State and expropriation of PropertyNovember 13, 2011, 8:05 pm
The assertion of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, a French anarcho-socialist philosopher, that property is theft (What is Property? Or, an Inquiry into the Principle of Right and Government) is well-known to students of political science. The word ‘theftocracy’ was used by Managala Samaraweera to denounce President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his family and associates in the discussion on The Revival of Underperforming Enterprises and Underutilized Assets Bill (RUEUAB). As the term property is now used loosely, it is pertinent at the outset to define what I mean in the course of this article by property since the term is subjected to gross misinterpretation in the human right discourse. There are two kinds of property, exploitative and non-exploitative. If a person individually or as part of a family own a house for their living, the house can be put into the category of non-exploitative property while a house that is rented to get rent income or a factory that is deployed to exploit labour to earn profit belongs to exploitative category. Proudhon in fact had in mind the second category of property when he denounced it as theft.
I am not personally interested in content of The Revival of Underperforming Enterprises and Underutilized Assets Bill that was passed by a majority of 76 votes in Parliament on last Wednesday. The Bill received 122 votes in favour and 46 against (The Island, Nov. 10, 2011). However, I found the debate around it in the last week or so was rather interesting. When the business take-over bill was presented to Parliament In the early 1970s, poor people especially workers were so enthusiastic as they perceived it as a step towards a more democratic property structure in which they would be given substantial powers in decision-making. Of course, it had not produced such a structure, instead it created a new layer of state and trade union bureaucracy. The time has changed since then so that the people are not interested in as to who own the property, the state or private companies. This time debate went on at an elite level. This is definitely not an anti-capitalist legislation. Minister Sarath Amunugama informed Parliament that the government had no intention to run these enterprises as state enterprises and therefore would be eventually handed over back to the private sector. So the objective of the debate is simple; to which private individuals or companies would be given to run these companies. The Hela Urumaya and National Freedom Front were absent when the vote was taken showing a semblance of independence of the dominant view of the government. I am sad that the members of the left parties failed to show even a small degree of independence when the 18th Amendment to the Constitution was presented to Parliament.
In opposing the Bill, the Buddhist monks, politicians, human rights lawyers, media people and many others showed that whatever the rhetoric they have been using they are much more concerned about property rights than anything else. Four main criticisms were levelled against the RUEUAB. The first, criticism was that the RUEUAB was against the class of Sinhala-Buddhist entrepreneurs. Ranil Wickramasinghe who in normal situation prefers not to use racist language came forward bringing Tamil-Sinhala dispute to the debate by saying that the government was treating ex-LTTE Tamil leaders and Sinhala entrepreneurs in different ways. The position had later been extended by others adding another adjective, Sinhala-Buddhist. Although the objective of this is to use nationalist rhetoric, it might have led Hela Urumaya, the NFF and the JVP not to be present in Parliament at the time of voting. Secondly, the bill was criticised over the ground that it would affect adversely the economic development the main pillar of which was identified as the private sector. The arbitrary take-over of private enterprises by the state would discourage private investment in spite of the favourable changes in the post-war context. The government was aware of this negative impact of the bill so that it tried hard through negotiations with business organisations to minimise this by ensuring that this was a once-and-for-all legislation and will not be used against private enterprises. This second criticism that is associated with the development logic has validity.
The third critics that include human right lawyers sought to deploy the argument of human right as it was defined in the liberal human right discourse. According to them right to property is a basic human right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In my opinion, the Article 17 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights should be interpreted today only with regard to non-exploitative property. The Article 17 states that "(1) Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others; and (2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his or [her] property." In case of non-exploitative property, all states should strictly adhere to this rule. Exploitative property is an outcome of theft if the term,theft is defined as an expropriation of something either through force or deception or both. In that sense, I believe that the protesters in New York and other big cities around the world have in terms of the Article 23of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights an inalienable right of, if they decide to do so, occupying the Wall Street.The fourth criticism that came from Udaya Gammanpila of Hela Urumaya was, in my opinion, the strongest argument against the bill. According to this view, the bill violates the basic notion of separation of power. The bill definitely oversteps the power of the legislature by listing the companies that come under the criteria given in the bill. Once the bill is passed, the aggrieved parties could not complain the judiciary.
In supporting the RUEUAB, the arguments put forward by Minister Basil Rajapaksa were self-contradictory. In arguing against the critics who talked about discrimination on the basis of nationality and political affiliation, he informed that "There is no political motive behind this Bill, which has been introduced to safeguard public interest". In support of his argument, he informed that the institutions that had been earmarked for takeover had been selected after careful scrutiny and among them was property owned by a government minister as well as a Chairman of a Corporation. Now a bigger question arises. If these properties are owned by a government minister and chairman of a corporation and if there are evidence that the minister and the chairman failed to run their own companies utilising resources fully and profitably on what ground they were appointed to perform their present duties as a Minister and Chairman of the Corporation. Why do the government continue to keep them in such an important position even after it was clear that they are ineffective?
The debate has also revealed that in Sri Lanka not only the government but also the private sector operate disregarding the laws of the land. If what Minister Basil Rajapaksa revealed is true private companies avoid tax, refuse to contribute to EPF, operate outside the mandate given and above all exploit toiling masses. It is clear neither the government nor the private companies address these issues, and it is incumbent upon the trade unions and other associations of the toiling masses to bring these issues to the political agenda and organise resistance to overcome them.
The writer teaches political economy at the University of Peradeniya.