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A valediction forbidding absolutism

Jun 1, 2010 1:39:01 PM- transcurrents.com

By Anupama Ranawana

My title betrays my training in a British A level system that pounded John Donne and his metaphysical colleagues into the minds of those of us who were brave enough to chart the stormy seas of Literature and Classics.

There are those who would say that the presence of the Poets in my mind, and the continued teaching of an A level system in Sri Lanka, betrays a colonial sensibility – some use the term ‘hangover’- a complicit absolutism that accepts the supremacy of the West in the narrative. But now I’ve betrayed something a little more interesting about my intellectual sensibility.

Here’s a fact most will not dispute: Colonialism and the modern left uneven traces on Sri Lanka , and most of South Asia . Modernity in a colonial space reorganises existing institutions and governance in order to urge the ‘natives’ in the ‘improving direction’ of political rationality and subjectivity. This process touched Sri Lanka in uneven ways, beginning with the growth of towns and the creation of a mobile labour force in the dominantly Sinhalese western and south –western provinces of the country. New social formations appeared, such as the Christian Sinhalese and the Indian Tamil population.

When the British left in 1947, the island was home to a significantly diverse population. For an excellent analysis of this read Nira Wickremasinghe’s Sri Lanka in the modern age: A history of contested identities. What happens in a space that is underlined by difference? Most times, it is that inevitable problem of ethnic conflict and collective violence, because the Hindus get Hindu-er, the Buddhists run right off the middle path, and the Virgin Mother has a convenient habit of miraculously appearing in prime property locales . The more prolonged of the ethnic conflicts in Sri Lanka is the tug of war between the Sinhalese and the Tamils.

We’ve had other conflicts, some even during the colonial era, such as the Kotahena riots of 1883 between the Sinhalese and the Roman Catholic community, and the 1915 Sinhala-Muslim riots. Of course, the most thinkable of our issues has been the war waged between the Government and the LTTE. Ad nasueam, we have highlighted, dissected, and rationalised the Sinhala-Tamil conflict. Did we expect Rajapakse and gang to actually defeat the LTTE and end physical hostilities? I rather think that we did not; as, all voices, whether academic or journalistic, left or right, pro-government or no, dedicated their lives to battling over whose ‘credibly delivered political solution’ was the best one. And then, in many ways, the unthinkable did happen.

Of course, no avenue in a process of critical reasoning can conclude that the end of physical hostilities in Sri Lanka can mean that the ethnic conflict has ended. In an article that appeared on Groundviews, I made these declarations. I said, that the road ahead will be laborious, painful and difficult to navigate, but it cannot be embarked upon without being fully cognizant of this. If what we want is true reconciliation and a society built upon liberty, justice and equality we must be prepared to face all the issues that every single democratic experiment has historically confronted. These are the ideals for our society that form the shallow rhetoric of our beloved politicians, and which inspire the fight of the many members of civil society, or, as a friend of mine once labelled them- the ‘peace’ industry. There is nothing wrong with these ideals- they are anchored to a project that seeks nothing but social justice, and real democracy. Of course, this being that we accept the democratic and capitalist projects as normatively good.

Yes, I am dragging out some hackneyed socialist Marxist tripe that, in academia at least, is becoming very mainstream. It’s easy, it’s even trendy to go all hammer and tongs at neo-liberalism, capitalism and modernity. These institutions are built on good, strong moral, Christian grounds, and yet, of course, they destroy and fall to ruins very easily. I am not speaking only of the disasters of the Third World , but globally, certainly.

Academics active in the climate change debate are arguing for governments not run by politicians but for institutional authoritarianism run by knowledge experts. Why? Because democracy has failed humanity and the institutions, laws, markets and corporations that sustain this experiment of the modern only survive on the image of humanity in chaos and disorder. All our value and knowledge systems are distorted by its principles. More than colonial legacies, it is the principles of modernity, with a focus on individualism, with the dominance of a concern for the centrality of the individual, for private values against collective values that divides and antagonises us. Social fragmentation at its best, preying on our social insecurities and fears in the most insidious manner- by talking to us of equality and liberty. I make no new or perverse argument here. The democratic experiment will fail in Sri Lanka , and this would have happened even if this war had ended in a ‘credibly delivered’ equitable political solution.

What I didn’t say on Groundviews was this. The fault of the Rajapakse administration is that they are stubborn absolutists and petty thugs; but Father forgive them, I feel that they know not what they do. At least, I am reluctant to award them any subjective capacity for higher thought. They live in a world of king making and corrupted power and will continue on upon a dogged path of self righteous greed and gain; a path that will be, I am afraid entirely unchallenged. There is very little in a democratic system (modern and conservative) like ours that can be done to be rid of him.

The majority of votes in Sri Lanka are the property of the Sinhala Buddhist community and these votes will never go to the weak and misrepresented UNP (and unfortunately as long as Ranil Wickremasinghe heads the opposition, the image of the UNP grows worse everyday). Of course I am speaking mostly of the new bourgeoisie class within the Sinhala Buddhist community who are powerful representations of rural ideology.

Two things need to happen. One, will have to be significant reform in the SB leadership. The monastic Sangha’s support of the regime has lead to a very concrete legitimisation of this government, as you know, and this allows the extension of the state’s capability into further reaches than democracy theoretically allows. It’s actually a rather interesting meditation on the compatibility of Buddhism with political modernity. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly is that we need to construct a home grown approach to the ordering of society in Sri Lanka . I rather think that this should move on the lines of real radical reform that moves beyond democratic government and capitalist political modernity and perhaps seek an altogether more suitable alternative.

A focus on parliamentary democracy and capitalist modernity focus only solidifies the centrality of these systems to our thought and organisation of the world. This is a blind spot in modern academia and policy making, that while willing to be critical of the systems and institutions, we are unwilling to look beyond them to the possibility of an alternative, towards radical reform that moves away from the models of ‘growth’ and ‘progress’ that the principles of political modernity are fundamentally based upon. We cannot imagine even the conception of an alternative, and in terms of Sri Lanka , a home-grown solution that isn’t based on these principles. Now I do not know what this alternative is so I cannot provide you with the framework for building it. Why struggle to make Sri Lanka fit into the same democratic, capitalist box? Why not move the discussion, debate and work we do into a Sri Lanka that becomes an example to the world in seeking a moral, sustainable alternative?

Perhaps we need to retrace our steps, not be afraid of a little developmental regression into the pre-modern, and courageously make a new journey out of the city of the world and into the village of the mind. The building blocks and the framework for this is already existent in the thinking and writing of our own academics. Take, for instance, Sarvodaya Shramadana : the Growth of a People’s Movement published in 1970 by A.T.Ariyaratne. If we can permit ourselves to let our enlightened selves reign for a little, we can avoid the fluff in his rhetoric that advocates a revival of an ancient Buddhist civilisation, but look at the plans for creating self-sustaining, cooperative societies. We have an almost Gandhian sensibility here, seeking the equitable distribution of wealth and an exploitation free society. Each member of the community labours according to his or her capacity, a principle that enables each individual to receive according to his or her need.

This is not a society based on the institutions of private ownership and competition. It is a socialist way of life based on sharing. It is a form of trustee-ship that works toward satisfying worldly needs, and naturally allows moral development. I rather think that this is something to think about and possibly to even implement. This moves us away from governance, democracy and institutionalised capitalism and toward what I feel is actually a higher, more enlightened place. In this age of globalisation and economic development, such a society is more unthinkable than it was when Gandhi laid out his precepts in Hind Swaraj. So much so, that such an idea tends to be effectually silenced.

It is not only the aegis of the Rajapakse administration that will silence such a move. There are other elite voices that must undergo reform in Sri Lanka . This is the peace industry- civil society that is fighting, ostensibly, the ‘good’ fight for liberal democracy, economic prosperity and free speech. My grief with this bunch is that they buy into the absolutism of the West, to the policies by which foreign superpowers have decided that we must all run our countries.

They too, are stubborn absolutists but I cannot go in supplication to the father to absolve them, for they know what they do. These are the most capable minds and hearts in Sri Lanka . They have now faced a defeat, where none of their policies and advocacies won the battle over the delivery of peace. As of now, they fight the same war, over the same issues without stopping to even envision an alternative. A reformulation of Sri Lanka that does not invite independent commissions from abroad, that does not require the intervention of a foreign power. In effect, they silence themselves by their own absolutism.

I published a piece with the same sentiments in a different forum. While many read my piece, no one engaged with it. I had no one who agreed with me, and none who argued against. In many ways, my position, this third way ,was effectually silenced. I do not know exactly why this is, but I may have something to do with the fact that this viewpoint, while an extremely simple one, might just be a little unthinkable.

We must think past absolutism. Why? Because open in my browser are an article about the Transnational Governenment of Tamil Eelam, and an interview by rapper M.I.A in the New York times. These are two extreme, and two absolutist voices that, because of a base in a certain kind of righteousness, cannot be so easily silenced. There must be an alternative that we seek, else we will suffer a fate akin to John Donne and his Anne. ‘Un-donne'.