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Making democracy a national heritage


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Democracy is not periodic elections. Democracy is not framing electoral rules perpetuating the interests of the political class and political parties. We must relearn our democracy anew – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara

“The moment would come when both the economic and political systems were threatened by complete paralysis. Fear would grip the people and leadership would be thrust upon those who offered an easy way out at whatever ultimate price. The time was ripe for the fascist solution” – The Great Transformation by Karl Polyani p238

 

We are in the year of elections. It is the season of political name calling. Everybody is busy conferring some name on some body. 

Neo liberal, liberal, dictator, fascist, neo fascist, NGO agent, imperialist lackey are some of these devices that come handy and convenient to rapacious minds practicing the vocation of politics. We are also in the season of ‘common sense patriotism’ where history is commodified and marketed as ‘heritage’. 

Let us not forget, where we are. We are in a political landscape breathtakingly sterile in imagination and excruciatingly impoverished in combative spirit.

The word ‘Liberal ‘was once an honourable word to describe those who put ‘liberty’ first. Today the word liberal indicates indecision, obstinacy and deceit. 

 

Spectator sport 

The spectator sport of name calling and locating non-existing ideological positions has a purpose. It is intended to stop us thinking ahead. 

Two days after signalling the calamity of individual human rights, presidential aspirant Gotabaya Rajapaksa discovered the virtues of American liberal democracy. He claimed that the United Sates will respect his individual human right to renounce his US citizenship – as and when he found it convenient to renounce or retain his passport with the emblem of the American eagle. Till that time, he will hunt with the Sinhala hawk and fly high with the American eagle. 

Meanwhile Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has discovered socialism. Inaugurating the medical faculty of the Sabaragamuwa University, he has said that real meaning of socialism was to allow people to climb up the social ladder, that the country’s education and health sectors should be effective to pave the way for people to do so.

Therein lies the tragedy of Ranil’s political purpose. Climbing up the social ladder is not socialism. 

What is socialism in the second decade of the 21st Century? Elisabeth Warren the Senator from Massachusetts defines it for oligarchs in the citadel of free market economics. 

“There is nobody in this country who got rich on their own. Nobody. You built a factory out there – good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. 

You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory... Now look. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea – God bless! Keep a hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.” 

In the current firmament, Ranil Wickremesinghe and Gotabaya Rajapaksa stand out as two individuals who take the long view in politics and are quite adept at describing a spade as a compromise between a large spoon and a shovel.

Both gentlemen possess remarkably common traits. Not content with rhetoric and they both demand results. They have little interest in short-term goals and are more focused on long-term results. They both prefer to operate with close advisors of their own selection. 

If we are to adopt the hurtful pastime of labelling and pigeonholing politicians one is an overt autocrat and the other is a covert autocrat. Readers are invited to take their pick. 

Both are eyeing the presidency. Neither one nor the other can claim a clear endorsement from their respective camps. 

 

We must not delude ourselves

We must not delude ourselves. We have reached an impasse in our democracy and in our political direction. The Rajapaksa family-led opposition and the Ranil Wickremesinghe-led Government are equally committed to capitalist market relations. The Oligarchs clearly find Gotabaya to be the better prospect as was clearly demonstrated at the Shangri-La shindig.

A TV channel unabashedly promoting Gotabaya for President recently aired an interview with the country’s preeminent tycoon. He made a surprisingly sublime suggestion that our Police force should use artificial intelligence to ensure the rule of law. 

Can you imagine Warren Buffet or Jeff Bezos suggesting how technology can enhance the Department of Homeland Security? 

The idea is not bizarre. The world over, technology of artificial intelligence is now used to improve surveillance by law enforcement agencies. What the tycoon suggested made eminent sense. But if oligarchs call the tune, they own the music and the drums. All we need do, is dance to their rhythm.

An anecdotal digression is in order. A day after watching the TV interview, this writer got into the elevator at the Liberty Plaza mall now in the same conglomerate that operates the TV channel. The elevator greeted me in an apologetic voice. “Sorry to have kept you waiting.” “I did not complain,” I responded. 

Getting off the elevator I heard the lady behind me telling her kid, “Eh minihata pissu!” Probably she was right. Worrying about liberal democracy and artificial intelligence in a land where my faith is declared the heritage of the rest of humanity is indeed enough grounds to go bonkers. 

That digression apart, what is bizarre and brazenly vulgar is the inclination of the liberal democratic state to permit privately-owned networks to discuss the defence of private property by private capital precisely at a time when nativist populists are driven to market a manufactured past by commodifying history and scriptural authority of a religion as a national heritage. And worse. They go pleading for universal endorsement of its capricious parochialism. 

It is time for us to launch a search for a Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn’s greatest appeal is his authenticity and his genuine commitment to a socialist political order at time when liberal democracy and market economics are in terminal crisis. 

 

The leadership and movement we need

We need a leadership and a movement that can capture the spirit of the time – the zeitgeist that prompted the millennials to defend democratic ideals at the Lipton Circus, Colpetty roundabout and the Independence Square following the 26 October obscenity.

Only a leader with an authenticity of commitment to a social democratic manifesto can generate the hope and enthusiasm necessary to create a mass political movement. 

Mahinda Rajapaksa’s ‘Pansal Populism,’ Ranil Wickremesinghe’s ‘Pulpit Populism’ and Maithripala Sirisena’s ‘Village Upasaka Populism’ are all rooted in market economics where growth is pursued to enlarge the size of the cake.

All three are captive of the oligarchs who determine how the cake is shared. Under their consequential guidance we are imprisoned in our own minds holding our own chains around us. We create our oligarchs and fight for their right to oppress us.

We cannot ignore what we are up against at this exceptional “populist moment”. It is time for a radical left response to the moral atrocity committed by the instigators of constitutional turmoil on 26 October.

The continuing moral offense by Ranil Wickremesinghe who has failed to censure the transgression merely to remain in office to present a budget with incentives to win the next election also calls for a radical left response. 

As the Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe points out, economic failure of liberal democracy and China’s swift progress sans democracy threatens the future of democracy. The disenchanted left demands democracy with social justice.

We are angry, impassioned and confrontational. Watch Tissa Vitarana and Vasudeva Nanayakkara. Can the left be foggier than that?

The refusal by the State to acknowledge the democratic character of demands by the wage-earning class makes it easier for Gotabaya and his troops to formulate their ambitions in xenophobic language. 

Our collective will must be harnessed to demand and achieve equality and social justice. 

 

We must start all over

We must start all over. In 2014 we had a vision of a just society. We undertook a noble task but made a terrible mistake in terms of strategy. 

Karl Marx’s theory of a perfect society envisaged unsubjugated, liberated working class. Stalin reneged. So, we have historical precedents in betraying, squandering historical opportunity. 

But just as Marxist theory paved way for social reforms and trade union rights our efforts succeeded in ensuring an independent Judiciary that helped us halt tyranny at its point of reincarnation. Our vision of a just society has allowed us to minimise injustice.

Technological progress, GDP growth, industrial output are not the ends of development. They must lead to human freedom and human dignity.

True human freedom hinges on determinants such as freedom for participation in public discussion, political and civil rights, provision for educational and health facilities, elimination of poverty, tyranny, social deprivation, intolerance and the unrestrained power of the repressive State. As Amartya Sen points out in his classic ‘Development as Freedom’ that earned him the Nobel Prize for economics, ‘expansion of freedom is both a means and an end of development. The purpose of development is the enrichment of human life.’

Development according to Amartya Sen, must not be measured solely in terms of growth of gross national product. It must be assessed in the background of human contentment. 

Unbridled market forces lead to exclusive development culminating in crime and violence in society. 

The invisible hand of the free market must be regulated by the restraining hand of a social democratic order. We must understand human nature. When we grasp the reality of the acquisitive instincts of ‘capital’ we gain the courage and strength to remove what Karl Polyani called “removable injustices and unfreedoms”. 

 

We must relearn our democracy anew

Democracy is not periodic elections. Democracy is not framing electoral rules perpetuating the interests of the political class and political parties.

We must relearn our democracy anew. The great novelist Thomas Mann escaped from Nazi rule and sought sanctuary in America. In his new refuge, he wrote the essay ‘Coming Victory of Democracy’. Having just escaped Nazi tyranny he found expressive meaning and eloquent promise in democracy. 

“Humans are the only creatures who can understand and seek justice, freedom and truth. This trinity created a complex of an indivisible kind, freighted with spirituality and an elementary dynamic force.”

Democracy, Mann continues, is the only system built on respect for the infinite dignity of each individual man and woman, on each person’s moral striving for freedom, justice and truth. It would be a great error to think of and teach democracy as a procedural or political system, or as the principle of majority rule.

It is a “spiritual and moral possession.” It is not just rules; it is a way of life. It encourages everybody to make the best of their capacities — holds that we have a moral responsibility to do so. It encourages the artist to seek beauty, the neighbour to seek community, the psychologist to seek perception, the scientist to seek truth.

I ask the readers, should we declare Thomas Mann’s definition of democracy our national heritage?


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