“Origins of the Present Crisis” in Malaysia
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“Origins of the Present Crisis” in Malaysia

“Origins of the Present Crisis” in Malaysia

Image source: English Questions by Perry Anderson

In 1964 in New Left Review Perry Anderson published an essay titled “Origins of the Present Crisis” which became the basis for a critique of left-wing understandings of British capitalism and the power of the British state. Central to this were questions of the place of a structural analysis of British society within socialist thought and the nature of capitalist crisis and class power in Britain. Read in the context of contemporary Malaysia it could be argued, that Anderson’s insights can usefully form the basis for a broad structural analysis of Malaysian society, and a means to outline the nature of class power and the contemporary nature of political and economic crisis in the country.

The Crisis in Britain

“Two commanding facts  confront  socialists in  Britain  today” argues Anderson, a “profound,  pervasive but cryptic crisis, undramatic in appearance, but ubiquitous in its reverberations” and, linked to this, the decline of the Labour government of the day. What was missing from political writing of the period, argued Anderson, was a systematic reading of the crisis. Political writing offered only symptoms but not diagnoses because they ignored the historical dimensions of the crisis.

As Anderson would go onto argue:

We [Britain] must be unique among advanced industrial nations in having not one single structural study of our society today; but this stupefying absence follows logically from the complete lack of any serious global history of British society in the 20th century. The limits of our sociology reflect the nervelessness of our historiography. Marxist historians, whose mature works are only now beginning to emerge and consolidate each other, have so far nearly all confined themselves to the heroic periods of English history, the 17th and early 19th centuries: most of the 18th and all of the 20th remain unexplored. Thus no attempt has ever been made at even the outline of a ‘totalizing’ history of modern British society. Yet until our view of Britain today is grounded in some vision of its full, effective past, however misconceived and transient this may initially be, we will continue to lack the basis for any understanding of the dialectical movements of our society, and hence—necessarily—of the contradictory possibilities within it which alone can yield a strategy for socialism.

What was necessary then was a linking up of the contemporary dynamics of capitalist rule and class power, with the historical process through which both came to be. In turning British socialism to the past Anderson would go on to highlight a few key aspects of British capitalist development.

The first of these was the fact that England’s bourgeois revolution was the earliest, “most mediated” and least pure of any major European country.  Thus whereas other European bourgeois revolutions had seen a rising capitalist class seize hold of the state apparatus and depose the old order, British development occurred differently. Occurring initially through the English civil war bourgeois revolution in England formed the “the most obscure and controversial of all the great upheavals which lead to the creation of a modern, capitalist Europe”.  It took the form of a conflict of two segments of the land-owning elite, neither of which “were direct crystallizations of opposed economic interests” but were “intelligible lenses” through which broader antagonistic social forces came into focus, a sort of stage for broader social antagonisms. This was for Anderson a “revolution by proxy”. The English bourgeoisie benefited but were not the main protagonists, and the main protagonists were rural not urban, and the central struggle was over the economic, political and religious role of the monarchy. Such a revolution by proxy led by non-bourgeois classes entailed then the fact that in the long run the Civil War, whilst transforming the state structure in some ways, didn’t transform the personnel of the ruling class, it didn’t displace a social group or class, but rather changed the approach of the ruling class to the state.  Nor then did it give power to a militant bourgeois ideology. The effects of the Civil War were then to be as follows:

For the next hundred years the British aristocracy proceeded to perfect the ruthless and richly rewarding triad system of capitalist landlord, tenant farmer and landless agricultural labourer, which destroyed the English peasantry and made Britain the most agriculturally efficient country in the world. But no career open to talents, no enlarged franchise, no weakening of the principles of heredity and hierarchy, followed this. Landed aristocrats, large and small, continued to rule England.

The second aspect was the fact that the English industrial revolution coincided with a period of international counter-revolutionary war in the aftermath of the French Revolution. The effect of this was to ensure the rising British manufacturing class allied itself to the aristocracy to ward off popular revolution in Britain. The direct assumption of bourgeois power took the form then of a slow cumulative process. After 1832 the new middle class continued to elect progressive elements of the old aristocracy. Even by 1865 Parliament remained made up of the same kinship network in a process described by Anderson as “delegation of power by one distinct social class to another”. The direct assumption state power by the bourgeoisie took the form then of a slow symbiosis of classes, central to which was the development of education in allowing bourgeois families to enter into the ruling class.

What enabled this process to succeed was for Anderson two factors, the first, the fact that the British proletariat emerged on the scene prematurely, before the development of socialist ideology and mature working class organisation. The second, the fact that Britain’s external imperial engagements helped to “set” British society in a fixed matrix, externally maintaining its class structure.

This process gave the power structure of British society a unique form. The continuing feudal structure of the British state (the monarchy, House of Lords, Church etc.) didn’t refer to the economic structure of British society but helped to “camouflage” this a class structure, “intensifying [against the visible elements of class power] and displacing [away from the true elements of] class-consciousness”, thus neutralising class struggle. Such a process contributed to other aspects of British political life: the absence of dominant ideological elements in political life, in preference of prejudices and taboos and the ruling ideology of traditionalism and empiricism, and a social imperialism which if not directly benefiting the working class, tied them to a national frame and a colonial style of leadership which emphasised a distinction between ruling class and ruled.

Returning to the crisis of the 1960s Anderson would then go on to argue that in understanding the contemporary nature of power in British society, this history of ruling class power had to be understood and this would require a more complex understanding of the nature of power in capitalist societies.

In the long run, to be sure, power coincides with control of the means of production. But at any given moment of history, this is not necessarily true. On the contrary, what is needed is not a reassertion of the banality that power ultimately derives from the pattern of ownership in a society; the urgent need is for a concrete typology of the different modalities of power today. A whole spectrum of possibilities exist, realized in more or less pure forms in different societies at different epochs.

Yet beyond the question of forms of power, Anderson would also call for socialist analysis to be sensitive to the nature of historical development in which these forms of power were produced. Central to this was the argument that the development of Britain’s political-economic system had historically followed the path of least resistance, avoiding the rigours of class conflict and significant intra-elite conflicts, avoiding economic overhaul after early industrial development and avoiding cultural revolution. The nature of the crisis of the 1960s lay then for Anderson directly in the earlier ability of the English ruling class to avoid the revolutionary path and to choose a persistent reformist path, producing the gradual conditions for economic decline, cultural provincialism and a declining government class. As Anderson would conclude, “All these burdens of the present have their origins in blessings of the past.”

Outlines of the Development of Class Power in Malaysia

Can Anderson’s work contribute to an understanding of the development of class power in Malaysia, a country similarly lacking in contemporary structural analyses? Here three aspects of Anderson’s thesis appear relevant. The first, bourgeois revolution without the leadership of a bourgeoisie (bourgeois revolution by proxy), the second, the taking place of bourgeois revolution in a period of counter-revolution and finally the nature of the power structure in Malaysian society that these processes have produced.

The first of these is defined by the long process of bourgeois revolution in Malaya. The way in which the British colonial state imposed capitalist production relations from above and the way in which anti-colonial nationalism was led by an alliance between a local capitalist class and local aristocracy, conciliatory to foreign capital. This was an alliance in which the bourgeoisie and modernising elements led from behind, allowing an existing feudal power structure to lead a capitalist state.

So too was the popular movement neutralised in this process. Democratic power was realised in Malaya not through a popular nationalist movement winning power from the state but was given from above at a time in which the popular classes remained politically underdeveloped and the ballot box continued not to challenge the basic power structure of Malaysian society but to reinforce it. To take a broad view then of Malaysian capitalist development you can see then that despite the country’s independence movement not being dominated by a strong rising national bourgeoisie, historically it has continued to reproduce the basic elements for a successful capitalist state: a modern state capable of providing the framework for continued capitalist development, ruling in the interests of capital and a system of political stability preventing overt class conflict. Whilst the period from 1957 onwards have seen this structure amended, these basic aspects have remained completely consistent: a state totally devoted to capitalist development and focussed on holding down class conflict.

The second factor is defined by the counter-revolutionary nature of the Malaysian state and ruling class. Born in reaction to a socialist and labour movement, and in the Cold War struggle against global communism, bourgeois and progressive elements of the ruling coalition remained unwilling  to assume leadership of the anti-colonial movement, nor to take direct control of the post-colonial state. Rather capital, local and foreign, remained largely happy to lead from behind and to govern by proxy through an established political elite. Again, this doesn’t preclude the history of tensions between the state and capital, which has regularly occurred, but it does suggest that fundamentally this system of leading from behind worked in favour of capital, and that capital has generally continued to be happy to allow others to govern by proxy, avoiding mounting a direct political challenge to take hold of state power. In this sense, Anderson’s argument of a “delegation of power by one distinct social class to another” can be seen to have continued to determine the nature of political power in Malaysia.

Finally then, this process has also continued to the reproduction of the feudal nature of power in Malaysia, camouflaging the fundamental role played by capital in determining the nature of power in the country. On the one hand this has displaced class struggle into cultural struggles, suggesting questions of power are cultural (the question of the cultural identity of state and nation) and not class questions. And in the same way that Anderson would talk of Britain, Malaysian politics has also been marked by a complete absence of real ideological conflict: whilst ideological challenges have occurred they have historically been displaced by the state and ruling order. Rather as Anderson argues, an order based upon “prejudices and taboos” and the ruling ideology of “traditionalism and empiricism” has been dominant. The ruling ideology has remains both traditional and technocratic, traditionalist and developmental, not ideological. Linked to this is then an aversion to cultural revolution, which may favour greater capitalist development but destabilise the existing class structure, making Malaysia’s ruling system a persistent endorsement of cultural conservatism.

The Nature of Crisis

Another aspect of this process is however the consistent ability of the ruling order to choose the path of least resistance, in its preference for reformism over revolution—in the same way that Anderson would talk in terms of the “burdens of the present [having] their origins in blessings of the past.”

In the case of Malaysia what made this particularly possible was the highly profitable nature of the modern sector of the economy which developed under the British and was inherited by the post-colonial state. These sectors, whilst significantly unevenly developing the country, made the problem of post-colonial Malaysia the problem of inequality and uneven development but not one of absolute poverty and dispossession. The political pressure on the ruling elites was not therefore one of resolving an impoverished mass but one of redistributing wealth and making development more even and inclusive. This fact allowed them however to consistently make choices which preserved the best and the most profitable of the economy they inherited whilst modifying other elements. This was true in the 1960s with the maintenance of the plantation economy and the focus on rural development, as well as in the 1970s with the focus on “market nationalisation”, the continued reliance on migrant labour, and the continued openness to foreign capital and foreign ownership in the economy.

What this consistently reformist strategy prevented was however the kind of more radical transformation which was witnessed in the East Asian Tiger states. In the same way then that Anderson would argue that Britain’s early successes in the long term underdeveloped the country in reference to more modern and technological economies like Germany in the early 20th century, so too can it be argued that Malaysia’s own early successes, its highly profitable plantation and mining sectors burdened the country with an economic structure that it has continued to be affected by today: heightening the risk of radical changes to the economic structure, and reducing the benefits that such changes might provide, insofar as such changes may disrupt existing economic successes.

The problem lies then not just in the way in which the colonial economic structure produced a racialised division of labour but also the way in which this structure has underdeveloped Malaysia in its willingness to address the need to modernise and transform its social, economic and cultural structures. In the last decade then, when economic growth has been increasingly unable to produce stronger growth, and particularly stronger wage growth, the country has been hampered by earlier structures of power which have continued to incentivise against a greater transformation of the country. The country retains high-levels of foreign ownership, a significant crony sector, a highly conservative governing system, a dominant semi-feudal social system and an education system highly unsuited to a new economic world.

Reading Anderson it can however be argued that these contemporary limitations are the structural expression of earlier decisions enabled by the earlier successes of Malaysia’s political and economic system. These successes have put off a need to resolve questions of perfecting economic development, cultural modernisation and educational improvements because risks of upheaval remained high, and rewards for transformation relatively low. A path of least resistance could be pursued which, whilst not producing optimal economic growth, produced sufficient growth to keep both capital and labour satisfied. With this growth now increasingly insufficient, the Malaysian state finds itself hampered in its ability to respond to this situation. It hasn’t historically had to develop the tools to respond to such a crisis.

It is perhaps then not surprising that the fallout from this slowly developing systemic crisis has been high levels of political fragmentation and the break-up of the country’s ruling elite, but without a strong political force offering a resolution to the crisis. What has occurred is rather that an independent political elite, liberated from the main areas of capital, has increasingly turned in on itself in a fight for state power, but without this fight being linked to more broader systemic concerns over the future political and economic direction of the country.

If however a resolution to the crisis can’t be found from above, the development of this crisis might open up the opportunity, long denied, for more radical transformations to the system through new political forces or through labour and popular movements. It was to this question that Anderson would turn to in a subsequent article, “Critique of Wilsonism”, arguing that whilst Wilsonism largely diagnosed the crisis of British capitalism and the British state, its preference for personalised politics and avoidance of a more fundamental conflict with British capital and the British state hampered its attempts to offer a more fundamental resolution. The need for economic modernisation, assaulting traditional and hierarchical forms of power, cultural liberation, the improvement in the position of the working class and democratisation of the state would all require for Anderson conflict, a conflict which the Labour Party sought to avoid, but which the Left would have to take up if it was to capitalise on the crisis of British society in the 1960s. As he would conclude:

Public ownership, social priorities, civic democracy, workers’ control, a liberated culture—all these involve conflict, an inescapable confrontation with capitalism, and a lasting defeat of it. The chances of the Left are now tangible. It will take the utmost courage and imagination to seize them.