By Ramindu Perera, September 29, 2021
Some reflections on the progressive identity in contemporary times
The sudden demise of veteran politician Mangala Samaraweera evoked an interesting discussion about the legacy and the future of the politics the former Minister represented. Being a leading figure in mainstream politics for decades, in 2020, he retired from partisan politics to form a platform to promote centrist politics. A few months before his untimely death, he launched a movement called the “Radical Centre” – a platform committed to the revival of liberalism. The initiative was introduced as a force upholding the values of democracy, multiculturalism, and economic liberalism.
It is quite common to see commentators referring to Samaraweera’s politics as “progressive”. The identification of Samaraweera with the notion of progressiveness, largely stems from the positions he adopted on issues concerning the rights of ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities. In the later stage of his career, he became a vocal critic of majoritarianism and often provoked hardline Sinhala nationalist elements by making statements challenging majoritarian attitudes.
However, in addition to the above, Samaraweera was well-known for his leaning towards liberal economic policies and the relationship with the liberal imperial establishment. Being a staunch advocate of economic liberalisation, the former Finance Minister of the “good governance” Government once famously stated that the “socialist mindset” Sri Lanka has inherited is an obstacle to economic development. The budget proposals he presented in 2017 and 2018 contained a range of liberalisation measures which reflects his thinking on economic policy. The infamous decision of Samaraweera – as the former Foreign Minister – to abstain from voting for a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) Resolution in 2017 that condemned Israeli aggression on Palestine, created a huge controversy even within the ranks of the Government.
The making of the progressive identity
Identifying Samaraweera as a “progressive politician” raises some interesting questions regarding how the meaning attached to the term has evolved. The term has a long history in our political vocabulary. In a historic sense, especially during the 1956-1977 era, the broader anti-United National Party (UNP) forces were defined as progressive. The Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) and the Communist Party used this term to identify the Left leaning national populist bloc that was contesting the domination of the UNP which was understood by the former as the party representing the comprador bourgeoisie. According to this understanding, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) was also recognised as a progressive party due to its role in the anti-UNP bloc.
The commitment towards economic and social justice and anti-imperialism were determinants of the progressive identity at the time. The national welfare project SLFP-led governments initiated, combined measures for economic independence and the redistribution of wealth. This marked a rupture from the dependent economic policy that was followed by UNP governments in the immediate aftermath of independence. To liberate the country’s economy from the neocolonial grip, post-1956 SLFP-led governments aimed to fast track industrialisation through direct state investments in the economy and encouraging local production by imposing import substitution measures. The expansion of the public sector was accompanied by social welfare measures like strengthening the free education system, free healthcare services and providing subsidies to the low income population. Furthermore, they advanced a non-aligned foreign policy with an anti imperialist leaning.
The identification of progressiveness with the commitment towards economic and social justice reflected the spirit of that particular historic epoch. Following World War II, the conception of the social welfare state became widely admitted throughout the international order. Henry R. Luce, Professor of Jurisprudence at the Yale Law School, and a Professor of History at the Yale University, historian Samuel Moyn refers to this epoch as the “age of national welfare”. The defining feature of the age of national welfare is the intervention of the state in the economic realm to encourage economic redistribution. The interventionist state deliberately adopted policies to reduce the gap between the haves and have-nots and to empower the latter. In the Third World, there was an anti-imperialist dimension to the national welfare project since the question of national welfare was intertwined with achieving economic self determination.
This does not mean that the age of national welfare was flawless. The main limitation of the mid-20th Century welfarism is the failure to recognise patterns of discrimination based on “identities” such as gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and so forth. Though it advanced a notion of economic and social equality, there was no substantive attention towards designing inclusive policies to accommodate “difference”. Certain states deliberately institutionalised discrimination against minorities.
A classic example for this failure is the New Deal project initiated by the former US President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Though the New Deal advanced the welfare of the white working class and lifted them to the status of the middle class, the black population was largely excluded from receiving these benefits. In the case of Sri Lanka, a main limitation of our national welfare regime was the ethnic bias it demonstrated. The Sri Lankan state failed to accommodate the aspirations of non-Sinhala Buddhist communities in the process of post-colonial state building.
The neoliberal turn
The neoliberal global order which emerged after the 1980s was a reversal of the age of national welfarism. The thinking of national welfare was replaced by a new paradigm which advocated the withdrawal of the state from economic activities. Economic liberalism is the antithesis of what was considered as “progressive” in the preceding era. The new model was premised on the idea of trickle down. The rich – the so-called “creators of wealth” were given all the incentives, while liberalisation measures like trade liberalisation, labour law reforms and privatisation affected and dispossessed the urban and rural poor. The focus shifted from reducing inequality to “poverty reduction”. Inequality was not seen as immoral anymore; to the contrary, inequality was even seen as a precondition for growth.
From older standards, it would have been unimaginable to describe a political project legitimising inequality and strengthening the position of the economic elite as a progressive endeavour. Further, having an intimate relationship with figures of the US establishment would have easily made a person look like an arch reactionary.
What has caused the difference that we see today? The answer lies in the ideology of international human rights that has grown alongside the neoliberal project. In the late 1960s, a wave known as “New Social Movements” emerged in Western countries that highlighted forms of inequality that were neglected by the national welfare state and progressive movements. The disparity between the rich and poor concerns class inequality. New Social Movements such as feminism, the movement for gay liberation and various movements against racism, raised demands for equality in social relations other than class relations. While older progressive movements fought for redistribution, these new movements strived for recognition.
The contemporary international human rights discourse – comprised of different legal bodies at the UN level and international non-governmental organisations working on human rights matters – is a phenomenon that developed in the 1970s. This became quite mainstream in the next few decades. The human rights discourse successfully absorbed various demands for recognition raised by New Social Movements and framed them in terms of individual legal rights.
There is no doubt that the human rights discourse in its liberal form has brought significant improvements in areas like gender equality or minority rights during the last few decades. But historically, the mainstream human rights discourse also evolved as an ally of the global neoliberal order. The individualist premise of both projects i.e., the focus on defending the rights of the ‘individual’ and the anti-statist bias, treating the state with suspicion made neoliberalism and liberal human rights natural allies.
The post-Cold War international order is defined by this alliance between neoliberal economics and the ideology of liberal human rights. The articulation of these two projects lies at the heart of contemporary liberal imperialism. This articulation has had a profound impact on both projects. In its original manifestation, neoliberalism appeared as a crude doctrine – devoid of any moral content – which treats possessive individualism as the paramount value. However, the alignment with human rights has given neoliberalism a humane flavour.
Therefore, assuming a humanitarian character, neoliberal institutes are framing their ideas with reference to human rights. For instance, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or the World Bank mandated labour reforms that dismantle protection for standard types of work are depicted as attempts to enhance female labour force participation.
The multinational conglomerate Amazon – that is being accused of not paying a decent wage for its workers – erect billboards supporting the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Imperialist countries bomb Afghanistan in the guise of saving Afghan women from the tyranny of patriarchy! Hilary Clinton who is responsible for the killings of thousands in Afghanistan as the US Secretary of State champions herself as a fighter for gender equality.
A regressive notion of progressiveness?
After the fall of the Soviet Union and the decline of class-based politics, it seems like the meaning of the term “progressive” has undergone; or at least is undergoing, a transformation. Economic equality does not matter anymore. Progressive identity is not necessarily aligned with the commitment to economic and social justice. The identity is largely defined by cultural determinants. Thus, someone advocating highly regressive economic policies could nevertheless claim to be a progressive given that he takes a stand for other causes like racial harmony, minority rights, gender equality and so forth.
The politics of Samaraweera can be understood as the local manifestation of this logic of neoliberal humanism. Samaraweera is considered to be a progressive since he is against racism, stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning rights, and critiques ethnic majoritarianism. However, in doing so, commentators totally neglect the regressive nature of the economic policies he passionately promoted. Ironically, even Left leaning commentators – who are supposed to take the norm of economic and social equality seriously – tend to forget the reactionary aspect of his legacy and depict the veteran politician as some kind of a progressive visionary. Talking about progressive credentials of a politician who condemned the “socialist” mindset of the people and publicly allied with the imperialist West would have been unthinkable a few decades ago.
These developments indicate the extent to which the critique of capitalism and imperialism has been weakened within our “progressive” political circles. British Labour politician Peter Mandelson once stated: “We all are Thatcherites (a reference to former Conservative British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher) now!”. He was referring to the Labour Party compromising the idea of democratic socialism and the commitment to economic and social equality under the pressure of triumphant neoliberalism introduced by Thatcher. In a similar vein, the absence of any political economic critique in the appraisal of Samaraweera’s legacy shows that most of our progressives have tended to compromise class considerations and define what it ought in terms of cultural determinants. This compromise has contributed to the emergence of a highly incomprehensive notion of progressive identity.