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Caciquism and the slide to dictatorship

[Lakbima News, Sunday, 28 March 2010 10:53 No Comment]

by Kumar David

Caciquism is not a commonly used term but it is timely we inject it into our political lexicon. It is a system of rule by local political bosses, each in his fiefdom; say Mervyn in Kelaniya and the Colombo underworld, relatives as satraps in Gampaha, Moneragala and Hambantota, and other political louts apportioning Sri Lanka among themselves and running amuck in their fiefdoms. The police, the administration and even private individuals in each prefecture exist in fealty to the cacique. A cacique is actually a satrap, an under-lord who survives by virtue of toadying to a great Overlord to whom he must deliver unquestioning loyalty, songs of praise, devotion to dynasty, and of course in the modern context, votes.

20-1 This is significantly different from the better known third world ‘crony capitalism’, but includes it, though in caciquism the territorial aspect dominates. A real variant of crony capitalism, however, is the cacique system in our state corporations and regulatory agencies such as Telecoms. Strictly this is not crony capitalism but a variant, since these bosses are not entrepreneurial capitalists pandering to a plutocracy for opportunities and advantages in business. No, the bosses in state enterprises are persons unfit for the task (Mihin, TRC, Petroleum, Treasury, you name it) who hold a sinecure by virtue of family relationship, political association or private usefulness. This is a deviation from the practice of previous governments where, admittedly persons of loyalty were chosen, but from amongst those with some competence in the subject; well, at least some of the time.

Caciquism and elected despotism

I am not quite sure whether Sri Lanka is the prime example of the cacique system in the world today; it may well be. Previously I have compared our regime, within a Marxist reading, to Marcos type authoritarianism, crony capitalism, and patron-client relationships. These comparisons are valid but they miss what is distinctive about the Lankan case. What is distinctive is that we are moving in the direction of a populist elected dictatorship which exists in symbiosis with a network of regional agents who have made politics a business, a business to reap profits and usurp power. The flip side is that in our case the Overlord is popularly elected, even if rigged within an imaginable degree of credibility, and the cacique must stabilize a local power base, deliver votes, plaster walls with posters and cut-outs, and lead the masses in hosannas to the conquering lord.

The flop side of the relationship is what the cacique collects. The country is overrun by thousands of candidates desperate to serve the nation. Like teenagers fighting for tickets at a Michael Jackson show they wrestle to enter parliament. How wonderful their altruism! They overrun each other’s campaign offices and beat up each other’s agents. Their desire to serve you and me is so blistering that they will burn down our homes if we get in the way.

Or has politics become the most lucrative business in town? The cacique cannot serve you and me without despoiling the city with thousands of sickening posters of his image fawning, grovelling and grinning beside the Overlord. Above all, just as satraps of old needed an edict from the emperor to commission their appointment, so present day caciques need UPFA nomination papers. From the rubber trees of Ratnapura to the ruins of Anuradhapura, from the barrenness of Moneragala to the city lights of Colombo, they fight, they beseech and they implore nomination, the opportunity to serve us. Bless them! Opposition caciques wait for the moment when they can walk across the floor of the House. Bless them too!

Symbiosis and supplement

I think it was in 1833 that Lord Macaulay is reported to have written: “It is an evil that any man should be above the law; it is a still greater evil that the public mind should be taught to regard as a high and venerable distinction, the privilege of being above the law”. I was taken aback by a newspaper report that President Rajapaksa had declared at a recent election rally that he is above the law – I haven’t seen a denial and wouldn’t be surprised if this is what he really thinks. The real problem lies not in Presidential delusions but in public complicity in social autism; “the greater evil (is that) the public mind” is complicit in this putrefaction.

The worrisome erosion of democracy in public-politician partnerships was a process that started with the surrender of public ethics to market forces; a natural consequence of neo-liberal economics pervasive since the 1980s. The new morality pre-softened our brains into accepting an ‘I’m alright, Jack who cares about the big picture’ morality whose terminal stage is political venality of the people themselves in a patron-client relationship with the prevailing caciques. War too was a great destroyer of rational thought and victory an overdose of dopamine predisposing the population to unscrupulous deals with a sleazy plutocracy. What is happening in Sri Lanka today, at one level is shoddy politics which can be corrected only by the compulsory culling of venal politicians; at another level it is a social phenomenon in the unfolding.

The slide to dictatorship in a setting of elected populism, and the escalation of caciquism, complement and supplement each other; complement in the sense that they support each other in a symbiotic relationship as described in previous paragraphs, they supplement each other in that each satisfies needs that the other is not well suited to serve. It is the political corruption of the people themselves that underpins the supplementary relationship. The organs of state and administration are paralysed and the caciquist patron is the intermediary in finding employment, arranging a transfer, or putting in a word with the police. This is a slither to despotism in an era of decaying bourgeois democracy. It is not the rise of fascism, it is a creature of a different nature and the process of evolution is different. This is a process that originated in the abdication of public morality in a public embrace of neo-liberal market values; it proceeded by way of brewing race hate in a 30-year war culminating in mass intoxication in the opium of war victory; it has now settled into a network of patron-client relationships of gross mutual opportunism.

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