The poverty of protest


In Sri Lanka there is a poverty of protest, and artists and activists who see the root causes of our problems are outnumbered by those who choose not to.

In his study of early modern Europe, Peter Burke points out three phases through which popular culture evolved. In the first phase, from the 14th to the 16th centuries, popular and elite culture coexisted. In the second phase, from the 16th to the late 18th century, the two separated: the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation responded to the rise of the bourgeoisie by distancing the one from the other.

By the end of the 18th century, the process was complete for the third phase to take off in the 19th, when the elite felt a need to rediscover the folk culture they had neglected until then. The middle class, meanwhile, grew, matured, and thrived. With that the role of the artist changed.

The growth of industry during this period led to a paradigm shift in how the West conceived of individual rights: reduced to pleasure and pain, to the principle of profit, to the maximum happiness among the maximum people. Even the most radical artists from then – in France Voltaire, in England Dickens – couldn’t help but give way to the dominant philosophy: thus Voltaire could champion liberty, yet reject equality; thus Dickens could mock the privileged and condemn the workhouse, yet impose a workhouse ethic on the inmates of the reformatory that he founded for prostitutes.

Here I see in the Western culture’s distinction between the concrete and the optics, the reality and the ideal, the workhouse and the reformatory – a distinction that goes back to Plato and Ancient Greece – a fatal philosophical rupture.
Today this rupture continues in the form of the debate between those artists and activists who argue for positive rights and those who argue against them. In Sri Lanka, the rupture is between those who seek formal rights – the right, say, to the national anthem being sung in Tamil – and those who seek substantive rights – the right, say, to compulsory free education.

Asanga Welikala, in an interview with the Daily Mirror in October 2017, categorised among the latter those who want to embed in the Constitution certain positive rights (free education being the most glaring). This, he argued, is a difficult if not dangerous enterprise, because it commits to the constitution a view of social issues that should best be left to the courts rather than be imposed via the legislature. In other words, let the judges who are unelected rule on substantive rights, instead of the parliamentarians who are.

Given that context, we can ask, what would be radical?

To commit such rights to the Constitution would be radical. To lambast corruption in not only the State, but also the private sector, which funds corruption in the State, would be radical. To ask for enforcement of substantive solutions rooted in economics, rather than on an amorphous left-liberal ideology, would be radical.

The debate now rages, to put it pithily, between those who want to hear the national anthem sung in Tamil and those who want to bring down fertiliser prices and improve agricultural methods, so that farmers in the north can enjoy a decent livelihood while they sing that anthem in their tongue. To merge the two, to achieve both goals, would be radical.

I have a problem with artist-activists who can’t merge the two, because they tend to give preference to the ideal over the substantive. They want labour rights, but they don’t seem to want to specify a minimum wage for workers. They want minority rights, but they don’t seem to want a proper economic framework in which interregional disparities are eradicated. They want some form of a right to education, but they don’t seem to be willing to abandon their obsession with elite schools, or to cut into the monopoly held by such schools by upgrading and diverting much needed funds to village schools.

Their preferred institutional frameworks seem to be the 13th and 17th amendments, along with the 19th. But if apathy and graft persist, can devolution and independent commissions respond well enough to the needs of the people, as opposed to those of the elite? Language rights are fine and well. But if the state of hospitals in Jaffna is no different to those in Kurunegala, and both regions are far behind Colombo, can formal equality ever suffice?

These questions give rise to still further questions. Certainly, it’s futile to expect answers now. But we must ask them. For instance, why did the same artist-activists protesting against the illegality of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s premiership in 2018 raise not a hum against the deliberate postponement of the local government and provincial council elections? Why were candlelight vigils not held for university students, protesting against encroachments on public education by the private sector and baton-charged for doing so?

I like to distinguish between two kinds of protest artists in Sri Lanka here. Unfair though it may be, such a distinction has to be made. The division as such is between the likes of Sunil Perera and the likes of Nanda Malini and Gunadasa Kapuge. I find this split to be irreducibly reductionist, yet to me it illustrates the poverty of protest in countries such as ours, retarded by centuries of colonialism, lack of industry, and want of independence.

The division thus is between those who attribute everything to the politician and those who make us aware of the structural basis for the ills ailing us. The former group tend to predominate, but they are wrong. After all, it’s not an “I-Don’t-Know-Why” copout that can take us to the solutions to these ills and issues, but a Pawana, a Kampana, a movement nurtured by the grassroots, rather than a lumpen culture that sees in politics the root of all evil.

In other words, we need a protest culture led by artists not out of touch with the world beyond the milieus that patronise their work. Such artists are obviously rare. But they shouldn’t be.

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