The Incendiary Appeal of Demagoguery in Our Time

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The stink first became unmistakable in India in May 2014, when Narendra Modi, a member of an alt-right Hindu organization inspired by fascists and Nazis, was elected prime minister. Like Donald Trump, Mr. Modi rose to power demonizing ethnic-religious minorities, immigrants and the establishment media, and boasting about the size of a body part.

 

To paraphrase Jean-Paul Sartre: If the truth remains cloaked in the motherland, in the colonies it stands naked. Before Mr. Trump’s election in America exposed the failures of democracy, they had been revealed in Mr. Modi’s India. Most disturbing, in both places, the alt-rightists were enabled by the conceits, follies and collusion of impeccably mainstream individuals and institutions.

 

Arguments over what precisely is to blame for Mr. Trump’s apotheosis — inequality, callous globalized elites, corruptible local legislators, zealous ideologues, a news media either toxic or complaisant — will only intensify in the coming months. Writers as various as George Packer and Thomas Frank have already identified as a culprit a professional class of bankers, lawyers, technocrats and pundits. Promoting free trade and financial deregulation around the globe, the Washington Consensus eventually produced too many victims in Washington’s own hinterland.

 

In the case of India, the role of institutional rot — venal legislators, a mendacious media — and the elites’ moral and intellectual truancy is clear. To see it one only has to remember that Mr. Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat from 2001 to 2014, was accused of supervising mass murder and gang rapes of Muslims — and consequently was barred from travel to the United States for nearly a decade — and that none of that prevented him from being elected to India’s highest office.

 

Mr. Modi’s ascent, like that of many demagogues today, was preordained by the garish dreams of power, wealth and glory that colonized many minds in the age of globalization. Americans are, as Mr. Frank writes, “a population brought up expecting to enjoy life in what it is often told is the richest country in the world.” In India, one of the poorest countries in the world, “the tutelage of a distant and self-satisfied elite” — to borrow from Ross Douthat, describing America — spawned a much more extravagant sense of entitlement. In that elite’s phantasmagoria, the India that embraced deregulation and privatization was a “roaring capitalist success story,” according to a 2006 cover of Foreign Affairs magazine.

The narrative went something like this: Now that the government was getting out of the way of buoyant entrepreneurs, a rising tide was lifting the boats of all Indians aspiring to the richness of the world. Suave technocrats, economists and publicists (mostly U.S.-trained) endlessly regurgitated free-market nostrums (imported from America) — what Mr. Frank calls the “liberalism of the rich.”

 

The fervent rhetoric about private wealth-creation and its trickle-down benefits openly mocked, and eventually stigmatized, India’s founding ideals of egalitarian and collective welfare. It is this extraordinary historical reversal, and its slick agents, that must be investigated in order to understand the incendiary appeal of demagoguery in our time.

 

Writing after its explosion in 20th-century Europe, Karl Polanyi described in his 1944 book “The Great Transformation” how civil society and individual liberty are threatened as never before when a society has to reconfigure itself to serve the “utopian experiment of a self-regulating market.” Social and political life in India, America and Europe was drastically remade by neoliberal economism in recent decades, under, as the legal scholar David Kennedy has argued, the administration of a professional global class of hidden persuaders and status-seekers.

 

One of the first signs of this change in India was a proliferation of American-style think-tanks, sponsored by big business as eager as ever to influence political decision-making and military spending. In recent years, smooth-tongued “policy entrepreneurs” (Paul Krugman’s term) advocating free-market reforms and a heavily armed security-state have dominated India’s public sphere.

One of the first signs of this change in India was a proliferation of American-style think-tanks, sponsored by big business as eager as ever to influence political decision-making and military spending. In recent years, smooth-tongued “policy entrepreneurs” (Paul Krugman’s term) advocating free-market reforms and a heavily armed security-state have dominated India’s public sphere.

Jagdish Bhagwati, a Columbia University economist who claims to be the intellectual father of India’s economic liberalization, argued in 2013 that the poor celebrate inequality, and with the poise of a Marie Antoinette, advised malnourished families in India to consume “more milk and fruits.” Arvind Panagariya, a colleague of Mr. Bhagwati’s who now works for the Indian government’s economic policy think-tank, took to arguing that Indian children were genetically underweight, and not really as malnourished as the World Health Organization had claimed. The 2015 Nobel laureate Angus Deaton rightly calls such positions “poverty denialism.”

 

The sheer potential of India’s market — 1.2 billion consumers, many of them young — bred intoxicating illusions among businesspeople, investment consultants and financial journalists. Never mind that it was the extraction of natural resources, cheap labor and foreign capital inflows, rather than high productivity or innovation, that was fueling India’s economy. Or that economic growth, of the uneven and jobless kind, was creating what the economists Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen have called “islands of California in a sea of sub-Saharan Africa.”

 

 

For all his humble bragging, Mr. Modi, like Mr. Trump, illustrated perfectly how money talks, power seduces and success eclipses morality. One of Mr. Modi’s most loyal fan bases was rich Indian-American businesspeople, who were naturally attracted to the promise of a wealthy India allied with the United States. And conversely. At a charity event in New Jersey last month, Mr. Trump sought their support, and hailing India’s prime minister as a “great man,” declared, “I am a big fan of Hindu.” “Big, big fan.”

 

Two years after he became India’s most powerful leader, Mr. Modi appears to be an opportunistic manipulator of disaffection with little to offer apart from the pornography of power and a bogus fantasy of machismo. Mr. Trump looks set to follow his lead.

 

Such firebrands emerged out of economic and political crises in almost every major European country in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, distracting angry citizens with the demonization of minorities, cosmopolitans and liberals. Drawing a cautionary tale from this blood-stained history, Polanyi assumed that the catastrophic triumph of economism over social and political necessities would be reversed. The three decades after World War II proved him right. Social-welfare policies underpinned national reconstruction in war-ravaged Europe, as well as in postcolonial Asia and Africa after decades of imperialism.

 

In our own time, a global network of elites has tried to restart the discredited utopian experiment of a self-regulating market. The experiment failed, and again the rage of cheated masses has spawned demagogues who simultaneously promise to avenge the left-behinds and to rewire their alliances with the elites. Any attempt to rebuild democracy must reckon with the deeper reasons for its great and drastic transformation — above all in India, where Hindu supremacism, in its cruelty and callousness, anticipated the big, big American fan of Hindu.

The Article First Appeared In THE NEW YORK TIMES


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