By Kumar David –
Last week I wrote about racist ideology and declared that the thesis “Bad leaders mislead the people, who are good, decent and free of prejudice, into evil ways’, was false. The good-people bad-politician thesis, I said, is more often than not, an inversion of the truth. The masses carry with them emotions and prejudices rooted in past history and experiences of recent decades. Politicians willing to align with mass sentiments rise to the crest as leaders; those who oppose, are relegated to the wilderness. The people chose Sinhala-Only-SWRD and rejected Parity-of-Status-NM; a tide of Hindu nativism assassinated Gandhi; black anger at centuries of deprivation and theft of land led implacable, white-hating Mugabe to the helm. VP did not create the antecedents; antecedents created VP and the war. On the whole, Colombo Telegraph readers seem not to have rejected this ‘thesis’.
What was incomplete in my little column was that it does not explore the to-and-fro interaction between leaders and masses. While my thesis remains correct in dominance, I grant that the dialectic of interaction, renewal and modification also needs exploration. This cannot be done within the limits of the measly 750 words that my Editor grudgingly allows me. Nor am I going to take it up today.
I want to write about something else on a related topic today. Those who can bear to read my etchings would have gathered that I am an unrepentant Marxist whose berth in hell has been reserved. I have no intention, in this life or the next, of backing out on fundamentals. Chaps like me hold that it is the practical circumstances of social life, like property, income, land, production and distribution of material goods and sharing of the surpluses generated by social labour that affect how social animals think. Real-life issues influence social ideology more than the latter ricochets back. There are many fat tombs written on the topic, so no more from me.
You may challenge me: “If you say the emotions and ideology of the masses drives leaders more than the other way round, how do you square it with your previous paragraph (called materialism) that people’s ideology is what selects leaders?” How far back does the dialectic of interaction go? How do people get notions of identity in the first place? The answer comes in three parts; the first is self-evident. Early humans lived in tribes and clusters and jealously guarded their hunting grounds, lands and access to water from marauding “others”. The emergence of an overwhelming loyalty to the group, the earliest identity marker, is easy to appreciate. Therefore, identity goes back to the material circumstances of the earliest human clusters.
The second is war; conquest, acquisition of wealth, natural resources and labour by plunder (slaves). Exploitation is pre-capitalist! OK, jokes apart, war is a form of production and acquisition of material goods intimately linked to identity. Genghis Khan did not plunder other Mongols, he went after the people of the Russian Steppe, the people of Anatolia and the miserable lot who eked out an existence in Central Asia. Rome exacted tribute from all over Eastern and Western Europe, Near East and North Africa. Belgians did not endear themselves to the inhabitants of the Congo (did they?) as Joseph Conrad tells us in one of the greatest short novels of our age.
The third factor is recent history and competition. It’s not that Sinhalese and Tamil gonas have cockeyed DNA, though you can be forgiven for thinking so. Rather, they coveted each other’s employment, promotions, university placements and land in the norther-easterly provinces. Fortunately, except when the army went on rampage they don’t seem to have coveted each other’s wives too much. It was not culture (Buddhist versus Hindu, Devanagari versus Dravidian script, thala thel versus ambul thiyal) that drove S & T stupids to tear out each other’s jugulars; it was rooted in material interests and that sank down into racist ideology.
The nexus between material reality and the ideology and prejudices of mass determining political leadership is obviously mediated in complex interactions but it is also logical; the structures are not difficult to assimilate. I am pleased that my Marxist partialities stand validated.
(The terms race and racism as used here are intended to be global and include language, religion, colour, tribe or other identity markers that mediate social conflict).