28 September, 2022


Democracy & Sri Lanka’s Middle-Class

By Uditha Devapriya

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.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Latest comments

  • 0

    “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”.

    Problem of True representation is a serious issue in advanced democracies like in Australia. Representation has become an issue in Sri Lanka(and for that matter Australia) because of the gap between the elector and the elected after the elections are over. The MPS function according to a totally different script after the elections. Access to them is limited to the electors. There is no necessity for the elected politicos to consult voters or the citizens when making important decisions. Instead they make the decisions with the collaboration and advice from a selected group of technocrats,experts(so-called) and public servants. Their offices are full of family members as coordinating secretaries,private secretaries, liaison officers, etc. Govt institutions are full of loyal family and friends. In essence voters are electing a rule by family and friends in the name of democracy?

    In Australia,there is a growing interest from electors for putting forward independent candidates to contest elections as a response to growing disempowerment of the voter. In the last federal election, at least a few candidates won seats. Some are women. They function as guardians of democracy and public interest in a parliament dominated by mainstream political parties(there are 3 here.e.g. liberal,National, Labour).

    In the electorate where I live, a process called Kitchen Table Discussions(KTDs) has begun to consult 1000 electors in order to collect information about the issues and concerns, concerns about representation, and suggested solutions. In each discussion there are 8 participants plus a chair and a scribe. Once the information is collected they will be collated and a report prepared.Training is provided for those who are willing to conduct KTDs. When participants express their views, they are not debated or criticised.SImply recorded.

    The aim is to identify potential independent candidates in the second stage of the process. The group leading this process will meet with those aspiring to contest the election as independents and get agreement to pursue the issues identified and solutions suggested by the electors. This porocess produced successful results in several seats in the last election. A similar process can be adopted by the middle class in Sri Lanka as well.(mind you that the so-called middle class can be divided into several groups: 1.those who are active in politics affilited to parties, 2. those who are not active but hold views 3. those who are aloof to politics and get on with life). In the process I described above, those affiliated with existing political parties are not included in the KTDs.

    • 0

      Uditha Devapriya@

      Do you think they srilanken middle class are aware of the democracy in? Did you interview them for your own information ? They known nothing about democracy.

      මූලික කරුණු ආමන්ත්‍රණය නොකළහොත් ප්‍රජාතන්ත්‍රවාදය කුමන අරමුණක් සඳහා ද? for what purpose democracy if the basics are not addressed. Pathetically, today, those raised the question are speechless when looking at following actions being taken by the barbarians in power

      1) Presidential commission being set up to marginalize the democratic rights of of the powerful politicians
      2) President commission being set up to corner opposition leaders
      3) Media mafia is set above the law and order of the country – best example is being displayed by Adha Derana TV owner#s illiegal activities
      4) Any opposition movements rising up are being attacked by SOCIAL media criminals such as gown wearing Iraj Weeratne et al.

      5) Nearly 40% of srilanken population – 9 millions struggle for their 3 meals today, only 25 dollar was financi

  • 1

    Movement that got rid of Tony Abbott is gunning for Angus Taylor

    By Peter Fitzimons in Sydney Morning Herald

    Meantime, the success of Zali Steggall in ousting the former prime minister Tony Abbott in the seat of Warringah by a double-digit margin has continued to inspire others to attempt the same kind of exercise around the country. The latest I am aware of – because they have been in close touch with Steggall’s backers in my own seat of Warringah, taking notes on how it was done – is down in the southern NSW seat of Hume where two groups, called Voices of Hume and Vote Angus Out, are going after the Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction, the rather scandal prone Angus Taylor. One of the key organisers of the latter group, Alex Murphy, a 30-year-old pilot, is nothing if not confident.

    “We have been stunned,” he says, “[at] how many people have come out of the woodwork to help us. So many people want Angus Taylor gone. He does not represent us. If you had to say to the people of Hume ‘Who is your ideal candidate?‘, no one would say ‘We want a bloke who appears to be in it for himself, has been plagued by scandals, who has voted against pensioners, dairy farmers and a federal corruption watchdog, and done little to act on climate change.’ So we have had people coming from everywhere, saying ‘What can we do to help?’

    “We are early days, but we are getting a lot of advice from the Voices of Warringah people who got rid of Abbott, so we are feeling like we are making great headway.”

    In fact, the Steggall victory, together with that of the Independent Cathy McGowan in the seat of Indie over Liberal hardliner Sophie Mirabella in 2013, might have got something close to a whole movement going.

    Last weekend McGowan herself held a two day webinar called “Getting elected – The first national convention for community-minded independents” and drew no fewer than 309 people from 78 electorates across the country. Next election, standby for lots of these well-organised community groups going after unpopular politicians from the mainstream parties, precisely as Mesdames McGowan and Steggall did. Meantime, I had a cup of tea with Ms Steggall on Tuesday, and she confirmed she is loving the job, and fully intends to run again.

  • 1

    Siri: I agree with what you say in relation to Australian politics. That type of “KTD” takes place in many other countries as well. In most cases, the TV and “Talk Show” programs hold the floor and engage the “Participants” by way of “Telephone” and “email” conversations with a question and answer sessions or get a chance to express individual opinions. I don’t see this process at all in Sri Lanka. Instead, “Rallies”, “Political Meetings”, “Poster Campaigns” “TV Advertisements”, “Fixing D Cals” in every nook and corner, “Distribution of Goodies”, “Money and Alcohol” etc. “All Paid” for by competing candidates. I am personally aware, how a batch of Young Graduates was recruited, during the last two elections, trained to “canvas” and sent to remote villages for which “Assignment” paid in cash. Most of them received sums of “Cash” ranging from Rs. 45,000.00 to 70,000.00 per person. Aren’t the “Civil Societies” of which the “Membership” is “Restricted” to the “Elite”, “Professionals”, “Beaurocrats”, “Technocrats”, “Clergy” aware of these types of clandestine operations by their own “Members”? They KNOW and in most cases, they are the “PLANNERS” of such operations. Why does this happen?
    (I continue….)

    • 0

      Dear Simon,
      I always read your valuable comments. You ve been doing a great job. As no others, you foced on all various facets when adding your two cts worth.
      Keep up brother !
      We need to add our thoughts in SINHALA and TAMIL langague whenever it is possible. If you know anyone, please alway encourage them to add their thoughts to sinhla articles. Or try to translate yours and publish them in there. Thank you.

      • 0

        Dear LLM: Thank you. I always share my thoughts with my associates in Sri Lanka. They are on many occasions come forward to feed me with authentic facts and they do make their own judgments and independent decisions. That is my pleasure. Thanks for sharing my thoughts.

    • 0

      This shows the power of money and propaganda in modern society. The problem in countries like Sri Lanka and regions like South Asia is that the people(including so-called educated middle class) are good at criticism but not so good in organisied thinking and action. This is partly due to the notion of ‘representative democracy’we inherited from the BRitish and faithfully followed since independence. Q.How can one MP represent 25000-30000(or more) people in a given electorate? Impossible. Secondly, people tend to think that they do not have POWER. They apparently think that the power comes from the government? Not so. If they start a dialogue with fellow citizens even at a small scale as in the case of KTDs and expand the process bottom up,such action can have tangibe outcomes in time to come.Such exercises can even turn into a popular movement grounded in Local realities,issues,concerns etc. But Sri Lankan political parties(I am talking about alternative ones to those mainstream ones) are mainly speaking from Colombo and airconditioned rooms. Then expect the masses to listen and follow? This strategy has failed.

  • 0

    continued… What made, once a happy, contented, and peace-loving population to be this “Self Centered”, “Robotic” types. The main factor was the “Introduction” of an “Artificial” lifestyle into society. I say “Artificial”, because, the so-called “Development” (changes in the economy and its related comfort zones) was not “Designed” on an “Input to Output” analysis but “DRIVE” the people to an “Unquenchable Thirst” for “COMFORTS” that are not “AFFORDABLE”. This “DRIVE” has created an uncontrollable “CHOAS” in society. Who are responsible for this? None other than the “Professionals”, the “Beaurocrats”, “Technocrats”, “Religious Leadership”, “Politicians”, “Business Tyrants”. This segment is composed of only about a merger “20%”- the “Beneficiaries” while the rest “80%’ have become “Victims”. This “80%” who see the “Wonders” of “Enjoyment” of comforts of the “20%”, are occupied in an “Unwinnable” run to reach that “MIRAGE”. That “20%” too has to keep their “Momentum” in high gear, as otherwise, their “LOSS” could also be unbearable. So, their “Mechanism” is to “USE & ABUSE”, “EXPLOIT” and “PREVENT” the “80%” from “REALIZATION” of the “GROUND TRUTH”. This could be very well seen if you take a little time to analyze the “Voting Patterns” at elections. This is now a complete “CHAOS”, but all those “Stake Holders” (whom I mentioned earlier) in the “GAME” continue, unhesitatingly but in a very “Subtle” manner. Mr. Siri, you will undoubtedly note that here in Sri Lanka is completely a different “BALL GAME:. Thank you.

Leave A Comment

Comments should not exceed 200 words. Embedding external links and writing in capital letters are discouraged. Commenting is automatically disabled after 5 days and approval may take up to 24 hours. Please read our Comments Policy for further details. Your email address will not be published.