Friday, September 30, 2016

Reflections on poverty and the (political) periphery

In his now classic satire on class differentiation, “The Rise of the Meritocracy”, the late Michael Young argued that the creation of a class of technocrats detached from the common man was inevitable in a society (and education system) which linked intelligence with economic power and prestige.

Young was a visionary in that he saw what would happen when, decades later, the British Left squandered its statist approach to the economy in favour of the Oxbridge elite that dominated it after 1997 and the victory of Tony Blair. With the recent victory of Jeremy Corbyn over the party’s leadership, I suppose one can say that Blairism is on its way out. I suppose also that one can disagree and contend that, with or without Corbyn, the Blairites have already triumphed.

That’s another story though.

Merit and economic power have cohabited in ways too difficult to enumerate in a single article. Choosing people on the basis of their talent, as T. S. Eliot once wrote, would “disorganise society and debase education.” Consider that Eliot was an anti-Semite and an admirer of fascism (and that his poetry is riddled with less than flattering depictions of poverty, which can only be described as “snobbish”), and you will realise the magnitude of his tirade against meritocracy. One needs foresight to deplore this and Young, I suspect, understood it all too well.

In an article he wrote to “The Guardian” in 2001 revisiting his book, he made the following comment:

“It is good sense to appoint individual people to jobs on their merit. It is the opposite when those who are judged to have merit of a particular kind harden into a new social class without room in it for others.”

He went on to trace this phenomenon to the elitism engendered by Britain’s education system, where (as with Sri Lanka until we became a Republic) the target was the country’s Civil Service. He observed then that the New Elite, who both were detached from the common people AND pretended to pander to them, reproduced itself to form a class of its own (as he noted, “without room in it for others”). This New Elitism was a replica of the aristocracy in which privilege was determined by birth and which paled in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Young couldn’t have been thinking of other countries. He needn’t have. What he wrote in that monumental book of his has become relevant not just for Britain but for postcolonial societies as well. He may not have realised it at the time, but when the postcolonial “moment” passed and the Global South began dismantling institutions and structures to accommodate independence, power continued to be held by those who were groomed by the imperialist. In some countries the transition from colonialism to post-colonialism was quick, in some it was slow, and in others the process of “nationalisation” was hindered by lengthy trysts with dictatorships supported by the “free world” (as with Ayub Khan in Pakistan and General Suharto in Indonesia).

Sri Lanka had its share of problems in this regard. One doesn’t need to peruse history to realise that, for all the rhetoric and grandeur, independence was given to the landed gentry and the comprador class, those who were opposed to change so much that they denied the aspirations of the majority. As Kumari Jayawardena has noted in her work (especially in Nobodies to Somebodies), the political tussle that led to the Ceylon National Congress had less to do with nationalism stricto sensu than with the caste-based, class-based tug-of-war between the “old Mudliyars” and the “new Misters.”

That was then, of course. Things are different now. Apparently.

Consider this, though. In the 60-plus years since 1956, the two main political parties in the country have fielded candidates from the Establishment, barring two exceptions condemned as quasi-dictators who rationalised authoritarianism in terms of their popularity. I don’t like to dabble in conspiracy theories, and this week’s column isn’t about the political elite only, but I will say this: a society’s progress can best be measured by the rift in it between the political centre and periphery. In Sri Lanka, as this article will attempt to show, that rift has remained virtually unbridgeable.

But first, a clarification. What is the centre and what is the periphery? The centre represents the institutions that in turn represent ultimate power in a society. We can call it the government but it’s a fallacy to assume that the government is the centre on its own accord. So to be clear, here’s my take on the matter: it is represented by those individuals, organisations, and other outfits (here and elsewhere) that decide on policy.

The periphery, on the other hand, represents everything that the centre is not. It is composed of people, not institutions: of facts and life, not statistics and policies. People have their representatives and so do those in the periphery, but for the most, they are recognised in a modern democracy when they are able to deliver what those representatives want: votes.

Yes, votes.

Let me be clearer here: politicians will pander to the periphery to get the poor to vote for them. After that, the poor remained as cursed and belittled as they were before.

How does this form a rift between the two? In Sri Lanka, the most obvious way is by what I referred to in last week’s column as the “insolence of office”, bureaucracy. However, it’s a mistake to say that that’s all that contributes to the rift. There are other factors, and among them I can point at the most malignant: the emergence of Young’s new social class, which remains detached from the periphery while believing (genuinely or otherwise) that what they do in the name of the greater good is what’s best for everyone.

The previous regime managed to politicise poverty in ways no one in the present government or preceding him has quite matched. That Mahinda Rajapaksa succeeded in this can be gleaned from the results of the January Election in 2015: while the cosmopolitan urbanised areas (regardless of the faith adhered to by the majority community therein) voted for Maithripala Sirisena, polling divisions like Anamaduwa (considered to be the poorest in the country) voted overwhelmingly for the incumbent. I believed then as I believe now that the main dividing line between the then incumbent and opposition was not based on race or religion (as it is now), but on class.

Which makes sense at one level, given that the poor have traditionally voted for the party that has promised them heaven and earth without substance. The conventional discourse is that they are foolish, are wont to vote for demagogues, and are swayed by rhetoric so much that they fail to account for the long term (at least in politics). Regardless of that though, it’s taken for granted that to win elections, one must pander to poverty. That is why both sides of the mainstream political divide are guilty on that count and that is why politicians, regardless of their affiliations, resort to rhetoric to win what reason can’t.

All this is based on simplifications, of course. But I believe that the 2015 Election caused a dent in citizenry here that hasn’t, to the best of my knowledge, been resolved satisfactorily. One can’t blame an institution or individual for that. On the other hand, I personally can’t subscribe to the myth that what we’re seeing now in this regard is “opa pathika” (without an origin). Institutions do have a say in the rift between the centre and the periphery. I will return to this shortly.

I used to think that the solution to demagoguery was an elite class that could hold sway over populists and rhetoricians. When I came across Mark Antony’s speech at Caesar’s funeral in Shakespeare’s tragedy, I believed I had read all that I could about the dangers of rhetoric in governing a polity. I did not think, as I do now, that the aforementioned solution to it could, in the long term, lead to worse consequences for a society.

And not for no reason: the elite class could be an effective watchdog over demagoguery, but sooner or later that would be taken as a license to impose the worldview of that class over the rest of the society whether or not the majority subscribed to it. Which begs the question that is at the heart of modern democracy: quis custodiet ipsos custodies (who watch the watchmen)?

I mentioned before that we can’t consider the centre/periphery dichotomy as having no origin. It didn’t create and perpetuate itself. There were institutions at play and individuals at work. In his 2001 comment on his book, Michael Young differentiated between the Labour Ministers of his time and of the present: between the likes of Herbert Morrison and Ernest Bevin, who started as blue-collar workers, and the likes of Blair, Gordon Brown, and David Miliband, who all had been educated at Oxford or Cambridge and hence, were members of the meritocracy. The “Oxbridge Regency”, as I prefer to call it, had moulded the Conservative Party. By the late eighties, it had begun moulding the Labour Party as well.

I see this rift in our country, among our politicians. At a time when economic expansion assuaged fears of invasion (whether by other ethnicities or by a foreign power), the majority in this country were appeased by an administration housed by the landed gentry and propertied class. But the structures created by the British couldn’t appease that majority beyond a certain point. The pressures that resulted thereof led to two insurrections, more than four island-wide pogroms against the Tamil people, and brief but devastating trysts with authoritarianism. 1971 was more than an augur: it proved that over time, State power could be wielded against dissent resulting in large casualties but without any corresponding outcry against it.

The transformation this country underwent after 1971 was lopsided: it was economically liberal but politically authoritarian. In its frenzied attempt to emulate the Asian Tigers, the government of the day couldn’t keep up the self-contradictory nature of its reform program. Now’s not the time to explore all that in depth, but suffice it to say that implanting an economic climate that was amenable to the Confucian culture of East Asia here resulted in a society that was economically liberal, yet clamped down on the manufacturing sector uplifted by previous regimes; and politically authoritarian, yet couldn’t stop arguably the bloodiest anti-Tamil pogrom and insurrection this country saw after independence.

Obviously, a populist had to emerge. And he did. But not for long: upon his untimely assassination he left behind a void which, thanks to the LTTE, drained the then ruling party of promising leaders and opened the door to victory for the opposition, the SLFP.

The SLFP had several trysts with the Old Left in the late eighties: it consumed and subscribed to the gospel according to the devolutionists, and for the next 10 years privileged a minoritarian elite that supported separatism, federalism, and the 13th Amendment. That is, until the triumph of the Rajapaksa Factor.

Between 2005 and 2015, we saw a return to populist nationalism, which as I implied before politicised poverty rather overtly. Having justified authoritarianism in the name of economic development (that was more quantitative than qualitative), it then paved the way for an opposing force to emerge and become its successor.

What we saw after January 2015 was therefore expected: a “premature” government that had aborted its predecessor without the flourish that usually symbolises the end of a regime in a modern democracy. Naturally, the government had to resort to its predecessor’s more populist aspects while showing that it was against the abuses of power committed in the past. It wanted to have the cake and eat it too. That is what it continues doing. To date.

And all this while, who did we get into our parliament? Rhetoricians, of course! They talked and talked all the way. They spoke extensively on how bridges would be built, wars would end, and the racial divide would be torn apart. They made us believe that they were idealists, which they were before the lure of power proved too much. They made us think that they were the shifters of policy when, in reality, they had implanted several policy-writers who were running the show. Not even the administration we had from 2005 to 2015 could escape this: while it preached the gospel of centrist, social welfare economics, its policymakers were busy institutionalising crony capitalism in the country.

Who won? The well to do. Who lost? The poor!

Let’s look at it in another way. What triumphed in the days and months following the 2015 Election was meritocracy over nationalism. What won in 2015 was a cosmopolitan variant of technocracy which the likes of (among others) Harsha de Silva and Eran Wickramaratne had valiantly developed.

Now I have nothing against meritocracies. In a country like ours, which has sustained and institutionalised corruption so much that the government’s supporters now defend it on the basis of relative merits, we need to embrace a culture which rewards talent, not power (never mind what Eliot said).

But there’s a problem. The masses who remain detached from the centre are connected to the periphery (i.e. those who reach out to them, and not just politicians), which lacks meritocrats. The discriminating minority who remain detached from the periphery are connected to the centre, which lacks popularity.

Sure, most of those young politicians (from both major parties) and are deemed “decent” are as unblemished as they can get, but I wonder whether the “Oxbridge Regency” that they have come from will be enough for us to move on.

These politicos, to be perfectly honest, are idealists. Visionaries. But as a friend of mine told me the other day, we need more than idealists and do-gooders. We need doers who are pragmatic, who are from the periphery, who do not conflate economic liberalism with political authoritarianism and hence, are comfortable with a centrist approach to both country and economy. We’ve been duped long enough and we’ve been cheated by rhetoricians. About time we realised that and clamoured for pragmatists, not idealists or con artists, as our representatives.

There’s so much that one article can cover. I must therefore conclude here.

In the United States we are seeing a rift between the centre and the periphery, with Donald Trump representing the fringe: alienated white voters, incensed against an administration they see as erasing their ethnocentric, traditional values. The fact that he is winning in conservative states and the fact that his rival, Hillary Clinton, is winning over him in more liberal states is proof that the centre/periphery dichotomy is based on the inability of the Establishment to read the political moment and stop alienating the majority.

As for us, we have our share of what Senator Rand Paul (again, from the USA) once claimed as liberal elites who “seek to impose their will upon us.” The good Senator got it right there: those who stand for values that are liberal and elite cannot and will not determine the fate of a society in which the majority are alienated or not listened to.

I believe we are seeing the effects of that with the Joint Opposition’s expedient but accurate reading of the political. If the government doesn’t realise this, it will commit quite possibly the biggest ideological blunder ever. Sure, they will (ostensibly) stand for decency and high office, but by conflating decency with merit (and merit with prestige and prestige with economic clout) they can only lose their footing and grip on the country.

And you know what? I wouldn’t want that to happen. Because the moment it does, as history has shown us, the inevitable follows: the rise to power of quasi-dictatorial populists. Has happened here, has happened elsewhere, is happening, and will continue to happen.