Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The vilification of nationalism

Fernand Braudel in his influential series of books on history draws a distinction between ideal and reality in the formation of capital and free markets in Europe. He infers that what was practiced in the continent after the end of mercantilism or Bonapartist state-led growth models was a form of capitalism in which marketers, financiers, and renters manipulated the market to compel profit, far removed from the ideal of free market economics conceived of by Adam Smith.

Braudel implies, correctly I believe, that this dichotomy between the textbook and the practice of capitalism was rooted in the social structure of Europe’s city-states, a legacy of the Middle Ages and one which would have compelled him, had he lived, to regard as contributing to its present-day contradiction between deep-seated, almost xenophobic nationalism on the one hand and pan-continental cosmopolitanism on the other.

Nationalism is a misnomer. It has been tagged on collectives and individuals as a form of critique and has been inflated and set aside for praise by others. It has, a few contend, no place in a country trying to unshackle itself of the post-war moment, while others argue that to do away with it or discount its relevance would be to uproot a country’s efforts at reconciliation. This week’s article is about the conflict or clash between nationalism and reconciliation, a more prominent problem, I believe, than that between secularism and multiculturalism discussed last week.

Ignoring the majority

The problem with the previous regime was that it (gave the impression that it) saw reconciliation from a majoritarian stance, in that it began laudably (the LLRC, for all its flaws, went beyond its mandate to achieve multiethnic dialogue) but then deteriorated owing to key figures in the government pandering to extremist parties. They did not discount nationalism but committed the other sin: they inflated it. This compels two questions: what’s the role of nationalism in any reconciliation process and what, if at all, is its potential to undermine that same process?

As I commented earlier, reconciliation begins with equality and ends (though not completely) with equity. And why? Because a country, as civil society activist Jehan Perera has frequently and correctly noted, is composed of more than one nation. In Sri Lanka these nations are many (Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, Burger, what not) and can cause rupture, given cultural diversity AND the fact that we are a small country. Each “nation” (viewed this way) has its own set of aspirations, beliefs, hopes, and fears. So the first step towards acknowledging the need to move forward is not, as certain writers say today, to do away with those and embrace an all-encompassing identity, but to address them in a way which accords parity of status, privilege, and position to all.

Parity, to the best of my mind, must be absolute, and for that reason it must account for the nationalisms of everyone: the ethnic supremacy of the majority and the self-determination of the minority, while considering the one as exclusivist and racist as the other. For that matter, parity must begin by equalising both majority and minority while accounting for global realities, which is another way of saying that the ethnic majority in Sri Lanka (the Sinhalese) are the ethnic minority elsewhere, with the opposite being true for the Tamil and Muslim minorities. Acknowledging this is a first step. A necessary first step.

The problem with those scripting reconciliation now is that they’ve gone blind to this curious dichotomy between the national and global when it comes to the majority-minority divide. As no less a figure than Dr Dayan Jayatilleka (who is no sympathiser of majoritarianism) has noted, this concurrent preponderance (locally) and marginalisation (internationally) of the Sinhalese served to heighten, not assuage, their fears of invasion from within or without, which goes to show that the mere predominance of one group over another in a local context doesn’t automatically mean one should ridicule and ignore the aspirations of that group. Again, acknowledging this is a necessary first step.

The truth then is that extremism shows the lack of recognition meted out to a social group, whether or not its aspirations are conceded to in terms of statutory provisions, guarantees, and amendments. As noted last week, the fact of Article Nine of our Constitution recognising the State’s commitment to Buddhism is cosmetic: it (thankfully) doesn’t affirm the supremacy of one ethnicity (or faith) over another but in fact QUALIFIES itself through Articles 10 and 14 (even though the latter of these, which guarantees the right to practise another faith, isn’t entrenched and can be, if at all, amended through the Parliament). Moreover, if you peruse the post-1994 political practice here you will come across instances where the government BOTH pandered to extremism AND paid lip-service to the fears and doubts of a collective.

The solution to all this, if it can be achieved at all, would be to draw a line between conceding ground to the supremacist and conceding ground to the legitimate concerns of the majority. The problem, however, is in how we’ve confused the one for the other, or how we’ve tried to do away with any distinction between manifestations of extremism and the demands of a collective. In other words, tragic though it is, we’ve chosen to blind ourselves to the nationalism of one collective but open ourselves rather too much to the “nationalism” (defined according to ethnic parameters) of the other.

Let’s put this in another way. Those unwilling to cut some slack to the dominant collective are quick to do so for other collectives. Those opposed to drawing “Us v Them” demarcations along the lines of the majority agree, by omission or commission, to their being drawn by the minority. Those quick to lend an ear to minority grievances are slow to do the same for the majority. Those factoring in the minority/majority divide in the national sphere are myopic to the reversal of that divide elsewhere. Those arguing that there’s no need for identity are slow in recognising that minoritarian politicians indulge considerably in identity politics.

In short, those quick to factor in the minority in the reconciliation are intent on scripting the majority out. There are two problems with this approach, hypocritical as it is and unhelpful as it eventually becomes.

The reconciliation game and the nationalist thrust

The first and most important problem is that the nationalists win whether you accept them or not. O, not because they are racists but because despite the crudest outside force, the collectives in and of a country tend to prevail over other factors. Let’s not forget, after all, that what transpired in 2009 (as I’ve pointed out before) wasn’t just the triumph of a State in debt over a privileged organisation receiving as much as 600 million dollars from its outfits in the West but a victory of national resolve over international pressure. This wasn’t 1987, because in 1987 the legal and political situation in the country was precarious, with an insurrection around the corner and pogroms aimed against the minority forcing the inevitable result: the emergence of a minoritarian elite that, for the next two decades, called the shots in the government’s war effort.

Going by that, any attempt at marginalising the majority would fail, particularly since their point comes through whether or not they are listened to. There’s more than one way for a collective to voice their aspirations, and if they are denied official channels, they will eventually prevail using other ways and means (which is how, for instance, the PTOMS agreement with the LTTE was shelved, when a group of monks held a fast unto death). Which goes to show what I pointed out before: in any multiethnic dialogue, the minority and majority must be treated equally. Weightings and proportions come later, when equality is superseded by equality.

The second and bigger problem, however, is that denying recognition to the majority is pretty much the same as shooting oneself in the foot, because nationalism has a way of deteriorating into racism if denied for long. And I’m not talking about the majority only: the fact is that all collectives, if not listened to, resort to methods that exist outside the formal social system of a country. You can’t script out realities, after all: not numbers, not preponderance, and not strength. If you do, you end up caving into other collectives so much that the ignored social group vents out frustration in unseemly, unsavoury ways, 1958 being the most obvious example.

The problem with the Sinhalese is that they carry a double burden: they are the majority, but because of their numerical strength they’re not just forced to be responsible for any manifestation of extremism but are also debarred from proclaiming their identity on the basis that they should be content with preponderance. This schizophrenic attitude to their aspirations, I believe, comes out well in certain minoritarian politicos who claim that there’s no such thing as the minority or majority and THEN claim that a portion of the country “belongs” to them. They are as quick to sing “This Land Belong To You” as they are to declare ownership of a province or region, as quick in pointing out the ethnic dimensions of one collective attacking theirs as they are in denying those of their own attacking another.

How the West became secular

Fernand Braudel did more than just show how capitalism began. He showed us the demographic and ethnic dimensions to its evolution in the West. On that count Marx got it wrong when he argued that capitalism would do away with borders: the link between it and nationalism was so strong that in later centuries, it tended to define nations according to the collective which wielded economic power. That is how the West became secular: by making sure that the faith of the dominant prevailed over the faith of the not-so dominant. I pointed this out last week in such self-contradictory provisions as Article Two of the Norwegian Constitution.

That is also how the West ended up privileging assimilation over multiculturalism, an irony given that it’s demanding the latter from Sri Lanka even as we celebrate it more than them! After all, it’s not conjecture that in America, despite Barack Obama’s presidency, the blacks are discriminated against in the legal and political process. It’s not conjecture that in France, the burkini is banned while iconography belonging to the dominant faith is not. It’s not conjecture that xenophobes compelled Brexit and what’s more, that they are emerging throughout the continent.

And no, it’s not conjecture that they are quick to deny nationalism in the East but not so when they declare unilateral action against their “enemy”. As the late Regi Siriwardena once noted, the economic progress of Europe and the United States doesn’t simplify the battle between it and Islamic extremism to one between modernity and fundamentalism but actually hides the (superficially dormant) ethnic ideology of the West. Doesn’t mean one should side with the fundamentalists, but then again when both sides declare fealty to fanaticism, what to choose and more importantly, who to believe? And when these same secularists (in name only) become the scriptwriters of reconciliation in countries far removed from their way of life, aren’t chaos and vaguely defined multiethnic dialogue the inevitable outcomes?

Concluding remarks

True, these are perspectives. Opinions. But they all point in the same direction. They show us that without factoring in the cultural realities of a country, reconciliation can only be compelled artificially. Not naturally. The scriptwriters of reconciliation come from cultures that survive through forced integration and assimilation, and so when they demand their conception of multiculturalism here, there should and will be someone to question it. Not because they have no right to have a say and help us, but because in so doing they can’t be allowed to affirm a common identity FOR US without the consent of the governed (as the US Constitution declares) and without taking the demands of ALL groups into account.

So I conclude: there is nationalism. There is also racism. Drawing the line between the two is difficult. But denying them is undesirable. And why? Because nationalism denied can, in the long run and if that denial involves forgetting and rubbishing the identity of the majority, deteriorate into racism, a form of racism which vents out frustration outside the established social system of a country.

Yes, reconciliation is needed. But if the process is broke, going by all these reflections, fix it one must. The problem with the previous regime was that it boosted nationalism. The problem with those writing the reconciliation game today is that they’re downplaying it. Both are in the wrong. Both are misconceived. Correcting them isn’t just a question of conceding ground to a social group, hence. It’s a question of creating dialogue between ethnicities.

Written for: Ceylon Today, September 6 2016