Decline and unrest across the world suggest the old models don't work. It remains to be seen whether such scattered mutinies can displace the power of old elites that derived their legitimacy and power from their self-appointed role as technocratic modernizers, and have deepened their links in recent years with transnational corporations and international organizations. But it is hard to deny that the assumptions of universalist ideologies now lie impotent, and our unavoidably plural future calls for fresh intellectual heresies.
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RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - FEBRUARY 10: Protesters demonstrate against the new increase in public bus fares as police keep watch on February 10, 2014 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Widespread protests began in the country last June following a different bus fare increase in Sao Paulo. A similar bus fare protest was held last week in Rio, resulting in violence, but this protest was largely peaceful. Civil unrest continues in the country as it prepares to host the 2014 World Cup. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - FEBRUARY 10: Protesters demonstrate against the new increase in public bus fares as police keep watch on February 10, 2014 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Widespread protests began in the country last June following a different bus fare increase in Sao Paulo. A similar bus fare protest was held last week in Rio, resulting in violence, but this protest was largely peaceful. Civil unrest continues in the country as it prepares to host the 2014 World Cup. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

NEW DELHI -- "Imperialism has not allowed us to achieve historical normality," the Mexican poet Octavio Paz lamented in "The Labyrinth of Solitude" (1950). Paz was surveying the confused inheritance of Mexico from colonial rule, and the failure of its many political and socio-economic programs to make the country reenact the rise of Europe. He could have been speaking of any major Asian and African country that had suffered, long after decolonization, the intellectual as well as geopolitical and economic hegemony of Western Europe and the United States, and had failed to find its own way of being modern.

Paz himself was convinced that Mexico had to forge a modern politics and economy for itself. But, writing in the late 1940s, after having witnessed the deceptions of liberal constitutionalists, he found himself commending the "traditionalism" of the revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. It was Zapata, he wrote, who had freed "Mexican reality from the constricting schemes of liberalism, and the abuses of the conservatives and neoconservatives."

Such 'traditionalists,' ranging from Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, and Liang Qichao to Sayyid Qutb and Jalal Al-e-Ahmad had also emerged in many other half-modern societies in the first half of the 20th century, warning their compatriots against a blind and wholesale emulation of the institutions and ideologies of Western Europe and the United States, which had been forged by events -- revolts against clerical authority, industrial innovations, capitalist consolidation through colonial conquest -- that did not occur elsewhere.

Many of them, such as Qutb, were demagogues. Many others offered practicable ideas. The Indian scholar Radhakamal Mukerjee, who developed an economic vision based on actually existing conditions in Asian agrarian societies, supporting environmentally viable small-scale industries over American-style factories, inspired urban planners in the U.S. as well as Brazil. But by the 1950s thinkers stressing locally resourced solutions of all sorts would retreat as Asia and Africa embarked on large-scale national reconstruction and modernization with the help of imported ideas that seemed universally applicable.

The advisors of the Shah of Iran and Indonesia's Suharto read W.W. Rostow's "The Stages of Economic Growth" and Samuel Huntington's "Political Order in Changing Societies" more carefully than they did anything by the Iranian and Indonesian intellectuals Ali Shariati and Soedjatmoko.

Among many left-leaning nation-builders Lenin, Mao and even the Fabian socialists seemed to provide clearer blueprints for self-strengthening than indigenous thinkers. Zapata was forgotten in Mexico itself; Gandhism was reduced to an empty ritual in India. Development, rapid and urgent, of the underdeveloped countries became the common sense of the time, despite the apparent human costs. As an influential United Nations document put it in 1951:

There is a sense in which rapid economic progress is impossible without painful adjustments. Ancient philosophies have to be scrapped; old social institutions have to disintegrate; bonds of cast, creed and race have to burst; and large numbers of persons who cannot keep up with progress have to have their expectations of a comfortable life frustrated.

In the intellectual prisons built during the cold war, Mukerjee, José Mariátegui, and indeed anyone advocating a less exploitative and instrumental view of nature and an ecologically and politically sustainable way of national development, suffered a rapid eclipse in their reputations.

In India, a figure like Ram Manohar Lohia, a sharp critic of both communist and capitalist universalisms, who in the 1950s inspired some of the country's greatest post-independence writers and artists, was reviled and then forgotten. Lohia, like Paz and Mukerjee, aimed for a non-imitative model of development that was sensitive to specific social and economic experiences and ecologies. "A cosmopolite," Lohia charged, "is a premature universalist, an imitator of superficial attainments of dominant civilizations, an inhabitant of upper caste milieus without real contact with the people."

But intellectual cosmopolitanism had already become, on both the left and the right, synonymous with a shared belief in the dream of boundless consumption. Socialist as well as capitalist modernists envisaged an exponential increase in the number of people dominating the earth, owning cars, houses, electronic goods and gadgets, and driving the tourist and luxury industry worldwide -- the fantasy that has been truly globalized since the end of the cold war and synergizes today the endeavors of businessmen, politicians and journalists everywhere.


Immense problems -- partly the consequence of colonial rule -- confronted the many catch-up modernization projects of Asia and Africa soon after independence. The antagonisms and alliances of the Cold War aggravated them further. Left-wing regimes across Asia, Africa and Latin America were embargoed or overthrown by the representatives of the free world; explicitly communist movements, as in Indonesia and Egypt, were brutally suppressed by their local allies. Those that survived became increasingly authoritarian and erratic. But by the 1970s, many pro-West nation-states had also plunged into despotism.

Western prescriptions of capitalism and democracy, which were vigorously romanticized in the anti-Communist propaganda of the Cold War, began to seem unworkable. It became clear that, as the Colombian anthropologist Arturo Escobar puts it, "instead of the kingdom of abundance promised by theorists and politicians in the 1950s, the discourse and strategy of development produced its opposite: massive underdevelopment and impoverishment, untold exploitation and oppression."

Writing in the 1970s, the Indonesian thinker Soedjatmoko claimed that "the relationship of many Third World intellectuals to the West has undergone significant change." This was due to "the inapplicability of the communist model, the irrelevance of various scholarly development models, and the growing awareness that the western history of modernization is just one of several possible courses." Gone now, Soedjatmoko concluded, "is the inclination to look over one's shoulder for the benign nod of approval from one's mentors -- at the LSE, Leiden University, or the Sorbonne."Soedjatmoko spoke too early. Those who looked to Moscow and Beijing for direction were to indeed find themselves leaderless as China, emerging from the Cultural Revolution, began to lurch towards a market economy, and the Soviet Union, after a short experiment with perestroika and glasnost, imploded. But new centers of intellectual and political authority were already emerging in London and Washington as notions of laissez-faire, largely abandoned after the devastating economic crises earlier in the century, replaced an increasingly defunct model of social democracy.

By the late 1980s the ascendancy of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, and the discrediting of communism, meant that there were many more mentors -- even wealthy sponsors -- of the neo-liberal revolution that was to sweep across Latin America and the remotest regions of Asia and Africa.

Many scholars have demonstrated the extent and diversity of American influences over postwar Europe and Japan, from the funding of conservative parties and the synergy between British Tories and American neo-conservatives to the domination of Hollywood cinema and the hegemony of American literature. But there is still no comparable sociology of Americanized elites in non-European countries, which has led the most ambitious ideological attempt yet to remake the world in the image of their Western mentors.

The depredations of the "Chicago Boys" in Pinochet's Chile and Harvard's shock therapists in Yeltsin's Russia have been ably documented. Relatively little, for instance, is known about the work of the "Berkeley Boys" in Suharto's Indonesia.

It is easy to identify the mustachioed Pakistani general seduced into part-time fealty to the Pentagon during his remunerative and boozy stint at Fort Leavenworth, or the Guatemalan colonel instructed in the arts of assassination and torture at the School of the Americas. But not much scholarly or journalistic attention has been paid to the education of non-Western leaders in American universities, business schools, commercial organizations, philanthropic foundations, corporations, and such American-dominated international institutions as the World Bank and the IMF.

It is in these incubators that the political, economic and cultural norms of the West are still being internalized. Certainly, the sons and daughters of Chinese princelings, presently being indoctrinated at Wharton and Yale, are unlikely to come home and start channeling the thoughts of Chairman Mao or the sayings of Confucius.

From Islamabad to Jakarta, Cairo to Bogota, U.S.-returned men and women run the biggest businesses, staff the high rungs of bureaucracies and think tanks, and occupy prominent positions in the media. A mass of wannabes jostle behind them, straining for attention -- and multiple-entry visas -- at the parties of Western journalists and diplomats.

Those who succeed then often go on to the occupy positions of influence in American universities and think tanks, media, corporate board rooms and financial institutions, and also in state institutions such as treasury departments and international institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization. This interfacing between non-Western elites and American centers of power is how Washington's interpretation of capitalism -- a regime of privatization, deregulation and financial liberalization -- became the basis for public policies worldwide, defining afresh the common sense way we live in and understand the world.

This covert Americanization is particularly striking in India, where a class of Anglophilic administrators and intellectuals under Jawaharlal Nehru took over from British colonials their civilizing mission, turning it into a project to catch up with the West. For nearly half a century this elite upheld an ideology of national self-strengthening that included, along with secularism, socialism and non-alignment, a deep-rooted suspicion of American foreign policy and economic doctrines.

In the last decade, however, India's international image as an budding superpower as well as its domestic trajectory has been defined by a transnational group of Indians -- Fareed Zakaria, Vikram Pandit, Rajat Gupta, the economist Jagdish Bhagwati, and the central banker Raghuram Rajan -- who experienced their most decisive intellectual epiphanies in post-Reagan America.

Hectically interfacing between the elites of their ancestral and adopted countries, the Indian-American lobby aims to be one of the most powerful special interest groups in Washington. Think tanks and the media in both India and the United States keep up regular supply of professional cheerleaders for the new special relationship. It is possible to say of the India's postcolonial project in recent years, as Paz did of the Mexican revolution, that it "was taken a capitalist class made in the image and likeness of U.S. capitalism and dependent upon it."

It seems predictable now that "liberalization" or the modes of private-wealth creation prescribed by the intellectual vanguard of the Reagan-Thatcher revolution would help a tiny minority in India hive off the fruits of "economic growth" and deepen preexisting social and economic inequalities.

The experience of Thatcherism in Britain alone should have shown how even the conservative middle class' aspirations for a secure and dignified life would be frustrated. Much of the growing violence and unrest in India today stems from the dramatically raised but unfulfillable expectations of the poor made to wait, seemingly forever, for the 'trickle-down' miracle.

The much more noticeable marvel identified by Arundhati Roy as 'gush-up' provokes even such hadiths of Davos men as The Financial Times and The Economist to compare India's oligarchies to those of Russia in the present and Latin America in the past.

But the acknowledgement comes too late, and only because since 2008 American-style capitalism in its own homeland has looked morally and intellectually feeble, incapable of galvanizing its janissaries.

The myths about prosperity and affluence in a flattened world -- those that the Euro-American media once avidly disseminated -- lie broken. Only a few dead-enders -- superannuated neo-imperialists and neocons -- still uphold the delusion, which even many intelligent people embraced after the end of the Cold War, that democracy and capitalism -- the twin pillars of Western modernity -- could be spread everywhere, by force if necessary.

As for Europe, it is plainer now than it was in 1950 that as Paz wrote "Europe, once a storehouse of ideas, now lives as we do, from day to day." Certainly, crisis-ridden Europe can no longer hold up, as it once did, the example of its long struggles by working classes and women for justice and dignity, or its postwar model of social democracy.


Decline and unrest in Europe and America comes at the end of a long cycle of steady socioeconomic growth. In Asian countries, where billions are now undergoing a traumatic transition from agrarian to urban industrial economies, this cycle has barely begun before it has begun to splutter. Far from advancing in tandem with it, democracy seems to have been undermined by anarchic forms of capitalism that diminish the state's legitimacy and effectiveness, marginalize further the ill-educated poor and finally force even the gated and chauffeured upper-middle classes to take to the streets.

occupy rally

The Indonesian intellectual Soedjatmoko warned in the early 1970s that "extreme inequalities doomed the prospects of democratic politics." A "crowded, hungry and competitive world,' he wrote, leads to increasing "pressures toward greater authoritarianism and oppression" and "human freedom is certainly the first victim of such a future."

The appeal of authoritarian figures at a time of chaos has been underlined in our own time by Vladimir Putin in Russia, Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand and Narendra Modi in India, whose suspected complicity in the murder of over a thousand Muslims in 2002 seems to merely affirm his credentials as India's next and most decisive prime minister.

Other responses to the new world disorder do not fit copybook notions of revolutions and uprisings, socialist, anti-communist or consumerist. The world's political landscape reveals not only the paradoxical facts of profound interconnectedness and great inequality, but also a vivid panorama of fresh resistance and struggles -- against the despotism of Putin, but also against such elected and evidently successful stewards of national economies as Rousseff in Brazil and Erdogan in Turkey. It is far from clear who will primarily define these awakenings -- the previously apolitical middle class mobilizing on the streets of Santiago, Istanbul or Sao Paolo, movements and networks like the Gülen in Turkey, or the great still unpoliticized masses, the hundreds of millions entering political life, for the first time.

turkey protests

Certainly, those trying to decipher the new protests confront some bewilderingly heterogeneous forms and associations: the Chilean middle classes, for instance, supporting a radical student movement.

In India, Bollywood stars and corporate titans briefly built up -- on Twitter -- a quasi-Gandhian moral crusader, who loves to flog delinquents, as the putative leader of India's "second freedom struggle." But it was his estranged colleague, a former bureaucrat and political neophyte, whose defiantly named Common Man's Party swept into power in the state of Delhi in the last days of 2013, on a wave of widespread public anger with established political parties.

Invigorating the latte-sipping, KFC-consuming youth of Karachi and Lahore with his promise of radical change, a former cricketer-turned-politician in Pakistan found his biggest electoral base in the conservative province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Thailand's Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts, now joined by Black Shirts, hint at a dangerous polarization across regions and classes, not to mention the color spectrum. In Indonesia, a small city mayor called Joko Widodo has become, with ameliorative policies aimed at the urban poor (slum-dwellers, street vendors), the preferred alternative to a discredited breed of politicians -- mostly manipulators of party machineries -- that can no longer pass off routine elections as democracy.

The Arab Spring has collapsed into a bewildering series of palace coups and shifting alliances. In Egypt, a uniformed despot is trying to revive the cult of the caudillo through a compliant media and some adoring members of the liberal intelligentsia while in Latin America, the original home of the caudillo, the advances of neo-liberalism in the 1990s have been reversed throughout the 2000s.

New coalitions of workers, professional middle classes and social movements headed by indigenous peoples confront the oligarchies. A figure such as Evo Morales of Bolivia, a leader of mixed ethnic origin who was a coca farmers' union leader, conforms neither to Octavio Paz's Zapatism nor Jose Mariátegui's advocacy of an indigenous model of modernity.

Liberation theology has influenced Ecuador's Rafael Correa, who shares with Argentina's Cristina Fernández de Kirchner an eclecticism of ideas and policies. Uruguay's president, a former guerilla fighter called José Mujica, who spent 14 years in prison, has become famous not only for his denunciation of consumption-led growth but also for his progressive laws on same-sex marriage, marijuana, abortion and free education for children.

But it is the oldest global institution of social and religious conservatism, the Vatican, which has emerged as the most outspoken and prominent critic of neo-liberal economic arrangements.

In other confusing mutations and mixed-up temporalities, China's communist party has turned into a channel of social mobility and network of patronage, resembling Mexico's PRI of the 1950s and 60s more than the revolutionary group of peasants led by Mao Zedong. Meanwhile, the world's most determined band of Maoists have emerged in Central India, fighting for the rights of forest-dwelling tribal peoples against a nexus of multinational mining corporations and the Indian state.

Governing 'liberated' zones deep within Indian territory, these popular rejectionists seem to be a modern incarnation of what Eric Hobsbawm once called "social bandits." Less militant agitators, such as the villagers in Orissa who successfully campaigned against bauxite mining on their sacred land, also appear to belong to a "pre-historic" socio-political formation.

It can be said about them or a leader like Mujica and Widodo what Paz said about Zapata: that they are "profoundly traditionalist," by the fact in which their "revolutionary might resides." They reassert the importance of, as Arturo Escobar puts it, "place, non-capitalism, and local culture against the dominance of space, capital and modernity that are central to globalization." If they uphold a concept of modernization it is one that, in Soedjatmoko's words, "does not emphasize competition, but cooperation; a concept of development that does not aim at affluence, but at sufficiency; and a conception of individual rights and ownership that is limited by the public good."

It remains to be seen whether such scattered mutinies can displace the power of old elites that derived their legitimacy and power from their self-appointed role as technocratic modernizers, and have deepened their links in recent years with transnational corporations and international organizations.

Post-developmentalism, as Escobar calls it, is hard to enshrine in political movements, let along governmental institutions, when the spell of universal progress through capitalism has been only patchily broken. But there is no question that we witness today very different relationships of class and nation, reconfigured identities, and unprecedented forms of political mobilization in the new fissures that have opened up within and across states.

The constricting schemes of old-style liberalism, conservatism and neo-conservatism, promoted globally by cadres trained in the United States and Europe, continue to shape much of our thinking about these events. Imperialism, now deeply internalized, has not allowed many in the non-West to achieve clear self-reckonings, let alone historical normality. But it is hard to deny that the assumptions of universalist ideologies now lie impotent, and our unavoidably plural future calls for fresh intellectual heresies.

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