By Kumar David –
Till recently I was the only person in this serendipitous Isle plugging away at the significance of the neo-populist surge. Even for a laid back country this was odd. Familiar populism of yesteryear, an old hat, is a poor departure point for interpreting a new phenomenon. Internationally too I was early in picking up its global portent. We need to deal with its rise, variants, unfolding manifestations and note when it peaks. It’s new game so sometimes one misjudges; mea culpa. Last week I said Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche was unlikely to win big in the June 11 (preliminary) and 18 (final) French legislative elections. My reading now is that it will win 240 to 290 places in the 577 seat assembly. Allow me the flexibility to think on my feet and retune from time to time.
In previous pieces in this column I have talked, maybe too much, about Trump, Brexit, the Philippine’s Duterte, France’s Macron and Le Pen, and India’ Modi; so no more today. Most of you I think glance at my column occasionally and will miss the continuity, sorry. If I had resources and time I would put it all together in a booklet, right now I have neither. My scope today is:
- A crumbling left-populist regime in Venezuela, visibly mutating into a dictatorship.
- Victory of President Hassan Rouhani with 57% in Iran’s 19 May election while pro-poor populist and Islamic hardliner Ebrahim Raisi polled 38%.
- Opinion poll indications that Labour will suffer a setback on June 8 in the UK.
- My updated view that the opportunities opening up before a unified left in Lanka are better than I had previously judged.
This once oil rich nation which struck out on a revolutionary-populist path is now crumbling. The Nicolas Maduro government controls nothing, not the economy, not parliament, not the streets, not the masses and control of the army is eroding. What do you expect! The annual rate of inflation has risen to750% (no, I have not added a zero), food riots, an exodus of a million to Columbia and Brazil, hospitals sans medicine and anaesthetics (thousands cross the border to Brazil and Columbia seeking treatment). Now Maduro is attempting to rewrite Chavez’s 1999 Constitution and grab absolute power. He used the puppet supreme court to strip the legislature of power but this was reversed by intervention of the Organisation of American States.
How did a successful country of the early 2000s, the country of the Bolivarian Revolution which brought welfare, education, opportunity, upliftment and liberation to millions living in poverty, suffer a debacle? Combining the reserves in Lake Maracaibo, the Gulf of Venezuela and the Orinoco Basin, it is not Saudi Arabia that has the world’s largest oil reserves, it is Venezuela! During the early and middle Chavez years when oil prices approached $150 a barrel, the country was awash. Chavez bathed the nation in welfare, education, housing, mass vaccination, food distribution in slums, public health and dental care and sports training for the poor. He formed neighbourhood committees and organs of grass-roots democracy. He poured money to sustain socialist friends such as ailing Cuba.
This was the great Bolivarian Revolution that socialists of the world hailed, but only a few like yours faithfully pointed out that its foundations were on shifting sands. Chavez spent like there was no tomorrow; he did not invest any of this great wealth in the long-term economy. Investment in agriculture, fisheries and industry was ignored. When oil prices plunged below $50 the edifice crumbled and debts ballooned; there was nothing to eat and nothing to buy anything with.
The moral is simple and important and not well learned by superficial Sri Lankan ‘Chavists’. Not only populist regimes steeped in conventional capitalism, but socialist-populist regimes too can be bloody stupid. States crumble for systemic reasons (the 1930s, stagflation in 1970s and 2008-now) but they may also go belly-up if governance is in the hands of bloody-fool regimes – e.g. Marcos, Berlusconi, Mbeki-Zuma, Mugabe. Economic calamity is not only ordained in capitalist genes, it can be man-made. Capitalism is prone to periodic catastrophic crisis, but not every cock-up is systemic.
The same is true of some left-populist and ‘socialist’ regimes; they may be astonishingly stupid and no conclusions of methodological significance can be drawn therefrom. I am flabbergasted by the stupidity of the Chavez and Maduro regimes, especially the latter. Imagine a breadwinner who showers abundance for a few years, soon to leave his family destitute because extravagance leaves it penniless! The Venezuelan disaster is not a case from which generic conclusions can be drawn.
Rouhani won by a comfortable 19% but Raisi polled a remarkable 38%; both very significant numbers. Iran may be a continent away from France but exhibited parallelism; a liberal candidate put together a class coalition which bested a radical neo-populist challenge by about 60:40. The class mix of both winning coalitions included the elite, urban middle classes, internationalists and much of the new-working-class like tech worker. (Mistakenly dubbed middle-class though the surplus value it generates is appropriated by capital as is the lot of blue-collar workers).
The parallelism in the opposition is more striking. The underprivileged know that the system in France or Iran (or America or Brexit Britain) is rigged in favour of the privileged and realises that the political establishment is incapable of responding to the grievances of ordinary people. The web is awash with statistics; the 1%, the 99%, Wall Street bankers, trillions in off-shore sinecures, kick-backs and tax avoidance. This in the eyes of ordinary citizen is ‘The System’. In France the traditional working class backed Le Penn, in Iran unemployed young people, the poor and those bypassed by the benefits of partial sanctions lifting, swelled Raisi’s 38%. This is a new angle on the class struggle.
Often but not always (Duterte is one such exception) neo-populists are xenophobic or ultra-nationalist – say Le Pan’s anti Muslim/immigrant refrain or the red-necked racism of Trump’s support base. Raisi is identified with hard-line Islamism and the Revolutionary Guard but how closely he empathises with jihadism I don’t know. Interestingly ethnic/religious extremism is one of the first things neo-populists jettison under pressure. The French National Front is licking its wounds and pondering its programme; if you buy his utterances in Riyadh, Trump has been smitten by the sons of the Prophet; Raisi has seen the light and declares the Iran nuclear deal acceptable; Modi is vetting Hindutva inclinations to morph into a reform and reconstruction oriented popular-populist.
The intellectual minus for those unwilling to put aside old-hat populism and understand neo-populism as a new phenomenon is that their discourse becomes sterile; historical not original.
Britain’s Labour Party
God forbid! But apart from uncharacteristically exhorting the almighty we are staring into the abys of a Labour defeat on June 8. (Recent polls show the Tory lead declining and it is too early to say whether the Manchester bomb will influence voting). The main reason for the swing to the Tory’s is that Brexit seems cast in stone and the electorate buys Theresa May’s plea for a strong negotiating position. The other reason is that Corbyn and Labour have not adequately grasped neo-populism and failed to develop a flexible and savvy campaign. Labour may be wiped out in Scotland, decimated in Wales (the land of Kier Hardy and Aneurin Bevan) and may lose in some of its strongholds in the Midlands and Northern England.
I do not have sufficient words left to foist gratuitous advice on Labour about how it should do its business but a tactical voting pact with the Lib-Dems, Greens and in Scotland with the SNP would be a good starting point. Now I have to shift with my favourite stomping ground, Lanka.
It’s a favourable wicket you stupids!
I will not repeat for the hundredth time that unification is the only way forward for the left. Sectarianism is a congenital disorder; Lanka’s small-sect left leaders repel each other like monopolar magnets. But my target today is the JVP. The principal culprits for the absence of left unity are not the minuscule sects but the JVP which has the size and clout to make things happen. If the JVP wished to it could boldly set about working on unification and it could achieve much in a few months. But from its origin the JVP has been isolationist, sunk in never-never land, shunning left collaboration. It is paying the price; perennial dwarf status compared to the big bourgeois parties. Well how then are left and right populists doing so well all over the world?
Personality is another minus. Whatever their faults Trump, Modi and Duarte are larger than life, fired by boundless ambition. Anura Kumara is not; he is laidback, easy going, an unlikely bidder for power. Wijeweeera, conversely, was ambitious to a fault and eschewed unity because he thought the JVP could go it alone; AK is apathetic because he shuns the limelight, a pity. The next general election will be a break-out opportunity for a unified left. This government may get the constitution through but the UNP is unlikely to achieve much on the economy. Sirisena’s ramshackle contraption will remain in the doldrums; the JO is shunned by Sinhala progressives, minorities and global powers. The West and China want none of it – did you read about the tongue lashing Modi gave Mahinda Rajapaksa? There are spaces opening up, it is time to grab opportunity by the forelock, but the left needs imagination, boldness, leadership and unity.