21 September, 2020

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A Case For Meliorist Politics

By Izeth Hussain

Izeth Hussain

Izeth Hussain

I have had an interesting exchange of views with Hermes in the Island, as a consequence of which I feel that an article expounding the basic case for meliorist politics would be useful. The exchange of views arose out of my use of Bismarck’s famous aphorism “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable – the art of the next best”. I combined that with the principle that in politics the choice usually is not between the good and the bad, but between the bad and the worse – which echoed a couplet from a poem by Cecil Day Lewis. Understandably what I wrote could give the impression that I was advocating a Machiavellian politics in which only interests and no principles count, and a wide tolerance has to be shown towards morally outrageous behavior in politics.

Actually I was advocating meliorist politics. “Meliorism” means “the doctrine that the world might be made better by human effort”, according to my Concise Oxford Dictionary. A brief excursus into the etymology of that word would be useful. I find from the Internet that American dictionaries seem to always associate that word with an optimistic view of human nature; with the conviction that there is an in-built propensity in human beings to improve the world. That association is not there in the definition of the word in the Concise Oxford Dictionary. Two different world views are implied. The American definition of the word reflects a belief in the modern religion of progress, while the English one accords with the traditional outlook that the world cannot be much improved. Probably Bismarck, who was of a deeply conservative temperament, would have agreed with the English definition because in his famous aphorism he goes on to say that politics is “the art of the next best”. Obviously he was not too optimistic about what could be done through politics.

In my earlier articles I, like everybody else, quoted Bismarck’s aphorism in its truncated form “Politics is the art of the possible”. That certainly suggests that politics is an essentially Machiavellian pursuit in which interests count with hardly any moral constraints. But the full quote makes Bismarck, though a consummate Machiavellian politician, a meliorist of a conservative order. That is hardly surprising because in the modern age practically all of us are meliorist since we believe that the world can be made a better place through human effort. It is a belief in progress as the modern religion, the subject of the great book Progress and Religion (1929) by the Catholic cultural historian Christopher Dawson. In this connection the case of the novelist Thomas Hardy is instructive. His novels for the most part projected a pessimistic view of life and his last novel was so bleakly misanthropic that it outraged Victorian England. But in his advanced old age he declared that all along his politics had been “meliorist”. The case of Bismarck, for that matter, is also instructive. He believed that politics was the art of the possible in which he had to strive for the “next best”, but in unifying Germany, making it a great power, and creating the first modern welfare state, he attained the very best for Germany. The reason was that as a true son of the modern age the meliorist drive was very powerful in him.

mr_national_clotheHowever, while all of us are meliorist today, there are two different kinds of politics. In one there is a vision, an ideal, an ideology, and a program of action that goes with it. That is the “grand narrative” as the post-modernists call it, designed to cure all ills and establish an ideal society. We might call that ideological politics. It has been in abeyance since the collapse of Soviet communism, as it came to be recognized that the attempt to establish utopia inevitably leads to horrible dystopias. Today the only practitioners of ideological politics are the Islamist fundamentalists who, wherever possible, have established Hell on Earth. To ideological politics I would oppose what I call meliorist politics. There is an implicit ideology behind it, the ideology of modernity, more specifically what might be broadly called liberal democracy. There is no specific program associated with it, together with the illusion that its implementation will lead to ideal societies. It works on the following basic principle: identify what can be improved, and try to take effective action to improve it. Its purpose is to ameliorate the human condition, not to establish the ideal society. Meliorist politics is down-to-earth and pragmatic, and it can lead to magnificent achievements as in the case of the Germany of Bismarck whose modern-day avatar is Lee Kuan Yew.

I will now apply the basics of meliorist politics to the present political situation in Sri Lanka. The present Government is the outcome of the January 8 Revolution which had an implicit ideology behind it, the ideology of modernity, more specifically liberal democracy. It is in opposition to the Sinhala Buddhist ideology, more precisely racist neo-Fascism that constitutes the mass appeal behind the Rajapaksa forces. In practice it has to concentrate on three areas, the first of which is the economy. It has to achieve growth with equity, eschewing the gigantism that went with Rajapaksa’s dictatorial tendencies, best exemplified by the gigantic idiocies of Mattala Airport and Hambantota Port. In the area of democracy it has to firmly entrench it, so that we will not lapse again into the neo-Fascism of Jayewardene and Rajapaksa. A special emphasis has to be placed on good governance. The third area is the ethnic problem, for which the Government has to find a political solution. The Government may fail in that area, but it has to be seen at the very least to be earnestly trying to achieve a political solution.

Meliorist politics would require that above all the Government be judged by its fidelity to that program, in pursuit of the objectives of the January 8 Revolution. It would not be too fussy about the means used to achieve those ends, even if they smack of the Machiavellian, because politics is the art of the possible. The first essential of the Government is to retain power, and the second is to command an adequate Parliamentary majority to be able to carry out its program. Some hard inescapable realities have to be borne in mind. The UNP scored a clear victory but it can form a stable Government only with the help of cross-overs – which would make unavoidable a compromise of principles smacking of the Machiavellian. It was a clear victory but also a narrow one, which means that the appeal of the Sinhala Buddhist ideology remains formidable. A noteworthy fact is that the extremists in the form of the BBS and the JHU have been trounced. Paradoxically it would mean that the Sinhala Buddhist ideologues would be able to widen their mass appeal.. All these factors dictate a politics of compromise to enable the Government to further the January 8 Revolution.
The Government has engineered Parliamentary cross-overs which certainly entail a compromise of democratic principle, but thereby it has established a stable majority enabling it to carry out its program. It has used the National List to bring in dubious elements and worse, and even made them Ministers, but they are expected to be more dependable than the worthies who have been left out in the cold. They therefore strengthen the prospects for a stable Government. And a jumbo Cabinet has become the necessary instrument to establish a stable Government, without which it will not be possible to further the January 8 Revolution. We are witnessing politics as the art of the possible, but with a meliorative intent. It is the kind of politics that led to the mighty achievements of Bismarck and Lee Kuan Yew.

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Latest comments

  • 3
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    Ology, ology, ology; we have been bullshitted for too long.

    Ever since independence, our politicians have had one thing on their mind. Twist the democratic process in order to deny and deprive communities, then divide and rule.

    After all, the people who voted for a new president in January, and for good governance in August are only asking for law and order to be restored, a swift and sure system of justice, a programme of sustained reconciliation to bring our communities together, restitution to the many innocent people who suffered losses in the war, and the eradication of bribery and corruption. Is this too much to ask?

    That is why the majority of the electorate shunned the parties heavy on ‘ideology’ and other ‘ologies’. Can we trust the new government to deliver?
    Time will tell.

  • 2
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    Izeth Hussain Master Bates again!

    • 0
      1

      Let [Edited out] man have some fun! He’s using his time and his right resource. The good thing is that because of this he is stable – just as stable as the Government of Sirisena and Company is going to be.

      • 0
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        Do you think the sweating and panting by Ranil with Sirisena will produce the result? I mean will success come in a flood, or the efforts will simply fizzle out. Or will it be like the writer, who likes to punish, the keyboard, ending up with a conclusion that is weak, moronic, and frustrating:

        “And a jumbo Cabinet has become the necessary instrument to establish a stable Government, without which it will not be possible to further the January 8 Revolution.”

        Does not Izeth Hussain know that a Jumbo Cabinet in the current circumstances is a sure sign of dishonesty, bribery, corruption, extravagance, and self-indulgence all at the same time and at the expense of the tax payer?

        [Edited out]

        • 0
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          “dishonesty, bribery, corruption, extravagance, and self-indulgence”

          Above charges attack the very integrity of the being; both the Government and Mr Hussain. They are not fair unless you can justify. What’s wrong with trying to make the best of a bad situation? Mr Hussain has said this is the path followed by Bismark and Lee Kuan. Not good enough for you?

  • 0
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    Dear Funlover

    The charges of “dishonesty, bribery, corruption, extravagance, and self-indulgence” can be understood only in context. When the Common Candidate was groomed and presented to contest the Presidential Election in January, it was agreed that he will remain as President for 100 days during which Executive Presidency will be abolished. The understanding then was that Parliamentary elections will be held after the 100 days, and whoever could command a majority of MPs would be appointed Prime Minister to run the Government. The President was to remain ceremonial only. Then during the Parliamentary elections held in August, President Sirisena promised he would remain as President for one term only. Faint sounds that he should continue beyond that time frame have been heard – eg Kattankudy.

    The clear undertaking was to enact legislation that was necessary to establish clean government; also to investigate and punish the Criminals of the previous regime if proven guilty. We know from the President’s conduct this is not going to happen: for example the Attorney General is being a law unto himself, apparently enjoying the full support of the President. Examples: Avant Garde enquiry terminated. Coca Cola : no case filed against for contamination of drinking water of a million people. Contrast the case of the canteen guy who sold something for Rs 5 above the specified price being thrown in jail. The Rajapakse gang is free to roam at will.

    The first government had excuses for under achieving. But President Sirisena can now muster a 2/3rds majority if he wished to enact the constitutional amendments, and other promised legislation. He has shown he is not the least bit interested. Two reasons: First, he wants to keep the laws inadequate in case he manages to remain in power for a second term to perpetuate the current misdeeds without hindrance. Second, he does not want to get rid of the excuses available to him under a Parliament functioning within a weak legal framework, in order to be able to continue the “dishonesty, bribery, corruption, extravagance, and self-indulgence”.

    [Edited out]

    For more information about the President’s misdeeds and corrupt acts read (sometimes between the lines) CT articles in 13 September issue issue written by the following :
    Tisaranee Gunasekera https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/the-good-the-bad-the-uncouth/
    Emil van der Pooten https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/the-shape-culture-life-in-sri-lanka/
    Sarath de Alwis https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/in-the-reform-labyrinth/
    Nagananda Kodituwakku https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/the-national-list-fraud/

    As to your statement “Above charges attack the very integrity of the being; both the Government and Mr Hussain”, yes , they do. And Mr Hussain is not exempt for the simple reason he has been dishonest to the extent of white washing the President by quoting Bismark, knowing very well it is not relevant to the issue. The voters gave the UNP sufficient number of seats in Parliament, together with another 25 MPs or more, glad to join the Government with no extraordinary demands. Did Maithripala threaten Ranil with a repeat of the January 2007 fiasco. Of course Ranil succumbed due to his bitter experiences of the past.

    There was no justification whatsoever for the so-called “National Government”. It was engineered by Sirisena to maintain his hegemony, to keep the SLFP alive, with him as the Head, to cut Ranil’s throat anytime he determined. Sirisena deserves no certificate speaking to a good character. Politics is the art of the possible, yes, but the result of the election threw open many GOOD possibilities. Why choose the one that was stinking the most, and most expensive, in every sense, to the tax payer?

    Izeth Hussain knows all this and more. But in his inimitable style he must throw in all high faluting irrelevant stuff (masturbating) to throw the reader off guard before he says his piece “It is the kind of politics (Maithripala’s) that led to the mighty achievements of Bismarck and Lee Kuan Yew”. Bullshit. “Meliorist Politics” is a phrase used by him as a Director of a porn movie would use that unclad female. That concept (if at all it is accepted in intellectual circles) is totally irrelevant to the issues relevant to the composition of Sri Lanka’s Parliament.

    Bismarck and Lee Kuan Yew will be turning in their graves, because they would never have resorted to what Sirisena has done, or, is doing, and has no place with them. They are not that cheap. They had a vision and a mission. They were high achievers. What a comparison this Sirisena?

    If Hussain had an atom of self-respect he wouldn’t have authored his Article.

    • 0
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      Earlier this so-called Ahmed Reza referred to Master Bates more than once. He won’t clarify who that is. Is it a piece of moronic irrelevance on his part? Earlier he used the word “moronic” about the conclusion of my article.Probably he doesn’t know the meaning of that word. I suggest that he do two things – One, look in the dictionary. Two, look in the mirror.
      As for his lengthy idiocy of Sept 14, it is full of the half-truths and distortions typical of the Fringista attacks on me – Tamil anti-Muslim lunatic fringe racists. I suspect that Ahmed Reza is the nom de plume of a Fringista. – IH

      • 0
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        Dear Mr Izeth Hussain

        In my earlier comment I believe I used the word “moronic” most judiciously to describe your conclusion. Moronic is explained in the Freedictionary.com as: “A person of mild mental retardation having a mental age of from 7 to 12 years and generally having communication and social skills enabling some degree of academic or vocational education”. Considering that your Article is deceitful, consider that the description “moronic” is too kind. Re Master Bates, reading the name out loud, you will know what that is. You.

        Your qualification for that exalted status is the justification you provided President Sirisena for his Jumbo Cabinet. My comment elucidates Sirisena’s motives for installing a jumbo cabinet which includes the most corrupt individuals, some of them rejected by the electorate less than a month ago. The main reason was to perpetuate the “dishonesty, bribery, corruption, extravagance, and self-indulgence” of the previous regime – the raison d’etre for its banishment during the January and August elections.

        The great intellectual giant that you are, you manufactured your MELIORIST hotchpotch to give refuge to Sirisena in the cliché “Politics is the art of the possible”. Read my last comment equating that to the efforts of the Director of a porn movie, an obscenity. But you have conveniently disregarded the burning question for the electorate which is:

        Quote:
        Politics is the art of the possible, yes, but the result of the election threw open many GOOD possibilities. Why choose the one that was stinking the most, and most expensive, in every sense, to the tax payer?
        Unquote.

        Do you have an answer?

        Regarding personal questions you have raised about me: I am a Muslim who believes in Allah as described in the Surah Al Ikhlas and his Messenger. I do not associate partners with Allah. Unlike you I do not describe myself as a Sunni & Shia Muslim. I am guided by the Holy Quran. I take guidance from the Hadith, but reject anything therein directly or impliedly contradicting the Quran. It hurts me when writers with Muslim names bring shame on the Muslim Ummah by justifying, rationalizing, and / or promoting “dishonesty, bribery, corruption, extravagance, and self-indulgence”. You got a mirror?

        • 0
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          Ahmed Reza – your point about Bates still escapes me. Are you all there? I earlier described you as “deranged” and so did two other CT contributors. I cannot engage in serious dialogue with any one who uses abusive terms like “moronic” and whose comment is no more than an outpouring of utter hatred. Take a look at the letter by Hermes in today’s Island. Or perhaps you’d better not. It might derange you even more. – IH

          • 0
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            Dear Mr Izeth Hussain

            I tried four times to tell you about Master Bates. All four times my explanation was edited out. What more can I do? Don’t blame me. Perhaps you already have an idea, because that’s what you do best.

          • 0
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            Dear Mr Izeth Hussain,

            I read Hermes in The Island. He is extolling your virtues to the sky in the first paragraph. But it is said, the sting is in the tail. In the last paragraph Hermes says “I like IH ‘s candour in standing up for political realism even where it “entails compromising democratic principle”. Your words in quotes make it clear you will gleefully compromise democratic principle. That’s no compliment to a person projecting himself as a paragon of wisdom, and righteousness. That’s calling you a hypocrite. In your rush to savour the praise, you were blind to the censure.

            If you sincerely believe you are on the righteous path, you should ponder, why you are so obsessed with receiving accolades from other mortals.

  • 0
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    Dear Mr Izeth Hussain

    [Edited out]

    In your Article, you tried to give Sirisena a free pass, knowing very well his actions of the past two weeks, particularly installing that Jumbo Cabinet, were dishonest. I presented a reasoned challenge to your similarly dishonest conclusion. Instead of giving an answer, you have been manufacturing excuses, not to. If you are such a genius, intellectual, and what have you, here’s the challenge again. Please respond.

    Quote:
    The great intellectual giant that you are, you manufactured your MELIORIST hotchpotch to give refuge to Sirisena in the cliché “Politics is the art of the possible”. Read my last comment equating that to the efforts of the Director of a porn movie, an obscenity. But you have conveniently disregarded the burning question for the electorate which is:

    Politics is the art of the possible, yes, but the result of the election threw open many GOOD possibilities. Why choose the one that was stinking the most, and most expensive, in every sense, to the tax payer?
    Unquote.

    Do you have an answer?

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