Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Whither the withering State?

Karl Marx was fixated on creating a classless Utopia in which laws, norms, traditions, and all other forms of social conditioning were done away with. He inferred (correctly, one is forced to conclude) that where there was a State, there was oppression.

Half a century later, Fernand Braudel would contend that the Western State, far from facilitating free market capitalism, actually hindered it by encouraging financiers, renters, and profit-makers in general to collude and indulge in anti-market activity that led to distortions in various industries and even economies. In the writings of both these social scientists, you come across the same motif: the State acted in its interest, and if that meant privileging one community over another, they did just that with no qualms.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the consequent shift in power from the Iron Curtain to Western Europe and the United States did not, as most commentators thought, create a multi-polar world. What happened was the replacement of one clash with another: as Samuel Huntington famously noted, history did not end and it transformed, slowly but surely, to a clash between two civilisations (Christianity and Islam). I suppose it’s superfluous to add that while no one has won the clash, wars have been waged and won or lost, and along the way, terms and concepts which were thought immutable have been redefined to suit those who call the shots in the international sphere.

With the demise of Communism, Europe was haunted by spectres of the past and needed a way of conjoining its socialist past with this new clash. It did so, I believe, by retaining a key motif in Marxist thought that remains the favourite byword of self-appointed ideologues the world over today: the withering of the State.

For Marx, the State existed only to be done away with once the Revolution was over: otherwise, the government of the country in which the Revolution unfolded would want to perpetuate itself and reverse the gains made by the proletariat. I need hardly add that not even Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin could stop themselves from institutionalising the State.

The writing was on the wall long before the Iron Curtain opened, not surprisingly: throughout the late seventies and early eighties, Marxist movements throughout the world were (for the lack of a better way of putting it) “hijacked” by agencies hardly known for their sympathy with the Left. This to me represents the end of the Marxist movement as our forefathers and ancestors knew it.

What explains this? The across-the-board cosmopolitanism of the movement would have entranced these agencies, for the fact of the matter is that what they did challenged the authority of the State (which is not a bad thing) and in turn its legitimacy (which is). Now “authority” is a strong word, sometimes even a byword for authoritarianism, but legitimacy, as any student in political science will tell you, is a keystone in modern democracy. What these agencies were doing was hijacking democratically elected governments to adopt paradigms set by outfits far removed from the countries in which they operated. No legitimacy there, period.

There was a name for these agencies: they were called Non Governmental Organisations, or more colloquially, NGOs.

The name itself tended to confuse: as Malinda Seneviratne once correctly observed, “N-G is for Non-Governmental. Thus anything that cannot be categorized as a government institution/body would theoretically be an NGO. Every corporation is an NGO. From the most powerful and visible multinational to the petti-kade at the street corner and the maalu laella and the paththara laella are countless NGOs.” Malinda has a way with words and speaks his mind when he writes, but what he noted there stands to reason: NGOs could include outfits like churches, temples, and even maranadhara samithi throughout the country.

What differentiated these conventionally termed NGOs from all other organisations not affiliated to the government, therefore, was this: they were funded from outside and solicited funds to effect a change, SOME change, in the country.

History, it must be said, does not paint a pretty picture of these organisations. As various studies have confirmed, they were funding anti-government activists in countries where leftists were in power. Dawn Paley, a freelance journalist reporting from South America and Central America, baptised this rather dubiously as the “NGO-Industrial Complex”, in which NGOs were funded to oust governments not amenable to the “big shots” in the international sphere.

Paley brought up Haiti as an example, pointing out that a Montreal-based NGO promoted groups in that country hostile to the leftwing Fanmi Lavalas party (through which Jean-Baptiste Aristide had been democratically elected over the Duvaliers, who were dictators supported covertly and overtly by the US courtesy its anticommunist policies). She then observed that Haiti was chock-a-block with various groups (not affiliated to the government) which were doing a great job of bemoaning the Lavalas government as a means of soliciting foreign funds.

Sri Lanka hasn’t been too open to NGO-twiddling but it certainly hasn’t been immune to it either. In here the problem was compounded because of one pertinent point: the NGO sector managed to invade the Marxist movement, well on its way out long before the Iron Curtain collapsed. There are, as always, reasons for this (prime among them being the fact that such agencies needed a bulwark against the Jayewardene government, which despite its confusing stance on the ethnic conflict at least had the guts to try and end it by 1987), but the objective of this article is to track down some of the more dangerous precedents, statements, and self-contradictions birthed by this unholy alliance between the NGO mafia and the Left.

Professor Susantha Goonetilake is a sociologist and compiler. He writes with enough fidelity to facts to keep you from questioning his comments (which are far in between in his work) and broader canvas. His book Recolonisation: Foreign Funded NGOs, which unfortunately never got the attention it deserved from the intelligentsia in this country (apart from a blisteringly positive review by H. L. D. Mahindapala), explores the aforementioned alliance between the political and the NGO mafia rather unflatteringly. I am no sociologist (nor am I a compiler), so I’m not qualified to question his credentials. On the other hand, I believe his book holds true on many counts in explaining the tragic impasse we as a country have allowed ourselves into.

To get straight to the point: Professor Susantha cogently records some rather self-contradictory statements issued by key representatives of these agencies. These statements are self-contradictory not (only) because they were at variance with the norms of democracy and the rule of law, but (also) because they were at variance with what these representatives spouted against the previous regime. This can only be explained by what the inimitable Noam Chomsky (himself no fan of the Sri Lankan government) once wrote on US foreign policy: “In any confrontation, each participant tries to shift the battle to a domain in which it's most likely to succeed. You want to lead with your strength, play your strong card.”

That strong card here, ladies and gentlemen, was the minority issue. Despite its trysts with socialist governments, Sri Lanka was nominally nonaligned: even the most rightwing governments it had (under Jayewardene and Ranil Wickremesinghe) made some concessions to the Left movement in economic terms. While the battle in Latin America and Eastern Europe was based on the Left/Right dichotomy, in Sri Lanka the Left was actively used to further and entrench the doublespeak of the international community: the end-result, not surprisingly, was separatism. That determined the support of the NGO to the government and that explained its later shift to advocating regime-change whenever the State defied outside intrusion.

Here’s what Professor Susantha wrote about the Indian Accord of 1987:

A flawed Presidential election followed the uprising against the Indo-Lanka Accord. To avoid earlier malpractices and ensure a free and fair election, several organisations and individuals called for a set of preconditions such as the disbanding of paramilitary groups and government death squads. Later, some foreign funded NGOs, which were in favour of the Accord, also supported this move by mainly the local, non-foreign funded civil society. This election was later boycotted by the JVP on grounds that the preconditions had not been fulfilled. It also “advised” others to do the same, using more than just a hint of violence.

In a context where both the State and the JVP asserted power rather crudely and bloodily, where were the NGOs? Supporting the government, of course! Professor Susantha undressed them all when he quoted a key representative of the NGO sector (Jehan Perera):

He said that the Sri Lankan Army was the “envy of Asia” as it was fighting for “democracy”. He was all praise for the newly elected President and declared: “Let us be proud to be in Sri Lanka and stop looking abroad for countries to emulate or emigrate to”. It was during this era and under this president that the most intense human rights violations took place through the activities of special units of the armed forces and other death squads, resulting in over 60,000 disappearances.

60,000 disappearances, ladies and gentlemen. Compared with that, the excesses of the previous regime seem like kadju-kos, though no one who excused the excesses of the 1988-1989 insurrection will accept that. I’m willing to bet that for every act of defiance and for every protest made by this English-speaking intelligentsia in charge of the NGO sector, there ought to have been stronger acts and protests made against the abuses and misuses of power by the government of 1988 and 1989. Professor Susantha leaves that question unanswered, not because he can’t resolve it but because, given the breadth of his scholarship, the answers are there for all to see. Telling, I should think.

So let me get this straight: a government that empowers its Army to kill over 60,000 people under the fiction of legality (the Bar Association, not surprisingly, falls into disrepute under Professor Susantha’s pen, owing to what he alleges as its impotency in the face of the then government) gets congratulatory messages from the same people who, when writing against a successive government that committed abuses on a much smaller scale, growl and protest at the slightest noise from those in power. Where’s the logic or consistency in that, one can legitimately ask.

The NGOs, like the capitalists whom the Marxists (yes, the same Marxists who have abandoned class for race and have scripted out more compelling issues in their so-called struggle) have conveniently forgotten and/or joined hands with, called the shots. Always. They partied and they had a ball. That party and ball never ended. They twisted and contorted the very idea of representative democracy (which, despite its less than flattering deficiencies, remains the only channel of communication between the elector and the elected) to suit their parameters.

That is why they continue to demand for devolution at all costs, even if it means subverting the will of the numerical majority and even if it means ignoring the President’s own comment about the nine provinces of the country being a colonialist construct. That is why they fudge around with the realities of democracy when they claim that a referendum should precede the North-East merger and then conveniently add, “But only when the Joint Opposition is done for good and the people are not swayed by majoritarian passions!” And that is why they will continue to ignore instances of racism, caste-ism, and gender-based violence in the very same communities they defend against the numerical majority on the flimsiest grounds.

The time for undressing has come, I believe. The choice has already been made. We can seize the moment or let it pass. We can take it or leave it.

Written for: Ceylon Today, October 11 2016