By Kumar David –
Consider the countries overtaken by demonstrations, strikes and social instability in recent times; France, Israel, many African nations, Ukraine and Burma, to limit the size of my list. This time unlike 1765-90 (the American Revolution is conventionally dated to 1765-1781 and the French to 1789-99) or the 1848 Revolution that swept Europe (Sicily, France, Germany, Italy, Austria), trouble is rolling out all over the world. Is there reason to believe that another age of revolution is unfolding? Is it possible that the belief, or hope, among some Sri Lankan leftists that instead of crafting home grown programmes for the economic crisis we should put our faith in revanchist post WW-2 ultra-Trotskyism? That is a world revolution that will transform the globe?
What is interesting is that in some instances, the French Revolution for example it was economic demands that drove revolution, political ideals (liberté, égalité, fraternité) were significant but perhaps less so. Am I likely to lynched by enlightenment devotees? In other cases, America for example, revolution was political, a war of national liberation.
There are several instigators of global instability that are too many for me to touch on. For example, US-China confrontation in the Taiwan straits and the South China Sea is the sharpest it has ever been and this time China is militarily a worthy adversary. Iran and Saudi Arabia have formed de-dollarization linkages in defiance of American pressure. America is determined to isolate China technologically (nano-chips, AI, business software, quantum computing and 5G technology) to a degree never seen before. The BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) share of the global economy on a PPP basis has risen to one-third while G7’s share on the same basis is only 30%; Russia’s share of Indian oil exports has risen to about 30% from a mere 1% at the start of the Ukraine War; China and India will account for about half of the world’s growth in PPP terms in the coming years. The planet is changing dramatically and at no time in the last 70 years have we seen such a conjuncture.
Though the gloves are off and the confrontation is unprecedented, I have to limit my canvass. If I were I to grade global disturbances by causation, I would argue that the “Earthrise” climate change movement and events in Israel, are driven by political demands, while the Ukraine war, and conflict in Africa and Burma have both economic and political imperatives. Anger in France and Germany arise almost entirely from economic concerns. Let me try my hand case by case.
Earthrise is a powerful force driven largely by young people in all parts of the of the world. The aim is to stop climate change and ecological disaster. This is palpably a political movement. The Island of Vanuatu, Kiribati, the Marshal Islands, Seychelles and Tavalu, to mention just five, will disappear under the sea within four decades whatever we do now. Dozens more will vanish if continued carbon dioxide emission is not reversed at once. Now is this a political or an economic imperative? Thanha in polluting countries for more-and-more is clearly economic and so is capitalism’s need for ever expanding markets. The islander’s fears are existential.
Australia is to force its largest 215 polluters to limit carbon emission to 5% per year and make the country carbon neutral by 2050. The economy is fuelled by emission intensive mines and industries and is one of the largest per capita (oh well) carbon emitters in the world. I am not sure if Australia will adopt ‘cap-and-trade’, a dangerous escape route which gives the worst polluters (capitalist companies) a loop-hole through which to pollute and hold on to profits.
“EU negotiators” have agreed to double renewable energy production by 2030. To do so EU countries will have to produce 42.5% of energy from renewable sources. Individual countries will now have to enact their own legislation. France is putting up a life and death struggle to get nuclear power accepted as a renewable source. ‘Earthrise’ is pressurising the world and will gain in strength year by year. Hooray!
Israel is not a democracy because of the status of the Palestinian people. One could say that it is, paradoxically, a fascist Jewish state where the Palestinian people have a rank like what Hitler permitted the Jews in Nazi Germany. However, among the Jews themselves political democracy is the norm, similar to the status that Sinhala-Buddhists have long enjoyed in Ceylon/Lanka to the exclusion of the minorities. This is not a strange phenomenon and goes way back to Athenian democracy founded on a slave society. Nevertheless, Israel is a democracy for Jews and that’s better than the worst option, Netanyahu’s attempt to turn Israel into a dictatorship even for Jews. The political uprising which has drawn about 100,000 people of all ages on to the streets is unprecedented in the history of the Jewish state.
Yes, Israel is a democracy for Jews, not for oppressed Palestinians who have been left in the lurch. No demand for Palestinian rights has emerged so far but could happen at some stage? A scuffle for democracy among the Sinhala-Buddhists against a repressive government which refrains from granting minority rights is still useful notwithstanding this inadequacy. Palestinians have therefore cautiously refrained from opposing the Jewish uprising. The government is split between Itamar Ben-Gvir’s ultra-nationalists and Netanyahu opportunists who only seek power. Ben-Gvir can truthfully be called a neo-fascist bent on forming a National Guard which can intervene on the streets like Ernst Röhm’s storm troopers (Sturmabteilung, or Assault Division) and plain opportunists. As Minister of National Security Ben-Gvir is well placed for this task. He is gathering his forces for a counterrevolution. The dialectic of sudden change is ever present in intense political confrontations, class struggle and mass politics.
The Ukraine war is palpably political, though economic concerns do underly everything to a degree. The Ukrainians are united in a solid flank whose sole objective is to inflict a shattering defeat on Putin who made a monumental blunder when he imagined that his forces could crush Ukraine with a snap of the fingers. The political dimension is magnified by American military, financial and political support in its determination to crush Russia and more importantly the emerging China – China is elder-brother and Russia younger-brother in their relationship. The Ukraine confrontation is therefore doubly political.
I will now move on to two transitional examples where both political and economic considerations both matter; Burma and the African continent.
The current state of affairs in Burma is the outcome of strategic blunders by Aung San Suu Kyi which were driven more by naivety and political stupidity than miscalculation. What naivety not to see that the Gorillas of the military junta will lockup the lady, ban her party and drive freedom fighters underground or to peripheral relationships with ethnic minorities on the geographic edge of mainstream society? I have said over and over again in this column that the most heinous, oppressive and repressive form of rule is a military-police state. Burma is living proof.
Nevertheless, there is an economic dimension. Economic aid from the West is drying and how long China will bank roll its corrupt and evil agent is likely to be brief’ There is no moral dimension to Chinese foreign policy, like America, you will add. I think Burma is in some way responsible for meeting a part of the costs of repatriation of refugees from Bangladesh to Burma and also a part of the costs of refugee maintenance in Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh. Which person in his right mind will trust these Gorillas? The refugees have no Burmese citizenship and no IDs; if ever they return, they will be abused and kicked by the regime.
Poor Kamala, why on earth did President Biden send Vice-president Kamala Harris to visit Africa (Ghana, Zambia and Tanzania), but the American Administration’s political machinations are beside my point. On the scale of whether unrest and uprisings are driven by political or economic demands I put Africa very high on the scale of unrest driven by poverty rather than by demands for democracy etc. Stolen elections and entrenched rule by single despot are ever so common but the masses rise up when they are hungry. Not when liberty is lost but when hunger bites. Food riots broke out in Nairobi, for example, last week.
Surprisingly the largest demonstrations at this time and driven exclusively by economic demands is in the heart of the rich world. Up to a million people are on the streets of Paris against Emmanuel Macron’s uncompromising determination to raise the age of retirement from 62 to 64 years. French workers are determined to relax early and joy their wine and baguettes. Transport is paralysed, airports are close and the Louvre and Notre Dame shuttered. Macron however insists that without raising the retirement age the economy will grind to a halt within a few years. As is always the case within such huge mass movements a few anarchist and violent groups have surfaced; ignore them, they are of no significance, unlike their counterparts of 1848. Germany is marching to the same tune; airports are paralysed and the unions are building up for a general strike. The demands are similar, inflation of prices all round – food, clothing, education, fuel for winter. Napoleon, however, plundered works of art across Europe (the Mona Lisa and about 600 other pieces) while French colonial governments ripped out cultural treasures and heritage from the colonies. Hard core materialism eh?
Compared to the turmoil described so far, unrest in Lanka has mostly been limited to anger at rising prices. If instead of limiting himself to dumping white elephants like SriLankan Airlines, President Ranil Wickremesinghe (like Thatcher) attempts to privatise profitable institutions like the Insurance Corporation, he will be inviting 1848 to our shores. He has barred his fangs and sent out his military thugs to beat up peaceful political protesters. He will provoke bigger conflicts may surface he fails to contain his excesses. The JVP/NPP, trade unions, student movements and public unrest will erupt.
England & Scotland
Finally, let me finish on a lighter note. There is the curious case of England and Scotland to smile upon. Will there be Hindu-Muslim riots in the Kingdom that James I of England (James VI of Scotland) unified in 1603 when he ascended the throne and united England and Scotland? Today England is led by Rishi Sunak of Panjabi descent, fervent in his loyalty to a united Britain. A devout Hindu, he took his oath of office on the Bhagavat Geetha. But Scotland’s biggest party, the Scottish Nationalists, a fortnight ago elected Humza Yousaf, duly circumcised and Al Haj, as its leader. Yousaf, upon election swore an oath to the independence of Scotland from the United Kingdom. Will deadly Hindu-Muslim riots shatter the plush green leather-covered pews of the House of Commons? What larks!