Sri Lanka’s recent elevation to upper middle income status puts it alongside countries earning a GNI per capita of more than US$ 3,996. This figure, of course, is computed by the World Bank, which means that we are an upper middle class country as per parameters set by that particular international body. Economically, however, we don’t seem to be better off than we used to five years ago; indeed, other indicators go to show that inequality, far from coming down, has hiked: Sri Lanka’s Gini coefficient, which came down to 0.36 in 2009, was nearing 0.4 in 2016, while in that same year a report by the Department of Census and Statistics determined that more than 50% of the country’s income was being shared by the top 20%.
Nevertheless, the World Bank ranking will give many, if not most, reason to celebrate, particularly the economists, the intelligentsia, and the professionals. They will talk and write about shared prosperity, unemployment, inflation, and exchange rates. They will argue that the panacea to our problems is more privatisation, if not deregulation. That aforementioned report, moreover, also determined that middle income earners – the much vilified middle class – shared only 29% of the GDP between themselves. Hence the cry of the hour over this ranking may be more representation for middle income earners. In a way, it’s a variation of their cry for more representation in the parliament; now they also want less taxation.
SL is not a nation of shopkeepers; it’s a nation of merchants and absentee landlords
The biggest tragedy of the Sri Lankan middle class, particularly the upper middle class, has been, and will continue to be, its vastness and diversity. In my Tuesday column I am sketching out their history, evolution, growth, and eventual transformation to perhaps the biggest voting bloc in the country after the rural peasantry; suffice it to say here, in this column, that as far as that history and that transformation are concerned, our national middle class continues to agitate for the cake and for the eating of it: they continue to claim they are underrepresented and unrepresented while contributing, when in reality that contribution, if one dispels the obfuscations, tends to be not so significant as to warrant the kind of representation they demand.
It was Adam Smith, and not Napoleon Bonaparte, who called England a nation of shopkeepers. Sri Lanka is not a nation of shopkeepers; it’s a nation of merchants and absentee landlords. The compilers of GNI statistics correctly point out that growth and development can’t be measured by per capita statistics alone. Unfortunately, the alternative indicators they come up with aren’t any better. The need of the hour isn’t just a better healthcare system, education system, or cultural sphere (all of which can promote development beyond the limits of GDP or GNI), but production linked with (heavy) industry. In that sense, the GNI rankings make no sense: they compare countries lagging behind other countries with each other on the basis of an arbitrarily computed average that conceals widely diverging levels of development.
Unrepresented social classes, by default, make their anger evident by means of political protests, social media posts, and cultural shows and exhibitions
In Marx’s formulation the capitalist class had a role to perform: they would lead a bourgeois democratic revolution which would make it possible for the working class to expand beyond the confines of feudal ties. In the absence of a bourgeoisie to lead this revolution, the task to lead it fell on working class parties. There is a reason why Sri Lanka had the most powerful Trotskyite movements in the world: Robert Alexander, in his extensive work International Trotskyism, listed Bolivia and Sri Lanka as probably the only two countries in which “Trotskyism was for a certain period of time a significant factor in national politics.” When the labour movement led by A.E. Goonesinha gave way to new stalwarts – N. M., Philip, Colvin, Leslie, and so on – it marked a transition from a working class movement linked to the British Labour Party to more radical movements linked to the Communist League Against Imperialism.
Historians and economists make the cardinal error, from time to time, in describing British rule as a transition period from feudalism and mercantilism to capitalism. Ceylon under the British was a colony in which economy activity was made subservient to non-productive plantation interests that cut the city off from the village. The role played here by the bourgeoisie and with them the petty bourgeoisie has been studied and written on elsewhere; suffice it to say that by the time of independence, the economy was divided between a rentier bourgeoisie and a stunted petty bourgeoisie. To put it simply, there was no proper capitalist class.
The World Bank, which has elevated us to the ranks of Brazil, Bulgaria, Mexico, Romania on the one hand and Belize, Botswana, Ecuador, and Namibia on the other, in effect recommended a de-industrialised economy. A delegation invited by the Dudley Senanayake government in 1952 argued for the de-prioritisation of industrial activity in favour of “agricultural production”, described initiatives taken to revitalise industries as “debatable”, and called for the scrapping of the Industrial Products Act on the basis that it was “harmful to sound development.”
The truth is that there was no proper bourgeoisie to lead the democratic revolution here. Statistics which compare us favourably to countries where this problem did not occur would thus not seem to make much sense. The class on which we can tentatively graft the term bourgeoisie, and the upper middle class, are today engaged in professions which do not contribute to industrialisation; free education and free healthcare, in effect, are funding a population who seek greener pastures overseas and contribute scantily, if at all, to the home economy.
The upper middle class, the closest to a bourgeoisie that we can claim, form an elite. In their modes of living, their cultural cosmopolitanism, and their economic standing, they are, to put it simply, a class apart: constrained as they are by a regime that has piled up one set of taxes after another, they seek more representation in a context where they are stuck between the lowest and highest ends of the economic, social, and political spectrum in the country.
Divorced from the world of politics, they strike at the very heart of politics, and claim that power must pass from politicians to professionals. To this end they idealise an economy minus politics, a government minus representatives. They don’t want to abolish the system, they want to abolish the mode of representation and the class structure and social background of the representatives. They see and condemn the representatives we have, but they do not see the vested interests in the non-government sector that capture politicians.
Even in the cultural sphere, the upper middle classes project a distinctly apolitical, if not anti-political stance. Since they are couched by a need for security, they don’t directly attack politics, but resort to contrived symbols and, more frequently than that, parody and satire.
Unfortunately, the parody and satire they come up with, as has been pointed out in the occasional perceptive theatre review in our newspapers, is different to the conception of those genres in other, more industrialised countries. By turning their anger towards politics inward, they end up affirming it under another garb: they poke fun at the outsider, the Sinhala and Tamil speaking, non-English speaking upstart who climbs up the walls of political power, at the expense of the majority of the country who are unable to operate in English.
Gehan Gunatilake called Puswedilla a “Trojan Horse.” Hafeel Farisz described it as “Mervyn Silva on a rampage.” The problem is that Mervyn Silva is an easier Trojan Horse to attack than, say, more urgent problems affecting the economy, such as the absence of an industrial class. It is easier to attack political corruption, after all, than private sector crimes, since the private sector can purchase silence more easily than politicians. If you beg to differ, all you need to do is read the story of the Eppawala phosphate fiasco and how corporations threatened activists who sought to get the site off the clutches of greedy profiteers.
Unrepresented social classes, by default, make their anger evident by means of political protests, social media posts, and cultural shows and exhibitions. In that sense the left, as disconnected if not more so from the Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Sajith Premadasa populist resurgence as the upper middle class, are more sincere in their modes of protest and what they choose to protest about. The fact that that middle class, or the wannabe bourgeoisie, lampoon the left when they protest in support of free education, and join them in solidarity against the Rajapaksas and ethno-religious extremists, thus speaks volumes about the politics of protest.