While the Biden-Harris ‘event’ won’t translate immediately and unmediated into a decisive impact on Sri Lanka, the change in the global zeitgeist and the world correlation of forces, starting with the overall balance of ‘soft power’, will transform the regime’s environmental conditions of existence and ‘overdetermine’ our small island’s political destiny
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” – John (1:5)
Let us remember George Floyd. Now the American people can begin to breathe. So can humanity.
When Obama won, I wrote a piece from Geneva entitled ‘Barack Obama: History’s High Note’ (https://groundviews.org/2008/11/06/barack-obama-historys-high-note/) Maybe I should call this ‘Joe Biden: History’s High Noon’. The victory of Joe Biden, Gary Cooper-like cool, calm, yet principled American moral hero, was a triumph for civility and moderation, decency and dignity, humanism and pluralism, social empathy and social fairness, anti-racism and anti-supremacism.
With Biden begins the end of American decline. Those who think that in the past week, the USA demonstrated its weakness and the debility of democracy as a system of governance, are much mistaken. History will show that this was the turning point, where the world saw democracy alive, in real-time, from the inside; how the values of democracy were fought for, even at this moment of ‘dual power’ marked by Trump’s institutional obstructionism and polarising incitement of far-right passions. A second American Revolution, this time a replay of the 1960s and ’70s, may be inevitable.
If a low-intensity Civil War is waged against the Biden-Harris administration by neofascist militia, drawing support from the ‘Confederate’ white supremacist constituency, future history will show that this only strengthened American democracy as did the Civil War of the 1860s, enhancing the moral strength of the American idea, ideals and system throughout the world.
As I entered my teens I read a new book (in 1970) which an American friend had gifted my father, titled ‘The Greening of America,’ by Charles A Reich. It contemplated the shift of consciousness of the 1960s, dubbing it Consciousness III. The Biden-Harris victory marks the birth of a new American consciousness, with globalised resonance because the USA is more a mirror of the world, of humanity in all its plurality, than is any other country, and its ideals as demonstrated by the vote for Biden-Harris, are more universalist than the message and model of its rivals and competitors. The gravitational centre of global consciousness could shift, creating a new global centre-space, a new democratic consensus, a new middle-ground and Middle Path.
History will indelibly etch the charismatic Kamala Harris, who is in part, OUR Kamala: not only the first woman Vice-President of the USA, but also the first woman of colour and of “South Asian descent” (Biden’s victory speech) to hold that post, who will also be the most powerful woman in the history of the most powerful nation in history.
Lessons for Lanka
The planetary political pandemic of autocratic Alt-Right ultranationalism has just had its curve flattened in its epicentre, the country of its most dramatic height, the USA. Sri Lanka’s likeminded regime will feel secure that this is an ancient, ‘organic’ hierarchical society unlike the USA, congratulate itself on the “autocratic breakthrough” (Balint Magyar) effected with the 20th Amendment and the grip it has on the institutions and electoral process. Ruthlessness will be its recourse to pre-empt a replay of the fate of its hero President Trump.
While the Biden-Harris ‘event’ won’t translate immediately and unmediated, into a decisive impact on Sri Lanka, the change in the global zeitgeist and the world correlation of forces, starting with the overall balance of ‘soft power’, will transform the regime’s environmental conditions of existence and ‘overdetermine’ (Althusser) our small island’s political destiny.
The GR presidential project was socially and psychologically powered by Trump’s 2016 victory. The Gotabaya regime came into being as the last victory of global Alt-Right ultranationalism, the parabola of which has begun its descent with Trump’s defeat. The regime’s external factors of existence constitute a tripod: Trump and Trumpism; Israel’s Netanyahu, Netanyahu’s Israel; and Xi’s China.
As Ben Rhodes, President Obama’s brilliant Deputy National Security Advisor wrote: “For the last decade, the political project of an increasingly far-right Republican Party has become enmeshed with other right-wing movements in Brazil…and elsewhere…Right-wing parties share sources of financing, media and disinformation platforms, political strategies, and consultants.” (The Democratic Renewal, Foreign Affairs, Sept/Oct 2020). The ‘Late Trumpist’ Lankan regime’s tripod just lost a leg.
The second leg is Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel. Biden is staunchly pro-Israel but he’s also pro- ‘two state’ peace. Netanyahu will be hoping that a Biden victory will not help his rival-cum-partner Benny Ganz, a more promising peace partner.
The third leg is President Xi’s China. In a reopened dialogue between the USA (with India in its corner) and China, that leg may prove flexibly retractable, and even if it doesn’t, perching on that particular leg will make the regime more vulnerable in the coming global re-set.
The Trump/Biden example shows that Trumpism can be electorally defeated in a single term at a Presidential election. While it was a protracted struggle for the electoral college, culminating in victory, it was a much clearer sweep in the popular vote. Biden-Harris polled the highest number of votes that any presidential ticket did in US history, beating Trump by almost five million votes.
In a presidential system with a direct popular election, it is perfectly possible to defeat a majoritarian-supremacist autocratic President in a single term. As Bolivia recently showed with the first round 55% win for the Movement for Socialism candidate Luis Arce, this is perfectly possible even against a tougher-than-Trump “de facto dictatorial regime…which killed protestors” (President Arce).
This would be especially so if, like Trump, the incumbent President has been a success in other fields but has zero-experience of legislation and governance, and faces a progressive democratic candidate who by contrast, has considerable political experience. Sri Lanka’s democratic challenger lost to the incumbent President at the zenith of the latter’s post-Easter/pre-corona popularity as candidate, by only 10% (52%-42%).
Sri Lankan democrats and liberal/neoliberal civil society intelligentsia must abandon their colonial hang-up on the Westminster model and absurd three-decade-long fixation on the abolition of the executive presidency (‘contact traceable’ to the abortive anti-Premadasa impeachment and the reactionary DUNF breakaway). What ended up abolished was not the executive presidency, but the UNP which was the project’s vehicle. The executive presidency stands reinforced.
The USA proves (as does Bolivia) that however autocratic the President, the task of democrats is not to abolish the Presidency, but to WIN the Presidency, defeating that President.
Former Obama strategist David Axelrod correctly said on CNN after the victory that Biden is “a Centre-Left Democrat…[with] a progressive agenda”. When the neoliberal-globalist Hillary Clinton was his opponent, Trump broke through the ‘blue wall’ that Bill Clinton and Barack Obama had built. Joe Biden rebuilt it. Biden is an authentically caring, empathetic man with an appeal to the blue-collar working people of the white majority (who had deserted the party during the Hillary Clinton candidacy), able to breakthrough in the American heartland which Hillary had lost for the Democrats, while constructing the broadest anti-Trump coalition, especially with the African-American community which voted overwhelmingly for him.
In a lesson for Sri Lanka’s ethnic/religious minorities, the Black community didn’t support the ideologically advanced Bernie Sanders (backed by young, college-educated whites) as they did that Democrat who could reassure the white majority and break through to it, giving the best chance of victory.
The vital energies for the winning Democrat mobilisation came from two sources: the (Bernie Sanders) Democratic Left and Black Lives Matter. The incandescent Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (‘AOC’, age 31), Joan of Arc of the Democratic Socialists, was re-elected to the House of Representatives with an amazing 68.8% vote. Ilhan Omar and the rest of The Squad, the progressive women’s caucus which includes AOC, were re-elected.
It could be “déjà vu all over again”: the tale of the two submarines. What could be the wider effect of the optics and the discourse of the SLPP-Chinese Communist Party seminar on Governance, including a banner with the symbols of the CPC in one corner and the Pohottuwa in the other, and the reference to the relationship of “the ruling parties”? As the newspapers reported:
“…Minister Song Tao of the International Department of Central Committee of CPC, Party Secretary Liu Cigui of CPC Provincial Committee of Hainan Province, SLPP Chairman Professor G.L. Peiris, Secretary General Sagara Kariyawasam, SLPP MPs including Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, Namal Rajapaksa and Ramesh Pathirana together with some State Ministers and Mayors from the Western Province participated in the meeting.
‘…Ambassador Qi Zhenhong…emphasised that the experience sharing between the two ruling parties would play an important role in bilateral cooperation in the post-COVID era to come. “…As ruling parties, CPC and SLPP should enhance experience sharing so as to better leading the two Governments and the two peoples for a brighter future.”’
It was President Gotabaya Rajapaksa who decided, in conversation with President Xi, and later with Politburo member Yang Jiechi, on taking the party-to-party relationship, as distinct from the purely state-to-state or government-to-government relationship, to the next level.
“…Chinese Embassy Spokesperson Luo Chong said that the meeting was aimed at implementing a consensus reached by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and President Xi Jinping in their telephone conversation as well as the recent high-level visit of top leader Yang Jiechi to Colombo.”
The event was billed as an “Opening Ceremony of CPC-SLPP Advanced Seminar on Governance Experience”. Would the “Governance Experience” that the SLPP absorbed at this seminar make its way into the new Constitution? The SLPP is not a ruling party in the systemic sense that the CPC is – unless that transformation is the goal. Does the regime seek to entrench itself behind a Chinese wall of an ‘Asiatic absolutist’ constitutional/political order?
The SLPP-CPC dialogue on Governance took place in the immediate aftermath of Pompeo’s messaging on his Sri Lanka visit, and while a naval exercise of the Quad was underway in the Bay of Bengal. Mike Pompeo was careful to target the Chinese Communist Party more often than China as such, an interesting attempt at an implicit distinction between state-to-state or intergovernmental relations, and the alleged expansionist impulse of the Chinese CP.
Just as the Trump administration built on Obama’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ (minus the Trans-Pacific Partnership), the Biden administration will build on elements of Trump’s China policy. Just as the policy of ‘containment’ of the USSR was essentially bipartisan, albeit with varying emphases, so too will be the policy of the ‘containment’ of China.
The US Democrats are even more focused than the Republicans on the issue of democracy vs. the projection of China’s governance model by the CPC. On this, there is a bipartisan consensus. Moreover, if Michelle Flournoy handles China policy, the Biden administration’s approach will be smarter and sharper in both soft and hard power dimensions.
Tie this into the recently reinforced American relationship with India (billed as a relationship between ‘the world’s two greatest democracies’) which lies at the cente of the Quad, itself billed as an alliance of democracies. The Quad has a back-office backstop: The Five Eyes, an old (1951) but recently re-energised partnership for intelligence integration, comprising the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
That’s the substructure/infrastructure in place. Add the coming ‘superstructure’: Biden’s stated commitment (in a landmark Foreign Affairs essay) to what I call ‘democratic internationalism’ – a global mobilisation and vigorous offensive, advancing the values of democracy and human rights while explicitly targeting autocracy and ultranationalism.
There is a politico-corporate-managerial-bureaucratic-institutional conglomerate in Colombo with an economic stake in its vocation as China lobby/client, but Beijing’s umbrella will not sustainably extend so far south in the Indian Ocean, will be vulnerable to an Indo-US pincer or Quad encirclement, and be rolled up. In the great game in the Indo-Pacific, Sri Lanka may prove a dispensable bargaining chip, traded-in to protect a stake elsewhere.
International relations 101
Sri Lanka’s rulers must know that in international politics, being within your rights when you choose to do something, is only one factor in the mix, and not the determinant. Nor is being in the right in your own eyes.
What counts ultimately is whether what you do, best serves your national interest, defined not as the interest of an ethnic/religious community, ruling party, ruling family or corporate-bureaucratic stratum, but the State and its citizenry.
In making that calculation it is important to know what the threat perceptions of others are and how your actions or inactions impact on those threat perceptions, what they might do about it, and whether you are capable of deterring, countering or absorbing their actions/counteractions.
You have to game it through, and when you do, you must not base yourself on what you think of yourself or of others and their possible intentions, but on objective capabilities. Do others – and if so who/which, in what hierarchy – have the capability either to bend you to their will or inflict unacceptable levels of harm to you and your core interests? Do you have the capability – not merely the will – to deter, or resist and survive?
In the confident speech immediately preceding the Pennsylvania result, Joe Biden staked a global claim, saying there’s no reason that America cannot “own the 21st century”. That riff on TIME/Life founder Henry Booth Luce’s definition of the 20th century as “The American Century” may be over-ambitious for the 21st, because China apparently aspires to the same goal, and Russia to multipolarity, with both states entitled to fair and adequate space and status, commensurate with their achievement and power.
In his victory speech Biden said “at its best, America is a beacon for the globe…we will lead not only by the example of our power but by the power of our example”, adding “it’s always been a bad bet to bet against America.”
“Let freedom ring!”
What if the Trump presidency was not, and had not been, constitutionally constrained? With presidential power unchecked and militarism rampant, liberty in Sri Lanka has no safeguards, enjoys no guarantees. The objectively enabling role that any external power assumes in relation to domestic tyrannical tendencies must therefore be externally contained and countervailed. And this is so not only in Sri Lanka.
Today humanity’s main threat comes from the narrowing and darkening of human consciousness through parochial ultranationalism, racism and supremacism; the retrogression in human and social progress through reversion to tyranny and despotism; the anarchic breakup – not progressive transformation—of the world system through the irruption of walled-in ultranationalist tyrannies; and the sporadic, opportunistic, enabling and/or consolidation by rising great powers of these retrogressive trends. The absence of a common, science-driven global response to COVID-19 and the much larger danger of climate change are symptoms of this situation.
Humanity has to be reunited; the human consciousness broadened and enlightened; internationalism reborn.
Biden wrote: “…We have to champion liberty and democracy…” (Foreign Affairs, March/April 2020)
The ideas and ideals of the Biden-Harris campaign (including those of progressive and left Democrats) must be transferred and transmitted globally, uninterruptedly extended and expanded into an internationalist project of democratic solidarity against tyranny and for freedom, liberty, equality and justice. The new American revolution must be universalised.