Feature Article

Redefining modernity as alternative to extractivist Capitalism: Houtart in 2016

[TamilNet, Friday, 07 July 2017, 08:47 GMT]
In a tribute to the Belgiam-born Marxist sociologist Emeritus Professor Rev. Francois Houtart who recently passed away, TamilNet publishes an interview recorded with him last year when 2016 Mu'l'livaaykkaal Remembrance was commemorated in Quito, Ecuador. In the interview, which centred on his experiences on Latin American discourses, Rev Houtart said: “We need to redefine modernity, a modernity absorbed by the capitalist system, a mistake done by socialist countries of Europe and China, who have not redefined the definition of modernity and have thus taken to afflicting the people”. He pointed out that radical change of the capitalist system in place in a region was not easy, as it alerted and brought about the US interventions to destroy it as witnessed in Grenada, Panama, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba.

He said that radical change cannot happen within a short period of time, but will occur through a period of transitions, through the creation of new paradigms, that form the alternative to the capitalist system.

Alternatives to the capitalist system are grounded in the experiments through struggles against the status quo of the existing paradigms. The oppressed peoples and progressive forces have materialized revolutionary experiences of governance and collective existence, which can guide the future generations through the needed transitions.

The Tamil Eelam liberation struggle against the unitary Sri Lanka, which is a state constructed by colonial western imperialism and is maintained by the neo-colonial and world domination successors, is also a struggle against the injustice of the world system.

Fr Houtart passed away at the age of 92 in Ecuador on 06 June 2017. His demise occurred while he was taking part in a conference on Eezham Tamils with German-based Sinhala activist Viraj Mendis at Quito.

Houtart’s contribution in coming to the aid of the Eezham Tamils post-2009 was without comparison, the exiled Sinhala activist told TamilNet.

“Post Mullivaikkal, Francois’ contribution is of a different level to other internationally renowned intellectuals, because of the practical consequences of his intervention to the cause of the Eelam Tamils. Firstly, without his strenuous engagement it would have been inconceivable that the Permanent People’s Tribunal (PPT) would have agreed to take up the Eelam Tamil case so early and so decisively,” Viraj said.

“Secondly, Francois was the critical link that brought the indigenous people in Ecuador together with the Eelam Tamils in such a consequential way. This is why I believe that Francois’ contribution in coming to the aid of the Eelam Tamils post 2009 is without comparison,” he further commented.

* * *

A particular aspect in the interview is what Eezham Tamils could learn from the perspectives of Houtart on Latin America, especially at this juncture, when the West is promoting an extractivist model of Capitalism through IMF, World Bank, United Nations operated agencies on the ground and a number of NGOs deployed to facilitate the agenda.

On 19 May 2917, SL Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe was talking in Jaffna about the ‘Development’ outlook with massive construction projects.  In order to divert investors into North, a special IMF-negotiated ‘arrangement’ has been made, Mr Wickramasinghe said.

“You don't pay taxes until you make a profit. And, from the profit, you are entitled to 100% depreciation tax-free. Hundred per cent! But, if you locate in the North before 31st of December 2019, you are entitled to 200%! It is to get people into the Northern Province,” he went on talking about Task Forces being created in Colombo to bring investors into Jaffna and North. 

Responding, NPC Chief Minister Justice C.V. Wigneswaran said: “We are as a Nation conscious of our antiquity and our ancient classical language. The older generation among us still approve of the adage high thinking and simple living.”

“We cannot be used as a vassal Province for the benefit of wayward investors. We are proud of our heritage; we like to live a life of our own rather that be dictated to by outsiders. But we are most certainly willing to join in earnest co-operation in the economic field, like in co-operative federalism in the field of politic,” Wigneswaran responded.

“Next, I like to advert to the fact that we work on the principle “small is beautiful”. Unfortunately, modern economy treats natural resources as expendable income when in fact they should be treated as capital and/or community assets since they are not renewable and thus subject to eventual depletion. We do not want to be avaritious for more and more profit at the expense of our happiness and depletion of our resources,” Wigneswaran said in his address.

“There must be appropriate use of technology to engender “enoughness” in prosperity appreciating both human needs and limitations. We have started questioning the oft repeated clichés which say “Growth is good and that “bigger is better,” he said.

“We prefer to follow the process of production by the masses rather than mass production to ensure community empowerment bearing in mind the need for sustainability. Mass production in developed countries have brought enough problems. Ours is a simple but ancient civilization. Our heritage has produced some of world’s greatest scientists and economists but they have remained simple and humble,” Justice Wigneswaran said.

In this context, Houtart’s Economic perspectives based on the discourses in Latin America should be more enlightening to the grass-roots among the Eezham Tamils in conceiving alternative paradigm to the Colombo-centric ‘development’ deception.

* * *

In the interview with TamilNet in 2016, the late Houtart illuminated his long-standing engagement with the peoples of Latin America.

“My involvement was …with social movements, revolutionary moments such as the Sandinista, over a 15 years period I have spent several months there annually, helping them with sociological analysis, and in the education of their people. I worked with a movement of landless peasants in Brazil, workers movements in Argentina, and later with progressive governments in Latin America, Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador.”

Although working with progressive governments, he underlined the need for a critical approach from the point of view of the people and grass roots, not just garlanding the positive changes. “They reconstructed the state and gave more access to the marginalized people in terms of education and health care. They are post-neoliberalist but not post-capitalist, they still leave the economy in the hands of ‘new capitalists’, like president Rafael Correra, who says, ‘We are constructing a modern capitalism‘.

“A capitalism where struggle against poverty is accepted, as it increases the consuming capacity, and where we accept formal labour and social security more than informal labour which means taxes are increased, that is the government aiding in increasing citizens’ process of capital accumulation, the contradictions under the previous system are thus reproduced and conflicts will rise”, Houtart said, pointing out the cases of even so-called communist states such China and the later USSR.

He underlined that a focus on mere ‘reform’ without structural changes and reconfiguration of political power, the state and social structures, the root causes and contradictions plaguing societies and fermenting political conflict will be reproduced.

Using a different but similar logic, the harping on reform within the unitary state means exactly the same for Eezham Tamils; the reproduction of the structures and forces of structural genocide and national oppression.

Houtart had been involved in Latin America for decades, an interest which initially arose during his studies in Belgium and the U.S.A., during which he established links with progressives from Latin America. As a result, he spent months with the organization Young Christians Workers in Latin America, which worked closely with oppressed classes and people, a time which impressed deeply upon him. “It was an exciting experience, to visit a continent not from upstairs but from downstairs. To see the reactions of people facing social structures,” he said.

In the beginning of his involvement he proposed to conduct a general survey of the social-religious situation in Latin America, since what was known (to the world) was from the head of the churches and this (representation) did not correspond to reality.

“I was interested in a sociological approach, not merely a religious approach, as the religious situation cannot be understood without reference to what the economical political and cultural situation is, it the part of the whole.”

Regarding a socio-religious perspective he advocated, he underlined the complexities of religion and society across historical and cultural contexts.

“Traditionally the church was allied with the traditional powers, the economic and political powers, and in different countries with the conservative parties. We did not have like in Europe, a reaction of the popular classes against the Church, it was more among the intellectuals. The popular base of religion was quite important in Latin America, it was not an institutional faith, it was popular,” Houtart said.

“They decided what to believe in, not what the hierarchy of the Church decided, albeit they respected the hierarchy, as they were believed to hold the keys for salvation. So there was a relation between the very conservative church allied with the oppressive forces of the popular peoples, on the other side the popular milieus, with profound religious conviction, and because of that they ended up supporting the religious hierarchy despite being in disagreement with their political stand”.

There are lessons for Tamils to grasp and to perceive their own national struggle through similar lenses to understand the difference between institutionalized religion aligned through various mechanisms of finance and other capital with the state establishment or external powers and traditional hierarchy, and the forms of religious conviction present among the grass-roots and great masses of people.

Such an understanding opens the way to perceive the organic manner in which such beliefs of the popular or folk stratum is altered or translated into the language of revolution and struggle. Hence they become inherent elements of the mass participation in revolutionary struggles against the state establishment and the structures of oppressive forces. In the Tamil context, such oppressive elements remain in the unitary state and the various sections of Sinhala elites that operate it and, of course, the external backers of the Colombo-centric system.

Houtart witnessed a renewal of Catholicism in Latin America.

“The people themselves took to their hands the organization of their belief, and were supported by the most progressive of priests and bishops. This was the birth of Liberation Theology, the poor and the struggle of the oppressed, is the place where God exists, hence the identification with the struggles of the people, especially during the time of dictatorship and promotion of neo-liberal policies,” he said in the interview.

“Hence these two phenomena, the theology of the liberation, and the organization of communities which was occurring in many aspects of life, interlocked. It brought Catholics and Christians closer to the social struggles of peoples, those of peasants, workers, women and etc”.

He recounts an incident when he was invited to hold a lecture by the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party, on the ‘sociology of religion’ as Cuban Marxist intellectuals were interested in grasping the religious dimension of the struggle on their continent.

* * *

The dictum religion as the opium of the people, did not suit the reality in Latin America, where one had Christians deeply committed to social and revolutionary movements such as in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua.

He then underscored the necessity for ground-based research to study such specific configurations aligned with Marxists or socially engaged approaches. “So we concluded the sessions, with the agreement that, religion is of course often the opium of the people, but not on all occasions, it can also be motivation from revolutionary commitment.”

“If you are really a Marxist you cannot be dogmatic, you have to see and study what is reality”.

At a time Western funded and designed political and academic paradigm of ‘religious conflict’ is being employed in full force to distort and denationalize the Tamil national question, the above aspects pointed out by Houtart, should be guiding the academics who are engaging in research in the affairs of Eezham Tamils.

Externally motivated outlook on the political conflict in the island, promoted through OHCHR and the UNHRC discourse as well as the neo-liberal development discourse, attempts to silence the democratically attested position of Eezham Tamils towards Tamil secular nationhood, self-determination, and sovereignty as well as seeking to silence the voices against ongoing structural genocide and national oppression of Eezham Tamils.

Moreover, it also is a reminder of the historically specific unfolding of social existence, where context and historical dialectics regulate the nature of phenomena. Hence, religion aligned as a component of the structural genocide of the unitary state and that of the oppressor, is different in nature from how religious beliefs or conviction should play into the dynamics of an oppressed people.

Rev. Francois Houtart, was amongst the first of world intellectuals to recognize the Tamil genocide following the onslaught in the Vanni in 2009, and had since been a pillar of solidarity for Eezham Tamils. He was central in facilitating the Dublin and Bremen based Permanent Peoples Tribunal on Sri Lanka, and was supporting solidarity activities in Latin America on behalf of the Eezham Tamil political struggle until his last breath.

A beacon of solidarity for the oppressed sections of Latin America for decades, Houtart also championed the causes of many oppressed nations and peoples in other parts of the world, through his active engagement with their grass-root movements and through the Permanent Peoples Tribunal.

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