“Accustomed to holding power”

an interview with Pankaj Mishra

Finally! (Issue I/2020)


The author Pankaj Mishra. Photo: private.

Mr. Mishra, concern about aging goes beyond national borders but does how we view ageing differ much from continent to continent?

To some extent, yes. In Asia, for example, – let’s take my home country India – the traditional scriptures connect old age to increased wisdom and greater life experience as well as to a heightened perception of the world and life in general. Surely, age is also seen as a phase of withdrawal and detachment, but not in a negative sense. Rather, that has led to a connotation of age with spirituality. On the contrary, in the West, if we want to call it that, ever since the capitalist revolution the notion of age has very much been related to what we could call an “expectation of productivity”. Old age denotes declining productivity and an increased burden on society and welfare expenditures. With the individualization and the atomization processes taking over the globe, however, we see the latter perspective taking hold of Asia as well. Even we in India have now embraced at least partly the Western way of thinking about age and of old people as a burden.

How does that change express itself?

In the fact that retirement homes have taken off in a big way in India lately. Formerly, it was unheard of that families gave their grandparents to somebody else for caretaking. Children and grandchildren were doing that themselves as family bonds were very strong. Maybe there were some monastic institutions that took on the role of old people’s homes, but that was the exception. Now, however, there are actual facilities for middle class and upper middle-class people available, who want to put their parents in a protected environment but who don’t want direct responsibility anymore. That’s one of the signs of the erosion of the traditional generational bonds and is certainly a result of the individualism that is taking hold. The simple fact that people have to move from the countryside to the cities for economic purposes, for example, has led to the breaking-up of social bonds.

There seems to be a growing political divide along generational lines. Be it Brexit, the American presidential election or responses to climate change, it seems that a chasm has grown between the views of old and young people. Would you agree?

Surely, the accusation that the older generation is out of touch with the younger generations has been present throughout history. But I would agree that the contrast between how younger and older people perceive the world has considerably sharpened lately. In Great Britain and the US, for example, there is more and more resentment against the established elites. And the elites, who are mostly part of an older demographic, are doing a very bad job at understanding the positions of the youth. In fact, in discussions about economics, ecology and politics they are constantly proving their total incapacity to understand that the world has significantly changed and that they either have to manage it differently or – more importantly – hand over their power to the youth.

And in your opinion, the older generation is blocking this change?

Yes, they are even trying to defend themselves. One of the tactics of the most powerful has been to instrumentalize and extend the concept of populism to a point where it has become dangerous and deceptive, because it postulates that large parts of those who resist power are authoritarians or demagogues. I tend to believe, however, that it is the people who have been in power for a very long time, who are truly dangerous, because they created the conditions for the demagogues to emerge at all. The older generation of political and business elites has become so accustomed to holding power and exercising it that they are extremely reluctant to step down. I believe that we will therefore see a more and more vicious conflict between the generations, for example, as we approach the 2020 elections in the US. And in most of the crucial debates, these days I would locate myself on the side of the youth.

Interview by Kai Schnier

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