European Literature Days 2016: Review of Pankaj Mishra by West Camel

From the Ruins of Empire

In the 1970s there was a classic French intellectual dispute between, on the one hand, the historian Fernand Braudel, who studied history from the point of view of the longue durée – developments stretching over extended periods – and, on the other, Michel Foucault, the philosophical historian and social theorist, who saw historical development as a series of disruptions and shocks interspersed with long periods of stability. Neither man, however, chose to focus his historical studies on individuals – an activity left to the chronicler, rather than the historian.

Pankaj Mishra, in his 2012 socio-economic history, From the Ruins of Empire, manages to combine all three of these historical approaches: the longue durée, the study of ‘discontinuities’, and the chronicling of individual lives. Standing as he did, five years ago, this side of one of the most torrid episodes in economic history, and with a new recognition in the West of the significance and power of Islamic fundamentalism, it is no surprise that an historical method different from those of the 1970s was required in order to understand the new, 21st-century global dispensation and how it came to be.

Concentrating on Asia, Mishra takes the reader from the beginning of the 19th century through to the present day, focussing on the thought and lives, not of men of power, but of men of ideas – Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Liang Chao and Rabindranath Tagore, among others. It was these men, Mishra holds, who articulated a response to the pressure Asian cultures came under from the seemingly inexorable wave of industrial capitalism and imperial colonialism unleashed by the West during the 18th and 19th centuries. It was these men who also proposed and worked towards rebuilding Asian societies out of the rubble of the continent’s great empires, which had crumbled in the face of the West’s apparent irresistible power.

Mishra’s thesis, reflecting Foucault’s view of history, is that Asian societies, stable for centuries under the rule of the Chinese, Ottoman, Persian and Mughal empires, suffered a shock in the 19th century. They attempted to recover from this discontinuity, first by mimicking the materialist, individualist models of their Western oppressors. When these strategies failed, they turned instead to reshaping and readopting the spiritual values of their pre-colonial periods – Confucian ideals in China, for example, and Islamic law in Iran.

However, Mishra also reflects Braudel’s ‘long view’ of history by rejecting the perspective commonly held in the West – that Asian peoples lay dormant socially and politically until the second half of the 20th century, when they responded to independence by absorbing, wholesale, the nation-state models the Western powers had left behind them. Mishra demonstrates, instead, that Asia remade itself over an extended period, beginning in the 19th century, when, for example, the Ottoman Empire instituted ‘Tanzimat’ reforms designed to meet the threat of European expansionism.

Mishra also debunks another binary view conventional in Western historical perspectives – that communism is irreconcilable with imperialism and colonialism. Seen from an Asian viewpoint, communism sits on a materialist, developmental continuum with industrial capitalism. Some Asian societies (most notably China), in their attempt to compete with Western powers, adopted communism as a fast-track strategy to economic and social development. But Asian social structures experienced the same kinds of tensions with communism as they did with capitalist economic and social models. Specifically, the lack of a spiritual dimension to both communism and industrial capitalism, and, in both systems, the precedence over all other considerations of economic growth, has led to the new, hybrid polity models we witness in Asia today: China’s titular communism, which is, in effect, state capitalism run along Confucian lines; Japan’s nation state, with a quasi-deity as emperor; Iran’s revolutionary republic, and Saudia Arabia’s kingdom – both combining theocracy with industrial development.

Mishra’s acknowledgement of the massive disruptions engendered by Western industrialisation and expansion, combined with his long historical view and his focus on the parts played by individual Asian thinkers, offers a comprehensive explanation for the current global situation. From the West we may look out and see economic and social homogeny – or at least attempts at it. We may also believe in the inevitability of the liberal democratic model. From Asia, however, the world looks very different. Mishra’s book goes a long way to making Western readers understand this.

By West Camel

This blog was originally published on ELit Literature House Europe website on 28 November 2016.

Category: ELit Literature House Europe Observatory


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