By Harsha Gunasena –
Liberty is an individualistic concept. Although we talk about it and appreciate it very much, in Sinhala we do not have a word to express its meaning accurately. In Sri Lanka, the people embraced democracy at the initial stages as a tool in the hands of suppressed masses against their social suppression.
A book was written about liberty and how to achieve it by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson in September 2019. The book was titled The Narrow Corridor- States, Societies, and the fate of Liberty. They were the authors of international best seller Why Nations Fail. The authors argued that for liberty to prevail the state as well as the society should be strong. If the state was too strong they called it a Despotic Leviathan ( Leviathan- they have taken the name of a Biblical sea monster) which would suppress the masses, and when the society was too strong they called it an Absent Leviathan which would lead the country to anarchy. They argued that the state and the society should run together with neither getting the upper hand and in the run, they should maintain their positions. This constant struggle between the state and the society would create a Shackled Leviathan which would ensure the liberty of the society.
According to the authors, attaining a Shackled Leviathan is not just about constitutional checks and balances or clever institutional design. Society is critical. In this thesis, they challenged the western idea of creating a well-defined constitution would ensure the liberty of the people.
This Diagram of the authors of the book shows how the Shackled Leviathan is created by the balance between the Power of State and the Power of Society. If the Power of State is stronger it would lead to Despotic Leviathan and if the Power of Society is strong it would lead to Absent Leviathan. The Tiv are a Nigerian ethnic group. They had no administrative divisions and no chiefs nor councils.
The Bill of Rights in USA was introduced to the constitution after many were concerned that a strong national government was a threat to individual rights and that the president would become a king. Therefore, there should be a balance of power between the state and the society.
Black people did not have any right whatsoever at the time of passing the constitution. In the US declaration of independence, slaves were not considered as men and authors themselves owned slaves. After 89 years of passing the constitution in 1865 they brought an amendment to abolish slavery after a civil war over the issue.
A century later in 1960s the civil rights movement was active. One strategy of the struggle was mixed-race groups riding interstate buses violating the Southern segregation laws. When mobs attacked freedom riders in 1961, Robert Kennedy, Attorney General sent US Marshals to protect the freedom riders. These struggles paved the way for 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act. in 1968 by the time of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. black people yet had visible discriminations. However, in 2009 they elected a black president.
After 232 years of signing of the American constitution and after 228 years of amending the constitution with Bill of Rights, US citizens today had to demonstrate in the streets for the rights of black people. This proves the argument of the authors that the liberty will not be granted in a platter and it is an outcome of a constant struggle between the state and the society. American society had this struggle throughout the history. Struggle for liberty for all continues between the state and the society.
Congress and the Senate are trying to bring legislation to combat excessive use of force and racial discrimination by the Police. Proposals also suggested to make it easier to identify, track and prosecute misconduct. This is a notable federal intervention in respect of the rights of the citizens in recent history of USA. It is imposing a shackle, caused by the struggle of the society, to the leviathan.
Struggle in UK forced the authorities to remove statues of the colonial masters and the slave traders erected centuries ago. One such statue in Bristol was forcibly removed the protestors and dumped in the city’s harbour.
In Sri Lanka, the Frontline Socialist Party recently organized a protest campaign in front of the US Embassy. In other democracies these protests received a wide support. Even in USA there were several instances where the members of the Police took a knee along with the masses to express solidarity. Several embassies of USA in other countries also disapproved the police brutality and sent Twitter messages. The Democratic world did not think that these actions were directed against the American state considering it as an enemy. Those were democratic rights to disagree and to protest.
The Sri Lankan courts issued an order preventing them protesting near the embassy of USA. However, the US embassy said that they have not requested the government to prevent the protest. We have seen that it was a peaceful demonstration exercised keeping a good length among the protestors. The Police disobeyed the quarantine regulations at the time of arresting of the protestors. The protestors at the Town Hall, protesting keeping a distance, and were not under a court order also were arrested. Therefore, these arrests were anti- democratic. In USA, people demonstrated in front of the White House as well.
The issue is that the behaviour of the Police which was backed by the government was not met with a stronger protest by the Opposition and by the people at large. This tendency of the opposition and the people would diminish the power of the society to struggle against the despotic tendencies of the state. This struggle only, according to the authors, would create a shackled leviathan.
In Sri Lanka rulers do not consciously engage with the society to change the behaviour of the people to the positive side in the case of racial discrimination. They allow the racial tensions to increase, align with the majority and try to get the votes of the majority at the elections. This tactic was used by the current Indian government as well. Even the political leaders who do not agree to this trend do not voice against racism fearing that they would lose the votes of the majority.
The situation is quite different in other democratic countries. Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister New Zealand in 2018 walked in a gay pride parade in support of LGBT community who were marginalized by the society. When she addressed the UN in 2018 her opening remarks were in Maori language, spoken by 16% of the population. After the attack of Al Noor mosque in Christchurch, she managed to change the gun laws of the country within a month and her heartfelt support for the Muslim community won praise around the world. The Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently took a knee in a public protest organized to show solidarity with black people.
Apart from racial or religious discriminations the country is moving towards a Despotic Leviathan with the increased military involvement in the civil affairs by the President. The Society has not shown enough strongness to counter this trend. This will end up in narrowing the corridor further.
Democracy was developed in the Western countries against the tyrannical rule of the autocrats. Democracy is to appoint a government of the people by the people for the people. However, it can become a tool against the suppression in the hands of the masses if that country is having a considerable gap in relation to power between the rulers and those who are ruled.
When universal franchise was introduced in Sri Lanka in 1931, most of the elite class of people opposed it. When free education was introduced by C.W.W. Kannangara in 1945 senior politicians and the elite class opposed it.
In May 2014 during the time of previous Rajapaksa regime, I have written an article to Daily FT titled Why isn’t the Western form of democracy effective in the East. There I discussed the concept of liberty and argued that in collectivist eastern cultures, liberty which is an individualistic concept, would not be respected. “Societies which value liberty respect the rights of the others and the behaviour of the members of such society is rule based. Authority of the law is prevalent. Sri Lankan society comprises of groups, large or small. They are hostile to the out-group members. They break rules very often and things happen based on relationships. By creating political parties under the Western form of democracy, an additional in-group was created. When they support a political party, they defend the wrongdoings of that party even though those have devastating effects to the country. The political party which is in power necessarily would be hostile to the members of the political parties which are not in power.”
Authors of The Narrow Corridor nicely put this situation as purportedly expressed by the Brazilian president Getulio Varges : ‘For my friends, everything; for my enemies, the law.’
I argued that in these types of situations, “democracy would be diminished to the level of tyranny of the majority which means autocracy. Majority and the minority do not have a sense of liberty so that minority will wait until they get the power to do the same in retaliation. On the other hand, political parties which are not in power would try to get power using whatever means. They might try some destructive methods even though those are against the national interest. This is the point one would say that autocracy is better than democracy.”
I concluded “Therefore implementation of democracy in the collectivist Eastern cultures would either create autocracy if the majority rule is powerful or create anarchy if the opposition is powerful. Sri Lanka is an example of the former and Thailand is an example of the latter.”
This was in line with the argument established by the authors of The Narrow Corridor.
In Sri Lanka, the word liberty is an alien concept. As I mentioned still there is no proper word for liberty in Sinhala. Therefore, in Sri Lanka not only the leviathan but also the struggle of the society against the state is also shackled. However, it is not too shackled to get it weakened to the extent that it would pave the way for a despotic leviathan. In certain instances it went out of control to unleash armed struggles against the state.
The authors argued that neither the width of the corridor nor stability in the corridor can be taken for granted. The width of the corridor is bolstered by democratic, participatory institutions. If these institutions loose people’s trust, the corridor narrows and the ability of society to handle conflicts is diminished.
The authors identified a scenario in certain countries where there was strong, lethargic, and corrupt bureaucracy.
“evidence shows that the Argentine state was greatly personalized: if you did not get involved personally, there was no chance of getting services; that was the point of being ‘patient’ – you have to build a personal relationship with a bureaucrat in order to expect anything.”
There were ‘ghost workers’ who are supporters of the ruling party in Argentina and get paid without showing up for work. In Liberia, the President had his relatives in all the important positions of the government.
The authors said that this type of situation leads to Paper Leviathan and that paper leviathans are found near the bottom left corner of the diagram, on the side of the Despotic Leviathan- little societal power, little state power, but still despotic. “This Paper Leviathan has some of the worst characteristics of both the Absent and Despotic Leviathans.”
In Sri Lanka in 1970s during the time of Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, political authorities were established above the civil administration saying that the civil administration was not effective. Minister Lalith Athulathmudali introduced Exporters Forum coordinating various government institutions with the exporters to find out quick solutions to the problems of exporters. President Premadasa has taken the officers of all the ministries to the provinces on different days to give quick solutions to the problems of the people. Recently President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has taken the officers of the Central Bank and the Department of Prisons to task. These are various ways the different leaders of the country addressed the issue of Paper Leviathan. Methods applied may be correct or wrong but addressing the issue in whatever the manner is essential.
Therefore, in conclusion we can say that the Sri Lankan democracy is not in a good shape. In one hand it needs to get rid of the certain characteristics of the Paper Leviathan which needs a strong state. That may be the reason for the popular demand for a strong state. In order to counter the power of the state the country needs a strong power of the society to achieve a desired democracy and liberty to all. This very vital point is missed by many. Society should be politically matured, alert, and strong. Liberty is absent in a society where there is wide-spread state sponsored racial discrimination with the tacit approval of the society. The country has not progressed well in the evolution process towards these objectives even after 72 years of independence.