October 18, 2021

Bland Fanatics and White Crusades: A Review of Bland Fanatics: Liberals, Race, and Empire by Pankaj Mishra

by Katherine Judith Anderson

In 1884, a white American named Lyman Stewart founded Union Oil of California. To get his start, he’d leveraged the American “rule of capture,” which granted drillers the right to siphon out any oil they discovered below the surface, no matter who owned the land itself. By 1920, Union Oil owned 800,000 acres of land and was worth 125 million dollars (the equivalent of just under 1.7 billion dollars today). Stewart didn’t believe that capitalism and Christianity were at ideological odds. Rather, he interpreted his company’s success as a blessing from God, believing that his personal Manifest Destiny was to be a good steward of this gift. From 1909 to 1915, Stewart used the profits from his oil kingdom to build a concurrent Christian empire. He conceived of, and then sponsored, the worldwide distribution of three million copies of The Fundamentals: a series of tracts designed to bolster belief in the absolute authority of the Bible, the only correct guide to living.

An oil baron who saw his dominion over the Earth as the combined result of the grace of God and his own ability to pull himself up by his bootstraps bid his ministers go forth and teach all nations the inherent rightness of Biblical authority and the free market system. Christianity and capitalism, salvation and settler colonialism: it was a match made in heaven. Lyman Stewart embodied the fundamentals of the American Dream.

What accounts for this kind of commercial proselytizing, this American capitalist religiosity? In Bland Fanatics, Pankaj Mishra argues that racism is the glue which binds capitalism and Christianity together. Though Mishra never mentions Stewart in his recent 16 essay collection (published between 2008 and 2020), he repeatedly returns to the fundamentalism at the center of Manifest Destiny’s Venn diagram: racism, imperialism, capitalism, and liberalism. Fundamentalism is a dirty word in post-9/11 America, used with monotonous frequency to condemn the perceived fanaticism that encourages Islamofascist acts of terror. But, as the January 6th occupation of the US Capitol by white supremacist extremists made abundantly clear, the West has its own fundamentalist faith, and it’s due for a reckoning.

Moreover, this fundamentalism, it turns out, is not simply faithful adherence to a way of life or a belief system. At its core, it is the impassioned desire to force others to accede to that system. It is an assertion of the right to ideological domination over family, community, and ultimately the world at large by whatever means necessary. “Christianity deserves possession of the world,” wrote Reverend Robert E. Speer in the twelfth volume of Stewart’s Fundamentals (77). It has the “right” because it “alone presents a perfect ethical ideal for the individual and it alone possesses a social ethic adequate for a true national life and for a world society” (81). Fundamentalists justify domination with such belief in their creed’s simple, obvious, incontrovertible rightness.

Above all, it is whiteness, the “world’s most dangerous cult today,” that has replaced other forms of fundamentalism in the West, according to Mishra (BF 59). Racism, he insists, is more than just an “ugly prejudice.” It is a “widely legitimated way of ordering social and economic life” that “attempts to solve, through exclusion and degradation, the problems of establishing political order and pacifying the disaffected, in societies roiled by rapid social and economic change” (49-50). From Woodrow Wilson’s commitment to “preserve ‘white civilisation and its domination of the planet’” in 1917 (46) to Donald Trump’s more recent wielding of “racial degradation” as a tool to create “solidarity among property-owning white men” (139), American history demonstrates that W.E.B. Du Bois, whom Mishra cites regularly in these essays, was entirely correct. If white supremacy is the lifeblood which runs through the veins of both imperialism and capitalism, then the domination of the Earth “for ever and ever,” (53), or absolute property ownership, is the pulsing heart of white supremacy itself (53).

Liberalism is a related “fundamentalist creed,” one that “has shaped our age” in its zealous worship of property ownership above all else (2). Mishra’s title is borrowed from theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who took the “bland fanatics of western civilization” to task in 1957 for their dogmatic belief that the “highly contingent achievements” of their culture should be the “final form and norm of human existence” (1). It is here that liberalism’s dark religious roots begin to show. Mishra notes that the West’s liberal ideas “originated in the Reformation’s stress on individual responsibility,” and were then “shaped to fit the mould of the market freedoms that capitalism would need if it was to thrive,” including, perhaps above all, the “right to private property” (87). Liberalism’s faithful practitioners cling to the dogma of Anglo-American exceptionalism, as confident now as Woodrow Wilson was then that they have been “chosen, and prominently chosen, to show the way to the nations of the world how they shall walk in the paths of liberty” (75). The paths of liberty, it seems, are straight and narrow: plotted and patrolled by the Anglo-American gatekeepers of modern righteousness. “Whatever God exists for America exists for all the world, and none other exists,” wrote Reverend Speer (64). It is capital that is America’s god, and liberalism has usurped Christianity’s place as the modern gospel for the individual, the nation, the world.

Handily, while spreading the gospel of liberty to all nations, Anglo-American imperialism also provided capitalists of the nineteenth century with land and cheap labor, as well as a patriotic means of distracting exploited laborers at home. In Lyman Stewart’s case, funding missionaries to harvest sheaves for Christ in South America also cleared the ground for oil drilling. Mishra tells us that for Cecil Rhodes, the British ur-capitalist who rode the late-nineteenth-century wave of New Imperialism all the way to the diamond mines of South Africa, Britain’s liberal imperialism was a “solution” to a “social problem” because it procured “new lands to settle the surplus population” and “new markets for the goods produced in the factories and mines” (BH 53). Economist J.A. Hobson, who wrote in part to expose Rhodes’s financial control of both the British government and the British press in 1902, wryly remarked that “it had become a ‘commonplace of history’” for governments to use “the glamour of empire-making in order to bemuse the popular mind and divert rising resentment against domestic abuses” (53).

White supremacist nationalism, in other words, provided more than land and cheap labor. Assuming a “racial hierarchy” with “civilised whites” preaching liberal doctrine at the top (131) and non-white “intransigently backward peoples” who needed to be converted to it at the bottom (5), imperialism offered Europeans “a macho language of racial superiority” that could “bolster national and individual self-esteem” (54). In fact, Mishra maintains, World War I was not “a profound rupture with Europe’s own history” (50). Rather, “the extreme, lawless and often gratuitous violence of modern imperialism” – the crusade launched in the name of liberalism’s fundamental truth – had finally “boomeranged on its originators” (52).

In “white people’s histories” (21), the cost of spreading the gospel of liberalism is frequently spun as a small price to pay for the advancement of civilization, and the doctrine of human rights, the part of the creed most often invoked in liberalism’s self-narrated fight against evil, serves as imperialism’s handmaiden (21). Human rights are “prone to appropriation” by the Anglo-American imperialist regime, “framed as indivisible from the spread of free markets and other good things” (165). Mishra notes that ardent nostalgists of nineteenth-century imperialism like Niall Ferguson, the British “evangelist-cum-historian of empire” who coined the term “Anglobalisation” (18), have repackaged the “occupation and subjugation of other people’s territory and culture” as a “benediction” (5) stemming from motives which were “humanitarian as much as economic” (22). But charity is not justice, Mishra reminds us, citing Carl Schmitt’s warning that “whoever invokes humanity” – that “especially useful ideological instrument of imperialist expansion – wants to cheat” (106). In the West, human rights have supplanted socialism, serving as a paltry substitute for what Arundhati Roy once called the “expansive, magnificent concept of justice.” Instead of guarantees for food, housing, education, and work, human rights are a “minimalist request, basically, not to be killed, tortured or unjustly imprisoned” (167).

Human rights also come with strings attached. If you start from a position of assumed equality, you have no one to blame but yourself if you don’t make it. In 1843, sixty-some years before Lyman Stewart conceived the idea for The Fundamentals, English “journalist-cum-crusader” James Wilson started The Economist, a weekly magazine created to “campaign for liberalism” and “serve as a how-to manual for liberal elites” (186). By 1895, Mishra tells us, Woodrow Wilson called The Economist “a sort of financial providence for businessmen on both sides of the Atlantic” (189). Like Stewart, James Wilson’s mission was to evangelize for “pure principles” as the correct mode of living: in his case, the pure principle of profit above all else. “Where the most profit is made, the public is best served,” The Economist smugly declared, and “if the pursuit of self-interest, left equally free for all, does not lead to the general welfare, no system of government can accomplish it” (191-192). Wilson’s response to the Irish famine, “largely caused by free trade,” was to call for “more free trade.” He also asserted that the “common people” should figure out – and pay for – their own education, as they did their own food (191).

In a cruel and convenient paradox, the doctrine of fundamental human equality thus becomes the pacifier used to quiet cries against the hierarchies that persist under liberalism. Here, too, liberalism bears a noticeable resemblance to its ideological ancestor. Christianity claimed to overturn old hierarchies of the ancient world. As the Apostle Paul put it, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (New King James Bible, Gal. 3:28). Bodily hierarchies of race, class, and gender would never matter in Christ’s eyes because each person was neither more nor less than a human soul. Everyone was equal. Of course, the hierarchies didn’t go anywhere. In fact, the burgeoning Christian church doubled down on them while urging those at the bottom to submit peacefully to their earthly fate.

And just as the fundamental tenets of hegemonic Christianity encourage its adherents to work hard and submit to an unjust and unbearable present in hopes of a big payoff in the distant, unknowable future, so too do the fundamental tenets of liberal capitalism. Mishra notes that most citizens are “locked into a fantasy of personal wealth and consumption” (BF 120), lulled by the “many micro-freedoms” of consumerism and travel (101) into a complacent acceptance of the “tiny elite” that “passe[s] off its interests as universal norms” (172).

COVID-19 has taken away those micro-freedoms and unmasked the contradictions at the center of the West’s fundamentalist liberal regime, exposing the similarities between victims within US and British borders and victims outside of them. “Anglo-American self-deceptions, which always exacted a high death toll abroad, from the Irish famine to Iraq, have become mass-murderous at home” (13), and for Mishra, the rising death toll in the Anglo-American West points up the fact that liberalism coerces “all human beings into a single, cruelly stratified space, turning a vast majority into permanent losers” (135). The vast majority of us are dues-paying members of the world’s proletariat, exploited by a global ruling class, the “bumbling chumocrat” parasites (185) bent on satisfying their “craving for universal mastery and control” (111). Even Barack Obama “deepened the juridical legacy of white supremacy,” Mishra argues (156). While in office, Obama “resembled not so much the permanently alienated outsider as the mixed-race child of imperialism,” expanding “covert operations and air strikes deep into Africa” and investing his own executive office “with the lethal power to execute anyone, even American citizens, anywhere in the world” (151). For those of us on the losing end of liberal empire, even whiteness and Anglo-American exceptionalism can offer no protection. The call is coming from inside the house.

None of this comes as any surprise to “critics of Western moral rhetoric in the Global South,” long subjected to the hypocrisies of the liberal mission (167). Though Mishra marshals a wide range of white Western writers and thinkers to illustrate his point, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Saul Bellow, George Orwell, and Norman Mailer, he foregrounds the observations of African and Asian intellectuals who have long understood that “peace in the metropolitan West depended too much on outsourcing war to the colonies” (57). In the nineteenth century, Muhammad Abduh, Egypt’s grand mufti and a moderate Islamic scholar, told the British, “Your liberalness we see plainly is only for yourselves, and your sympathy with us is that of the wolf for the lamb which he designs to eat” (82). During a US lecture tour in 1930, Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore wryly informed his American audience, “a great portion of the world suffers from your civilisation” (81). For Gandhi, democracy was “merely ‘nominal’ in the West,” and it “could have no reality so long as ‘the wide gulf between the rich and the hungry millions persists’” (14). And in India today, Mishra points out, despite its status as the most democratic of the West’s imperial stepchildren, the kids are still not alright.

Age of Anger, Mishra’s previous book, examined the rage of the world’s stragglers, fueled by their lack of control in the face of capitalism’s intertwined global systems of desire and exploitation. These first “latecomers to modernity” (31), Mishra writes, citizens throughout east, central, and southern Europe as well as the people victimized by European colonization on other continents, lived in ressentiment, an “existential resentment of other people’s being, caused by an intense mix of envy and sense of humiliation and powerlessness” (14). Mishra argues that this collective disposition resulted in the “global turn to authoritarianism and toxic forms of chauvinism” that culminated in two world wars (14). The cruel contradictions of free-market modernity caused rage in the victims of Western imperialism then, as it does in the victims of Western neoliberalism now.

The imperial wizard of white supremacy still operates the mechanical god of free-market capitalism from behind the curtain. Black and Latinx Americans are more likely to be infected with COVID than white Americans and twice as likely to die from it, according to the CDC. The reason for this racial discrepancy is racial capitalism. The people most likely to get the coronavirus are the people who are most likely to be exposed to it because they live in crowded apartments or multigenerational homes. This is the historical legacy of redlining and slavery and an indication of the ever-increasing gap between those who can afford to buy property in America and those who cannot. They are also the people most likely to take public transport to frontline service or production jobs which cannot be done from the remote safety of a home office. While only one in four white workers hold such jobs, according to 2018 census data, 43 percent of Black and Latinx workers are employed in them, often returning home to neighborhoods without access to equitable healthcare resources, even if they have the insurance to pay for it. What “has become clearer since the coronavirus crisis,” then, according to Mishra, is that modern democracies have been “lurching towards moral and ideological bankruptcy” for decades while their BIPOC citizens die (BF 14).

But Bland Fanatics also offers a glimmer of hope. The “fortunes of socialism have yet again risen as the structural malaise of capitalism is diagnosed more and more clearly by its victims,” particularly by the young, and “conscious collective intervention rather than the invisible hand” of a divine will “appears to be the only viable solution” to an environmental apocalypse of biblical proportions (171-172). The path forward, requiring us to transcend the “parochial idioms” of Western cultures, has already been forged in the “move from the local to the global” by “all the major black writers and activists of the Atlantic West.” Thinkers like C.L.R. James and Stuart Hall analyzed “the way in which the processes of capital accumulation and racial domination had become inseparable,” a form of imperialist structural violence that played an integral role in “the making of the modern world” (154-155). The “peculiar varieties of liberal thought in Asia reveal the constraints on the political choices open to most of the world’s population,” and liberalism’s “contingent nature” in the face of these restrictions (98), but they also developed a liberalism centered on “ethical conduct” and “the role of community” rather than rational self-interest (91).

Mishra’s particular strength lies in his ability to make global connections such as these relevant to a relentlessly naval-gazing West, a move that has the potential to inaugurate fresh modes of humanist inquiry in the West as well. To date, “the most influential writers and journalists in the US have provincialised their aspiration for a just society” (155), and the “evasions and suppressions” of imperial history have “resulted, over time, in a massive store of defective knowledge about the West and the non-West alike” (5). Mishra calls instead for a deeper examination “of the history – and stubborn persistence – of racist imperialism” (59).

In the cycle of human history, the time again seems dangerously ripe for such a reckoning. “Our complex task,” Mishra exhorts, is “to identify the ways” the “past has infiltrated our present, and how it threatens to shape the future” (50). As the nineteenth century drew to its close and Lyman Stewart forged his twin empires of capitalism and Christianity in America, a renewed lust for imperial power took hold in England when the British saw their own liberal empire begin to slip away. The US neoliberal empire now faces the same fate. Its dying screams of white nationalism bear a striking resemblance to the jingoistic crusading cries that culminated in World War I. In Mishra’s accounting, the First World War was less a “battle between democracy and authoritarianism” than it was a “bridge connecting Europe’s past of imperial violence to its future of merciless fratricide” (57).

It seems we’re repeating the mistakes of the nineteenth century, moving toward the third global war which will result from the depredations and atrocities of the Anglo-American fundamentalist crusade for capitalist modernity. “The terminal weakening of white civilisation’s domination, and the assertiveness of previously sullen peoples,” has once again “released some very old tendencies and traits in the West” (50). In his 1902 study of Imperialism, J.A. Hobson pointed out that though Christianity was deemed exceptional for “transcending all limits of caste, race, or nationality, and asserting the doctrine of human brotherhood in its widest sense,” its “most distinctive” attributes were actually the “tribal God, the special race mission, the dominion of hate and forcible revenge” (47). The religion of liberalism makes the same claims while producing the same results. But its Western disciples cannot cling to their traditional authorities if they wish for liberalism to survive. They must listen to what Mishra calls “mankind’s many other conversations with itself, especially those outside the West” (91), leaving the fundamentals of white supremacy, capitalist atomization, and the domination of the Earth behind in order to resurrect a “liberalism for the people, not just for their networked rulers” (199).

Works Cited 

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “The Case for Reparations.” The Atlantic, June 2014, www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/. Accessed 2 July 2021.

Hobson, J.A. Imperialism: A Study. James Nisbet, 1902.  

Mishra, Pankaj. Age of Anger: A History of the Present. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2017.

—————–. Bland Fanatics: Liberals, Race, and Empire. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2020.

Opel Jr., Richard A. et al. “The Fullest Look Yet at the Racial Inequity of Coronavirus. New York Times, 5 July 2020, www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/07/05/us/coronavirus-latinos-african-americans-cdc-data.html. Accessed 2 July 2021. 

Ray, Rashawn. “Why are Blacks Dying at Higher Rates from COVID-19?” Brookings, 19 April 2020, www.brookings.edu/blog/fixgov/2020/04/09/why-are-blacks-dying-at-higher-rates-from-covid-19/. Accessed 2 July 2021. 

“Risk for COVID-19 Infection, Hospitalization, and Death by Race/Ethnicity.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/covid-data/investigations-discovery/hospitalization-death-by-race-ethnicity.html, updated 7 June 7 2021. Accessed 2 July 2021. 

Speer, Robert E. “Foreign Missions or World-Wide Evangelicalism.” In The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth, vol. XII, Testimony Publishing, 1914, pp. 64-84, HathiTrust, hdl.handle.net/2027/pst.000003810712.

The Bible. King James Version, Thomas Nelson, 1989.

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