Fascist tendencies and mob action are other obvious problems but are by no means a BJP monopoly (see West Bengal for details) but a BJP-specific (much less serious) area of concern is the large mass of pseudoscientific nonsense that has accreted around the crazier edges of the Hindutva brand. While I think the actual "real world" significance of that mass of craziness is sometimes exaggerated by liberal/Westernized/agnostic/atheist observers, it is not necessary trivial.  I quote Prime Minister sahib: "We worship Lord Ganesh. There must have been some plastic surgeon at that time who got an elephant’s head on the body of a human being and began the practice of plastic surgery - See more at: "
I really dont think modern Indian medicine will be easily derailed by such flights of fancy, but ....There. That should do it :) 

Post-post script: Friend Shivam Vij posted Guardian's piece about Modi making his Hindutva pseudosciency remarks and I told him its funny, but may not necessarily be too consequential. Many friends seemed to find that surprising. Why not consequential? he is saying an elephant head was transplanted on a human, literally. That's crazy. Well, yes, it is, but if we go by that, we would lose our shit everytime some leader says he believes in the talking snake or the flying horse or whatever. The silliness is not the problem. Or at least, its not NECESSARILY a big problem. The same people who believe in flying horses and talking snakes are very rational and clever in matters closer to our own lives. So the problem is not necessarily the silliness of the belief. Its the fact that PM sahib chose to express it on such an occasion and in such a context, indicating a certain mixing of knowledge streams best left unmixed...and the implication that such hindutvadi pseudoscience may then be forced on people in real life settings, maybe even in Medical schools and (God Forbid) in the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. Now in a democracy that is certainly a possibility and a scary one. But a reasonably competent elite can erect filters and keep the ship on near-even keel even in a democracy.
Is the Indian elite competent enough.
I guess we will find out.