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The Iron Cage of Western Categories

November 9, 2013

Pankaj Mishra reviews Perry Anderson’s The Indian Ideology in the latest Foreign Affairs. Mishra finds much to admire in the book. But when it comes to Anderson’s preoccupation with the intersections between religion and politics in India to the exclusion of everything else, well, Mishra isn’t having it. In a nutshell:

The relentless harshness of The Indian Ideology suggests that, as far as Anderson is concerned, “populations as steeped in the supernatural as those of South Asia” may find it impossible to enter Weber’s “iron cage”—or “the Golden Straightjacket,” in [Thomas] Friedman’s phrase—of modernity. It may actually be harder for observers of South Asia to liberate themselves from the iron cage of Western interpretative categories.


Religious beliefs and the fear of losing traditional livelihoods shape the political resistance of many Indians in rural areas to aggressive government projects and profit-driven corporate initiatives. But neither the scientific materialist nor the admirer of enlightened bureaucratic states in Anderson is likely to have much time for the tribal peoples in eastern India who recently refused to open up a mountain they consider sacred to a bauxite-mining corporation. Anderson doesn’t seem well placed, either, to grasp that for these irrational folks, who fail to prostrate themselves before the modern gods of economic growth, no entity in their cosmology seems more occult, minatory, and unappeasable than the instrumentally rational states and interconnected markets that threaten their traditions and local economies. Indeed, Anderson’s avowal of the left’s historical defeat slides too easily into resentment of such people, who have failed to shake off their Eastern superstitions and appreciate the Western virtues of reason and enlightenment. It is as though the Marxist worldview, denuded of its original liberationist energy, can only betray its origins in the commercial society of western Europe and the reflexive credence both Marx and expansionist burghers gave to the all-conquering logic of Homo economicus.

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