By Kumar David –
Methinks this world is oddly made
And everything’s amiss.
A sharp perceptive atheist said
His mind on higher things
Its official now, Jesuit Pope Francis says “Who am I to judge what these chaps may have been up to long ago?” So, aging Josephians, Benedictines and Peterites can sigh in relief. Nor need vintage Jesuits of celebrity status shrivel till indemnified by the Statute of Limitations. New fads have caught on in the political domain as well; driven by necessity, as rusted formulae die. Political cross-dressing is in vogue, at home and abroad: Mahinda versus Ranil, pray who is right and who is left (both puns intended); is Communist China a capitalist oxymoron; is Tony Blair a misbegotten Blatcherite toad; what happened to Obama radicalism and IMF neo-liberalism? No one, any longer, is what they are thought to be, nor manifest what they claim to proclaim. Everyone cross-dresses, not in degree alone but in pith and marrow. This is no smart-ass comment; it is deserving of considerable reflection.
Red-blooded socialists Bahu and Siritunga are in bed with Ranil; Mahinda’s UPFA, not past expiry-date UNP, is the living incubus of Lankan capitalism; Harsha, the UNP’s in-house economic bass unaha, rails against the IMF with a verve and nerve that Bahu and Siri can no longer muster. JR, we learnt, was a trigger happy and ruthless autocrat; now Mahinda is autocrat, Gotha ruthless avenger. Aren’t leftists in the UNP-led opposition taking their cue from Mahinda devotee Vasudeva and spent cartridges Tissa and DEW? Don’t take offence if you are a disciple of any of these worthies, running them down is not my point. The point is that boundaries are smudged, programmes obscured, differences muddled and the urgency of immediacy (not necessarily expediency) propels decisions. Are these gentlemen all wrong, or are the categories of thought of yesteryear that rule our lazy minds, outdated? The truth is that it’s a bit of each; but before that, let’s look at the big wide world.
Cross-dressing to partner state-capitalism
Euphemisms abound – financial crisis, prolonged recession, economic downturn, and so on – but in truth, what we are living through with no light at the end of the tunnel, is a depression. A New Depression (ND), with differences mutatis mutandis and terminological apologies to the Great Depression of the 1930s. The tools with which governments and central banks have responded to ND have motivated much economic and political cross-dressing. Europe, specifically the Eurozone, is an arena of adulterous state-capitalist activism; actually international state-capitalism. The European Central Bank, the IMF and Berlin, Paris and London lay down the rules and dictate terms to banks and finance capital, not to mention governments in Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece and Cyprus. In the US, the economic role of the state is more interventionist than it has ever been since WW2. Neoliberal economics has died an inglorious death.
A second factor causing left-right indulgence in consensual ideological intercourse is China. Is China socialist; surely not, it is a one-party state under the unquestioned hegemony of the CCP. Is it capitalist; surely not, or not yet, with two-thirds of the economy in the hands of the state and decision making firmly under Party and state direction. Market-forces! Baa captive and subordinate. The capitalist sector, though thriving and energetic is secondary in the power game as the Party balances between classes and regions. Yes, Chinese state-capitalism is different from the state-capitalist spectre haunting Europe and America, but the framework in which global capitalism lived, and the rules by which it played, have changed for ever. Ideological cross-dressing is in vogue.
Ask leftists after the demise of the Soviet Union, China’s wobble and the realisation that Marx was two centuries ahead of his time: “What social and economic system do you advocate” and across the board you will hear a uniform refrain: “Democracy and erasure of excessive social inequity; fairer wealth and income distribution and limits to gross inequality; use of the market to engender efficiency in resource allocation and in economic process; encouragement of private economy and property rights provided neither turns exploitative and overpowers society”.
Now ask the progressive bourgeoisie, or that high priest of market capitalism the Economist magazine, what their vision of the world is. The reply was well summarised in the October 13, 2012 issue under the rubric True Progressivism. I edit, abridge and quote several passages; all are atypical of the heirs of Walter Bagehot.
“Modern politics needs to undergo reinvention to mitigate inequality without hurting growth
It is true that some measure of inequality is good for an economy. (Only some!)
Even the sort of inequality produced by meritocracy can hurt growth. The gap in test scores between rich and poor American school children is 30-40% wider than 25 years ago.
Priority should be given to an attack on monopolies and vested interests. Introduce greater transparency in government contracts and effective anti-trust laws. School reform and introducing choice is crucial.
Target government spending on the poor and the young .Too much (government) cash favours the wealthy. Means test for subsidies.
Reform taxes: Have better enforcement where avoidance is rife; eliminate deductions that benefit the wealthy; raise taxes paid disproportionately by the rich such as property taxes”.
All this in the Economist! Progressive bourgeois thinkers (these extracts notwithstanding, the Economist is actually not in this category) are motivated not by love of the poor and impoverished, but fear of unrest and social revolution. Nevertheless, what’s going on – this is cross-dressing! Global capitalism is in the dog box; the economic downturn is increasing social turmoil, and the progressive bourgeoisie moves to the centre out of necessity. The middle ground is getting crowded.
Shared responses to challenges
Across the world people of the left and the right deplore extremism, Jihadism, terrorism and excrescences of like nature. Even leftists like yours faithfully who said the LTTE was an offspring of ethnic bias, nevertheless refuted its terrorism, describing this as one reason for the misery of the people and the terrible price they were forced to pay. The Philippine Muslim liberation movements, the Lords and Devils Armies in Africa, and red-belt guerrillas in India’s poorest north-east, encounter hostility not only from the political right and the traditional left, but also from the public at large. The popular verdict is in: You cannot liberate the downtrodden by extremist, Jihadist or terrorist means. This shared opprobrium of a scourge of modern times, forces the left and right, and the global middle (at least those with a political voice), into consensus politics. Fidel condemned al-Qaeda after 9-11 more cogently than crazed commentators in the mediocre media.
The current political divide in Lanka is on two issues; authoritarianism of the state and ethnic hostility. Attitudes to these questions override the old left-right divide and economic programme preferences. To put it concretely, Bahu is in bed with Ranil because both characterise the regime as dictatorial and the latter has conceded devolution, never mind socialism versus capitalism. Vasu is locked in deep embrace with Mahinda because both desire a muscular state and neither is much bothered about Tamil rights. Mahinda’s crude and corrupt populism passes muster for Vasu as a vehicle to socialism. I am leaving to one side allegation of crass opportunism because that is a different dimension from the intellectual concerns of this essay.
The point then is that the time when parties divided on socio-economic programmes is long gone; the new criteria of demarcation are narrowly political to the exclusion of theory and ideology. The difference from forty years ago is stark. Whatever your views of NM and Mrs B, none can accuse either of cross-dressing; the coalition broke explicitly on a programmatic standoff following the Felix-Sirima lurch to the right. Indeed the coalition came together and functioned as a government for five years because of programmatic covenants pushed by the left. Whether you like or cuss NM, Mrs B, or both, that is a separate matter; but their delineations were sharply different from how amalgamations are formed or lost these days.
Thus far I have described the political world as it is, not as I would like it to be. I will use the concluding two paragraphs to inject my two-cent’s worth into the storyline. Global social democracy, not world socialism is the feasible goal of the Marxist today. Still, this envisages a depth of global interdependence; there is no escaping from that even if one decamps to the moon. Social democracy seeks not proletarian state power but sharing state power between classes and peoples of diverse faiths and races. Finally, an economic mix is the point at which many meet in a social democratic community. This is soft power, corresponding to the reality of shared global clout of nations, races and faiths. I make no explicit reference to women; their inclusion in everything is implicit and patriarchy is not a left-right divisive issue anyway.
If democracy, a reasonable degree of economic equity, defeating iniquity in social practices and driving out authoritarianism, if this is the goal, it is also widely shared. In the developing world, for the foreseeable future, the state, a dirigisme state responsive to the people, must be the agent of macro economic decision making. The market must be used to root out the inefficient and the unproductive, and to allocate resources. The term mixed-economy says little until it is spelt out concretely; when well defined it’s not cross-dressing as there is palpable certainty of what society is groping for underneath.