by Uditha Devapriya
Almost exactly a month after the government imposed emergency regulations on essential food items, it capitulated to rice mill owners who just happen to be led by the brother of a former president. In doing so, it got itself mired in a crisis of legitimacy; if all the memes on social media are anything to go by, its critics are celebrating this setback.
Yet what happened should be seen for what it is: a democratically elected government, enjoying a 2/3 parliamentary majority and enhanced presidential powers, being snubbed by oligopolists. There is very little to celebrate here, except probably the administration’s fall from grace. Well deserved as the latter prospect may be, even this offers no consolation: in welcoming the downfall of one form of authoritarianism, we end up celebrating another. It tells us a lot about the priorities of certain critics of the regime, then, that many if not most of them prefer a much derided oligopolist to a much derided president.
What we are being offered here, simply, is a choice between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Far from taking sides, I don’t see why such a choice has to be made at all.
If the government was wrong to enact emergency laws, the fact of their constitutionality should theoretically not lessen the severity of the decision. Setting aside the usual concerns about human rights and democracy, the regime could have thought of alternatives: it could have, as Sajith Premadasa suggested, gone for the Disaster Management Act.
But in doing what it did, it acted within the powers of the Constitution. You can question the wisdom of such a decision on the (valid) grounds of whether it was taken in the country’s interests or the government’s, but the decision was ultimately the latter’s to make. Indeed, insofar as these regulations were enacted to resolve a crisis, and an all too real one at that, I’d even say it was a desperate response to a pertinent issue.
Critics of the government are justifiably jubilant about Gotabaya Rajapaksa being brought down to earth by the rice oligopolists. But if the emergency regulations it enacted were not wholly outside its powers, were rice mill owners right in sidestepping the administration and dictating prices? Was their decision to determine those prices hours after the regime went back on its gazette notification acceptable? These are not your typical price hikes: regardless of how futile the government’s efforts at keeping them below the market rate were, once it rescinded these regulations, they broke through the ceiling. How fair was that?
I am a realist, not an ideologue. On a balanced note, however misconceived the Gotabaya Rajapaksa regime’s hopes about controlling the market may have been, it’s undeniable that there were hoarders, and that they were creating shortages. If they did go ahead and hoard rice regardless of emergency laws, and the more influential among them refused to release stocks even after the army caught them in the act, that tells us something about the nature of this regime’s authoritarianism, the identity of those calling the shots in the economy, and the measures the State will have to take vis-à-vis private oligarchies.
In saying that, I am not condoning the government’s actions. From the day the pandemic entered the country, it operated on the mistaken belief that it could resolve everything and anything with the power of the military. To be sure, the military has done much to help with the government’s vaccination drive: I see no one, except probably one disgraced ex-Prime Minister, contesting its right to play a role there. But a distinction has to be made between what the army can do and what it should. Unfortunately for the present regime, this is a line that is yet to be drawn. The fracas over the hoarders and mill owners thus shows, not a little deplorably, the limits of using the army for even emergency purposes.
What explains the rather confusing contrast between the perceived authoritarianism of the regime and the apathetic measures it has taken to resolve these crises? Several reasons can be posited, most importantly the pandemic, but to me the answer is quite clear: since 2015, the government’s scope for authoritarianism has been diminishing.
Partly, this has been due to the measures the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government took in constraining itself, including the Right to Information Act and the 19th Amendment. These measures did much, whatever their critics may say, to buckle the State. It is a testament to those who drafted them that, to give one example, while the 20th Amendment backtracked on the 19th Amendment, it has not gone back to the situation under the 18th: it emboldens the current president, yes, but not to the extent of his brother’s presidency.
To his credit, Gotabaya Rajapaksa has not yet tampered with these reforms: thus journalists continue to use the RTI, even as the CID summons and interrogates them. Indeed, if recent outcries over journalists being questioned in the open and the Media Minister’s conciliatory remarks are anything to go by, it’s clear that the government is paying at least lip-service in public to the ideals its Ministers and officials are honouring in the breach. For all its talk over social media misinformation, it is yet to draft legislation that resembles anything of the kind that Narendra Modi has enacted to draconian effect in India. This is as it should be: evolving critiques of the previous administration, of which there are many, should definitely not blind us to the good they did via these basic, fundamental reforms.
More importantly though, such a shift has been due to the growth of a new consciousness, predominantly among a suburban middle-class, which views sceptically whatever the State does and cuts it down to size. The speed at which supporters of the previous regime turned into its biggest detractors should have warned the present administration that, in the face of gross incompetence, all hosanna-singers would turn into vengeful critics. But it chose not to heed the wind. It got a well deserved chance to go back on this trend and legitimise itself in the eyes of its people with its competent handling of the first wave. Yet having claimed a thumping victory at last year’s parliamentary election, it threw caution to the wind with the second wave. The results have been predictable: public discontent continues to grow, while a radical Left formation has broken into the Rajapaksas’ working class base.
The point I’m trying to make here is that since 2015, the Sri Lankan government’s room for impunity has reduced drastically. It is certainly ironic that a regime widely considered to be autocratic has failed to live up to the reputation of a Bolsonaro or a Modi, or for that matter a Putin. By no means, of course, has it refrained from deploying its powers, especially with regard to the Prevention of Terrorism Act and emergency regulations. But judging from the long line between what it threatens to do and what it actually does, it seems that a crisis of legitimacy has brought it down to its knees.
That crisis of legitimacy has largely been its doing: having assimilated Colombo’s blue-chip bourgeoisie to the near total exclusion of its agrarian and working class base, the SLPP let go of its ability to balance and mediate social classes. The Rajapaksas’ greatest strength lay in their Bonapartist balancing act, at which Mahinda was most talented. This Gotabaya seems to have let go, if not wilfully abandoned, partly because of the contradictions thrown up by the pandemic. This is obvious to anyone who has viewed the recent spate of strikes. As the teachers’ demonstrations show well enough, SLPP allied trade unions have been reduced to a minority. As the farmers’ strikes show equally well enough, the ban on chemical fertilisers has failed to generate enthusiasm for a much needed shift to organic varieties.
Yet seeing through all these failures for what they are and what they continue to be, it is becoming increasingly obvious that while the government is not listening to its critics, those critics are gaining traction over the government in the public sphere: not just on Facebook, but more crucially, on the streets. Quite in contrast to what is happening in India or Brazil, demonstrations continue to give way to more demonstrations, with no prospect of a clamp down or purge. The usual theatrics of sudden arrests and bail-outs aside, what we’re seeing here is a populist administration in danger of losing its populist credentials. Insofar as these have enabled healthy dissent among its critics, such trends are to be welcomed.
The danger lies with groups that do not have the country’s interests at heart upending the government’s best laid schemes. The rice mafia is one such group. Why I say this, simply, is that in light of the worst loss of face a government has suffered since the Easter Attacks, its critics are turning more and more to alternatives. These alternatives can and should come in the form of democratically elected outfits, like the SJB and even the JVP. But one can hardly consider the private sector food mafia, who are being turned into heroes on social media by Sri Lanka’s irrepressible political memers, in the same category.
Already online circles are afloat with the idea of mill owners contesting for political slots in the future. “Between an autocrat and an oligopolist, I would choose the latter,” one person replied to me on Twitter the other day. It is in the country’s best interests that we do not let criticism of the government deteriorate into valorisations of dubious rent-seekers. The food hoarding fracas, and the State’s inability to control private sector mafias, should hence point us to the dangers of these prospects. It should also make us aware of who’s really calling the shots and running the show, and convince us that we deserve better.
The writer can be reached at email@example.com
The peasantry and the middle-class
by Uditha Devapriya
Faced with the prospect of pauperisation, Sri Lanka’s lower middle-class is getting restive and radicalised. With hiking prices and plummeting incomes, they are on the verge of taking to the streets. The government’s policies may well push them over the edge.
This is the closest the country has come, since the second JVP insurrection, to a full-scale middle-class rebellion. Of course it is unfair to put the blame entirely on the government. Like every other such institution, it is limited in what it can do. Yet, its mismanagement of the present situation has served to alienate the middle-class further.
The peasantry, too, is getting restless. The tipping point has been the government’s policy on fertilisers. While the adverse impact of chemical fertilisers has gone on record and while a transition to organic fertiliser, or less harmful chemical varieties, has been in the offing for decades, the transition itself has not been phased out. The government for its part remains optimistic about crop yields, while foreign news outlets publish report after report exposing the flaws of its policies. Even the latter outlets take a balanced approach on the issue: hence both The Economist and Al-Jazeera, in otherwise cogent critiques of the fertiliser imbroglio, quote farmers saying that they would prefer organic, and that conventional pesticides have been affecting their health badly for years.
If recent developments tell us anything, it’s that the situation forebodes a conjuncture of the middle-class and the peasantry. Political commentators have noted as much: many of them seem to think that, in banning imports of chemical fertilisers on the one hand and of luxury and consumer goods on the other, the government has united two otherwise diametrically different classes. While they do not jump to conclusions yet, they contend, if not suggest, that this could lead to full-scale protests and riots in the future.
The argument has to be further analysed for its implications to fully seep in. Historically, Sri Lanka’s lower middle-class has always been upward-aspiring and conservative in its outlook. Yet to speak of a monolithic social group would be a little fallacious: like the peasantry with whom they are united today, they remain stratified and diverse.
The main difference between these classes lies in the pecking order in which they feel the heat of economic downturns: despite the crunch they have suffered over successive periods and governments, the middle-class has managed somehow to realize their aspirations. I am by no means contending that the ride has been easy for them; merely that they have had much less scope for radicalisation than has the peasantry.
What then would a conjuncture between these two groups imply? It would imply, first and foremost, a reconciliation of their class interests. Such a reconciliation would in turn aid the Left when it formulates its tactics against the regime. This, in turn, would help the Samagi Jana Balavegaya, the country’s foremost Opposition, to turn from its pandering to orthodox economic theory to a more fire-in-the-belly approach to the issues at hand.
For its part the Left has not let off the possibility of these developments. That might explain, on the one hand, the recently held discussion between the JVP and the FSP, and on the other, the dissensions within the Communist Party over the teachers’ salary issue. The SJB seems tentatively to be undergoing a paradigm shift within its ranks, but it remains divided – split would be a better way of putting it – between its left and right wings. That is why, while not a few MPs advocate a reversal of price controls, other MPs call for such measures.
The SJB is yet to come out with a coherent programme. To be fair, the JVP and FSP are yet to come out with one too, but they have held more consistent stances on economic issues, and issues to do with the peasantry and working class, than the SJB. The UNP for all intents is dead as a dodo, and while I will not dismiss the possibility of elements in the SJB calling for a return to the parent party, the latter remains united only in the person of its sole MP. By contrast, the SJB is more diverse, though much less articulate. The present crisis and its class conjunctures might radicalise it. This, however, remains to be seen.
The question as to whether a radical class bloc consisting of the lower middle-class and the peasantry remains viable, in the long term, is one I really can’t answer. Certainly, as long as the present crisis – a crisis not wholly of the government’s doing – will continue, so long will these groups remain united with each other. But to hedge all bets for a radical formation on the unification of these groups would be untenable. Why do I say that?
For all its defiance of the government, Sri Lanka’s lower middle-class is only as radical as circumstances permit it to be. While a sociological study of this milieu is yet to be written, all one can say, based on its behaviour and voting patterns, is that it has traditionally chosen the path of radicalisation only in the absence of countervailing influences.
Its animus against the regime is based in the restrictions imposed on luxury goods, as well as the controls imposed, and then eliminated, on food prices. While it has reacted much more angrily to the latter owing to the essential nature of food items, its response to the clampdowns on imported goods has been no less intense.
A closer examination of these reactions gives us a glimpse into the thinking underlying this social group. Middle-class opposition to restrictions on imported consumer goods depends largely on the extent to which the middle-class has turned those goods into status symbols. The government, to be clear, has imposed limits on high-end products: this is obvious if one examines the full list. What, then, can we conclude about middle-class responses to those restrictions? Not just that this class forms a crucial part of an economy that rests so much on imports, but that it has come to measure itself based on whether it can afford such imports. This is what explains the many memes, posted well before the pandemic hit, that compare vehicle prices in Sri Lanka with prices elsewhere. Insofar as their aspirations as a globalised middle-class remain denied, then, they remain a radicalised group.
Their attitude to price controls reveals their thinking even more. Before the Gotabaya government backtracked on emergency regulations, the urbanised middle-class opposed price controls. This had less to do with their opposition to the regime than with their animus against government-imposed controls: then as now, much of this milieu, especially its youth, prefer free markets to state intervention. The more suburbanised or ruralised middle-class, on the other hand, remained divided: while poorer sections seemed to favour price controls, more affluent sections appeared to oscillate between acceptance of a need to impose such controls during a crisis and opposition to the notion that such measures need to be in place even after a crisis. There was also anger, among this particular segment of the middle-class, at hoarders, but no critique as such of how market forces, in the long term, ensure supplies for those who can afford them and shortages for those who cannot.
With the opening up of the food sector to market forces – forces determined less by vague laws of demand and supply than by the diktats of hoarders and intermediaries – the poorer middle-class, the lower middle-class, has united itself against the government’s reversal of price controls. Of course the more affluent segments remain in favour of the government’s backtracking – “not a popular decision, but the right decision”, one tweet runs – but this is a view shared by an elite minority; for the rest, even the rest of the middle-class, the controls remain preferable to the squeezing of disposable incomes that awaits them with ever-rising prices. Not that the latter group has completely abandoned their thinking about privatisation and state regulations: “Free markets are good,” one of them told me the other day: “just not when there’s a pandemic.” I prefer what another friend said, only half in jest: “free markets are good, just not when real free markets are tried.”
The implications of these points to the formation of a radical class bloc should not be lost on anyone, certainly not on the SJB and even less so on the Left (JVP-FSP). If the point that the country’s lower middle-class can swing both ways (opposing import restrictions and also the lifting of price controls) holds true, then the impact of economic recovery on this class must be appraised by any opposition hedging all its bets for a resistance against the government on the unification of the middle-class with the peasantry and working class. Put simply, the Left should, when joining hands between a pauperised middle-class and subaltern groups – what Partha Chatterjee once called “the dangerous classes” – consider the possibility of the middle-class to revert to its comprador instincts once recovery kicks in.
In a column I wrote not too long ago, I predicted that when the global economy would start to recover from the slump it was going through earlier this year, the harmony that prevailed between the government and its corporate backers would dissipate. I realise now that I was wrong in thinking this honeymoon would break up two years into the future: it is very much happening now, even if only slightly. I am certain, nevertheless, that whatever unity is there between the radicalised middle-class and the peasantry will also not last for long: it too will start dissipating once recovery kicks in. The task of a Left formation should therefore be, not to incorporate middle-class elements and cave into them, but to chart a programme which prioritises the interests of those done down hardest by the crisis: not a class that opposes the government over the jacking up of iPhone prices, but a class that stares helplessly as policies not of their choosing push them deeper into the pit. The role of the Left, accordingly, should be to radicalise the mainstream, and not be co-opted by the mainstream.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Colin Powell – The reluctant warrior
by Vijaya Chandrasoma
General Colin Powell died Monday, October 18 of complications caused by Covid 19, at the Walter Reed Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. He was undergoing treatment for multiple myeloma, a terminal cancer of the white blood cells, and early stages of Parkinson’s disease. His treatment prevented him from getting a third booster vaccination, which he was scheduled to take the previous week. Powell is survived by his wife of almost six decades, Alma.
Powell was born in Harlem and raised in the ethnically diverse section of the South Bronx in New York. His parents, both of Scottish/African lineage, were immigrants from Jamaica. His father, Luther Powell was a shipping clerk, his mother, Maud a seamstress. Their son, Colin, embodied the spirit of the American Dream, that once beckoned all immigrants, “the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free”.
The American Dream is becoming increasingly illusory in modern times. National racism against immigrants of different hues, and the cruelty of the scenes at the borders of the Shining City on the Hill, seem to indicate that the flame in the lamp of Lady Liberty may be flickering, the golden door beside it a tad tarnished.
Powell, a self-admitted average scholar, left high school with no career plans. He got his degree in geology from the City College of New York. He also participated in the ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps) at CCNY, and received a commission as a second lieutenant in the army upon graduation in 1958. Powell described the ROTC program as one of the happiest experiences in his life. “I not only liked it”, he said, “but I was pretty good at it”.
Powell served two active tours in Vietnam. During his second tour in 1968, he survived a helicopter crash, in which he rescued three other soldiers from the burning wreckage. His experience in Vietnam helped define his future military and political strategies. A professional soldier throughout his life, Powell rose to the rank of four-star general, and was Commander of the United States Armed Forces in 1989.
Powell was the first black National Security Adviser to Reagan (1987 to 1989), the first black Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Bush Senior (1989 to 1993) and the first black Secretary of State in the cabinet of Bush Junior (2001 to 2005). He won numerous US and foreign military and civil awards and decorations, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom (twice) and the Congressional Gold Medal.
Powell was the consummate American soldier, whose military record and his national reputation prompted him to consider a run for the presidency in 1995. The Republicans saw him as their only hope of defeating Clinton, the national polls were extremely favourable. He finally decided not to run, on the grounds of a “lack of passion for politics and campaigning”. The real reason, of course, was that his wife, Alma, whom he married in 1962, was against his candidacy, and ordered him not to run. He may have been the celebrated Commander of the US Army, but it was clear who was the general at home.
Powell was always concerned about America’s involvements in military battles, especially in the Middle East. He oversaw Bush Senior’s Operation Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf war against Iraq in 1990-1991. But he also formulated the “Powell Doctrine”, which “limits American military action unless it satisfies criteria regarding American national security interests, overwhelming force and widespread public support”.
A doctrine which he himself spectacularly violated in 2003, during the Bush reign of error.
In his capacity as the US Secretary of State, Powell gave a speech at the United Nations in February 2003, replete with fabrications about the urgent necessity for military action against Iraq. He made the Bush/Cheney/Military Industrial Complex case for military action against Saddam Hussein, on the basis that there was incontrovertible evidence that the Iraqi dictator possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), which he intended to use against his neighbours and his own people. An assertion later proved to be a bald-faced lie, sadly one that Powell himself knew to be so during his address to the United Nations.
Completely out of character, a man who had won international respect, he deceived the world with a pack of lies. He was not just horribly misled or mistaken. He knowingly used fabricated evidence and ignored repeated warnings that what he was going to say was false.
His speech of deception swayed the world, and his lies got the congressional support Bush needed to declare war against Iraq. His words sent thousands of Americans and her allies to kill and die in Iraq. Powell – and Bush/Cheney – have never been held accountable for what were basically war crimes. And they never will be so indicted, for they are Americans.
A lifetime of honour tainted by one act of dishonesty. He voiced public regret for his speech, calling it a “blot on his record” and was fired by Bush in 2005 for expressing such regret. A moderate Republican, he endorsed Barack Obama for the presidency in 2009, despite his decade-long friendship with Republican candidate, John McCain. He condemned the Republican Party for moving unrecognizably to the right under Trump. And he enjoyed the ultimate honour of being denounced by Trump.
None of these may remove the stain from his record of that one mistake he made in 2003. But we mourn his death because he lived and ended his life as a decent and honourable man, and all the good he has done will live after him.
Speaking after Powell’s death, Trump spewed the regular and churlish comments he reserves for the passing of anyone who has dared to criticize him. Making Powell’s death, like everything that happens in the world, all about himself, he called Powell a classic RINO (Republican In Name Only), saying “it was wonderful to see Colin Powell, who made big mistakes on Iraq and famously, so-called weapons of mass destruction, be treated in death so beautifully by the Fake News Media. Hope that happens to me someday”.
Please don’t hold your breath, Mr. Trump. General Powell made just one mistake, out of misguided loyalty to the greed of another Republican villain. A grave mistake he immediately and publicly regretted, showing genuine remorse for which he has received universal forgiveness. He did not continue to commit, like you, crimes against the state and humanity as you have your entire life.
You will suffer the death of a Julius Caesar for all the crimes you have committed. Like Caesar, you will be stabbed by 40 Senators “amid fears that you planned to claim the title of king, overthrow the Senate and rule as a tyrant”.
There will be no lack of Brutuses for you to echo Caesar’s famous last words, “et tu, Brute”. There will be no Marc Antony come to praise you, just Foxes, Cruzes and Hawleys come to bury you. The evil that you have done will live after you. There is no good to be interred with your bones.
These men may have loved you once, for evil cause. When you ceased to be of any use to them in the pursuit of the cause you initiated, the death of democracy, they began to hate you. They are all ambitious white men and you finally got in the way.
There will be no heart in the coffin with you, no beautiful treatment in death by the Fake News Media, when that joyous day finally dawns. Your memory will forever live in hatred and misery.
To err is human, to forgive divine. The one error General Powell made during an honourable and decent life has been forgiven, by man and God. His memory will forever live in honour.
The economic crisis and the crisis of economic thinking
Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka
Who says the economic crisis cannot be dented? The prerequisite is that the austerity approaches of both the militarist-ultranationalist GR regime and the ‘IMF plus debt consortium’ option of the neoliberals, are rejected. An out-of-the box, but hardly unique approach is needed.
The present economic epidemic can be dented by a ‘double-vaccination’ alternative policy:
(A) Cut the ‘bloat’ of the Defence budget. There is hypertrophy, if not metastasis, of defence spending. Bring defence expenditure to the level of sufficiency in peacetime. Reassess and right-size it.
(B) Increase appropriately the direct taxes (not transferrable to the consumer) on the biggest corporates and wealthiest citizens. If anyone thinks that’s my residual radicalism rising, they’ve not read US President Joe Biden and more especially, US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen.
Sri Lanka’s agrarian crisis was not caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. It was the result of deliberate presidential policy which could have been abandoned at any point, but has not.
Unlike India, Sri Lanka after Independence never had a rebellious peasant movement, though it has a long history of peasant associations. The sole exception was when a peasants struggle was led (in Anuradhapura, I think) by the All-Lanka Peasants Congress (‘Samastha Lanka Govi Sammelanaya’) led by Ariyawansa Gunasekara of the Communist Party.
That struggle ended in a very Ceylonese way. The highly literate, brilliantly articulate (and witty) young cadre sent fresh from the university by the Communist Party to ideologically guide the struggle, Tissa Wijeratne, and the daughter of the rapacious large landowner the peasants were rebelling against, fell in love and married– and that was that.
All that’s ended, gone with the wind, thanks to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s incredible agrarian policy of a shock ban, nationwide, on chemical fertilizer, weedicide and pesticide.
His stand on this flies in the face of scientific evidence as well as of political good sense.
The smartest and toughest-minded of rulers, Lenin, reversed his agrarian policy twice. The first-time round was when, just before the Revolution, the Bolshevik party abandoned its peasant program of collectivization and literally stole the far more moderate peasant program, sensitive to the needs of the individual peasants, of its political rival the Socialist-Revolutionaries (the ‘SRs’).
The second time is better known. When the tight economic policy of War Communism which included forced requisitioning of grain by the Red Army to feed the citizens of the cities, exploded in the Kronstadt rebellion (which was suppressed by Trotsky), Lenin swiftly adopted the New Economic Policy (NEP) which liberalized the economy and enabled peasant prosperity.
Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh, a strong and sagacious leader also reversed the harsh agrarian policy of his comrade Truong Chinh, and won back the peasantry. Then of course there is Deng Xiaoping, who kicked-off China’s economic miracle by liberalizing the rural economy and facilitating prosperity in the countryside.
The lesson is that the toughest leaders who were also the smartest, never went against the peasantry and when they found they had done so, unhesitatingly reversed course and beat a retreat.
The fact that Sri Lanka’s rulers think they know better, and don’t have to do likewise, tells us, the peasants and the world, a great deal about them. What makes them think they are immune to the political and socioeconomic fate that even Lenin wished to avoid, sure beats me.
The answer may lie in a specialized field of medical knowledge in which I have neither training nor experience and therefore will not venture into.
Gamani Corea-Godfrey Gunatilleke-Lal Jayawardena Tradition
It is not only the discourse of the regime’s policy elite in all domains that are embarrassingly outdated in translation into any universal language. The anti-regime neoliberals, writing in English, are no less embarrassing by international standards.
The latest issue of The New Yorker (October 8th 2021) carries in the Annals of Inquiry column, essay entitled ‘Is it time for a New Economics Curriculum?’ and introduces “‘The Economy’ a new textbook, is designed for a post-neoliberal age”.
Sri Lanka’s neoliberals, most conspicuously but not only the economists, just do not know that it is a “post-neoliberal age”. Their writings and pronouncements show that they still live in a time-warp of a unipolar post-Cold War world of free-market neoliberal globalism. For them the Great Recession of 2008 never happened and even if it did, it may no difference to their theoretical and policy constructs.
During the Great Recession of 2008, I was the elected Chairman of the ILO in Geneva, and had the privilege of working with ILO Director-General Juan Somavia, in launching the Decent Work agenda globally, starting with an event in Portugal hosted by the Socialist Prime Minister. As Chilean ambassador/Permanent Representative to the UN in New York, Somavia had organized the 1995 UN Social Summit in Copenhagen which already intellectually upended the neoliberal-globalist ideological construct that most Sri Lankan economists continue to adhere to and advocate.
In 2008 we worked closely with UN General Assembly President Miguel D’Escoto, former foreign minister of Sandinista Nicaragua, who came over to Geneva. He had appointed a Commission to report on globalization and the crisis, chaired by Nobel prize winner Joe Stiglitz, former chief economist of the World Bank.
Geneva was a town in which Dr Gamani Corea, former Secretary-General of UNCTAD and later, head of the South Center was remembered with great respect. Whether it was in my work as ILO Chairman, or a Vice-President of a UN Human Rights Council or Ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament, a cluster of Sri Lankan names kept cropping up: Gamani Corea, Godfrey Gunatilleke, CG Weeramantry and Lal Jayawardena. Miguel D’Escoto, a former Catholic priest of the Maryknoll order (during and after the 1979 revolution even as Foreign Minister, he was “Padre Miguel”), held Fr. Tissa Balasuriya in high esteem. Prof Emeritus of International Law at Princeton, Richard Falk asked me for Godfrey Gunatilleke’s email address to renew his old acquaintance.
Which is why I am amused at those rightwing economists who mention Gamani Corea without mentioning Godfrey Gunatilleke, which is rather like mentioning Karl Marx and associating his name with someone other than his co-thinker Fredrick Engels. Certainly, in Geneva and Paris, the Sri Lankan economist mentioned with the most respect together with Gamani Corea and Godfrey Gunatilleke, is the late Dr Lal Jayewardena, student of Eric Hobsbawm and Director of the World Institute of Development Economic Research (WIDER) in Finland.
It is also ridiculously illogical for those who detest and revile the Raul Prebisch-Gamini Corea tradition and sanctify Dr. Corea’s antipode in Sri Lanka’s economic policy-making, BR Shenoy, to take it upon themselves to classify one of their free-market/free-trade co-thinkers and academic heroes in the same category as Gamani Corea, while ignoring both Godfrey Gunatilleke and Lal Jayawardena.
Contrary to Colombo’s rightwing economists, President Premadasa’s most noteworthy developmental contribution was NOT a deepening or ‘second wave’ of liberalization. Non-sequential fusion of rapid growth with social upliftment and equity was.
Janasaviya, the housing programme, redistribution of state lands free to the landless, free schools uniforms, free mid-day meals for schoolchildren, strict conditionalities on labor conditions (air-conditioning, free meals including buns at teatime, etc.) imposed on the 300 garment factories program in exchange for state bank loans, and the 15,000 projects program, provide empirical evidence.
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