By Kumar David –
I have wondered why though I am an agnostic Christmas has always been meaningful to me. The merrymaking, the family gatherings, eating and drinking in excess and getting Aunty Rose pissed as a coot on sweet sherry was part of it. Though even for those from middle-class Ceylonese Christian homes it seemed it was only unwrapping gifts, running around like urchins in the neighbourhood and the arrival of Santa in a rickshaw, accompanied by Chinnama’s tall “butler” Yohanis ringing a big station bell (wherever did it come from?), before I was sixteen I got it. Christmas is not only about the sparkle and the wonder in the eyes of a child. It can transcend class and culture.
Did you know that 33% of the world’s population is below 20 years of age? In Africa 46% is under 15 years, 26% in Latin America and the Caribbean and 25% in Asia. At the other end of the spectrum in Europe and Japan the pyramid is inverted, the population is aging and the price of coffins must be rising. It behoves us on this Christmas morn to ponder how best to respond to this changing global demography. The last time the world was so topsy-turvy and standing on its head was in the 1930s and you know what happened then, Nazis and concentration camps, holocausts and eventually a war that destroyed maybe 50 million people and much of civilisation.
Perhaps the biggest attitudinal change in the last two decades is public distrust of the state. There are many reasons; fear of the state machinery itself, gloom of never-ending post-Covid syndrome (expert opinion is mostly pessimistic), moral confusion in the US and uncertainty of a 300-strong emergent Chinese middle-class about what is happening to it (contradictorily it is strong state leadership that underwrote China’s material success),. A notable development is fear in the eyes of the lower-middle-class which does not trust the state in ways that its welfare hungry predecessors did. It fears for its business and political freedoms, it fears that its commercial productivity will be constrained.
Is uncertainty driving people to accept ruthless law-and-order regimes (Duterte in the Philippines, African dictators, India’s Modi), religiosity, ethnic and caste intolerance? Revulsion of the post-WW2 state as an oppressor is a sentiment that has accumulated over time. The Argentine military dictatorship threw its political opponents still alive out of helicopters; Chile’s Pinochet carted is opponents by the truck load to footfall stadiums and gunned them down with machine guns, “Statistica” lists Egypt, Syria, Yemen and China as the worst human rights violators as of 2021, Bush and Tony Blair knowingly lied to the United Nations in order to kill hundreds of thousands in Iraq and Syria. About half a million people flee Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador each year to get away from poverty and violence from gangs linked to the state. Belgium, civilised (sic!) Northern European and Christian, is also the home of “The Heart of Darkness”. In 1963 the Belgian State orchestrated the murder of Patrice Lumumba. In 1994 It inspired a racist divide-and-rule policy which set the stage for genocide in Rwanda and slaughter of one million people. Who can trust the state anymore, and which one?
Were I, in illustration, say a bit about every relevant country it would be endless. Instead I will devote just two paragraphs to a case of abuse of state power that most Lankan readers know little about – Mexico, or to be accurate Mexico under the soiled regime of former President Enrique Peña Nieto (Dec 2012 – Nov 2018). In the state of Veracruz, whose Governor was Nieto’s henchman Javier Duarte de Ochoa, human and democratic rights violations, murder of journalists, collaboration with drug dealers, beatings, arrests under false pretexts, violence against women and denial of public access to cell-phone, CCTV and public records was the order of the day. Duarte was convicted in September 2018 of embezzling millions in state money. During Durate’s 2010-2016 Governorship Veracruz was Mexico’s most dangerous state; it was soaked in a sea of drug cartels, police atrocities and official collusion with organized crime.
A string of Duarte cronies and looters have been released on bail after the hasty appointment of Flavino Ríos Alvarado as Interim Governor of Veracruz for just two months (October-November 2018). Current leftist Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (in office from December 2018) took a hard-line against the former Veracruz goons on the campaign trail but has softened since election as President, raising concerns whether his anti-corruption agenda was only skin deep. The Guardian says “Demonising egregious examples like Duarte is a convenient vote-winning ploy but rooting out systemic corruption is a more thankless task”. A two-hour Netflix documentary “In Broad Daylight: The Narvarte Case” is about these Veracruz atrocities; it is scary because such things are universal. No wonder the state is despised by people everywhere. In Sri Lanka It is not only the thuggish bob-squeezing Batalanda-Ranil police and the brutal military alone that are feared. Corrupt politicians, another aspect of the state, are also despised.
Hatred of the state as an instrument of oppression (military and police) or of corruption (politicians, officials and big-government) has been growing in recent times everywhere. It is therefore necessary to learn a little about anarchism. An Englishman William Godwin (1756–1836), whose life overlapped the French Revolution, considered the state an illegitimate tool of domination and was an early anarchist though he never used the term. German Wilhelm Weitling (1808–1871), sceptical of all justification for authority structures can also be considered an early anarchist but he too did not use the term.
The legendary Louis-Auguste Blanqui (1805-1881) has an important place in the story of the working-class. He held that the taking of power had to be the act of a small minority and that there could be no transformation without a temporary dictatorship to disarm the bourgeoisie, confiscate the wealth of the church and large property holders, and bring great industrial and commercial enterprises under state control. Next would be to form industrial and agricultural-production associations and develop education to render the people capable of organising society for their own benefit. Blanquist anarchism advocated replacement of the state by stateless societies and free associations. It clearly has affinity to libertarian Marxism. The only genuine Blanquist that I knew was Kelly Senanayake in the late 1970s; I don’t know where he is or what has become of him in the last 50 years. He was a cut above JVPers of the period and he was not a racist.
The Left and the Liberal Intelligentsia in Lanka
Is it the “blight man was born for”? The wonder in the eyes of a child comes at a peculiar conjunction in a left context. The Frontline Socialists (FSP) is in a pre-anarchist bind, the NPP-JVP has to resolve its attitude to the state and the economic role of the state. The business (a), and land-owning (b) classes, share with the liberal bourgeoisie (c), expectations that Ranil’s expectations or IMF promises will pan out ok. If you want to put faces on it, (a) is the big corporations and companies, (b) the estate owning classes, and (c) the intelligentsia including the educated elite and modernists in the Central Bank and NGOs. There is actually an intellectual divide between (a), (b) and (c), and the Lefties. This divide is obscured because some of the elites and many leftists are English speaking and well educated.
Programmatically the far-left in Sri Lanka is out on a limb. Kumar Gunaratnam, leader of the FSP (Front Line Socialists Party) declares that Parliament should act according to FSP views but it does not have one single elected member! “It is essential to devise constitutional methods to give representation to the FSP’s demands and to the views of other groups related to the youth uprising who are not represented in Parliament.” Phew! On the Tamil question the FSP is more backward than the JVP. FSP theory states “(W)e don’t accept self-determination or devolution for Tamil majority areas . . . Devolution was imposed by India. We won’t divide the country into ethnic territories . . . we are going to explain to the Tamil, Muslim and Sinhala people that this is not a solution. (Colombo Telegraph, Editorial 8 August 2018). Fortunately, the JVP’s salvation from this idiotic position on the national question is its embrace of an alliance with the NPP.
I have taken pains to point out that for far more reasons than I can explain here, distrust of the state has become near universal on the Left, among intellectuals and liberals, and also of course among far-left radicals. Class-wise the independent lower-middle-classes see it as in impediment to their economic improvement. I have also been at pains in the above paragraphs to underline that far-left flirting with anarchism is a miasma. Nonetheless a state-led economic policy is necessary in the early stages of growth but that state must fade away as society prospers into a free development of men and women. I have persevered with this line for some time and am likely to persist (sorry).