Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The tragedy of the common class

Last week I sketched out the political content of the Professional Nationalist class (or “ProNats”). I can’t vouch for their sincerity, but I think I can vouch for the disjuncture between their aims and their social conditioning, a disjuncture that has historically felled other similar political cliques in the past, both here and abroad. This week’s column is a sweep (or rather an attempt at a sweep) of a more common class, also political in nature but more discernible in the context of our country, society, and time. To come up with a definitive name for this, unfortunately, is beyond my ability, so I will introduce it to you as the class that forms, pushes, and accentuates the ProNats.

Before I get to that, though, a brief perusal of our political history is in order. I remember reading an article by Colvin R. de Silva, where he faulted the bourgeoisie of the country for having felled various industries and sectors to accommodate their short-termism. Colvin wrote that article (the name of which I don’t remember, unfortunately) after J. R. Jayewardene began building the various Free Trade Zones and Economic Commissions which, at one level, were responsible for the backlash against the Left in the eighties. In essence, he was answering a curious question: was the then UNP’s fixation and prejudice against the Left (in economic terms) justified by the history of the bourgeoisie that formed that party in 1947? Colvin answered in the negative.

His reason, though debatable, has I believe been borne out by history. The colonial bourgeoisie in Sri Lanka were never engaged in productive employment. Even after independence, they preferred the primary (extracting) to the secondary (manufacturing) sector. Decades before the Land Reform Acts and the various redistribution policies implemented by Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s government, the likes of N. M. Perera and Colvin wrote on how the colonialists had spawned a class which were (paradoxically speaking) more interested in spending years and years in elite schools and institutions, studying at Oxford and Cambridge, only to come back to Sri Lanka to serve as second fiddles to the Governor-General and his coterie.

When J. R. Jayewardene, as Finance Minister, remarked that if the entire national income were divided among the country it would make beggars of us all, he was sidelining the main issue the Left took with his government’s right-wing economic policies. The government instituted in 1948 was essentially housed by the landed elite gentry, no different to the landed gentry of Jane Austen’s novels and certainly a class that had been or was being outmoded in Western economies.

As time went by, the political Right began propagating the myth that the Left was trying to “Russify” or “Sinofy” the country (remember the propaganda disseminated in the run-up to the 1965 Elections, which culminated in the crossover of C. P. de Silva?), when in fact what the LSSP and Communist Party did was to resuscitate the manufacturing sector of the country, a sector neglected by an elite which was only bothered about perpetuating its progeny and monopolising and profiting from the primary sector. In itself, this was not an economic sin (after all most East Asian and Southeast Asian countries began with the agricultural sector), but the issue was that Sri Lanka was in danger of depending on the extraction of raw materials, since the bourgeoisie were not making use of the profits they got to graduate to the industrial sector.

Malinda Seneviratne, writing on the second Sirimavo Bandaranaike regime, argues that what Perera did damaged the Sinhalese businessman, initiating a process of destruction completed by J. R. Jayewardene and his Open Economy. This argument (echoed by other middle-class Sinhalese nationalists, myself included) interests me for reasons I will get to shortly, but for now, suffice it to say that such an indictment on the Left can’t be sustained on account of how negligent the Sinhalese businessman was in using his/her profits for the upliftment of the economy. In other words, the leftist economic policies authored by Bandaranaike’s government were crafted with the purpose of breathing life to a dormant sector. Without these policies, the Sinhalese entrepreneurial spirit was being sapped by the very people who were supposed to be channeling it for their survival.

Taking issue with my comment that the SLFP and the UNP were the same and unified in electoral terms in last week’s column, Vinod Moonesinghe contended that inasmuch as the Land Reform Act and the housing ceiling are considered today by economic pundits as leftist excesses, they were in fact liberal and enlightened compared to the policies which were being enforced in more capitalist societies in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, which imposed land ceilings up to one or two hectares in contrast to the 10 Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s government instituted.

Vinod then pointed out the reason for the setting up of a ceiling in the first place: “It was necessary simply because Sri Lankans were investing in housing at the expense of productive investment. During the Second World War, the British gave concessions to Sri Lankans to start industries. Instead, they invested in housing. This is why a state industrial sector became crucial, simply because local bourgeois investors wouldn't put their money into manufacturing.”

In other words, the State was intervening in a neglected sector because the bourgeoisie were idle. This was a guiding principle even in Leninist and Stalinist Russia, though in Cuba and China nationalist concerns took over economic policy. At the end of the day, when the Global Left is assessed, historians will no doubt point at the transition it brought about in backward countries from a primitive, pseudo-feudal to an industrial, technocratic State. For its time, however, such a task was derided by the Right as being too interventionist, very much against orthodox economics. What the Right forgets here is that it was Karl Marx who helped make the transition from microeconomics (based on perfect markets and competition) to macroeconomics (based on inflation, employment, and sectoral growth). I am digressing here however.

What happened after the coming to power of Sirimavo Bandaranaike and the United Front in 1970, we know. To put it simply, despite its veneer of socialism and welfarism, the SLFP was housed at the top by the aristocracy, the same class the Left was fighting. By perpetuating that class in a political party rooted in socialism, the inevitable happened: the Right Wing of the SLFP was empowered to an extent whereby the Left Wing had to be jettisoned for it to continue to be in power.

The transition from N. M. Perera to Felix Dias Bandaranaike therefore wasn’t an ideological one, but an economic one: Perera was moulded on J. K. Galbraith, while Felix was moulded on an unenviable blend of leftwing authoritarianism and rightwing cronyism. It was that cronyism which delegitimized the Left and empowered J. R. Jayewardene. It was also that cronyism which continues to bedevil the SLFP in a way that has not been matched by the more progeny-oriented UNP (one of the ironies of Sri Lankan politics).

After the coming to power of the UNP, the many initiatives (however half-heartedly they were sketched out by the previous government) to resuscitate the manufacturing sector were done away with when the Pettah merchant (or the middle-class, monolingual capitalist), and not the long-term oriented industrialist, was made the driver of economic growth. The paradox here, which Vinod pointed out to me in a conversation elsewhere, is that even after the destruction of that long-term oriented businessman, the middle-class Sinhalese continue to blame Colvin and Perera, the architects of the same economic policies which were supposed to stop such a thing from happening in the first place. Which is where I get to the crux of this column.

The middle-class Sinhalese nationalist (as I pointed out last week) spawns the kind of self-contradiction which forms the epicentre of the movement headed by Gotabaya Rajapaksa. This self-contradiction subsists between the commercial interests and the nationalist concerns of that nationalist class, a contradiction which has not to this day been resolved and which has managed to entrench anti-working class politics. Being a commentator and not political player, it is beyond my task to insert any value-judgments on this phenomenon, except perhaps for one comment: that both historically and as of the present, the middle-class Sinhalese nationalist is not the ideal social subset to count on to further a cohesive nationalist strategy in the country.

Why do I say this and why do I sound so much the cynic? Mao Zedong once contended rather sardonically that the bourgeoisie was IN the Communist Party, which was why every leftwing revolution ended up perpetuating the interests of the ruling class. I don’t know how much Chairman Mao stuck to his own tenets, but I do know that the nationalist movement depends in Sri Lanka on the same class interests which are most antithetical to it.

So here’s my take on the matter: one can’t take this movement forward unless (and I am being very liberal here) it is free of the anti-working class and Cinnamon Gardens clique it tends to pander to. Such a clique can’t coexist with the movement because historically speaking, the interests of this bilingual, refined, hybridised, and “Olcottised” class are conjoined with those of the quasi-imperialist. How else did the various Sinhalese nationalist parties formed for the purpose of bringing together my collective degenerate to the sickening, half-here-half-there mess it’s got itself into today? How else do you account for the fact that sections of these movements are residing, even cohabiting, with the same politicos who not only opposed the war, but went to any lengths to perpetuate a federalist discourse over every other viewpoint?

The nationalist movement in Sri Lanka was never nourished by the bourgeoisie, middle-class or otherwise. The moment the bourgeoisie took over it, it was doomed to capitulate. The true owners of that movement continue to come from the village, the rural hinterlands that have never failed to produce, sustain, and push forward our Armed Forces.

The meritocracy formed in Colombo to defend these Forces from outside interference served only one purpose: buttress a nationalist strategy. When you let that meritocracy LEAD that strategy, two outcomes are possible: 1) the deterioration of that strategy because of political infighting; and 2) the diversion of that strategy to peripheral political channels (such as the many short-lived parties which took advantage of the nationalist resurgence after 2009). Suffice it to say that we saw both outcomes being (tragically but farcically) brought about, in particular towards the end of 2014. I am sad.

These assertions may be faulted for being too simplistic, too one-dimensional, but if you peruse the history of our country, you will come across instances where they were vindicated. 1956 ended with an Ape Anduwa, but not an Ape Samaja. That samajaya, we are yet to claim. We were promised we would get it by both the SLFP and the UNP, but the contradiction in the nationalist movement between the populism of its spokespersons and the deep-seated anti-nationalism of its later representatives has served to undo even the most sincerely sketched out National Project.

Which brings me to my final point. The only thing worse than the bourgeoisie, in terms of their lack of sincerity to a nationalist project, is the anti-nationalist tendencies indulged by their offspring. I hinted last week that the offspring of this bourgeoisie are even worse off when it comes to handling or rather sustaining the movement. They are educated in the same social environment which breeds those indifferent or opposed to patriotism. Why then, I wonder, are we looking at this class to nurture a comprehensive National Project? If the self-proclaimed heirs of this Project are at the outset conditioned by their anti-working class sentiments, then who’s to say that their sons and daughters will turn out to be any different? A simplistic conclusion, some will say. But a conclusion rooted in a historically verifiable premise, nevertheless.

Written for: Ceylon Today, March 28 2017