Groundviews

Synthetic development, commodification of the body and the vote under neo-liberal economic policies: Where to now?

Photo credit Marvellous Sri Lanka

In modern day governance, there are certain principles that peace-loving people expect the rulers to implement. One of them is accountability. Accountability for the actions, expenditure, decisions, and appointments that governments make. In advanced democratic societies, there are mechanisms to ensure accountability with vested powers to seek and collect information, summon officials before parliamentary committees, investigate, and make recommendations. Effectiveness of these mechanisms depends on the availability of a degree of autonomy and independence for these mechanisms to function. If the politicians tamper and interfere with these mechanisms formally or informally, then the people cannot expect fair outcomes. Associated with accountability is the principle of transparency. That is the possibility for the people to know about the way governments make decisions, the nature of such decisions, and if there are any adverse impacts on any given sector of the population due to the decisions made. Steps for mitigating adverse impacts are then utilised. Consultation is another key principle of good governance.

However, in countries where there are no such democratic principles of governance, such as North Korea, authority of the leader and the party reins supreme. Rule making for the country is very much a party affair. So is policy making and decision making. The armed forces are firmly under the control of the leader and the ruling party. All major media outlets are heavily controlled to transmit state news, which basically means party propaganda. All institutions of the state including Law enforcement are highly politicised. A controlled and regimented society is constructed within which individual freedoms are heavily curtailed. Private sector is almost non-existent. Economic affairs are controlled by state entities. So is the civic life. A type of ‘politically manipulated slavery’ exists in such societies.

The situation in countries like China and Russia is somewhat different because of their involvement in global affairs and the international system yet the degree of politicisation of civic life, control of key sectors by the state-meaning under party control, limits on the freedom of media, and corruption are symptomatic of these systems of governance. In essence, whether it is North Korea, China, or Russia, one finds highly centralised systems of governance that allows limited freedoms for state institutions to move away from ‘the party line’. Citizen rights are also highly prescribed leaving not much space for independent expression of views or seeking better government that embodies principles of good governance as described earlier.

Sri Lankans admired North Korea and it’s leader during the late 60s and early 1970s as it provided propaganda materials like People’s Republic of China. As young university students, we witnessed publications translated into Sinhala from the Chinese Communist Party and also from North Korean ruling party. A magazine from the Soviet Union translated to Sinhala was also available for wide circulation. During the Cold War these publications made their way into university campuses to show how well their systems of government working as well as the preeminent role of the leaders and their parties. But the world has moved on. Yet the centralised character of governance with less transparency, less consultation, and less accountability seems to continue in these three countries compared to advanced democracies in Western Europe and even Australia and New Zealand for example.

Curtailment of individual liberties, political and civil rights can be witnessed in other parts of the world also. For example, some countries in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America are still operating with military control of governments or indeed party control. Two examples from Asia are Malaysia where control of political life by the ruling party is dominant and Thailand where the military interference in governance is frequent.

Struggle for democracy, good governance, accountability and transparency are continuing in many parts of the world against state ideologies of narrow nationalisms constructed to misguide their populations or the promises of more market-oriented development and better life. Expanding global capitalist economy under free market, neoliberal principles has made new riches and billionaires in selected countries while throwing welfare state principles to the dustbin and moving millions of people out of reach from the benefits of globalised economy. Exploitation of labor has intensified with more and more Western global economic operations moving into low cost, high obedience countries often run with semi dictatorial governance styles. Millions of women, particularly married women with children are sweating in the homes of wealthy, middle class households in countries like Saudi Arabia as domestic workers for a meager wage and long and arduous working hours. The development being introduced under globalisation is making the gap between the rich and the poor even starker. Governments often invite, safeguard, and even promote global capital and projects by global conglomerates in areas such as the development of shopping centres, mining, tourism, apartment building, private health facilities, and infra structure development. The core aim of these private sector companies and players is to make profits for their shareholders living in various parts of the developed West, the Middle East, and elsewhere.

From a Sri Lankan or Indian or for that matter a South Asian perspective, the key question that arises from such free market, neoliberal, globalised economic model is one of ‘affordability’. How many or who in the population can afford to spend a few days on holiday in a five star hotel in Colombo, New Delhi, or Islamabad? The daily cost of a hotel room with food can equal the monthly wages of a working class person/family. Forget about the poor. How many can afford to buy a new car? In Sri Lanka, there is a tendency for those who can’t afford to buy a car to buy a three-wheeler for domestic use. But three wheelers have become a menace on the roads. Under the free-market economic paradigm so convincingly promoted by our political leaders, more and more people are being pushed to poverty, and others are being compelled to accept only a living wage in the state or private sector, if not moving to the Middle East for work.

Under a scenario of belt tightening by the working classes, political patronage becomes an avenue for the delivery of “goodies” in return for the sacrosanct vote that every adult holds. Vote has become “commodified”.This is because of the price tag associated with winning elections in this day and age –whether it is USA or a developing country like Sri Lanka. Rights have become “commodified” too. Moreover, the very existence -for many – has become “commodified”. Under these circumstances, some are compelled to engage in anti-social activities or transactions to make a living. Human bodies become, under this scenario, a commodity that is bought and sold in the market.

Unless people, especially the younger generation, open their eyes to this global project of neoliberal, free market economy supported by political and social elites with privilege and capital to invest, and look for more sustainable, socially just economic development policies that facilitate the redistribution of the fruits of economic development among many- not necessarily as a vote buying exercises, but as continuing income- other necessities of life such as alternative energy, housing, health care, education, employment, better wages, this dependency on foreign capital will continue in the name of development. Ideologies will be used to camouflage the true story by those with vested interest and privilege.

People should be asking for socially just governance systems and decision making processes that empower the very people when it comes to policy and decision-making at a national or provincial level. Politicians as custodians of power should be placed in their boxes and the rest of civil society organisations should form broad movements seeking accountability, transparency, consultation, and social and economic policies that address real problems of various sectors. They should not be misguided by the globalisation propaganda mounted by those agencies and companies that are trying to make more profits for their shareholders living halfway around the globe. More and better-rooted development is what is needed instead of synthetic development.