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A mass agenda for working class politics

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Monday, 8 April 2019 00:00



Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and President Maithripala Sirisena – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara



By Devaka Gunawardena

In a recent column, political scientist Jayadeva Uyangoda argues that the polarisation of Sri Lankan politics is based on a battle between democratic and authoritarian forces. The latter is represented by the spectre of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presidential candidacy. Uyangoda moves beneath surface-level events to uncover the main struggle, regardless of the individuals involved. This argument is crucial for understanding, for example, the stakes of the coup on 26 October last year. 

Focusing on polarisation doesn’t mean absolving political actors, such as Ranil Wickremesinghe, of responsibility. Instead, it offers a way of thinking strategically about the choices involved in aligning with one camp over another.

Still, we must go beyond Uyangoda’s analysis of the political conjuncture to identify the political program that could enable egalitarian forces – broadly speaking, the left – to win demands and build organisations capable of pushing further. Within the liberal worldview, mainstream discourse sets the boundaries of the possible. This approach often leads to lesser-evilism; meaning, backing the same neoliberal candidates that created the conditions for the crisis in the first place. In Sri Lanka, like the rest of the world, these include the widening gap between rich and poor and the rise of xenophobic populists. 

On the other hand, the distinctive failure of the extra-parliamentary left in Sri Lanka has been its inability to take advantage of the political space opened since the defeat of the Rajapaksa government in 2015. It has yet to put forward its own vision. That doesn’t mean, for example, that the UNP-led government hasn’t been biased against organised labour, or that it doesn’t have an agenda of ferocious economic liberalisation. But it does mean that we too often strain to identify the equivalence between the now-fractured coalition and the previous Rajapaksa government in ways that have stunted our ambitions and curtailed our focus on what can be achieved in the present. The left has been defined more by its opposition to whichever government is in power than a positive vision of its own.

This narrowing of horizons by demonstrating one’s radicalism in opposing ‘bourgeois government’ as such is a product of the failure to win the battle of ideas; meaning, offering a comprehensive alternative to neoliberalism. For example, many on the left say they sympathise with the grievances of the working class, such as the rising cost of living and low wages. Still, they do not necessarily propose a path to achieving a more robust democracy or redistribution of wealth vis-à-vis the polarisation of mass politics. Socialism as a political identity has been hollowed out. It has become a way of condemning the capitalist system (and its political parties) without taking up the issue at hand: how do we turn electoral confrontation against the potential re-emergence of authoritarianism into a movement to change the system?

Comparisons are useful. The Labour Party led by Corbyn in the UK and the Sanders’ current of the Democratic Party in the US have transformed electoral discussions. They have created a positive feedback cycle that stimulates extra-parliamentary organising. Many argue that the intellectual energy is on the left. The movements behind these candidates have presented proposals on a broad range of issues, from re-nationalisation and ending austerity to Medicare for All, even amidst Brexit chaos and the Trump presidency. 

Similarly, to shift the debate before it’s too late, we must consider a viable path for demands that change the conversation; lest we are compelled to stump for a candidate representing business-as-usual neoliberalism to prevent one representing far right revanchism from occupying power again. There are many issues the left could take up, but the question is how they are connected. Rethinking the election battle means putting the possibility of a new politics on the agenda by acknowledging polarisation and going beyond it. The left can and must use the battle between democratic and authoritarian forces to identify a mass constituency for radical demands.


The components of a new program

The first issue is defending the welfare state. Student struggles have managed to keep public education on the agenda. The problem though is that they are often isolated and seen as separate from the needs and concerns of the rest of the public. Take for instance the South Asia Institute of Technology and Medicine (SAITM), and the protests it generated. Among Colombo’s middle class, of course, there will always be those who look down on popular politics. Students’ emphasis, however, on disruptive protests without mass backing led to the framing of the protests as a public nuisance rather than staying on message about the core principle of funding public education. 

Moreover, the demand to expand public education (and thereby opportunities for more students) was often drowned out by a narrow focus on the illegality of SAITM. This style of rhetoric dovetailed with the Government Medical Officers’ Association’s (GMOA) reactionary attempt to restrict professional certification.

The loss of perspective is further evident in public sector workers’ struggles. In the UK Labour Party’s recent manifesto, there are proposals not just to fund but also to democratise State Owned Enterprises (SOEs). In contrast, in Sri Lanka, workplace battles are viewed as one more example of guilds defending their narrow privileges. This framing makes it easier for neoliberal think tanks to attack public institutions such as SOEs. They claim that not only are services more efficient when they are privatised, but they are ‘pro-poor’ because they expand people’s access to goods restricted by bureaucracy. Why get something from the state, if a private company committed to customer service can do it better and cheaper? Clearly, the experts haven’t flown on any private airline in the US.

Defending common goods has been a rallying cry across much of the global South in movements of opposition to neoliberalism, and it has also become central to anti-austerity campaigns in the North. The question is, why in Sri Lanka is opposition to privatisation seen as a defence of privilege rather than the bulwark of a struggle to transform the system? Again, this point is where the left must become more confident in outlining its vision not just to expand the welfare state, but also to make it more democratic. Why aren’t ordinary community members appointed to governing boards of SOEs? What would it look like for everyday consumers and producers to be part of the decision-making process of public administration? Could public sector workers themselves put this bigger issue on the agenda as part of their struggles for demands such as higher wages?

The second question is how to fund the welfare state. Neoliberal think tanks have again taken the initiative, arguing that revenue problems can be solved by ‘widening the tax base’ and ‘closing loopholes’. Tax, however, is a class question: asking who pays how much, which also determines the method of enforcement, helps us understand the welfare state as a redistributive mechanism. 

Why doesn’t the capital gains tax cover profits realised from the massive amount of speculation in the stock market? Why is the corporate tax for exporters that make hundreds of millions of dollars a paltry 14%? Why is the income tax for the richest individuals 35%, and how much more would we gain from a higher marginal tax rate? In concrete terms, how do we reconcile the increasing visibility of the elite driving fancy cars with the breakdown of public transportation and everyday complaints about clogged roadways?

Getting the money to fund universal services is predicated though on economic investment. This connection points to the third issue, how to make Sri Lanka’s economy sustainable. For the past 40 years a range of actors, from local neoliberal experts to powerful global institutions, have managed to shift the debate to the question of ‘attracting investment’ and earning foreign exchange that can pay for imported goods and, more recently, debts incurred by mega infrastructure projects. ‘Exports’ have become the skeleton key for understanding how the economy works. The ideal of a self-sufficient economy based on import substitution lies by the wayside. 

Still, there is a global alternative to both export- and import-driven models that is re-emerging in the aftermath of the Great Recession: how might deficit spending, combined with a procurement program that prioritises the expansion of worker-owned cooperatives, stimulate the economy? Comparatively speaking, Sri Lanka has a small market. Nevertheless, the tasks of development are big enough that, combined with a strong public push, they could incentivise investment in capital-intensive industries, such as renewable energy.


Beyond polarisation

Ultimately then these three issues – 1) expanding and democratising the welfare state, 2) taxing the rich, and 3) a stimulus program – are points of departure for changing the debate about the upcoming election. They help us identify the needs of the majority of people, the working class, that must be prioritised, despite the unfortunate absence of a labour party that could set the political agenda. 

If democrats, as Uyangoda refers to them, are serious about stemming the rising tide of authoritarianism, we’ll need to do better than budget ‘handouts’, which ignore the persistent retreat of universal services. We’ll need to think seriously about a program – a vision of structural transformation – that improves the mass of people’s lives and wins them over to a new politics that can be taken up by leaders yet to appear. For now, the priority should be debating and advocating on behalf of this program. 

In its absence though, no amount of discussion about the polarisation between democratic and authoritarian forces will solve the fundamental issues behind the political crisis.


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