By Mohamed Harees –
Sri Lanka has been facing a dire economic and borrowing crisis, as foreign exchange reserves dwindle, hindering its ability to repay a mountain of debt as the Island nation struggles to recover from the pandemic. Shortages are also pushing prices higher for many consumer goods, from bread to construction materials to gas (in addition to explosions!), triggering protests among Sri Lankans fed up with the prolonged crisis. Gross mismanagement, chronic corruption, nepotism and abuse of power in the hands of few elite families has precipitated another alarming crisis – a crisis of social trust and this is worrying.
Sri Lanka is having a moral convulsion. Levels of trust in this country—in our institutions, in our politics, and in one another—are in precipitous decline. And when social trust collapses, nations fail. People feel disgusted by the state of society. Trust in institutions plummets. Moral indignation is widespread. Contempt for established power is intense. The central focus of democratic governance is social trust. Social trust is a measure of the moral quality of a society—of whether the people at the top and institutions there are trustworthy, whether they keep their promises and work for the common good. When people in a society lose faith or trust in their institutions and in each other, the nation collapses.
Gotabaya has become an epitome of this process of moral convulsion, being in the process of shredding every norm of decent governance, wrecking every institution he touches and reversing every (almost) policy he introduces. Like the proverbial Mahadenamutta, he has an equally disgusting team of Golayaas as well – both ministers and civil servants. Basically, the Rajapaksas have undermined the basic credibility of the government and arouses the suspicion that every word and act that surrounds them is a lie and a fraud. Specifically, the Rajapaksa brand was thus the final instrument of this crisis, but the conditions that brought Gotabaya to power and made him so dangerous at this moment were decades in the making, and those conditions will thus not disappear even if he steps down (now).
Under various Post Independent governments, quality of governance suffered with its tempo exponentially increasing during this regime. Public institutions and the Sri Lankan social order crumbled and were revealed as more untrustworthy still. The nation had many historic opportunities and chances, in crisis, to pull together as a nation and build trust; but did not. That has left this country a broken, alienated society caught in a distrust doom loop. Finally, they threaten to undermine the legitimacy of our democracy and incite a vicious national conflagration that has left us a charred and shattered nation.
The ultimate victims are our future progeny. Many young people look out at a world they believe is screwed up and untrustworthy in fundamental ways. The emerging generations today enjoy none of the sense of security, their elders once enjoyed as they are growing up in a world in which institutions are failing, financial systems collapsing, rulers plundering and families are becoming fragile. They are living in the age of certain disappointment. Millennials and members of Gen Z have grown up in the age of that disappointment, knowing nothing else. This has produced a crisis of faith, across society but especially among the young. It has produced a crisis of trust. As the ethicist Sissela Bok once put it, “Whatever matters to human beings, trust is the atmosphere in which it thrives.”
Falling trust in institutions is bad enough; it’s when people lose faith in each other that societies really begin to fall apart. In Sri Lanka, the devious regimes have been using racist politics to divide people and mistrust each other at grassroot levels, where interpersonal trust is in catastrophic decline. Is mistrust based on distorted perception or is it a reflection of reality? Are people increasingly mistrustful because they are watching a lot of negative media and get a falsely dark view of the world? Or are they mistrustful because their government and rulers are less trustworthy, lie, cheat, and betray their trust more than they used to? People become trusting when the world around them is trustworthy. When they are surrounded by people who live up to their commitments. When they experience their country as a fair place. As social analysts put it, trust levels are a reflection of the moral condition of a nation at any given time. High national trust is a collective moral achievement. High national distrust is a sign that people have earned the right to be suspicious. Unsurprisingly, the groups with the lowest social trust in the country are among the most marginalized and vulnerable such as the minorities, poor and even young adults.
In periods of distrust, surges of populism are rampant. People are drawn to leaders who use the language of menace and threat, who tell group-versus-group power narratives. You also get a lot more political extremism. People seek closed, rigid ideological systems that give them a sense of security. As Hannah Arendt once observed, fanaticism is a response to existential anxiety. When people feel naked and alone, they revert to tribalistic instincts. Their radius of trust shrinks, and they only trust their own kind. This is what happened in November 2019 when Gotabaya and his kind used racism and sought people’s vote on grounds of extremist threat to national security. People drew close to this line of populism and the rest was history; finally deceit and disappointment became the ultimate reality. Consequently, Sri Lanka became a land mired in more and increasing distrust. Sri Lankans haven’t just lost faith in institutions like the law, the government, the police; they’ve come to loathe them, even to think that they are evil. The rot in these structures has sadly spread wider – to be a rot in societies and families.
What can the people do in these circumstances to build social trust? Can they draw from history? The Age of Precarity is here. The stench of national decline is in the air. A political, social, and moral order is dissolving. Sri Lanka will only remain whole if people can build a new order in its place. Time is of essence and time to change is NOW. The people can rightfully blame Gotabaya, his Ministers or whomever they like, but in reality this was a mass moral failure; of those who brought them to power. This was a failure of social solidarity, a failure to look out for each other. cultures are collective responses to common problems. But when reality changes, culture takes a few years, and a moral convulsion, to completely shake off the old norms and values. The culture that is emerging, and which will dominate society’s life over the next decades, is a response to a prevailing sense of threat. This new culture values security over liberation, equality over freedom, the collective over the individual.
When moral convulsions recede, the national consciousness is transformed, new norms and beliefs, new values for what is admired and disdained, arise, and power within institutions gets renegotiated. Shifts in the collective consciousness occur amid fury and chaos, when the social order turns liquid and nobody has any idea where things will end. Afterward, people sit blinking, battered, and shocked ask: What kind of nation have we become? A new culture is dawning.
Historians have more to offer than political scientists, because they can cite examples of nations that have gone from pervasive social decay to relative social health not only in our own past, but in other nations too. People in these eras lived through experiences parallel to ours today. They lived with horrific political corruption and state dysfunction. And they experienced all the emotions associated with moral convulsions—the sort of indignation, shame, guilt, and disgust we’re experiencing today. The cultural shifts we are witnessing offer more safety to the individual at the cost of clannishness within society. People are embedded more in communities and groups, but in an age of distrust, groups look at each other warily, angrily, viciously. The shift toward a more communal viewpoint is potentially a wonderful thing, but it leads to cold civil war unless there is a renaissance of trust. There’s no avoiding the core problem. Unless we can find a way to rebuild trust, the nation does not function.
Trust builds when people feel they are part of a community- or society-wide enterprise that takes their concerns and voices into account—particularly in circumstances where trust is low. When people feel they’re blocked from opportunities because of their gender, race, age, ethnic or religious group, disability, or other reasons, it’s hard to expect them to trust the institutions they feel are marginalizing them. Sectarian divisions in many countries have profoundly undermined good governance and economic prosperity, and all too frequently formed the pretext to group violence and displacement. Sri Lanka is a good example.
In times of challenge and crisis, people however tend to come together. This trend is seen in present day Sri Lanka, when people are uniting on common issues – political, social and economic. Opportunities should not be missed at least this time, to build alliances beyond narrow racial or religious divides created by politicos to gain petty gains. As Richard Hofstadter put it in The Age of Reform, the feeling of indignation sparked a fervent and widespread desire to assume responsibility, to organize, to build. During those past eras, people built organizations at a dazzling pace. These were missional organizations, with clearly defined purposes. They put tremendous emphasis on cultivating moral character and social duty—on honesty, reliability, vulnerability, and cooperativeness, and on shared values, rituals, and norms. Whether Sri Lanka will emerge from this transition stronger depends on its ability, from the bottom up and the top down, to build such organizations targeted at its many problems. If history is any guide, this will be the work not of months, but of one or two decades. Trust can also be rebuilt through the accumulation of small heroic acts at grassroot levels too. Clearly corrupt political culture needs to be changed for the good, for any qualitative change to set in.
None of these steps can occur unless government, business, civic, and other institutional leaders make a sincere effort to acknowledge the problem of social trust, and to take steps to improve their policies, practices, and rhetoric. Public activism is thus paramount so that many institutions which can contribute to greater transparency and accountability can work as they should; to catalyse an independent media sector which can expose corruption and missteps; courts and law enforcement agencies to ensure that even powerful figures can’t act with impunity. Progressive movements should call for so-called “sunshine laws” which can require that government makes its data, including spending and budget information, public. RTI process should be made more robust. Open government and e-government services can reduce corruption by making procurement processes transparent and bringing services directly to citizens. Shady and secretive ‘Yugadanavi’ type deals are a shame to a society believing in democracy, and good, transparent governance.
Leadership that addresses the social trust deficit can come from many quarters. It can come from institutions themselves, whether business, government, civil society, or the media. It can come at the global, national, regional, local, and even neighbourhood level. Citizens can organize and drive grassroots change. As citizens, each of us can take steps to rebuild trust within our communities. We can also demand that the government politicians and legislators we support with our votes and money, and the businesses we patronize, behave in ways that contribute to social trust.
In her book ‘A Savage Order: How the World’s Deadliest Countries Can Forge a Path to Security’, author Rachel Kleinfeld suggests that trust is society’s immune system. We need it to protect us against a host of other social ills. Rebuilding social trust is possible and, perhaps, the wounds of social distrust will heal on their own. But hope is not a strategy. A more responsible approach is to take steps, proactively and preventively, to restore trust across government, business, and civic institutions. It’s a goal Sri Lankans as a nation can all advance. This is where public activism can play a pivotal role to make things happen as stated earlier. Sadly, aging leaders who cling to power is an obstacle, as it is particularly evident in Sri Lanka. It is therefore important for young future leaders to take the lead. For, there is greater possibility of showing real progress, with a new wave of younger civil activists who won’t be silenced or strong-armed by the corrupt, and will build a collective voice for change.