Response to “Liberalism Poses Severe Challenge to Sinhala Nationalism at 2010 Presidential Election”

By Buddika Bandara and Prabha Manuratne

(January 25, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) It is indeed refreshing to see a political mediation that transcends the immediate political wish to support the “victorious camp,” and insist on discussing the crucial political implications of what SF and MR represent as presidential candidates. The article titled “Liberalism Poses Severe Challenge to Sinhala Nationalism at 2010 Presidential Election” by Kathika marks the dichotomous relationship between nationalism and liberalism and show that the two presidential candidates represent these “two different ways of organizing our collective life.”

Our response comes in the recognition that this dialogue merits serious investigation, and that its crucial implications extend far beyond the immediate question of who wins the elections. As the author(s) of the article rightly point out, it concerns the choices we make, as “it is we who determine our existence. We can organise the world in which we live in a different manner” (Kathika). We take such hope as a positive sign of a new social space for democratic dialogue and engage with it in this spirit. Moreover, the response from Kathika to our blogpost titled “Politics Elsewhere . .. .” has helped us to reconsider our political position seriously, and helped us to clarify where we stand. We believe such democratic engagement should be the norm rather than the exception.

We take three major ideas from the essay:

* That liberalism and nationalism represent two political desires of the Sri Lankan people and that the two main candidates, MR and SF represent these two political trends. They argue that nationalism centers on the organization of collective life that has been undermined by consumerism and the economic liberalization policies of 1977. Liberalism, on the other hand, centers upon individual freedom.
* That elections are important and that we must take the people’s engagement with them seriously.
* That a democratic politics based on citizen dialogue which excludes, neither individual freedom(s) associated with liberalism, nor the desire for community associated with nationalism. Such democratic participation should replace the desire for a top-down power model to establish law and discipline represented by an autocratic leader.

We will begin with the third proposition. Citizen participation is a salient feature of any democratic endeavor. Such engagement, where it does exist, ensures that all people participate in the decision-making process, and would, ideally allow all citizens a voice. The election of representative leaders is only one aspect of many other possible avenues within which such democratic engagement can take place. That the people are still interested in elections is indeed a healthy sign, embodying their need to feel that they do have a say in the election process.

It is equally encouraging that at least a few civil organizations such as trade unions have come forth, not simply to bargain with the people on behalf of candidates, but to bargain with political candidates who will potentially be the leaders of the country and demand social welfare and social accountability from them. While it is disheartening that several veteran political activists have gone back to defending two allegedly fairly equally corrupt candidates, that does not mean that the election should not become a venue to discuss the political choices we make as a people. Thus, we agree that democratic participation at the level of citizen is indispensable for the more equitable society that we envision.

The opposition drawn between nationalism and liberalism, as represented by the two candidates according to Kathika, is less clear. While it is a reasonable assumption that nationalist ideas represent a desire for community and the emphasis on the liberal (historically associated with the U.N.P.) signals interest in personal freedom and personal wealth, it is unclear whether these two candidates represent these independent of the 2007-2009 ethnic war. Both manipulate their image as war heroes. Mahinda Rajapakse seems to sport the idea of national gratitude. Both candidates have extreme liberalist and extreme nationalist politicians and political parties around them. A far less nationalist and far more liberalist leader than Sarath Fonseka, Ranil Wickramasinghe must have, we suspect, had a reason to step down from candidacy. Whether any Sinhalese leader who was not a part of the recent military victory against the L.T.T.E would have posed any serious challenge to the “natonalism” of Mahnda Rajapakse is doubtful.

We argue that nationalism and liberalism have coexisted and are not always mutually exclusive. Setting them as oppositions (as contradictory desires that drive the support for the two different candidates) is not entirely convincing. Although successive governments have espoused the rhetoric of both, more often than not, their thrust has been to articulate the two in non-exclusive ways.

The policy-level differences between the different governments of post-independence Sri Lanka must not blind us to the truth that even in its most “liberal” moments (for example, JRJ) the state is still an extremely powerful force centered upon what only seems like individual freedom. A careful examination of the history of the 1980s in Sri Lanka belies the idea that the liberalist government represented freedom of all individuals. Political freedom was brutally curtailed (from the militarization of the north-east to the 1980 strike break, the 1983 pogrom of the Tamil people etc. the list may go on), while the cutbacks on social welfare and privatization of national corporations and national assets led to the massive proletarianizaton of rural populations.

The spectacular freedom associated with the 1980s spring, instead, from the liberal media culture that sprang with the introduction of television, video, cassettes etc., and of course, the economic liberalization policies. These policies were not as deregulatory as they were thought to be. Instead, what they did do was change (but not dispense with) the earlier system of state-patronization that existed in both public and private industry, commerce, and the job market. Moreover, these policies did not originate with J.R. Jayawardene, who is the easy effigy that must take the fire for the larger global structural adjustment taking place at the time. The state acted definitively, not in the interest of individual freedom (or even the benefits of the commercial/industrial classes at the time), but in the interests of the IMF and World-Bank sponsored global Structural Adjustments that led to economic globalization. This is not to suggest (with the JVP) that this is a global conspiracy against the Sri Lankan people. Instead, our argument is that the 1977 economic liberalization policies need to be situated within the larger global context to understand how it has led to the greater proletarianization of people across the globe. Moreover, by gradually commodifying many social spaces, many areas in the public and private spheres that sustained democratic social organization, both individual and collective freedom was gradually compromised.

We may return to the idea that citizenship action plays a key role in democratic engagement. What becomes apparent since the 1980s is the gradual erosion of the space for such democratic practices. The public spaces that were once the platform for democratic participation were either suppressed or politicized. A case in point is the suppression of the uprising of the Tamil people in the north, which was crushed with unparalleled brutality. Had the state provided early avenues to the democratic participation of the Tamil people, the tragic decimation of a large Tamil population (who are, and must be recognized in unequivocal terms as citizens of our country) would not have occurred. Instead, both JRJ, and subsequent presidents of all hues and colors repeatedly engaged in a constant attack upon the rights of democratic Tamil political participation. The emergence of the L.T.T.E. as the most vocal Tamil liberatory group did not happen until nearly after a decade of the origin of the war.

Although this is not the place to rehearse this history, our point is that citizenship was denied to a vast majority of people; the racially marginalized, the poor, particularly working women who were forced into near-slavery in Free Trade Zones and n the Middle-East. The state played a significant role in all of this. Thus, the “individual freedom” associated with apparently liberalist economic policies have, at best failed to deliver what they promised, and at best, worked consistently to disrupt the democratic participation of all citizens of our country. To equate liberalism with a centering on individual freedom does not bear out in reality. While agreeing with Kathika that we must indeed engage with and promote the participation of citizens in matters of government, we also argue that citizenship must be conceived as a way of holding the state accountable.

We may now return to the idea that nationalism represents a desire for collective life. When we argued in an earlier post that the emergence of nationalism in Sri Lanka in 2004 signaled social anxieties about the material breakdown of social structures stemming from the economic neoliberalism of the 1980s, we were not using the term “anxiety” as a value laden i.e. negative or positive, term. Instead, anxieties can lead to both positive and negative social action.

In the case of the emergence of nationalist ideas around 2004, propelled largely by the urban popular Buddhism (signified by the victory of the Jathka Hela Urumaya at the parliamentary election of 2004), we identified such anxieties as a potential force that may induce a desire for an authoritarian leader. What we recognized was directly relevant to the relation that Kathika builds between collective life and nationalism. Not to belabor the point, we will rephrase it more clearly than we perhaps did before: the economic liberalization policies of 1977 specifically, but modernization of society in general has led to the restructuring of various social and economic institutions that afforded relative stability and collective engagement to people. Below are a few examples:

–The culture of consumerism, the commodification of social and cultural spaces.

–The massive migration of women to urban centers and to the Middle East as new proletariat workers led to the restructuring of rural families. The resultant changes in gender roles are yet to be fully assessed. The increasing participation of women in the industrial workforce and the service sector, the gradual decline of communal agricultural work which once functioned in set gendered terms, were all a part of the larger assault on the earlier organization of the family structure. In addition, the military recruited large numbers of young men, and this had significant cultural implications particularly in rural areas.

–The privatization of essential social services such as health and education has led to widespread irresponsibility and lack of accountability on the part of their practitioners (the establishment of private hospitals that are not subjected to public scrutiny, widespread tuition and international universities etc. We are not opposed to these institutions. Instead, our point is that they destabilized existing social norms about health and education because they were commodified with no public responsibility).

–The dissipation of the strong trade-union movement. Along with this, one sees the monumental emergence of non-wage labor in the informal sector, the state-sanctioned politicization of major trade unions, the prohibition of trade union activities in the Free Trade Zones where the most brutal exploitation occurs. The structures that once existed to seek redress for the grievances of working people were suppressed outright, or replaced by non-functional institutions.

–The civil war and the 1987-89 JVP uprising left most democratic social engagement crippled. The state, the JVP, the LTTE, and several of the smaller political groups that were caught in the conflict contributed to breed violence and hatred, and terrorist attacks and fear became more effective political weapons than democratic social engagement. Several potential democratic minded leaders were either outright murdered, expelled, or exiled (particularly at the grassroots level). The cost of such terrible political brutality is yet to be assessed in any definitive way. No doubt, many of you remember the way we held our breath when the first burning corpses appeared in street corners, and how during the 2007-2009 Eelam war, the unidentified bodies discovered in mass graves were easily forgotten. Such changes in collective psychic life—where the death of thousands of civilians ejects the cynical statement “they asked for it”—signal a deep crisis in collective values that make us human beings above everything else. No national leader, no candidate has yet come forward to admit their complicity in the brutal repression directed against racial minorities, political dissenters, and unarmed civilians of all ethno-religious groups in our country. The consequences are indeed a general restructuring of the “structure of feeling” that is deeply psychological but also intensely political.

These are a few among many other social and institutional crises that we had in mind when we argued that social anxieties may lead to the desire for the re-establishment of stability through a “strong” militaristic leader. Our own personal experience in a political cult-like organization alerted us to the way people identify with leaders that purport “law and order.” For us, the idea of transposing collectivity onto a leader or leaders of groups/parties who will perform our rights on our behalf spells political disaster. What we saw with the emergence of ethno-religious chauvinism in 2004 that mobilized the Sinhalese against our Tamil brothers and sisters was not any true sense of collectivity, inasmuch as the JVP or the LTTE never represented participatory democratic politics that should be the hallmark of true people’s movements.At best, it was a way to imagine “the Sinhalese” nation by opposing it to religious and racial Others (Tamils, Christians, Muslims etc.). It did not entail any political engagement to make social spaces more democratic. It systematically closed off democratic dialogue, and continued a repressive path towards anyone who opposed it.

However, to argue that the reemergence of Sinhala nationalism in 2004 did not necessarily entail collective social life, is not to disagree with Kathika, that it had the potential to do so. Kathika does not, we assume, see MR as a representative of collective social life although he may represent the desire for community in the popular imagination. We are thus only clarifying our point, when we say that people identify with chauvinistic leaders when they feel social stability slipping from beneath their feet, and that such identification is symptomatic of far deeper, socio-cultural and economic phenomena that structure our social/cultural experience.

We agree with Kathika that people’s interest in elections alone is a sign that there is space for the creation of new democratic spaces. What we would like to add is that we believe in long-term and sustained attempts to regenerate social institutions and structures that facilitate the propagation of democratic ideals and restabilize society. If, as Kathika points out, the support for MR comes from desire for collective social existence (and not chauvinist gratitude for “ending the war”) we may still be hopeful. We also argue that individual freedom is not the opposite of collective social existence, but the fundamental principle of democratic social life. The individual is not the opposite of society, but its necessary precondition.We believe that the move by Kathika to identify and work in potentially democratic spaces reflects the kind of engagement that can trigger democratic change.

Democracy requires changes at the most fundamental levels of society that begin, not as a rhetorical device of presidential candidates, but as direct collective practice on the part of individual citizens. To this end, we argue that we must negotiate with all candidates to bring back, not the militaristic establishment of “law and order” but the strengthening of democracy; we ask that they return to more humane values that respect human life and dignity of all races and religions; that they help level the economic playing field by protecting jobs, businesses, and labor rights (and not write the whole country away to multinational corporations as Free Trade Zones that exploit the labor of our men and women in harrowing ways); and finally, that they reestablish high quality public health and education for all people in the country. However, these changes will never merely come from the top. They begin with each individual, each equitable practice and organization, and the active participation of people from below.