Friday, October 17, 2014

Who's really pampered here?

Every country has its pampered class. That's natural enough. It is usually this class that make or break governments, either through the electoral process or through other more subtle methods such as of course the media. It is well known that any given era in a country's history can be deconstructed as a function of this class. It is also well known that no one "pampered class" in particular remain in power for long. Revolutions come. Revolutions go. And when all is done and dusted, a new breed raise their head and ready themselves for the era that will belong to them. Sri Lanka is no exception. This we all know. "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles," Marx once observed. That's how it's going to be, at least for quite some time.

Not that we didn't get some things wrong.

Marx wasn't perfect. He miscalculated. He failed to predict the level of sectarianism and intra-ideology rifts which "post-1917" would bring. He failed to account for nationalism as a determinant in his struggle. He besmirched the past and tradition paying scant regard to how the culture factor was as important as the anti-bourgeois factor in a country's struggle to unshackle itself of oppression. He wrote about "idiocy of rural life" without foreseeing 1949 and China (and not to mention the emergence of national agricultural lobbies). He failed to account for the rise of welfare state and (wrongly) predicted the increasing rate of concentration of profit among the few. Self-proclaimed and born-again Marxists in Sri Lanka, of course, squirm whenever they're told about this. They just can't handle the truth: Marx erred.

Not that he erred all the way through. There's that pampered class, for one thing. They still survive. The snobs. The self-professed lovers of humanity. The feel-good nationalist-businessmen who whine whenever outside-competitors come into the scene. The famous-for-being-famous urbanites/socialites. The representatives of capital interests. The self-proclaimed commercialists who side-note and marginalise the local entrepreneur in their "Members Only" discourse.

In short, the biggest beneficiaries of subsidies and concessions, courtesy of the government of course.

The local entrepreneur was not killed by 1977. The robber barons didn't finish him. It was nationalisation paraded with the "nationalist" tag which started the end-process. The Land Reforms Act was too hasty, too quick. It threw baby with bathwater. It just made easier for capital interests to devour what was left of the local entrepreneur when the MNCs came. Nationalisation initiated what privatisation took on with glee: extermination of local economy. The blame doesn't belong to misguided neoliberalism, hence. Just as J. R. opened the economy to soothe the voter, so N. M. Perera sped the nationalisation drive to soothe 1971 and the insurrection it brought.

The 1980s saw a massive privatisation drive. What little was added to the coffers was more than offset by what what was drained out of them with the LTTE factor. J. R. was a shrewd politician. Not shrewd enough, though. He thought he could battle out the LTTE. He relied too much on Western support. We "lost" India's friendship. His regime labelled dissident with the "Naxalite" tag. He tried to cut out the LTTE as a Marxist rebel force. He seemed to be more concerned with what the world thought of his actions than what his own electorate thought (predominantly what the Tamil people thought). He tried to politically label the Tigers with the same tag applied to countless other guerrilla outfits in Africa and in South-East Asia. The attempt failed. No support came. We kowtowed to India. That's it.

Something else happened. For the first time in Sri Lanka's post-independence history, rice-and-wheat politics was rubbished and thrown away. Self-sufficiency was zero-prioritised. We went for export-oriented dictates as per IMF and World Bank while failing to adjust for the import-constraining quotas and tariffs the West was engaging in. We "killed" the local milk industry. We very nearly tried to do the same with cooperatives. Any attempt made at formulating a National Drugs Policy (the Sri Lankan model of which had been adopted by countless other countries and WHO-approved long before) was laid aside. And through all this, something emerged: a new, modern, chic class. The representatives of capital interests.

No, not everyone in this group deserves censure. That would be a crass generalisation. But it is true that the 1980s saw their power being centralised, invisible though this process was. The country became tax-haven paradise. Free Trade Zones, "free" only of labour- and resource-rights, were set up. When the economy worsened, when the LTTE factor and the JVP factor proved too much to handle, spokespersons for capital interests stood up and demanded for more. What they demanded, they got. No conditions, no strings attached. That's how "paradise" operates, after all.

We've been berating the wrong class all this while. We've boosted the big boys in business while prioritising cuts in subsidies to the local farmer and businessman. And no change in government could prove too unbearable for their pampered class. 1994 came. The left-wing parties, represented by the Old Left, allied themselves with a regime that had promised change and nothing but. But capital interests, consolidated in 1977, had become firmly entrenched in the government. It didn't take long for the LSSP to realise that the People's Alliance was being shrugged off. Privatisation continued. Subsidies were cut. Education was reformed (something I will touch on in a later essay and something which had NOT happened with the previous regime).

Nothing much had changed. "Same old s***," as the saying would go.

I have come to believe that no matter what manifesto or side of the political spectrum a regime inhabits, capital interests will remain. Big-time. And I don't really see reason to complain. Businessmen are shrewd. They can identify champ from loser and ally themselves with the former, even if the latter's spokespersons had been their biggest backers. They conveniently go back on their whining of the regime and get themselves consolidated in government ranks in that same regime. Or to put things a little more pithily, "කලදුටු කල වල ඉහගෙන මඩි තරකර ගනිල්ලා" (see "The 'Sukiri Batillas' in power").

There is of course a term used to define all this: "cronyism".

I've often wondered whether capital has become necessary today or whether we've cut it out as necessary. Honest businessmen are not rare to find. Crony businessmen don't always come from the highlands of capital interests. They have been pumping in money, true. Whether that money trickles down to benefit those in the lower social stratum is of course another issue, but the point is that we've consolidated the capitalist in power. And I'm not very unhappy. They are a pampered class, true. They've been the biggest beneficiaries of government "handouts", true. They've been the biggest contributors to corruption, true. Their berating of too much government outlay on subsidies and one-way-transfers (think unemployment benefits) is without ground, true.

But all this is beside the point.


There are diehard Marxists who want a return to the Utopias they dreamt of once upon a time. Never going to happen. But we need the Left. Not because of their national policy, not because of their stance on various political issues, but because of their continued opposition to the pampered class' power-concentration. When Chandrika Kumaratunge was elected in 1994 under a mandate of going back on the policies of the previous 17 years, we were a little too shortsighted. We failed to take note of the fact that what needed change wasn't the leadership but rather the government-driven mentality that capital interests are a sine qua non of power politics.

The Left needs to take note of this. Instead of beating around the bush and talking about the re-invented issue-parameters  (think "minoritarian politics" here), they need to fight on, not with the usual strikes or May Day rallies, but with a quiet, preconceived, concentrated, and all-encompassing alliance with whatever regime in power. Their program as such needs less rhetoric and more action. Only by standing by the side, influencing policy decision, and ensuring that no one class gets pampered at the cost of all the others will this country be rid of what 1972 began, 1977 sped up, 1994 re-garbed in a different costume, and 2005 halted in a very subtle way.

It's time that we knocked some sense into the pampered class. Time we lived up-to political rhetoric about good governance, accountability, and transparency. Time we stripped some of these pampered class members and reveal what they have really stood for: POWER-CONSOLIDATION AT WHATEVER COST AND WITH WHATEVER REGIME. The sooner we stop this, without bemoaning subsidies to those really deserving of them, the better it will be for that same good governance, accountability, and transparency being championed day-in and day-out.