Here is a recording of Mishra in conversation with the writer Ian Buruma, where some of the ambiguities in the book are addressed (and a short interview with the Guardian here):
And here is my more considered view:
The twenty-first-century will be Asia's century, but it won't necessarily be an Asian century; this seems to be the take-home message of Pankaj Mishra's sweeping book, which "seeks to offer a broad view of how some of the most intelligent and sensitive people in the East responded to the encroachments of the West (both physical and intellectual) on their societies." He argues that he political and economic resurgence of Asia does not signal the triumph of familiar "Asian" or "Western" values, but an eclectic mix of political ideologies that were forged during the struggle to overcome Western imperialism.
At the outset, Mishra informs us that: "The form of this book - part historical essay and part intellectual biography - is primarily motivated by the conviction that the lines of history converge in individual lives." (p.10) I am thus reviewing it in two parts.
First, the "historical essay" bit: Mishra's narrative covers the period from the arrival of Napoleon in Egypt in 1798 to last year's protests in Tahrir Square against Mubarak's rule. In his telling of "the remaking of Asia", the crucial shift on the part of the Asian intelligentsia is the move from an exclusively elite-oriented to a more mass-based model of modernisation; the Ottoman rulers' Tanzimat decree and the Qing Dynasty's 'Hundred Days' reform period are examples of the former, whilst the founding of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the People's Republic of China are cited as examples of the latter.
When initial efforts to harness the power of Western science were obstructed by domestic reactionaries, perceptive Asian thinkers identified the cause of Europe's hegemony in its "superior skills for 'industrial civilisation' or, more simply, organisation." (p.40) Over successive generations of inquisitive Asian respondents, we can observe an incremental shift in their focus from the instruments of "Europe's competitive edge" to its capacities for national mobilisation. The example of post-Meiji Japan, scaling ever-greater heights on the world stage, helped to foster the influential idea that countries needed a revolutionary vanguard, united by a political ideology, that would establish common institutions to mobilise the masses and develop a powerful national identity. Early in the twentieth-century, vanguardism, nationalism and regionalism were the dominant trends, cutting across national boundaries and conventional left-right divisions.
Indeed, from the early nineteenth-century, Western imperialism created an unprecedented sense of global interconnectivity. From that point forward, uncompromising conservative responses made little sense (which isn't to suggest that they disappeared overnight). This was especially true given the pervasive intellectual influence of Social Darwinist theories, which contributed to the powerful impression of a historically unique existential threat to the traditional moral order in Asian societies. Under these circumstances, who were the true revolutionaries and who the true conservatives: those who sensed the opportunity that lay in post-war European pessimism and self-doubt, and sought to present their intepretations of traditional Asian values as an alternative for the West to follow (often presented as being compatible with rationalism and science); or pragmatists who sought to imitate the West as far as they could without provoking a backlash from traditionalist quarters?
|Ho Chi Minh (1890-1968)|
Mishra is at his best when dissecting the historical specificity of Asian responses to Western encroachment. By setting his intellectual biographies firmly in the context of a historical essay, he makes it possible for the reader to see the politics that lies at the heart of so much modern thinking about "multiculturalism"; in particular, by tracing the seminal role that religious authorities often played in debates over modernisation, often for historically specific reasons, we can see how "tradition" was, and is, used as a cover for political agendas.
He also unpicks the complicated relationship between nationalism and regionalism in Asia. When Western leaders required Japan to give up territory won from Beijing during the 1895 Sino-Japanese War, it was regarded in Tokyo as the ultimate example of double standards. In response, the Japanese intelligentsia came to believe that they could only achieve parity in Western eyes by first removing the idea of a racial hierarchy from the heads of Europeans and other Asians. Thus the imperial impulse in Japan overlapped in a strange way with liberal nationalist ideas: by eradicating the Western presence in Asia, Japan would act as a vanguard to other Asian nations seeking independence.
But, as regards his "intellectual biographies", the book falls short in two key respects. First, Mishra repeatedly fails to indicate whether he is expressing his own views or paraphrasing the views of others. For instance, on p. 255:
From this perspective, the modern West is crippled by its deficit of spirituality; the irresistible impulse to materially satisfy individual desires is without limits, rendering liberalism's claim to "tolerance" a facade. Yet Mishra sees a way out of this trap: the environment (pp. 309-310):