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As published in Echelon (artwork by same) 

May Day Rallies to me were a vague call back to communist absurdity, until I found out that the phenomenon actually started in America, and has more to do with the labor movement than communism. I’d always greeted it with appreciation; because like every Sri Lankan I appreciate the occasional holiday, them being so hard to come by and all that. This time though, volunteering with a movement of anti-hate activists, I found myself stepping out to distribute our message to rally attendees. As veteran activists assured us, there is no easier way to get your message across to otherwise practically unreachable corners of the island than to ambush the people when they gather in Colombo en masse.

May Day in Colombo is a crazy affair. Busloads of people are brought in from all over the country, hundreds of thousands of people gather in the city, they eat, they drink and they pay for nothing. Although no official figure is known, if the government’s claim that nearly 2 million people were ferried into the city this May is to be believed, then the cost for the whole day could have been close to a billion rupees. What is also unknown is who actually footed the bill. Mainstream media was silent on this particular nosy question.

Minor rallies attracting fewer people had move the staging area to the middle so that only half or even a quarter of the grounds were fully used. This seemingly absurd tactic succeeded in giving the illusion of a larger crowd, especially to the cameras. However the JVP rally drew massive crowds to the BRC grounds with its decorated floaters and people in red t-shirts with stylized pictures of Rohana Wijeweera, reminiscent of that iconic Che Guevara portrait, emblazoned on their backs.

The emasculation of the labor movement in Sri Lanka started before Wijeweera, in the 1950s, when it was at its peak. During its glory days the labor unions organized a series of successful strikes under the leadership of AE Goonasinge, who founded the movement in the 1920s. At the height of the power of Sri Lanka’s political left, which soon adopted the movement, the general strike and civil disobedience of 1953 brought the UNP government of Dudley Senanayake to its knees. A massive outbreak of what some called ‘hooliganism’ and others termed a ‘public uprising’ forced his resignation. The 1953 hartal represented the first and probably the last real instance when genuine public discontent was allowed an outlet via something close to ‘democratic’ means in independent Sri Lanka.

The general strike of 1980 for instance was less successful. The vicious crackdown of JR Jayawardene’s UNP only put the nails on its coffin. In a nation with the glimmerings of war already on the horizon, and politics highly oppressive, the labor movement had lost much of it potency. In the intervening decades, the once influential LSSP had split in to various parties touting Trotskyist, Maoist, Stalinist and other ideological manifestations of leftist thought and the labor movement had split along with it. Traditionally ‘capitalist’ parties had encroached it in a bid to dilute its power and transform it into a means of countering political opposition. In the process, public recourse to expression of dissent was quickly moving from democratic to undemocratic means. The eighties are a bloody testimony to this, with not one, but two insurgencies tearing the country asunder.

Alcohol and sycophancy go together. Now parliamentarians bring their own busloads of people whom they apparently ply with drink to appease. Indeed an overwhelming number of people we met that day were drunk. The scent of liquor and the doddering unpredictable congeniality of drunk people was everywhere. When we reached out to grab a number of caps that fell out of a bus carrying rally attendees, eager for any implement that would allow us to ‘blend in’, we found them soaked in vomit. At rallies that were starting off, people were enthusiastically shouting slogans and dancing to the beat of drums; at rallies that had gone on for a while, they were morose with a higher tendency to get into fights. After tactfully extricating ourselves from a tight spot we proceeded in the afternoon to a rally where the crowd, seemingly done partying for a while, was idly napping in corners of the grounds as the speaker onstage droned on about Engels and whatnot, as oblivious to the crowd as the crowd was to him.

What motivated them to come? Perhaps some came of their own accord, spending hundreds of rupees, from distant villages, in order to fight for the rights of the laborer in a broken system on a much needed holiday. But May Day today is less about the workers than the politicians that represent them. The money, in a rare example for our country, is flowing from the top to the bottom. It is the politicians that are bringing the workers into town. It is the politicians that are spending money, apparently motivating workers to fight for their own rights. The labor movement has been sabotaged by politics; its integrity sold for a free trip into the city, a lunch packet and a quarter bottle of liquor.

Today, any resemblance the labor movement has to a ‘people’s movement’ has all but disappeared. In a few decades, from the height of its power in 1953, it disintegrated from fighting for the people and toppling governments in their name to being an instrument for their subjugation. The failure of several attempted general strikes in the wake of utility price increases in recent weeks evidences its lack of cohesion and unity. May Day rallies today are a sad testimony to what infighting, politicization and a loss of purpose can perhaps do to any truly grassroots movement that strives to express the ‘people’s voice’ in our country. The labor movement is a body without a soul. A farce perpetuating an ongoing political charade.

 

Stylized picture of me 'working'

One of my favorite things to ponder on when i’m whizzing through Colombo traffic on my bike or when i’m stuck in it, unmoving, in my car is the nature of Work. That dreaded enemy of mankind.

Work is generally what brings us closest to reminding us that were are only a few notches of intellect and conscience above animals, i think. Its an allegory for everything that goes on in the wild.  We fight for survival, eliminate others for success. All for that 30 inch LCD TV and the BMW 7 series brother what? That’s how we roll. I could go on about stalking, hunting, the chase, blood lust, scavengers and rotten carcasses and drying bone. But there is a more important question, Why?

That’s a good question.

Of course, not all people fling themselves off the metaphorical career cliff into the surging waters of corporate advancement, some prefer to ease in, others prefer to rebel against it, even while swimming in it quite happily.

Delilah has a post on it, and Indi wrote about how most Sri Lankan men are languid creatures either drinking cause they don’t have much of a life or happy if they are from a ‘good family’ with a trust fund. By ‘most’ of course, he means some.

What is the point of this post? I don’t know. What is the point of work? To live? sure. But what beyond that? I for myself find that i can’t do anything for long if i don’t like it even if i get paid a million dollars a month (of course i’m lying, i’d probably do a lot of stuff for that kind of money).

Jack Point says “If you like what you do, then its not work”. But do you like what you do after you start doing it or do you pick what you like before you do it? A lot of us are stuck in jobs we don’t like. A lot of us don’t really know what we want, but we just know that what we have is not it.

So then what do you do? Do you fling caution to the wind and quit, and experiment around with a  few different things? A sort of a quest of self discovery? That can quickly turn into unemployment if that ‘caution’ you’re throwing turns out to be heading for one of those massive industrial fans.

I guess it depends on how tied down you are with responsibilities and obligations, these things are chokeholds. And like a dog on a leash they hold you back. You can step away and go sniff the grass and unrinate on my bike but step too far and your leash will tighten around your neck.

I guess what i’m trying to say is we should all experiment when we can. As in when we are young and we aren’t carrying any boulders around. But if you’re happy where you are then great stuff.

By working faithfully eight hours a day you may eventually get to be boss and work twelve hours a day – Robert Frost

Is pretty much the Mahinda regime’s economic style. Everything is geared to help the farmer, at least within the confines of the silver-tongued one’s silver tongue. Taxes on basic goods that all but cripple the people are said to be tariff protection to ‘protect the farmers livelihoods’. This is of course, utter tosh. And we dont even have to go down the road to discern the long-term damages that tariff protections cause to find out why; most goods that are taxed heavily aren’t even produced here. So which farmers are we protecting then?

This was the answer that was almost violently espoused at last night’s Rupavahini televised press conference when a reporter dared to ask the president why, even after the war was over, were some essential goods still being taxed heavily. The president responded with what i can only say was a babble of words strategically designed to fall directly into the cultivating proletariat’s heart that totally and uncaringly bypassed the  intelligent listener in the form of utter BS.

All i could hear were weighty words like ‘village’, ‘ farmer’, ‘fertiliser subsidy’, ‘farmer’, ‘village’ etc. The question asked bore no relation to the point of the answer. Indeed the answer had no point. It was a surge of propaganda from the leader’s mouth designed to provoke an upsurge of gratefulness in the hearts of villagers who grow things, arguably the class of people the larger majority of the country are affiliated with.

But that same majority are even worse off due to high costs of living. And could they be really stupid enough to be duped by heavy words and disconnected theories to explain away their strife? The president is basically telling us that by increasing our costs of living, he is increasing our wealth. If he is right, then socialist-farmernomics is the end-all revolution in economics. And im a burnt scarecrow.

But who really gives a fuck anymore?

Socialism is dead. It is so dead that even the Russians dont practice it anymore. Its strange to see posters about it on Sri Lankan walls though..

19th – Martin Luther King day. He had a dream! of a free country. Of equality, of black people living in a united America.

20th – First black president comes to power. In the United States! A free and equal America is finally realized and undeniably proven to the rest of the word

21th – Death of Lenin, a kick in the face of the last big ‘enemy’ of the ‘free world’

You are dead. We are alive and stonger than EVER! look out Iran and Islamic Fundamentalism.

Am I too conspiratorial or was it all just a calenderial coincidence?

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