By Kumar David –
The term Third World came into vogue in the early 1950s with decolonization, whose first landmark was independence of the Indian Subcontinent in in August 1947. A contemporaneous event of no less import was the liberation of China and the proclamation of the People’s Republic on 1 October 1948. The first sub-Saharan country to gain independence was Ghana in March 1957. Most of Asia and Africa followed suit in the next two decades. In Central and South America it was much earlier and the continent was independent by 1825. However the effort to contain Spanish America as three large states fell apart and Latin America fractured into the multitude we see today. The epithet Third World was universally applied to these Asian, African, South and Central American, Maghreb and Middle Eastern countries from the end of WW2 till the turn of the century. Now it has fallen out of use for good reason.
A particularly evocative denunciation of colonialism was Franz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth published in English in 1965 (the French Les damnes de la terre was issued in 1962) and I was motivated to take down my aged copy and found it falling apart; Penguin did some lousy binding. Fanon’s book was a second Manifesto for all who were radicalised in the 1960s student movement that swept the West. It was an indictment of colonialism, a paean to freedom struggles if need be by violence, a denunciation of post-colonial imperialism and a rebuke of the intellectual and cultural bankruptcy of the native middle classes and bourgeoisie who departing colonialism was anointing as its successor. What was it like rereading it 50 years on – my copy has London, 7 November 1967 scribbled on the title page? Strangely dated and quaintly irrelevant! Post-colonial reality, corrupt leaders, the ‘long boom’ of capitalism, neoliberalism, sectarianism, racism, repression of minority tribes, tinderboxes of race and faith ; no none of this is foreshadowed in Fanon’s evocative and explosive epistle. It’s an emotional exertion not a politico-scientific tract; it lives in the aura of Jean Paul Sartre not Karl Marx.
Mervyn Desmond de Silva’s new book deals with the next period after decolonisation, that is the rapacious neoliberal era of the 1970s and 80s. The anthology does not much extend into the 21-st Century, Rajapaksa’s assault on democracy and human rights, or the global rise of neo-populism.
Prophetic Indictments by Mervyn D de Silva; Tulana Jubilee Publications, Kelaniya, Sri Lanka, 2018; pp.414. (An anthology of 5 to15 page articles).
Dr de Silva is a zoologist by training, an agriculturist by profession, for some time Deputy Director of Planning & Economic Affairs and Director, Ministry of Plan Implementation, and a Member of Parliament handpicked by Sirima on 1989. He denounces the IMF, Structural Adjustment Programmes, the World Bank, the Washington Accord and the whole of neoliberal economic strategy and ideology. These are cogent and well-argued pieces and useful works of record. Chapter 1, Poverty and Economic Injustice, and chapter 2, IMF, World Bank, GATT, WTO and Neoliberalism argue for the poor and the oppressed. I recommend de Silva’s “collected works” as worth a place on the bookshelf of any serious analyst of Sri Lankan political-economy. One more reason to congratulate the author is his courage in placing his writings of 33 years (1971-2013) in their original form, warts and all, before the public and trusting its judgement.
Chapter 3 is on Planning Issues, chapter 4 on Socio-Politics (I will have some harsh things to say about it) and chapter 5 is a critique of Democracy as practiced in Lanka where he lashes out at politicians and parties. Chapter 6 on Agricultural Development is a little technical and I skip it for reasons of space. This review will take chapters 1 and 2 together, treat chapter 3 separately and deal only briefly with 5; I will say nothing about 6.
De Silva’s critique of neoliberalism originates very late, 1990! Worldwide, in the left and among radicals it had started long before. Neoliberalism peaked in in 1980s with Hayek theorising and Regan-Thatcher politics. (Thatcher became PM in May 1979; Regan President in January 1981). The first shift to neoliberalism in Sri Lanka was under the leadership of Sirima and Felix in 1975 and this was why the LSSP and CP had to be driven out of the coalition to smooth the fundamental policy transition. JR’s 1977 regime was neoliberalism’s apogee, but it was the consummation of a process that Sirima and Felix and set in motion. As a public servant de Silva may have been constrained up to 1977 when he took early retirement due to harassment by JR’s government, he says. His continued silence for another 13years however is deafening.
Here is the puzzle. De Silva was made SLFP Coordinating Secretary in 1986; therefore we must presume that he was a fellow thinker of Sirima and Felix in the second half of the 1970s. He was Deputy (1972) and full Director (1977) of key planning bodies under Sirima. There is not one critique of the IMF, Structural Adjustment or neoliberalism that I can find in the book dated to 1975-1990! Fanon was emotional, messy in style and premature, conversely, de Silva procrastinated. Having expressed my regret at this Johnny-come-late legacy, I still recommend the book because the critique, whenever written, is good.
I do not need to summarise his denunciation because it has long been common fare in radical-liberal and left circles. The titles (abbreviated) of some pieces in chapters 1 and 2 give a flavour. Poverty – Causes are Structural Imbalances; Poverty and Inequality Continue; What Causes Hunger and Starvation; Politics of Food Trade and World Hunger; Path to IMF-Food Riots; IMF-World Bank Structural Adjustment; Global Socio-Economic Trends; Is Privatisation a Nostrum; The Gospel of the Free Market; Economic Justice and Ecology. What makes the essays valuable is that in addition to being an agriculturist and an economist he also writes as one who has been on the inside track of the state planning machinery.
The Tamil problem, alienation of minorities, the over-determining crisis of post-independence Lankan polity, the social breakdown that degenerated into a 30-year civil war, these are not Socio-Political – at least not in de Silva’s reckoning! Nowhere in this 34-year compendium, and specifically nowhere in chapter 4 on Socio-Political Issues will you find discussion or analysis of the roots of this the cardinal issue of the times. Some Prophetic Indictment! Or rather you will find it but as an inverted absurdity. De Silva’s magnificent contribution to understanding 1983 is “The Non-Ethnic causes of the July Holocaust”. It deals with economic discontent, breakdown of law and order (private armies, thuggery and humiliation of Judges) and “political assassination of the Sinhala (sic!) leader” (the ban on Sirima’s civil rights). It’s an oddly defensive piece. Except for the irrelevant last point, these matters fed a malady, an ethos of racism, invisible to ostriches, which had taken root in society.
There is a piece “On Being called a Chauvinist” where the author, implicitly, asks whether it is fair to call him a chauvinist? The LTTE is condemned as terrorist, fine; then the TULF, Tamil Congress and “36 Tamil Eelamist Revolutionary groups” are lumped and branded as “representing communal interests”; SLMC too is branded similarly (p.232-3). We are told on p.68 of “a long-drawn ethno-terrorist insurgency which is surreptitiously encouraged and supported by some foreign powers” and of their attempt “to put a python-like strangle hold on Sri Lanka” and bring it to its knees. Chandrika’s constitution is “the PA government’s devolution package which virtually hands over Eelam on a platter to the Terrorists” (p.233). Such is the nature and limit of de Silva’s analysis. Tamils and a goodly number of Sinhalese intellectuals dismiss this sort of blindness to the forest, for focus on the trees, as disingenuous.
This notwithstanding, there are some good pieces in chapter 4 (Socio Economics). The titles give you the gist of it. “Preserving the Unitary status of SL”, makes case for the district as the right unit for economic development; “Are all these Politicians of any use” may just as well have been written today; and “Bureaucrats or Scapegoats” explains how replacing the professional Civil Service by political appointees has bred inefficiency, incompetence and sleaze. This was juicy reading when President Maithripala Sirisena’s chief-of-staff, HK Mahanama and Timber Corporation Chairman Dissanayake were nabbed in a car-park pocketing a Rs.20 million first retainer of a Rs.100 million kick-back; no one knows as yet whether the boss was to be the beneficiary. The relevance to de Silva’s piece on dastardly bureaucrats is that both scoundrels are political appointees of the type de Silva abhors. Mahanama has “served” as Permanent Secretary Lands and was a politically appointed crony in the “public” service on the staff of CBK. Is President Sirisena guilty of rotten judgement or does he purposely select people who will be useful in shadowy ways?
The pieces on “Gang-Raping Democracy” and “Dethroning Democracy” are about CBK’s egregious 1997 PC election and the rape of both democracy and women in Wyamba by her stalwarts. The essays are of lasting relevance. I make final mention of “Democratise Democracy, Moralise Politics and Humanise Economics” which contains usable guidelines for a progressive-liberal-democratic party manifesto.
De Silva has another trait in common with Fanon; both eschew lightness of touch and humour. The style is not mellifluous; it’s anger and declamation. Fanon and de Silva had awful circumstances to write about, so maybe the thunder of the Prophet Isiah is the right style-guide.