Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 22 May 2023

 In this insightful piece, Mishra regurgitates what we have argued for a while: - that the West can export its industrial might, but it will not be able to impose its suicidal social policies on the rest of the world. Unless our woke elites truly wake up, the West against the Rest can lead only to our complete discomfiture.

Pankaj Mishra

For Strongmen, It’s Not the Economy, Stupid

Populist leaders of once-powerful civilizations such as Turkey, India and Russia have figured out how to defy electoral logic. 

Erdogan’s fans aren’t focused on the economy. 

Erdogan’s fans aren’t focused on the economy. 

Photographer: Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images

Voters in Turkey’s presidential elections haven’t just proven opinion polls wrong. Apparently on their way to re-electing President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after two decades in power, they have also upended conventional political wisdom: that an incumbent responsible for devastating inflation, a plummeting currency, deepening poverty and inequality, and, not least, a disastrous response to a recent earthquake should unquestionably face electoral nemesis.

In doing so, Erdogan’s supporters are also discrediting the assumption, long held by journalists and political analysts, that the rule of law, civil liberties, a free press, and a productive market economy are universal goods desired by all, and people denied them will necessarily seek a change of regime.

Indeed, after decades of breakneck globalization, canny politicians everywhere are discovering they can overcome their records by appealing to the many people who feel that their very existence and identity are threatened by relentless changes in the economy, technology, and social mores, and who thereby cultivate a fierce nostalgia for a glorious and stable past.

As the Turkish analyst Soner Cagaptay writes in Foreign Affairs, “never mind bread-and-butter issues such as jobs and food prices or freedoms and liberties: citizens are told to embrace Erdogan because he is an amazing leader who is making Turkey great again.”

With his self-conscious neo-Ottomanism, Erdogan may not even be the foremost beneficiary of this dynamic. A misconceived and terribly executed neo-imperialist war has barely dented Vladimir Putin’s popularity among Russians, many of whom still lament the breakup of the Soviet empire. Nor have glaring deficits in governance and massive blunders such as demonetization substantially weakened Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

One major reason for these leaders’ imperviousness is, of course, their dominance of both legacy and social media. Nearly perfectly exercised by Erdogan, Putin and Modi, that control has helped lock large populations into news-and-analysis siloes. Those who live in India, surrounded by orchestrated fanfare about the G-20 summit in September, will immediately recognize Cagaptay’s account of Turkish citizens being constantly bombarded with news of their country’s “growing status as a major international power.”

In Putin’s own version of reality, relentlessly broadcast by the Russian media, Ukraine has no right to exist. In Xi Jinping’s more extensively transmitted and shared vision, Taiwan has always belonged to the Chinese motherland. 

This syndrome of self-conscious reality-generation by ruling classes is also visible in the West. The adviser to the George W. Bush administration who told a New York Times reporter in 2004 that the “we're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality” might have been exaggerating. No one, however, took reality-creation more to heart than former US President Donald Trump as he forged, with the help of Fox News and even further-right media, a compelling universe in which America would soon be great again, once it had cast aside its globalized ruling class and gotten rid of unwanted immigrants.

The success of Trump and Erdogan underscores how many among majority populations in countries that once enjoyed unmatched geopolitical power and prestige feel scorned and marginalized by the uneven processes of economic and cultural globalization. Demagogues have flourished because, unlike their opponents, their project of regaining past glory derives from deep collective and individual feelings of humiliation and vengeful pride.

Moreover, the Erdogan-ization of politics in many countries seems irreversible. You need look no further west for evidence than Britain, where speakers at the first National Conservatism Conference last week celebrated “white culture” and Christianity and ranted against liberal global elites, “cultural Marxism,” multiculturalism, and immigration, identifying them as obstacles to imminent national greatness. 

The fact that the speakers at this far-right conclave included senior members of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s cabinet is disturbing but not surprising. Imperial retreat followed by irreversible national decline is forcing even one of the world’s oldest ruling classes, the Tories, to come up with a formula for political success that can somehow obscure a cost-of-living crisis, the breakdown of public services and the ongoing economic disaster that is Brexit.


As the trend toward far-right fantasies of revenge and redemption accelerates, it is time to recognize that when economic globalization breaks down, so do its supporting cognitive and ethical frameworks. What replaces them, especially in countries that have enjoyed geopolitical and cultural hegemony at some point, are a multitude of nationalist discourses about how power and glory was lost, and how they can be regained in a world of intensifying conflict and competition between nations.

It is harder, of course, to determine how to combat this new global condition. But the alternative is to continue trusting blindly that performance alone matters — and then be shocked again and again when patently ruinous demagogues win elections. 

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