This Foreign Policy review of Indian historian Pankaj Mishra's new collection of essays, Bland Fanatics: Liberals, Race, and Empire, makes the argument that, seen from the global south, the building ineptitude of the U.S. and the UK is a feature, not a bug, of a system of excess power that is finally turning inward:
"If you can make bad decisions without paying the costs, you will probably make them repeatedly. Privilege has blinded the country’s cosseted elite, indulging its delusions by protecting it from their consequences. The reckless disregard for reality is nothing new, in this theory. It has plagued U.S. leadership for decades, though the costs have usually been paid by other countries. The difference now is that the chickens are returning to roost. ... If there is one event that undergirds Mishra’s worldview, it’s World War I. The century preceding it had been an exceptionally calm one in European history—a 'hundred years’ peace,' the economic historian Karl Polanyi called it, during which leading countries fought each other only rarely and briefly. With peace came prosperity, and by 1914, John Maynard Keynes remarked, even the middle classes possessed 'conveniences, comforts, and amenities beyond the compass of the richest and most powerful monarchs of other ages.' Europe appeared the height of civilization and Britain the apex. Or, at least, that’s how it looked from London. From Beijing, Léopoldville, and Calcutta, the view was different. Europe’s hundred years’ peace had been a century of invasion, subjugation, and outright slaughter in the world beyond Europe. Mishra mentions, among other atrocities, Belgium’s extractive rubber regime in the Congo, the hundreds of thousands killed in the U.S. conquest of the Philippines, and the massacres of the Herero people in German South West Africa (tantamount to genocide, Germany has since admitted). All this, he implies, was the price of those “conveniences, comforts, and amenities” that middle-class Westerners blithely enjoyed. When World War I broke out, its ferocity took Europeans aback. Displaying a sort of 'imperial insouciance,' they had largely ignored the capacity of their own governments for mindless brutality. But nothing about the war was surprising to those in the colonized world, Mishra argues. Africans and Asians knew European boasts of civilization to be hollow. World War I was merely the 'extreme, lawless and often gratuitous violence of modern imperialism' boomeranging back on its perpetrators.
"The pattern of World War I is the one to fear today, Mishra warns. ... Mishra excoriates the liberal thinkers of the Anglophone world for what he takes to be their narcissism—'their own mind-numbing simplicities about democracy, its enemies, friends, the free world and all that sort of thing.' The deficiencies of such smug doctrines have been readily apparent in the global south for decades, Mishra believes. There, the United States pursued freedom and democracy by backing despots, meddling in elections, opposing wealth redistribution, and enforcing austerity. ... [H]e notes how frequently the advocates of liberalism have papered over racism. Talk of freedom and rights, Mishra notices, usually comes with a tacit addendum: but only for some. ... Woodrow Wilson spoke for self-determination but launched a 19-year military occupation of Haiti. You can trace a chain of hypocrisy from Thomas Jefferson keeping his own children enslaved to George W. Bush’s disastrous so-called liberation of Iraq. One time and perhaps it’s an accident; 17 times and it starts to look like a pattern. Whenever the full extension of liberal freedoms threatens the privileges of the powerful, liberal leaders have sought to restrict those freedoms because they have never truly been comfortable with the consequences of substantive equality. ... [L]iberals have adopted a 'blinkered history,' screening out the inequalities, violence, and racism endemic to their preferred system. ... Obsessed with procedural justice but largely unbothered by economic inequalities, liberals nodded politely as 'kleptocratic oligarchies' took root in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, Mishra writes. And now, on cue, the oligarchs have seized the Oval Office. ... Perching atop the commanding heights doesn’t give you a better view; it gives you a worse one, because benefiting from a stark inequality tends to rob you of perspective. Without any intellectual ventilation, without taking seriously the warnings of those with other vantages, you’ll end up where we are, with 'blond bullies' presiding over Washington and London and a baffled elite unable to do anything about it."
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