“Man cannot fight or live outside of society. This is his immutable characteristic, one which Aristotle noted and explained, calling it ‘political being.’” Djilas, M. The New Class, p. 157
In the last four decades or so, the people of Sri Lanka have witnessed a process through which politicians are emerging as a class that has established primacy over all other sectors in society. The most visible feature of this class is, that when in power, its members are able to appropriate a large portion of the national wealth by using their collective political power as a form of property.
What has taken place in the Sri Lankan political system is an emergence of a new ruling class as envisaged by Milovan Djilas who participated with Marshal Tito in the Yugoslav Revolution and was later one of his ministers. In his famous book New Class Djilas presented a theory that contradicted the claims of the then ruling communists who argued that their revolutions and social reforms had resulted in the extinction of any ruling class. Djilas’ observation as a member of a communist government in Yugoslavia was that “the communist party members, by using the collective political control that they exercised over the state system, had established a specific relationship to the means of production and stepped into the role of the ruling class”. He argued that the collective political power that was being exercised by the ruling party members had become a ‘property form’ enabling the ruling party leaders to extract a considerable portion from the production process. Djilas identified this class as a problem which he believed should be corrected through a revolution. This revolution came and swept away the communist regimes in Eastern Europe in the 1990s.
The Emergence of a New Class in Sri Lanka
The emergent new class in Sri Lanka comprises the people who occupied the seats of power through various means, including by election, by nomination, by party loyalty or by personal compromises with the ruling party leaders. The means they employ to extract their portion of the national wealth are “institutional perks, commissions taken from government contracts, shady budgetary allocations, graft that includes underhand financial deals and, some times the bribes taken through agents from the businessmen for awarding tenders or shifting party allegiances”.
This class uses the constitutional and electoral processes to manipulate the bureaucratic, military and police apparatus and even elements in civil society and the media who then work as the extended apparatus of the State to keep them in power. Consequently, the elections have become violent power struggles between elite groups and a mockery of democracy. Hence, any sensible person has begun to view elections with disgust.
In the next sections of this article we will examine the origins and the growth of this new class in Sri Lanka.
The Historical Setting
The historical settings which facilitated the emergence of political classes in Sri Lanka should be understood in the context of the arrival of “modernity”. The people of Lanka encountered the forces of “modernity” during the British colonial period which set the ground for making this tiny island a partner in global capitalism. The values of modernization have been gradually embraced by the local society which was being divided along the elite-mass dichotomy.
The first apparent indigenous social production of the colonial capitalism that was developing in the late 19th century was the emergence of the local entrepreneur class which gradually grew in number to replace the feudal elites called Mudliyars who had collaborated with the colonialists since the days of Portuguese rule which controlled the coastal areas of the island during 1505-1656. The replacement of the feudal elites became a conscious process with the local entrepreneur class creating an indigenous “middle class” which comprised people who embraced liberal values through their education and entrepreneurial activities. The existence and growth of this middle class was heavily dependent on the liberties such as freedom of movement, association, speech, expression, etc., which were the rights and values accompanied by the emerging colonial capitalist society. Similar to the middle class or the intelligentsia that emerged in Europe with the advent of industrial capitalism, the middle class in Sri Lanka was a class of its own that depended for its existence on the “achievement oriented liberal values” associated with laissez-faire capitalism.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the indigenous middle class was instrumental in producing a very important segment, the first generation of the political class in Sri Lanka, the subject of our analysis. The constitutional changes that were being introduced since the turn of the century necessitated the existence of a set of people who could work full-time in the political realm. Their role was to participate in the legislative process representing and promoting the interests of the local middle class, the entrepreneurs and wealthy sections of the local society. Above all, they were to advocate constitutional reforms to acquire an equal share in the colonial government and administration. The constitutional changes that took place from 1911 to 1931 particularly the growth of the franchise and the expansion of territorial electorates, led to the professional maturing of this political class in the game of politics. The constitutional reform of 1931 enabled them to establish a mass support base as the new constitution offered them a share in the executive government.
The first generation
The broadening of the membership of the legislative and executive councils after 1912 brought more middle class personalities into full-time politics. Their role was to represent and advocate for the interests of others. They had to participate in law-making and, to a certain extent, the executive affairs of the government. The granting of universal franchise expanded the membership as well as the roles of the political class. In the 1930s they had to become the representatives of the people who belonged to different social and cultural segments of society. With these changes the politicians who entered the sphere of politics could not stay within the parameters set by the economic, social and political interests of the influential groups which were the members of the middle class. Now, they have to represent the interests of the ordinary masses who were not thoroughly socialized with the new liberal values. In this context, the political organizations which facilitated the formation of political parties emerged to articulate the electoral and political functions of the political class.
The first generation of politicians can be categorized as “gentlemen”. They respected the wishes of electors and abided by law and order and held a liberal approach to political power. They identified their role as trustees of people’s resources and were prepared to leave power. The exemption was that they engaged in political campaigns that were aimed at the manipulation of primordial and parochial attachments in society such as caste, ethnicity and religion. The corrupt practices of some politicians were caught by the 1st Bribery Commission in Sri Lanka appointed by the second State Council.
The Second Generation
During the post-independence period, the political class in Sri Lanka underwent a dramatic transformation. Since the 1950s politics gradually became the ruling process and established a pre-eminence not only over the economic processes but also the cultural and religious spheres of society. The primacy of the political over the bureaucratic, economic, cultural and religious segments was supported by the statist approach promoted and inculcated among the masses by the left and the centre-left political ideologies.
The turning point in the beginning of the change of class background of the political class was marked by the election victory of SWRD Bandaranaike (SWRD) who in 1956 brought “socialism dressed with national clothes” into Parliament. The election brought the “Sangha, Veda, Guru, Govi, Kamkaru Balavegaya” (the vanguard force that represented Buddhist monks, indigenous physicians, teachers, farmers and workers) to the forefront of politics, displacing the anglicized elites who had controlled the seats of power since the beginning of the 20th century. The transformation of the social class backgrounds of MPs was a visible phenomenon during 1956-77. The victory of SWRD brought a new brand of politician to Parliament, requiring Parliament to use the vernacular languages for its debates. The policy changes that took place in the spheres of foreign relations, economic development, education, official language, culture and religion influenced Lankan voters to send more vernacular speakers to Parliament. The political parties which were earlier divided on class lines now fell prey to the new political demarcations that were emerging on ethnic and religious lines.
The Republic, established in 1972, demonstrated most of these developments. The concentration of power (not its separation) became the salient feature of the constitution which finally created a Prime Ministerial autocracy in government. The republican and socialist dreams that existed in society, and, to a certain extent, the ethno-nationalist ideology of the majority community were used to camouflage the political power concentration taking place in the constitutional arena.
The first casualties were the judiciary and the bureaucracy. The judiciary became the weakest institution among the three branches of government. The old bureaucracy, which was the metal that prevented the politicization of the State, was dismantled. A new bureaucracy which was subservient to politicians in power was created, reflecting the political-administrative inter-mix that is a salient feature in today’s political system.
The Third Generation
The election victory of JR Jayewardene (JRJ) in 1977 brought an Executive Presidency, a new electoral system, a weak Parliament and a weak Judiciary to the polity. A new economic policy aimed at the establishment of a liberal economic system was introduced. The human and material resources of the country were offered to the local and foreign investors within a free market framework. JRJ fulfilled his dream of yesteryear, namely the establishment of an Executive President who could withstand the pressures of electoral politics to change the welfare state that was considered a burden to politicians.
For the first time the UNP’s political history, JRJ brought more ‘national dress’ people to Parliament on his party ticket. They readily agreed to surrender the power of Parliament to the Executive when JRJ brought in the present Constitution. In the latter part of the UNP regime, JRJ’s motto “development-first-democracy-later” offered lucrative ventures to politicians in power, as parliamentarians became the final arbiters of development budgets and electoral level projects. The final outcomes were rigged elections, political violence and the emergence of personality-based coalitions, as well as politico-bureaucratic alliances within the government apparatus, which vied for state resources.
The Present Situation
Today, no segment in society is able to exercise the sovereignty belonging to its professional and technical spheres unless the members of that particular profession accept the primacy of the political class. The centralization of political power that took place with the establishment of the Executive Presidency in 1978 has contributed heavily to this process.
At present, the power of this political class is being strengthened by two dogmas. First: “defeat terrorism” which enables the political and bureaucratic elites to ask for taxes, blood, and applause from the ordinary people without any difficulty; Second: the glorification of presidential autocracy as the protector of the motherland, social justice, stability and the territorial integrity of the State.
This political class is enjoying a privileged position in the sphere of governance since there are people in the media and civil society – planted and promoted continuously through political patronage – who are ready to manipulate their office to deceive the public in favour of these politicians.
The Culture Difference
However, there is a very significant difference between the new class that existed in the communist societies and the political class in Sri Lanka, which is the political culture of the politicians that is exhibited in open platforms. Their attitudes, thinking and approach towards the role they play in society are in stark contrast to the ruling class in the former Communist societies. For some who belong to this political class, the most powerful political weapon they have in their hands is their readiness to abandon what any civilized individual seeks to protect, “their self-respect”. These politicians of the “lumpen model” do not know what self respect is. The term lumpen was used by Marx to identify a kind of people who do not know what self-respect is and are ready to do anything on behalf of the people in positions of power in order to receive small personal benefits.
However, the second generation of politicians who entered the Parliament after the “1956 national dress revolution” maintained the “gentlemen’s culture” of the first generation political class to a certain extent, until the end of the 1970s. The culture of politicians changed dramatically after the inauguration of the 1978 Constitution. The changes introduced to the electoral system by the 1978 Constitution gradually brought the third generation of the political class whose behaviour compels civilized people to abandon the public sphere or keep silent on topics of national importance.
The “new class theory” of Milovan Djilas did not provide any discussion on the political culture of this new class. This was not necessary as the members of the communist ruling class never exhibited the culture of the “lumpen model”. To fill this vacuum in the new class theory we have a very prophetic statement by Sir John Kotalawala, who lost the election in 1956 to the national dress brigade of SWRD Bandaranaike.
He had said, “Bando!!! You let loose the Dogs.” (බණ්ඩෝ උඹ බල්ලෝ ලිහුවා).
As envisaged by Melovan Djilas regarding the communist new class, I also propose that our country needs a “revolution” against this new class – not a violent one, but using a velvet glove instead; one like what happened in the former Czechoslovakia in the 1990s.
Is this is a realistic hope?
*Dr. A. M. Navaratna Bandara, Senior Professor in Political Science, Department of Political Science, University of Peradeniya