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Neo-liberalism, Politics and Dehumanization of Society

17 December 2013 05:13 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


Almost the entire world has come under the influence of neo-liberalism over the last several decades.  The Neo-liberal ideologues that include the key bureaucrats of the international financial institutions assert that the market should be allowed to guide major decisions not only with regard to production, distribution and consumption of goods and services, but also relating to many other human endevours and that the state should voluntarily reduce its role in the economy and the social sectors.  

This contrasts with the social democratic view that the management of human affairs and the environment should not be left to the vagaries of the market.   In the absence of strong collective action to mitigate the negative  impacts of the market, in the neo – liberal era, many human endeavors that had certain intrinsic qualities have by and large become  mere instrumental  activities, now carried out largely for the  purpose of securing  material gain.  Scientific research, knowledge production, arts, sports, education, healthcare, communication, social service, politics, counseling, etc.  are cases in point. So, it is not surprising that international schools have been established in Sri Lanka under the Companies Act, which was never intended to regulate the establishment and management of schools.  Many leading Buddhist priests no longer walk around in the villages and towns, to bestow blessings on the sick, the elderly, etc.  but are driven around in luxury vehicles often secured at public expense.

Political leaders elected to serve the masses have no shame at all in abusing public funds to help themselves and their retinue.  Teachers have no shame in charging fees from their own pupils.  Doctors have no peace of mind as they run around visiting numerous clinics seeing hundreds of patients in a single day.  CEOs of charitable organizations do their rounds in  SUVs, purchased using small contributions collected from socially conscious citizens in the developed countries. 

Counselors offer solutions to your personal problems, of course at a price.  Mothers leave their own little children behind, often in the hands of invalid grand parents, to engage in domestic work, including childcare, in wealthy households in the Middle East.  Those who are entrusted with the responsibility of protecting the law take advantage of the system rather than deliver justice.  University lecturers who were classified as intellectuals in the past, no longer  wait till the students come to them; some of them drive their cars to provinces  to conduct large tuition classes for students who prepare for external degree  examinations of the same universities that the lecturers are attached to.  Last, but not least, many writers publish books as a business, not to enlighten the reading public.

Given above are some examples to illustrate the kind of change that has taken place in Sri Lanka and elsewhere over the last several decades. Richard Sennet, in his book, Corrosion of Character, documents how neo- liberalism cuts deep into the character  of the younger generation caught in the new rat race in the United States and elsewhere. The examples point to the fact that the activities mentioned above have lost much of their intrinsic human qualities.  The main reason for this is that one’s ability to satisfy one’s needs depends very much on one’s ability to pay.  Those who have accumulated wealth   engage in conspicuous consumption; they do not seem to understand the hardships that the ordinary people undergo in order to meet their daily needs, be it food, transport or healthcare.   

A business executive would spend the equivalent of one month’s salary of a garment factory worker for a single dinner in a Colombo restaurant. A specialist doctor would charge the equivalent of two days' wages of an unskilled worker for a single consultation  A political leader would obtain a luxury car costing over ten million rupees in a country where many people continue to struggle to meet their basic needs.  Those who generate considerable foreign exchange for the country such as plantation workers are not doing any better.   Unrestrained private bus operators take the law into their own hands in order to maximize their profits and pose a grave threat to the lives of both passengers as well as pedestrians.  An expanding alcohol economy contributes to crime; violence, public disorder, accidents, morbidity and mortality but nothing much can be done by the state reduce them, even though the health and other costs involved are more than the state revenue derived from alcohol.  Provincial lawyers have no moral qualms about turning impoverished villagers into life long clients who struggle to secure titles to minute parcels of village land through a tortuous process of litigation.  Non-governmental organizations preaching self-reliance are busy writing proposals to secure donor funding to promote self reliance among poor villagers.  Self–perpetuating donor bureaucracies have no problem in promoting dependent development through long term credit.      
The above state of affairs breeds a deep sense of injustice and insecurity in the minds of the ordinary masses. The latter naturally feel that society has lost its humane character.  The members of the elite are no longer perceived to be caring and considerate.  In short, they no longer have moral authority over the masses.  Yet, the ordinary people have no choice.  They have to rely on the elite for various favours and services.  In the process they often come under pressure.  Some react in a brutal, inhuman manner, becoming criminals, killing people for money or revenge.  Others turn to demagogues or new spiritual movements. Still others turn inward, either becoming    insane or taking their own lives.

When we look around the country, we witness everything that is mentioned above. Crime, suicide, violence, extortion, mental illness, theft, terrorism, religious extremism,    intolerance, murder etc.   A report published by the Ministry of Social Welfare several years ago on the living conditions of the elderly paints a very gloomy picture.  A majority of the elderly people do not have the resources to meet their basic needs so they continue to work into their ripe old age. With increasing casualisation of the labour force under neo-liberalism, the above situation can only get worse.  Many children are malnourished despite a reported rice surplus; partly a reflection of widespread malnutrion among mothers themselves.  But that does not matter, because our leaders can still boast about the low infant mortality rate in the country. Poverty has increased in the plantation sector where alcoholism is widespread.  Incest has become a significant issue in the country, largely owing to the migration of women and widespread alcoholism among men who are left behind by their migrant wives.

Economic crime is endemic in the country and is indicative of the craze for money and the breakdown of the moral order.  Many criminals use sophisticated weapons, live in large houses and drive around in expensive vehicles, not very different from some of our politicians.  Many criminals kill their victims first and then rob their belongings. On the other hand, a small monthly income takes you nowhere.  A serious illness can wipe out all the savings of a middle class family, let alone a poor one.  A poor person has no chance and therefore walks from house to house begging for money to pay for medical tests and drugs. The rich and the powerful do not encounter such people because their security guards chase them away.

 Lower middle class families want to have their own transport, to avoid overcrowded public transport.  Many borrow money to purchase motorbikes and whole families ride on them, exposing small children to rain, exhaust fumes and dust.  

Petty corruption is a way a life for many lower level functionaries in state institutions.  Financial pressure is as much a cause of this as the lure of modern consumerism.  Good life is increasingly defined by the media as one based on modern consumption of everything that is advertised on TV.  No amount of money is adequate to keep up with modern consumption.  Large sums of ill-gotten money can be spent in an instant if one frequents posh and not so posh gambling joints in Colombo.  

A socially unregulated market allows the business elite and others to amass wealth.  The wealthiest businessmen and women in Sri Lanka are not industrialists who usually make long – term, investments in R and D and product development.  Most of our business leaders are merchants engaged in buying and selling of goods imported from other countries.  They invest in areas that bring them quick profits.  Some of them naturally target higher income groups in society.  A clear example is housing.  Much of the private investment in this sector has gone for up-market housing projects.  There is hardly any investment in low income housing.  The same is true for investments in the health and education sectors.   So much for the social responsibility of big business.

Sri Lanka’s private sector is dominated by financial services, retail and whole-sale trade, import and export trade, real estate, health services, etc.  Those who are engaged in industrial production are few and far between.  So, the surplus is extracted mostly by tapping into the circulation process, not buy contributing to local production.

This is the reason why the manufacturing sector remains small, around 16% of the GDP, even after several decades since the liberalisation of the economy.  If industries were established in different parts of the country, wealth would not have been as much concentrated in Colombo as it is today.  When wealth is concentrated in Colombo, the demand for expensive goods and services also tend to be concentrated there.  More and more people flock to Colombo looking for income sources as well as consumption opportunities.  Increasing population pressure in the western province is the result.  Today, nearly a third of the country’s population is concentrated in the Western region, leading to environmental degradation and disappearance of open space which is critical to maintance quality of life in urban areas. Real estate developers accelerate this process by mopping up whatever undeveloped land that is available in the densely populated areas.

All in all, the country’s elite has become alienated from the masses.  The former has no moral authority over the latter.  The general public’s perception is that the elite is self serving, uncaring and immoral.  Those who have power and resources do not display a sense of social and moral responsibility, and instead take advantage of the situation.

 They are presiding over a socio- economic system whose normative foundation is in tatters.  Such a system can only breed violence, intolerance, crime, insanity, self destruction, greed, ill health, etc.  The state that could have provided a regulatory framework for development and redistribution of wealth has been dormant, largely due to self-seeking and myopic political leaders, the increasing influence of vested interests, and unconditional acceptance of the legitimacy of the market and the private sector and widespread corruption.  This is what did not happen in many South East Asian countries where a proactive state seems to have had a firm grip on the development process and redistribution of wealth.
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