Anything Lanka can learn from Brexit?

Cosmopolitan internationalism versus bleeding heart nativism


The school of Athens with Plato and Aristotle in the middle.The first enlightenment painted by a forerunner of the second, Raphael

Internationalist poster Nigel Farage addresses a Brexit rally

by Kumar David


The world can be examined along different axes, that is, employing different dimensions. Three are well established. The terminology ‘advanced countries’ and ‘developing countries’ (or less polite versions of the latter) has a huge following and has crept into everyday use. Living standards, economic development, politics, power and trade are the cornerstones of this discourse. A second dimension is culture in the broad sense (language, ethnicity and religion), both intra-national and international. The third is class, within a nation or region ("The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of the class struggle") and global categories such as imperialism, globalization and the appeal to the "workers of the world (to) unite".

Interestingly in recent times a fourth dimension has gained prominence – internationalism versus nativism. The former is heir to the eighteenth century Enlightenment – Marxists, even nationalist ones like Mao and Ho Chi Min to a large extent, belong here. Finance capital is global for acquisitive reasons, Pope Francis for spiritual ones, so is the EU. Let me use EI (Enlightenment Internationalism) collectively for this lot notwithstanding class and ideological divides. An example of this consanguinity is the UK’s pro-EU (anti-Brexit) melange of financers, big bourgeoisie, cosmopolitan, professional, multi-lingual elites and some two-thirds of the working class.

The antithesis of EI, Nativist Nationalism (Nativism), consists of strands of nationalism from the rational and pragmatic to the xenophobic, and embraces unabashed adherents of sovereignty. The borderline between EI and Nativism is sometimes blurred. For example the celebration of pluralism belongs to both; the portion of the English working class that ignored Labour Party advice and voted to leave the EU is an aberration, and so on. On other occasions there is no blurring, the difference is clear-cut. Scientists are firm that their epistemology and methodology are unified and global; science is an international enlightenment paradigm. Clowns argue that there is one science that is Judeo-Christian; another is indigenous (as though the laws of physics morph at passport control). Scientists and clowns belong on different planets.

An unambiguous Nativist cross-class, cross-ideological political example is the Brexit Leave Camp which brought together the gentry in provincial England (the bedrock Tory vote) and the "give us our country back, let’s get out of the EU" UKIP petty bourgeoisie. The ethics that binds them, despite disparate class characters, is a ‘We are British first, European only second’ identity and emotion.

There are indeed grounds for Europeans - and the poorer the more justified – being fed-up with the EU. Yes the single market is a source of economic strength for industrial and financial capital, not only industrial Germany, the financial pinnacle in the City of London and energetic Poland, but for weaker economies as well. Class-wise, crumbs from the rich man’s affluent table fall on the floor for lower orders to lick. Inequality of wealth and income too is not as grotesque in Europe as in the United States. Notwithstanding all this, austerity, privation, poor housing, unemployment and neediness in the midst of displays of wealth have incited an anti-EU backlash. Even Jeremy Corbyn’s alleged lukewarm stance on European unity I think is a reflection of this widespread perception of the EU as a bosses’ club.

The bigger factor in the Nativist revolt in UK, France, Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden is political. Immigration inflames the gentry, petty bourgeois and jobless worker. Free movement and settlement of people within the EU has opened the door to three million EU migrants in the UK, and many into Germany, France and other parts of Western Europe. Another political grouse is that European elite and Brussels bureaucrats are, it is alleged, attempting to dispense with individual states and forge a single EW-wide supra-state.

If we tie all these threads together the manifest fact is that people have lost faith in political and business establishments, governing elites and political parties of all hues across Europe, America and much of the rest of the world. The ‘system’ is perceived as a club run by political elites who lord it over millions but ignore them and ice the cake for big capital. The hubris of the rich, the political elite and the bureaucracy is detested by the citizenry. Now there are demands for referenda to quit the EU or exit the Euro elsewhere, and if they succeed, loathing of Brussels’ bureaucrats will be no small reason. The demand that people from the Brexiters, the radical left (Bernie Sanders, Spain’s Podemos, Corbyn, or Greece’s Syriza), the European new-right, and the Trump mobs, are all making is a change of the ‘system’ from a top-down project run by global capital and elites into a polity responsive to people’s will. It manifests itself as Nativist ideology when driven by the new-right and as a forward thrust of EI ideals when led by the left.

Though in the context of the Brexit debate I have focussed on the West so far, the EI versus Nativism dichotomy is global, it is universal. One example will do before I turn my attention to Lanka. Daesh (Islamic State) and similar jihadist movements though the most potent and widespread terrorist enterprises history has ever known and despite their global reach, are narrowly sectarian and ideologically constricted. They are clear examples of what I have termed ideological Nativism.

There are those in Lanka who believe (obviously they won’t articulate it openly) that: "If we want to lynch ‘our’ Tamils what bloody business of foreign human rights busybodies is it?" The point is not the morality or otherwise of the sentiments; the point here is that I am locating this mind-set at one extreme of my Nativism versus EI dichotomy. I said a few paragraphs ago that people in many countries have lost faith in political and business establishments, governing elites and political parties of all hues. Lankan Nativism however is not anti-establishment since for the three generations the state itself has affiliated itself with such sentiments and in 1958 and 1983 dipped its own hand in blood. The spurning of the establishment I spoke of is for this reason somewhat skewed in contemporary Lanka.

We did have three anti-establishment movements in the past, two have mellowed and one has been erased. From the mid-1930s to the mid-1960s the LSSP-CP did represent an anti-establishment EI trend to which the appellation Marxism-Leninism with or without the further qualifier ‘revolutionary’ is applied. The second burst was the JVP, twice, and the second occasion, the 1989-90 punchi-aanduva, was the only time in our post-independence history that the state was brought to its knees. The third of course is the battle hardened Tamil nationalism of the LTTE. None of these are now relevant as anti-establishment forces in the way the term is used in this essay. The first has wilted, the second domesticated and the third expunged. Again I am not moralising whether these movements and their transformations are good or not, merely recording the prevailing political landscape.

Lanka fortunately is at least momentarily in atypical distemper unlike much of the West, the Middle East and Africa, and portions of South and Central America where primitive movements are rising. The crazies mobilising around Trump or the European far-right do not use physical violence or terrorism but the damage to the country in question, or the world at large that these forces could do if invested with state power is large. A loony with his finger on the nuclear button in Washington is Armageddon. Lanka’s loonies are, for now at least, on the side-lines.

My theme today is that globally, during the last generation at first gradually and more swiftly in the last decade, the nature of contradiction and conflict has morphed. Traditional modes of engagement have been supplemented by a contradiction between modernist internationalism and nativist nationalism and the emergence of powerful new players - jihdism (and its miniscule relative Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinism) and Western manifestations of an intrinsically analogous phenomenon in Trump and the European new-right.

Let’s do a little thought experiment to illustrate how deep the change is. Imagine that fresh elections are called in the UK in a few months; conjecture that the main contenders in England are the Conservatives under a traditional leader, UKIP led by Nigel Farage and a left-leaning Labour led by Jeremy Corbyn; this assumes he has cleared the Augean Stables of conspirators and moved the party to the left reflecting Bernie Saunders’ programme in America. Here is my hypothesis, assuming that the traditional party, the Tories, win the largest number of seats, which is the most pro-traditional assumption one can make, I hypothesise that UKIP and a left Labour Party, will between them, collect more popular votes than the Tories despite their parliamentary majority or plurality; say 40% poll to traditionalists and 60% to UKIP and Labour between them. If you can grant this as a plausible scenario then I have won the case I have been arguing in this essay, viz.the global political landscape has changed remarkably.

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