By Dayan Jayatilleka –
Both the regime ideologues and the anti-regime neoliberal ideologues view Lankan reality through the prism of ‘the Sinhala-Buddhist majority vs the minorities’, with the only difference between them being that for the regime it is a question of the ‘marginalized Sinhala-Buddhist majority’ vs the ‘privileged minorities’ while for the neoliberals it is, (as one said in a recent tweet) ‘marginalized minorities’ vs ‘Sinhala-Buddhist civilization state’.
The reality is contrary to this frame whichever way its angled, and came into sharp focus in a series of incidents, most dramatically the Mahara massacre. Except for the very rich and well-connected, which the Sanders-AOC wing of the US Democrats would call “the 1%”, “the 99%” of the Sinhala-Buddhist majority is also suffering at the hands of a heartless regime, not in its ethno-religious identity but in its material, socioeconomic being and as citizens. Either you believe that the overwhelming bulk of the citizenry is satisfied under this regime, or you have to accept that the majority of Sinhala-Buddhists who constitute a majority of the citizens, are suffering and disgruntled.
The regime’s Sinhala-Buddhism, though sincere as self-image, objectively functions as a disguise for the interests of a minority of crony capitalists, ex-military brass and a single clan. The regime’s cosmopolitan-liberal critics fall into the trap of their foe when they attack the Sinhala-Buddhists as a bloc and Sinhala-Buddhism as a communitarian identity.
Urging a New Liberalism and outlining its platform in a December 2020 essay in Prospect magazine entitled ‘The Future of Liberalism’, Timothy Garton Ash, Isaiah Berlin Professorial Fellow at St Antony’s College, Oxford, and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, begins by identifying what went wrong, opening the door to authoritarian majoritarian ultranationalism.
In a description that perfectly fits the Ranil-CBK-Mangala ‘cosmopolitan liberalism’ which created the space for the Gotabaya phenomenon and its triumph, Garton Ash writes:
“…Cosmopolitan liberals paid too little attention to the other halves of our own societies. We talked a lot about “the international community,” much less about national communities. By concentrating on the legitimate desire of diverse minorities for recognition of their complex identities, we failed to see how those whom early multiculturalists had assumed to belong to secure majorities now felt increasingly insecure and threatened in their own identities. This left the door open to the “white identity politics” of Trump and his ilk. The majority-feeling-like-a-minority resentment was heightened by liberal elites’…contempt for the half of society without higher education, especially when that other half expressed simplistic and politically incorrect views. Witness Hillary Clinton’s notoriously condescending phrase about ‘the basket of deplorables’.”
In a segment captioned ‘The State-Nation’, Garton Ash makes yet another observation enormously pertinent to the politically illiterate and obtuse Lankan cosmopolitan (neo)liberal intellectual-ideological conclave:
“This is uncomfortable territory for contemporary liberals. Some are altogether unhappy with the stubborn persistence of nations. But rather than drawing up our battered troops on a marshy frontline marked “internationalism versus the nation,” we need to regroup on the more defensible high ground of the nation defined in liberal terms…These are surely terms on which liberals can engage, arguing not about the need for a national political community—which was, after all, one of the main demands of European liberals in 1848, the year Marx published his manifesto—but about the definition and character of that community. As overnight frontier closures and national government responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have again demonstrated, the nation is just too important, and too strong in its emotional appeal, to be left to the nationalists.” (Ibid)
Ranil-Mangala ‘cosmopolitan liberalism’ or rather ‘globalist neoliberalism’ did just that, namely, leave the nation, with its importance and strong emotional appeal, to be monopolized by the nationalists.
Timothy Garton Ash makes a strong, explicit pitch for a liberal patriotism, which the Lankan Opposition democrats should adopt:
“Ours will therefore be an inclusive, liberal patriotism, capacious and sympathetically imaginative enough to embrace citizens with multiple identities…Such an open, positive, warm-hearted version of the nation is capable of appealing not just to dry reason but also to the deep human need for belonging and the moral imperative of solidarity. While the coronavirus pandemic initially triggered a bout of national self-isolation, it has also showed us the best in community spirit and patriotic solidarity. Liberal patriotism is an essential ingredient of a renewed liberalism.” (Ibid)
He mourns that post-cold war liberalism had ignored the warning of French political philosopher Pierre Hassner that the irrepressible human “yearning for community and identity, on the one hand, and for equality and solidarity on the other” would be re-born. Garton Ash writes that “…Community and identity are values (and human needs) often emphasized in conservative thought, while the socialist tradition has paid particular attention to equality and solidarity.” He then places his cards on the table: “…In the half-jesting spirit of the Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski’s celebrated 1978 essay ‘How to Be a Conservative-Liberal-Socialist,’ I propose that we should be conservative-socialist-liberals.” (Ibid)
It may be some interest to the Lankan reader that a critical revaluation and rectification of Liberalism had been suggested along broadly compatible lines by me in the late 1990s in a South Asian Liberal Review published by the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung and concurrently in the Lanka Guardian magazine, later reproduced in my 2014 volume ‘Long War, Cold Peace’. (See: ‘Liberalism’, in Chapter 5: Reflections and Perspectives, ‘Long War, Cold Peace’, Vijitha Yapa, Colombo 2014, pp 415-419.)
If as Timothy Garton Ash posits, ‘cosmopolitan liberalism’ led to a hollowing out and the consequent victory of the authoritarian ultranationalist Right in the First World/West, how much more dangerous has it been in the Global South (with Brazil and Sri Lanka as examples)? How much more appropriate would the splicing of his two formulae, ‘liberal patriotism’ and a ‘conservative-socialist-liberalism’ be, and how necessary the supplement or ‘booster’ of a left-liberal populism (Mexico’s President AMLO, Bolivia’s President Arce), in the societies of the South, such as ours?
The current crisis of humanity has four facets: the pandemic, climate change, economic recession and ultranationalist despotism. Just as the global rollout of the anti-corona vaccines will decide the fate of the pandemic in 2021, the outcomes in the other three crisis-domains will be decided by whether or not a ‘vaccine of ideas’ with the composition suggested by Timothy Garton Ash, Jake Sullivan, and above all Pope Francis in his latest encyclical Fratelli Tutti (celebrated by philosopher Charles Taylor), is produced and distributed among humanity.