by Uditha Devapriya
The Sri Lanka Freedom Party was not the second or even third party to be formed in Sri Lanka: it came after the LSSP in 1935, the Communist Party in 1943, the UNP in 1946, and the Bolshevik Samasaja Party in 1946, among others. Yet within a mere five years of its founding it had become more popular than many of its predecessors.
1956 marked probably the first time a dominant political party had been swept away by a grassroots led movement. If there was no parallel in the other ex-colonies, it was because no one expected, even as late as 1954, that the UNP could be defeated. The SLFP’s victory was the product of circumstances that would have favoured any party that incorporated them in its programme; in that sense, the UNP failed to read the writing on the wall.
To understand how these circumstances came about, and how they contributed to the defeat of the UNP, it is imperative to understand the position Sri Lanka enjoyed prior to the 1956 elections. In 1947, foreign assets were decreasing, and the trade deficit had begun to widen thanks to a recession in the US and an earlier decision to devalue the rupee.
By 1950 economic prospects had rebounded, and rubber price increases were leading to surpluses which enabled the government to expand welfare schemes. By 1952 the Korean War boom had contributed to an unprecedented rise in foreign assets to Rs. 1,209 million. But following the end of the boom, they began to decrease at an unprecedented rate of Rs. 30 million a month; they were to reduce soon to an unremarkable Rs. 676 million.
It was against this backdrop that S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike resigned from the UNP and crossed over and J. R. Jayewardene announced a substantial cut to the rice ration. The latter decision was taken on the advice of the World Bank, but what is often forgotten was that the rice ration cut was preceded by the halving of the food subsidy vote (from Rs. 300 million to Rs. 160 million) in the 1952/1953 budget, which was still felt to be inadequate to achieve the goal of curtailing expenditures and balancing the budget.
What is also forgotten that the reason for the hartal to erupt in such intensity was that J. R. refused to minimise the magnitude of the cut. In this he was being sincere or rash, but it cost the government dearly, so much so that the subsequent power tussle between Jayewardene and John Kotelawala after Dudley Senanayake’s resignation was resolved in favour of the latter, since the outgoing Prime Minister blamed the former for his downfall.
Had J. R. succeeded Dudley, it is possible that Bandaranaike would have faced a tougher competitor in 1956. Both Bandaranaike and Kotelawala were incongruous figures (more incongruous than J. R.), but it is to Bandaranaike’s credit that he made attempts to reach out a section of the population who felt they were being ignored if not sidelined.
But with his Buddhist upbringing (unlike Bandaranaike, who renounced it long after he entered politics, J. R. renounced Anglicanism in his youth), J. R. may have made the race tougher for the SLFP. As it turned out, Kotelawala not only misread the mood of the moment but did so despite all advice to the contrary by colleagues: this was symbolised by no less a figure than Dudley withdrawing his support for any party at the 1956 election. To examine that, however, one must examine the cultural forces at play here at the time.
The cultural revival which began here in the late 19th century had, by the mid-20th century, split into two ideological strands: a neo-traditionalist and a reformist. The former aimed at restoring pre-colonial monastic privileges while maintaining a separation between the clergy and the laity, and the latter sought to make all clergymen more active in social, political, and cultural issues. The UNP had identified and then condemned the latter as political bhikkus; this was only to be expected, given that the bourgeoisie were not in favour of monks agitating for radical changes which could affect their social position.
However, the UNP did play a part in empowering the revival. In 1954 monks from Burma convened a Buddhist Council and to this end invited Buddhist leaders from Sri Lanka. Four years earlier, the World Fellowship of Buddhists had been formed at the behest of the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress. In 1953, after Kotelawala assumed power, the ACBC urged the government to celebrate the 2,500th anniversary of the Buddha’s passing away.
Surprisingly for the UNP and more surprisingly for Kotelawala, the request was complied with and a year later, at the time of the Buddhist Council, the Lanka Bauddha Mandalaya was set up. Together with the ACBC and YMBA, this organisation was to have a decisive impact on the 1956 elections. The result was the Buddhist Commission of Inquiry, the findings of which were presented to a massive audience at Ananda College in 1956.
As a critical indictment of the status quo, the Commission probably influenced the rural petty bourgeois intelligentsia to rally against the UNP, and around the SLFP, which by that time was on the cusp of entering into no contest pacts with the VLSSP.
In hindsight, and in that sense, the LSSP’s and the Communist Party’s mistake was to ignore if not relegate the issue of linguistic equality in the 1950s, especially considering that both of them and their erstwhile foe, Jayewardene, had raised it in the State Council in the 1940s. It led them to a crevice where they had no choice but join hands with the SLFP, even though splinter groups challenging these alliances would begin to break away from the mainstream. To say this, however, is not to deplore or indict any of these outfits too harshly.
What aggravated it all even more was the Commission’s critique of the government’s insensitivity to cultural grievances. That was not so much antipathy as apathy, a misunderstanding of the political forces at play whereby the government, as Judy Walter Pasqualge points out in her book on Rhoda Miller de Silva, saw the Left, rather than Sinhala nationalism, as the bogey in the room. It was a mistake that would cost them dearly.
Newton Gunasinghe among many other scholars have demolished the myth, a myth demolished first by Denzil Peiris in his account of the 1956 election, that it was the rural poor, the underclass, who rallied around these forces. That they did to some extent is beyond denial; but the classes the election ended up entrenching, far removed from peasantry though not totally cut off from it, belonged to the petty bourgeoisie, sections of which would drift back into the UNP and again revert to the SLFP not too long afterwards.
In the end the revival which had been supported by the UNP turned against the UNP. The SLFP was helped here in no small measure by Kotelawala’s increasing detachment from the world around him; when the Queen visited the country in 1954, for instance, he bent over backwards to ensure she and Prince Philip were kept amused throughout the ceremony. It cannot be said that he was deliberately hostile towards Buddhist interests, as detractors would argue later on: he was being indifferent, if not ignorant. His reading of the issue of linguistic parity, made evident at a speech in Jaffna in 1955, therefore angered Buddhists.
The SLFP did not just happen in such circumstances to absorb and vent out the frustrations of a community which, more than any group barring Indian plantation workers (who had been disenfranchised by the UNP to “ward off” the Leftist threat), had been discriminated against and deprived of opportunity in the colonial era. Yet it read the mood of the moment far better than any establishment at the time. This is a testament to the fortuity of its leader.
The 1956 election epitomised a coming together of cultural, social, and economic forces that conspired to dislodge the status quo from power. Yet if the SLFP in 1956 defeated the UNP, it did so while empowering J. R. Jayewardene, the bête noire of the UNP who was to rise in the next two decades and who, had he competed with Bandaranaike, would have given him a tighter race, though Bandaranaike may have won anyway. Two points were in J. R.’s favour: his Buddhist background, and his zealous hostility to the Left, which would have endeared him to more conservative-traditionalist Sinhala Buddhists. As fate would have it, however, a Jayewardene-Bandaranaike tussle was not, and never, to be.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
In defence of the JVP
by Uditha Devapriya
One of the most fascinating things about politics is how a common enemy unites groups that otherwise hold diametrically opposed views. I am not suggesting that the JVP is such an enemy, nor am I implying that their dislike of it has united the SJB and the SLPP. But reading between the tweets, Facebook posts, and even political commentaries, I can only conclude that the resurgence of the JVP has generated a mutual aversion to its policies, personalities, and aspirations. This is intriguing, but by no means is it inexplicable.
While both sides consider the JVP as sectarian, this aversion materialises in different forms and takes on a different character: thus whereas the SJB accuses it of acting as a third-party spoiler against the Opposition, the SLPP accuses it of challenging its policies.
What are we to make of such perceptions? Insofar as the JVP’s attempts to deconstruct the government’s policies are concerned, the SLPP is correct in viewing the party as a challenge. That does not justify the mud supporters of the regime sling at Anura Kumara Dissanayake, but it does provide a rationale, however slight, for such mudslinging.
It’s a different story with the SJB and, to a much lesser extent, the UNP. The gist of their argument, as far as I can make it out, is that the JVP can’t make it on its own at an election. Since this debars it from contending alone, accordingly, it should join a coalition led by the mainstream Opposition. If it does not choose that line, it will split the anti-government vote and enable the SLPP to win again. Thus, the more it dabbles with the idea of going solo, the more counterproductive its campaigns will be for the Opposition.
While this line of reasoning has always surfaced vis-à-vis the JVP whenever a government becomes unpopular, in recent weeks it has unleashed a horde of negative comments against the party. No doubt its resurgence online has contributed to such critiques.
Reading between these comments, one wonders whether SJB supporters are worried about the JVP: one such supporter went as far as to warn that if the latter becomes more sectarian than it is, “there will be a boycott.” The government, of course, faces no such problem: its promoters do not have to contend with the JVP for votes from its traditional bases, though one wonders whether the Rajapaksas will have to fight for support from those fronts in the long term, given their alienation from the SLFP’s peasant and working class roots.
To be fair by the SJB, the argument that the JVP can spoil prospects for a united resistance against the government is partly true. The SJB’s predecessor, the UNP, benefitted not a little from the JVP’s campaign against Sirima Bandaranaike in 1988. This is certainly not to deny the popularity that Ranasinghe Premadasa enjoyed in the run-up to the elections that year. But if the JVP’s tactic of smearing the Opposition is anything to go by, these campaigns have ended up benefiting the status quo more than the resistance.
By no means was this the exception in 1988. Writing to The Island on Christmas Day that year, the columnist Kautilya argued that the benefactor of JVP-instigated violence “was the narrowly winning victor.” I confess this simplifies what was a rather complex situation, since there were, as one analyst contended in Economic and Political Weekly, “reasons to believe that local-level SLFP sympathisers sometimes joined the JVP.” But the underlying conclusion there can’t be denied: the JVP’s violence ultimately tilted the scales against the SLFP, just as the JVP’s rhetoric bolstered the UNP’s prospects a decade earlier.
The situation under yahapalanaya was different. There the JVP had been recognised as part of the official Opposition: its leader happened to be the Chief Opposition Whip. Deprived of any proper standing in parliament, the Mahinda Rajapaksa led Joint Opposition found itself unable to cut ice there; it had to find its base outside the legislature. That paid dividends in 2019 when the slogan of the hour became Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s claim of being a maverick and a newcomer: a claim the JVP could not make.
Krishantha Cooray is only half-correct in his assertion that the UNP’s mistake was “to allow the so-called ‘joint opposition’ to dominate the public discourse on policy matters” – half- correct, because it conveniently lays aside the UNP’s complicity in the Bond Scam and other unpopular measures, a complicity that the present head of the SJB never shared – but he is right in the sense that in ejecting the Joint Opposition and allowing it to gain steam outside, the UNP enabled it to ride over the official Opposition, the TNA.
Identified unfairly with the UNP, the JVP did much to pinpoint and publicise the flaws of the regime. Sunil Handunetti’s chairmanship of COPE enabled the Bond Scam to come out into the public; while certain MPs, many of them later migrating to the SJB, attempted clumsily to insert several footnotes in the COPE Report, Handunetti stuck to his guns and released the report as it stood. The JVP lambasted the UNP’s policies as much as the Joint Opposition did, standing with students protesting against SAITM and with unions protesting against the Port City deal. Yet these moments belonged to the Rajapaksas; despite its laudable critiques of the UNP, the JVP thus had to give way to a more nationalist-populist front.
Neither supporters of this government nor advocates of yahapalanism will admit the role played by the JVP in tarnishing the yahapalana regime’s prospects. That says as much about the popularity of the Rajapaksas as it does about the myopia of those who think that regime was the best we got, and argue as much in column after column. In both instances, the JVP remains forgotten, marginalised, and criminally underappreciated.
My point here is that if the ability to mobilise vast swathes of the population against the government is the litmus test of any opposition party, the JVP has failed to match its policy rhetoric with election results. Since 2005, it has registered an almost terminal decline at the polls, hardly commensurate with the popularity it enjoys among the youth.
The view that an “honest” opposition does not need to win elections – a view supporters of the JVP subscribe to – does not bode well for a party identifying itself with a disenchanted electorate. In politics, numbers matter. Without numbers, any attempt at acting “holier than thou” – a tactic the JVP resorts to so frequently it has become a trademark today – not only fails to generate votes, but also denies counterparts elsewhere crucial support. Perhaps it is this high-strung idealism, bordering on arrogance, that alienates SJB activists. Unfortunately for the JVP, it has not tried to extricate itself from such perceptions, as Anura Dissanayake’s outburst at Sajith Premadasa over the latter’s call for snap elections shows.
Having said that, the assumption that the JVP’s rhetoric impairs the SJB’s prospects as the country’s main Opposition is flawed and, to me, smacks of partisanship. It is no small irony that political activists trying their best to bring down the government can, in the same vein, denigrate the decisions and stances of a party that, for all the disenchantment the people had with this regime in the wake of the first wave last year, received only three percent of the vote at the general election. To denigrate such a party even subtly indicates, in the first instance, a fear of that party – hardly becoming of an Opposition attempting to pose as an alternative to the regime – and, in the second, a confidence in the main Opposition’s ability to unify disgruntled sections of the population against this regime.
To consider the SJB as somehow being more unified than the JVP is of course to overlook the reality. The SJB is presently suffering from a twin paradox: between its modest size and the scale of the divisions raging in it on the one hand, and between its break from the UNP and its response to the UNP’s return to parliament on the other.
The height of its confused relations with the UNP surfaced the other day, on Twitter, when certain SJB MPs alleged, then quickly withdrew the allegation, that UNP officials connived to delay investigations by the previous regime into the Lasantha Wickrematunge murder. Such confusions to me reflect a deeper problem: the SJB is yet to evolve an identity that can help it stand out and apart. Indeed, while publicly rejecting its UNP heritage, not a few of its MPs tout policies no different to the neoliberal prescriptions of the mother party.
That this remains the case despite Sajith Premadasa’s attempts to reach out to social groups alienated by the policies of the previous regime, despite a shift among some SJB MPs from adherence to orthodox theory to calls for populist measures, and despite a debate that has sprung up over economic policy within SJB circles (a debate in which Dayan Jayatilleka and Kusum Wijetilleke, among others, have made commendable interventions), should inform us that while there are many terms one can use to describe the SJB, “unified” is not among them.
The end-result has been dismally clear: people no longer distinguish between the old party and the new; nor, indeed, between the government and the opposition.
It is this, primarily, that has bolstered support for the JVP. While I remain sceptical over whether its resurgence can translate into actual votes, it is clear that disenchantment with the government’s policies has made a third option – which is what the JVP has historically been – preferable to a mainstream Opposition. Instead from attacking the JVP’s insularity, hence, SJB activists should find out why anger against the regime has turned its critics, not to a mainstream party as is typically the case, but to a party whose identity remains to the left and decidedly to the left of mainstream Opposition MPs.
There are many valid critiques that can be made about the JVP. I have made them, in this column and elsewhere, again and again. But to bemoan its decision to play the game alone, without finding out why the SJB has been unable to summon as much firepower, even after all these months, is to me unfair, unjust, and counterproductive. The way out for the SJB lies neither in demeaning the JVP nor in returning to the UNP, but rather in charting an ideology that squares with the interests of the country and the aspirations of its people.
The writer can be reached at email@example.com
The rights we want
by Uditha Devapriya
Among Sri Lanka’s largely idealistic middle-class, there is an almost foolishly optimistic belief in the necessity of political reforms for much desired change. These reforms are, more often than not, framed in terms of constitutional rights, duties, checks, and balances. This is the rhetoric of term limits, small government, and separation of powers; the idea that a country’s State will function best if its powers are clipped. Once its powers are reduced, so the logic goes, people will be able to do as they want, liberated from the constraints of authoritarian bureaucracies.
From the neoliberal right to the liberal left, these ideas have caught on everywhere, to the extent of dominating policy discussions in the country. That is what unifies the JVP and the UNP in their call for the abolition of the presidential system: the notion that the problems of the country are attributable to the flaws of its Constitution.
The SJB remains divided over these issues: hence while one section of the party allied with the UNP yahapalana project rigidly hold on to these ideas, another section has become more flexible. That explains Bandula Chandrasekara’s and Anuruddha Karnasuriya’s responses to Victor Ivan over Champika Ranawaka’s position on the Executive Presidency. As their replies make clear, far from viewing it as an aberration to be abolished, the Ranawaka faction sees the presidential system as indispensable to the country’s sovereignty.
The notion that the government presents more problems than solutions to a reformist agenda rests on the classic division, made by liberal commentators, between political and civil society: a largely imagined construct traceable to no earlier than 17th century Europe. This division followed from the dissolution of feudal society into capitalist society, a process completed between the 16th and the 19th centuries. Political philosophers, from that period, drew a line between the State and the Citizen, cordoning off the one from the other. It is this phenomenon that Marx examined in his reflections “On the Jewish Question.”
For Marx, there was nothing intrinsically non-political about the feudal order: “the character of the old civil society was directly political”. The transition to capitalism signified a rupture in this order, emancipating the citizen from the government and reducing his situation in life “to a merely individual significance.” The new society made the citizen the “precondition” of the State, endowing him with certain rights separating him from the latter.
These rights were defined in terms of a freedom to do something rather than actual political emancipation. Thus, in the new State, “man was not freed from religion, he received religious freedom… [h]e was not freed from property, he received freedom to own property.” It was more or less the gospel of 17th century English liberalism; the philosophy of man at his most egotistic, or what C. B. Macpherson labelled as “possessive individualism.”
What we need to note here is that the distinction between negative and positive rights first emerged from these debates. Distinguishing between these is rather like splitting hairs, but the difference between them has to do with their aims: hence while negative rights prevent others from interfering with your freedom to do something, positive rights recognise a wider role for the government to play in addressing the needs of the marginalised. Neoliberals and even certain left-liberals belong to the former category: those who believe the State’s role is that of a Night-Watchman who sets the rules without playing the game.
Such competing conceptions of rights and freedoms survived the 19th century. In the wake of the Second World War, multilateral institutions began recognising the need to go beyond a negative definition of these ideals. Thus the Universal Declaration of the United Nations, in Article 25, lists down a number of economic necessities such as “food, clothing, housing, and medical care” it deems everyone has a right to. That it left the implementation of these rights to individual States without specifying the manner of implementation did not take away from the point that they were now regarded as a part of the new world order.
These provisions served as the basis for the two most important conventions on economic, social, and cultural (ESC) rights to be enacted in the post-war conjuncture, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (both 1966). The Stockholm Declaration of 1972 and the Rio Declaration of 1992 reflected and consolidated these developments, with an important intervention by the Czech jurist Karel Vasek (“three generations of human rights”) confirming the view that contemporary human rights exist beyond mere civil and political principles.
Yet debates between these two schools of thought continue to rage, even in Sri Lanka. Thus advocates of negative rights, who dominated economic discussions in the previous regime, bemoan attempts by human rights groups to constitutionalize ESC rights, comparing activists to collectivists no different from the most unrepentant Stalinist. Their websites and blogs put down every progressive personality, from Roosevelt to Raúl Prebisch, while promoting what Dayan Jayatilleka with characteristic élan calls “antediluvian rightwing thinkers.”
The peak, or nadir, of these put-downs came out in a recent opinion piece that compared economists critical of neoclassical economic theories and assumptions to harbingers of the plague. Reading such screeds, one can’t help but recall the kind of hysteria which dominated economic thinking during the Kotelawala prime ministry, in particular the oblique references to Communists in the Central Bank by editorials and the almost McCarthyist hounding of the likes of S. B. D. de Silva (who later left the Bank) and Rhoda Miller de Silva (who left the country, or rather was forced to) by the then government. It goes without saying that, as Dr Jayatilleka aptly observes, such thinking would find a home in rightwing regimes across Latin America, rather than in Asia’s oldest democracy.
Sri Lanka’s neoliberals are by no means alone in making hysterically crass generalisations: in its criticism of human rights treaties, for instance, the Heritage Foundation compared moves towards legalising economic rights to no less than “the 75-year communist experiment.” If a brief perusal of policy documents and political columns reveals anything, it’s the Sri Lankan neoliberal right’s barely disguised contempt for anyone who advocates a conception of rights that, as James Peck puts it, “has less to do with individual freedom and more to do with basic freedoms.” And yet, to support the latter is not to be a Communist, even less a “Stalinist”: a point yet to be appreciated by Colombo’s neoliberal economic circles.
The hysteria that determines the thinking of the latter does very little credit to their claim of knowing how to solve Sri Lanka’s economic problems. What characterises their thinking is an almost unyielding belief in 17th century European liberalism; they accept, at face-value, what political philosophers from that era are supposed to have said on various matters. That their opinion pieces are liberally littered with references to these philosophers indicates what they believe to be the way forward for Sri Lanka. But in assuming that their preferred way forward is the only path ahead for us, they sidestep two important points.
The first is the very flawed assumption that what held true for 17th century Europe will hold true for the present conjuncture. Of course the argument can be made that these notions of economic and political freedom can be adapted to any context. But then we face the second problem, one identified less by “home-grown” nationalist thinkers than by Western political theorists (to mention three: C. B. Macpherson, Domenico Losurdo, and Charles Mills): that the political system these philosophers supported, in their day, rested on institutions which are out of date and out of place today: to name just one, slavery.
Indeed, far from failing to see a contradiction between their support of liberal ideals and the realities of slavery, they passionately defended the latter and actively took part in the slave trade. Their political system, in other words, provided the foundation for their liberal ideals, even if they drew a fine enough line between political and civil society.
As Shiran Illanperuma has observed well in a series of columns recently, moreover, English liberal philosophers made their pronouncements on free enterprise and free trade, among other abstractions valorised by defenders of negative rights today, at a time when Britain was imposing un-free and unequal trade on the rest of the (mostly colonised) world. This is what Ha-Joon Chang has outlined in his work on economic history as well, most importantly the role played by tariffs – a monstrous aberration, in the books of free market advocates – in Britain’s and later the US’s rise as an industrial power.
The conclusion we can reach from these points is inescapable: that for development to occur in these parts of the world, we need to adopt a fundamentally radical conception of rights and freedoms. What Sri Lanka needs now is not a new Constitution. What it needs now is a radical reset. It needs to acknowledge that the country’s problems are not so simple as to be resolved with a piece of paper. We have gone down that path, many times.
Neoliberals and even left-liberals are only half-right in their argument that corruption has prevented development: the real question is not who engages in corruption, but who funds the corrupt. To ask that is to realise that there is no fine line between politics and economics, that Sri Lanka’s political issues are also economic, and that we will go nowhere if we do not cede more rights to its most marginalised communities.
The State has a considerable role to play, contrary to what the neoliberal and left-liberal caucus believes, in ensuring a level playing field for everyone. The solution is not to restrict access to political power, as some would suggest, but to broaden access to as many fields as possible. We need to talk more about labour rights, affirmative action, and land reforms, and less about abstract generalisations that do very little for marginalised groups. Perhaps a good starting point would be something as simple as better bus services for villages.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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