Weak State: How the Coronavirus Pandemic Exposed America’s Dysfunctional Democracy

Guest host Murtaza Hussain is joined by military expert David Kilcullen and Indian author Pankaj Mishra.

Photo illustration: Elise Swain/The Intercept, Getty Images

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As Donald Trump promises the pandemic will “disappear,” the U.S. simultaneously grapples with a public health disaster, economic collapse, and a social crisis. This week on Intercepted: Intercept reporter Murtaza Hussain is joined by military expert and anthropologist David Kilcullen. He discusses the global national security implications unleashed by the coronavirus and the decline in U.S. dominance and the liberal international system. Kilcullen also examines the catastrophic consequences that could come from rising tensions within the country and between the U.S. and China. Hussain is also joined by Indian writer Pankaj Mishra, author of many books including “From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia.” Mishra lays out how the rise of free market ideology in the U.S. and Britain has undermined democracy and diminished social protections for ordinary people. He dismisses the idea of a Joe Biden administration as any departure from the status quo and describes how hope lies in the power of nonviolent social movements.

Chris Wallace: And hello again from Fox News in Washington, today from the White House.

Donald Trump: Thank you very much.

CW: Hot enough for you here, Mr. President?

DJT: It’s hot. It’s about, well, sort of, almost record-breaking.

CW: You know, who is more competent? Who has got — Whose mind is sounder? Biden beats you in that.

DJT: Well, I tell you what, let’s take a test. Let’s take a test right now. Let’s go.

Announcer: Here it comes! Television’s most exciting hour of fantastic prizes.

The Price is Right: Welcome to The Price is Right. First item up for bids in The Price is Right.

DJT: So, shower heads. You take a shower and the water doesn’t come out. You want to wash your hands, the water doesn’t come out. Dishwashers. You didn’t have any water so you, people that do the dishes, you press it and it goes again. And you do it again and again. So you might as well give them the water because you’ll end up using less water. So we made it so dishwashers now have a lot more water. But $1.99 they were telling me. In some cases lower than that. Dollar ninety-nine.

CW: Well, it’s not the hardest task.

DJT: No, but the last —

CW: It’s a picture and it says, what’s that? And it’s an elephant.

DJT: No, no. You see, that’s all misrepresentation.

[Musical interlude]

Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.

Murtaza Hussain: I’m Murtaza Hussain, a writer at The Intercept and this is episode 139 of Intercepted. I’m sitting in for Jeremy Scahill this week.

Journalist: If Americans keep dying, are you responsible for them?

DJT: Well, the virus will disappear. It will disappear. I think that I always like to say, as you know, either way, when you look at it, the governors are working with me. I’m working with the governor. We’re working hand in hand. I think we’re all responsible. I view it as a team. Very good relationships with the governors. Very, very good relationships. I could say I’m fully responsible but you know, one day, we had a virus come in.

[Musical interlude]

MH: The Covid-19 pandemic has been an acid-test for the modern American way of life. A weak state, with loose social bonds, hyper-competitive markets and a powerful military and police sector has been confronted with a disease that seems perfectly designed to exploit its weaknesses. Left unchecked, the virus has brought American society to a standstill unprecedented in modern history.

It has also served as a wake-up call.

For many years Americans have tried hard to ignore the mounting problems with their system of government and society. This shared public fantasy seemed to reach an apex in the 2016 election of a reality TV star to the country’s highest office.

DJT: My name is Donald Trump and I’m the largest developer in New York. I even have a television show. I thrive on energy. This isn’t a game. I’m not playing games. Who will succeed? Who will fail? And who will be the apprentice?

MH: But as George Orwell once noted about the impact of war on society, at some point physical facts simply cannot be ignored.

Try as we might – many are still trying – the coronavirus cannot just be wished away.

Journalist: For weeks now, the greater Phoenix area has reported among the highest rate of Covid positive tests of any place on the planet.

Journalist: In Florida, more than 10,300 new cases Saturday, further swelling a surge of 93,000 infections in just over a week.

MH: The coronavirus has killed over 140,000 Americans to date and critically injured many more. But it has also devastated the American economy on a level unseen since the Great Depression. Over the past few months, more than 45 million Americans have been forced to file for unemployment benefits. According to one estimate by economists at Stanford University, as many as 42 percent of these jobs may never return.

We now confront three daunting challenges at the same time: a public health disaster, economic collapse, and a social crisis reopening some of the most painful wounds of American history. At the root of all these problems is the failure of the American state – weakened by decades of elite criminality and neglect – to provide the necessities of life for its people.

Journalist: 1.3 million filings for unemployment benefits again last week. This is now 17 weeks in a row where we’ve seen a million plus. It’s not the six million at the very beginning of the pandemic, which was simply catastrophic. But it tells you this pace of week after week of layoffs continues here. Fifty-one million claims since mid-March. That’s more than 30 percent of the pre-pandemic job market.

MH: All of this has global implications. By the end of the Cold War a system of global institutions had emerged with the U.S. at its center. The fates of other countries were bound to America through interlocking webs of economic, military, and political ties.

For better or worse, today it is that global system that appears to be collapsing. Even before the pandemic, many governments were already facing serious challenges to their stability. But they now confront a systemic threat unlike anything the planet has seen since World War II.

In thinking about this moment of global turmoil and the implications of America’s sudden decline, I was reminded of the words of U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres. Here’s what he said in a recent speech:

Antonio Guterres: Now is the time for global leaders to decide: will we succumb to chaos, division and inequality? Or will we right the wrongs of the past and move forward together, for the good of all? We are at the breaking point, but we know which side of history we are on.

MH: These are important questions that have no easy answer. And as America continues to lose the war against the coronavirus, I wanted to speak to someone with an opinion on the national security implications of this global pandemic. My first guest is author and military expert, David Kilcullen. David is an Australian anthropologist and academic specialist on counterinsurgency, whose latest book is entitled “The Dragons and the Snakes: How the Rest Learned to Fight the West.”

David Kilcullen, thank you for joining us on Intercepted.

Military Expert David Kilcullen on the National Security Implications of the Coronavirus Pandemic

David Kilcullen: Thank you for having me.

MH: I want to talk to you about the national security impacts of the coronavirus. There’s been a lot of discussions of the public health and governance consequences, but less of the consequences of the various forms of economic and political destabilization it’s causing in the United States and around the world. What kinds of trends do you see developing at the moment and what sort of threats do you see in the medium to long term?

DK: I tend to see it as what you might call a three wave complex emergency. A public health or a humanitarian crisis where the response is complicated by conflict and by political problems or governance problems. And I think that’s a pretty good framework to think about what we’re dealing with across the world. And the first wave, as you mentioned, is this public health crisis. And of course there are multiple peaks of infection. We’re already well into the second one in the U.S. but we’re only really just getting started with the first big wave of infections in Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. It’s different in different places. And then the lockdowns and the other responses to the public health crisis themselves trigger major economic damage and that’s pretty obvious in the States, where we’re already in a worse position over just the last 16 weeks in terms of unemployment than we saw over multiple years in the Great Depression. 

So it’s not just the scale, but also the speed with which we’ve seen this really significant economic damage. And, of course, it’s global in the sense that it’s a global supply chain ecosystem so impact on one economy has a major impact on every other economy. I think that’s about to get worse in the next week or two as a series of government payments end in the U.S. and bankruptcies of cities and other corporate institutions really start to accelerate. And I think that leads us into this third wave of security crisis. And I think it starts as a human security crisis — so, food, water, health — you know key commodities. We’ve seen a massive increase in rice prices across the world.

Viviana Hurtado: Key food prices surging because of the coronavirus outbreak. Wheat and rice are making rapid climbs in spot and futures markets. The two staples accounting for a third of the world’s calories.

DK: Pretty major locust plagues going on simultaneously in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Horn of Africa and in Latin America. It’s almost biblical, you know, a series of plagues.

Global news: Millions and billions of them. Desert locusts devouring crops, threatening livelihoods and, potentially, lives.

DK: Once that human security crisis really begins to bite, you get internal security problems. So, riots, protests, spikes in crime. Different population groups start to see each other as a threat. They lose confidence in the ability of the government to protect them. And then governments begin to direct that discontent outward. And we’re already seeing this: China versus India; China and the U.S. facing off more in the South China Sea; Ethiopia versus Egypt. In all these examples, what we’re seeing here is governments realizing that their populations are on edge and seeing the kinds of crises internally and trying to direct that externally. Now, I think that, you know, offers a pretty negative prognosis for the next 6-12 months.

MH: In your book, you talk about different categories of threats facing the United States from non-state actors and state actors, and you use the term, referencing James Woolsey, “dragons and snakes.”

James Woolsey: We have slain a large dragon. But we live now in a jungle filled with a bewildering variety of poisonous snakes. And in many ways, the dragon was easier to keep track of.

MH: How does the impact of the virus change the dynamic between the U.S. and state rivals like China and Russia and small-level Iran and North Korea, and then on the other hand non-state actors and networks.

DK: The most important change has been in the relationship between the U.S. and China. The biggest geostrategic transformation in the last five centuries has been the emergence of China as a major maritime power, as well as a land power, which is now really challenging U.S. dominance at sea. And as a consequence there’s already been a move toward kind of a Cold War dynamic between the U.S. and China and the Covid crisis has thrown a really significant accelerant into that mix.

MH: What are the potential impacts of the world witnessing the U.S. apparent inability to handle the coronavirus crisis even while smaller countries, with different governance models in some cases, have been able to respond to it effectively?

DK: One of the things we’ve seen in the U.S. over the past 20 years or so is a collapse of confidence in elites and experts and institutions of all kinds. And I think a lot of that has to do with failed, or at best inconclusive, military campaigns. People have this sort of cognitive dissonance where they’ve been told for 20 years that they’ve got the best military in the history of the world, certainly the most expensive, and yet they can see with their own eyes that it’s not actually delivering a victorious outcome in the current conflicts. And I think that translates into a broader skepticism about institutions and elites. You know, one of the things that I quote in the book is a 1998 comment by then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who told Matt Lauer during one of the periodic conferences with Iraq in 1998: “If we have to use force, it’s because we are the United States. We are the indispensable nation. We stand taller. We see further than everybody else.”

Madeleine Albright: As the history of this century, and the story of my life bear witness, the United States is truly the world’s indispensable nation.

DK: And there’s this kind of argument, which I characterize in the book as the idea that the U.S. created the modern world, and the modern world has been very beneficial to everybody. Therefore the U.S. sort of owns the modern world and anyone who is opposed to the U.S. is an enemy of modernity, writ large. And I think the, frankly, incompetent response to the coronavirus coming on top of these 20 years of failed or inconclusive conflicts, and the economic crisis, really undermines that sense of confidence that the U.S. actually knows what it’s doing. And one of the things about the U.S. is you may not like their policies, you may not think that they have your best interests at heart, but for a lot of other countries, there’s a baseline assumption of competence in what the American model allows you to do. And I think what we’ve seen over the last several weeks is really undermining that.

MH: You know one thing I really liked about your book and I found very unique was that you apply anthropological principles to geopolitics. And you mention in the book, actually, that American adversaries, just like any other adaptive creature in a fitness environment, they learn from American strengths and mistakes and they work around that, just as the U.S. adapts to its adversaries as well. How do you see this developing as the U.S. perhaps gets relatively weaker as a result of its institutional failures and the virus and other powers get relatively more powerful, for instance China and perhaps Russia? What type of tactics do you think that they may employ to try to exploit the weaknesses which have been revealed in the last 5-6 years in American governance?

DK: You know there’s been an incredible hysteria in the U.S. over Russian intervention in the 2016 election campaign. And I think it’s fairly clear now that whatever the impact of Russian intervention, it didn’t sway the outcome of the election. But it certainly did result in multiple years of hysterical political argument within the U.S. about that.

Rachel Maddow: The Russian government orchestrated a propaganda effort to confuse American voters, to help Trump, and most of all, most directly, to hurt Hillary Clinton.

Adam Schiff: We see that the Russians are again trying to spearfish and potentially hack election campaigns.

Nancy Pelosi: Which, again, all roads lead to Putin. The list goes on and on.

DK: I think we should expect that similar kinds of political warfare, cyber warfare and other kinds of non-conventional tools will be brought into play by other actors in this particular 2020 campaign. And I suspect that it’s actually going to dwarf the things we saw in 2016, not only in terms of directness but in terms of severity. I wouldn’t necessarily point to Russia, in that respect. I’d be pointing to Iran and China as potential adversaries who might seek to exploit the current disarray in the U.S. 

So we know there’s some action that could potentially be interpreted as people thinking about, “OK, the U.S is likely to experience significant economic, social, and political disruption because of the Covid crisis. It is likely to peak around the next election, in 2020. There’s already plenty of domestic militias and other armed groups that are likely to try to engage in some form of violence around that period. And wouldn’t it be interesting to see if there’s a way to exacerbate that and keep the U.S. distracted for a period after the election.” 

So, I suspect we’re going to see something a little more kinetic, as we say in the business, and a little bit less political from some potential actors. Again, I don’t want to suggest this in a sort of conspiracy theorist kind of way, that we should start looking under rocks for potential foreign interference. I think that’s already done a lot of damage, that idea. But certainly from a practical standpoint, it’s in no way beyond the realm of possibility that we may see something like that coming into the election period.

MH: Now that we’re sort of seeing a relative decline in the U.S., and by extension, the liberal international system of which it’s an anchor, what sort of new alignment potentially could we see? And the reason I ask is that, you know, for many people seeing the Iraq war and several other failed campaigns imprinted a certain impression of American power. But if China becomes more of a power in world affairs, what does that mean for some of the values that people do consider to be universal, such as free speech or certain democratic principles? Because as we’ve seen in Xinjiang, it’s not necessarily that China will be a promoter of those values. It could be quite the opposite.

DK: We’ve seen informal but increasingly formal arrangements among what you might call the group of powers that have traditionally stood outside the U.S. dominated, liberal international order. Iran and China have moved forward with a formal agreement in the last couple of weeks. China and the Russians are increasingly operating more closely together. Even though they have significant geopolitical differences, they tend to operate as a group now in a number of international fora and they train militarily together.

Fox News: China, Iran and Russia kicking off four days of joint naval war games in the Gulf of Oman and the Indian Ocean. As Tehran looks to improve military ties with Beijing and Moscow amid heightened tensions with the United States.

DK: So there’s a sort of collection of countries that are starting to take on more of a Chinese-led, if you like, alignment. The problem here is not really China. We often shorthand it as China, but it’s really the Chinese Communist Party, and the Chinese Communist Party has always been primarily concerned about internal control and internal stability. The Xinjiang example is a great example of that. I think the Hong Kong situation is another. I happen to think that the period of U.S. global leadership happens to coincide with some of the greatest gains in liberty and prosperity and public health and all kinds of other good things that we’ve seen in world history. So it’d be a real pity to see that be replaced by a much more authoritarian and world regime that would be hostile to liberty.

As I point out in the book, this is an evolutionary pattern that is sort of almost inevitable in some ways that empires or countries or systems will tend to peak and then to decline and to be replaced by something else. So part of what I think we need to be doing is thinking about how do we respond to a world order where the U.S. has less influence, that Europeans potentially have somewhat less influence, and you get this coalition of countries around China, Russia, Iran, a number of their smaller allies who have a different model, and one that is attractive to governments that want to retain control.

MH: If we do see a hot war or a cold war situation between the U.S. and China developing as it seems to be, what are the implications for the medium powers? Will it be forced to take a side in this conflict or would there be other destabilizing, unforeseen consequences stemming from that?

DK: Yeah, I think a bit of both. I mean, I think countries will be forced to take sides in conflicts that happen in their regions. And even if they don’t want to take sides overall, they’re going to be affected either way. I mean the situation of globalization that we’ve seen really since the early 1990s has been U.S. centric in a political and military sense, but it’s been Chinese centric economically. So, many countries in the world have a situation, again rather similar to Australia’s, where its most important national security partner is the United States, but it’s most important trading partner is China. So if China fights the United States, there’s no good outcome for a country like Australia. 

That again suggests that one of the most important things that middle powers can be doing is trying to defuse and prevent the emergence of a hot conflict between China and the United States. Unchecked conflict between the U.S. and China would be basically the end of the world as we’ve known it since really the 1990s. And that would have very major negative implications for everybody, you know, whatever side you take on that conflict.

MH: In the U.S., in about a year or two years prior to the Covid crisis, we’ve seen the increasing emergence of far-right terrorism, usually by lone individuals acting, maybe radicalized by certain online networks. And having studied the emergence of this, I noticed that many of the motivations cited by these people for their attacks have actually been exacerbated in recent times. And given the economic collapse and the general bureaucratic chaos in the U.S., institutional chaos, might we see an increase in attacks such as this in the future? And you mentioned early the existence of militias in the U.S. — to what extent is this a legitimate security crisis in the U.S. that may be difficult for the state itself to handle?

DK: Well it’s certainly a real security crisis. I think that in the literature about violent extremism, we tend to overstate somewhat the role of right wing groups and that is because we tend to associate this kind of activity with hate. And it is certainly true that right wing groups put out a very high volume of hate speech and hate literature. But, in fact, one of the things that you learn from studying and observing civil wars and insurgencies is that the most atrocious violence in these kinds of environments is actually not driven by hate. It’s driven by fear. Really you need three elements to be in place to get some of these horrendous atrocities. One, people have to be afraid. They have to be terrified about other groups in society. Secondly, there has to be sort of a territorial encroachment of one group into the territory of another. And thirdly, people have to lose faith in the ability of the government to provide sort of an even-handed, impartial ability to protect them. And so they start to take up weapons to protect themselves out of fear more so than hate. 

And if you apply that model to what we’re seeing in the U.S. now, it’s pretty clear that the Covid crisis exacerbates all three. You’ve got the kinds of things we’ve seen since the end of May in terms of both peaceful protests and violent riots in major cities. You know all that kind of unrest. There’s a high degree of fear among populations about other groups within society. Then you have collapse of confidence in the police or the ability of the government to protect you. And people are really beginning to take up weapons as a way of protecting themselves. There’s been a massive spike in gun background checks since the beginning of the Covid crisis. Each of the months since March has been a record month in terms of the number of FBI background checks, which is a loose approximation of how many people are buying weapons.

KCRG: June was the best month on record for gun sales across the U.S. The FBI performed 3.9 million background checks last month, the highest since it started keeping data on this more than 20 years ago. That breaks a record just set earlier this year.

DK: I think we also start to see on the right and on the left, the emergence of armed militias. And I’m not talking about Antifa here, I’m talking about people running around with AK-47s and AR-15s in uniform, organized. And of course, without making any kind of moral equivalency between right wing and left wing groups, once both sides have governance structures and military structures, you know, just in case, it becomes a lot easier for a particular spark to set off a conflict. So I think what we’re seeing here in the states right now is almost a pre-revolutionary situation, where you’ve got different population groups moving apart from each other, losing confidence in the state, arming up, getting organized and, of course, right into the middle of this, towards the end of the year, we’re going to see, you know, the next wave of Covid impact spiking right around the period of the next election, which is likely to be one of the most violently contested elections in living memory in the U.S.

MH: In the context of the November 2020 election, what possible national security threats do you see facing the U.S. and how acute is the threat environment?

DK: There are three possible outcomes of the 2020 election, assuming that it goes ahead. Trump wins. Biden wins. Or you get some kind of contested or unclear outcome. I think if President Trump wins, we’re likely to see significant street-level violence from the left, in a very similar style to what we’ve seen over the past six weeks in the form of riots, and arson, and damage, and so on. And then a potentially violent, you know, response from the state or from more right wing groups that could lead to pretty quick and pretty significant conflict in many flashpoints across the country. 

If Biden wins, I think you get you get a somewhat similar circumstance to what we saw in Virginia at the beginning of this year around the Second Amendment protests, where, depending on the results of the election and how the Biden administration approaches more right of center groups in society, you may get a sort of triumphalist overreach on the part of some players and then you might get local jurisdictions or communities within those areas pushing back. And you could potentially get some significant violence but probably more delayed, right? So, potentially as dangerous, but maybe slower to get started. 

If it’s an unclear outcome, I think that’s probably the most dangerous because you would then have one or both sides of U.S. politics rejecting the outcome of the election, not engaging in the sort of peaceful transfer of power that we’ve come to take for granted. And you might start to get different regions aligning in different ways. And that I think would be a very fertile circumstance for an external actor to try to manipulate that. Not necessarily to put anyone in particular in power, but just to exacerbate internal division and keep the U.S. distracted and inwardly focused on its own problem set while they move globally to pursue their own goals. So I’m not saying any one of those outcomes is more likely than the other, but I think if you think of those as the three basic possibilities, none of them is particularly good, right? One of the most important messages I think we can be telling people now is to say, “Look, a lot of you guys are playing with fire. And you need to realize just how bad this could get and how quickly it could get that bad and pull back from the brink before it’s actually too late.”

MH: David, thank you for joining us on Intercepted.

DK: Thank you for having me. It’s been great.

MH: David Kilcullen is an anthropologist, counterinsurgency expert, and one of the most influential national security strategists in the world today. His latest book is “The Dragons and the Snakes: How the Rest Learned to Fight the West.”

[Musical interlude]

Author Pankaj Mishra on How the Rise of Free Market Ideology in the U.S. and Britain Has Undermined Democracy

Protesters: This is what democracy looks like!

MH: Periods of economic and political crisis are moments when the ghosts of the past are most likely to haunt society once again.

Protesters: Black lives matter! Black lives matter! Black lives matter! Black lives matter!

MH: In the United States there remain huge unresolved tensions between African-Americans, Indigineous people, and the descendants of white Europeans. These tensions go as far back as the period of slavery and the colonization of the Americas, reaching up to the Jim Crow-era and beyond.

Unlike countries such as Germany and South Africa, the United States has never truly accounted for the crimes in its past.

But make no mistake: The fault lines of history are still there. When society comes under pressure, the country as a whole will shake. The gruesome killing of a Black man, George Floyd, by a white police officer in Minneapolis in late-May triggered protests on a scale unprecedented in American history.

A country already reeling from disease and economic collapse was brought to a complete standstill. Millions of protestors squared off against heavily-armed police in confrontations that sometimes descended into violence, including violence directed by police against protestors.

Protestors: Who do you serve? Who do you protect? Who do you serve? Who do you protect?

MH: Unable to revive the economy or control the pandemic, the Trump administration is now employing draconian measures to suppress public dissent — including sending federal agents in military garb to snatch protestors off the street.

Unknown speaker 1: You just violated their rights.

Unknown speaker 2: Kidnapping people.

Unknown speaker 1: You just violated their rights.

MH: In many ways, despite having ample resources to draw upon, America today feels like a failing state.

Here to discuss the implications of this and more is Pankaj Mishra, author of many books, including one of my favorites, “From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia,” and most recently an article in the London Review of Books entitled, “Flailing States: Anglo-America Loses its Grip.”

Pankaj thank you for joining us.

Pankaj Mishra: Thank you for having me.

MH: What do you think the coronavirus has exposed about the contemporary American, and to some extent British, model of governance and its apparent weaknesses?

PM: I think they’ve exposed just how weak and deficient and unresponsive the states in these societies have become to the plight of ordinary citizens. By investing far too much in hyper-individualistic models of the free market, they have diminished the essential role the state has played historically — and still plays in most societies in the world — in alleviating the pain and trauma caused to ordinary citizens not just, you know, by natural disasters or calamities like the one that we’re suffering right now, but ensuring them against accidents, disability, loss of income, at old age. All of these social protections that have been put in place in societies around the world from the late 19th century onwards have been systematically undermined in the United States and Britain in the name of this free marketeering ideology, in the name of austerity in the case of the U.K.

Margaret Thatcher: But what the honorable member is saying is that he would rather the poor were poorer provided the rich were less rich. That way you will never create the wealth for better social services as we have. And what a policy.

MH: What is the ideological impetus behind this and when can we mark this program as having begun?

PM: Back in the 60s, but it was not until the 70s and 80s that this notion that the government is a problem and that the government should be neutralized, diminished, started to take hold.

Ronald Reagan: Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.

The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.

PM: After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 90s, it became almost an orthodoxy that government should not be entrusted with any kind of role in the social and economic life of nations. That at best, it’s a kind of arbiter, making sure that people don’t descend too deep into crime and corruption. But as far as providing some degree of social protection, ensuring that the weakest in any society are looked after, those rules were really delegitimize, seen as something emerging out of a deluded faith in socialism and communism and various other supposedly completely discredited ideologies.

George H.W. Bush: Communism died this year. But the biggest thing that has happened in the world in my life, in our lives is this: by the grace of God, America won the Cold War.

PM: So I think the collapse of communism really made this free market ideology absolutely dominant and its advocates — the people who were championing it — started to say they themselves were convinced that there’s no alternative, then started to tell everyone else on this planet that actually you had no option but to embrace this ideology. So societies elsewhere also started to undermine their social protections. Mercifully, thankfully they did not undermine them to the same extent that the British and the Americans did, and, you know, one reason why China, where a lot of social protections were undermined, still is able to do things for its citizens that the United States is completely failing to do right now.

MH: You know you mention China and there are other countries in East Asia and in your article I believe you mention Germany as well, which did relatively better in their response to the virus. What can we learn from these countries in what they are doing differently and is there anything preventing the U.S. and U.K. from adapting or taking lessons from countries which they’ve sort of become accustomed to lecturing in the past?

PM: What is preventing thems is an extraordinarily hubristic political class and intelligentsia, which has become too intoxicated by their own ideologies. So they are unable to really see that there can be any historical example or other nations that they can learn from. They simply cannot admit that. And I think that has been a huge problem. And it goes back to this culture in which the accomplishments of Britain and the United States were held up as a great model for the rest of the world to follow to follow. It was never admitted that other countries with stronger social protections, with better public health systems might be models to follow, at least in some instances. You know, we know the debate about health insurance in the United States — so quickly does it turn into a denunciation of communism, or invocations of fears that communism is about to arrive through the back door.

DJT: Biden is a very willing Trojan horse for socialism. 

Socialism, it’s pure socialism. And probably beyond socialism. I think it’s even a step beyond socialism promised by the radical left-wing mob and their puppet. Joe Biden is a puppet. You all know that. You see him, you watch, you watch his…

PM: I think the main obstacle, to answer your question, really is this particular mindset which is institutionalized across political institutions and also mainstream intellectual institutions, whether it’s newspapers or think-tanks. You know that any ideas belonging to the left, anything that might be vaguely termed socialistic, had been delegitimized and undermined over the last 20, 25 years. 

We’re paying a huge price in these two countries for undermining what was, actually, always, from the 19th century onwards, a great source for redemptive ideas. In itself, when put into practice in places like the Soviet Union or indeed Maoist China — where we had a very rigidly controlled, nationally planned economy — these were disasters, these were economic disasters. But socialism as a set of ideas about social justice, about redistribution, a critique of inequality on humanist grounds, that was really a valuable contribution to modern civilization. And I think if you discard those ideas and start believing in these ultra-simplistic, Ayn Randian notions about the individual and the power of the creative individual and the power of the free market to drive innovation and dynamism and all of that — clichés that became to dominate — I think you are basically depriving yourself of a great moral and intellectual resource. And that is really what has happened in Britain and the United States.

MH: How do you think that the persistence of these elites in Western societies, particularly the United States, has helped constrain us from doing what seems like the sensible thing, in terms of building a state and expanding social protections and so forth?

PM: We have focused far too much on the role of the political class in the last three, four years, or five, six years, since Brexit and the election of Trump. We’ve lamented the quality of our political representatives. We have deplored the way in which democracies have become dysfunctional as a result of big money and democratic processes. But actually we haven’t really reckoned properly with the role of the intelligentsia in all of this. The fact that the Anglo-American mainstream intellectual class became cheerleaders and mouthpieces for the ideologies of the ruling class in both countries — how these children of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher remain dominant today in the media and in the think-tanks and indeed political parties, and remain fundamentally hostile to any idea of a major transformation, even to this day with the pandemic essentially destroying all of our previous ideas and assumptions. 

So I really think we need to focus more on just how detrimental and incredibly nostalgic, backward-looking, deluded intelligentsia has been to the health of democracy in these two societies. And despite being wrong on a variety of issues — whether it’s Russia under [Boris] Yeltsin, whether it’s the supposed rise of India which never actually happened, failing to anticipate the rise of China, completely misreading the attacks on 9/11, declaring the war on terror, declaring war on Iraq, the financial crisis — one calamity after another and yet nobody really is held accountable for any of these disasters. Those people who cheerled each of these disasters are still in place. 

And a lot of anger, what is frequently described as “cancel culture” by some of these people in positions of power today, is actually a result of people feeling — especially young people feeling — very angry and frustrated by this older generation of powerful men, that they have not been held accountable at all. So actually cancellation hasn’t worked a bit. You can criticize them as much as you want to, and people do on Twitter and various other platforms, but they’re still ensconced.

MH: In the United States, the pandemic and the economic collapse are now coinciding with the breaking open of long-suppressed racial tensions and ethnic tensions dating back to unresolved injustices and inequalities from the founding of the country. I’m curious, from your perspective, what is the failure to address this say about the American model of governance or the culture which has been created in the United States, and are there countervailing examples that Americans could perhaps learn from in how to address these?

PM: It’s very difficult for countries, entire societies, to engage in historical introspection of this kind. It can really only happen, and it has only really happened, in the past when societies are so traumatized by war or some other calamity, such as Germany, for instance, after the Second World War, where there was a very deliberate attempt to identify what had gone wrong in its long history and to then atone for it, in which crimes and criminals from the past were named and shamed. Certainly their monuments were not allowed to stand. They were described very clearly in history as criminals. 

The problem is that if you are so deluded about your country’s place in the world, and of course your own place in the country and in the larger world, which are all very deeply linked, so if your country is on top you’re on top, in many ways. And you want to obviously preserve that status. And so historical introspection is a luxury you cannot really afford. And that has been the case for decades and decades is that people in positions of power and influence have never felt themselves under any pressure to face up to these historical crimes that underpin their prosperity and their power and influence today. There was no imperative whatsoever. 

So now, with the BLM protests and the kind of general recognition that injustice has been institutionalized and there will be a younger generation which will grow up with this. They will be able to conceive of a different society, a society that is more responsive to questions of historical injustice and knows how to address it. But, you know, as long as you have this intellectual and political class in power very, very committed to its orthodoxies, very committed to whatever maintains its high status, I think it’s going to be very difficult for the United States to engage in the kind of introspection, you know, we would all want it to.

MH: You know, some years ago you wrote one of my favorite books ever, “From the Ruins of Empire,” about Asian anticolonial intellectuals and their visions of a post-imperial world in the 20th century. And to some extent it seems the relative balance of power globally is shifting towards Asia from the West. What might the political characteristics of, you know, a Chinese or Indian great power dynamic be like in practice?

PM: These Asians countries that will be certainly economically dominant in the next few decades or so have not proposed an alternative way of being in the world, an alternative way of coexisting which can be respectful of this much, much damaged environment; which can respect individual liberties; which can respect the dignity of large numbers of people. I mean, if you look at what’s happening in Xinjiang today or look at what’s happening in Kashmir or Hong Kong today you can really have no faith that these so-called rising Asian nations will do something that these first intellectuals of the late 19th century and 20th century so desperately hoped for. Because, if you remember, what those Asian writers and thinkers and poets and leaders of the first generation in their countries were critiquing was Western imperialism, Western way of modernizing, of setting up an international competition among nations to be stronger, bigger, more powerful militarily and economically than the other. And they were saying, “Look, this is completely unsustainable and this is going to end in disaster.” And they were proved right. 

Many of them actually saw, if not two world wars, then at least one world war emerging out of this intensified competition between rising powers. And they certainly did not want their own nations, their own societies to go down this catastrophic path. So there’s no reason really to feel, you know, as someone from India, someone from this vast area of the world called Asia, to feel hugely optimistic, let alone thrilled about the coming Asian century.

MH: For societies that are very diverse ethnically or racially and so forth, there’s a need for an overarching, universalist ideology or narrative. In the U.S., for some time, that role was played by liberalism, at least notionally, and other countries have been socialism and so forth. Given the fact that in the last few decades, liberalism, the economic inequality of it has led people to become very disillusioned, are there other models for universalist identity which seem promising to be able to unify people and create the narrative which people can buy into?

PM: The only effective universalist ideology I can think of is non-violence. To start with that basis — the idea of non-violence — is already to liberate yourself from economistic ideologies. And I say this, you know, partly because what we have witnessed and are suffering the consequences of is this immense violence done to the natural world, to the environment. That’s why any program of reconstruction that doesn’t actually include this particular concern is doomed. And in a way, we moved away from the Cold War ideologies of liberalism and socialism that emerged at a particular historical conjuncture and were rival ideologies for much of modern history. And, if you think about it, neither of them really had much place — neither liberalism or socialism — for this destruction of the natural world that was going on in both socialist countries and the countries that were upholding the banner of liberalism. 

So, at this point, I think if one were to abandon the pretensions of universalist ideology like liberalism, but still want to aspire to universalist ideology, then I think, I cannot really think of anything, an idea more fundamental and more urgent than that of non-violence. It most of all attends to the environment and the way [in] which it’s making life on this planet literally impossible for hundreds of millions of people.

MH: In the United States we’re moving towards an election, which I think will be pivotal for many reasons economically and socially. What are your thoughts about the stakes of this election and the options that are currently on the table for the American electorate? The election of Donald Trump obviously was a very big shock to many people who had been very self-assured previously, but seemed to say something more about the trajectory of the country. I’m curious about what your thoughts are as we head into November 2020.

PM: I mean I’ve always thought of Trump as a kind of symptom of breakdown and dysfunction in the American system. He was never the cause of it. So I don’t think replacing Trump with Biden is going to address those fundamental problems. What may happen, and we saw this happen with Obama, that a lot of hope is invested in the so-called change candidate, but when that figure comes into power he brings with him all the elements of the discredited old regime that had led us to Trump in the first place. So the Biden administration may end up consisting of the very same people who facilitated with their calamitous decisions the rise of Donald Trump. 

So it’s very hard to actually, you know, see political hope in the next administration. What does make me hopeful is the possibility that the social movement initiated by BLM that continues, that maintains a kind of pressure from the streets — literally from the streets — on whoever comes into power. And dictates, at least shapes, the decisions of that administration in a way no social movement has ever been capable of doing.

If you remember, I mean, Obama was elected by something resembling a social movement. There were a lot of young people involved. And what happened after he entered the White House was that he had no further use for the people who canvassed for him, who mobilized on his behalf. And the social movement disappeared and it was all the same old people from the Clinton administration, some new faces from Wall Street, from the East Coast elites who came to staff Obama’s cabinet. And we know the direction in which he took the country, in a way, sort of, creating scope for far-right demagogues like Donald Trump. So the future of American democracy really cannot be entrusted to presidents or administrations anymore. I think the pressure for democratic reform has to come from a social movement of the kind that we’ve seen in the last few weeks in the United States.

MH: Pankaj, thank you for joining us on Intercepted.

PM: Thank you.

MH: Pankaj Mishra is author of many books, his latest is “Age of Anger: A History of the Present.

[Music interlude]

MH: That does it for this week’s show. You can follow us on Twitter @intercepted and on Instagram @InterceptedPodcast. A note to our listeners: Next week we’re off, but we’ll be back the following week with Naomi Klein.  

Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our lead producer is Jack D’Isidoro. Our producer is Laura Flynn. Elise Swain is our associate producer and graphic designer. Betsy Reed is editor in chief of The Intercept. Rick Kwan mixed the show. Transcription for this program is done by Lucie Kroening. Our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky. I’m Murtaza Hussain.

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