The Sunday Leader

The New Feudalism

Election activity in Batticaloa

The election is over. Goats are eating the posters along the Batticaloa walls. People sit around television screens, watching colored bars. It was an anointing as much as an election, the communal blessing of President Rajapaksa and his heirs. People vote for a symbol, then numbers. It is in many ways symbolic. The ritual renewal of the new feudalism.

Feudalism

Feudalism is, loosely, rule by a king and his nobles. In Machiavellian terms, a Prince. The monarch makes agreements with regional warrior lords to control land. That language may more closely describe and predict our situation than that of liberal democracy. Not that we are not a democracy, as oft mentioned, we have a vote. But what are we voting for?

I spoke with Shanthi Sachithanandam of the new People’s Rights Party in Batticaloa. They lost, but she spoke to hundreds of people along the way. That party is on a quest to ally Tamil speaking people (including Muslims) and address common issues across all races before then settling the Tamil National issue. Which is, as it sounds, complicated. They lost to the TNA, which ran on a platform of Tamil Nationalism and not much us. The TNA is a coterie of men who have been representing Tamils for ages through a rather undemocratic party structure. Yet they won. They are the lords of that domain.

In a similar way, the UNP is a family organisation without any sort of party democracy to oust Ranil Wickremesinghe. He is a lord of that domain, and seems content with his place. The SLFP as well, once the preserve of the Bandaranaikes, is increasingly a Rajapaksa enterprise, such that a young Namal Rajapaksa can win the most votes in Hambantota. Such is the power of the name, heritage, and — in all honesty — trust.

The Good

Feudalism is often used as an epithet, as something that takes us back. Yet it isn’t necessarily bad. I spoke to one voter in Batticaloa and he seemed quite content with a candidate I mentioned, once he traced their family history. Because they then became a known quantity. When I mentioned Muslim candidates he shrugged and said ‘we don’t know’. He felt they’d cross to the government or not be connected to him.

Many Muslims, however, seem to play this game better than the Tamils. They vote in blocks for people from certain villages and then development projects flow to that village. As lord of that domain they bring back largesse from the center in exchange for tribute via tax. It is patronage politics. That is the model throughout the country now. The difference is that membership in the nobility is much more liquid than in the past.

This system works in a low-trust society without developed institutions. Kings can win wars and build things. By placating nobles they can unify a land and maintain a monopoly of violence. The old feudalism developed almost every country on Earth and the new feudalism may develop ours.

The Bad

The downside is that governance through human connection leaves a lot of people out. It is hugely inefficient and it limits opportunities for average, unconnected people. It tends to reward the unscrupulous and violent and punish the honest and wise. I would say that it goes against our democratic values, but I don’t think Sri Lanka possesses them in a visceral sense. It’s sort of a Trojan Horse that the British left behind, except it was empty. Our history is of kings and tanks and stupas and our present is mapped onto that past.

The Ugly

This is not to say that Sri Lanka is now a feudal country. We still have functioning democratic institutions which enable us to choose. It’s just that what we choose looks a lot like feudalism. We vote for a symbol which party leaders project. The party leaders themselves choose who runs under that symbol. The winners get titles and lands to control. The losers too get their own preserves, which they are just as disinclined to leave.

It is a political structure where a weak center controls land through agreements with regional leaders. Which is pretty much the Wikipedia definition of feudalism. The only difference is that instead of crowns we have ritual anointing via elections. We do have choice, but the greater similarities to liberal democracy end there. When Ms. Sachithanandam asked people whether their rights stopped with that cross, they had to think. Because they hadn’t thought of it before. Because they hadn’t had those rights before. Because, in many ways, we still don’t.

4 Comments for “The New Feudalism”

  1. Asela

    Feudalism by franchise or democratic feudalism, whatever name you may call it, is no longer an oxymoron and is not anachronistic for Sri Lanka!

    • Gabriella

      Couldn’t agree more with Asela. Democracy in Sri Lanka is in a state of evolutionary flux. Currently, an androgynous metamorphosis that reflects the national psyche. Does this condemn ‘us’ to oblivion or extinction ? Not necessarily . Lets see where the next evolutionary phase takes us. For the moment, lets marvel at the charitable cry of the masses: “Let them eat cake ; we will eat poonac .” Is there a more charitable people on earth? Or, is it due to the fact that we have been ‘bending-over’ for so long ; we have forgotten how to stand up straight ?

  2. Papadam

    When the feudal were UNPrs no body cautioned this way. The whole feudal structure was created by the UNP ancestry. The Senanayakes, Jayawardanes, Kotalawalas, Bandaranaikes, Ratwattes were the feudals; the very people who is talking otherwise did accept their dynasty. Now when it is in the hands of a Premadasa or a Rajapaksa it becomes a problem for many.

  3. VINTAGE VOTER

    WITH THE UPFA IN POWER SOON WE WILL HAVE TO GET TO THE POSTERS BEFORE THE GOATS. WE DONKEYS DESERVE THIS. REMEMBER THE PAST WHEN WE ATE OFF DUSTBINS. WELL THIS TIME THERE WONT BE ANYTHING
    BECAUSE WE WILL NOT BE ABLE TO AFFORD DUSTBINS. BY THE WAY OUR
    ONE ONLY CHAMPIKA WILL BE “RECYCLYING” THEM FOR FUEL FOR HIS THREE- RODHAS. SUBA ANAGATHAYK !!!!!!!!1

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