Rajan Philips, courtesy of The Island, 1 October 2016, where the title is “With the West sneezing extremism, can Sri Lanka and others avoid catching cold?” .… Emphasis vvia highlighting is from The Editor,Thuppahi.
One would have thought that the old wisecrack needs to be reversed. The West may not be just sneezing, but has already got the cold, even worse, a bad fever of extremism. And that the worry would be if others can avoid the infection. Not so fast, says the wag, as there is quite a bit of Sri Lankan and South Asian sneezing and coughing going around, and we don’t need infection from the West to make matters worse. Jaffna’s Chief Protestor has signalled his periodical awakening from his chronic administrative sleep with the new “EzhugaThamizh” (linguists use ‘zh’ instead of ‘l’ for a unique Dravidian letter and sound) slogan. “Pongu” relates to the liquid state of matter, Ezhuga could be Freudian. Southern Chief Ministers are weighing in, or rising up, and the SLFP’s two-timing (between Mahinda and Maithri) Nimal Siripala seized on the sneeze from Jaffna to bark out a cough of his own on the inviolability of being unitary.
South Asia’s two big boys, India and Pakistan, are getting tired of not fighting for 45 years and are spoiling for a war. Sabre rattling and ‘surgical strikes’ are going on along the disputed Kashmiri border and the two countries are also in a spat over the 2016 SARC conference that is to be hosted by Pakistan. The sub-continent, home to the largest concentration (20%) of the world’s poorest, doesn’t need a 21st century ‘beggarly war’ – to paraphrase WB Yeats.
The last time India and Pakistan fought, the US was Pakistan’s useless ally, while India and Russia cemented a strategic partnership for security. Now, India is getting closer to the US, while Russia is starting military co-operation with Pakistan. International relations are becoming more bi-lateral and less multi-lateral, and based on opportunistic considerations than universal principles or values. But there are no opportunistic considerations for India and Pakistan to co-operate. Thanks to them, South Asia stands out in world trade as the region with the least intra-regional trade. Only Sri Lanka’s GMOA – imagine when doctors become trade experts, can feel happy about it. For the suffering people of Syria, there is no solace either in bilateral (US-Russia) or multilateral ceasefire efforts.
The West, or quite a portion of it, is becoming a “basket of deplorables”, to extend Hillary Clinton’s description of Donald Trump’s support base in America. But Trump is continuing to turn America inside out, bowels and all, despite the bully being stood up-to and beaten by ‘the girl’ in the first presidential debate. In Britain, Jeremy Corbyn and his storm troopers have resoundingly captured the Labour Party for the second time in one year, despite elderly fears that Labour may have lost the country for more than a political generation. The once united kingdom, worries The Economist, is on track to become a “one-party state.” Right-wing nuts and xenophobics are waiting for the only sane Western political leader left, Germanys’ Angela Merkel, to fall on their racist sword and perish. France, the land of modern revolutions, could go fascist this time before anybody else. Hopefully, I am not painting too grim a picture. But it is hardly pretty
New Age of Extreme:
“Age of Extremes” is the title Eric Hobsbawm gave to the last of his historical tetralogy, covering the period from 1914 to 1991 and calling it “The Short Twentieth Century”. Accomplished academic and eminent Marxist historian, Hobsbawm’s four volumes spanned world history over 202 years, the first three covering what he called the “long nineteenth century”: The Age of Revolution (1789-1848), The Age of Capital (1848-1875) and The Age of Empire (1875-1914). The Age of Extremes saw revolutions, two world wars and many national wars, the end of empires and the birth of new nation-states, the short-lived League of Nations and the longer lasting United Nations, the Great Depression and the response of social safety nets, and the contending forces of capitalism and socialism which provided a politically polarizing dynamic to a technologically unifying world. The long nineteenth century and most of the short twentieth century were dominated by Europe, but, in Hobsbawm’s assessment this domination was over by the end of the latter period. The world that was ‘Eurocentric’ in 1914 ceased to be so by 1991.
The world of 1914 and that of 1991 differed in two other respects, according to Hobsbawm. It became “a single operational unit” gradually elbowing out territorial nation-states and national economies. Marshall McLuhan’s “global village” concept is nowhere near its full realization, but there is no mistaking the general direction of the changes over the last hundred years. Globalization is more pronounced in economic affairs, and Hobsbawm insightfully contrasts the difficulties that state and public institutions and collective organizations go through in adjusting to globalization, as opposed to the relative ease with which private human beings are adjusting to the internet world, global travel and even globally extended families and kinships. A more worrisome change, in Hobsbawm’s view, “is the disintegration of the old patterns of human social relationships, and … the snapping of the links between generations … between past and present.” The assertion of individualism in society in its extreme form has created the phenomenon of “a-social individualism“, devouring communities of their traditional roots and ties and religious constraints.
It is possible to see the extensions of these changes and their consequences into the twenty first century and the new age of extremism. It is not only that the world is no longer Eurocentric, it is also that the old imperial patterns of migration have been reversed with the West being the recipient of new arrivals. Immigration has become the flashpoint in almost every western society, with the possible exception of Canada. Anti-immigration cry was the tipping point in Britain’s Brexit vote and is the singular reason for the emergence of Trump phenomenon in the US – the quintessentially immigrant society. Anti-immigration is also the reason for the growing electoral strengths of right-wing leaders and their parties across Europe. Like Trump in the US, Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s far right Front National, is within striking distance of potentially winning the 2017 presidential election in France. Her counterparts in other European countries can all feel their political boats rising with the tide of anti-immigrant feeling.
Although on surface anti-immigration would appear to be a white vs non-white issue, there are multiple nuances beneath the surface. In Britain, the anti-immigration backlash targeted primarily the East European migrants benefiting under EU’s free movement policies, and it is not only the old-stock Englanders, but also many older Asian and African immigrants, who are opposed to the East European migrants. In the US, Donald Trump hates the Muslims and Mexicans, but is happy let Asian Americans stay because they are “great” and “hard working”, some of whom will not hesitate to return the favour. Muslims, of course, get special treatment everywhere. In the US, Black Lives do matter in their own special way, given their historical circumstances.
There is more to it than just race and colour in the makeup of anti-immigrant sentiments. The differential impacts of free trade and globalization on local jobs, and growing inequality within countries are as much a reason for the rise of extremism as are reasons of race and bigotry. It is true that governments everywhere have neglected the people who have been badly affected by global changes, while allowing the beneficiaries of these changes especially in the (non-productive) banking and financial sectors to do as they please, without rule or regulation, and often at the expense of ordinary working people. The anger and the backlash of the ordinary people are perfectly understandable, and Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have come to personify this anger in ideologically different ways.
While the immediate reasons for anger are new, there is not much new about the political responses to them. Brexit and Trump and their politics are no different from the ugly manifestations of fascism and Nazism during the twentieth century. What is new is that they are happening in Britain and the US, and it could happen in France. Germany, this time, thanks to Merkel could be different. What is also different is that unlike in Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, the political institutions in Britain and the US could democratically survive Brexit and even a Trump presidency, respectively. That in fact is the reasoning behind traditional Republicans who are determined to vote against Hillary Clinton, whose victory would give the Democrats a third consecutive term. That is something a diehard Republican cannot stand, and so they justify a vote for Trump, because a Republican Congress and the Supreme Court can put Trump in his place. This is simply playing with fire.
To the eternal credit of Bernie Sanders, he showed the progressive alternative way. He lit up the US for almost an year with his call for revolution that will put Wall Street in its place and put money where majority of the people need services – health, education, housing and social insecurity. After a heroic run in the primary, he stepped back and not only acclaimed Hillary Clinton as the Democratic nominee, but is also actively supporting her. As a seasoned politician, he understands that in the US system presidential elections are not the place for protest votes. One can only hope that the movement he started will have some effect in the presidential, congressional and state elections this year, and will continue to systematically press for progressive changes even after the elections. There is no easy way out of extreme situations.
Hobsbawm and Keuneman
In the light of references I have made in this article to Eric Hobsbawm, it wouldn’t be inappropriate to end this piece by mentioning his friendly connection to Sri Lanka and South Asia. Hobsbawm was a contemporary of Pieter Keuneman at Pembroke College, Cambridge University, and they were both active in the university Communist Party branch. Hobsbawm who passed way in 2012 at the age of 95, gives the following description of Keuneman (1917-1997), in his autobiography (2002): Interesting Times – A Twentieth Century Life: “Pieter Keuneman, a dashing, witty, and remarkably handsome Ceylonese (the island was not yet Sri Lanka) who lived in Pembroke in some style, was a great figure in University society – President of the Union among other things – not to mention the lucky partner of the ravishing Hedi Simon from Vienna (and Newnham), with whom I vainly fell in love. (After we graduated Pieter and I rented a tiny house together in the now no longer extant Round Church Street a few yards from the house where Ram (Ephraim Alfred Nahum) was to die.) Although both were devoted party members, I do not think anyone would have predicted that this debonair socialite, who first introduced me to the poems of John Betjeman, would spend most of his life as the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Sri Lanka.”
But those who knew Pieter Keuneman and his politics would not be surprised as to why and how, he and other frontline Sri Lankan Left leaders, took to politics the way they did and stuck with it to the end with their honour intact and a legacy to be proud of. Other communist contemporaries included India’s Mohan Kumaramangalam and Indrajit Gupta. The former went on to become a national political figure in India and a Minister in Indira Gandhi’s government until his tragic death in a plane crash at the Delhi airport in 1974. Gupta went on to become the General Secretary of the Communist Party of India. The long nineteenth century of modernism was when non-Europeans were drawn into European modernity, not as “volunteers”, as Talal Asad memorably put it, but as “conscripts”. During the short twentieth century, the Left in Sri Lanka and India contributed to the ending of European domination of the world, not by trying to retrieve pre-colonial social conditions, but by projecting their indigenous genius onto contemporary history. There is no other way, no matter how much work remains unfinished. To paraphrase Marx, no one can become a (pre-colonial) child again without becoming childish.