Beyond the story of doom: the social base of ‘new authoritarianism’ in Sri Lanka



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By D. C. P. Amarasekere


With only a few weeks left for the 2019 Presidential Election, two questions seem to dominate our social conversations and news coverage: "who will win?" and "what will be Sri Lanka’s political destiny?" In the absence of country-wide scientific polling, the first question is typically answered by using anecdotes, quasi-scientific, social media or social network specific speculations or gossip. The second question, which categorically stems from the liberal quarters of society, is a long-winded lament about the "cruel dilemma" of having to choose between a "neo-conservative" coalition and weak political formations putting up a brave fight to hold on to the last straw of the country’s democracy. The first question can be useful and interesting, as it gives an opportunity to unleash one’s hidden statistical animal and pretend to be a polling-data expert for a few more weeks. The second question and the story of doom and fear it follows, is rather pedestrian. It ends rather abruptly, by contending that in 2019, the ‘democratic voter base’ is divided against the allegedly large "un-democratic" segment of the population supporting the ‘counter-democratic, authoritarian dark knight’ – Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The Liberals have come up with a simple, black-and-white picture in which Sajith Premadasa is exalted as a great Liberal, and Gotabaya Rajapaksa as a scary neo-conservative. Not only am I sceptical about the theory that Sri Lankan society is polarised over democratic values, but I also feel that the Liberals, in a moment of dejection, are not asking relevant questions that would help advance a political reading of the growing demand for "new authoritarianism" in Sri Lanka.


How can we explain the rising support for new authoritarianism in Sri Lanka? We can look for answers outside of the maritime borders of this island, as this phenomenon is undeniably a global trend, and by examining the classes of the Sri Lankan society that support Gotabaya Rajapaksa. But first, let us be clear about definitions. "Authoritarianism" is a dirty word, and in the past century, it has been applied to illiberal political regimes ranging from dictatorships in South America to the Russian Communists. In most instances, a sinister, manipulative authoritarian regime lurk behind ignorant and unthinking masses. In simple terms, "authoritarians" want people to follow the dictates of authority. Globally, in the absence of traditional sources of authority, new authorities have risen to take their place. In Thailand, General Prayuth Chan-o-cha captured power in a coup d’état in May 2014. In the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte was elected President in 2016. As of mid-2018, despite his record of over 10,000 extrajudicial killings, Duterte enjoys up to 85% support in the polls, with a strong base among the middle-class living in- and outside the Philippines. Closer to home in India, Narendra Modi was re-elected for a second term in May 2019 and through a blend of authoritarianism and Hindu nationalism, the BJP is slowly moulding India’s public institutions and civil society to its will. All three countries are important examples for the rise of new authoritarianism in Southeast and South Asia because they put a spotlight on the social basis of new authoritarianism. What is remarkable in all cases in the role of the middle-classes in the process of toppling the democratic systems and consolidating the new authoritarian regimes. While there is a hypothesis in Sri Lanka that the professional middle-class is driving the turn towards nationalism-infused new authoritarianism, the analysis typically begins and ends with the Rajapaksa family. There is very little intellectual effort to develop a class analysis of the increasing popularity of new authoritarianism in Sri Lanka.


If Gotabaya is the face of new authoritarianism in Sri Lanka, let us look at who is supporting him. A quick glance tells us that one large segment of the supporters are the losers of neoliberal globalization – the disenfranchised poor and the ‘transient poor’ that compose the country’s large informal sector. Over 60% of Sri Lanka’s labour force is in the informal sector, and the people in this category are the most vulnerable to vagaries of the market economy. This is not the "working class". In fact, Sri Lanka does not have a working class in ways that are similar to industrial democracies in the West or in Southeast Asia, because the country did not experience an industrialization phase. Instead, Sri Lanka went from being an agriculture-based economy to a service-sector-driven economy. As a result, the large segment of people in the informal sector are petite bourgeoisie, a social class consisting of landed and land-less peasantry and small-scale merchants. In the absence of a long-term national economic policy or plan, a large proportion of this social class has long been abandoned by successive democratic governments. Another part of the petite bourgeoisie, particularly the Sinhalese and Muslim small-scale merchants who likely benefitted from the war and the immediate post-war economies are frustrated with low business prospects and decreasing returns on investment in the past five-seven years. One could attribute Sinhala-Muslim friction among members of this social class to growing competition and economic insecurities in the face of diminishing prospects for petty traders. Similarly, jobless growth in Sri Lanka has left tens of thousands of youth in various strata of petite bourgeoisie social class in a state of hopelessness. Those who have failed to secure menial jobs in the public sector through patronage networks, have resorted to driving trishaws, construction work, or other casual and temporary jobs. And as the market gets saturated over time, some of them have moved laterally to jobs as drivers for Uber, Pick Me or other low-skilled service-sector jobs. Some of them, particularly young males, sympathise with or openly support ethno-religious chauvinism, as a way of restoring their dignity and self-worth in a context of unmet expectations of inclusion and integration to the country’s economy. In other words, we can see a distorted class struggle hidden behind the anti-Muslim and ethno-religious chauvinistic discourse, where the petite bourgeoisie engage in a passive revolution against the elites that continue to pursue neoliberal policies that further marginalise them.


It is the petite bourgeoisie represented by low-ranks in the public sector, agricultural labour and the vast majority of marginalised workers in the informal sector that comprise the largest support-base for Gotabaya Rajapaksa vis-à-vis Mahinda Rajapaksa. This reality runs counter to the Liberals’ framing Gotabaya as a "neo-conservative" because this term, coined specifically to reflect political realities in the United States in the 1970s and onwards, represents mainly the interests of the elite financial capital class of the country. The labelling of Gotabaya as a "neo-con" further raises questions about who Sajith represents. When the top 20 of Sri Lanka’s wealthiest and financial sector moguls are standing in line with Sajith Premadasa, how can the Liberals claim that it is Gotabaya that represents neo-con interests? Lacking and empirical basis for their arguments, the Liberals paint a humorous picture of a ferocious Gotabaya , flanked by the large petite bourgeoisie voter base, taking over our lives, the economy and the country. Such inconsistencies in the Liberal line of thinking is what raises the urgent need for a class analysis of the current political situation.


Having said that, there is also a genuine cross-class alliance with a shared interest as the social basis of ‘new authoritarianism’ in Sri Lanka. Similar to countries like Thailand and the Philippines, the emergence of Sri Lanka’s urban middle-class in the 1980s and 1990s, in the aftermath of the neoliberal reforms in 1977, can be characterised as spread of the "imperial mode of living" since their life-style rested on high consumption of resources and on cheap labour from the rural areas within the country. However, as development slowed down with the intensification of the civil war, capital looked for strategies to overcome the crisis and embraced different strategies of externalization. Sri Lanka, under state-sponsored programmes for women to go abroad for domestic work, became an exporter of cheap labour. Simultaneously, successive governments continued growth-based Keynesian economic policy, with investment in social security schemes, consumer credit and rural infrastructure in certain parts of the country. This "social contract" (a term generously deployed by Sajith Premadasa during his current electoral campaign) carrying remnants of the country’s feudalistic past, promised the poor access to and co-optation into what can be called an "imperial mode of living". While this was- and continues to be a successful electoral strategy with guaranteed results, it also is the reason behind the middle-class mobilisation against this social contract, defending middle-class privileges against the aspirations of the poor.


Many in the middle-class, regardless of their party affiliations, resent the toxic dependency between the poorer classes and politicians, and support moving away from dependency on subsidies and handouts. They now advance a neoliberal philosophy and a way of life to become self-motivated, socially acceptable and contributing citizens of the country. Most professionals and nouveau riche are convinced that paternalistic and humanitarian policies cannot activate people into action and move them away from the dependency mentality. This explains the appeal of individuals such as the business mogul Dhammika Perera, Rohan Pallewatte or the crestfallen Nagananda as potential leaders for many disenchanted voters in the middle-class. Not all such segments of the middle-class or members of the financial elite class (popularly known as the "CEO class") are in the ‘Gotabaya camp’. Though they represent similar interests, they are split between the two main camps for reasons other than idealistic notions about democracy. They commonly support stability of the country, mainly to advance their own economic agendas and security. This ongoing conflict culminated in an alliance between the peri-urban and urban middle-class consisting of professionals and elites to topple the existing democratic system. If a new ‘authoritarian regime’ delivers on these expectations, it is only a matter of time until the remainder of these social classes join the political bandwagon. However, there is another dynamic that can be observed and needs investigation. The movement towards new authoritarianism in Sri Lanka not only consist of middle-class people, but also comprise factory workers and unions, part of which were incorporated into the cross-class alliance through a chauvinist discourse. Broadly, their demands are for economic stability, security and social mobility. The unique combination of private liberty and public despotism probably guarantees the long-term stability of a political regime, much like in Russia and China. To be sure, this new form of rule has little outward ideological appeal. But the fact that their authoritarian capitalism does not appeal to outsiders or Liberals does not mean it lacks internal legitimacy or support.


The Liberals’ fear of an imminent dictatorial regime also has little empirical purchase mainly because of Sri Lanka’s vibrant multi-party system. It is known that elections in a multi-party system are structurally more competitive than in states with two-party systems. There are 70 political parties of Sri Lanka, recognized by the Election Commission, and at least 10-15 of these parties have had consistent voter bases over the decades. In a multi-party proportional representation system, coalitions are here to stay. While coalition politics can lead to political impasses, and can be a cause of frustration, they effectively guard against the tendency to move towards dictatorial rule. In the past, the Sri Lankan people have effectively voted out political regimes of authoritarian or dictatorial nature especially, and these have been peaceful transitions. The main cause of concern in the current context in this regard, is the potentially diminished presence of the old-Left in the future political regime. The old-Left, consisting of politicians from the LSSP, CP, NSSP and MEP in the past have acted as a buffer against dictatorial tendencies. Though their success may be questioned by various quarters of the liberal society, the old-Left has nevertheless been a voice of reason and self-critique within political coalitions in the past.


Lastly, the constant droning among Liberals about the ‘return of the Rajapaksa family’ is rather stale. In a country with a heavy feudalistic hangover, we have had a history of ‘family cartels’ capturing the power of the state. Starting with D.S. Senanayake, the cartels have rarely changed hands due to their interconnections through marriage. Dudley Senanayake, J.R. Jayewardene, Chandrika Bandaranaike, Ranil Wickremasinghe are all products of a handful of families that have ruled this country since its independence. The Rajapaksas are only different in that they possibly represent the nouveau riche rather than the colonial elite. Sajith has no defense in this matter either. Thirty years after R. Premadasa’s death, his son is put forward as the promising Presidential candidate of the UNP, a fact Sajith himself repeatedly reminds the masses during election rallies. Family power is characteristic of Sri Lanka’s democracy and the idea of the state; hence, it is about time that the Liberals come to terms with how this country works in reality.


This brief entry into the social base of new authoritarianism in Sri Lanka is an attempt to encourage political economic analyses to ask more pertinent questions beyond the lament of the Liberals. It is an attempt to come up with preliminary explanations for political discontent, a persistent irritant in Sri Lanka, like a bad spice lodged in the country’s proverbial belly. We need to step outside the confines of this island and understand the current situation of the country in relation to global trends. There is reason to hope the size of the petite and nouveau bourgeoisie will keep growing. And as it does, the question becomes what kind of future will its members seek.Will these social classes be a force for greater democracy, as it historically has been in the West and more recently in some emerging economies? Or - given the trauma of still-recent experiences - will it support authoritarian systems that promise social stability above all else? Professor Dani Rodik offers much food for thought when he claimed that democracy, national sovereignty and global economic integration are mutually incompatible. He contended that we can combine any two of the three, but never have all three simultaneously and in full. Drawing from Rodik, I contend that any reform of Sri Lanka’s political system must face up to this "trilemma". If we want to be more integrated into the global economy, we must either give up some democracy or some national sovereignty. Pretending that we can have all three simultaneously leaves us in an unstable no-man's land.  


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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