18 January 2018

Resilient systems and a resilient citizenry



We are a resilient nation and I’ve insisted on the point before.  Sri Lanka is not a failed state but has signs of failing.  That is not new either.  The signs have been there at least as long as the moment J.R. Jayewardena brought in the Second Republican Constitution in 1978.  Nineteen amendments later, all things considered, remedial measures have been few and far between and moreover taken the form of little more than patch-up.  

Sri Lanka is resilient.  We have suffered two insurrections over the past 50 years, bloody and bloodily put down, a thirty year long struggle to rid the country of a terrorist menace, debilitating natural disasters including the tsunami of 2004, government after government by crooks, for crooks and with crooks, veiled and not so veiled threats and their open and frilled execution by a belligerent neighbor and a lot of bullying at multilateral forums.  Sri Lanka has not gone down the tubes.  That’s a positive.   

To get knocked down again and again but still being able to stand up, be defiant, deal with issues and smiles is a great thing.  On the other hand what it also means is that there’s something or someone or many people who are ready to punch, trip and in other ways put you down.
We’ve heard it said before by those who claimed they would change things but then lamented about a pernicious culture that abides and inhibits and of course about officials who were intransigent and threw sand in the wheels.  But where do such officials come from, how did this culture come into being and why does it persist?  

It is hard to pin it down to one single factor.  Political culture is a very vague thing. Does this ‘culture’ inhibit or is a significant element of it an almost pernicious tendency to be laid back? And so, similar to the dictum ‘people get the governments they deserve,’ are we to conclude that culture is something we’ve made and is but a reflection of our ability and disability?  Is it all about institutions which acquire ‘a life of its own’ like certain futuristic extrapolations of technology that have human-made robots operating with wills of their own?  

Karl Marx, in his celebrated essay ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonapart,’ wrote this pithy line that may offer a window into this situation: ‘Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.’

Pierre Bourdieu, the French Sociologist in his book ‘Outline of a Theory of Practice’ speaks of a dialectic relationship between structure and agency.  He talks of ‘structured structures (structures structurées) that are predisposed to act as structuring structures (structures structurantes).’  It essentially echoes Marx’s notion.  Marx’s focus was on the French coup of 1851 which resulted in Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte assuming dictatorial powers whereas Bourdieu’s is a more sophisticated discussion on theories of domination.

Systems are of course made of rules, regulations, enforcers and so on.  They don’t cave in when someone shouts or someone objects.  If objection is strong, the objectors many and if there’s perceived threat then systems (which, let us not forget, includes people, many of whom are conscious defenders or else defenders by virtue of simply using the system or endorsers on account of silence or acquiescence) rise to the occasion.  
Take the example of public interest lawyer Nagananda Kodituwakku.  His is a lone voice on behalf of every single citizen of this country, a voice that’s raised again and again to object to wrongdoing of all kinds from the seemingly most trivial to the downright scandalous.  It is a brave voice because it speaks truths that make certain people uncomfortable, people who fall into the system-defenders category, knowingly or unknowingly.  

And the defenders close ranks.  It is as though they are convinced that if one bastion of the pernicious castle falls, the entire edifice will come down.  Kodituwakku’s battering ram, then, needs to be destroyed.  The gates have to be defended.  And so we find key defenders of the judicial-element of the overall ‘system’ doing everything to thwart Kodituwakku, all to silence him.  And the system is resourceful.  

There are the ‘in-built’ mechanisms such as court holidays and delaying tactics.  Then there’s the option of suspending his license.  There’s of course always the white-vanning option.  State Minister Sujeewa Senasinghe recently said at a campaign rally that the UNP (United National Party) ‘has still not resorted to thuggery but was prepared to do so if the situation so demanded.’  That’s the ‘system’ speaking on a specific matter; the system can also express itself more generally and move from threat to execution.  Has been done a countless number of times here and abroad.  It is happening now as it has happened for centuries.  

Now what if there were a thousand Kodituwakkus or if there were thousands backing Kodituwakku?  Will the system recoil in fear and collapse of its own accord or would it have to be brought down, one element at a time or several clusters of them to make it untenable?  

The vote!  Now that’s often enough been talked of as an option.  But is it, really?  We didn’t need to read Umberto Eco’s ‘The Name of the Rose’ to understand that the devil (treat the word as metaphor) often comes wearing the garb of the savior (treat this word also as a metaphor).  We ‘give’ our vote, we vote for manifestos and we find our so-called representatives re-defining ‘mandates’.  Democracy, for all its lovely notions, is often the sauce with which we are consumed by the powerful.  

We get fooled by the process.  We think we participate when in fact what happens is that we are made party to the processes that cheat us.  Like credit cards.  The moment we use them we set capital in motion.  Many ardent socialists unwittingly buttress capitalism in this and other ways.   

The same goes for ‘revolutions’.  There’s euphoria.  There is belief that things will change.  But as the Eagles’ song puts it ‘things in this life (world) change very slowly if they ever change at all.’  Systems are that resilient.  

All the more reason for being sober about change.  All the more reason for exercising patience and fortitude.  All the more reason to be like Nagananda Kodituwakku. All the more reason to think of taking resilience to the next level and to understand that this requires individuals to turn themselves into communities and for communities to value and nurture solidarity. 

No one said it would be easy.  Neither did anyone say it was impossible.  It’s not a walk in a park and neither is it a walk on burning coals; but we need to walk and to paraphrase Faiz Ahmed Faiz, ‘if your feet bleed, then be assured that something will surely bloom in the desert simply because you are walking through it.’


That's being resilient too. And if we want a garden instead of a few flowers, then many must walk the desert.  
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