A world map shows India and China.
In the Thicket of Democracy

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised an India that fulfilled Anglo-American fantasies: an Asian country that combined democracy with free markets and could counterbalance China. After eight years of Modi rule, the world's largest democracy has been beaten off and India's goal of achieving the material capacity of China, or even Western countries, is further away than ever.

In The Fire Next Time, Afro-American author James Baldwin outlined the necessityof such a moral and intellectual revolution in the starkest terms, arguing that ‘in order to survive as a human, moving, moral weight in the world, America and all the Western nations will be forced to re-examine themselves’, to ‘discard nearly all the assumptions’ used to ‘justify’ their ‘crimes’. The fire Baldwin imagined in 1962 is now raging across the US, and is being met with frantic appeals to white survivalism.

‘You must dominate’, Trump told state governors on 1st June 2020, threatening to unleash ‘vicious dogs’ and ‘ominous weapons’ on his political enemies. Understandably, people exalted for so long by the luck of birth, class and nation will find it difficult, even impossible, to discard their assumptions about themselves and the world. But success in this harsh self-education is imperative if the prime movers of modern civilisation are to prevent themselves from sliding helplessly into the abyss of history.

Monument to Leopold II in Brussels, Belgium, covered with pink paint.
The removal of memorials to slave traders is likely only to deepen the culture wars if it is not accompanied by an extensive rewriting of the Anglo-American history and economics curriculum, photo: Wiktor Dabkowski via picture alliance

To grow up in India in the 1970s and 1980s, as I did, was to live through the fiascos of both democracy and state building. Unlike Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, India’s founding figures were outspoken partisans of social, political and economic equality. And during its early decades, when Martin Luther King, among others, travelled to India to seek inspiration for the civil rights movement, the country seemed a beacon to striving people of colour everywhere. Here was a non-communist nation state of overwhelmingly poor people, trying to create an egalitarian society and an internationally competitive economy within a political framework – parliamentary elections and separation of powers – explicitly modelled on Anglo-America. But India never built a well-organised state of the sort that would allow such a country, despoiled by colonialism, to overcome its extreme disadvantages: an underproductive agricultural economy, a weak industrial base, and a poorly fed and mostly illiterate citizenry.

In the early decades of independence, government interventions did result in some progress in heavy industry and agriculture. Investment in higher (though not primary) education created generations of superbly skilled upper-caste Indians; many of them can be found today in senior positions at US corporations such as Microsoft and Google, as well as in academia and journalism. But economic growth was slower than in many East Asian countries, despite the fact that India had started off with a broad industrial base and possessed a relatively strong bureaucratic and administrative apparatus.


Bureaucratic Apparatus

By the late 1970s, disillusionment with India’s lack of progress was deep and pervasive. A spell of authoritarian rule under Indira Gandhi had resolved nothing, while revealing the spinelessness of the media and judiciary and the repressively law-and-order orientation of the state inherited from British colonialists. The poor were very far from enjoying civil liberties or a chance at prosperity; and many among the upper castes, impatient with the inept rulers thrown up by elections, longed for the country to be run by an efficient autocrat like Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew.

A few envious glances were also directed at South Korea’s president, Park Chung Hee, who had seized power after a military coup in 1961 and during his eighteen-year rule supervised the transformation of a dirt-poor rural country into a world-beating manufacturing giant with excellent educational standards and massively improved public health.


A man wears a cardboard mask of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
When Narendra Modi won power in 2014 the ambitious elites of India seemed to have found their own enlightened despot, photo: Pacific Press: Sudipta Das via picture alliance

China’s transformation under Deng Xiaoping from Maoist basket case to global economic powerhouse was particularly galling to many Indians, especially those who had believed in Anglo-American predictions of their country’s inevitable and unstoppable ‘rise’.

When Narendra Modi won power in 2014 with the help of India’s richest businessmen, promising to liberate Indian markets from state regulation and boost them into the company of Western superpowers, the ambitious elites seemed to have found their own enlightened despot (albeit that he was suspected of involvement in a pogrom that killed hundreds of Muslims).

Modi seemed to promise an India that would fulfil Anglo-American fantasies: an Asian country that combined democracy with free markets and would be a counterweight to authoritarian China. 

Hindu Supremacist Rulers

The American Enterprise Institute welcomed him as India’s version of Reagan and Thatcher; Obama declared that he reflected ‘the dynamism and potential of India’s rise’. The quick fix of authoritarianism has exacerbated rather than resolved India’s fundamental problems. Effortlessly subverting the media, judiciary and the military, India’s Hindu supremacist rulers have shown themselves to be cold-blooded fanatics, willing to stoke anti-Muslim pogroms, assassinate critics and collectively punish minorities (as in Kashmir, where a lockdown lasting months preceded the pandemic).

After eight years of Modi’s rule, India is further away than ever from matching the material achievements of China, let alone those of Western countries; and it is being humiliated militarily by China (the Galwan Valley incident in June 2020 in which at least twenty Indian troops were killed is just the most recent example). Manufacturing has long been stagnant; and banks are deeply in debt because of the bad loans they have handed out to crony-capitalists.

More than 140 million migrant workers have lost jobs during a botched lockdown; and now starvation looms over hundreds of millions of Indians already tormented by malnutrition, poor education and a lack of sanitation.

Not all of India’s unfolding disasters can be blamed on Modi. For a long time, as the economist and philosopher Amartya Sen has argued, India’s rulers failed to make crucial investments in primary education and public health, and thus didn’t create the ‘human capital’ and infrastructure necessary for the labour-intensive manufacturing revolution which, decades before China’s rise, created the ‘East Asian Tigers’, South Korea and Taiwan.

More than 140 million migrant workers have lost jobs during a botched lockdown; and now starvation looms over hundreds of millions of Indians.

One reason the Covid-19 pandemic threatens carnage in India is that it spends proportionately less than even Nepal and Timor-Leste – 1.3 per cent of its GDP – on healthcare (South Korea, by way of comparison, spends 8.1 per cent) and has a highly privatised health system. The only Indian state with adequate protection from the pandemic is communist-controlled Kerala, whose public health and education systems have long ensured that the state has the highest life expectancy and literacy rate in India.


India versus South Korea

South Korea started from an equally low base in the 1940s and succeeded in creating both a modern industrialised economy and a society remarkable for its low levels of income, if not gender, inequality. India’s rulers derived legitimacy from elections (and garnered much Western acclaim for these ‘festivals’ of democracy), but its modern state, while becoming more ingeniously coercive than the colonial state it was grafted onto, has never developed the capacity to rescue its hundreds of millions of citizens from poverty and social inequality.

In his comparative study of India and South Korea, Locked in Place: State-Building and Late Industrialisation in India (2003), the American sociologist Vivek Chibber argues that India’s rulers were unable or unwilling to act against the wishes of the businessmen who campaigned against state-led development. South Korea, on the other hand, demonstrated yet again that for late-developers, state building is a prerequisite for nation building, and that social and economic well-being depends less on how political representatives re chosen and more on how adroitly the state formulates and implements policy. Park, for instance, extended the patronage of government to what are now South Korea’s most prominent chaebol (family-owned) business groups: Hyundai, Daewoo and Samsung.


These lessons in social and industrial policy, which Germany began administering in the late nineteenth century, and which have been most effectively taken to heart by China, were comprehensively lost on the upper-caste rulers of India, whose major preoccupation was the perpetuation of their own power through the ballot box. India today represents the worst of all possible worlds: far-right Hindus deftly manipulate electoral democracy and the public sphere, the state seems better equipped for repression than for welfare, and its economic experiments with deregulation and privatisation have produced numerous oligarchs but no internationally recognised product or enterprise.

South Korea, like India, took political inspiration from its former coloniser. Born and educated under Japanese colonial rule, Park admired and attempted to imitate Japan’s swift emergence as a major industrial power. Like the Japanese, he looked for guidance to Friedrich List, the German economic protectionist, rather than Adam Smith.

Colorful hoarding & banners seen in the grand rally organised by Woman & Trans people Association named Walk for Equality & Freedom before the Election of India at Kolkata.
India today represents the worst of all possible worlds: far-right Hindus deftly manipulate electoral democracy and the public sphere, photo: ZUMAPRESS: Avishek Das via picture alliance

According to Park, ‘the life of the nation can be developed and grown only through the state.’ As he saw it, the laissez-faire individualism backed by Anglo-American elites encouraged social fragmentation and political strife, making state and nation building nearly impossible. ‘We are different’, he argued, ‘from the West that pits the individual against the state.’

Park spoke as the latest of late developers, keen to learn from the experiences of the advanced powers, and to avoid their mistakes. His teachers in Japan, who had copied Germany’s model as diligently as he imitated Japan’s, down to its constitution, also found top-down mobilisation a more effective framework than liberalism for nation and state building.

Unlike Weber’s Germany, Japan was not exactly split apart by economic development. As Kanai Noburu, an economist who trained in Germany in the 1880s and became a mentor to many Japanese thinkers and leaders, put it: ‘If workers are treated like animals, then after several decades unions and socialism will appear.’ 


Scramble for Territory and Resources

The scramble for territory and resources, started by British slave-owners and colonialists, and the subsequent international race to create the fittest political and economic organism for survival, are what made the first half of the twentieth century so uniquely violent (not some fundamental incompatibility between ‘liberal democracy’ and ‘totalitarianism’ as the Cold War narrative had it). Desperately seeking Lebensraum, Germany and Japan clashed with their competitors and eventually capitulated to the greater military might of the Allied powers.

In the post-war era, even when reconstructing their strength as economic powers with the help of American aid, Germany and Japan didn’t abandon their commitment to the social state. The constitution that came into effect in Japan in 1947 emphasised the state’s obligation to provide social security and public healthcare.

In 1949, a new constitution enshrined the ‘social state’ in the Federal Republic of Germany, and the adjective ‘social’ retained its import and weight in the ‘social market economy’ introduced by Ludwig Erhard, the minister for economic affairs and Ropke’s disciple. Since the rise of privatisation and deregulation in the 1970s, social protections have been undermined in Germany, Japan and much of East Asia, including China. But even in their enfeebled form, they remain superior to the skeletal welfare states of Britain and the US.

While the peddlers of free markets, democracy, the end of history, neo imperialism and the flat earth were getting high on their own supply, China emerged as the most formidable exponent of concerted state power so far seen.

In the post-war era, even when reconstructing their strength as economic powers with the help of American aid, Germany and Japan didn’t abandon their commitment to the social state.

Just as American wages began to stagnate in the 1970s, the living conditions of a large percentage of the Chinese population began to improve dramatically: the biggest transformation of this kind in history. This extraordinary economic expansion has been accompanied by unparalleled damage to the environment and cruel limitations on individual liberty, especially in Hong Kong and the minority regions of Tibet and Xinjiang.


Cold Pragmatism

China also needs to confront mounting national debt and the problems associated with an ageing population. Still, scepticism about its material progress, insistence that regime change and American-style democracy are inevitable, or that the coronavirus emerged from a Chinese lab, do nothing to improve the prospects of citizens in the countries that are so proud of being democracies.

Their sanctimony can’t disguise the fact that China, single-mindedly pursuing modernisation under a technocratic elite, has verified Hamilton’s belief that only a strong, proactive state can protect its citizens from the maelstrom of violent and unavoidable change: ‘Nothing but a well-proportioned exertion of the resources of the whole, under the direction of a Common Council, with power sufficient to give efficacy to their resolutions, can preserve us from being a conquered people now, or can make us a happy people thereafter.’ 

China’s economic expansion has been accompanied by unparalleled damage to the environment and cruel limitations on individual liberty.

China has been more coldly pragmatic, too, than its Western critics. After all, a ruling party that calls itself ‘communist’ chose to abandon its foundational ideology and adapt itself to a market economy, just as the US, seeking to build a new world order, was failing to implant democracy by persuasion or military force in Russia, Eastern Europe and the Arab world, succeeding only in facilitating brutal anarchy or despotism in almost every country it sought to remake in its image.

More recently, and damagingly, a feckless global experiment in economic hyper-liberalism led by Anglo-America’s political class and mainstream intelligentsia has helped empower neo-fascist movements and personalities in both countries. China may or may not address its democratic deficit, as South Korea and Taiwan have both done. Its chillingly resourceful suppression of dissent in Hong Kong and Xinjiang renews the warning from the histories of Germany and Japan: that the modern state’s biopower can enable monstrous crimes.

But there’s not getting around the desolate position that the great paragons of democracy find themselves in today. Neither Britain nor America seems capable of dealing with the critical challenges to collective security and welfare thrown up by the coronavirus. No less crushing is the exposure, as the statue of Rhodes finally falls, of the fact that the power and prestige of Anglo-America originated in grotesque atrocities and, as American psychologist and philosopher William James wrote in 1897, that ‘a land of freedom, boastfully so called, with human slavery enthroned at the heart of it’ was always ‘a thing of falsehood and horrible self-contradiction’.


Self-flattering Accounts

The moralising history of the modern world written by its early winners – the many Plato-to-NATO accounts of the global flowering of democracy, liberal capitalism and human rights – has long been in need of drastic revision. At the very least, it must incorporate the experiences of late developing nations: their fraught and often tragic quests for meaningful sovereignty, their contemptuously thwarted ideas for an egalitarian world order, and the redemptive visions of social movements, from the Greens in Germany to Dalits in India.

The recent explosion of political demagoguery, after years of endless and futilewars, should have been an occasion to interrogate the narratives of British and American narcissism. Trump and Brexit offered an opportunity to ‘break democracy’s spell’ on the Anglo-American mind.

This is something the political theorist John Dunn has been arguing for since the late 1970s, long before Anglo-American triumphalism assumed inflexible forms. Those hypnotised by the word, Dunn argued, had become oblivious to the fact that the political and economic arrangements they preferred, and which they described as ‘democracy’, could neither continue indefinitely nor handle ‘the immediate challenges of collective life within and between individual countries effectively even in the present’.

Instead, the elevation of tub-thumpers to high office in London and Washington led to a proliferation of self-pitying and self-flattering accounts, describing the way the long march of ‘liberal democracy’ had been disrupted by uncouth ‘populists’, ‘identity liberals’, ‘social-justice warriors’ and even, as Anne Applebaum claimed in a cover article in the Atlantic, by senior Republicans, who had abandoned their ‘ideals’ and ‘principles’.

The elevation of tub-thumpers to high office in London and Washington led to a proliferation of self-pitying and self-flattering accounts.

Mark Lilla’s preposterous argument, first aired in the New York Times, that the ‘Mau-Mau tactics’ of Black Lives Matter and Hillary Clinton’s radical ‘rhetoric of diversity’ helped elect Trump was reverently amplified in the Financial Times and the Guardian. Mainstream periodicals on both sides of the Atlantic quickly mobilised against a resurgent left by promoting intellectual grifters and stentorian culture warriors while doubling down on their default pro-Establishment positions.


US Leadership for ever?

‘The New York Times is in favour of capitalism’, James Bennet, the newspaper’s editorial page director, told his colleagues, because it is the ‘greatest anti-poverty programme and engine of progress that we’ve seen’. Bennet, who had given space to articles that denied climate change, promoted eugenics and recommended apartheid and ethnic cleansing in Palestine, was forced to resign in 2020 over an op-ed calling for military force to be used against anti-racist protesters.

Nevertheless, Samantha Power’s recent claims in the New York Times that ‘the United States leads no matter what it does’ and ‘nations still look to us in times of crisis’ confirm that the factotums and publicists of the ancient regime remain persistent, yearning for a Restoration under a Biden administration. However, after the most radical upheaval of our times, even the bleakest account of the German-invented social state seems a more useful guide to the world to come than moist-eyed histories of Anglo-America’s engines of universal progress.


Ideological U-turns

Screeching ideological U-turns have recently taken place in both countries. Adopting a German-style wage-subsidy scheme, and channelling FDR rather than Churchill, Boris Johnson later claimed that ‘there is such a thing as society’ and promises a ‘New Deal’ for Britain. Biden, abandoning his Obama-lite centrism, has rushed to plagiarise Bernie Sanders’s manifesto. In anticipation of his victory in November, the Democratic Party belatedly planned to forge a minimal social state in the US through robust worker-protection laws, expanded government-backed health insurance, if not single-payer healthcare, and colossal investment in public-health jobs and childcare programmes. Businesses pledge greater representation for minorities; and book and magazine publishers seek out testimonies of minorities’ suffering while purging unreconstructed colleagues.

Such tardy wokeness, unaccompanied by major economic and cultural shifts, invites scepticism – black lives, after all, have increasingly mattered to corporate balance sheets. The removal of memorials to slave traders is likely only to deepen the culture wars if it is not accompanied by an extensive rewriting of the Anglo-American history and economics curriculum. Certainly, the new-fangled welfarism of Britain and the US will remain precarious without a full reckoning with the slavery, imperialism and racial capitalism that made some people in Britain and America uniquely wealthy and powerful, and plunged the great majority of the world’s population into a brutal struggle against scarcity and indignity.


About the Author
photo of Pankaj Mishra at a podium discussion.
Pankaj Mishra
Essayist, literary critic and author

Pankaj Mishra is an Indian essayist, literary critic and author. He writes as an essayist for the New York Review of Books, the New Yorker and the Guardian on the Indian subcontinent, Afghanistan and China. Pankaj Mishra has been a visiting professor at Wellesley College and University College London.

A selection of books:

  • Bland Fanatics: Liberals, Race, and Empire. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York 2021
  • Age of Anger: A History of the Present. Penguin, London 2018
  • From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia. Penguin, London 2013
  • Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan and Beyond. Picador, London 2011