28 October, 2020

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Nalin Vs Nirmal: Envisioning Real Utopias

By Niranjan Rambukwella

A few months ago Nirmal Dewasiri, the FUTA Convenor, history don and former X-Group was pulling out his hair at the ICES. He was trying, rather unsuccessfully, to understand why he, the X-Group and the progressive Left in general failed to beat Nalin De Silva’s racist and regressive ideas in the battle for public opinion.

He couldn’t have picked a better question to soul search on. The failure to discredit and demolish Jathika Chinthanaya explains many of the structural problems Sri Lanka faces today including minority accommodation, issues of justice and democracy.

Prof. Nalin De Silva

Prof. Nalin De Silva

Nirmal argued that Jathika Chinthanaya, Nalin De Silva’s worldview, provided the intellectual foundation for the South’s unwillingness to solve the national problem, fight against authoritarianism and approach a more progressive approach towards political and economic development. In a nutshell, he argued that Nalin’s Chinthanaya  was necessary for Mahinda’s present chinthanya  (as opposed to the 2005 Chinthaya) becoming the terrifying reality it is today.

Pradeep Pieris (recently appointed the Social Scientists Association’s treasurer) disagreed. He compared the bloodbath after a platoon of soldiers died in 1983, with the relative calm post the Dalada Maligawa bombings, when Chandrika urged the nation to be calm. Pradeep argued that political leadership and events more generally had a greater role in influencing the collective consciousness or less grandly long-term public opinion.

His argument raises an interesting counter-factual point that Nirmal must answer. Who would have won the Nalin-Nirmal debate if the war was lost (or rather not won)? Would Nirmal be the Southern public intellectual par excellence if the Sri Lankan Army failed to vanquish the LTTE and stalemate ensued? If events had been very different would the collective consciousness too change?

This is not a new problem. The relationship between history and ideology is not a debate we have the luxury to discuss in any depth. But I cannot agree with Pradeep. I don’t think that is enough. Perhaps the problem was not that ideology is powerless in the face of history but rather that in the 1990s the wrong ideology was deployed in the wrong way.

The Wrong Ideology

There are as many Marxisms as there are other isms in the world today. But the Great Marxist Soul Searching began when it became clear that America, rather than the Soviet Union, created a world closer to Marx’s Utopia. In Sri Lanka this soul searching became angst after the JVP crumbled when their second fatal insurrection failed. This is when Nalin and Nirmal, Jathika Chinthanaya and the post-Marxists of the X-Group came into their own. Where would the Sinhala intelligentsia now place their hopes and their dreams. Where would they build their new intellectual home?

Nalin made a strategic move. He moved away from Marxism and took the very post-modern ideas the X Group would grapple with to develop a regressive, essentialist vision of Sri Lankan society that resonated with the Sinhalas deepest chords. It was a village, wewa and vihara on steroids.[1] But it could be sold as it was clear, concrete and appealing.

What was Nirmal and the Progressive Left’s alternative? Too much post-modernism is the uncharitably short answer. Lots and lots of critique but precious little by way of vision or appeal – there was no real vision of social transformation, no hope  – no narrative of redemption. Quintus Cicero, when writing to his younger brother on the campaign trial, begged him to be liberal with his promises. No one wants to follow a narrative that doesn’t promise a better world, a better society, a better life.

The Liberal Alternative

I don’t like Rawls’ prose or his rather dry approach to political theory. But Rawls succeeds in three ways: he gave us a modern liberalism – a liberalism that can deal with the complexity of modern welfare states and complex, divided societies (at least in theory). He also gave us liberalism based on an instinct that any human can intuitively and almost viscerally access – fairness. But most importantly he almost gave us what Erik Olin Wright calls a “real utopia” – a utopia you can envision, visualize, concretise and almost think possible. In other words, a potential, a credible utopia. Repackaged appropriately, the Veil of Ignorance and Difference Principles (Wikipedia has decent entries on what these are) are wares politicians can sell in democracy’s marketplace.

For Nirmal to beat Nalin in the war of ideas he needs a credible utopia – a vision of Sri Lanka that looks better than Nalin’s and is more credible. Rawls’ liberal egalitarianism is a good starting point. First, it is more credible than a pure Sama Samaja. No one seriously thinks we are going to have a classless society anytime soon. Second, (I can’t believe I’m saying this) liberal egalistarinism is more intuitively appealing than Marxism. Fairness and equality without the crazy dogmatic, often totalitarian outcomes that logically consistent Leftist thinking leads to is rather appealing. Third, no one has really tried to sell liberalism in Sri Lanka. Liberals in Sri Lanka speak a doubly foreign language. They operate almost entirely in English and almost entirely using modes of thinking and speaking that are foreign. Drew Westen’s recent book The Political Brain provides excellent advice. Based on the premise “its not what you say, its what they hear”, he argues that liberals in America don’t appeal to people’s emotions they don’t give their ideas life, narrative or imagery. They speak to the rational brain, while political decisions are largely made by the emotional heart. Liberals have forgotten that when Cicero spoke people said how elegant, how erudite; but when Demosthenes finished speaking citizens marched. Liberalism speaks like think-tank wonks, not like Somapala.

Political ideology cannot be sold only through English speaking seminar series in Colombo 07 and study circles. The battle for modern public opinion is fought in every living room, on 21” screens. Winning the war of ideas requires developing stories that command human resonance, that make sense to any human, that pull at our heart strings.

The Right Ideology, the Right Rhetoric

The Left and the Liberals need to realize they have a great deal in common, and their unity of objectives will only increase with time as the Other (ugly Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism and the Rajapaksa Regime) grows stronger. They need to coalesce around what they share together – a thirst for justice and freedom. At this historical juncture, Rawls is probably a good place to start: the veil of ignorance has a deep commitment to equality that should suit the Left and concerns of justice lie at the heart of Rawls’ project. If these two forces can combine and package their ideas well and lead the country to re-imagine their future – to imagine a real utopia, their ability to shape this country’s future will transform, making justice and freedom just that much more feasible.


[1] Since we are in the business of quoting ICES today, for more on Jathika Chinthanaya go and see Harshana Rambukwella’s recent ICES working paper, Reconciling What? History, Realism and the Problem of an Inclusive Sri Lankan Identity

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Latest comments

  • 1
    1

    No time to waste on jokers in the caliber of Devasiri.Let me make it short and sweet.Get the likes of Devasiri,Wickramabahu,bundle them in to a three wheeler and dump them at the Kolonnawa garbage dump!

    • 0
      0

      good idea, but since You, Max Silva, ARE the Kollonnawa garbage dump, we need your permission first !
      Take your Hambantota water buffalo mentality and together with the Chief MEEHARAKA, jump in the marshes, so SL will be rid two Brain Dead maggots !

      • 0
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        Ruwan,
        I wouldn’t dump you at the Kolonnawa garbage dump.That is for the clowns.For you it is Nandikadal!

    • 0
      0

      Maxa idea

  • 0
    0

    “The behavior of groups cannot be understood solely as the aggregate behavior of individuals. It is not possible, for example, to understand modern warfare by summing up the aggressive tendencies of individuals. A person may behave very differently in a crowd—say, when at a football game, at a religious service, or on a picket line—than when alone or with family members. Several children together may vandalize a building, even though none of them would do it on his or her own. By the same token, an adult will often be more generous and responsive to the needs of others as a member of, say, a club or religious group than he or she would be inclined to be in private. The group situation provides the rewards of companionship and acceptance for going along with the shared action of the group and makes it difficult to assign blame or credit to any one person.” – https://www.google.lk/?gws_rd=cr&ei=j9R9Uv3mKoiIrQf2jIGIDQ#q=human+behaviour+in+groups&start=20

    Society acts as a group and human beings tend to blindly follow the leader. Where levels of education and knowledge is high, people will question and challenge the leaders. Thats when leaders resort to repressive and dictatorial tactics. The strength of democracy and secularism is that it allows the individual the space and opportunity to think, question and act according to his own conscience or ideology rather than blindly following a single leader. No ideology can claim to be perfect and no leader can claim to be perfect.

    • 0
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      It is the party-political CULTURE stupid!
      All political parties regardless of ideology – left-right-liberal – are equally part of the problem! In Sri Lanka today here is a scenario where politicians act as a single subliminal interest “group” in or herd to grab power, resources and perks from the people – in parliament. They are all into MONEY POLITICS, not ideology or ethnicity which is a facade for the real business of rent-seeking.. Check out the 2 dictators – Rajapakssa and Ranil Wickramasinghe – not much difference in party political culture..
      But political scientists who suffer from a “poverty of theory’ in Sri Lanka are fixated on old divides – ideological and ethno-religious lines. – rather than analyse visible political culture and collusion among ALL political parties to engage in rent-seeking and money politics against the public good and the People.
      Today the scenario is – politicians vs. peoples with the military assisting the former.

  • 0
    0

    So, NIMAL RANJITH DEVASIRI is a history SPECIALIST ?

    Whose or what history ?

    Is what he specialized any relevance to Sri Lanka ?

    I can imagine people with useless PhD theses are screaming the loudest.

    • 0
      0

      JimSofty,
      I am afraid i can’t agree with you.Lets make a historian out of this Deavasiri dude.He [Edited out].But if we are to make an international historian out of this Devasiri dude,we must make a change of name.[Edited out]

    • 0
      0

      wht about you Jimsoffty?

  • 0
    0

    “Who would have won the Nalin-Nirmal debate if the war was lost (or rather not won)? Would Nirmal be the Southern public intellectual par excellence if the Sri Lankan Army failed to vanquish the LTTE and stalemate ensued? If events had been very different would the collective consciousness too change? “

    GARBAGE IN – GARBAGE OUT kind of logics.

    This is like if the Almighty were to be up there, what would have happened ?

    You should have written something that does not need IF.

  • 0
    0

    This Nalin Silva is [Edited out] opportunist. A mathematician who does scientific research work in collaboration with NAATHA DEYYO! An uneducated uncivilized scoundrel!

  • 0
    0

    Soul Searching of the leftists have already begun. Do we have to say more if arch leftist Bahu has become a refuge at Srikotha. With that single act Bahu has made known his utopia. Despite his blown up stature and big talks, Bahu has never risen beyond being a member of a municipality. So, no further he can fall.

    But the JVP is a different kettle of fish. Bahu has done his pole vaulting, because he has realized at long last that the JVP had crumbled not because their fatal second insurrection, but more so they have missed the bus when they hadn’t seized the opportunity to grasp the average man’s thinking of ‘his’ utopian society. Perhaps Bahu thinks he has grabbed a large log now but all others know what he grabbed is a crumbling straw.

    Justice and freedom for the so called liberal intellectual is different to that of the average man. Leave aside the jargon by the intellectuals, only MR understood how average man’s mind work and responded to it. Isn’t that what matters and isn’t that’s why MR keep winning election after election?

  • 0
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    Hi! what is a “sinhala intelligentsia”? Is intelligence categorized by nationality or is it something characteristic of a species – in this case the human one? Or by some chance are you talking about “ideology” which is the straw clutched by the person whose brains have been removed?

    The way the problem has been stated here, and the fact that this nalin is actually one of your professors, shows what the problem is and where it lies.

  • 0
    0

    A thought provoking and practical proposition. The sane voice must be heard in every home and by every ear in Sri Lanka. Since the mass-media has largely failed us and English is not the language understood by many in Sri lanka, the dialogue in Sinhalese/ Tamil must be taken to every village and town. Only social activism of this kind will work in the Sri Lanka of today, despite the technogical innovations of the 21st century. The Simple Simon must get the message and become part of the vision.

    Dr.Rajasinham Narendran

  • 0
    0

    Jatike Cintanaya can be summed up as follows: third rate Sinhala education or illiteracy for the rural poor, and western education and English for Nalin de Silva and his progeny. Nalin de Silva should tell readers where his son is being educated. The origins of Jatika Cintanaya are in Nalin de Silva’s inability to adjust to the culture of his school, the top western Royal College. He secretly wants western knowledge and the western way of life, including its communal pleasures like ballroom dancing, but does not have the honesty to admit that, so he denounces the west and its culture. His love of the west becomes a hate of the west. This is all there is to Jatika Cintanaya.

    Its effects however are devastating to the nation because it misleads the poor rural youth into believing that English and modernity are western, and should be shunned, when in reality these constitute the ONLY path the rural poor have to better their living conditions. Jatika Cintanaya is the opium of the rural poor youth. It keeps them in bondage to poverty and low status while giving them a “high” induced by the opiate of “national culture” and “heritage”.

    Nalin de Silva owes everything he has, including the position he enjoys as a university teacher, to his western education. He shares the Cintanaya of the westernized Brahamin caste of the 1950s who, pretending to help the masses by doing Sinhala Only, prevented them learning English, and with that, closed the sole path they had to education, modernity and prosperity. Nalin de Silva and his class have a vested interest in keeping the poor in ignorance, because it is easy to mislead the ignorant into accepting their domination. An educated, liberated population will not tolerate feudal ideas like those of the Jatika Cintanaya, and Nalin de Silva will loose his rule over them.

    It is a nice coincidence that this great nationalist has a Portuguese name. He will have to either admit that he is Portuguese or that his Sinhala ancestors were forced to change their name by imperialists. If the latter, why did he not heed his master Anagarika Dharmapla and change his name back into a good Sinhala Jatika name like Puran Appu or Bandi Rala?

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