02 May 2016

May Day and the real "anthima satana" (Final Battle)*

It’s May Day once again and as usual there is an excuse for political parties who know the right labour words but have the wrong (right) labour policies to have a party, a show of force and maybe even make workers feel that they have been counted in. This, sadly, is as true of the supposedly radical/left parties as those that are hardly worker-friendly.

Sometime in 1988, just after the United Socialist Alliance (USA) came off a distant second best in the first set of Provincial Council elections (the SLFP decided to boycott), the Lanka Guardian (or was it the Christian Worker?) carried an article titled ‘After the election debacle which way for the Left?’ A pro-JVP writer came with a cutting reply to the query: ‘Right!’ It’s been more than two decades since this happened and it looks like the ‘Left’ has taken the advice.

The ‘leftists’ have long since abandoned the class project. They’ve embraced women, the environment, sustainable development, climate change, human rights and that very ‘milkable’ cow called conflict resolution, especially its ethnic-breed. All less-class than the working class.

Don’t take my word for it but try finding a single party that has any cogent analysis of global capitalism, its various articulations, its logic, its fault-lines and what it does to people, communities, nations and the environment. The Socialist Equality Party would come close, but they would stutter when it comes to the issues pertaining to modernity and the paradigms of development therein, the things that have been taken in the ‘going-without-saying’ way of living and letting live.

The problem is one of not being able to grasp that the objectors to the status quo were for decades distracted by a poor, incomplete, lazy and reductionist understanding of the term ‘Left’ and one which was extremely unappreciative of nuance and temporality. Treating labour and labour politics as some kind of Marxist preserve and happy to limit engagement to sloganeering and the limited universe of action that sloganeering prompts, the organized left by default ended up willingly or unwillingly, knowingly or unknowingly hitching their hopes to the Soviet Ship. When it sank, so did the Left.

Where is the Left now? The Communist Party is with a Government that certain Leftist commentators like to call ‘populist’ or ‘a creature of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism’. The same goes for the LSSP. If there were no ‘National Lists’ and if Mahinda Rajapaksa was not the generous kind, the LSSP would not have any presence in this Parliament.

The fall of the Berlin Wall turned thousands of leftists into political refugees. Unlike other refugees they found a ‘promised/promising land’: I/NGOs. Their ‘activistic’ urges and their need to keep their leftist badge meant that they had a comparative advantage. I/NGOs have been described as the New Zamindars. The leftist PDPs (Politically Displaced People) suddenly realized they could keep their leftist pretensions and still make bucks. They had a ball, playing according to the tune of their new masters, i.e. individuals and organizations whose agenda could hardly be called ‘leftist’.

What went wrong? I think the left got their knickers twisted in the terminology. They never paused to ask why they were allowed to engage in saber-rattling about capitalism but were toilet-trained not to piss on ‘modernity’, ‘modernism’, ‘progress’ or ‘science’. None of these terms are ideology-free or innocent. They all flow from a certain philosophical paradigm that privileges certain kinds of historical trajectories. This is why Marx saluted the colonial enterprise and saw it as ‘progressive’.
Marxism tied us to the myth of progress and we got hooked on to the allure of modernism. We’ve ravaged the earth and consumed to the point of extinction, and are still caught in the capitalist-socialism debate and are hardly ready to consider the fact that there can be non-Marxist forms of socialism and that the left-right dichotomy is patently false.

Today is May Day. Is the worker living in a paradise a la ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’? No. Things are not rosy, but things certainly are better than they were half a century ago. Yes, Marxists have played a role. Non-Marxist trade unionists too have done their bit. And, strangely enough, so have the so-called ‘right wing’. It was in the interest of capitalism’s survival that the working class in the USA got the ‘New Deal’ after all.

There still is exploitation, extraction of surplus value absence and/or denial of rights, laws and a manifest reluctance to apply them, and regulations that are ignored. President Mahinda Rajapaksa when he was Labour Minister commissioned a Workers’ Charter. That was scuttled by the then President and her capitalist friends. Chandrika Kumaratunga pooh-poohed labour struggles and demands saying that she was against ‘freedom of the wild ass’, even as she was bending over backwards to grant wild-ass-freedom to her corporate friends.

There’s logic in struggling, because the terms of exploitation can and should be re-negotiated. But the workers of the world can relax; they’ve got nothing to lose than the chains that the Marxists and so-called Leftists put on your minds. They have no place for ‘class’ any more. And certainly not the working class.

The anthima satana (the last battle) that the Left spoke about then is discarding Marxist baggage along with neo-liberal capitalism and all the rubbish arguments pertaining to progress. That’s something to think about this May Day.

*This article was first published 6 years ago in the Daily News (May 1, 2010).