From the Ruins of the Empire – The Name & the Conclusion Demonstrates the Book’s Fallacy

Last week, we described the “intellectual attention” showered on Pankaj Mishra’s new book From the Ruins of the Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia. As we wrote last week, this book is mainly an expression of the author’s rage about Asia being a failure despite the intellectualism the author ascribes it to.  This week, we offer a more detailed review of this emotional book.

“Asia Remade” – the conclusion

Read the excerpts from the last two paragraphs of the final chapter, “Asia Remade”:

  • As the West retreats into parochial neuroses, Asian countries appear more outward-looking, confident and optimistic. Turkey and Japan seek to move out from under the Western security umbrella they have huddled beneath for decades.
  • Trade with China anchors the economy of Brazil as well as those of Indonesia and Australia, bypassing the United States and the European Union…Modernizing China, in particular, poses a formidable challenge to the West,..This old anxiety now has a strong basis as an aggressive nationalistic China rises swiftly,…
  • Certainly, the dominance of the West already appears just another, surprisingly short-lived phase in the long history of empires and civilizations.

This book was published in 2012 when the fallacy of the above conclusion was already evident. That China is in a serious crisis is now widely understood. Instead of China bypassing the US and Europe, today’s China remains critically dependent on these two markets. Domestically, China is reeling from a real estate bubble the bust of which threatens to knock out a big part of China’s domestic growth.

Other Asian countries are trapped between their need to export to China and their rational fear of being dominated by an aggressive China. In fact, China is simultaneously making Japan’s two disastrous mistakes – Japan’s land and currency bubble of 1985-1990 & Japan’s attacks on Asia in the 1930s.

Instead of moving out of the western security umbrella as Mishra put it, Japan is fervently draping itself in the US-Japan security treaty to ward off China’s bellicose moves in the East China sea. Turkey, as the New York Times reported recently, is already tired of its expansion into the Middle East, especially in neighboring Syria. In addition, Iraq and its new patron Iran are ratcheting up the pressure on Turkey via Kurdish areas in Northeastern Iraq. 

So Mishra’s Remade Asia looks just like the Asia of old, a story of massive future potential and today’s problematic economic structure, weak technology base and insecure geopolitical neighborhood. In contrast, America seems stronger, more confident and welcomed in all corners of Asia. This is evident to just about every one in the world except Pankaj Mishra. His talk about America’s “retreat into parochial neurosis” sheds light on his inner frustration, his own emotional outrage about America’s continued success.

The Empire is Ruined, The new Empire Rises

This inner angst also blinded Mishra to the axiomatic fallacy that is the basis of his book.  Mishra does not understood that the Empire was never ruined. In fact, it was seamlessly transformed into a much more stable and positive version. The horribly mercantile, persistently barbaric British Empire morphed into Pax Americana, a new financial-economic system. Unlike mercantile England, America opened its markets to WWII adversaries, Germany and Japan, in exchange for a new peaceful, non-military posture.

This transformation to a new “empire” has been the mainstay of the free world since WWII. China realized this in 1971, when Pankaj Mishra was about 2 years old. Since then, China has steadily embraced a form of American capitalism to improve the living standards of its people. China’s growth accelerated in 2002 when China pegged its currency to the U.S. Dollar and formally became a member of the American financial system, or the new “empire”.

Once China became a part of the new “empire”, the world’s capital flooded into the low-cost industrious China and China’s growth skyrocketed. China soon became an export powerhouse like the 1970s Japan. As Chinese hard currency reserves exploded, as China’s became the growth darling of the world, as China was able to expand and modernize its military, the egos of China’s leaders overwhelmed their own reason. They did not realize that China was awash with money thanks to a great credit bubble enveloping all economies.

Today, that flood of hot money is leaving China. The wealthy and connected Chinese are sending their families to the same West that Mishra detests. China is facing a bust of a huge credit bubble that seems greater than the Japanese bubble; the Chinese banks are clogged down by bad loans just as Japanese banks were in 1990. Japan is still trying to recover from that bust and China could also suffer from slower growth for an extended period.

The reality is that neither Japan’s leaders of 1980s nor China’s leaders of today really understood the monetary game of the American “empire”. Their ignorance is reminiscent of the financial ignorance of Asia of the 19th century. That is why Asia’s reemergence has bumped into the reality of the new “empire”.

Pankaj Mishra exhibits no knowledge of any of this. Frankly, he is ignorant thanks to a rather poor education, especially in finance and science. Rather than making him humble, his ignorance has raised the fire of his emotional humiliation. In his book, Mishra provides neither the empirical evidence nor the intellectual arguments to make his case. 

So he selected 3 individuals who went through a similar emotional journey as Mishra’s. Through their words, Mishra desperately tries to make his own case of a “West in parochial neuroses” and a “re-emergent Asia” remade by his three chosen intellectuals.

Mishra’s Three Intellectuals

These intellectuals felt what Mishra seems to and they articulated their rage in beautiful prose and poetry. They began with admiration of the “West” and ended with a deeply negative view. Mishra quotes the conclusion Rabindranath Tagore reached:

  • modern [western] civilization, built upon the cult of money and power, was inherently destructive and needed to be tempered by the spiritual wisdom of the East.

Mishra also quotes Tagore’s words from his lecture in Beijing:

  • The West is being demoralized through being the exploiter, through tasting of the fruits of exploitation. We must fight with our faith in the moral and spiritual power of men. We of the East have never reverenced death-dealing generals, nor lie-dealing diplomats, but spiritual leaders. Through them we shall be saved, or not at all.

What can you say about an intellectual who described the West as “demoralized” in 1923?  Rabindranath Tagore was a great literary figure, an exquisite poet who brought to modernity the wisdom of Indian Saints of Bhakti (Devotional) path. But he was not no expert on what constitutes a modern state or how a state stays powerful with an intelligent monetary policy and a dominating military.

Mishra uses Tagore’s words
to channel his own message. But in doing so, Mishra exhibits his ignorance of India, his country of birth. India was the richest and most successful country in the world through much of the first millenium CE and in the millenium before the common era. The great Indian empires of Kuru, Maurya and Gupt regimes were run with monetary discipline and preserved with a dominant military. They knew that moral and spiritual power was worthless without the power to punish the evil-doer and eradicating evil.

Mishra’s first intellectual, Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani, thought like Tagore. As Mishra quotes:

  • The
    masses do not like reason, the teachings of which are understood only
    by a few select minds. Science, however, fine it may be, cannot
    completely satisfy humanity’s thirst for the ideal, or the desire to
    soar in dark and distant regions that philosophers and scholars can
    neither see nor explore.

Al-Afghani’s mission, as told by Mishra, was an imminent reawakening of the East. He was unsuccessful and blamed himself for not sowing “all the seed of my ideas in the receptive ground of the people’s thoughts!“. Mishra quotes al-Afghani arguing near the end of his journey – “the stream of renovation quickly flows towards the East.” Mishra uses this line to jump from Al-Afghani in the 1920s to 2011 arguing “The Arab Spring has finally brought popular mass movements to the Middle East.” This is as self-serving  as it gets.

The al-Afghani & Tagore discussions convinced us that Mishra’s book is essentially a justification of his own anger and humiliation at Asia’s condition and inability to mount a challenge to the West. He isn’t interested in studying the real intellectual movements that went through Asia in the last 125 years. He isn’t interested in discussing which intellectuals really made the difference in Asia. Had he done so, he could not have written his book.

For example, the last two pages of the Liang Qichao section tell the real tale of China than Mishra’s first 58 pages. These last two pages mention a 24-year old Chinese man named Mao Zedong who wrote:

  • Through the establishment of a new political system, and a change in the national character, the German states became the German Reich….I believe that there must be a complete transformation, like matter that takes form after destruction, …The demise of the universe is similar…I very much look forward to its destruction, because from the demise of the old universe will come a new universe, and will it not be better than the old universe?

Which intellectual do you think changed China? Liang Qichao or Mao Zedong?  We rest our case.

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