By 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.
However, 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.