Colombo Telegraph

Sociology Of The Rajapaksa Phenomenon

By Kumar David

Prof. Kumar David

The Dutugemanu syndrome, by itself, is not an inadequate explanation for the persistence of Rajapaksa’s popularity. Of course the defeat of the LTTE is one determinant of today’s Sinhala-Buddhist psyche, but alone it is insufficient explanation of the Rajapaksa phenomenon. For example, though it does account for the 2010 result, it is tangential to the sea of blue that painted the January 2015 results map and does not account for the frenzy in recent months. Disposing of Prabaharn six years ago is now a secondary factor that needs to be contextualised with sociological explanations.

The MR regime is universally reputed to be the most corrupt in our history and when I say universally I mean the ‘common man’ of SLFP blue, UNP green or Buddhist yellow knows it. Still the faithful will trek to the booths on the 17-th wanting to make MR prime minister though they are more aware than Colombo society that his regime was gunk. The paradox is superficial; scratching below the surface reveals a deeper story of class, ideology and social mobility. However, I first need to dispose of the “MR personifies the struggle against imperialism” myth; a Dead-Left fig-leaf to hide its cerebral excrement. This theory engenders its propaganda variant: ‘MR is a rampart against Western designs to undermine Lanka’s sovereignty’. The trekkers ingest this too, but they also know that the Paksas stashed away billions in Western (not Chinese!) banks. The masses are fiercely nationalistic, we are told, and no scandal matters when the sovereignty of the nation is at stake.

Imperialism as it was

Imperialism, as it was, is no more; the world now functions through processes loosely called globalisation; imperialism has receded. Colonialism, which came before, was pillage and slaughter initially – recall Spanish plunder of South and Central American gold and genocide of hundreds of millions. (Pope Francis had good reason to apologise and seek forgiveness). Then came colonialism proper, dominated by England, from the defeat of the Armada in 1588 to the apogee of the Industrial Revolution (1840); it was mercantilism, trade-with-predation (t-w-p), finally territorial colonisation. Merchant companies fortified by a Royal Charter led the way. Here are three examples that illustrate t-w-p: (a) The triangular trade, English cloth and trinkets to the West African coast, slaves from there to the Caribbean and Southern not-yet-USA, thence a sugar, rum and raw cotton laden return home; (b) chopping off weaver’s hands in India to halt the production of the finest cotton cloth of the day (calico) and open a market for Lancashire; (c) opium wars to force the Chinese to puff.

This is well known stuff from agitated historians, but historians miss what economic historians don’t. Maturing under Lancashire cloth and Far East spice was shipping and ship building, insurance and logistics, credit and banking; in short, the underwriting mechanism of world trade. No nation, before or after, reigned supreme over the world’s oceans as England did in the century after Nelson and the Napoleonic wars. On the technical side electricity and chemistry complemented steam and steel. The financial pivot servicing this multitude of global transactions was London. A foundation was laid for classical imperialism and gears shifted in about 1870 from high colonialism to a more complex modus. The logistical reset facilitated the movement of vast capital accumulated in Europe. Banks, engineering firms and commercial houses built railroads in America and India, the Suez and Panama Canals, mines in South Africa (gold, diamonds, minerals) and Australia (copper, gold, minerals). Imperialism, as it was called, was about investment and logistics; it superseded colonial extraction by pure predation. The thrust was led by joint-stock companies and merchant banking houses with royal navy protection; the symbiosis of capital and state reached new heights.

It reached its zenith in 1913. Imperialist war (1914-18) for the division of Africa and the Middle East and the occupation of the Balkans was its denouement. Afterwards, the interwar period (1918-40) was soaked in economic depression, fascism, Stalinism, revolution in China and swaraj in India; altogether appalling! The big technological step, with profound later political consequences, was oil. Post-WW2 imperialism Stage-2 was a markedly different affair from classical imperialism; the world passed under US political and military hegemony and the Cold War descended. Domination by American capital (symbolised by the ability of the Seven Sisters to overthrow regimes and control global oil) replaced European influence.

The point that Lanka’s bogus leftist and pseudo-intellectuals, some still locked in Fidelista shallows, cannot fathom is that Stage-2 also is worn-out. The decline of the US economy, the defeat of neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism, bursting market bubbles and economic recessions in the 1990s and 2001, the 9-11 event, the great recession (2008, to who knows when), and the shift of global growth to Asia, have conspired to emaciate imperialism Stage-2. Our quixotic leftists though still fight a pyrrhic anti-imperialist war under the MR escutcheon. Forgive me for this longish diversion, but it was need so as to dispose of the theatrical, not theoretical, fairytales of the semi-literati in MR’s retinue.

Late-nationalism in Lanka

Before late-nationalism was Ceylonese nationalism of the anti-British left of the 1930s and 1940s and, after a pause, the burst of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism under the 1956, SWRD, or Sinhala Only nomenclature. 1956-nationalism was different from the topic of this essay, the Rajapaksa phenomenon, though both, to a degree, have their base in Sinhala petty-bourgeoisie society. The former prospered silently in the in the post-war boom, before its political emergence. Despite its blatant anti-Tamil, but not anti-Muslim chauvinism, it had a progressive side; a mixed economy, educational opportunity and social mobility for the rural middle-classes, non-alignment, and opening avenues for indigenous culture, define 1956-nationalism. Paving the way for ethnic conflict and mindless damage to English language abilities are two its downside features. That in a few sentences is the scorecard of early nationalism.

The late-nationalism propelling Rajapaksa has superficial similarities to it; both have petty-bourgeoisie class roots, but situated in utterly different layers. The class itself has evolved and there has been a huge demographic shift to urbanisation. A rising Sinhala intelligentsia stood at the helm of the 1956 movement and its children were the winners. To use a personal illustration, of my colleagues and those who in the next decade came on to the Peradeniya staff, a great majority across disciplines, Sinhalese and Tamil, would never have been there but for the opportunities that 1956 created. State enterprises created employment opportunities at a lower level, while protectionism bred mudalalis among the business minded.

In contrast, the petty-bourgeoisie now gravitating to Rajapaksa is visionless and regressive. It is being left behind by the prosperity of the city, by capitalist growth to whatever extent it has occurred, by competition of Muslim businesses, and also by the new global ethos. Its cultural dregs are the Buddhism, if you call it that, of the BBS; contrast with the vigour and freshness of Sinhala drama, cinema and writing in the post-1956 decade. The leadership of the 1956 movement and the Rajapaksa cronies belong to sharply different ideological layers of the petty-bourgeoisie. This time Lanka is haunted by a personality cult; a Mein Fuhrer trance around a leader, but sans programme, vision or content beyond personality, quite unlike its 1956 predecessor.

A politicised kleptocracy, strong-arm miscreants and power wielding malefactors, collectively known to economists by the term rent-seekers, exploited their alignment with the Rajapaksa state. What we are witnessing in the Rajapaksa surge is a last ditch effort of this rent-seeking detritus to hold on to power. The MR-mass receives from higher up an antediluvian nationalism that it grasps only dimly; on the ground it is led by the dregs, by a localised rent-seeking excrescence.

On economic policy, it is false to say Basil had a policy that was adrift from PB Jayasundera. Yes PBJ did have a policy, the wrong one, but Basil had none! Basil’s decisions were steered by commissions; the bent to China, airports in the wilderness, highways to heaven if you count their cost, were just that. There was no policy, systematic or unsystematic, conscious or unconscious; the Rajapaksas are rent-seekers par excellence. Therefore they blended emotionally with a petty-bourgeoisie alienated by modernism and ignorant of democratic values and governance. The anti-Tamil nature of the war facilitated this bonding. It is entirely natural that a nihilistic petty-bourgeoisie rallies to a personality cult, a one man pantomime. Lanka has not seen such a thing at full-throttle ever before; a demagogue leaning on an only recently dispossessed robber-thug political mafiosi, which in turn rides a fuehrer-adoring plebeian mass. Terrifying?

Does the UNF-GG have an economic programme?

It is just as wrong to say that the UNFGG has no economic programme as to say that Basil had one. Any political scientist worth his salt knows what the UNF’s orientation will be. The Rajapaksa regime, steeped in swindles, could neither deepen metropolitan capitalism nor promote small businesses (SME). This is where the UNF-GG will want to go, though the success of plans to simply deepen and to spread capitalism more evenly, is moot.

Across the developing world only one economic model currently survives; a mixed economy with a dirigisme (state directed with some state ownership) structure. In Korea, Taiwan, China and Vietnam it works; Raul Castro and Narendra Modi gravitate there from opposite ends. That is where Lanka should have gone, but did not, after JR’s neo-liberalism fizzled out. (Was Premadasa drifting that way?) That is where the UNF-GG will willy-nilly have to go, otherwise it will flounder; a mixed economy managed by directive principles, ensuring opportunity for the middle classes and mass economic security to deflate the Rajapaksa appeal. And ground level programmes have to be woven into a global context. Whatever projects and targets are written in words into Ranil’s Sixty-Month Manifesto, the programme must be embedded in a directive strategy or it will run aground.

There are three economic options for Lanka; a Rajapaksa-style retainer economy, the dirigisme option and the left JVP-option. Each has its class base, but 50% of electoral fortunes depend on contingent circumstances, that is situations, personalities and tactics. Only comments on the UPFA fall within the scope of this essay. The UPFA scores on personality cult, but exposed as corrupt, without the advantage of incumbency (denied use of billions in state funds for election purposes, without power over the police), disheartened and disoriented by Sirisena’s “I will not appoint Rajapaksa as PM” bombshell, contingent circumstances have moved against it. I am no expert but that’s how it looks to an amateur eye.

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