By Kumar David –
Fractal symmetry of neo-right politics, nativism and religious fanaticism
“Methinks this world is oddly made
And everything’s amiss” ~ The Atheist & the Acorn by Anne Finch
In a piece written for the Economist of 8 October President Obama make some perceptive observations which echo what I have been saying for a long time. Here are quotes strung together to keep length manageable.
“(S)ome on the far left and even more on the far right (have) embraced a crude populism that promises a return to a past that is not possible to restore. . . (There is) anxiety over a range of forces of globalisation, immigration, technology, even change itself. . . (D)iscontent (is) spreading throughout the world . . . manifested in scepticism towards international institutions, trade agreements and immigration. . . (T)he discontent is rooted in legitimate concerns about . . . economic forces. Decades of declining productivity growth and rising inequality have resulted in slower income growth for low and middle income families. Globalisation and automation have weakened the position of workers and their ability to secure a decent wage”.
Though here and there Obama hasn’t chosen the best words, he has put his finger on fractal symmetry that I have been attempting to get across. In most of the West, Middle East and elsewhere the middle is being hollowed out, by what for want of a better term I call extremist fringes – Trump, Le Penn’s National Front in France, Denmark, Austria, Brexit, Germany’s AfD, Philippine Robin Hood Rodrigo, the overarching supremacy of ISIS over moderates, and the swing to the right in Latin America. Cultural nativism, economic xenophobia, ethnic nationalism and a petty bourgeois mentality are woven into a common thread.
Where Obama is wrong is including the “far left” since the turn to the left is not extremism but filling left-oriented social democratic spaces. Alexis Tsipras and SYRIZA have pushed out the ‘old-left’ PASOK socialists in Greece and now run a government leaning on a hard bargain with EU finance capital. Spain’s Podemos leader Pablo Iglesis is tied in complex negotiations with a variety of regional and small left groups in an attempt to drive the ‘old-left’ PSOE out of the centre ground and turn this into a left-centrist (not Leninist) space. The jewel in the crown is Britain’s Labour, the largest party by membership in Europe. Under Jeremy Corbyn it is returning from a Blair-Thatcher neoliberal wilderness to its social democratic roots.
Notwithstanding this imbalance in extremism of right and left, there does remain symmetry in that the centre is being hollowed. There is fractal symmetry is the erosion of the establishment and new diffusion of political power across the world. (I will comment on exceptions before I sign off). Fractal is the right word for this roughhewn symmetry. It is a pattern oriented, semi-mathematical term that denotes recurrences of shapes, sometimes contained within each other, on ever larger or progressively smaller scales. The accompanying lovely picture of a coral-shell makes the point.
Continuing nostalgia for the Rajapaksa era is a domestic case in point. In my more sharply political writings I write the Rajapaksa clan off as serial felons and spurn the regime as a truck rolling over human rights on the road to dictatorship. A sociological view must be more nuanced; it needs to explain the conundrum of continuing widespread support for this discredited outfit and the perplexing oddity of President Sirisena going off the deep-end and transgressing constitutional propriety and berating investigative and prosecutorial institutions. Maybe the outburst is to shield the swagger of his thuggish son, or an as yet under the table deal with GR’s family and a cover for damaged goods in the military. Or is Sirisena alarmed that corruption allegations made against him in the Australian media will be investigated? Rajan Philips disposed of President Sirisena’s colic idiosyncrasies with a needle sharp scalpel last week (Sunday Island, 16 October).
But no way can the substantial residual mass-level support for the ousted hoodlum regime be explained away so easily. To cut my story of public adulation of the Paksas short, I hypothesise that it is the same saga as the previous examples; a hollowing out of the bourgeois democratic centre much loved of liberals. At bottom Paksa-yearning has two dimensions; moral debasement of public political spaces and disillusionment with democratic establishments. Trump’s America and Paksas’ Lanka are oceans, mega-dollars and cultural continents apart, but fractal symmetry reaches over and illuminates manifest patterns. I have indulged in a litany of degeneration of current American politics not to argue that we are any better, but to say the opposite; Paksa hangover is much the same.
The self-confessed sexual predator
My Editor has the eye of a hawk and whips out his thick red pencil in a flash –on occasion though I sneak a trick past him – but surely he can’t stop me quoting the New York Times, Washington Post and Economist. These venerables revel in the predator’s foul adages: “I did try and f* her” and “I moved on her like a bitch”. In another leak the stalker advises: “Grab them by the p-y. You can do anything” – and he does not mean fondling the house cat. (These respected journals explicitly spell out the f- and p-y words). He is not only a misogynist; he is also a Hispanic hater and an anti-black racist bigot endorsed by a Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard. And then, the media has over and over again bared him as a brazen liar.
Buy my point is none of this; it is that despite this he retains a rock solid base which opinion polls put at not less than 39%; among white working-class males 55%. His egregious mien makes not a dent on this gushy base. How in pluperfect purgatory to explain this? Remember, the issue is not the debased, debauched candidate; no, the issue is what has happened to the ethical values of American polity when none of this matters and Trump remains a hero to so many? Among college educated white women, many presumably mothers of girls, his approval, despite public profanity and lechery, stands at a staggering 38%. Forget Trump, I am asking about America.
This is the context that makes the durability [at a guess more than half the Buddhist (sic!) population of our motherland] of the adoration that Paksa enjoys, unsurprising. Moral degeneration, larceny and crude violence are no impediment to political acclamation in Sri Lanka. There is fractal symmetry to moral and political debasement elsewhere. Trumps primitive white American nativism and Lanka’s ethno-chauvinism are birds of a feather. American economic discontent, anxiety at losing global pole position to China and death of manufacturing, are more alarming than current economic fears in Lanka. But in our case, civil-war functioned as an alternative destabiliser.
Nothing I said should be taken as a whitewash of Hilary Clinton or our yahapalana outfit. But I do insist that their peccadillos, though many, pale in significance when stood beside Trumpeting lewdness and falsehoods, or the Paksa era wickedness and malevolence. At some point quantity does translate into quality, and there are qualitative reasons why I would rather have Hilary and this Ranil-Sirisena contraption than the alternatives on offer. I have often spoken of the critical support that I extend to the Ranil-Sirisena contraption. Then this unavoidably begs the question of limits. So when should we (the left, and genuine liberal democrats if there are any) say enough is enough, withdraw “support” and retain only “critical”? I think not yet; not till the constitution is done and Jayampathy and Lal Wijenayake get a fair shot at turning out an at least half-decent draft.
It has become problematic to offer any support at all to President Sirisena after be barged into a matters he is ignorant of and forced abandonment of the Sampur power project; a blunder that will cost the nation not less than Rs 200 billion – see my 25 September article. I will return to the theme of limits of critical support in a few months and at the appropriate time.
Fractal symmetry is not all pervasive. It is absent at this point in time in certain nations and cultures; China, East Asia, Indo-China, and maybe India and Bangladesh. My guess is in Bangladesh terrorism is an imported quantity, admittedly feeding on old religious primitivisms. Chopping off hands and honour killings are as old as religion itself but hurling bombs at civilians is not a nativist trait. In India too religious obscurantism is as old as opium, but it does not manifest symmetry with the processes that I have described in this essay. China, Japan, the Far East and Indo-China too strike me as a different ball game.
What is the reason for this dissymmetry? One can only speculate but an obvious factor is that anxiety about the material future of life and family is less pronounced in countries whose economies are growing fast as in all these cases; India, China and the Asian “emerging markets” (yak, what a tacky term) included. Culturally the region is not in decline either; hence social and family values are less in decay. Maybe I am too gross a historical materialist to appreciate finer matters, so I leave it to refined minds to take over the discourse.