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Empire’s Racketeers

Pankaj Mishra interviewed by Wajahat Ali

PANKAJ MISHRA DOES NOT suffer fools. Born and raised in North India, the forty-eight-year-old writer was expected to join the civil service after graduating from university; instead he moved to a small village in the Himalayas for five years and wrote literary reviews for the Indian press. In 1995 he published his first book, a travelogue populated by colorful and diverse characters living at the intersection of globalization and Indian tradition. Since then, he has turned out numerous essays, edited an anthology, and published a novel and five books of nonfiction, using his incisive pen to expose the devastating consequences of Western imperialism, globalization, and capitalism.

Five years ago I interviewed Mishra in these pages to discuss his book From the Ruins of Empire (2012), which crafted an epic narrative of Middle Eastern and Asian communities seeking empowerment after centuries of European colonization. Mishra has since turned his focus to the origins of modern reactionary forces—from the Islamic State to Brexit and the presidency of Donald Trump. Longlisted for the Orwell Prize, his latest book, Age of Anger (2017), seeks to explain why millionsfeel disenchanted by promises of the progress that was supposed to be delivered by liberal democracy. He traces this phenomenon to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when communities in Africa and Asia were crushed under the imperial wheels of Enlightenment. These ideologies of the elite could not operate, he says, without “intellectual racketeers,” the thought leaders who subordinate their intellect and conscience to gain access to power and wealth. Among the current iteration of thought leaders, those now shilling for neoliberalism instead of Enlightenment, he has publicly blasted psychologist and best-selling author Jordan Peterson, whom he accuses of peddling “right-wing pieties seductively mythologized for our current lost generations.”

In this exchange, Mishra and I discuss Trump’s America First isolationism and its consequences for a rising Asia; the rise of right-wing Hindu nationalism under Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi; Europe’s flirtation with authoritarianism and anti-immigrant hysteria; and the role of the public intellectual in the face of imperial injustice.

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About Boston Review

Paperback, 128 pages “All history,” writes Maximillian Alvarez in his contribution to this issue, “is the history of empire—a bid for control of that greatest expanse of territory, the past.” Evil Empire confronts these histories head-on, exploring the motivations, consequences, and surprising resiliency of empire and its narratives. Contributors grapple with the economic, technological, racial, and rhetorical elements of U.S. power and show how the effects are far-reaching and, in many ways, self-defeating. Drawing on a range of disciplines—from political science to science fiction—our authors approach the theme with imagination and urgency, animated by the desire to strengthen the fight for a better future. Featuring Nikhil Pal Singh, Arundhati Roy interviewed by Avni Sejpal, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Yuri Herrera translated by Lisa Dillman, Pankaj Mishra interviewed by Wajahat Ali, Frank Pasquale, Adom Getachew, Maximillian Alvarez, Jeanne Morefield, Michael Kimmage, Stuart Schrader, Marisol LeBrón, and Mark Bould.