By Uditha Devapriya –
Faced with the prospect of pauperisation, Sri Lanka’s lower middle-class is getting restive and radicalised. With hiking prices and plummeting incomes, they are on the verge of taking to the streets. The government’s policies may well push them to the edge.
This is the closest the country has come, since the second JVP insurrection, to a full-scale middle-class rebellion. Of course it is unfair to put the blame entirely on the government; like every other such institution, it is limited in what it can do. Yet its mismanagement of the present situation has served to alienate the middle-class further.
The peasantry, too, is getting restless. The tipping point has been the government’s policy on fertilisers. While the adverse impact of chemical fertilisers has gone on record and while a transition to organic fertiliser, or less harmful chemical varieties, has been in the offing for decades, the transition itself has not been properly phased out.
The government, for its part, remains optimistic about crop yields, while foreign media publish extensive reports exposing the flaws of its policies. Even the latter takes a balanced approach to the issue: hence The Economist and Al-Jazeera, in otherwise cogent critiques of the fertiliser imbroglio, quote local farmers saying that they would prefer organic, and that traditional pesticides have been affecting their health badly for years.
Going by all this, the situation seems to forebode a conjuncture of the middle-class and the peasantry. Political commentators have noted as much: many of them seem to think that, in banning chemical fertilisers on one hand and of imported goods on another, the regime has united two diametrically different classes. While they do not jump into conclusions yet, they imply that this could lead to full-scale protests and riots in future.
The argument has to be further analysed for its implications to fully seep in. Historically speaking, Sri Lanka’s lower middle-class has always been upward-aspiring and conservative in its outlook. And yet, to consider it a monolithic group would be rather fallacious: like the peasantry with whom it is united today, the middle-class is a stratified class.
The main difference between these groups lies in the pecking order in which they feel the heat of economic downturns: despite the crunch they have suffered over successive periods and governments, the middle-class has managed somehow to realise their aspirations. I am hardly contending that the ride has been easy for them; merely that they have had much less scope for radicalisation than has the peasantry.
What, then, would a conjuncture between these two groups imply? It would imply, first and foremost, a reconciliation of their class interests. Such a reconciliation would in turn aid the Left when formulating tactics against the government. This, in turn, would help the Samagi Jana Balavegaya, the country’s foremost Opposition, to turn from its pandering to orthodox economic theory to a more fire-in-the-belly approach to the issues at hand.
For its part the Left has not ignored the implications of these developments. That explains, on the one hand, the recently held discussions between the JVP and FSP, and on the other, the dissensions within the Communist Party over the teachers’ salary issue. The SJB seems to be tentatively undergoing a paradigm shift within its ranks, but it remains divided – split would be a better way of putting it – between its left and right wings. That is why, while not a few MPs advocate a reversal of price controls, other MPs call for such measures.
The SJB is yet to come out with a coherent programme. To be fair, the JVP and FSP are yet to come out with one too, but they have held more consistent stances on economic issues, and problems to do with the peasantry and working class, than the SJB. The UNP for all intents is dead as a dodo, and while I will not dismiss the possibility of elements in the SJB calling for a return to the parent party, the latter is united only in the person of its sole MP. By contrast, the SJB is much more diverse, though much less articulate. The present crisis and these class conjunctures might radicalise it. That, however, remains to be seen.
The question as to whether a radical class bloc consisting of the lower middle-class and the peasantry remains viable, in the long term, is one I really can’t answer. Certainly, as long as the present crisis – a crisis not entirely of the government’s doing – continues, so long will these groups be united with each other. And yet, to hedge all bets for a radical formation on the unification of these groups would be untenable. Why do I say that?
For all its defiance of the government, Sri Lanka’s lower middle-class is only as radical as circumstances permit it to be. While a sociological study of this milieu is yet to be written, all one can say, based on its behaviour and voting patterns, is that it has traditionally chosen the path of radicalisation only in the absence of countervailing influences.
Its animus against the regime is based in the restrictions imposed on luxury goods, as well as the controls imposed, then eliminated, on food prices. While it has reacted more angrily to the latter owing to the essential nature of food items, its response to the clampdowns on imported goods has been no less intense. A closer examination of these reactions gives us a glimpse into the thinking underlying this social group.
Middle-class opposition to restrictions on imported goods depends largely on the extent to which the middle-class has turned them into status symbols. The government has imposed limits on high-end products: this is obvious if one examines the restricted items list.
What, then, can we conclude about middle-class responses to these clampdowns? Not just that this class forms a crucial part of an economy which rests so much on imports, but that it has come to measure itself based on whether it can afford such imported consumer goods. This is what explains the many memes, posted well before the pandemic hit, that compare vehicle prices in Sri Lanka with prices elsewhere. Insofar as their aspirations as a globalised middle-class remain thwarted, thus, they remain a radicalised group.
Their attitude to price controls reveals their thinking even more. Before the incumbent government backtracked on emergency regulations, the urbanised middle-class opposed price controls. This had less to do with their opposition to the regime than with their animus against government-imposed controls: then as now, much of this milieu, especially its youth, prefer free markets to state intervention.
The more suburbanised or ruralised middle-class, on the other hand, remained divided: while poorer sections seemed to favour price controls, more affluent sections appeared to oscillate between acceptance of a need to impose controls during a crisis and opposition to the imposition of such measures in general. There was also anger, among this section of the middle-class, at hoarders, but no critique of how market forces, in the longer term, ensure supplies for those who can afford them and shortages for those who cannot.
With the opening up of the food sector to market forces – forces determined less by vague laws of demand and supply than by the diktats of hoarders – the lower middle-class has overwhelmingly united itself against the regime’s reversal of price controls.
Of course its more affluent segments remain in favour of the government’s backtracking – “not a popular decision, but the right decision”, one tweet runs – but this is a view shared by a very elite minority; for the rest of the middle-class, price controls remain preferable to the squeezing of disposable incomes that awaits them with never-ending inflation. Not that the latter group have completely abandoned their thinking about privatisation and government regulations: “Free markets are good,” one of them told me recently: “just not when there’s a pandemic.” I like what another friend interjected, only half in jest: “free markets are good, just not when real free markets are tried.”
The implications of these points to the formation of a radical class bloc should not be lost on anyone, certainly not on the SJB and even less so on the Left (JVP-FSP). If the point that the country’s lower middle-class can swing both ways (opposing import restrictions and also the lifting of price controls) holds true, then the impact of economic recovery on this class must be appraised by any opposition hedging all its bets for a resistance against the government on the unification of the middle-class with the peasantry and working class. In other words, the Left, when joining hands between a pauperised middle-class and other subaltern groups – what Partha Chatterjee called “the dangerous classes” – should consider the possibility of the middle-class reverting to its conservative instincts once recovery kicks in.
In a column I wrote not too long ago, I predicted that when the global economy would start to recover from the slump it was going through earlier this year, the harmony that prevailed between the government and its corporate backers would dissipate. I realise now that I was wrong in thinking this honeymoon would break up two years into the future: it is happening even now. I am certain, nevertheless, that whatever unity there is between the middle-class and the peasantry will also not last for long: it too will eventually dissipate.
The task of a Left formation here should be, not to incorporate middle-class elements and cave into them, but to chart a programme which prioritises the interests of those hard done by the crisis: not a class that opposes the government over the jacking up of iPhone prices, but a class that lacks any political and economic clout. The role of the Left, hence, should be to radicalise the mainstream, and not be co-opted by the mainstream.
*The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org