Different people have different ideas regarding what’s ailing Sri Lanka. For some it is the education system. For others it is the cost of living. For still others it is the balance of payments deficit. Regardless of the problem, all of them are agreed on the reason behind it. The political system. That is why editors, commentators, and activists tend to single out politicians. They are, as they always were, responsible for this country’s downfall. Without them, so the saying goes, we would prosper.
The antipathy towards politicians isn’t new, of course. Nor is it limited to Sri Lanka. And to be fair, it isn’t unjustifiable. The cost of holding a session in Parliament is Rs. 25.7 million (according to Rohana Hettiarachchi of the March 12th Movement). Given that there were around three “sessions” held by the previous government in which nothing substantive was discussed (barring those chairs thrown about), that works out to Rs. 75 million, assuming of course that the cost of a session is fixed regardless of duration. As far as censure and critique go, our politicians are truly deserving of the sobriquets they’ve earned from the people.
What of the alternatives? Two years ago Professor Hector Perera argued that eradication of corruption would require a “mammoth collective effort” on the part of the media, independent citizens, and professionals. Only they could save the country, provided they themselves were free of corruption and upheld the standards of good governance their professions had codified. That last point was interesting, because on it rested the myth of the honest professional class.
In the popular consciousness, the independent civil society, inclusive of the media, is seen to be for good governance, democracy, and everything that’s decent in politics.
In the popular consciousness, the independent civil society, inclusive of the media, is seen to be for good governance, democracy, and everything that’s decent in politics. Their response to the previous government showed where their loyalties lay in this regard. Among the statements they issued, I remember one by a middle aged, near retirement professional. Here’s the gist of what he said:
“Mr Sirisena, we have tolerated your behaviour long enough. If you continue to populate the parliament with uneducated thugs and kasippu dealers, we will not pay our taxes. That is our ultimatum and we stand by it today!”
The irony was, of course, that while threatening non payment of taxes he was calling for the return of the same government that had imposed tax after tax on a multitude of people who couldn’t and can’t afford three meals a day. How’s that for talking shop about democracy and good governance, eh?
Professionals are more often than not seen as squeaky clean individuals. At one level, this is a little hypocritical. Have there not been cases of doctors overcharging patients and obtaining bribes from pharmaceutical companies? Have there not been cases of civil society activists obtaining largesse from state corporations? Have there not been cases of middle class professionals bribing officials to get their business plans passed? If so, how can we repose any trust in them? How can they be considered the superiors of the politicians who are, for all their faults, elected by the people through the only system we have that holds them accountable to us: the franchise?
Someone told me that it was the middle class who were behind the “tax revolutions” of the 18th and 19th centuries, in particular the French and the American Revolutions. Perhaps, but not because they were democrats: from the time of Oliver Cromwell’s dislodgement of the monarchy in England, Europe was engaged with a battle between the feudal aristocracy and the emerging bourgeoisie/merchant class. The bourgeoisie were less concerned with democracy than they were with obtaining privileges in the form of political representation for themselves. In fact upon coming to power, they did all they could to take the franchise away from the working class and exploit to the hilt that same working class. The “middle class”, so beloved today, was never moved by benevolent intentions. They merely wanted to enrich themselves.
Not even the Founding Fathers of the United States or their cohorts, whom lawyers and judges and democracy activists quote extensively today when they give judgments and pronouncements against corruption, were preoccupied with democracy. Alexander Hamilton called for it to be curbed; James Murray Mason warned against becoming too enamoured of it; Jeremy Belknap argued that the people weren’t fit to govern themselves. From Locke to Rousseau, from Rousseau to Arendt, the thread that runs through Western liberalism is that democracy does not really mean letting the people govern themselves. It was at once for the people and against the people.
Where did the professionals fit in here? In feudal Europe, artisans were dependent on the State for patronage. Without that patronage Mozart wouldn’t have become Mozart. In this sense, they were the transmitting mechanisms for an aristocratic worldview, though as artists they may not have considered themselves as such.
Then the bourgeois revolutions struck with the Industrial Revolution, of which, Dwight Macdonald tells us in Masscult and Midcult, “[t]he important change was the replacement of the individual patron by the market.” The professions – from medicine to law to the arts – were disrupted, but they served the same purpose: to transmit to the masses, in a language intelligible to the masses, the worldview of the new aristocracy: not the landed gentry, but the factory owners.
It is from this premise that Louis Althusser pointed out at the school, the judiciary, and the family institution, venerated by democrats of today, as “ideological state apparatuses.” A careful reading of Marx’s Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte can dispel the notion that most if not all of these symbols of an apolitical “democratic” society – the independence of the judiciary, the sanctity of the Constitution, and the supremacy of the Parliament – challenge power structures. Far from it. The professions in that sense were hawul karayo: they were collaborationists, and in that act of collaboration they ended up perpetuating a class ridden bourgeois dominated society.
Perhaps it comes to no surprise, then, that those calling for a middle class revolution here are against granting the poor constitutional concessions in the form of economic, social, and cultural (ESC) rights. It’s democracy for the nouveau riche, for the nascent bourgeoisie, but not for those who can benefit the most from a democratic revolution. It’s good governance for those who can govern themselves only; that is, the merchant, executive, consumer, “professional” class of Colombo.
Since 2014 there has been a consciousness raising exercise to get people to vote for intellectuals and meritocrats. In this scheme of things, the uneducated rowdies you see in parliament should get out or be kicked out. Most of those opposed to these rowdies come from Colombo, and the society they idealise is based on the world they occupy: free of cultural constraints, lacking cultural roots, indifferent to the voting underclass, and unaware of realities outside the urban centre.
Obviously, there’s a problem here. So if we are to come up with a replacement for the political party system we have, the best bet we can come up with must be better than the middle class, who are, as they themselves know, hardly innocent of the crimes they now attribute to those same rowdy-like politicians.
Here we can ask a question. Now that Ranil Wickremesinghe is back in his saddle, and now that he has, contrary to representations made by those who vouched for him, brought back members of his Royalist Regency, where are all those activists? Those professionals? Their silence is deafening. Disturbing. So deafening and disturbing, in fact, that I fail to understand what they were fighting for in the first place.
We are looking up the wrong tree. The political system isn’t what’s ailing us. Nor is it the people. It’s those who are arguing that the political system needs to be revamped. It’s those who turned the other side when calls were made for a broad coalition to end the war, and suddenly in 2014 woke up to the need for such a coalition solely for the purpose of ousting the political parvenu, Mahinda Rajapaksa.
They forget that economics was once called political economy, they forget that the root of all our problems is the fact that we have failed to get our economy going, and they forget that the political class they support happens to be the reason behind our lagging economy. If this is the kind of people we have to entrust our government to, the kind of people we should hand our public services, from education to healthcare, to, I’d rather vote for the uneducated peasant, who at least knows the value of those services, and the battles that had to be waged against the ruling class to make them available to the larger public, to you and to me.