UNP victory in Colombo Municipal Council: A Political Economy of the Numerics
In capitalist modernity ‘elections’ are a means by which disparate social interests are brought together and ruling class hegemony is maintained. “Their politics consist of activity completely defined by the framework of bourgeois society…the actual training of the masses to become imbued with the inviolability of the bourgeois state” (Trotsky, The Lessons of October, 1924).
UNP’s victory is elusive and unimpressive. We are left with several interesting questions: why did UPFA lose despite its claim that Colombo is on the fast track to becoming a cleaner, greener, secure, investor-friendly, tourist-friendly and sustainable city? Is the UNP victory in Colombo indicative of an emerging movement towards substantive democracy (freedom with equality and justice, social and environmental) in Sri Lanka? Is this going to be the end or a new beginning of the UNP?
It would be simple to explain it away like this: Humans, as ‘moral beings’, value freedom and decent standards of living: humans have the capacity to transform the conditions under which they live in, rather than forever being their slaves. Majority voters with diverse interests ‘spontaneously’ formed a protest block and voted for UNP (and DNF) because they believed that these two parties offer the best possible option to change the status quo, despite uncertainty as to whether either party can fulfill its promises. But numbers and profiles of the elected personalities do not tell the full story; in fact, they can be misleading. We need a more nuanced analysis of the ‘specificity’ of politics in the urban landscape.
Despite the fact that there are few substantive differences between geographical administrative units in an increasingly interconnected world, Colombo’s metropolitan landscape still appears open and fragmented. Households are physically and socially distanced from one another and enjoy ‘relative autonomy’ compared to the social cohesion in rural areas. Social relations in urban space are fluid and vulnerable to change because there is les social capital (fewer strong networks and bonds between people). This makes ‘mobilization of predictable block votes an extremely difficult task to accomplish. Manufacturing consensus is not easy in highly cosmopolitan urban environments because under bourgeois liberalism and morality “all fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his, real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”
Urban voter choices and electoral blocks shaped by ‘social distance,’ meaning multicultural/multi-ethnic polity exposed to information, opportunities for social mobility, and market forces make alternative group affiliations possible, and they are not only determined by ethnic and religious affiliations of the candidates and the voters. The ethnic, religious, and kinship relations and time and space are vulnerable to reconfiguration by the politicians and voters, and they can take many different forms and swings. In urban areas, freedom and incentives for individual expression of opinion during elections may be far greater than in rural areas because the cities are highly visible to election watch dogs (international observers, NGOs and media). This makes manipulation of voter behavior extremely difficult, especially when cities like Colombo and Jaffna are Sri Lanka’s poster children of democracy, freedom, development, and reconciliation.
Ominous signs abound. At the time of the elections, the UPFA regime was struggling to cope with multiple domestic and international crises, most of which were highly visible in urban areas. The costs and benefits of economic policies are unevenly distributed between different geographical regions and different social groups, and urban classes (especially the rich) are the main beneficiaries of economic development — often at the expense of non-urban areas, including the plantation sector. At the same time, urbanites may have the luxury of being very conscious of the ethical and moral aspects of economic relations/transactions. For urban green activists the alleged destruction of the Sinharaja and Knuckels forests is a slap on green credentials of the government. In fact, for some urbanites (I mean the green capitalists), deliberating these moral and environmental issues is a lucrative growth industry.
A typical characteristic of bourgeoisies’ morality is that on the one hand they want to maintain the capitalist economy. And on the other hand, they also want to champion democratic freedoms, equity and justice. Ironically, they are often oblivious to or disinterested in the fact that the former is primarily responsible for the erosion of the later. This kind of compartmentalization of economy and morality (the pretense that they are two distinct and unrelated domains) by the middle classes may explain their unease with historically unprecedented levels of nepotism and kinship-patronage, media suppression, corruption, and abuses of the state resources during elections. In liberal moral economy the market rationality is the legitimate ethical principle, as it is the leading alternative both to social welfare policies, traditional principles and bureaucratic social controls despised by the capitalists. “This ethic of ‘free trade’ asserts itself wherever people engage in commerce. Its logic is the accumulation of capital. Liberalism is essentially the ideology of capital.” (Andy Blunden) Neoliberal moral economy exalts the state to discipline and punish the society when it does not uphold liberal ideology by whatever means necessary, including blurring of the boundaries between civilian and military.
The end of war does not bring about an end to the culture of fear. Peoples’ sense of freedom is far broader than the freedom from terrorism, and their list of terrorist may include groups other than the LTTE. In Sri Lanka, symbolic and real boundaries between defense and the civilian sector rapidly blurred, and the militarized state may be perceived by a segment of the urban population as exerting unfair influence the acquisition of property, allocation of resources and costs and benefits of urban reforms. Marx excoriated Kariser’s Gotha Program in Germany for resorting to the subterfuge “of demanding things which have meaning only in a democratic republic from a state which is nothing but a police-guarded military despotism, embellished with parliamentary forms, alloyed with a feudal admixture and at the same time already influenced by the bourgeoisie, and bureaucratically carpentered, and then assuring this state into the bargain that one imagines one will be able to force such things upon it ‘by legal means.’” Perhaps this what implied in Milinda (Pinto?) Morogoda’s celebration of freedom for all dissent, hence lost the elections.
Economic/moral dualism and tensions are paralleled and reinforced by economic/religious dualism and tensions. Colombo is not a secular city, but a religious society. Recently we have witnessed the heightening of religiosity among the middle class, evidenced by their patronage of extravagant religious rituals and financial contributions to churches, temples, mosques, and other lesser known religious centers. Sundays, Fridays, and Poya days, they are busy with religious rituals and charitable activities. At other times they go about their business, hoping that their religious observances will get them into heaven or earn good karma. The boundaries between the domains of faith and reason, superstition and wisdom also continue to blur, and middle classes are exhibit entrepreneurial skill in moving between these domains, often in collaboration with the religious establishment.
In the best case, religions inspire their followers to be conscious of ethical and moral incompatibilities and the tensions between economic practices and religious beliefs: indeed religion has the capacity to be a prophetic voice by rising above the parochial interests. In less shining moments, religious organizations encourage followers to believe that these divides can be bridged easily by charitable, philanthropic and religious activities. In the latter case, rather than resolving these tensions theologically and in their personal lives, both religious leaders and followers project them into the domain of the political. They vainly hope that a change of governments will bring economic ideals and practices and religious beliefs into congruence. And how different is this from the ideology of progress in capitalist modernity, where capitalism’s failures are attributed to political failures (i.e. ‘right politics ‘will yield ‘right price,’ or good governance will trickle down the benefits of capitalism)?
Voting for an opposition committed to capitalist ideals (i.e. the UNP and DNF) must also be understood as an act of religious ritual and an act of faith, in many ways similar to faith in the invisible hand of market capitalism. Ordinary believers, at the bottom of the economic hierarchy, vote for the political parties that are supported by their respective preachers, elders and priests. It is hard, in this case, to argue with Karl Marx: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”
Ethnic and religious minorities constitute a significant voting majority in Colombo. Although these larger minorities are unlikely to be united in social or economic terms, these minorities prefer the UNP and, combined, may well have influenced the election. Muslim, Tamil and Christian religious minorities share a great deal of frustration at the state’s failure to take effective actions against the perpetrators of scattered violence and harassment of minority religions. The Tamil minority, including those unconnected to the North and East, are exasperated with the government’s distinct lack of enthusiasm for negotiating a political settlement to the ethnic crisis, especially since the war was allegedly fought to prepare the ground for a negotiated settlement. Internet and print news stories about ‘colonization and militarization’ of the north east may have encouraged those in cosmopolitan urbanites to empathize with Muslims and Tamils in the North and east. In addition to the frequently shifting loyalties the ruling regime, the increasing involvement of China and India in Sri Lanka, even groups who share ultra-nationalist ideology may be worried about the future of the country’s sovereignty, and feel a sense of betrayal. They now caste doubts upon the Sinhala Buddhist nationalist credentials of the ruling regime and their personal fortunes of being its ally. Opposition to vulgar nationalism and distrust of the government’s nationalist credentials may well have boosted support for the opposition, just as we have seen happen recently in the Middle East. These nationalist and sub-nationalist projects are also class projects: their respective nationalisms are focused on resolving inter- and intra-ethnic group never ending class conflicts. This partly explains the reasons why the state (and main stream political parties) exploits ultra nationalist groups, but maintains a distance from them, and they rarely make significant electoral gains. The value of nationalism diminishes when the bellies are hard hit.
As capitalism increasingly colonizes national interests, nationalism and post-war patriotic fervor is exhausting its capacity to relieve the sense of deprivation and anxiety among traditional established local business classes. These feelings have emerged in response to increasing concentration of investments and development projects away from Colombo (many of them them controlled by foreign investors and those patronized the ruling regime) and claims by the media and politicians that these economic ventures fail to follow established protocols and procedures. Inter-capitalists’ competition and their anxieties are compounded by the increasing costs of living for the urban poor, particularly when the economy fails to generate growth in parallel with infrastructure investments made with borrowed money.
Those evicted from urban areas are unlikely to be bought off with promises of new houses. They have no good reason to believe such promises, and will likely find their cost of living increasing, and their opportunities decreasing once they are out of reach of the benefits of the urban informal sector. Increased cost of living for the poor also increases cost of living for the middle classes while reducing profits (i.e. unpaid labor). It’s far too easy to say that economic crisis is a matter of global recession. Economic crisis is also produced in collaboration with the state and bourgeoisies classes who progressively abrogate the welfare-based social contract. The UNP and DNF focus on a regime change that appears to be a compromise between urban rich and urban poor, but it’s really a tactic to divert the wrath of the poor against the rich. But class analysis of the economic crises (as opposed to analysis framed in terms of jingoistic nationalism, ethnicity, and religion) would be suicidal to bourgeois moral economy and its opportunistic ideologues, including those with patriotic and Leftwing credentials.
In the current climate of state and self-imposed censorship and limitations on the media, urban populations have greater access to internet news stories about the ruling regime than those in rural areas. Urbanites are more influenced by NGO activism and protest movements than those in rural areas, and may be more sensitive to the growing unpopularity of our government in Western countries. Urbanites tend to live more Westernized life-styles, and their economic fortunes, their choices for educating their children, and their targets of migration are mostly in Western countries. Urban space may more fluidly process and absorb the ideas of human rights, freedom of expression etc., than rural areas. The state has branded urban political activism as Western, pro-LTTE, and anti-Sri Lankan, and this tactic has insulated the rural masses from the urban areas. This explains the popularity of the UPFA among rural dwellers. But my point is not that urbanites are more progressive. We all know the most racist ideologues are part of the urban intelligentsia and that past ethnic riots began in the cities where the beneficiaries of exploitative economic practices concentrate. Instead, my intention is to point out that the UNP and JVP have essentially become urban middle class parties with hardly any relevance to rural populations.
Another notion that’s too simplistic to serve us is that parliamentary elections equal (or will usher in) democracy. Democracy is government by the people for the people and of the people. That’s a nice notion, but in the real world, ‘the people’ are divided into classes. During elections, enfranchised citizens are lumped together and called ‘voters’, and each has the equal opportunity to cast a vote. But their life circumstances are far from equal. The fundamental defining character of the state is that it separates the economic and political into two distinct domains. Equality promised in the domain of politics is always undermined by inequality in the domain of economics. The limitation of bourgeoisie democracy lies in channeling economic struggles into economic spheres: it envisages the possibility of change through the mere conquest of the political institutions. This limitation appears as a failure of the state capitalist state as it is engaged “in a continual process of upholding the principles of freedom and equality, which constantly modify their application in practice, to secure the political and social conditions for the survival of the capitalist system” (John Holloway and Sol Picciotto). The state will only dig itself deeper into the crisis, not simply because it is managed by the Rajapakshas, but because it is capitalist.
Democracy in a capitalist context is not absolutely opposed to authoritarianism or dictatorship. Democracy can very well obscure and suppress social, economic and power asymmetries as effectively as totalitarian regimes. Dictatorships masked as democracies co-opt their opponents as allies of their regime, and may even decentralize governance by handing over responsibilities of the state to private interests. They demand loyalty in the nation of national interests, security, progress, and reconciliation. This pretense of democracy (which I describe as a ‘national government’) can very mask the intent to further concentrate power. The multi-party composition of the government is not a good indicator of democracy: it does not tell us anything about how we are governed or how we conduct ourselves. If we are to understand the function of democracy under a UPFA government, we must conduct a systematic analysis of the manifestation of state power in everyday practices in every sphere of the society (e.g. media, education, religious rituals).
If we engage in such an analysis of power I believe we will find that we are governed and we conduct our daily affairs according to the interests of the state and international capital, both of which succeed in retaining power by blurring the boundaries between the oppressed and the oppressors, democrats and liberals, etc. The UNP’s victory and now the DNF factor (and even TNA election wins) are weak and misleading indicators of substantive democracy, or the country’s onward march towards it if they do not have power to respond to the interests of their respective constituencies. An Anarchist would say: “Whoever you vote for, the government wins”!
Political realism’s analysis of power relations are limited because it is preoccupied with the military capabilities of the states, and less concerned with the economic relations and norms, values and institutions that shape the behavior of the states (Realists, including their father Thomas Hobbes misread the war between Athens and Sparta in the Peloponnesian war. Consequently, some define such political ‘science’ as bad history and International Relations as illegitimate child of that history!)
Some newspapers reported that the government plans to remove the security forces from its charge to carry out cleaning chores in the city! The UNPs alliance with the DNF is still uncertain. The sacking of the two UNPers continues to intensify the rifts within the UNP. Only time will tell us whether the government will succeed in imprisoning the UNP within the Colombo MC until its extinction from politics or the UNP evolve into a formidable national opposition party.