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Learning from Sisyphus?

by Tisaranee Gunasekara
“The painful secret of gods and kings is that men are free.” ~ Sartre (The Flies)
( October 21, 2018, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The ‘journalist who fell foul of his country’s ruling dynasty’ – that was the title of The Guardian obituary of Jamal Khashoggi. In his last column for The Washington Post, Mr. Khashoggi said that freedom of expression was what the Arab World needs most. His barbaric murder – according to Turkish sources, his killers started sawing him up while he was still alive – proves conclusively what life, and death, can become in a world where most humans have no human rights.

Mr. Khashoggi’s murder holds up a mirror, giving us a clear view of the emerging times. Had anyone other than Donald Trump occupied the Oval Office, the Saudis might not have murdered Mr. Khashoggi the way they did, where they did (Turkey is not a Saudi ally). But with Mr. Trump in the White House, insane minds could prevail in Riyadh. After all, Mr. Trump has made no secret of his hatred of free expression and independent media. The Wall Street Journal reports that the Saudi crown prince called Jared Kushner and wanted to know what the fuss was about.[i]
The murder of Mr. Khashoggi, like the triumph of Mr. Trump, is not an isolated event. It is a mark of the times we are living in, a period in history when battles considered won must be refought, and issues considered settled must be reengaged with.
When Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith of Sri Lanka, took a stance in clear opposition to Pope Francis, and publicly questioned the need for human rights, he was doing what many politicians, thinkers and clerics are doing all over the world. As the new wave of national-populism sweeps across the globe, influential voices are arguing that people and countries need to make a choice between freedom and security, between basic rights and economic prosperity. Fear is being used to push voters into voluntarily abandon basic rights, and transform themselves from free citizens to obedient subjects.
Democracy’s boast is that it is government for the people. But when economics, instead of delivering a liveable life causes in-your-face inequalities, democracy acquires the image of government not for people but against people. That is the hour of the strong leader, the one who promises to shake the foundations, drain the swamp and make countries great, always pointing to a utopian past as lodestar.
The world’s safest countries, countries which have succeeded in ensuring for their people the best possible lives are not autocracies, run by strong leaders or families.[ii] They are democracies where basic rights are accepted, basic freedoms flourish and the rule of law prevails. But a blasé disregard for facts is another hallmark of the new wave of national populism.
This month, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a landmark report, putting the world on notice. If global warming can be limited 1.5 Celsius above preindustrial levels, the world has a future. If not, especially if the rate exceeds 2 Celsius, a natural Armageddon awaits us. Asked about the report, President Trump said that he has seen reports with antithetical conclusions and that he believes a ‘glorious future’ awaits the world (he also boasted about his natural instinct for science).
According to the report, the world can save itself with drastic remedial measures. Not if Donald Trump continues to occupy White House and fellow climate-science denier, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro (who defends the country’s past military dictatorships) wins the presidency and implements his promise to super-exploit the Brazilian Amazon in the name of development. What Italy’s Five Star Movement has achieved with its anti-vaccination campaign – a sharp spike in measles as vaccination rates drop – is a warning of what awaits not just individual countries but the entire world, if the current wave of national-populism, with its practice of making a false equivalence between proven facts and personal beliefs, continues its global sweep.

Democracy’s Failure of Memory

When Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith made his retrogressive remarks about individual rights, the only politician who bothered to counter him was Mangala Samaraweera. The Joint Opposition then came swinging in the Cardinal defence (just as it did when a senior Buddhist monk asked Gotabhaya Rajapaksa to ‘become even a Hitler to develop the country’). Mahinda Rajapaksa lamented ‘the attacks on religions’. In his weekly Lankadeepa column, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa railed against modernity’s disregard for religious traditions.
Mr. Samaraweera is a political liberal; but like most political liberals of today, he doesn’t seem to understand the nexus between democracy and social justice. Mr. Samaraweera speaks out against religious and cultural extremism while showing a lamentable inability to remember that historically there has been a clear interdependence between economic fairness and political tolerance. Had Mr. Samaraweera not been the minister of finance, this inability might not have been of consequence. Since he is, his position, his failure to comprehend the political consequences of austerity is turning to be a key factor in the imminent Rajapaksa resurgence.
The last time a national-populist wave swept across the world was in the 1920’s and 1930’s. That first wave of national-populism was born of the First World War and gave birth to the Second World War. A key characteristic of the interwar years was economic dysfunction, the Great Depression of 1929 and the not quite so famous depression of 1921-23. Economic pain and hopelessness drove individuals and nations to the edge of insanity and, often, beyond. Those countries with strong institutions averted disaster, and used the crisis as an opportunity to prune the system of some of its more egregious aspects – the American New Deal being the most outstanding case in point. Other countries, lacking in strong institutions, tried to fill the vacuum with strong leaders, opening the gates to the likes of Adolf Hitler.
The socialist challenge and the enormous popularity of the Soviet example were what made the victors of 1945 behave in a radically different way from the way they did in 1918. Capitalism was fortunate to have a set of leaders who understood that survival meant change, including borrowing liberally from the socio-economic arsenal of socialism. The statement, that “there is no choice between being a communist on 1500 calories a day and a believer in democracy on a thousand,” attributed to such as ace Cold Warrior and anti-communist as General Lucius Clay, is indicative of Western leaders’ willingness to think outside the box, even to break the mould where necessary. It was this attitudinal transformation which made possible the game-changing Marshall Plan. Marshall Plan’s “effectiveness was rooted in the freedom that it gave post-war European governments, torn between structural rebuilding and investing directly in their citizens, to avoid austerity measures and cutbacks that would have increased political instability and lowered the quality of daily life.”[iii]
So the welfare state became the capitalist norm in the first world. Political leaders used economic measures to transform ordinary people from outsiders into stakeholders of the system, with something to lose. Western European welfare states succeeded in ensuring higher living and working conditions to their own working classes than what prevailed in the Eastern Bloc. As Eric Hobsbawm pointed out, “It is one of the ironies of this strange century that the most lasting result of the October revolution, whose object was the global overthrow of capitalism, was to save its antagonist both in war and in peace – that is to say by providing it with the incentive, fear, to reform itself after the Second World War…”[iv]
That history is now forgotten. And democracy’s failure of memory has resulted in an attitude to economics which is so dogmatic it seems almost religious. The post-war nexus between individual freedom and social justice lies sundered. In 2009, a second great depression was avoided, but the means used to save entire economies from collapsing had a disastrous impact on millions of individual lives. Livelihoods and homes were lost; the fact that those who contributed most to the crisis, banks, insurance companies, hedge funds and other outposts of financial capital, got away scot-free provided kindling to the fire of popular discontent.
Brazil’s transition from democratic success story to deadly failure holds important lessons to other embattled democracies, including right here at home. Had the Workers Party not gained a reputation for rampant corruption, had it focused on improving the lives of ordinary people instead of wasting enormous resources on showy projects (such as the Rio Olympics), Brazil’s trajectory might not have taken the turn it has. When democratic leaders renege on their core promises and turn their backs on their indispensable constituencies, they sow the seeds of authoritarianism.

The Baby and the Bathwater – An Old Adage for New Times

Soon after Hitler came to power, a group European cultural leaders held a conference under the guidance of Andre Gide to analyse what went wrong and how best to resist Nazism. Klaus Mann in his remarks suggested that leftist intellectuals – like himself – were partly to blame for the disaster. Their critique of the Weimer Republic had been too absolute, because they had seen nothing worth defending in the corrupt, decadent and unjust democratic order, until Nazis took power and taught them the value of basic rights. “We have defamed the original, indestructible, and noble desire of European peoples for freedom because in many cases liberalism has been degraded to a worthless phrase and an alibi for high profits.”[v]
If refighting old battles is to be our fate, it must be done without repeating old mistakes. As a second wave of national-populism gains traction across the world, that lesson from the first wave needs to be remembered. Contempt for representative democracy was a European staple during the interwar years; democratic politicians were often venal and ineffective then, as they are now. Another issue common to both times was corruption. As the gulf between the promises of democracy and the reality (especially Weimer Germany) grew, democracy’s defenders sunk into disillusionment and apathy. The value of the freedoms that still remained under the corrupt, idiotically inept and repressive governments was understood only after they were totally lost under Nazi rule.
Most of human history, humans lived without basic rights and freedoms; and their lives were poor, short and brutish. Sans of a voice and rights, they received subhuman treatment at the hands of kings, generals, magnates or religious leaders. The rights we take for granted today, and are so willing to barter for illusions of security and prosperity, are the results of centuries of hard fought battles. A cursory look at history, for instance, would show how and with what tenacity vested interests resisted the idea of universal franchise.
Historically, democracy was not a rich man’s whim but a poor man’s necessity. The absence of basic rights helps not the ordinary law abiding citizen, but power-wielders (political, religious and economic). Such an environment is not conducive even to combat crime. In the absence of due process and free expression, when a crime happens, the police don’t have to spend time and effort conducting a proper investigation. All they have to do is to catch a ‘likely suspect’ who will either commit suicide or be killed while trying to escape.
In Sri Lanka, the Rajapaksa opposition and their supports (which could include up to 45% of the voting electorate) regard extra-judicial killings and involuntary disappearances as a public good. The banishment of the exhibition Unframed (organised by the Vikalpa Magazine) from the Peradeniya University proves the danger of societal intolerance and authoritarians. The decision by the organisers of a recent film festival in Jaffna not to show the documentary, ‘Demons in Paradise’ demonstrates that the habit of self-censorship is alive and well, even in the absence of official censorship. Add to this toxic brew the growing economic pain of the masses – and there can be little doubt that the necessary ingredients for the re-triumph of autocracy are present in Sri Lanka.
There is nothing glorious about starting from zero again and again, in fighting battles which had been won. But if that is to be our fate, then there cannot be a better model for the coming times than Sisyphus, of Albert Camus. Camus reminds all those whose task is to labour in seeming futile conditions that to despair is to cede victory to the rock. “The struggle towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart,”[vi] he says in conclusion. Perhaps we are about to find out.
[iii] Winning the Peace – The Marshall Plan and America’s coming of age as a superpower – Nicolaus Mills
[iv] The Age of Extremes
[v] Quoted in The Intellectual Resistance in Europe – James D Wilkinson
[vi] The Myth of Sisyphus

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