By Kumar David –
“Now is the worst not the best of times; an age of foolishness not wisdom; a season of darkness not light; more despair than hope” (with apologies to Dickens). Up till about three decades ago people took sides passionately. Aficionados of Soviet Communism were fervent in their defence of Stalin and admitted only minor peccadillos, while devotees of the “Free World” intoned that god spoke with an American accent. Loyalties were firm, confidences secure and leaders trusted. No longer. Every side is both accepted and rejected, leaders are doubted and a pall of distrust has befallen the world. Think Trump, hated by most Americans but worshiped by many; Biden is now thought incompetent by several of the 75 million who elected him; Putin, defender of Russian security, is dictator to domestic opponents; Boris is both colourful and clownish; Modi is a vengeful communalist and an aspirant to the Hindutva pantheon; Janus-faced Xi smiles on the economy but scowls at the Uighurs. At home, 69 lakhs in 2019, despised just three years on and now hanging-on upside down like a bat. Surely, we live in the strangest of times.
Interestingly, if you get together a set of three or four like-minded or so you thought, buddies with values you reckoned to be much the same and with social and political attitudes you imagined aligned, and initiated a mischievous chat on an assortment of topics, believe me the outcome will be a matrix of incongruities which cannot be rationalised by age, faith, community, ideology or education.
I have two objectives today, to prove this point and to suggest a minimal set for cohesion as otherwise we are but a cacophony of hyenas baying at the moon. Most of my readers know in which directions I point; very leftist, a bit populist, non-nationalist, pro Enlightenment, prepared to give liberalism its due and scandalously iconoclastic. You too can play this game, that is summarise your views on a few controversial topics of the day and then interrogate your friends; you will be surprised how much of a contrarian cross-matrix you come up with even among those you thought like mined.
Let me try an experiment and set down my views on four important topics of a general nature and see how many “agree”, “rubbish”, “well maybe” and “I don’t not agree” responses you, dear readers, tick off.
Ukraine-Russia-NATO: I am firmly of the view that NATO must not be allowed to expand further east, that is to include Ukraine, as this is a recipe for war in future years when circumstances change, unforeseen contradictions surface and new leaders arrive. I do not allege that Biden wants war, but any president is as transient as a noon day cloud. I firmly reject that Ukraine’s “right to self-determination” overrides other concerns. Yes, it is a nation whose independence must be recognised but this has to be constrained by the general good. The concern with averting future world-conflict must override specific rights. Maybe a parallel is this: Assume that the Sri Lankan state and its people earnestly desire a Chinese military base in Trinco, KKS or Hambantota, but it will almost certainly become casus belli for future war or invasion by India sometime down the line. Perhaps only a few readers will endorse this paragraph as a whole.
The rise of global right-extremism: Trump and his legions are a symptom more than a cause, but a symptom that like a sore spews puss once the abscess manifests. It is my view that such incongruities are an immanent property of the twenty-first century; a given of the world we live in that won’t go away when economic crises ease. There has been a transformation in the mind-set of big groups of social actors; ideologies have taken deep root; new technologies such as social media have created undreamt of fixities; money has filtered into the hands of millions of lowly actors and excess leisure has freed up opportunities. Even neo-Nazism will not evaporate. In a word, right-extremism has come to stay just as leftism, including at times left-extremism remained for centuries. Sure, they were driven by different class actors and goals. My view is not defeatism, it can be defeated; my point is that the enemy is stubborn and enduring.
Nationalism is bad, internationalism good: Marxists, broadly speaking, are of the view that the working people of the world have no nation and that cultural differences are used by oppressors to divide them. You are familiar with the old adage “Workers of the world unite; you have only your chains to lose and a world to win”. In modern times the need for internationalism goes well beyond the class struggle. Egypt and Sudan may attack Ethiopia’s multi-billion-dollar Grand Renaissance Dam as they fear being starved of adequate supplies of Nile waters. Chinese and Taiwanese nationalisms are deep and poised like cobra and mongoose. Faith does not open the road to salvation; language is as much a discordant pestilence as a tool of communication and literature. People celebrate their cultural diversity but these same people despise “the other”. I think it’s ok to be just a bit patriotic or nationalist but it had better be low key. Most important, we need to see ourselves as citizens of the world. Also think emissions and climate change.
The state: The state and its military are only to a small degree instruments of law and order acting on behalf of all of society and serving the people. The more vital role they play is serving the interests of the corrupt, protecting felons and bumming political sons of female dogs. Vide what the Court of Appeal did to 850 fabricated charges filed by the Sri Lankan State against the former Defence Secretary and former IGP. The state also held them in detention for nine months. No need to go ferreting out foreign dictatorships, there are scores of egregious cases on our doorstep. The argument I am making here is not damning the Rajapaksa regime, my point is that this is the nature of the state in general.
These four paras are an inventory of what I am deeply convinced of on four crucial topics without touching on what will surely be the most contentious of all – economic policy and orientation. Now dear reader if you cared to keep count of your ‘agree’, ‘disagree’ etc you will have before you a maze of ticks and crosses, scribbles and swear words. That’s my point, not your specific answers. We live in times of darkness not light, more despair than hope. It was not always so or to the same degree; it is the flavour of recent decades. I invite you to try it out, mentally picture your buddies and you too will arrive at a cross-matrix of contradictions. This piece is not a prank for your Sunday entertainment it has a serious purpose.
Then are we destined to impotency by infinite irresolution? Do “enterprises of great pith and moment with this regard their currents turn awry and lose the name of action”? No, I think not. The solution lies in the specifics and facts of each case, the concrete. People vary in their abstract beliefs, the right philosophical approach to my four sample questions etc, but they may have no difficulty in agreeing what to do in a specific instance. You could have different theories about Putin, Europe, strategy etc but readily agree that a NATO creep to the Russian border is impermissible. People are proud of their cultural heritage and may deem internationalism an alien concept but be outraged by the treatment of Dr Shafi Shihabdeen by Sinhala-Buddhist extremists. Some Americans may vote for Trump but damn the extremist far-right as a cancer. Nearer home many who do not have faith in Sajith-SJB, Champika or the JVP-NPP will not hesitate to reject Gotabaya. In real life the concrete conjuncture trumps the abstract and the theoretical.
The abstract and the theoretical are of the utmost relevance to the scholar and the intellectual but the political realist must focus on amalgamation; for example, pulling together votes from many “abstract” quarters. Where and how does the transactional differ from the opportunist? Another question to which there is no abstract answer; the proof of the pudding is always in the eating. SWRD was an invertebrate and opportunist, Mrs B for all my differences with her I concede was shrewdly transactional.
The last time the global strategic map was redrawn was when the Soviet Union went up in smoke. It is now on the drawing board again. All-out war is impossible, neither Putin nor Biden want it. However no Russian leader who permits NATO to creep up to the Russian border can long survive in domestic politics and Biden will hugely lose face if he concedes this principle. The Russian people can never forget the tens upon tens of millions of souls they lost and the devastations of four huge invasions in the last three centuries. Putin’s remark “Russia’s security concerns are non-negotiable” is just what this column repeatedly predicted months ago. On the other side Biden and court jester Boris are playing to recoup domestic approval ratings. The fundamental and the immediate are in shrill conflict. How may it end? Maybe Putin will agree to let the UN replace his “peace keepers” by a battalion or two of the traditional UN type, but no way will he go back on recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent countries. Still a gross compromise has to be worked out, there is no other way in this age of dismal cynicism.