By Ameer Ali –
Either we find ways to turn the billions invested in research and development and futuristic technologies into trillions, either we take seriously the need to build more sustainable and resilient economies and societies and equip ourselves with standing capacities necessary to meet fast-moving and unpredictable crises, or we will be overwhelmed by the blowback from our natural environment. These are the kinds of demand easily dismissed as unrealistic. But after the shock of 2020, how much more evidence do we need?” (Adam Tooze, Shutdown: How Covid Shook the World’s Economy, Penguin Books, 2021, p. 202)
Demand for systemic change has become the rallying cry for a new generation of young men and women in the wake of SARS-CoV-2. These youngsters from East to West and North to South have realized that debt driven economic growth and environmentally unfriendly techno-centric development are recipe for more shocks to humanity unless the system itself is changed. Coincidentally, it was the same realization that also propelled the aragalaya youth in this country to sound the alarm bells and called for systemic change. Both internationally as well as locally it was the pandemic that triggered this awakening, although economic disaster in Sri Lanka has a pre-Covid history.
However, thanks to the brief but momentous entry of the youth in Sri Lanka’s political melee, the idea of systemic change has penetrated the political vocabulary of several political leaders even though not all of them seem to have a grasp of what that change involves. Even President Ranil Wickremesinghe (RW) when describing his IMF tutored economic reforms as precondition for systemic change, he was only paying lip service to that weighty concept just to calm down the rebellious nerves of aragalaya youth. Later, his highhanded action to arrest its leaders under PTA exposed his chicanery.
Historically though, the call for systemic change had been in vogue in this country right from the time of independence if not earlier, and it was with that call leftists of that time launched their political campaigns. But those campaigns narrowed the content of the alternative system solely to the economic domain. At the end, they failed partly because they were preaching to an audience that did not understand what the leaders were talking about, and partly because the prevailing economic system at that time was strong enough not to risk experimenting with anything unfamiliar and theoretical.
But the systemic change demanded today at the global level, involves rejection of the ideological foundation of what the German sociologist Ulrich Beck called, the “risk society” (Ulrich Beck, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, Sage Publication, 1992), which creates repeated shocks threatening the very survival of humanity. The opening quote captures this challenge in a nutshell.
In Sri Lanka, systemic change demands to begin with the rejection of the ideological paradigm of Sinhala-Buddhist hegemony. This is not to argue for the rejection of Buddhism or its practicing Sinhala community. Both of them are inseparable and indestructible. Instead, what needs to be rejected is political Buddhism, an aberration that has lost its initial legitimacy as a movement seeking redress for the economic and cultural imbalances created by uneven development under European colonialism, but grown and metamorphosed into an aggressive and all conquering ideology that is threatening the very fabric of the island’s pluralist polity. It was this ideology, which since independence had shaped the style of political governance and the pattern of economic development. It was also this ideology that eventually drove the country to fight a civil war the cost of which is the primary cause for today’s economic bankruptcy.
It is unfortunate that after SWRD’s successful demonstration of the political utility of Buddhism in his 1956 election campaign, which even convinced the American CIA as a powerful weapon to fight Communism in Southeast Asia (see, Eugene Ford, Cold War Monks: Buddhism and America’s Secret Strategy in Southeast Asia, Yale University Press, 2018) that no politician from the majority community is prepared to repudiate political Buddhism in public. More dangerously, an open commitment to the tenets of this ideology seems to provide carte blanche to its advocates who could commit and get away with all sort of crimes including murdering their critics. Aragalaya’s demand for accountability was to end this social licensing. In fact, the ultimate blame for the catalogue of accusations levelled against Sri Lanka by UNHRC should be placed at the doorstep of political Buddhism. No systemic change is possible without rejecting this ideology, and it is through such a change that a united nation of Sri Lankans could be forged out of the country’s plural diversity.
RW has absolutely no intention of rejecting it because his own survival as president depends on guarding it. He hopes that the success of “Ranilnomics”, a coinage by the former Central Banker W. A. Wijewardena, would bring stability and prosperity. But the threatening clouds of a global recession triggered by the war in Europe while the pandemic itself has not exhausted its virility, and the increasing irrelevance of central banks with their conventional toolkit to counter inflation and recessions, make small economies like Sri Lanka even more vulnerable to external shocks. This is why the narrow focus on market based economic reforms alone is insufficient to overcome the “polycrisis” facing the country. If IMF itself insists on the need for an “integrated policy framework” for richer nations how much more of such a framework is needed for a bankrupt country like Sri Lanka? If debt driven economic growth is proving to be disastrous to developed nations, how does one expect low-income countries like Sri Lanka to achieve stability and prosperity through such growth? While restructuring the existing debt itself becoming a big hurdle to obtain funds from IMF and other aid agencies, trying to incur new debt would be suicidal.
The time has come therefore, to turn attention towards mobilizing domestic resources and exploiting the internal strengths to develop the economy. The market itself needs restructuring to be cleansed of its undesirables like monopolies and mafia domination with political clout. Certain economic institutions like co-operatives which once played a useful role before they were ridiculed by free marketeers and swept away by neo-liberal economics may have to be revived. That needs a multiprong approach which should start with reconnecting the disconnected for a renewed war on want. This is why systemic change is an absolute imperative. A multisectoral structural plan with periodic targets needs to be drafted and implemented instead of wasting time and resources in seeking consensus among parliamentarians for an economic strategy that is saddled with greater uncertainties and problems than solutions. RW’s idea of an innovative export-oriented economy to make Sri Lanka a First World country by 2048 is rehash of what JR was dreaming about a second Singapore.
*Dr. Ameer Ali, Murdoch Business School, Murdoch University, Western Australia