Thursday, January 5, 2017

The world ahead

The beginning of a year always calls for some reflection. Reflection, it must be added, not only on the good but also the bad, the mediocre, and the downright nauseating, aspects of the old year that passed by and must never come back. For 2016 was just that: an epoch in itself, a year in which (for the most) things we never hoped for nor wished materialised. It would not, I suppose, do to blame fate, because the gods often play tricks on us. After all there are good times and there are bad times. This is not the time for dishing out blame. This is the time for reflection.

If the mid-fifties saw the rise of socialism in Europe and progressivism in the United States, and if the late seventies saw the rise of neoconservatism and neoliberalism in (much of) the West and, lest we forget, Sri Lanka, then it’s safe to say that the latter part of this decade will see the rise of populism. We are entering, some commentators (like John O’Sullivan of “The Spectator”) want us to believe, a post-democratic world, where the ballot wins representation for the privileged who feel marginalised. To a large extent, I agree: this past year, and the year preceding it, saw demagogues in Europe and the US, liberally sprinkling their speeches with racist invective even as the incumbent governments of these countries tried to preach the gospel of tolerance to the East.

One lesson 2016 left us with was that democracy, as with every other form of political representation, has its qualifiers. On December 16, 2015, Michael Moore stood holding a placard declaring “We are all Muslim” in front of Trump Tower, commenting later that more than 80% of America were “female, people of colour, or young people between the ages of 18 and 35.” The fact that not even such a statistic could save America from Trump speaks volumes about where representative democracy is headed in that part of the world.

Naïveté and idealism, one is forced to concede, are therefore horrendously misplaced in a context where the world seems to be bracing for disaster. Realpolitik would dictate that the Global South pick on a side to wade through the next few crucial months and years, but the realpolitik of yesterday has become, or is fast becoming, outmoded today. The far right has never, in recent history, been this aligned with the far left: both are against free trade, both want closed borders, and both, to varying degrees, pander to emotion. The politics of the West may well be shaped by fringe movements, from both sides of the political spectrum.

We are now living in a world where nationalism, not patriotism (the latter moderate, the former militant), rules. A world where a decade of idealism, of lounge suits, statesmanship, and gentleman politics, can be replaced by amateur politicos through tweets and Facebook posts. A world where borders are returning, and quickly, and transnational cooperation is being replaced by fierce, sometimes psychotic, manifestations of sovereignty. Our world used to be interconnected, more globalised. That will now, at least to a mild extent, be a thing of the past now. By that, however, I am not regretting much.

And there’s nothing much to regret anyway. The demagogues in the West have eroded, for better I should think, the hypocrisies in the way Washington maintains relations with our part of the world. Two years ago, the very idea that a foreign adversary might have tampered with your country’s elections would have compelled horror. In America, or rather Donald Trump’s America, such a threat is trivialised, and trivialised to such an extent that the most the president-elect can do (one can’t blame him) is play the blame-game and attack Hillary Clinton. In the meantime, the anti-Westerners here are having a field day: Washington actively or passively manipulate electoral outcomes in other countries, so it’s only fair that it gets a mild dose of its own medicine.

Before 2015, policy was largely left to the legislature. The process was simple: the people choose, the elected decide. Sri Lanka is no stranger to referendums but the West, particularly the US and much of Europe, never felt the need to opt for them. Fast-forward to 2016 and what do you get? A referendum forced on the British public to opt out of the EU, in arguably the most precarious situation the continent has faced since the EU was first formed after the Holocaust.

What the demagogues of the West are doing, in other words, is forcing down the throats of the Establishment the hopes, the fears, and the aspirations of the numerical majority in their countries. In other words, there has been a shift of power from bodies that were traditionally vested with authority to people and personalities. Nowhere else in these few decades, after all, would you have seen people proudly sporting swastikas and pledging allegiance to the KKK in the US. That was not the result of that country’s polity. It was the result of Donald Trump and Donald Trump only.

Brexit transferred a politically partisan issue from the populists to the parliament. In other words, unprecedented for our time, an issue that could have been sorted through the Legislature and the Judiciary was first resolved by the Far Right before being submitted to those bodies. The world, they say, moves with the West, but I wonder: in this instance, the West is being besieged by the very demons they force our part of the world to combat. In such a context, laden with irony as it is, I suppose it would not do for us to ignore the implications of a year that (in all likelihood) will define and spell out an entire era.

What are the lessons we can draw from all this? Simply, that nationalism, whether you like it or hate it, will continue to thrive. And flourish. In Sri Lanka, the far right and the economic right have never really coincided. The forces that represent the far right (the militant clergy and fringe, racialist movements) are at odds with those that represent the economic right (the UNP and a section of the SLFP). The West is now seeing a coincidence of these two forces. I predict that sooner, rather than later, the Global South (particularly in the more religiously inclined, socially conservative countries) will see them coincide.

In this precarious context, our politicians will do well to take note of fringe movements here. Leaving the door open to them, to come in and define the State and its stance on race, religion, and identity, will do more harm than good if the government is seen as pandering to outmoded forces in the West.

Let me put that into perspective for you. Our blue-eyed idealists in power, at least a great many of them, were associated with the likes of Hillary Clinton, Tony Blair, David Miliband, and all those who play golf with sympathisers of separatism over there. These are failed personalities, those who came with promises of social change but couldn’t quite deliver the goods. They are now busy lamenting the revolutions that have uprooted them from their own parties (particularly, of course, in the case of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party). To continue paying deference to them and the interventionism they championed while they were in power is to ignore the devil when he’s in your backyard.

2016 was the year of the expedient. Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Geert Wilders, Marine Le Pen: these are all essentially demagogues. They “court” the people and win votes. They inflate rhetoric with racism. They are not ashamed of wooing the ignored majority (predominantly White, Christian, and male) bemoaning the invasion of other identities and ethnicities.

Given the West’s zeal for forcing the rest of the world follow its script when it comes to multiculturalism and tolerance, one should be surprised that the most powerful nation in the world is now led by a man who not only promotes isolationism (which is, all in all, not that bad) but also chooses to promote his civilization through peaceful means. (“Instead of trying to spread universal values that not everybody shares or wants, we should understand that strengthening and promoting Western civilization and its accomplishments will do more to inspire positive reforms around the world than military interventions.”) In this he is miles away from not only Hillary Clinton, but also George Bush (both father and son).

How long will it be before the year of the expedient collapses into an era of war? Sooner than later, the cynics will inform you. But then, 2016 wasn’t just the year of the expedient, it was also the year of reconciliation and dialogue. The conventional wisdom was that the median voter wins in the end. The Founding Fathers of the US were adamant that their Constitution neither pandered to the majority nor flouted them. Given that the Founding Fathers correctly implied that extremism can't linger for long, I therefore propose that 2017, instead of being a year of conflict, will keep the racists happy long enough for the moderates (by whom I am thinking of the likes of Bernie Sanders) to capture power.

Written for: Ceylon Today, January 5 2017