By Ameer Ali –
When paradigms change, the world itself change with them. Led by a new paradigm, scientists adopt new instruments and look in new places. Even more important, during revolutions scientists see new and different things when looking with familiar instruments in places they had looked before. It is rather as if the professional community has been suddenly transported to another planet where familiar objects are seen in a different light and are joined by unfamiliar ones as well”.
The philosopher of science, Thomas Khun’s thesis about the nature and significance of paradigmatic change in his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (published in 1997 and gone into several editions, 2016 being the latest) can be applied on a limited scale to understand the situation in Sri Lanka. It is to the credit of the young men and women who started the aragalaya that the term systemic change has come into this country’s political parlour, and has been bandied about by journalists, academists, commentators and even desperate politicians. When the current stopgap Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe introduced his fiscal measures to cut down the budget deficit and satisfy IMF, he called it, though erroneously, as the beginning of systemic change. In that vein, even IMF reforms according to him would be considered as a pathway to such a change. Similarly, in the view of some political and economic commentators, ending corruption, reforming lossmaking state enterprises and pruning state expenditure would also be deemed as measures for systemic change. These are actually means to strengthen and entrench the system and not to change it. On the contrary, the demand by the pioneers of aragalaya, a proud product of the nation and who are contemporaneous of a new global generation of young men and women, covers more and goes deeper than what is being propagated by these misrepresentations. Systemic change to aragalayers and their global family is more fundamental, radical and thorough, which involves the total abdication of the very philosophy and ideology on which the present political and economic models are structured. Without destroying that edifice, none of the reforms, including those of IMF, even if they were to be successful, would liberate Sri Lanka from its current pariah status. The reforms suggested by the present regime and its backers are an exercise in finetuning the operating models hoping that they would create “splendour and prosperity” and protect the paradigm that upholds them.
Sri Lanka’s post-1948 politico-economic and social structure could be considered as a paradigm in a Khunian sense. This paradigm is not national and inclusive in shape and content but ethno-religiously sectarian and exclusive with the primary objective of transforming Sri Lanka into a permanent Sinhala-Buddhist majoritarian state, benefiting overwhelmingly the interests of that sector of society. To achieve that objective, the paradigm adapted two British gifted working models namely, parliamentary democracy and laissez-faire economy, and redesigned them over seven decades through systematic political meddling, discriminatory educational reforms, communally biased economic projects and subtle administrative measures, to suit the purpose. Governments of course came and went and the models were finetuned, but the paradigm remained static and resilient.
What the architects of the paradigm ignored to notice was the emergence of a class of exploiters who while pretending to uphold the principles of the paradigm hijacked its working models and used them to enhance their own private benefits at the expense of the country and its masses. That exploitation, which started less noticeably when the economy was in respectable strength accelerated and reached its pinnacle during the current regime resulting ultimately in bankrupting the treasury and pauperizing the economy. The fiscal mess into which the country was pushed into was the direct result of this exploitation. The President himself became a party to this exploitation while pretending to be the guardian of the Buddha Sasana – a pillar of the paradigm. Members of the Sangha ignored all that and ennobled him as Lankaeeswara Padma Vibushan.
One of the most irreplaceable losses of this paradigmatic exploitation was the migration of waves of intellectual and entrepreneurial excellence to foreign soil. The vacancies left by that migration came to be filled with the mediocre and less productive. That migration still continues to swell the diaspora community. The mediocre that replaced excellence requires extra support from the state to deliver the same level of productivity, which means it imposes additional burden on state resources. The current economic crisis is therefore the combination of mediocracy and exploitation.
The pioneers of aragalaya realizes this fundamental truth, and are therefore calling for systemic change or paradigmatic shift. But the powers in control are offering more reforms to fine tune the operating models. The stopgap prime minister is now claiming that it would take eighteen months to bring back some sort of a normalcy. This is optimism bereft of any knowledge of what is happening in the international arena. Given the state of play, the current wave of worldwide inflation and food shortages eventuated by the Ukrainian crisis and the traditional weapon of raising interest rates by central banks in the industrialized world is going to make life harder to a significant proportion of world population. Sri Lanka cannot escape from this additional travail, especially when its foreign relations are in tatters.
The demand for systemic change is something analogous to what is happening globally in the context of worldwide protests for action against global warming and climate change. These calamities exhibit the failure of the neo-liberal economic paradigm, which uses the market model as solution to redress the imbalance. It was the same solution offered to overcome the overuse of natural resources when pointed out by the Club of Rome in 1960s. The calamity was only postponed and now appearing with greater vengeance in the form of floods and droughts and the market is becoming increasingly impotent to find a solution. That is why the protestors, who also belong to the same generation of local aragalayers, are demanding a paradigmatic shift to reorder our civilizational priorities. Aragalaya therefore represents the local expression of a global movement.
Need for a Grand Alliance
None of the traditional opposition parties such as UNP, SLFP, SJB and the ones among minorities are prepared to challenge the ruling paradigm. The reported talks between SJB and SLFP leaders are fruitless. However, there are enlightened individuals within these parties who could see the rationale behind aragalaya. On the other hand, JVP/NPP and FSP do seem to be in dialogue with the new generation. These progressive elements need to form a grand alliance to take the struggle to a new level and bring about a paradigmatic shift. Once the paradigm is shifted even familiar variables in the existing models would find new meanings, work better and become more productive to benefit the whole society rather than one of its segments.
*Dr. Ameer Ali, Murdoch Business School, Murdoch University, Western Australia