The political earthquakes of our time have revealed an enormous pent-up energy. 

The near-simultaneous rise of demagoguery across the world point to a shared, codetermining situation, even though the secessions of our time, from ISIS to Brexit, have many local causes. For one, ethical constraints have weakened everywhere, often under the pressure of public opinion. What used to be called ‘Muslim rage,’ and identified with mobs of brown-skinned men with bushy beards, is suddenly manifest globally, among saffron-robed Buddhist ethnic-cleansers in Myanmar as well as white nationalists in England. Racism and misogyny on social media has uncovered what Nietzsche, speaking of the ‘men of ressentiment,’ called ‘a whole tremulous realm of subterranean revenge, inexhaustible and insatiable in outbursts.’

The question for me is: How do we understand this near-universal breakdown, which is as much moral and emotional as it is political?


Speaking from my own experience:

Octavio Paz---Mexico and India linked.

Growing up in India, with a settled national consensus.

Socialist, secular and democratic. We were modernizing and industrializing, accelerating economic grown, learning the language of the successful West, and taking our rightful place among the community of nations.

The trajectory of the nation-state towards cosmopolitan citizenship.



European and American dominance over “the world’s economies and peoples” had, as the Cambridge historian Christopher Bayly writes, turned a large part of humanity “into long-term losers in the scramble for resources and dignity”. Nevertheless, the explicitly defined aim of Asia and Africa’s first nationalist icons, who tended to be socialist and secular (Atatürk, Nehru, Nasser, Nkrumah, Mao, and Sukarno), was “catch-up” with the west.


Postcolonial Asia and Africa had a clear project. After its most severe global crisis in the 1930s, capitalism had suffered a decline in legitimacy, and in much of the non-western world, planned and protected economic growth had become the chosen means to such ends as social justice and gender equality.



Recent ruling classes of the non-west have looked to McKinsey rather than Marx to help define their socioeconomic future; but they have not dared to alter the founding basis of their legitimacy as “modernisers” leading their countries to convergence with the west and attainment of European and American living standards.



By any measure, modernization, unhesitatingly aiming to reduce the world to the same dreary pattern, was an extraordinary project. It meant persuading hundreds of millions of people to renounce – and often scorn– a world of the past that had endured for thousands of years, and to participate in an elite-led gamble of creating modern citizens who would be secular, enlightened, cultured and heroic. It required the deliberate undermining, if not wholesale destruction, of ethnic and religious diversity for the sake of an imagined goal: that Asian and African societies would become, like Europe and America, secular and instrumentally rational as economic growth accelerated.


People warning against this pursuit, and pointing to problems and contradictions. 

‘Imperialism has not allowed us to achieve historical normality,’ Octavio Paz lamented in The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950). Paz was surveying the confused inheritance of Mexico from colonial rule, and the failure of its many political and socio-economic programs to make the country re-enact the rise of Europe. He could have been speaking of any major Asian and African country that had suffered, long after decolonization, the intellectual as well as geopolitical and economic hegemony of Western Europe and the United States, and had failed to find its own way of being modern.

Paz himself was convinced that Mexico had to forge a modern politics and economy for itself. But, writing in the late 1940s, after having witnessed the deceptions of liberal constitutionalists, he found himself commending the ‘traditionalism’ of the revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. It was Zapata, he wrote, who had freed ‘Mexican reality from the constricting schemes of liberalism, and the abuses of the conservatives and neo-conservatives.’

The Indonesian thinker Soedjatmoko warned in the early 1970s that ‘extreme inequalities doomed the prospects of democratic politics.’ A ‘crowded, hungry and competitive world,’ he wrote, leads to increasing ‘pressures toward greater authoritarianism and oppression’ and ‘human freedom is certainly the first victim of such a future.’

Well before Soedjatmoko, there were Asian thinkers—a broad range: from Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, and Liang Qichao to Ali Shariati, who warned against such an outcome.

They realized that the process of modernization, which was disruptive and traumatic in Europe, would be even more so in Asia. It was to disrupt old economies of agriculture and small crafts, barter and trade, draw young people away to the squalor of new urban centers, sundering or loosening their religious and communal attachments that gave meaning to their lives, expose their raw nerves to extremist politics. This was a process that did not lead directly, even in the West itself, to a clear destination of happiness and stability; many of its supposed benefits---mass education, cheap consumer goods, popular press and mass entertainment---had only partly relieved a widely and deeply felt rootlessness, confusion and anomie. 

Many Asian intellectuals became some of the most eloquent—and earliest—critics of capitalist modernity, using other conceptions of the meaning and purpose of human life to counter the assumption that economic liberalism, individual self-interest, and industrialization could be the cure-all for the manifold problems of the human condition. They often drew upon philosophical and spiritual traditions in Islam, Hinduism, Confucianism, to develop a refined suspicion of the ‘brave new world’ of science and reason, insisting on the non-rational, non-utilitarian aspects of human existence. In many ways, they anticipated Europe’s own thinkers, whom the slaughter of the First World War forced urgently to re-examine their 19th century belief in a world being progressively rationalized.

Almost every Asian country produced thinkers warning their compatriots against a blind and wholesale emulation of the institutions and ideologies of Western Europe and the United States. These had been forged by events---revolts against clerical authority, industrial innovations, capitalist consolidation through colonial conquest—that did not occur elsewhere. Many of them, such as the Indian scholar Radhakamal Mukerjee, who developed an economic vision based on actually existing conditions in Asian agrarian societies, supporting environmentally viable small-scale industries over American-style factories, inspired urban planners in the US as well as Brazil.



Why did they disappear and their influence fade? One answer is that the exigencies of nation-building under the pressure of the cold war. By the 1950s thinkers stressing locally resourced solutions of all sorts would retreat as Asia and Africa embarked on large-scale national reconstruction and modernization with the help of imported ideas that seemed universally applicable.

The advisors of the Shah of Iran and Indonesia’s Suharto read W.W. Rostow’s The Stages of Economic Growth and Samuel Huntington’s Political Order in Changing Societies more carefully than they did anything by Ali Shariati and Soedjatmoko. Among many left-leaning nation-builders Lenin, Mao and even the Fabian socialists seemed to provide clearer blueprints for self-strengthening than indigenous thinkers. Zapata was forgotten in Mexico. Gandhianism was reduced to an empty ritual in India.  Development, rapid and urgent, of the underdeveloped countries became the common sense of the time, despite the apparent human costs.

In the intellectual prisons built during the cold war, anyone advocating a less exploitative and instrumental view of nature, and an ecologically and politically sustainable way of national development suffered a rapid eclipse in their reputations. In India, a figure like Rammanohar Lohia, a sharp critic of both communist and capitalist universalisms, who in the 1950s inspired some of the country’s greatest post-independence writers and artists, was reviled and then forgotten. Lohia, like Mukerjee, aimed for a non-imitative model of development that was sensitive to specific social and economic experiences and ecologies. “A cosmopolite,’ Lohia charged, ‘is a premature universalist, an imitator of superficial attainments of dominant civilizations, an inhabitant of upper caste milieus without real contact with the people.”

But intellectual cosmopolitanism had already become, on both the left and the right, synonymous with a shared belief in the dream of boundless consumption. Socialist as well as capitalist modernists envisaged an exponential increase in the number of people dominating the earth, owning cars, houses, electronic goods and gadgets, and driving the tourist and luxury industry worldwide---the fantasy that has been truly globalized since the end of the cold war and synergizes today the endeavors of businessmen, politicians, and journalists everywhere. 

Writing in the 1970s, the Indonesian thinker Soedjatmoko claimed that ‘the relationship of many Third World intellectuals to the West has undergone significant change.’ This was due to ‘the inapplicability of the communist model, the irrelevance of various scholarly development models, and the growing awareness that the western history of modernization is just one of several possible courses.’ Gone now, Soedjatmoko concluded, ‘is the inclination to look over one’s shoulder for the benign nod of approval from one’s mentors—at the LSE, Leiden University, or the Sorbonne.’

        Soedjatmoko spoke too early. Those who looked to Moscow and Beijing for direction were to indeed find themselves leaderless as China, emerging from the Cultural Revolution, began to lurch towards a market economy, and the Soviet Union, after a short experiment with perestroika and glasnost, imploded. But new centers of intellectual and political authority were already emerging in London and Washington D.C as notions of laissez-faire, largely abandoned after the devastating economic crises earlier in the century, replaced an increasingly defunct model of social democracy. By the late 1980s the ascendancy of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, and the discrediting of communism, meant that there were many more mentors, even wealthy sponsors, of the neo-liberal revolution that was to sweep across Latin America and the remotest regions of Asia and Africa. 



Not much scholarly or journalistic attention has been paid to the education of non-Western leaders and thinkers in American universities, business schools, commercial organizations, philanthropic foundations, corporations, and such American-dominated international institutions as the World Bank and the IMF.

It is in these incubators that the political, economic and cultural norms of the West are still being internalized. The sons and daughters of Chinese princelings are presently being indoctrinated at Wharton and Harvard and Yale; these are unlikely to come home and start channeling the thoughts of Chairman Mao or the sayings of Confucius. From Istanbul to Jakarta, US-returned men and women run the biggest businesses, staff the high rungs of bureaucracies and think tanks, and occupy prominent positions in the media; a mass of wannabes jostle behind them, straining for attention—and multiple-entry visas---at the parties of Western journalists and diplomats. 

Those who succeed then often go on to the occupy positions of influence in American universities and think tanks, the media, corporate board rooms and financial institutions, and also in state institutions such as treasury departments and international institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization (WTO). This interfacing between Asian elites and American centers of power is how Washington’s interpretation of capitalism---a regime of privatization, deregulation and financial liberalization---became the basis for public policies worldwide, defining afresh the commonsense way we live in and understand the world.


Since 2008 American-style capitalism in its own homeland has looked morally and intellectually feeble, incapable of galvanizing its janissaries. The myths about prosperity and affluence in a flattened world---those that the Euro-American media once avidly disseminated---lie broken. Only a few dead-enders—superannuated neo-imperialists and neocons---still uphold the delusion, which even many intelligent people embraced after the end of the cold war, that democracy and capitalism—the twin pillars of Western modernity—could be spread everywhere, by force if necessary. As for Europe, it is plainer now than it was in 1950 that as Octavio Paz wrote ‘Europe, once a storehouse of ideas, now lives as we do, from day to day.’ Certainly, crisis-ridden Europe can no longer hold up, as it once did, the example of its long struggles by working classes and women for justice and dignity, or its postwar model of social democracy.


Decline and unrest in Europe and America, however, comes at the end of a long cycle of steady socioeconomic growth. In many non-Western countries, where billions are now undergoing a traumatic transition from agrarian to urban industrial economies, this cycle had barely begun before it began to splutter. Far from advancing in tandem with it, democracy seems to have been undermined by anarchic forms of capitalism that diminish the state’s legitimacy and effectiveness, marginalize further the ill-educated poor.



One result is the shattering of the national consensus. A major development.


Since 1989 a strenuously achieved national consensus in many countries has been under siege from a fresh quarter: an ideology of endless economic expansion and private wealth-creation 


In our own age, feral forms of capitalism, which after the Depression were defanged by social-welfarism in the west and protectionist economies elsewhere, have turned into an elemental force. Thus, nation-states already struggling against secessionist movements by ethnic and religious minorities have seen their internal unity further undermined by capitalism’s dominant ethic of primitive accumulation and individual gratification.



China, once the world’s most egalitarian society, is now even more unequal than the United States – 1% of its population owns one-third of the national wealth – and prone to defuse its increasing social contradictions through a hardline nationalism directed at its neighbours, particularly Japan. Many formally democratic nation-states, such as India, Indonesia, and South Africa, have struggled to maintain their national consensus in the face of the imperative to privatise basic services such as water, health and education (and also, for many countries, to de-industrialise, and surrender their sovereignty to markets). Mobile and transnational capital, which de-territorialises wealth and poverty, has made state-building and its original goals of broad social and economic uplift nearly impossible to achieve within national boundaries.


The elites primarily benefitting from global capitalism have had to devise new ideologies to make their dominance seem natural. Thus, India and Israel, which started out as nation-states committed to social justice, have seen their foundational ideals radically reconfigured by a nexus of neoliberal politicians and majoritarian nationalists, who now try to bludgeon their disaffected subjects into loyalty to a “Jewish state” and a “Hindu nation”. Demagogues in Thailand, Myanmar, and Pakistan have emerged at the head of populations angry and fearful about being deprived of the endlessly postponed fruits of modernity.


The implications are sobering: the non-west not only finds itself replicating the west’s violence and trauma on an infinitely larger scale. While helping inflict the profoundest damage yet on the environment – manifest today in rising sea levels, erratic rainfall, drought, declining harvests, and devastating floods – the non-west also has no real prospect of catching up with the west.


Political failure masks an intellectual failure.


Which basically recreates the culture of imperialism in another part of the world, reproducing the potential for all the destructive conflicts that we saw in Europe in the first half of the 20th century.


How do we chart our way out of this impasse? 

Get out of the fog of the contemporary?


A writer, not an activist.

My own effort has been to discover other writers and intellectuals who saw the tragically insuperable contradictions of modernization. Many thinkers in the east and the west questioned the exalting of economic growth as an end in itself.

Of course, other ways of conceiving of the good life have existed long before a crudely utilitarian calculus – which institutionalises greed, and confuses individual freedom with consumer choice – replaced thinking in our most prominent minds.


What we see today is that the West itself stands revealed as a dialectical construction, its ideologies and self-perceptions largely defined in opposition to the non-West. In that sense, Europe has been provincialized, and what we need is an open and sustained engagement with the traditions of non-Western thought.


Indeed, we have to pay attention to the discourse of a vernacular liberalism in Asia that emerged out of the encounter with metropolitan liberalism.

The critique of western liberalism mounted by Tilak and Abduh. Zhang Taiyan’s and Kang Youwei’s idea of cosmopolitan humanity.


Western power, cultural as well as military and economic, created the categories in which we have long thought about the world. Most of our major presuppositions, arguments, examples and generalisations have been drawn from the stock of European historical experience. In the process, the experiences of the vast majority of world’s population have suffered a massive erasure.



Recovering them has a fresh urgency in the post-American world in which the spell of universal progress through Western-style capitalism and democracy has been broken. The assumptions that these universalist ideologies will deliver endless growth and political stability cannot be sustained. We face a global crisis, social, political environmental---that puts into question above all our long intellectual submission to Western ideas of progress and development.



We need, in other words, the fullest range of intellectual resources in order to reimagine the non-West—one that isn’t always playing the futile game of catch-up with the West.


It seems imperative that its diverse societies redefine their principles in ways that explicitly acknowledge different visions, religious and metaphysical, of the world.

The models for this exist in not just Asia.


The French thinker Simone Weil, who never ignored France’s minorities in her broad-ranging reflections, recognised early that the old standardised model of progress had to be replaced, for the values of individualism and autonomy that originally brought forth modern human beings had come to threaten their moral identity and spiritual health. In The Need for Roots, a book written in 1943 to clarify the lessons of France’s capitulation to Nazi Germany, Weil went as far as to abandon the language of rights. The advocacy of individual rights had been crucial to the expansion of commerce and a contract-based society in western Europe. In the aftermath of France’s catastrophic defeat, Weil argued that a free and rooted society ought to consist of a web of moral obligations. We have the right to ignore starving people, she said, but we should be obliged not to let them starve.


In our own context we need to relearn the importance of, as Arturo Escobar puts it, ‘place, noncapitalism, and local culture against the dominance of space, capital and modernity that are central to globalization discourse.’ The Third World is condemned to modernity, Paz said. But there is also a concept of modernization that, in Soedjatmoko’s words, ‘does not emphasize competition, but cooperation; a concept of development that does not aim at affluence, but at sufficiency; and a conception of individual rights and ownership that is limited by the public good.’



What seems clear the identity of the secular modern, which was built upon exclusivist notions of secularism, liberty, solidarity, and democracy in sovereign nation-states, has unravelled, and requires a broader definition. A new common space has to be renegotiated. The militarily and culturally interventionist, business-friendly but otherwise minimalist state peddling an ideology of economic growth won’t do. 


It remains to be seen whether the power of old elites that derived their legitimacy and power from their self-appointed role as technocratic modernizers, and have deepened their links in recent years with transnational corporations and international organizations can be undermined. Postdevelopmentalism, as Escobar calls it, is hard to enshrine in political movements. But there is no question that we witness today very different relationships of class and nation, reconfigured identities, and unprecedented forms of political mobilization in the new fissures that have opened up within and across states. The constricting schemes of old-style liberalism, conservatism and neo-conservatism, promoted globally by cadres trained in the United States and Europe, continue to shape much of our thinking about these events. Imperialism, now deeply internalized, has not allowed many in the non-West to achieve clear self-reckonings, let alone historical normality. But it is hard to deny that the assumptions of universalist ideologies now lie impotent, and our unavoidably plural future calls for fresh intellectual heresies.



This process will no doubt take time. Edward Said, once commenting upon Antonio Gramsci’s The Southern Question, wrote that “intellectual work is slower, works according to more extended calendars than that of any other social group. . . . Much time elapses before new cultural formations emerge, and intellectuals, who depend on long years of preparation, action, and tradition, are also necessary to that process. Gramsci also understands that in the extended time span during which the coral-like formation of a culture occurs, one needs ‘breaks of an organic kind.’ I think we urgently need those breaks today.