By Chrishmal Warnasuriya
May-Day As I Knew It:
The mid to late 70’s was a time when I was first introduced to the vociferous “Left”, by none other than my old man who would walk the streets tagging me along with his comrades; thus the chants of the “working class” calling for liberation of the proletariat were the first verses of rhyme that I eagerly repeated (hardly knowing their meaning) but were vividly edged in my memory, long before Shakespeare or Wordsworth was read to us in School. However today, despite two very sincere invites to address their respective May-Day gatherings, I was motivated to spend that time on these few thoughts instead, mostly as I pondered the question as to whether those battle-cries of that traditional “master/servant” relationship (“සාදුකින් පෙලනුවුන් දැන් ඉතින් නැගිටියව්”) were relevant any longer within our present socio-political realities.
Is there such a “class distinction” between a worker and his master today? What would be its victory (surely it can’t be to topple that means of production, end capitalism and for the “worker” to assume its ownership – “ධන බලේ නැතිකරව් – කම්කරු ආණ්ඩුවක් පිහිටවව්”)? If not, then what is “the struggle” today for the working-class man (if indeed that is still a relevant distinction) and what are its dynamics? I felt these would be at least some questions worth placing before you for a constructive dialogue, rather than how many hundreds of thousands attended which rally today?
The 21st Century “Class” Struggle – Distribution Of Global Resources:
Though I did try to do a quick research for more recent figures the last I was able to find were based on a World Bank report of 2014 which accounted approximately US $ 14,000/- as Gross Global Income, that is the GWP (gross world product) divided by the entire world population; thus I attempted (albeit rather arbitrarily) to repeat the same calculation on more recent figures, assuming global population to be 7 billion (including all categories, even non employable children) and allowing for increase in production, considering GWP to be US $ 100 trillion. On these figures every Sri Lankan must record an average income of over Rs. 200,000/- per month. As we know this is obviously not the case and would be nothing but a dream for even the most up-market white collar worker in Colombo; it would indeed be nothing but silly romanticism to expect an equal distribution of world produce but would it be unreasonable at least to expect some fairness in the distribution of resources?
Reality shows us that whilst the earning capacity of multi-national conglomerates has been increasing exponentially and becoming more and more centred amongst a smaller minority, those of particularly the working masses in countries like ours have been more or less static creating a larger percentage of lower income earners equally rapidly; thus increasing the “rich-poor gap” to unmanageable proportions.
Wealth distribution amongst some of the more powerful and influential multi-nationals have been so great that the Obama regime in fact brought in a policy dialogue (temporarily suspended by the Trump input) to recognize some such players equal to sovereign nation-states. Even now in international commercial law we have litigation where one party is a Regional or Global Organization opposed to a recognized country. We therefore need to critically evaluate the traditional “Master/Servant” class distinction in full view of these modern dynamics; the previous separation has fast evolved into a new equation between “haves” and “have nots” with a natural tendency of many other social forces to gather around the former, isolating the latter. For instance we will note that every known personality from the power-hungry politician who seeks to fund their campaign, the media mogul who will depend on corporate advertising to even those operating above the law tend to be drawn in to this network of the newly affluent “class”; it does not sometimes even spare the so called “educated” elite or professional; they are all “members of the club”.
Thus the “have-not class” that depend on this affluent class for their employment or daily survival not only have a struggle to mount against their employer for fair play but also this entire social strata that have been woven around that “class” holding the means of their income; and that we know is a battle they will hardly survive without an input from at least some of us.
Is The 8hr Working Day / 16hr Rest Relevant Any Longer:
It is within this scenario that we will need to consider whether the 8 hour working-day that was fought for all those years ago and other similar “working class struggles” are relevant any longer. For many of these workers there is no longer a compulsion by their employer to work extra hours but it is a sheer economic necessity that they do so; indeed the question would be how many such “overtime hours” will they be entitled to just to take the bacon home. How many of these workers will have the benefit of enjoying a weekend off with their children, going to a movie with their family or even simply taking the kids to the park to play with?
This being the socio-economic reality of the day, how many hundreds of thousands do we see rallying behind their political-masters call to attend a May-Day rally, shouting their voices hoarse and walking literally miles in the hot sun or miserable rain, simply to pump-up the ego of their rural leader; who unknown to them is actually either from that “affluent class” or very closely manipulated by it? When will we get this message across to these innocent, unassuming masses?
The New “Affluent Class” Within Neo Liberal / Capitalist Reality:
The sooner we realise this political reality, the sooner we will start building a new nation of free and independent Sri Lankans. Even if some of us may (or perhaps be perceived as belonging) to this minority of the affluent class, there is a wider duty on us to explain this to our simple fellow Sri Lankan who continues to trudge those miles every year on May-Day with a forced smile on his face, on an empty stomach; hoping for the breadcrumbs to fall from their “political masters”. How many of these thousands of workers who attend these rallies will be able to influence their party leadership? Do those at the top of this party hierarchy even know these innocent people?
Until there is intra-party democracy we will continue to pay homage to a party leader and his cronies who will decide on everyone else’s political future; and the “affluent class” more often than not have that party leadership in their pocket! There is a valuable lesson for all of us to learn from the 8th of January silent revolution; simply changing a regime and putting another one in its place is not going to solve our problems until we change this manifestly corrupt party-driven political system.
Have The Winds Of Change Flown In From Another “French Revolution”:
Just as the 1790 French Revolution changed the political landscape then, not only in France but for the rest of Europe, we may see another emerging from the streets of Paris soon; as we hear of both the front runners for the French Presidency, Macron and Le Penn not deriving their mandate from traditional party lines but canvassing more on policy objectives; their own views based on their political beliefs to address the prevalent issues of the French polity.
This must be seen as a positive trend and it is hoped that we in Sri Lanka too, as indeed other areas of the globe where this cancerous party-politics have become a bane for social change and development will take a lesson from the French and look for similar alternatives; rather than accepting the status quo as it is and lamenting that there is nothing you can do to change it. It is only in doing so that we will address the real issues that face our “everyday people” in this country, the ones who struggle daily to simply make ends meet, who deserve much more than the simple “rice packet” or bottle they get when they attend a May-Day rally with their party leadership.
Power to the People!
(Chrishmal Warnasuriya is a life member of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL), a member of the International Bar Association (IBA) & the Association of Sri Lankan Lawyers UK (ASLLUK). He obtained a Master’s Degree in Laws (Hons) from King’s College and was thereafter granted conversion to the UK Bar.)