Pankaj Mishra labels his most recent book Bland Fanatics – Liberals, Race and Empire (Juggernaut 2020) as a Gramscian book. It is a collection of razor-sharp critical essays against the “discredited evangelists of liberalism”, who, according to the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, consider “the highly contingent achievements” of Western civilisation as “the final form and norm of human existence”.
In this long conversation, which took place in Italy, Mishra explores the relationship between today’s political predicament in India and Italian fascism, the worsening status of democratic debate, the collapse of the Anglo-American way, along with China’s real role in the world, the crisis of journalism, Donald Trump, Matteo Salvini, the climate crisis and the COVID era.
You have asked rhetorically if Britain or America are democracies. You’ve said democracy is discussion, persuasion, debate. But, debate is all over the internet, and it does not seem to work. You’ve said that we all need a good dose of seriousness. How can it come about, with which instrument?
I think what the internet has done is basically fragmented the public sphere into incredible numbers of bubbles, which people can inhabit, and within which they can create their own version of reality. Democracy needs some agreed upon notions, some sense of solidarity and community, some sense that we are in this, all of us, together. And that has been missing for a very long time, because societies everywhere, and not only in the West, have invested too much in a very hyper individualist notion, whereas the individual’s energy and entrepreneurial skills were by itself enough to create a functional society. All the given number of individuals in a society, all of them working to pursue their interests were expected to contribute to the common good. If you think about it, it almost seems like magic.
The ‘thousand points of lights’ of Bush senior?
Yes, that idea which emerged in the US in the 1980s, which I’ve sort of consistently been critical of, has been shown to be an utterly lethal idea, especially now in the wake of the pandemic. So, by seriousness, I mean recovering some notion of solidarity and compassion without which societies anywhere are unsustainable. This notion that greed is somehow good, or the pursuit of private interests amounts to a common good…all these notions that became mainstream in the last three decades or so are really incredibly dangerous ideas and are really what has brought many of us to this very sorry path right now.
You have pointed out the damages done by the “bumbling chumocrats in charge” in Bland Fanatics, and you have spelled out the slow but persistent failure and weakening of anglobalisation which rests its roots in white supremacy and brings about institutionalised poverty. Do you really think it is the end of the Anglo-American century? Is the Yellow Peril finally here? Should I learn Chinese?
I think the United States and Britain became extremely powerful culturally and ideologically starting in the 1980s while at the same time their economies were beginning to decline; in fact, the American economy had started to decline much earlier, the British as well, there was some creation of private wealth in the 1980s and 1990s. The media was very fascinated by the new wealth that was created and so the media failed to cover the fact that real incomes were declining, wages were stagnating, the middle class was starting to suffer. But while all this was happening, Anglo-America was accumulating an unprecedented amount of cultural power and ideological power. What do I mean by this? I mean American and British periodicals – The New York Times, The Guardian, The Economist, The Financial Times – became globally important and influential in a way they had never been before. And what were these newspapers doing? They were all becoming mouthpieces for these Anglo-American ideologies of deregulation, privatisation – the American way is the best. It was always assumed that the American way is the model for everyone else to follow.
So, here you have a perfect storm. You have this enormous political consensus in Washington and in London, backed by the World Bank, by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the administrations in both countries, and then you have the Fourth Estate, the media, which is cheerleading this consensus in different parts of the world and prescribing to other societies in other parts of the world how to live the Anglo-American way. That has all really now collapsed, I think it is safe to say. I am generally careful about pronouncing in such categorical terms.
How has it collapsed?
Well, because it has proven to be catastrophic, that particular model of hyper-individualism, of letting social welfare systems – not just letting them decline or degenerate, but actually accelerating the degeneration, because ‘we don’t need them, they are creating entire generations of idles and scroungers, and therefore we need to do away with them’. Of course, in the absence of a proper public health system, you would be extremely vulnerable to something like COVID-19. And not to mention, even before the pandemic, the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit results that had already shown what the disaster of the last 20 years of deregulation and privatisation had been.
The Washington consensus had some of its most influential victims, it seems, on the western side of Washington D.C. We’ve seen populist revolts in Latin America, we saw Yeltsin floundering and then Putin coming to power, we saw autocrats rising in various other parts of the world, including India. But finally, it also happened in the very places that had exported these ideologies, in Angloamerica. And I think there’s no real going back. Of course, the media is still being run by the very same people who were cheerleading deregulation, and privatisation and the Washington consensus all these years. So, they are very much ensconced: how they can change, and whether they will change is a different question.
The owners of the media?
And the people who work for it. That’s also important. I think people in senior editorial positions.
I think they probably can’t.
Because their mind is already set?
Yes. The only thing they seem to be capable of doing is of dreaming of some kind of restoration. Of returning back to things as they once were. You know, for many people, and I include myself in this category, the last 20 and 30 years have been exceptionally good. So, even though large numbers of people have suffered a relative decline in living standards and opportunities, many people have actually benefitted from three decades of globalisation, especially people who speak English, people who can work and write for international periodicals.
So, journalists have come to prefer the status quo that to many people seems utterly intolerable, so I think there’s a real gap that has opened up between the way many people within the journalism profession see the world and experience it and the way the people they are supposed to write about and cover it experience it. Which also explains why the media has been in such a state of shock and trauma for the last many years, with the election of Donald Trump and Brexit.
So, that brings us to the next question. You said the media bubble feeds the idea of a competitive race, which is the worst system to battle a virus, like Covid-19. Do you think the media bubble could change this and how?
No, the media bubble cannot change. This is also in answer to your question about what the solutions are. As a writer, I really feel it is not my place to prescribe, largely because I believe that prescriptions given with no regard for local circumstances with specific regional, national factors, have really brought us to this situation. It was this arrogant prescribing by people sitting far away in places like Washington and London – who had no idea about what life was in places like India, but insisted that free markets is the way to move forward, or cracking down on trade unions was the way to go forward. I feel like we should move away from this arrogant way of prescribing, and really focus on the lived experiences of people and see what solutions can emerge from those experiences.
As a writer, my job is to attend to those experiences. And as a writer, one of my experiences of the media and of the world of journalism there, I do feel more ready to prescribe. And even though it may feel like a joke, I do feel like people in senior editorial positions right now in the media either should listen to more young voices or they should give way for those younger people. That they are, at least in my experience, simply unable to understand this new world that we are living in right now.
I think if you have grown up in the ’80s and ’90s in the ideological regimes of Reagan and Thatcher, and the world doesn’t make sense to you now, that’s fair enough, but then…do you want to hang around? Feeling completely bewildered by everything that is happening around you. Or do you want to gracefully exit? Leave your position open for younger people whose future is definitely much more important than the future of people who are now in their 50s and 60s. So if there is one prescription I would make, it is: have more young voices in the media and in journalism and in senior positions right now. Because the media is in a serious state of crisis right now, and that is part of the crisis of democracy right now.
It’s rare for me to be invited to talk to someone who does not hold completely contrary views. The media stages these debates essentially as battles between gladiators. They want to draw entertainment from this, they want to see blood on the screen, blood on the page. They never realise that, actually, people talking without these fake passions can arrive at some new idea that might not have occurred to either of them. That conversations have a way of opening up all kinds of issues, and that that is the most fruitful way of having a conversation rather than people shouting at each other. And of course, the debates you see on Indian TV are kind of an absurd extreme of this kind of obsessive debating. But I really think too much has been made of this notion of debate. Of “the marketplace of ideas.” Where we really need to think about is: here we are in a crisis, what can we do to open up new possibilities. And possibilities or ideas that have been proven to be utterly shallow should not even be entertained at this point.
There’s no way of entertaining the libertarian objections or notions at this point, because libertarianism as far as most people are concerned, has no legitimacy right now. The individual cannot do anything against the virus. It is only a well coordinated state that can act against the virus and against the climate emergency!
TV debates are entertainment because they feed themselves on the excitement that creates audiences. Whereas debates that create new ideas are for think tanks…
Well, that is the other problem with the professionalisation of knowledge. Think tanks are not as intellectually independent as you would like to think they are. Think tanks are also recipients of foundation money, grants, often from corporate sources who have their own agenda, we know that. There has been so much work done in these American institutions, supposedly liberal, like the Brookings Institution for example. Well, they all turned out to be advancing some kind of political agenda or other. So, the idea that free intellectual exchange takes place in those places is not tenable. I think they are all advancing particular corporate interests and particular private interests sometimes.
Media needs entertainment, think tanks need private money. So where is free thought happening?
It is happening in marginal places like academia, which does not connect with the public sphere. There is a huge gap now which has developed between journalism and scholarship. Journalism today seems to have no relation with the sophisticated scholarship which has emerged in academia. History, philosophy, economics, it’s all there, the books are all there, but journalists don’t read them, or they are not interested in them or they try to ignore them.
What about the role of China in the world?
You know China’s role in the world…I was going to say is overplayed but…the fear of China is exaggerated. It is very much a fear rooted in two centuries of white dominance over the world. So right from the late 19th century people started to fear in places like England, Australia and Canada, that the Chinese were on the rise, even though the Chinese were in the worst possible state in the late 19th century, or the fear that the Japanese were taking over the world. These insecurities existed because these countries were being pressured by Britain and bullied in horrible ways and the fear was, quite logically, that these countries would, one day, strike back. Today China is not striking back in the way people feared it would but what it has done is become the factory of the world.
As it was once before….
Yes, so things have gone back to being how they were for a very long time. And the last 200 years seem like an exception. At the same time, China is never going to be this supreme superpower the way the United States was. Never. That’s not going to happen. It has far too many rivals, it has far too few friends. And it is not interested in that kind of Imperium, in that kind of global domination. You know, it doesn’t fight wars. Some people might have noticed that China has not gone to war since the late ’70s when it fought a war with Vietnam. It doesn’t have hundreds of military bases like the United States encircling the globe, and most importantly, China is also very dependent in its own region, East Asia.
So China is at the centre of a vast East Asian network of trade and manufacturing and they are both in a kind of co-dependent relationship right now. So the idea that China can break free of all these constraints and become an indispensable superpower in the way the United States was is a kind of white supremacist neurosis. I just don’t think it’s rooted in any kind of realistic assessment of China’s strengths and weaknesses…
The Belt and Road is not a network to start world domination?
The number of words spent on the Belt and Road initiatives compared to the number of words spent in the media worldwide about American military bases around the world… Most people are not aware of how heavy-handed that military presence is around the world, we just don’t talk about that.
Unless you grow up next to an American military base, like I did in Vicenza, in Italy, for example. And I suppose you believe the shrinking of the number of American bases around the world is part of the crisis of anglobalisation. So what is the solution, the alternative? You seem to be asked a lot for a solution since you are so surgically precise in diagnosing the problem. You have not spelled it out but you seem to provide dots to join. Solidarity, collaboration in the face of a common disaster, such as Coronavirus, for example. Should we add ethics?
The role traditionally played by ethics was for a long time outsourced to the market. The market was where we were all going to find value for ourselves and how to monetise it. Whether you were a writer dealing in the marketplace of ideas, branding yourself successfully as a thought leader. Or whether you were an actual entrepreneur with something to sell, some manufactured item. And what was important there was that most transaction is lawful and that the rule of law prevails. And that was the extent to which ethical questions were even raised. There was no talk about compassion. Why do we need compassion? Why do we need some kind of social solidarity?
It was not necessary for the market where we were all supposed to be competing with each other. So the market has dominated our ethical imagination, replaced it actually, not just dominated it, for far too long. And I think it is actually time to rediscover what has been the guiding light for most human beings in recorded history and even in the post-war era, where European governments everywhere – Italy, Germany, France, whether you were on the wrong side of the war or on the right side of the war, or whether you were a Christian democrat or a Social democrat – governments made a concerted effort to recreate a sense of society and a sense of solidarity and they did this with social reform and the social state which they introduced with reforms after 1945.
In fact, the Christian Democrats were at the lead of this effort. And you see traces of this in the Italian response to the pandemic, in the German response to the pandemic. But that spirit has been weakened to a great degree, I think, the sense of caring for other people, for cultivating civic concerns and a civic identity, and this is part of the current crisis of democracy. So I think those resources need to reanimated and made central to our political imagination. We simply cannot expect the impersonal mechanisms of the markets to bring us prosperity and dignity and security. That was never going to happen and it seems now very clear is never going to happen.
In a sense, religion was supposed to defend that aspect of society, in a way. So there has been a retrenchment of the role of religion in the West and in Catholic countries because it came with the heavy baggage of restraints. So, the retrenchment of religion has left the field open… which has not been filled.
No question about that. Two things happened there. Socialism, right from the beginning of the modern age and from the beginning of industrialisation, and the increasing number of people moving from villages from an agrarian economy to an industrial economy, for them socialism was the ethical alternative to the regimes they found themselves under, which were highly exploitative. And socialism drew a great deal from Christianity, the idea of equality comes from Christianity, the idea of being equal before God. I think there were various variants of that. Equality was sought to be enforced by many Communist regimes and that failed disastrously because they also invested in this bizarre idea of the planned economy.
Socialism also found a very hostile and very resourceful enemy in British American capitalism and after 1991, especially, we know that socialism really found itself delegitimised to the point that parties that used to call themselves socialist stopped calling themselves that. The disappearance of an ethical alternative has left the field wide open for the far right, for all kinds of populist figures and personalities in Italy and elsewhere. Not surprising, many of them made the lateral move that Mussolini made, moving from socialism into fascism.
Speaking of socialism, you said both Biden and Johnson are turning towards socialism…
Not socialism but some idea of the social state, some kind of creation of the New Deal or the Welfare state that America and Britain had in the past and that then British America systematically destroyed. But they are still far from socialist positions.
You also said that China proved that being ideologically flexible pays well, for example by remaining communist but adopting free-market strategies. The criticism many libertarians make towards a shift towards a more social democratic system – which seems inevitable considering that in many economies the private sector will shrink and public spending is bound to increase in order to keep more people from poverty – is that corruption is inevitable in public administration, especially within a democratic system. How can a more well-distributed wealth system be put in place without corruption and without a dictatorship? What’s the missing element?
Corruption is a constant. It will always be with us. As long as there are human beings there will be corruption. There will be greed, and mechanisms of the state and of the marketplace will not be enough to prevent their greed from becoming corrupt. I think that the libertarian argument could be turned around and it could be said that there we have never seen as astronomical levels of corruption as in these decades of the supposedly free markets, where we know that all kinds of people like tax dodgers were enriching themselves at great expense to the national exchequer and that big Silicon Valley companies even to this day are enjoying a great tax-free regime. Some might not call it corruption, but it’s actually legalised corruption, really, that you are not paying taxes, or you are cheating on taxes in the countries that you are working in. Not to mention many other ways in which the political class has become corrupt.
Every European leader of the last 20 to 25 years has been implicated in corruption scandals. So, this idea that we had, during the free-market regime, some kind of corruption-free system, and now with the re-emergence of the Big State, corruption will grow, I think it’s a bit of a fantasy really. Of course, with the State in charge, there are great numbers of inefficiencies and great levels of corruption. Corruption is always there. But I think sometimes things have to become a bit inefficient. Not everything is meant to make a profit. You can privatise the national rail and run it into the ground, which happened in Britain, because it’s not making enough profit for certain people, but when you nationalise it, as they have now started to do, it will run at a loss but actually it is much more efficient for more people.
For the passengers?
Exactly. And it is still mostly run by the state in places like France, and there’s a kind of assumption that there are certain utilities that cannot be privatised. They will be inefficient in generating a profit, but that is something we just have to take on board because it is a public utility. It’s not meant to create profit for shareholders.
It’s not sustainable then.
Yes, but again this notion that we are all living with limited money, when we see countries running up massive debts and then getting out of it. This insistence on budgetary discipline, austerity, which conveniently the neoliberal regimes all desire intensely…and now of course with the pandemic, all kind of money is being found for various projects. Previously, we were being told there is no money. So, what happened there? So, I suppose ideological deception that we are asked to believe in like, oh, no, you know, we can’t do this because it will put our generation into debt, well, let’s live in the moment here. It’s also a choice of where to put the debt.
You’ve been criticised for not analysing class struggle in Bland Fanatics. Do you think this is an outmoded Marxist dialectic that no longer reflects contemporary reality?
I’m not sure what kind of class struggle anyone would see in the world today, because the idea of a class struggle was devised during a much simpler time, the 19th century, when you had the proletariat that was being exploited in the factories and you had the capitalist owners, and the bourgeoisie which was benefiting largely from capitalism and then there were the peasants who did not feature in the classical Marxist scheme of things – they were concerned with urban working classes. Now, the working class itself has split and split and split to the point where people don’t have regular jobs, they don’t work in factories, even when they are employed they are underemployed, they don’t have any union rights, they are working in the gig economy, the landscape is much more fragmented.
We can pretend to see it as something deeply unified and we can pretend to still see deep unity there, and we can argue that ah, ok if only we could put them in opposition with each other we could have a good political outcome. But it is a kind of fantasy really. I just think it’s a much more complex place than when Marx was writing about working-class struggles. Today, there are splits even in the big political parties in the United States. The Democratic party is split between Biden, the statusquoists, and there is a progressive left, and they are all representing very specific class interests, so the idea that there can be some kind of unity there, no, we are looking at contradictions everywhere, we are not looking at unity.
So, is Marxism as outmoded as liberalism?
And it is too connected to an economist’s outlook of reality and of human beings. I’m not saying it is outmoded because I think that post Marx there were a lot of exciting developments and many thinkers emerged, people like Gramsci, who wrote from a very different experience, that of the Italian south, and no wonder he’s such a beacon to people from outside the Western world because he wrote from experience that people like Marx were not interested in, at all. There have been others in places like India who have made very important contributions to our understanding of politics and economy, but this notion of the class struggle is too 19th century. It would be more interesting…I mean you could say that Bland Fanatics is Marxist in one sense because it talks about hegemony in the way Gramsci wrote about it. It may not be Marxist from the 19th century, but it borrows from a Marxist tradition.
Can we say you are not Marxist but you are Gramscian?
Yes, we could say that.
You question if Modi’s India is indeed a democracy, considering he is seen, as you say, more like a holy man that can do no wrong than a political leader. Media and judiciary are taken over by the ruling party, drawing comparisons with North Korea, making the country look more like an authoritarian state than democracy in crisis. Is it the end of democracy for India? What aren’t Indians doing what they should be doing?
This kind of crisis that India is in right now is something that should be familiar to students of Italian history, which is that a nation-state that is 70 years old before experimenting with far-right solutions, it has explored a lot of experiences, like parliamentary democracy, economic liberalism, social reformism of various sorts, and all of it could not really battle the disaffection that an ever-growing number of Italians felt about their lives and their situation, and on top of that, there was a burden imposed on the fantasy that Italy had to live up to a great ideal of the past and become the third Rome or become the great nation that it once was, that unified Italy had that was supposed to be its mission.
India suffers from all of these issues. It has suffered the problem of not strong enough industrialisation, so uneven growth – which was the problem with Italy, and still remains a problem in many ways – big gaps between particular regions, and inequality, of course, lots of crisis of legitimacy of big institutions, like big banks, similar to what happened to pre-fascist Italy, big scandals, big political scandals, politicians being implicated, so you had all this in India before Modi came to power and he rose to power also to solve those problems and to create an efficient government that would swiftly mete out justice and deal with the enemies of India both internal and external, and make India a great superpower.
So, it is this mentality – the mentality of the defeated and the aspiring combining to create this moment – where a far-right movement takes over. And once it takes over, it’s very difficult to get rid of it. In the case of Italy and other places, it was only after the war and after a calamitous war that people were finally able to liberate themselves, and in Spain it took much longer because there was no war there. So in India, I feel especially pessimistic because the takeover that is happening…the media is certainly North Korean in the glorification of the leader and in the way it talks about the judiciary and the political establishment. But the takeover of institutions, if it is very effective as it has been in India, then you have entrenched interests, in support of the status quo, so there’s no reason to change it, because there are far too many powerful people invested in the status quo.
Like the Ambani family?
Like the Ambani sand others. Here too, in Italy, any number of very distinguished intellectuals and people became members of the regime or at least went quiet.
Like the philosopher Benedetto Croce?
Croce is a great example of that. What seemed tolerable at one time started to seem more and more intolerable and then it actually started to become comfortable, the longest a regime stays in power. Unless it is completely brutal and incompetent and ruthlessly dictatorial and then it became truly oppressive to many people I think even then you can still secure consent if you exercise that level of hegemony. And the Hindu nationalist does now exercise that kind of total hegemony, culturally, politically, so it’s very hard to see how that will break. I mean, Modi might go tomorrow, he might retire, or he might die, but someone else will take his place.
What can Indians do?
There’s not much they can do. The kind of events India is going through at this time was set in motion a long time ago. I am not saying it was inevitable, but the possibility was always there that the Indian experiment with democracy and nation-building will fail like it failed here (Italy), something like the far-right would emerge. No one expected that to happen in India, because it seemed like a modern democracy with routine elections, but I think India is not exempt from certain historical events and crises, so when they happen in India, they produce this irreversible outcome. We are a long way from seeing any kind of reversal. Historically, these things can last for a long time, at least 20 years, until they are checked by war. It may be possible to argue that Mussolini would have lasted much longer had he not joined Hitler.
In this scenario of liberalism versus populism, what do you think is happening in Italy? We had two populist movements, the Five Star and the Lega allying themselves versus the Democratic Party. Then that changed. Is there any fresh opening for the left now?
People like Salvini are actually not in charge and he’s been trying to get as much mileage as he can out of the perceived failures of the Italian government. I’m not sure to what extent he has succeeded. I feel like politics has been put on hold in all the countries, not just Italy because right now most of our societies have gone into a survival mode. In the US, elections are very very close, but they are almost kind of easily predictable, as I think it’s safe to assume that Biden is most likely to go through. In that sense, we have a first casualty which is Trump, who is very likely to lose.
If he goes down easy…
Yes, whether he’ll leave or create a constitutional crisis is another question. In other countries – France and Germany – I don’t think the populists have benefited a great deal. Incumbent governments have managed to survive the disaster, like in Britain for example, where the Conservative government is not as unpopular as you would like to think it is. It has managed to maintain its support. And it is largely because people are not thinking about politics right now, they are not thinking about politics in a partisan way, they are looking towards government to help them and help them survive in these very uncertain times.
So my feeling is – I’m being cautious here – is that it’s too early to say what will be the true political result of the COVID era. If we have a serious economic crisis, the effects will be felt for much longer, and we can’t rule out the far-right making another comeback during this period. Because the potential for it still exists, and it might grow more for a time, if for example, the Left is seen too accommodating of refugees and migrants, that could be a potential flashpoint that the far-right could take advantage of, saying that while everyone is suffering why are you letting people in here and extending rights to them. I see articles all the time in the NYT or FT saying that populists are the biggest losers in this situation. I just don’t believe that. It’s too early to say. This is just the interval, half of the film is yet to be shown.
Is there any possibility of being a liberal and not being a staunch individualist without religion? Isn’t liberalism also about social progress and state-building? Can there be a humanist liberal who believes in the common good before personal good, even though not through the mediation of a state? Couldn’t that be an alternative? And if so, how can it be built?
One of the essays in the book talks about how Western liberalism was received in places like India and China, where people insisted that actually, we didn’t need this from elsewhere because we had our own liberal traditions, and they really actually have to do with liberality, with generosity, with being genuinely open-minded and tolerant. And not insisting on this program of hyperindividualism but actually thinking of social welfare. Translators of J. S Mill had a difficult time with such words because they did not exist in Chinese, no version could be found. They did have a kind of interest and advance in the value of freedom and autonomy and recognising that the individual is very important, whereas the Western contribution in many ways, the Christian, we have to take it on board, but we also have to think of society at large and individuals within society, not separate from it, not in opposition to it. And I think that thought is still important, because we still think of Western philosophy in terms of liberalism and perhaps there is the possibility of a dialogue between Western traditions and these other traditions. But these conversations were never really held. There was no interest in them. The think-tank model or the media as it exists is simply not the place to conduct these conversations, it does not have the intellectual resources, the confidence, or the knowledge.
It’s even more important to think of new solutions, because of the climate crisis, because the conception of the individual as the self-expanding figure, pursuing unprecedented desires, seeking satisfaction in the fulfilment of such desires—well, that model has to be reconfigured a little bit, a bit at least, because we know that the pursuit of desires of the kind we never had before, to consume, to grow, to expand, have also caused this global climate emergency, so we need to moderate liberalism also in that way to make it more compatible with our concern for the environment we live in which is under a serious threat right now, and a philosophy which focuses on endless expansion is not going to deliver solutions.
Do you believe that the climate crisis will change the “every man for himself” philosophy which America and Europe are imbued in and, by injection, some parts and social classes in the rest of the world?
What is preventing us finding a solution is the political imagination which is still constrained by national boundaries, by particular cultures of journalism – we are writing in our respective countries for specific newspapers, but we still have not gotten into the habit of thinking in these larger terms. Part of the problem is that we have a generation of people in the media who are still living intellectually and mentally back in the ’80s and ’90s, which was the heyday. It was the end of the Cold War, and the feeling that the European Union is happening, the Soviet Union is crumbling, History is Ending, liberal democracy is here, capitalism is here, and those are the ones who hope that the US and China dichotomy is the new cold war.
And this is the problem with the professionalisation of knowledge, so that these think tanks who have trained their minds in the old Cold War can quickly readapt themselves to the easy model of a new Cold War and offer their expertise and knowledge. So, I feel there really is a problem (in the way in) which the knowledge ecosystems work in much of Europe and America. It’s a system not able to meet the challenges of the pandemic crisis. When people talk about the crisis of media, they talk about falling sales, the Internet, falling subscriptions, disappearing advertising, but the real crisis of the media is its intellectual inability to cope with the crisis of our times.
And it is strange how little attention is devoted to this problem. One of the major pillars of democracy is that it is unable to function properly, it’s kind of crumbling and we are still thinking in terms of ‘Oh, it’s because there’s not enough advertising and people are not buying print editions’. Yes, of course, this is happening, but one reason all this is happening is because the media doesn’t offer much anymore, it’s not rising to the challenge of writing about reality, and it’s become a huge problem. People are still reading, but the blogs of conspiracy theorists.
Will COVID change this, bring about seriousness?
This is actually a time for the media to recover its lost legitimacy – lost to bloggers and social influencers and so on but these guys know nothing about science, they don’t have the expertise. It’s only the traditional media that can have that expertise and resources. Even if they don’t have their own resources they can reach out to scientists and people with some credentials. Yes, it’s time for the media to reclaim its legitimacy.
Carlo Pizzati is the author of eight books of fiction and non-fiction. His most recent ones are La Tigre e il Drone (Marsilio ‘20), Bending over Backwards (Harper Collins ‘19), Mappillai (Simon & Schuster ‘18). He is a political analyst and editorialist for the Italian newspapers la Repubblica and la Stampa.