By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“Where in history do we find such a fusion of political power and person affairs? In the Roman Empire where the emperor….could make his horse a senator and force all those courtiers who didn’t appreciate his poetry to slit their wrists….” – Umberto Eco (Turning back the Clock)
Almost one and a half centuries after Marx published his Capital, another Capital is taking the world by storm. Thomas Piketty’s ‘Capital in the Twenty First Century’ uses a trove of data to demonstrate the truth of an old belief – left to its own devices, capitalism causes wealth to concentrate in a handful of hands and inequality to soar.
Prof. Piketty is no advocate of systemic change. He argues that it is possible to halt and even reverse the First World’s retrogression into a new gilded age: “There are nevertheless ways democracy can regain control over capitalism and ensure that the general interest takes precedence over private interests, while preserving economic openness and avoiding protectionist and nationalist reactions”[i].
What about countries where democracy has been subverted from within and rendered flaccid, where a primordial clique has gained control over the state, and uses state power to control the market?
What awaits a land where state power marries market power, under the aegis of a single ruling family?
In his May Day address President Rajapaksa proclaimed, “Be it Rathupaswala or Katunayake or elsewhere, the efforts to close down factories were not in the interests of the working people but in the interests of Geneva”[ii]. The people of Rathupaswala demonstrated against a factory which was poisoning their ground-water. The Katunayake protests were against an attempt by the government to impose a fraudulent pension plan on private-sector employees. Neither struggle was politically-partisan; SLFP supporters participated in the Rathupaswela demonstration; SLFP trade unions joined the Katunayake agitation.
So why is the President attempting to equate these genuinely popular struggles with anti-patriotism and treachery? Is he, like a babe-in-the wood, being misled? Or is his false equation an inevitable function of that Rajapaksa construct – acolyte capitalism?
Political favourites amassing fortunes is a timeless phenomenon. The Rajapaksas are doing something qualitatively different – they are using state power, systematically, to gain control over the private sector economy. Instead of using the old method of state-takeover of private enterprises, the Rajapaksas are using acolyte-businessmen to colonise the market.
The rapid rise of Dhammika Perera is symbolic and symbiotic of this process of turning the private sector economy into another Rajapaksa dependency – like the military, the judiciary, the bureaucracy and the Sinhala-Buddhist establishment. In 2007, Mr. Perera was made the Chairman of the BOI; in 2011, he was made the permanent secretary to the Ministry of Transport, perhaps the first time a functioning businessman was appointed to a senior position in the state sector. Today Mr. Perera has fingers in every conceivable pie and is on a monopolisation drive[iii].
The Colombo City Guide, Yamu, did a review of Bellagio, a casino owned by Mr. Perera: “The Belliago is smoky, bright and generally dodgy. It is not an extremely pleasant place. However much they try to glam it up it is still a gambling den…. The ubiquitous prostitutes are the most depressing sight of all, tired and long-faced, working what seem to be interminable hours…[iv] Mr. Perera is said to be the richest man in Sri Lanka; he is also a senior civil servant. The first can be attributed to luck, acumen or both; but the second is proof-positive of his Favoured Acolyte status. Prostitution is illegal in Sri Lanka, but which police is going to raid a casino owned by a man of such potent parts?
Acolyte capitalism, because of its very nature, creates businessmen who are more politicians than bona fide entrepreneurs. Since their success depends primarily on political patronage, sycophantism is a more necessary attribute than genuine ability. Like acolyte politicians, acolyte businessmen enjoy impunity; so long as they are politically loyal, they can break the law and ignore regulations. Since they are but agents of the rulers, they can also depend on the police and even the military to protect them from the consequences of their illegal activities. The controversial factory in Rathupaswala was owned by a company controlled by such a Teflon-businessman – Dhammika Perera.
Acolyte capitalism cannot function in a land where the rule of law prevails and best business practices are observed. For instance, stock market manipulation is reportedly a key method used by acolyte-businessmen to amass fortunes. And as Tilak Karunratne explained, Sri Lanka has one of the least regulated stock markets in the world. When Mr. Karunaratne, during his short tenure as the SEC chairman, tried to crackdown on market-manipulators, he was asked to resign by the same man who appointed him – the President[v]. Mr. Karunaratne had misunderstood his brief – his task was not to clean the Augean Stables but to lend his reputation as a cover for the muck. He was succeeded by an acolyte businessman widely regarded as a pawn of the inflate-and-dump stock market mafia[vi]. The new boss knew what was expected of him. For instance, under his able stewardship, the SEC made a generous financial donation to Namal Rajapaksa’s Tharunyata Hetak[vii].
The 0.1% Country
The Rajapaksas are the authors and directors of Lankan militarization. Under this sui generis model, the military is not an autonomous power centre/wielder. As the military’s encroachment of civilian spaces increases, so does the Rajapaksa control of the military.
The Rajapaksas understood the dangers of allowing the military, Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism or the judiciary to function as autonomous actors. If these entities are permitted to retain even a shred of autonomy, they can, in self-interest, assist/join an anti-Rajapaksa opposition, someday. There is an identical danger to the dynastic project in allowing market power to be un-dependent on political power. A relatively autonomous military can impede the Dynastic project via a coup or by refusing to implement extra-constitutional orders. A relatively autonomous judiciary can rule against abuses and excesses of the ruling family. Similarly a relatively autonomous private sector can resist the excesses of familial rule, especially when Rajapaksa interests run counter to systemic interests.
As the unification of political power and market power intensifies, whatever limited capacity the private sector has to ameliorate the negative results of Rajapaksa policies will evaporate completely. Fearful of repercussions, even the non-acolyte segments of the private sector will allow themselves to be used by the ruling family. The covert and illegal censoring of the internet is an excellent case in point.
Governing a country is like an act of juggling. The golden mien is one which avoids extremisms of all sorts, and balances contending claims and interests. The Rajapaksas are taking the antithetical path by subjugating national, popular and general interests to familial interests. Patriotism is being used as a cover to hide this reality from the masses. This is the source of the President’s false charge of treachery against the protestors of Katunayake and Rathupaswala. The day may not be far distant when protestors against the abuses/excesses of acolyte capitalists are arrested by the Rajapaksas police/military under the PTA and convicted by the Rajapaksa-judiciary of terrorism.
[i] Capital in the Twenty First Century
[ii] Lankadeepa – 2.5.2014