Britain is ready for collective psychoanalysis This interview was published in German in the Austrian news magazine profil on June 12 2017.

The author Pankaj Mishra talks about Britain in crisis, the success of Jeremy Corbyn, imperialist hallucinations of Brexiteers and the role Europe plays in the radicalization of young men.

Pankaj Mishra does not like to take off his sunglasses although the sun is, as usual, not shining in North London. But the photographer insists and he squints slightly uncomfortable into the light. It fits the mood of the 48 year old author. Since the Brexit vote a year ago the Indian writer feels more self-conscious in Britain.

Mishra grew up in the North of India. He wrote highly acclaimed literary essays about his country for “The New Yorker”, “The New York Review of Books”, “The Guardian”, “The London Review of Books” and others. “Foreign Policy” called him 2012 one of the 100 most important global intellectuals, in 2015 “Prospect” narrowed it down and called him one of the 50 most important global thinkers.

His book “Age of Anger” was published in January 2017. Mishra argues against usual explanations for recent terror attacks and looks for reasons beyond religious extremism.

Profil: The age of anger has started in Great Britain. Why now, why here and why at all?

Mishra: We used to blame disorder in Asia and Africa on problems of state building, on failed states and in recent years we blamed it on Islam. Now we see in the very heart of the modern West the same kind of political pathologies erupt. So all our explanations lie in ruins. We were living through an exceptional period post 1945 in Europe. This period has come to an end. Europe and North America have rejoined the history of the Modern World, which they themselves initiated.
Profil: Are you saying that those last three attacks which were committed by Islamist fanatics have nothing to do with Islam?

Mishra: Why is that connection only made to one religion? Why is that connection not made to the socioeconomic factors which also give rise to white extremists like the Norwegian Anders Breivik, ho committed a massacre among civilians in 2011. In this case it was not explained by Christianity. Why do we insist in making a connection with the particular religion that identifies these people. Most of the people committing these acts know nothing about Islam, have the flimsiest of idea about Islam. You and I know probably more about the foundations than some of the people who commit atrocities in the name of Islam. I think we have to really abandon this obsession with Islam which has proving to be counter productive and very very dangerous. We have to look at this in a broadened framework of marginalization, fragmentation of societies. The phenomenon of young men turning to violence is global. You have it in Burma and in India. You have Buddhists turning to violence. Although there is nothing in their religion which allows them to turn violent. There is no sanctioning for violence in Buddhism, there is sanctioning for violence in Christianity and Islam. What explains Buddhist terrorism? Can we explain that through referencing Buddhism? No. and we don’t even try. What explains Hindu violence? Shall we go to the religion there, too? The obsession with Islam is really puerile and has proven to be politically treacherous. We need to abandon that. Right away.

Profil: If you sit in a pub on Saturday night and drink your beer and somebody comes and stabs you with a knife screaming: “This is for Allah”, you will get the idea that Islam has something to do with this. Would it be not wrong and dangerous, not to ask, what radical Islam has to do with this readiness to kill?

Mishra: We should not fall into their trap. They are trying their hardest to turn this into a conflict between Muslims and the rest of the world. Why should we play their game? Why do we accept the statement of criminals, murderers, adolescents, people who can barely scrape a sentence together, why do we accept them as intellectual authorities in this matter? It has been intellectually catastrophic I think since 9/11. We are talking to various clerics with long beards in the hope that they will enlighten us in some way or other – we have committed some kind of intellectual suicide by thinking of these problems in this manner.

Profil: Even if we accept the idea that it is not the radicalization of Islam but the islamization of radicalism, as the French expert Olivier Roy calls it, we still need to talk about it.

Mishra: I describe in great detail in my book the origins of this radicalization among immigrants in the late 19th century in Europe. They felt marginalized, exploited, overworked. And then of course also uprooted. Along with that a similar phenomenon you see the ethnic nationalism emerging. Both of them manifest themselves. Why do terrorism and ethnic nationalism jointly appear? And if we ask those kind of questions we will start to get to the bottom of this problem.

Profil: For now, Islamist terrorism has already a polarizing effect here in Britain. Theresa May already said “Enough is enough” and “The tolerance for extremism in this country is too high.” She wants to limit human rights in order to protect the population better.

Mishra: This is “Boiler plate” politician talk. David Cameron, Tony Blair, they all talked like that. Theresa May is obviously trying to get some kind of electoral advantage out of this. It was a blatant political speech that she made there in front of 10 Downing Street. These politicians want to gain power and they will even divide communities if it helps them to achieve power. Theresa May knows that she cannot make any more laws against terror as we already have, she knows that because she was home secretary for six years. This is just opportunistic rhetoric. I do feel that there is some kind of exhaustion with that kind of rhetoric. Let’s not listen to this, let’s pay more attention to what she actually does. Look at her record as home secretary: She cut down the police forces. She is suppressing the report of an inquiry, which deals with the connection between British arms sales to Saudi-Arabia which fuel extremist conflicts in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is the main sponsor of various forms of conservative radical Islam around the world.

Profil: You bring up the example of Vienna in your book, Vienna at the Fin de siècle was the scene of a multicultural society which brought up the anti-Semitic mayor of Vienna Karl Lueger and influenced a certain Adolf Hitler. Are you drawing a parallel to London today?

Mishra: There is a great irony in this. The German speaking peoples were trying to catch up with Britain in the 19th century, early 20th century to become as financially, politically and militarily strong as the Britain empire – that is what drove Hitler. This effort resulted in two World Wars. Germany and Austria had to rebuild themselves after the defeat in 1945. Now it is the turn of Britain to address the political pathologies that we have seen in Germany first, but also in Russia, Japan, Italy. India today too. Britain, the winner of history, has to deal with these issues now.

Profil: So what happened to Britain that it is suddenly looking like the sick man of Europe?

Mishra: Britain had early achievements in acquiring an Empire for resources, commodities, imperialism. Seventy years after the end of this empire the country is facing a very bleak future. Its industries, its manufacturing vigour, its economic potential is considerably reduced. What we see in Britain today are the problems of a country that is struggling economically and whose political institutions have been undermined by this economic struggle. After many decades of success this country is well past its prime. And therefore it is suffering the fate of many other countries that have previously tried to be militarily and industrially strong and failed.

Profil: Was the Brexit vote one of the symptoms of this crisis?

Mishra: It is the usual thing to find scapegoats and to demonize groups in the society to avoid looking at structural problems. Opaque forces like globalization, economic shifts, jobs disappearing are hard to explain. The demagogues come along and give easy explanations by identifying somebody as the demon. The Jews in your country at the time. In a globalized interconnected world minority populations have emerged in many countries which were more homogeneous before, it is these minority that get the blame today: Muslims in this country. Once the dark forces of ethnic racist ethnic nationalist forces are unleashed, it becomes unpleasant. For the first time in twenty years since I have known this country I get racially abused.

Profil: You personally get abused?

Mishra: Yes, here in London. I don’t even travel a lot in the rest of England.

Profil: You mean the rest of England is a no-go-zone for coloured people?

Mishra: I can imagine I would feel very awkward, very exposed in some of these places. With Brexit I feel more self-conscious, my status is at state. People shout at you in the street: „Go back to your country!“ I was abused in a plane, a guy called me a „fucking monkey“ and the pilot, the crew reacted immediately and called the police, they took him away and there was a trial. Four people around me and I appeared as witnesses. The guy, he was English, he tried to deny it, but a stewardess and other witnesses backed me up. He was sentenced to community service, a fine and the cost of the trial.

Profil: Why does the hatred against Europe turn against Indians?

Mishra: If you unleash ethnic nationalist forces, they hit everyone. The Brexit vote. This vote was a punitive vote against the government. Europe was used as a scapegoat. It was very easy to vote against the Eurocrats. Don’t forget: Foreigners are seen as people you better stay away from and if they are in your midst, you better keep your distance.

Profil: After Brexit Britain wants to engage in Empire 2.0, a new global future looms?

Mishra: Members of the elite are still living in a phantasy land. If this government talks now about establishing an Empire 2.0 it goes to show only one thing: I don’t think we have acknowledged how much Brexit was powered by an imperial phantasy. Reestablishing the link with the Commonwealth, trading with India and Australia and Canada and our great English speaking friend America. That lies behind the pathetic behavior of Theresa May towards Donald Trump. It is all driven by this phantasy that we were once a great empire and we can be that once again.

Profil: Is it not true that great opportunities lie ahead once Britain is not bound anymore by EU regulations?

Mishra: It takes one visit to India as Theresa May found out that this is pure phantasy. Freud should have lived here longer. Britain is really ripe for psychoanalysis. Britain has not understood its own history. This is where I do feel that the German speaking peoples have made a conscious effort to come to grips with what had happened.

Profil: The Germans had no choice, as they were identified as perpetrators, The Austrians pretended to be the first victim of Hitler and it took till decades until the responsibility for what happened was recognized. Will Britain debate the colonial past, will Prince Charles apologize to India for past exploitation?

Mishra: I think it is too late. The nostalgia for the empire is institutionalized here, it will be very difficult to eradicate it. And we have a dysfunctional society now: Starting in the 1980ties this country was Americanized. Margaret Thatcher atomized trade unions, she fragmented so many institutions which were the social context of British society. Thatcher said that there is no such thing as a society that there are only individuals. A lot of ideological forces have been working upon this society to pursue private wealth thinking of society as a market place. Greed was legitimized. Not to forget the immoral behavior of tabloid papers who would do anything to sell more. Compared to our tabloids in Britain anything you might have is The New York Times. These tendencies have made inroads into the society which have undermined our structures and have helped create these monsters, which are now attacking people with knives. This is part of the social breakdown we experience here now.

Profil: Theresa May is actually positioning herself in a pre-Thatcherite manner against this.

Mishra: That is true. She talked about this in the manifesto: “We are against selfish individualism. Government should be made to work for the working people.” May says all these things that Thatcher threw out of the Conservative manifesto. But she still answers this with a negative vision of the world, trying to draw back from Europe and immigration. Short of ethnic cleansing you cannot go back to the community that Theresa May is offering.

Profil: Jeremy Corbyn seems to touch people’s minds and hearts more than anyone ever expected with his vision of social equality – even if it remains unclear how he will pay for all this?

Mishra: Corbyn was asked how he could refuse to use nuclear weapons. You can destroy the world with these weapons of mass destruction. And he is being faulted for saying: No, I don’t want to do that. He cannot be a leader because he refuses to press a nuclear buttons? What a perverse sense of our priorities! We are all victims of a culture of violence. Many in Britain sense that Corbyn is a man who is not compromised by complicity with powerful and rich people. He is offering a moral vision. It may not be economically feasible or politically sustainable, but here is a man – like Bernie Sanders – who is saying what he thinks is wrong with the country. He is diagnosing the problem correctly. Corbyn uses different language, it is the tone of compassion. That is why I think he is much, much preferable to May. With that tone a wounded society can start to heal. And start to think of itself in a different way. As long as we are trapped in the age of anger, there is no way out.


Photo: Alex Schlacher

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© 2018 Tessa Szyszkowitz