Let’s start with the Left, which in Sri Lanka is facing an ideological impasse. To date only the FSP and, to a considerable extent, the SEP have been the only local socialist parties that have come up with a proper, constructive indictment of capitalism and neo-liberalism, and globalisation and their adverse impact on the unprivileged
At any rate, selectivity and myopia of that sort are not, nor will they be, the preserve of nationalists. Just as much as the protests told us something about them, they also told us something about those ideologically and politically opposed to them
The liberals, in the meantime, are caught up in an impasse too. Their failure to link their concern for individual and minority rights with economic rights has been confirmed by the distinction they make between negative and positive rights
the liberal-left seem rather content in leaving it at that, without pursuing it any further. The response of liberals, even certain minority liberals, to questions of minimum wages, free education, welfare expansion, and all that is, in this regard, quite telling
In my haste to criticise the nationalist movement for what I felt to be its selectivity, I fear I became too harsh when I drew a comparison between white America’s stereotype of African-Americans as an entrenched minority and what I took as the tendency of Sinhala nationalists to view minorities in this country, especially Tamils and Muslims, on similar terms. I fear, in other words, that I overplayed my cards. Nevertheless I stand by the point I was trying to make: that despite its avowed opposition to Western intervention and hegemony, the nationalist movement here still hasn’t made a powerful enough statement of solidarity against the George Floyd murder, and that this reveals its Janus face. The FSP did, yet all it got was a battering even Namal Rajapaksa has condemned.
At any rate, selectivity and myopia of that sort are not, nor will they be, the preserve of nationalists. Just as much as the protests told us something about them, they also told us something about those ideologically and politically opposed to them. They told us, in other words, as much about the bigots, the populists, and the fanatics as they did about the liberals and the leftists. By this I do not intend to generalise – after all the Left has been the only ideological formation in this country that has seen it fit to demonstrate against the Floyd murder, the FSP publicly and the Socialist Equality Party (SEP) online – but the silence I’m getting from most liberals, and vast swathes of the Left, is deafening to say the least. I believe the problem is one of ideological myopia: in a context where sections of the Left have given up on class, and sections of the liberal crowd find it difficult to link their agitation for individual rights with economic issues, neither group has been able to present a cohesive critique of the Floyd murder, let alone its applicability to the situation here. How come?
Let’s start with the Left, which in Sri Lanka is facing an ideological impasse. To date only the FSP and, to a considerable extent, the SEP have been the only local socialist parties that have come up with a proper, constructive indictment of capitalism and neo-liberalism, and globalisation and their adverse impact on the unprivileged. The JVP has too, but due to leadership tussles and its obsession with the Rajapaksas, in the public view at least it has been associated with the same right-wing and neo-liberal political forces it ostensibly opposes. The FSP and the SEP, on the other hand, have evolved critiques of not only those right-wing forces, but also their sterile Left companions – intellectuals, trade union activists, and agitators – who espouse their cause and later abandon it for the sake of parliamentary privileges. The SEP’s condemnation of Saman Ratnapriya’s membership in the UNP and Jayampathy Wickramaratne’s complicity in the neo-liberal reforms of theyahapalana government, as well as the FSP’s denunciations of the JVP, are cases in point.
I’ve traced the dismantling of the Left movement in Sri Lanka since the 80s, when the breaking up of trade unions, the rise of a pan-Sinhala pan-Buddhist nationalist consciousness, and the flow of NGO and donor capital to post-Marxist outfits all threatened to bring down a viable Left opposition and co-opt existing Left groups to a neo-liberal political establishment or a nationalist political fringe. This weakening of the Left can explain the inadequacy of the response of the traditional Left, and the JVP, to issues of class. Why identity politics has triumphed over class, why economics no longer matters, why ex-Marxists today seem to accord with what right-wing think-tanks are spouting, is self-evident; the lure of funding has made it possible for them to betray their own cause, and substitute a hollow reformist movement for a more dynamic, multi-pronged one.
The George Floyd murder reminded us of history: that of White America, and of the West in general. It taught us about the rifts not just between the whites and the blacks, but more crucially between two halves of the African-American community: privileged and unprivileged. Candace Owens’s pro-Trump, forthright defence of the police apparatus in the US may seem like a quirk, and yet the truth is that she’s as much a norm as the reality of police brutality inflicted on more dispossessed sections of her community. Thus, for me at least, Black Lives Matter is as much a statement against racial and ethnic discrimination as it is against economic exploitation; after all as one commentator aptly put it, US history since the 18th century has undergone three stages: slavery, segregation, and capitalism. Those who believe that BLM is about African-Americans only, and that a Left program aligned with it should incorporate minorities merely on the basis of their ethnicity or religious beliefs, are mistaken. The blacks of America are beleaguered because of the colour of their skin, but the prejudice against it has an awful lot to do with their economic disadvantage. It’s not just a statement of race then; it’s a statement of class, a condemnation of class stratifications.
Thus any self-respecting Left – or for that matter liberal – campaign against the Floyd murder, in Sri Lanka, must organise its program from the vantage point of both ethnic relations and class relations. It must talk about the pummelling of the relatively disadvantaged (including the peasantry as well as the working class) among those conventionally taken as minority groups in the country. It must have the courage to denounce nationalism and separatism, and in the same vein, and point out that both ideological extremes divert attention from issues of class advantage. It must, in short, speak for the 99% and not the one percent, and it must not confuse solidarity with disadvantaged minorities with blind support for minority identity politics. The Floyd protests or the Black Lives Matter movement have chosen that former, ideologically correct path: it is no longer about African-Americans getting battered by white policemen, it is now about a worldwide, sustained campaign against symbols of enslavement, discrimination, wage bondage: the triumvirate of slavery, segregation, capitalism. That is why statues of Winston Churchill and 18th century slave-owners are being removed: they tend to gloss over the history of exploitation. An analogous situation here would be a rallying cry against our colonial inheritance and our enslavement by multinational companies, neo-liberal institution funded think-tanks, and the like. Yet I see no Left outfit here organising such a thing.
The liberals, in the meantime, are caught up in an impasse too. Their failure to link their concern for individual and minority rights with economic rights has been confirmed by the distinction they make between negative and positive rights. “Today,” observes James Peck in Ideal Illusions, a perceptive study if ever there was one about the human rights brigade, “we look with perplexity at how slavery could co-exist with the belief that all men are created equal, how liberalism could rise hand in hand with colonialism and brutal forms of exploitation.” Local champions of abstractions such as the rule of law, separation of powers, and equality forget the structural rifts within society which can only, if at all, be resolved by way of a dialogue about positive rights. Our liberals, in their espousal of George Floyd’s cause, thus seem to forget that the grievances of Floyd’s community have as much to do with their skin as with their economic position, as much to do with their working conditions as with their skin. This can be addressed only by tethering minority rights, which liberals are all too willing to talk about, with substantive, positive economic rights, which they are not.
Theoretical abstractions can only help us so much. Yet the liberal-left seem rather content in leaving it at that, without pursuing it any further. The response of liberals, even certain minority liberals, to questions of minimum wages, free education, welfare expansion, and all that is, in this regard, quite telling: they are willing, for instance, to talk about cultural rights, but even as minorities the more privileged among them seem unwilling to acknowledge the demands of estate workers to raise their daily wage to Rs 1,000. Multiplied a hundred or so times over, this has become a typical Jekyll-and-Hyde reaction of the liberal-left to grievances of minority groups: they are willing to dwell on identity politics and champion those communities, yet they are silent on more substantive economic issues; issues which actually matter, which the Black Lives Movement, the Floyd protests, are picking up. In its unwillingness to penetrate them and talk about them and resolve them, liberal-left activism today has hence become, in Sri Lanka, skin-deep. Pun intended.