Local Government Elections: In sending the UNP and JVP to political oblivion the nation may find hope?
Photo courtesy Sunday Leader
“The starting point of [progressive] politics and the state is its categorical rejection of this view of the state as the trustee, instrument, or agent of this society as a whole…In class societies, the concept of the society as a whole and of the ‘national’ interest’ is clearly a mystification” - Ralph Miliband
Another humiliating defeat for the United National Party (UNP) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) in the forthcoming elections would certainly improve the country’s future prospects for democracy with equality and justice. A UPFA victory could be celebrated with a sense cautious optimism: perhaps it will enable the evolution of a democratic space where we can imagine alternatives to the status quo. But the UNP and JVP (along with TULF, LSSP, CP and JHU) represent the very forces that they name as evils, and are ideologically and programmatically bankrupt. The contemporary political scene only gives the illusion of democracy, but it co-opts dissent and twists it to serve the interests of the regime. “Slogans of protest,” and “demands for piecemeal reforms” from the UNP and JVP do not address the underlying causes. But the “politics of protest” makes it extremely dangerous for the public to trust either party.
In fact, what we have today is a de facto national government — in the making since Sri Lanka became a nation state. This fact is clear if we think about the government in terms of governance: that is, the configuration and exercise of power relations, as opposed to the machinations of political parties and individual politicians. These power relations are embodied in the conduct of individuals and institutions as they manage day-to-day affairs, set norms and values, and maintain expectations about the nature of the nation, the course of progress and the practice of justice. That is to say the majority populace of the nation (oppressors and the oppressed alike) consciously or unconsciously govern themselves according to the wishes of the government (this art of governance is known as govern mentality). In Sri Lanka, “national government” is primarily a framework for managing a development project that has incrementally shifted from social-welfarism to capitalism. After the elections a “politics of nationalism,” development, reconciliation etc., (all blessed by the some in the religious community) may make it easier to solidify this “national government” in the code of law.
Under a national government, the ruling regime will have monopoly control over our political sovereignty, and be able to fully subjugate the economy and social sphere according to the dictates of the transnational capital. In the eyes of the public, the UPFA is the party that “gets things done.” And this is true…if we limit the scope of the nationalism project to defeating the LTTE and Tamil sub-nationalism, delaying demands for devolution, state control over the political and economic affairs of the northeast (as Milinda Moragoda says “the national issues are over” DM 4/09), and if we limit “development” to visibly improving roads, infrastructure and cleaning cities; and the freedom of the state to make our human, cultural and physical resources available to investors. In this regard, the UNP and JVP are ideologically bankrupt, lack leadership, and cannot compete with the UPFA’s “achievements.” To this point they have been incapable of providing a critical analysis of the costs and benefits of development and of nationalism, and thus have not provided any credible alternatives. The UNP and JVP lack the programmatic aptitude, and willpower to create a democratic space large enough to encompass the paradigm shift our political culture requires. They are far too entrenched in the status quo.
Arguments that the current UNP is different from what it was in 1977 are unconvincing. It was the UNP that forcefully introduced the current neoliberal economic paradigm and supported authoritarian political institutions in order to serve the interests of the transnational capitalist alliance. It was the UNP that promoted the “rata, jathiya, Pansala” equation; performed symbolic gestures of wearing Ambude (traditional working dress of the farmers) during ancient Vap-magula agriculture rituals; tolerated tolerance of violence against the minorities; promised to introduce Asokan model of governance; sought to update the Chronicles (Mahavamsa Nuthana Ugaya); hijacked the rhetoric of socialism, morality (dharmista smajajaya), and democracy in order to domesticate/indigenize neoliberal economic policies and the colonization of the country by transnational capital. It was the UNP (along with the TULF) that used both ideological indoctrination and coercion to marginalize the “politics of redistribution” and paved the way for the “parochial politics of identity” in order to secure a dominant place in the competition for state power. (The latter made a particular contribution to the rise of ideologically oriented militancy in the LTTE and the JVP.)
But the rapid erosion of democracy and blurring of civilian-military boundaries in the political economy of Sri Lanka are not only creations of Rajapakshe regime: they are inevitable responses to the dual crises of capitalism. These crises are generally understood as accumulation (difficulties faced in expanding capitalism) and legitimization (difficulties of socially legitimizing capitalist economic reforms) and the UNP and the JVP help manage them on behalf of the state-capitalist alliance. Capitalism is expansionist and the current Rajapakshe regime only accelerates its pace, forcing Sri Lanka’s social-economic fabric and our natural environment to adjust to capitalism’s demands.
President Rajapaksa’s victory in 2002 was not only an expression of public frustrations over his predecessors’ handling of war against terrorism. It was also a prime example of the capitalist state changing its form to maintain its capitalist nature (known as the “form-nature dialectic”) in response to pressures from the transnational capitalist class to expand space for capitalist accumulation. The historically unprecedented surveillance and securitization (what some refer to as militarization) of governance accompanying UPFA expansions of capitalism stem primarily on need of the state to efficiently manage dissent resulting from social inequalities, disruptions, and environmental catastrophes. The continued privatization of social sectors, education, pension funds, health, security, etc. will erode the government’s ability to maintain the post-independence social contract – the contract depends on welfare and redistribution. Privatization means allowing investors to maximize commercial returns and minimize social returns by investing their own capital, borrowed money, and recycling previous investments to create new consumer markets. In the long run, efficiency does not increase and is not sustainable: commercial returns to investments are predicated on inequality, and the Sri Lankan model of capitalism (kinship-national security) lowers efficiency even more. Privatization-induced fiscal bankruptcy, the state’s dependence on transnational capital, and the “unholy trinity” will not permit the introduction of social welfare and redistributive policies. In the face of this, there are few options available, and these would only increase consolidation of patronage politics, increase securitization, and exploit identity politics to appease majority interests. Appeasing identity politics would simultaneously increase minority vulnerability and further preventing political mobilization between the haves and have-note (dominant and the subordinate).
The high visibility of the immediate and extended members of the Rajapaksha family and the dominance of patron-cliental relations in political and economic affairs of the country, can be described as systemic feudalization (Milinda Morogoda says “our politics in this country is tribal” DM 4/09!). It needs to be understood as a product of the specific practices of class formation in Sri Lanka, and in relation to the historical development of capitalism, widespread public tolerance of a feudal way of organizing day-today economic and social transactions, and, most importantly, the remarkable capacity of capitalism to incorporate, rather than transform, non-capitalist social systems to further its own expansion. The transnational capitalist class does not care whether a nation (Western or Non-Western) is democratic or authoritarian as long as that class’s interests are furthered. The UNP cannot ideologically challenge the capitalist basis of UPF administration, but seeks to exploit public discontent (the social and economic costs of capitalist policies) to overthrow the regime. The capitalist class that patronizes UNP’s power base wants to capture state power. UNPs pretense of speaking for the public interest simply masks clashes between capitalist classes. UNP misleads the public by claiming that changing of the government will fundamentally change the economic and political bases on which the population is oppressed.
The UNP and JVP critiques of a Rajapaksha “dictatorship” and the militarization of Sri Lanka are simply masks the fact that the government’s main commitment and agreement with the international community are to remove the barriers (like civil rights) that prevent them from adjusting society, culture, economy, religion, morality and environment to the dictates of capital. Cultural nationalism and overt religiosity are means of domesticating, indigenizing, and moralizing the capitalist transformation. The JVP and the JHU are alike in the sense that they both provide ideological legitimacy for the capitalist project. The only difference is that the JVP does it by using Marxist rhetoric. UPFA uses JVP and JHU to create ideological legitimacy for the capitalist project. UPFA distance itself from or attacks those parties when their actions appear to undermine the project. Past election results have demonstrated that it’s unwise for the public or the bourgeois classes to trust JHU and JVP leadership. And the UNP has lost the game because capitalist and ethnonationalist projects are either halted by, or more “efficiently” executed by the UPFA.
Since its founding, the Marxist credentials of the JVP have been questionable. Marxism is a “brand” for the party’s members and the popular media, and JVP has never been able to inspire a class-based political movement. It failed to resolve and reconcile the tensions between nationalism and patriotism, or to address class in a true Marxist fashion. In the 1970s, JVP excluded Indian plantation workers from the category of the proletariat — a position not only un-Marxist, but also blatantly racist. In the 1980s, JVP’s popular slogan “Panthiya (class)’ first!” was replaced with “Maubima (nation) first!” and, hence, miserably failed to generate in popular consciousness a more nuanced understanding of the relation between capitalist policies, the historical development of capitalism in Sri Lanka, and the ethnic conflict. Instead JVP practiced an opportunistic populism by exploiting nationalism to rally the masses even it meant forging alliances with its enemies.
JVP slogans (arguably nothing to do with Marx or Che) condemning Western imperialism fail to recognize that imperialism is fundamentally an economic phenomenon. The shift of imperialist power centers from the US to China and, more lately, to India, is a natural trend due to the expansion of capitalist development. This is neither a Western nor Eastern phenomenon, but simply a form of economic organization. Moralizing about Chinese and Indian capitalists, and making claims that non-Western intrusions into Sri Lanka are more peaceful and humane, are not only evidence of JVPs betrayal of Marxism, but of their ignorant insistence that the extraction of natural resources in African is somehow “different” because it is led by non-Western countries. The truth is that the exploitation of Africa is more extensive now than during the colonial period, and that there is no distinction between the non-Western and Western tendency to patronize authoritarian regimes when they serve global capitalist interests. The Chinese extract natural resources for the global market and Chinese and Western capitalists invest right along with them. The invocation of nationalism, or the tendency to view international capitalism in terms of the nation state, completely obscures the function of the transnational capitalist class, which has no allegiance to national interests.
JVP’s failure to develop a Marxist perspective of the economic crisis allowed the UPFA to lead the charge in preparing national space for capitalist development. Worse, JVP’s false consciousness encouraged the subordination of popular culture to the service of the capitalist class, which then used it to shape nationalist conscious to benefit the capitalist class. The JVP never grasped that the logic of the national economy was bent to the demands of global capitalist logic, rather than being internally driven. They never examined the relationship between the form of the nation-state and capitalist development: The emergence and territorialization of world politics in terms of the nation-state is a matter of spatial differentiation and uneven development of capital. It has everything to do with the internal characteristics of capitalism, rather than simply resulting from Western impositions on non-Western states. Ironically, JVP itself was an agent of propagating false consciousness among the masses and undermined its own allegedly revolutionary objectives. The JVPs anti-Western rhetoric provided a strategy by which the state could divert dissent against its economic and political affairs away from direct engagement with the capitalist class, and in particular with its political manifestation in Sri Lanka — the kinship-patronage model. Despite its attempt to use anti-Western rhetoric, after the war the JVP became isolated and subjected to the surveillance of the state.
Historically the UNP’s claims to support or oppose a negotiated political settlement to the ethnic conflict have been opportunistic and driven by its desire to capture, oppose or legitimize state power. This has been the case since the J.R. Jayewardene’s opposition to the Federal solution, the active role UNP members played in 1983 Riots, and UNP’s lack of concrete engagement in post-war attempts to find a political settlement. The UNP still does nothing to prepare the masses for a political settlement. It has a history of reinforcing counter-productive beliefs, undermining any government attempts to pursue a settlement. UNP’s approach has been to exploit both government success and the failure in its war against LTTE’s terrorism and government responses to the call for international investigations into War crimes. This way the UNP can say that it was supportive of government efforts if they succeed, or claim to the masses that they opposed government policies if government efforts fail. Neither of these responses constructively engaged with the ethnic conflict; they merely exploited it to capture state power. A quarter-century-long ethnic conflict should be understood in terms of (though not reducible to) the evolution of capitalist class formation in Sri Lanka. It is crucial to understand that ethno-religious nationalism became an instrument of the classes in competition for economic and political power. UNP and the JVP are instruments of those classes, and their role has been to replace “the politics of distribution” with a parochial politics of identity — a position that has hampered the development of social movements against capitalism.
Opportunistic politics yielded no significant gains to JVP or UNP, and their alliance was short-lived. Since the war ended, internal party crises intensified and splits now seem imminent. Mr. Rail Wickramasinghe has set a world record, retaining party leadership even after losing nearly 20 elections. This type of dictatorship really makes the Rajapakshe regimes appears as reasonably democratic. After Wikileaks revealed that the JVP told the American Ambassador that Somawamsa Amerasinghe supported the “truth and reconciliation commission as opposed to war crimes,” the party’s sincerity is in question. This semantic nit-picking is simple dishonesty: both interventions are intended to investigate and determine the truth of the matter.
Both UNP and JVP demand “good governance.” By this they mean that they want accountability and transparency from the government. This is highly seductive language, but the goals of good governance are limited to those that further the interests of capital. “Good governance” is about ensuring that state action will not lead to market failures or a reduction of efficiency. Proponents of “good government” are disinterested in or silent in instances where good governance requires justice and equality. It is the antithesis of government in which people’s needs are placed above their ability to pay. UNP and JVP good governance is all about disciplining the state to function according to the logic of capital, thus it deploys the charge of corruption selectively, as if one could find a moment in history in which capitalism is devoid of corruption.
For the voodoo economists (those who still believe in the neoclassical economists whose ideologies underpin the UNP and UPFA economic policies) efficient economic management means letting the “invisible hands of the markets” run the economy, and good governance is the political form that allows it. But the fact that visible hands always control invisible hands is never mentioned. The good governance agenda of voodoo economists economists simply repackages economic problems as political problems. It separates political and economics into two different domains of action, hoping “right politics” (meaning market-enabling politics) will bring prosperity through markets. Historically the equality that is promised in the domain of politics has always been undermined by inequality in the domain of economics. In a neoliberal context, the demand for good governance means maintaining and enforcing separation between economics and politics, while subjecting the latter to the dictates of the former. The UNP parliamentarian Eran Wickramathana’s justification for claiming that local government election victories are a means creating a political culture of democracy and pluralism are meaningless and deceptive: the economic policies of the UNP specifically undermine this kind of political culture.
Any political party seeking a way out of the current predicament must build a mass social movement from grass-roots. Such movement must simultaneously deal with many different, yet overlapping cultures of politics. Among them are the “politics of gratitude” (the population’s deep sense of gratitude towards the government for ending the war and ensuring relative freedom of movement); the “politics of distraction” (escaping accountability and transparency by branding criticisms as Western conspiracies); the “politics of silence” (from the population in the north-east in the aftermath of war): the “politics of necessity” (when action undermines security in daily life); the “politics of apathy” (a product of “ala, bathala, Kos, and del” [ABCD] economy, in which majority rural peoples concerns about subsistence are pitted against issues of corruption, good governance, prosperity that concern the urban middle class); the “politics of kinship-patronage” (providing vast opportunities for wealth and power to those who serve the interests of the ruling regime); the “politics of intelligentsia” (those who have compromised their souls and succumbed to offers of wealth and power, and the excesses of post-colonial studies); the “politics of the past” (also called “historical consciousness —inventing history to serve the interests of the present); the “politics of religion” (the symbiotic relationship between wealth, politics and power); the “politics of the NGOs” (who play an important role in preparing economic and political conditions for capitalist development); the “politics of the middle-classes (who are deeply satisfied with the improvements in infrastructure maintenance of law and order in urban settings); the “politics of counter-terrorism” (extending the war against terrorism to other areas of political and economic affairs); and, the “politics of progress” (dominant and subordinate groups that the idea of ‘progress’ in capitalist modernity). So on and so forth.
While these political cultures are diverse and do not have the same origins and evolutionary trajectories, they are all both implicated in and integrated with the development of capitalism: none of these cultures can escape from the colonizing logic of capital. More than at any other time in the history of capitalism, there exists widespread social capital for developing social movements centered on anti-capitalist protest. This is not claim to “vulgar Marxism,” or “materialist determinism’ which Marx condemned. It does not mean that everything can be explained in terms of or reduced to a struggle between capitalists and anti-capitalists. Or were capitalism replaced with another system, all other evils would not disappear. Instead, it is crucial to point out that only critical engagement with capitalism will allow us to ask the important questions: will capitalism create conditions for a political culture of justice and equality? Engagement with capitalism, and the work of imagining our way out of it, will create essential (but not sufficient) conditions to finding our way out of the current predicament. Neither the JVP nor the UNP are capable of giving us the kind of visionary leadership that will lead to such an engagement, and, in fact, they constrain the intellectual and political landscape in which such politics can arise. To set capitalism in the center, as the object of analysis for the UNP, is suicide. But for the JVP to do the same would mean actually becoming a Marxist Party!