How Did We Get Here?
By Harini Amarasuriya
The 21st of April 2021 marked two years since the tragic Easter bomb attacks. Two years down the line, we know little more than we did then as to how or why such an incident took place. Grieving families and communities still wait for answers and justice. The feeling of being badly let down by a regime that came to power on the promise and assurance of serving justice to the victims of the attacks is palpable. Meanwhile, in Parliament, on a day of mourning, members of the Government and the main Opposition hurled insults and more at each other in a gross display of misplaced swagger.
What was most despicable about those scenes in Parliament were the smirks and chuckles that accompanied the exchange of insults and blows. While victims were in mourning, their representatives were behaving like rowdy schoolboys at a big match brawl. The party leaders and seniors, while not participating in the brawl, sat back and watched are, in my view, equally culpable since their silence indicated acquiescence or at the very least indifference towards such behaviour.
How did we get here? What has led us to a situation where people’s suffering matters so little that each and every misfortune experienced by people are regarded by their representatives as an opportunity for political grandstanding? How have we got to a point where not only are situations constructed and manipulated but exploited for political gain? Of course, politics is a battle for power and will always involve manipulation and grandstanding, but I think we can all agree that the ethical compass in politics has sunk today to an all-time low.
The ‘quality’ of politicians
Popular public perception is that the ‘quality’ of politicians has deteriorated. Quality is measured here in terms of education and socio-economic background. I have often heard it being said that the ‘class’ of current politicians is different, that we don’t have ‘decent’ politicians anymore. There have been calls for the ‘educated’ and the ‘professionals’ to enter politics; for there to be minimum educational qualifications for politicians. Yet, if we look at the current Parliament, it has one of the highest number of ‘professionals’ to enter Parliament; several PhDs, many medical doctors, Media personalities, lawyers etc. Most have been educated in prestigious schools and universities. Several come from families that have been in politics for generations.
It is my contention that this search for ‘quality’ in individual politicians in terms of education, professional background etc. is simply a red herring. This is not about the characteristics or qualifications of individual politicians. Rather, it is a gradual transformation of the political space where what is enacted in public has become increasingly performative while the real decisions and negotiations are taking place somewhere else. Those who influence the decisions are also largely invisible. Politics, in a sense has become a spectator sport, another form of ‘reality television’ and the more dramatic the performance, higher the ratings. What you see has nothing to do with how decisions are made that actually affect your life. If in the process, citizens become increasingly cynical and disenchanted with political institutions and politics in general – so much the better. Because, weakening these institutions, mistrust in democracy and democratic processes, increasing cynicism, hopelessness and apathy makes it much easier for invisible forces to increase their power and influence.
This assault on democracy – especially on reducing representative democracy to electing those who have very little interest or influence on what happens – is a necessary characteristic of the current phase of capitalism. This phase of capitalism is most commonly described as neoliberal – but what it boils down to is a system of globalised financialisation. Exchange is through an increasing number of financial instruments as opposed to the production of goods as in earlier forms of capitalism. Hence, the increasing of financial services. Main features of financialisation is de-regulation of monetary and fiscal regulations and increasing debt. My interest here is however not the technicalities of globalised financialisation but rather its political effect.
One of the main features of increasing financial services is the growth of a financial oligarchy. The last several decades have seen a proliferation on the one hand of the service sector and the other the consolidation of this sector within a small group of financial giants. A few big banks and big corporations control much of the financial sector and associated service sector. Their success has been largely dependent on the complicity of the political authority in their growth and expansion plans. This has been ensured by funding political campaigns and political lobbying.
Of course, there has always been a relationship between business and politics – but today what you see is the almost total capture of the political space by those with vested interests through campaign financing and bribes. For example, one of the most notorious businessmen in Sri Lanka openly declared his intentions of ensuring that the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP)’s representation erased if not drastically reduced at the last general election. He recently reiterated his commitment to this cause: openly and brazenly. This is simply one example and one who is open in his intentions.
The more serious and influential are much more discreet. The general public would not even recognise their names. It is also noteworthy that these are no longer ‘local’ interests – but regional and global. It is certainly not only rupees that are funding political campaigns but other currencies. Apart from gaining control over politicians, these global financial powers also control the production and flow of knowledge and information. Whether it’s through capturing the media, establishment of supposedly ‘neutral’ and ‘scientific’ think-tanks, support for universities and research, the information we receive is largely controlled.
Behind the scenes
The role of the people’s representatives is therefore fairly simple: distract and mislead so that the ‘real’ powers that be can get on with their work of amassing wealth uninterrupted. For this, the politicians are well looked after. Those who ‘succeed’ in politics are those who play this game. This is why the performative aspect of politics has become far more dramatic than ever before. Political spaces have become less about ideological debate, argument and policy and simply noise and drama. Those who make measured, factual and ideological interventions are regarded as ‘has-been’s who are stubbornly refusing to get real. The composition of our current Parliament reflects this.
It is important that we understand this situation for what it is. When we ask for transformation of our political culture – we need to first make sure we understand what transformations it is that we actually seek. This is not a problem of the qualifications or professionalism of individual politicians – but a system of politics that has been established to meet the interests of a powerful, local and global oligarchy. We must refuse to be distracted by the dramas that are enacted to distract and mislead us. Rather, we need to find ways of recapturing the political space so that it can work in the interests of the many rather than the few. Our demand has to be for a new order – one which places equity, social and environmental justice at its core rather than profit, exploitation and selfishness.