22 May, 2022


Politics As The Art Of The Possible: Free-Will & Good Governance

By Kumar David

Prof. Kumar David

Prof. Kumar David

I am Zarathustra the godless; where do I find my equal? All who give themselves Will and renounce Submission, they are mine”. – Friedrich Nietzsche in “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”

It is in the nature of things that people curse their government, sometimes justly at other times with no thought for the art of the possible. One could say this of ordinary life too; parents desire impossible achievements from their progeny, fans demand Bradmanesque feats from mere Smiths and Sangas, and your salary never matches your true worth, eh? Two samples in the current political universe spring to mind: Is Obama a miserable failure? Is the government of Lanka falling short of reasonable expectations? I will explore both and reach opposite conclusions, but a few paragraphs on free-will may be useful as a primer. I can only touch on the topic but I take the chance name a dazzling array of people; knowledgeable readers may like to expand on what they said on the subject.

Two great religions (Christianity and Islam) are deficient in their depth of treatment of the free-will theme due to their peremptory accent on “Thou shalt” injunctions; a third is plain wrong in its caste-cursed Bhagavad Gita; introverted Buddhism is not much use in this discourse either. But other traditions have transcended these limitations and explored the art of the possible. Zarathustra, Socrates, Heraclitus the foggy (grandfather of the dialectic), then through Hamlet and the European Enlightenment to Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche. It is an issue seminal to materialist philosophy but Marx was dead when Nietzsche published. What’s the bottom line? Stated blandly and banally, as befits an intellectual mediocrity of my calibre, it’s about what is possible and not possible in given circumstances.

Chronologically, first comes Zarathustra (Zoroaster to Westerners) whose dates are uncertain, somewhere between 900BC and 1200BC; modern scholarship places him contemporaneous or before the Rig Veda reflecting themes and thoughts of a pastoral people – his Gathas and Yasna Haptanghaisti. He lived in north-eastern Persia or just beyond; perhaps in ancient Bactria between the Hindu Kush and the Amur Darya. What is important for this essay is his discourse on the struggle between good and evil which Nietzsche twisted (Thus Spoke Zarathustra) into the notion that free-will is only recognition of necessity, hence the ‘will’ is the genuine fountain of the ‘true’.

Is Ranil’s reluctance to expedite the journey of the Rajapaksas to a well-earned sojourn in the lock-up or a merited trip to the gallows a recognition of the limitations of the possible in the current conjuncture; an intelligent acknowledgement of the doable? Nietzsche it is said glorified the will – but that’s wrong. He recognised the inevitability of the practical. So how do we separate the undoable from the weak-kneed? Are Ranil’s choices erroneous, do his circumstances differ from the constraints that cripple Obama? But before I dwell on that I grant that, of course, at times ‘will’ can be wrong. Napoleon is credited with saying “The word impossible is found only in the dictionary of fools”; but wasn’t it folly to march the Grand Army all the way to Moscow to be snuffed out in the Russian winter?

Western philosophy and free will

Socrates gave it a very Socratic twist. With him the moral aspect takes precedence; he identified virtue with knowledge and held that it is impossible to deliberately do what one perceives to be wrong. Hence the good is identical with the true and imposes itself on the will and the intellect. Remember his question “What is courage?” His disciples said “bravery”, “fearlessness”, “heroism” etc. “No” said the old sage, “Courage is presence of mind”. Were Zarathustra, Socrates and Nietzsche converging? And what else could Marx have meant: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under circumstances they choose, but under circumstances existing, given and transmitted from the past”.

Christian philosophy from the time of Aquinas, of Aristotelian predilection, diverged sharply from this. Aristotle held that vice is voluntary and Aquinas that man can freely choose and that the ability of the intellect to conceive the universal is the root of freedom. Jesuits desperately wish to reconcile free-will with the providence of god, but how can this be done without infringing man’s freedom? Their answer springs from the writings of Luis de Molina which in my view fail, but to explore that will take us too far afield. Anyway the simple gospel answer bypasses these disputations: “Jesus said: I am the resurrection and the life; he that believeth in me though he were dead yet shall he live” – John 11:25.

Obama denied free-will

The defining characteristic of the Obama presidency is the absence of free-will; the President cannot turn this way or that; he is barricaded on all sides. Neither healthcare, nor budget, nor trade deals, nor global treaties, nor defusing the mad gun lobby, nothing can he do without encountering visceral hatred from a slice of the people and a Republican controlled Congress (now both houses). The looney fringe, red-necks, the rich and the white evangelical middle-classes hate this black intellectual Hamlet of a president. Never before has US politics been so divisive, hate filled and partisan. That Obama can’t get much done at root is not the lack of will but the presence of leg-irons and handcuffs. Meaning, even if he were strong willed he will be obstructed at every turn.

He is “the most powerful man on earth”, they say, but he bereft of free-will and a victim of circumstances. Some Americans in their political dotage hanker after a president like themselves; coarse, semi-educated and intolerant. The Donald Trump surge is no mishap; it exemplifies a part of the nation. The point of this outpouring is not to harangue America and its people but to drive home that this piece is about freedom and choice – or the absence of it – even in the domain of presidents and kings. This is true even if you dislike Obama and think him feeble and ineffective risk taker. Whatever the personality of the incumbent, a president in such circumstances is crippled.

Ranil sans political-will

Are the circumstances constraining decision making comparable here in Lanka? We should focus on Prime Minister Ranil, he is the source of power; the president is comparatively ineffective and in any case suffers from split loyalties between government and an SLFP suspended in semi-oppositional jelly. Let us grant that the PM is the source of power and calls the shots; then responsibility for the principal acts of commission and omission must accrue to him. Responsibility for continuing widespread use of torture by the military however is a crime for which both must be held responsible.

We now broach the question of free-ill versus necessity. To what extent is the failure to go after the rogues and killers of the last decade justifiable as impractical and undoable? The rump of the old regime will agitate and destabilise society, create havoc in parliament and the government will fall, the Rajapaksas hold the race card in reserve, biding their time for when the new constitution is floated or the “hybrid mechanism” initiated. For these reasons, apologists argue, it is best to let sleeping dogs lie.

Abstract discourse about the political-will, necessity and constraints on free-will get us nowhere. Answers lie in judgements pertaining to the concrete conjuncture – Lenin was exemplar par excellence. What’s your judgement on this government’s diffidence? Mine is that the supposed constraints are overblown; firm action can be taken without fear; crooks and murders can be prosecuted; racism should be confronted earlier, not later. Procrastination is storing up trouble, not easing it. This is diametrically at variance with the picture I painted of the predicament of the Obama Administration. It’s a judgment and mine contradicts that of the UNP high command. Where it sees danger I see opportunity missed; where it sees a need to go easy I see diluted political-will. Worst, the government will, in time, be compelled by challenges hurled at it by the very forces it so fears, to take precisely the hard actions I am canvassing. By then it would have lost valuable time; not fatal but hardly good reason for procrastinating.

Ranil and the exercise of free-will

In another dimension however the Prime Minister has exercised his free-will; acts of commission and omission in the economic domain. Think over the policy spectrum of the last twelve months. What is striking is a policy drive in the direction of trade and a lacuna in state-led developmental activism. Sure, trade pacts with India, Pakistan, the US and the Asia Pacific region are crucial; no nation can prosper or survive in this age without integration into the global economy and an internationalist ethos. That’s not my bone; my point is that the government is blind-sided on active, interventionist, industrial, agricultural, services-oriented (except finance) policy. It is also making a cardinal mistake in failing to nurture the informal sector and in contemplating Megacity urbanisation without according this sector a central role. The PM is indeed exercising his free-will in choosing international trade and the private sector as his battering ram to drive forward Lanka’s development, and he is exercising his free-will in refraining from engagement in an activist production oriented policy drive.

This is not an accident; it derives from the PM’s intellectual orientation, quotidian mantras and ideological tastes. His thinking is: “Create opportunities for private capital through trade, structural reform (curb populism) and fiscal austerity. Private sector competitiveness is the engine of growth. State led objectives are superfluous if not harmful”. This is different from Lee Kwan Yue, profoundly different from Deng Xiao Ping, and today it is a far cry from how Modi is approaching development in India. Will Harvard’s Development Centre lay out the framework for RW as the Chicago Business School and Milton Freidman did for the killer Augusto Pinochet or MIT’s “experts” lubricated a gigantic theft of state resources by Russian oligarchs in Yeltsin’s first years? Or will RW swing to the centre again under trade union pressure? The answer is flying in the wind.

I have been fussing, week after week, about invalid restraints on political-will in governance issues and inappropriate exercise of free-will in the economic domain. Decision makers of course take no note of my scribbles but I hope readers, who are more important in the long run, go along with my way of thinking about governance and development.

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Latest comments

  • 0

    I must say I am bamboozled by Professor Kumar David’s knowledge on all things, now extending to western philosophy. I mean, how can one man have such a lot of brains from Engineering to politics to philosophy.

    Hope he will get the opportunity one day to put all this knowledge to some good use.

    Keep amusing us Professor. Though it is Wikipedia knowledge we are bamboozled. Thanks.

    • 0

      Yes, yes. There are many who become instant philosophers these days with the help of Wikipedia which often gives wrong information.

      Hope Professor David does not belong to this category!

      • 0

        Bamboozled and Slayer, it seems that you two are not familiar with Wikipedia either (that is apart from being admittedly clueless about Western philosophy). I tried searching Wikipedia for compacted and coordinated presentation of the themes like the author attempts, and failed to find it.

        Bamboozled, have you passed even A-level philosophy; this stuff is not all that esoteric? And Slayer, please point out the errors; it will be useful for us all to know David’s errors so that we can learn more from you.

  • 0

    If the present government falls, the main cause for same will be its procrastination and nothing else!
    Sengodan. M

    • 0

      Who is responsible forthat procrastination please?

  • 0

    Following the theme of the article, if Jean Paul Sartre is to be given any merit to his words, and to paraphrase him, humans are condemned to choose and make choices. Will, therefore, becomes a thing of fearful responsibility.

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