Last week I sketched out the political content of the Professional Nationalist class (or “ProNats”). I can’t vouch for their sincerity, but I think I can vouch for the disjuncture between their aims and their social conditioning, a disjuncture that has historically felled other similar political cliques in the past, both here and abroad. This week’s column is a sweep (or rather an attempt at a sweep) of a more common class, also political in nature but more discernible in the context of our country, society, and time. To come up with a definitive name for this, unfortunately, is beyond my ability, so I will introduce it to you as the class that forms, pushes, and accentuates the ProNats.
Before I get to that, though, a brief perusal of our political history is in order. I remember reading an article by Colvin R. de Silva, where he faulted the bourgeoisie of the country for having felled various industries and sectors to accommodate their short-termism. Colvin wrote that article (the name of which I don’t remember, unfortunately) after J.R. Jayewardene began building the various Free Trade Zones and Economic Commissions which, at one level, were responsible for the backlash against the Left in the eighties. In essence, he was answering a curious question: was the then UNP’s fixation and prejudice against the Left (in economic terms) justified by the history of the bourgeoisie that formed that party in 1947? Colvin answered in the negative.
His reason, though debatable, has been borne out by history. The colonial bourgeoisie in Sri Lanka were never engaged in productive employment. Even after independence, they preferred the primary (extracting) to the secondary (manufacturing) sector. Decades before the Land Reform Acts and the various redistribution policies implemented by Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s government, the likes of N. M. Perera and Colvin wrote on how the colonialists had spawned a class which were (paradoxically speaking) more interested in perpetuating a quasi-feudal class by spending years and years in elite schools and institutions, studying at Oxford and Cambridge, only to come back to Sri Lanka to serve as second fiddles to the Governor-General and his coterie.
When J. R. Jayewardene, as Finance Minister, remarked that if the entire national income were divided among the country it would make beggars of us all, he was sidelining the main issue the Left took with his government’s right-wing economic policies. The government instituted in 1948 was essentially housed by the landed elite gentry, no different to the landed gentry of Jane Austen’s novels and certainly a class that had been or was being outmoded in Western economies.
As time went by, the political Right began propagating the myth that the Left was trying to “Russify” or “Sinofy” the country (remember the propaganda disseminated in the run-up to the 1965 Elections, which culminated in the crossover of C. P. de Silva?), when in fact what the LSSP and Communist Party did was to resuscitate the manufacturing sector of the country, a sector neglected by an elite which was only bothered about perpetuating its progeny and monopolising and profiting from the primary sector. In itself, this was not an economic sin (after all most East Asian and Southeast Asian countries began with the agricultural sector), but the issue was that Sri Lanka was in danger of depending on the extraction of raw materials, since the bourgeoisie were not making use of the profits they got to graduate to the industrial sector.
Malinda Seneviratne, writing on the second Sirimavo Bandaranaike regime, argues that what Perera did damaged the Sinhalese businessman, initiating a process of destruction completed by J.R. Jayewardene and his Open Economy. This argument (echoed by other middle-class Sinhalese nationalists, myself included) interests me for reasons I will get to shortly, but for now, suffice it to say that such an indictment on the Left can’t be sustained on account of how negligent the Sinhalese businessman was in using his/her profits for the upliftment of the economy. In other words, the leftist economic policies authored by Bandaranaike’s government were crafted with the purpose of breathing life to a dormant sector. Without these policies, the Sinhalese entrepreneurial spirit was being sapped by the very people who were supposed to be channelling it for their survival.
Taking issue with my comment that the SLFP and the UNP were the same and unified in electoral terms in last week’s column, Vinod Moonesinghe contended that inasmuch as the Land Reform Act and the housing ceiling are considered today by economic pundits as leftist excesses, they were in fact liberal and enlightened compared to the policies which were being enforced in more capitalist societies in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, which imposed land ceilings up to one or two hectares in contrast to the 10 Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s government instituted.
Vinod then pointed out the reason for the setting up of a ceiling in the first place: “It was necessary simply because Sri Lankans were investing in housing at the expense of productive investment. During the Second World War, the British gave concessions to Sri Lankans to start industries. Instead, they invested in housing. This is why a state industrial sector became crucial, simply because local bourgeois investors wouldn’t put their money into manufacturing.”
In other words, the State was intervening in a neglected sector because the bourgeoisie were idle. This was a guiding principle even in Leninist and Stalinist Russia, though in Cuba and China nationalist concerns took over economic policy. At the end of the day, when the history of the Global Left is assessed, historians will no doubt point at the transition it brought about in backward countries from a primitive, pseudo-feudal to an industrial, technocratic State. For its time, however, such a task was derided by the Right as being too interventionist, very much against orthodox economics. What the Right forgets here is that it was Karl Marx who helped make the transition from microeconomics (based on perfect markets and competition) to macroeconomics (based on inflation, employment, and sectoral growth). I am digressing here, however.