17 January, 2022


The Uses & Abuses Of Pragmatism: When Politics Is Less Than The Art Of The Possible

By Kumar David

Prof. Kumar David

Prof. Kumar David

The reasonable is the real and the real is the reasonable”~ from Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1821)

The frequent apology for the shortfall in achievements of the government and one that I have sometimes repeated is that politics is the art of the possible, hence it is sterile it to demand things that, for reasons of structure or circumstance, it is impossible to accomplish. It is Prime Minister Ranil’s frequent defence, I understand. By structure I refer to the fact that President, and a large number of government MPs and Cabinet Ministers come from the SLFP, while the PM and parliamentary and cabinet majorities belong to the UNP-led alliance. I concede that this structural constraint is a ball and chain because rotten politicians have a sympathetic President, PM or colleague to use as a shield. By circumstance I mean that Rajapaksa era detritus is still not fully flushed out of the state bureaucracy, police, military, courts and local government. This essay explores some implications of this defence; but before that let me say a few words about the generalities of this reasoning.

The historical guru of this line of thought is Edmund Burke (1729-1797), man of letters, source of many quotes and what would today be called PR man. An Englishman and political conservative but a supporter of the American Revolution, who opposed the more important (for the world) French Revolution just six years later. He was an outspoken critic of British excesses in India (impeachment of Warren Hastings) while remaining in the conservative wing of the Whig Party. The Whigs backed mercantile interests (hence had more in common with the French bourgeoisies) while the Tories bummed the landed classes and the exiled Stuart monarchy. Burke opposed confiscation of church property by the French revolution and abhorred the atheism of its revolutionaries. Rather a complex figure but since he was the first to construct a theory of political pragmatism he is relevant to the ongoing debate in Lanka.

The essence of his view is that politicians should base actions and perspectives on what the people would accept and not on abstract principles. He favoured political realism that aligned with prevailing public mores, historical tradition, or even on fictions if people believed them. On this view, for example, the left was unwise to oppose Sinhala Only and demand Tamil linguistic recognition in the 1950s since, obviously, the Sinhala masses would have none of it. Burke argued that disregard for political realism leads to instability and chaos. Nonetheless he supported American Independence, not popular in England in the early years of the independence war, but he did not follow the majority at all times and vociferously opposed the French Revolution even at the early stage when it was admired by the British populace. This disconnection was because the American Revolution protected property while the French overthrew these rights. The crux of the matter is that Burke, though the apostle of static realpolitik, at the same time intervened, influenced events, and led changes in conflicting ways. The spirit of an age, Burke would have said, is the emperor or the prince, to borrow Sun Tze’s and Machiavelli’s terms respectively, who gets the ever changing swing from stability to novelty and back again, right. Burke himself did not belong in this fabled set but his life story need detain us no longer.

Pragmatic realism

There is no great social transformation visible on the Sri Lankan horizon at this moment, but by no means should that prompt passivity or its sterile companion, red flag waving slogan chanting vainness. The former is the torpor of a dead and retired left, the later the futile fervour of sectarianism. The right attitude in quiescent times is pragmatism and realism – a ‘transitional programme’. In such times one must set one’s self doable tasks; politics as the art of the possible. But these efforts must point somewhere, have direction and be a transitional step taking society towards a goal. This sounds a little abstract so I will flesh it out with two local examples.

The briefest statement of the ‘overdetermining’ problems in Lanka at this time can’t be shorter than: (a) the national question, (b) the economy. Even if you are a brave radical who disputes my contention that revolution is not round the corner, humour me and go along with this view for the rest of this essay. In that case, ultimate demands and expectations are fruitless. At the same time actions that, however limited in themselves do not have a transitional content, the possibility of going further with the progress of events, are sterile. I will work on (a) today and keep (b) for next week.

Let’s take the national question. I will short-list three constraints that, in an Edmund Burke sense, are limitations of the public mind, prejudices that cannot be overcome at this time. They are all regressive, even primitive, but true. The Sinhala people will not agree to abandon the codification of Lanka as a unitary state, nor agree to refrain from exalting Buddhism in the state system or agree to declare Lanka a secular state. This is too modern and rational for our semi-feudal minds to stomach – bad pun. The third point is that devolving even limited power to Tamils and Muslims can be sneaked in only by slight of hand, not because it endangers national security, but for ugly beggar thy neighbour feelings of antipathy for the ‘other’. Tamil and Muslim readers may be inflamed but hold your horses; I am describing the real world, not advocating anything, yet. Akin lines of tactical reasoning can be developed about the hybrid court compromise mechanism relating to the UNHRC mandated inquiry.

What is the pragmatist’s way out that still retains scope for improvement? If the word unitary cannot be removed (I would dearly love to shove it up you know where) retain it but undermine it in concrete content in every clause defining minority and provincial rights. Write in contradictions so that the courts can systematically use them to tear down retrogressive provisions. Likewise if the state cannot be affirmed as secular, hollow out the privileges conferred on church and clergy; make easy to ignore ceremonial concessions only. How to go forward? There are many idiocies to remove. Why can’t I buy a bottle or indulge in a beef steak on poya day – it’ not anybody else’s business – so out with such restriction. Nothing pertaining to religion should be compulsory in school curricula; opting out of such activities should be a right. Finally, deny religious institutions public funds; surely is it not better that genuine dayakayas be given every opportunity to prove their devotion!

Power relations

Of course the two previous paragraphs are not well thought out constitutional designs; that has to be left to experts. What I am suggesting is that the designers take an iconoclastic wink at holy cows and make the new constitution pragmatic, realistic and sceptical. But it is the political leadership (in essence Ranil-Sirisena or R&S) that will call the final shots; the drafters are only pen-pushers. The time has come for R&S to opt for brash can-do positivism! I have often said in this column that the sine qua non for the survival of this government is that the R&S bond should be tamper-proof. The Joint Opposition (JO) tried its utmost to create a rift and failed rather badly – or am I speaking too soon; the outcome of local government (LG) elections could bring new mood swings.

The JO recently entered a phase of decline, may be temporary, but it has come to realise that this government and president will serve out their terms. That many years is too long a period for the JO to survive without fragmenting even if it makes gains in the LG polls. When the Weerawansa-Udaya-Vasu-Dinesh clique was mobilising to incite racial violence I suggested drawing racist hoolingans to the streets and thrashing them. Well, the JO got the message and backed off after the PM’s challenge in parliament. The point I am underlining is that the time has come for R&S to move from defence to offence; cleverly tame chauvinism, disrupt the JO, and face the formidable economic challenges by relying on public education and mobilisation. (Await next week’s thrilling instalment!)

Abuses of pragmatism

There are aspects of this government’s conduct, cloaked as pragmatic compromises that are indefensible; sometimes incomprehensible. Many events are inexplicable if you take it that R&S are not personally corrupt and not under unknown obligations to make absurd decisions. I will mention two to give you a flavour but there are more. For what reason in pluperfect heaven was a person, indicted and currently on trial before the High Court, appointed Additional Secretary to the Home Ministry! To the best of public knowledge this person is not R’s or S’s uncle or nephew, is not alleged to have passed either of them a wad of dollars, and has no credible political clout. Fonseka’s appointment as an MP is ultra-vires, but I see the political imperatives; but this joker in the Home Ministry! Why oh why?

And then there is the ugliness of the bond scam whose stain will tarnish this government for all of its days. Refraining from renewing the Governor’s contract when it ends in a few days will not bleach out the stain, but it will show that R&S are pragmatic and take account of public disdain after the event at least. Pragmatism serves a purpose, but abuses under a specious cloak of pragmatism, have no place in art-of-the-possible practicality. President and PM have taken the road of making too many unforced errors and I am inclined to adopt a more critical attitude to both in this column.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Latest comments

  • 3

    This man used to talk of a “One Issue candidate”, where the Candidate was Sirisena, and the one issue was the abolition of the executive president. So, judging the new regime is simple.
    Was the “one issue” on which Sirisena came to power properly dealt with and achieved??

    Now, is this guy trying to justify all this by quoting Hegel and all the usal BULL SHIT that this Rathu Sahodaraya types are prone to?

    Just don’t trust these people.

    • 4

      THough this man tries to claim credit for the common candidate disaster (the glory lasted for about Patricia Butenis.

      People like David feeding on US waste for three or four decades, hung on to this US-UK-Indian conspiracy because removing Rajapakse was helpful for their separist agenda. The naive Maduluwawe Sobhita also fell for it, finally losing his life.

      Now David is like a cat who shat on a rock, and tries to create new credentials as a’learned’ man, in vain.

      Each of his pieces like this one proves his idiocy.

      • 1

        Hela descendant:
        You certainly fit the stereotypical xenophobic idiot that this country is burdened with and the weight of whom threatens to sink a nation that ALL of us -ALL Sri Lankans – call home. If the rock from which your buddy, Sumaney, isn’t big enough for both of you to crawl back under, let me know and I’ll send the hat around and I am sure there will be enough Sri Lankans to restore what should be your permanent domicile.

  • 1

    A well thought out article. A pragmatic approach is of utmost essence in solving the national question. On the matter of devolution, what matters is the political will to devolve in the first instance and the substance of devolution that becomes the outcome. It is absurd to tie ourselves to words such as ‘unitary’ and ‘federal’. With regard to religion and religious education, the reforms could be made slowly so long as there is freedom of worship which includes the freedom not to worship anybody or anything.
    Sengodan. M

  • 4

    Oh mu God! How easy is it these days to become a “philosopher” (or historuan) in five minutes or less?

    Kudos to Google and should we replace God Ganesh with Pichai Sundararajan (Sundar Pichai) the Indian American Chief Executive Officer of Google Inc?

    Please advice David.

  • 0

    1. Ranil will protect all his Royalist cronies. Arjuna Mahendran is the son of old UNP lawyer, UNP diplomat and UNP toprunger Charlie Mahendran. Arjuna was a brilliant student at Royal but now you can see they are all ethically challenged. Ranil will not be afraid of Sirisena and will scold Sirisena if Sirisena dares to fire Mahendran.

    2. Everywhere you go Ranil’s Royalists whether they are suited or not are appointed. And others are his Personal friends, and “up close and personal” buddies too. Ajith Dias Chairman of SriLankan is his buddy buddy.

    3. Dream on if you think there is no corruption now. Access Group is again building flyovers. Were there calls for bids and tenders? Probably not or if so they are the ONLY ones who probably bid.

    4. Dream on about change. Ranil has a history of favoring pretty faces he takes a fancy to at different times into the Cabinet. That is an open secret.

    5. This is a dream team of Royalists and Colombo 7 elites who rule now. Let us hope they will be LESS corrupt. Zero corruption cannot happen anywhere but LESS is good. We all know about Araliya Sevena Restaurant in Polonnaruwa and who owns it. Wink wink to those who are dumb twits to think a Grama Sevaka can afford to send his son to England to study. How so? savings?

    6. US is now the kingpin in foreign policy. They want Trincomalee.

    • 2

      “”6. US is now the kingpin in foreign policy. They want Trincomalee. “”

      Why do they need trinco when there are intercontinental drones??

      Why do they need Trinco where there is no country including China India with foreign reserves to fund your begging bowl independence?

      USA came to the rescue of Lanka IMF loan 1.5 + 0.7 =2.2 to assist in day to day dealings.

      Gota before his departure challenged USA with the words – If US does not train our forces we will request China!!

      So where is China or its still main brain for Arms Russia??

      Why is Pakistan still being armed with the latest for free unlike Saudi which pays?? Only Pakistan and Turkey have F16 while Saudi has 100’s of F15.

      you are a stupid villager who like JVP only know your village ambude.

      Even when the government changed the woman ambassador informed the public that America would continue to train the local forces.

      You are soon to become another Pakistan to the south of India with Muslims being sent to the north. Enjoy your monkey island.

  • 3

    “”“The reasonable is the real and the real is the reasonable”~ from Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1821)”

    Even today at The court of justice England `reasonableness` or the spirit of reasonableness has to be redefined.
    Her Majesty has not received an accurate picture to re-frame the law after Lord Justice Wolf ruling December 24th year 2000.

    Reality and reasonable are 2 different things and for you to quote Hegel of all exhibits the communist in you looking for a piece of meat that is not there.

    Most logical applications to reality has been squandered by the socialist- eg getting rid of professionals and calling their hachet men women professionals is the forerunner to the chaos the world is facing with services.
    Bassunna become engineer, farmers son becomes diplomat, apothecary becomes doctor.- lower all standards to accommodate the idiot vote base- bath guli and addiya. Its happened at UK and its happened in almost all commonwealth nations- please look elsewhere.

    • 0

      “The reasonable is the real and the real is the reasonable”~ from Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1821)”

      It would appear that Kumar wants us to take off from the reasonable to the pragmatic – often contrasted with the rational which is what another translator – more in line with the rest of Hegel – has H identifying with the real.

      Evidently Kumar enjoys the shades of his red.

      The interplay of the ideal and the real in politics, and consequently the roles of the tacit versus the explicit in negotiation are an essential area of sound political education and Kumar has to be thanked for drawing attention to the ever renewing complexities here.

      In saying “The right attitude in quiescent times is pragmatism and realism – a ‘transitional programme’. In such times one must set one’s self doable tasks; politics as the art of the possible. But these efforts must point somewhere, have direction and be a transitional step taking society towards a goal”, he shares an immensely valuable lesson which one hopes does not get lost in the noise.

  • 0

    This is an excellent analysis. It shows a clear path to nationhood, an economy, and eventually to modernity.
    It’s the duty of those who have access to the president and the prime minister to draw their attention to this piece. I hope the prime minister will see in this a path to keep his promise, made during the election campaign, to bring about not just a new government, but a new society.

Leave A Comment

Comments should not exceed 200 words. Embedding external links and writing in capital letters are discouraged. Commenting is automatically disabled after 5 days and approval may take up to 24 hours. Please read our Comments Policy for further details. Your email address will not be published.