By Uditha Devapriya –
Speaking at the launch of the 43 Senankaya a month or so ago, Champika Ranawaka bemoaned the way voters, particularly young voters, view politicians today. “We saw this clearly when MPs began contracting the virus,” he observed. “The first reaction on social media and elsewhere was: when will the virus invade parliament, when will it help us get rid of those in parliament?” This, Ranawaka pointed out, had a lot to do with how politicians have congealed into a distinct class of their own, insulated from the public and hardly receptive to it. He went on to observe, however, that inasmuch as family bandyism – the Rajapaksas, but also the Senanayakes, the Bandaranaikes, perhaps even the Premadasas – has contributed to the disjuncture between the voter and the voted, it is hardly fair to hold every politician to account.
Mr Ranawaka was obviously insulating himself from the backlash generated on social media against the much condemned, much vilified 225. But his observation seems, at least to me, a tad superficial. True, family bandyism has damaged relations between people and representatives. True, corruption did not begin with the present batch of parliamentarians, and it will not end with that batch. Yet whereas Ranawaka couches the problem – the gulf between citizenry and legislature – purely in terms of political corruption, I feel it must be viewed from another vantage point.
To put it simply, the problem is not with politicians alone. I know this is not the most popular thing to say, but it’s true. The issue that Mr Ranawaka identifies goes far beyond voters wishing a coronavirus pox on all politicians; it goes all the way back to the backlash of disenchantment generated by the yahapalana government, to what voters saw as the failures of that regime. It wasn’t a case of voters wishing politicians away only; it was a case of voters wishing the idea of politics away.
Mr Ranawaka may not have realised it, but the pox-on-all-politicos curse happens to be a symptom of a more serious problem: the highly educated, professional, urban if not suburban middle-class – which he is targeting – envisions a polity free of politics, and wishes politicians out of the system. There are two broad reasons for this: the excesses of the populists, and the failures of the reformists.
I realise I’m engaging in stereotypes here, but that is because the people I have talked with, and the sentiments they express, tend to conform to such stereotypes. Mr Ranawaka aims at a predominantly Sinhala middle-class that’s a lower-middle class version of the Viyathmaga and Eliya (V-E) coterie; Mr Sajith Premadasa’s Buddhi Mandapaya aims at the same thing, only with a less preponderant Sinhala presence. In other words, as with the V-E coterie, both 43 Senankaya and Buddhi Mandapaya target the same class of professionals whose electorates have generated that backlash against politics, politicians, and more importantly, the idea of politics.
I am tempted to call this milieu Sri Lanka’s middle-class, but then I realise there is not just one middle-class. In an essay written in 1975, the Marxist historian Arno J. Mayer drew a distinction between different layers of what he identified as the lower middle-class: petty independent producers, merchants, and service operatives on the one hand, and petty dependent clerks, managers, and technicians on the other, in addition to teachers, professors, lawyers, or put simply, professionals. As far as the Sri Lankan middle-class’s run-ins with politicians are concerned, it is these groups, particularly the professionals, who count. My contention, which may be controversial to some, is that as much as they count, they are not adequate for a national political programme, democratic or otherwise. Why do I say this?
The issue with these groups and milieus is not that they are right about politicians – that they tend to rob, pilfer, piddle, waste taxpayers’ money, hang on to power, and so on – but rather that they are half-right about the bulk of them. They are correct in their diagnosis: of course politicians rob, of course they hang on to power, of course they are corrupt, and of course they corrupt others.
But though correct in their diagnosis, they are wrong in their recommendation. Put simply, they want a polity free of politics. This is unrealistic, something no country in the world has tried out. Yet like a mantra, it has caught on. Disgust with politicians, which in other states has served to reform politics, has served here to turn the most educated, urbanised, and suburbanised setions to an aversion to politics. The call to get rid of the 225 is one symptom of that malaise; the call to replace them with a set of experts is another. Not surprisingly, against that backdrop, the middle-class sees itself in much the same way the one-eyed see themselves in the land of the blind: not only averse to politics, but also superior to, and above, it.
My problem with this approach to politics is that it does not sit in well with certain tenets of democracy, and more worryingly, with a pluralist conception of democracy. This belies another major problem, relevant to the issue at hand.
One of the most enduring myths about democratisation in countries like ours is that the middle-class should play a leading role. Much of the literature on the role of the middle-class in democratisation, even in these parts of the world, focuses on the link between economic aspiration and political reform. This “structural linkage” assumes that as an economy develops, authoritarianism will wither away, thanks to the rise of an educated, professional, meritocratic milieu.
Although the evidence collected thus far is not enough to establish this view as a fact, the assumption has been accepted as such for more than half a century. It traces its origins to the influential work of Seymour M. Lipset, who saw economic growth as a precondition of democratisation and argued that far from fostering liberalisation, the working class served to obstruct it. For him, the class most benefitted from growth, which would by default stand up for democracy, was the middle-class.
Lipset’s observation suffers from two limitations. The first is obvious: it’s limited, for the most, to the experience of Western liberal democracies of the mid-20th century. To put it simply, it is limited by time, space, and historical context. The second is as significant: it endorses a centre-right, anti-working class position. In other words, not only is his study contextually limited, it is also shaped by ideological convictions. But Lipset’s hypotheses about the link between middle-class aspiration and political liberalisation have been and continues to be taken at face value by scholars, activists, and NGOs the world over, from New York to New Delhi.
Even those who have pointed out Lipset’s contextual and ideological biases tend to harbour contextual and ideological biases of their own. Much of the work which provides an alternative account of middle-class involvement in democratisation focuses on the East Asian and South-East Asian experience. At first glance, the shift to this region makes sense: the transition from Third World to First in the economies of Singapore, Japan, South Korea, and even Taiwan did not mirror a transition from autocracy to democracy. Indeed, as Lee Kuan Yew once put it to Fergus Bordewich, political autocracy and one-party rule encouraged Singapore’s middle bourgeoisie to favour honest government over party politics.
But Sri Lanka is not Singapore, just as Singapore is not the US. The dynamics and the optics are different. It is imperative to account for such optics if we are to formulate a proper account of whether, and to what extent, middle-class growth in the country has widened democracy. An alternative account of their relationship with democracy, indeed their conception of it, must hence be formulated.
At the risk of simplifying a complex reality, I see Sri Lanka’s middle-class as making two demands: less taxation, and more representation. To explain more clearly: less taxation in the form of cheaper food prices, fewer import tariffs, and fewer barriers to trade; and more representation in the form of greater state accountability and greater access to public goods, i.e. the best hospitals, the best schools, institutions to which the middle-class can get access only by bribing officials. How contradictory these two goals are can be seen in how, if they are met almost exclusively in favour of a middle-class, they tend to exclude or marginalise other social groups. Resources, after all, are not unlimited, and even in a context where tax revenues are not diminishing (as they are in Sri Lanka), it will prove to be difficult for a policymaker to, say, reduce import restrictions to benefit an aspiring middle-class without cutting down on welfare payments to the poorest in order to offset resultant losses in state revenue. And yet, far from concerning the middle-class, the point that the state can cater to them only at the cost of welfare to other classes seems to have escaped them.
One example will suffice to illustrate my point. Not too long ago, the government allocated space to an agitation zone near Galle Face where trade unions and activists could gather and yell and holler to their hearts’ content without obstructing traffic. Of course, to limit dissent to a demarcated zone cannot be considered very open, for that matter very democratic. Yet for middle-class democrats, excluding a group other than their own – a group they generally detest because the protests they hold tend to obtrude on their routines – did not seem a problem; indeed, far from bemoaning it, vast sections of this milieu appeared to welcome it on social media.
For these middle-class types, then, family bandyism remains a problem; corruption too; taxes on imported cars, certainly. But stopping protests from spreading out to the roads? Not by a long shot. Therein lies the dilemma at the heart of this class: they want democracy, they want representation, they want honest government. Yet they also want, and desire for, a polity free of politics. The issue is that this polity appears less a democratic Utopia than an entrenched oligarchy: one that substitutes rule by middle-class philosopher-kings for rule by populist family cartels.
Whether that is something we should want is a question civil society must ask itself seriously. To me the solution is simple: to usher in a democracy free of private and public corruption, civil society must engage in mobilising other classes. In a word, it must be inclusive, participatory, and broad, rather than be reliant on professionals, idealists, and petty anti-regimists. The sooner civil society realises this, the easier it will be to come up with a truly national political programme: one that addresses the concerns of marginalised minorities, ethnic and economic. With a middle-class that aspires to the ranks of a compradorist bourgeoisie, such a programme will probably never materialise. For that we must look elsewhere, to other classes.