Saturday, April 29, 2017

The bourgeoisie that never was

History almost always leaves behind lessons that are never learnt. That is why (quoting Santayana) those who forget it are condemned to repeat it and why (quoting Marx) it repeats itself first as tragedy, second as farce. This forget-factor is probably the main reason why our people undergo tragedy, again and again, and still manage to resolve for them. We’ve passed the age of indifference so much that when tragedy does come about, we not only condition ourselves to get over it, we force ourselves to ignore its many dimensions.

It’s difficult to imagine why our country’s polity is so accursed. One reason is how much we’ve erased the individual constituent from national tragedy. Another is how fragmented our politics is. Simplistic though these are, they point at another more pertinent problem: the bifurcation of our polity into two broad streams: a Left that continues to draw less and less people, and a Right that subsists less on a cohesive manifesto than an unenviable blend of authoritarianism and populism. This is the first of a series examining these two streams.

The conventional Marxist thesis was that the bourgeoisie would accumulate so much capital that they would have no need for surplus labour: the proletariat would be marginalised to such an extent that they would rise up against the capitalist class. Labour, in other words, revolted because the capitalist was serving his function: accumulate more capital to invest in industry. This point is crucial when considering the capitalist class of our country.

Historically speaking, the bourgeoisie of Ceylon were never interesting in self-preservation. Kumari Jayawardena, in her Nobodies to Somebodies, implies that our bourgeoisie weren’t capable of transforming the society they lived off from an agricultural to an industrial state. That caste differences, a hallmark of feudal societies, continued even in a supposedly capitalist Ceylon indicates that they were less interested in developing the economy than pandering to the colonialist.

To term this class as the bourgeoisie is a little amiss, moreover: not only did they live off the extraction and fermentation of raw material (graphite, arrack, timber etc), they also did not (or could not) make the transition to manufacturing. In Britain and the United States, the legal system (among other processes) facilitated the transition from pre-capitalist production to industrialisation, a phenomenon highlighted by Morton J. Horwitz in his book “The Transformation of American Law, 1780-1860”. Professor Horwitz’s argument has been taken as evidence for the theory that the judiciary of pre-capitalist countries helped them make the leap to a strong, viable industrial sector.

That the legal system in Ceylon catered less to such a leap than to a division in its society between the colonialist and his cohorts on the one hand and the multitude of peasants and urban workers on the other isn’t just a historical fact: it was predictable in a country where, more than any other in the continent (and this is not just conjecture), the capitalist aristocracy willingly sided with those colonialists. Unlike the bourgeoisie elsewhere, they did not seek to entrench or further their own interests: they were more concerned in aligning them with the interests of those same colonialists. In return for their loyalty, naturally, they were handed titles, privileges, and monopolies.

The late Tissa Abeysekera, in an assessment of Lester James Peries, argued that unlike the heroes of the Bengali Renaissance, which culminated in Rabindranath Tagore, the bourgeoisie (or the compradors) of Ceylon were more anglicised than their counterparts in the region. We were, in short, a fertile experiment for Macaulay, whose idealisation of a class of brown sahibs more English than the English was brought about, not in the vastly more populous India, but in the smaller, more peaceable Ceylon. Abeysekera was thinking about our literature when he wrote this, but such an observation proves just as valid when considering our economic history.

The indigenous capitalist class chosen to lead the country after 1948 reflected, not their urbanised, industrialised counterparts in the West, but a cultivated, genteel aristocracy that (for the lack of a better way of describing it) seemed to have come straight out of Jane Austen’s novels. Consider, for instance, the remark made by our first “native” Governor-General that his country (and ours) was a “little bit of England”. “Which part of England?” a friend of mine asked me when I pointed it to him, no doubt amused.

It is one of the ironies of history that this same class became the flag-bearers of our independence struggle in the 20th century. I believe it was Dr Dayan Jayatilleka who, in a speech given three years ago, observed that Marxism was the true heir to the Matale Rebellion (under Veera Puran Appu). What he implied there, of course, was that the Puran Appu’s movement was taken over, if not hijacked, by what Solomon Obeyesekere referred to as “nobodies who hope to make somebodies of themselves” (opportunists, in other words), who dabbled in temperance, the Buddhist revival, and constitutional reform without much sincerity (as their recantations over these same movements upon being elected to power showed).

In other words, the disorganised remnants of our independence campaign in the 19th century gave way to an as disorganised and (worse) insincere nationalist project in the 20th, one which purported to culminate, but never did, in the “Little England” we got in 1948. The leaders of this project, to put it simply, could not transcend their class barriers. Going by that, D. S. Senanayake remains the only optimistic leader we ever had, because he had and to his final day retained faith in the status quo as a means of uplifting the country. That faith was translated to budget surpluses, a quietened down Marxist opposition, and a largely neutral foreign policy.

It was, however, an optimism borne of those class barriers: to date, the most fitting image for the incongruity in our independence struggle is that of our national heroes, clad in coat and suit and top hat, gracing the day we got our freedom. It was also an optimism that could not survive for long, not in a context where it was being opposed by a Left that was bemoaning how dependent the Establishment was on our primary economic sector. In other words, as I will show in my next column, the tragedy of the Ceylonese bourgeoisie was their inability to industrialise: a problem which continues to spell (largely adverse) consequences for our economy.

Written for: Daily Mirror, April 29 2017