20 January, 2022

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Liberal Dogmatism & Sri Lanka’s Future

By Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

At the height of the first wave last year, the JVP and the FSP requested the government to look to Kerala. Led by the Communist Party, the Kerala administration responded well to the virus, deploying State resources and ensuring no one was left behind. It was a litmus test of what governments ought to do during a public health crisis. Although Colombo opted for a different strategy that combined army officials with medical professionals, the second, third, and fourth waves have made us realise the flaws of sticking to it dogmatically.

Colombo’s liberal intelligentsia, as well as the MPs they are attached to, predictably focused more on the West. In Donald Trump’s mismanagement of the pandemic and the tensions it generated, they saw a confirmation of their worst fears. Yet while prognosticating about the dangers of populist politics at a time of a pandemic, very few of them acknowledged that left-of-centre and leftist administrations, Kerala included, had handled it better than most. Indeed, they even failed to note that Jacinda Arden, heroine of countless liberal narratives here and elsewhere, hailed from a centre-left administration.

Supporters of the present government have of course been disdainful of socialist and liberal concerns and recommendations. Thus, they have been as contemptuous of Kerala’s record as they have of Arden’s. Although the government’s handling of the pandemic has obviously seen better days, they stick adamantly to their belief that, as the president himself put it, he and his men are doing it the best. Even if they admit to the flaws of the government’s plans, they would point out that the virus does not always respond to the measures that countries like Kerala have enforced, and that, in many ways, we have performed better.

While the regime has downplayed liberal concerns and socialist recommendations, its liberal critics have been no less apathetic about the latter. This is to be expected. Liberalism in Sri Lanka has almost always been in the economic domain, not the social. Calling for reductions in government intervention, Colombo’s liberal intelligentsia has, for the most, been blind or myopic to the contradiction between their economic paradigms and the social discontent those paradigms have generated elsewhere. That is why you hardly come across free market ideologues mentioning Kerala, even less commending it, and why they praise New Zealand’s pandemic response only on the grounds of its leader’s gender.

These ideologues continue to spin their narratives about the need for lesser governments and greater globalisation, failing to note that it is in countries where States have taken less proactive measures that have yielded higher cases and fatalities. It is also in regions worst affected by vaccine inequalities, a result of untrammelled globalisation, that have produced and continue to produce viral variants, perpetuating the pandemic and thereby reinforcing those inequalities even more. Anyone who thinks that globalisation and integration can save us from the pandemic, accordingly, is only seeing half the picture. Hence, for the virus as for the economy in general, a different paradigm remains the call of the hour.

Western governments are coming to terms with this. For all its flaws, Joe Biden’s economic programme is taking the US back to the New Deal days. In the run up to the elections last year, Jake Sullivan rang the alarm on neoliberalism, calling it a failed policy. Even though I am sceptical about whether Washington can pull off a New New Deal, it is true, as a recent interview in Jacobin puts it, that Biden is emphasising a bigger role for the State. In foreign policy his administration remains as predictable as ever. But during a pandemic of this scale, domestic policies are what count more. Hence, while clearly not socialist, the president and his men have committed themselves to a new, different programme.

Yet Sri Lanka’s political liberals, who are in reality economic liberals, remain blind to these developments. Then again, they remain blind to the link between the sort of policies they advocate and the discontent those policies have provoked. They also choose to ignore how the countries they look up to have themselves reversed those policies.

Despite its Third Way Giddensian base, the Democratic Party understood the rightwing surge which decades of neoliberal globalisation had unleashed in the American heartland. Though stopping short of conceiving a radical programme, the younger, more progressive party rank-and-filers realised that continuing with such policies, and placing their advocates at the helm, would damage their prospects for an electoral comeback. Revisiting, revising, and revamping old strategies, they adopted new tactics which could win them working and middle class constituencies, without caving into a rightwing fringe.

I don’t know why Sri Lanka’s liberals don’t get this, but I can guess. Among the themes that Rajiva Wijesinha explores in his fascinating book Representing Sri Lanka is what he calls “the death of liberal Sri Lanka.” The title is tongue-in-cheek: he’s not talking about what liberals in the country dread, namely the rise of authoritarian regimes and specifically those led by the Rajapaksas, but what they ought to be dreading, namely the death of liberalism among liberal ranks themselves. Wijesinha is candid about how liberals operate in the country. In particular, he points to three developments within their circles: the tribalism entrenched in their organisations, their affiliations with individuals one just cannot associate with the ideas they are supposed to be embodying, and their obeisance to foreign interests.

Wijesinha reveals how the very same liberal institutions set up to counter authoritarianism ended up going back on their foundational tenets. For me, this has largely been on account of the presumption, ridiculous to me and I believe to Wijesinha himself, that to be a liberal in Sri Lanka is to be a card-carrying member of the United National Party.

Of course, the UNP remains the only national party allied with the International Democrat Union, that very distinguished organisation which has, to the best of my knowledge, failed to see or note the contradiction between the UNP’s commitment to the tenets of liberal democracy and its strangling of them within the party hierarchy. Yet, even more ironic have been the hosannas lavished on it by self-defined liberal cosmopolitans, a point Dr Wijesinha notes in his devastating unravelling of their paymasters, associates, and acolytes. Underlying his critique from the perspective of a saner liberalism, he strikes a deeply regretful note. His reading of these developments does not make for happy reading, though I think it should be read, for the simple reason that no one else has written on those developments.

Perhaps the biggest mistake any political commentator in Sri Lanka can make is to define himself or herself negatively in relation to the rightwing fringe. Yet self-defined liberals, who would probably not be classed as liberals elsewhere, insist on describing themselves as such on account of their opposition to (predominantly Sinhala) nationalist politics. Here, as I have mentioned several times in this column, they fail to distinguish between their championing of economic freedom on the one hand and their tacit acceptance of a government that can “bring about” such freedom, even at the cost of civil liberties, on the other. This is hardly the ideology espoused by the likes of Chanaka Amaratunga and Rajiva Wijesinha, but it is in line with the sort supported by their less than brilliant successors.

The bottom line to all this is that nationalists of the most tribalist sort are no different to liberals of the most tribalist sort. Unfortunately for the country, nationalists and liberals alike tend to be more tribalist than most, a point that might come as a surprise for those who associate nationalism with its worst excesses, yet compare it favourably with liberal politics of whatever persuasion. It does not take one much, however, to realise that both have been caving into the same kind of insularity, which lends credence to the point I have made frequently in this column about neoliberals and neoconservatives occupying the same space. Indeed, to rethink Benjamin Barber’s very flawed essay, McWordlists have become the provocateurs and, inadvertently, fellow travellers of the Jihadists.

I don’t see why we have to continue with such a state of affairs. As recent developments in Chile, Peru, and Mexico show, dissatisfaction with rightwing neoliberalism and centre-left reformism has fed into radical formations offering alternatives to both. While many of these formations express an antipathy to politics of all shades, as René Rojas in a recent piece to Jacobin Magazine puts it, it is when the Left has banded together, without letting itself be splintered on personal and factional lines, it has been able to organise the broadest possible resistance against authoritarian regimes and their purported oppositions.

Sri Lanka’s cosmopolitans just don’t possess this kind of moral firepower, partly because they have become toothless against more powerful political movements and ideologies, but also because they themselves have, while opposing the prospect of a Rajapaksa presidency, contributed to a state of affairs which made such a prospect possible. Of course, Sri Lanka’s liberal and left-liberal circles continue to regurgitate old ideas, proving themselves to be no better than their nationalist-populist counterparts. Yet rising social discontent, and dissent, threatens to render their best laid plans insignificant, if not irrelevant. Far from bemoaning such a development, I think we should pay close attention to it.

*The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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