27 June, 2022


“Over-Determination” On The See-Saw

By Kumar David

Prof. Kumar David

Prof. Kumar David

Observe that I refer to Lankan polity not only the regime though it is obviously the centre forward player and principal actor. My objective today is to separate the critical conflicts in Lankan polity in this period into two separate categories, they are linked but not the same. My objective is to organise thinking about Lanka’s state and society into as simple terms as possible though you may be a little surprised when I begin with a decidedly odd sounding concept. Commonsense people find ‘over-determination’ a strange term, but it has come into wide use in political discourse, especially but not only on the left and is useful in an essay like this one.

The term, or more properly the concept was introduced by French communist political thinker Louis Althusser in the 1970s. Althusser stands head and shoulders above the funny-bunny word twisting post-modernist lot. He was rooted in reality; his theorising was grounded. Permit me an aside; the post-modernist lot remind me of what Marx said of its previous avatar. Here is an abridged quote with {post-modernist} substituted were appropriate.

“Hitherto men have constantly made up for themselves false conceptions about themselves, about what they are and what they ought to be. They have arranged their relationships according to their ideas of God, of normal man, etc. The phantoms of their brains have got out of their hands. They, the creators, have bowed down before their creations. Let us liberate them from the chimeras, the ideas, dogmas, imaginary beings under the yoke of which they pine away. Let us revolt against the rule of thoughts. Let us teach men to exchange these imaginations for thoughts which correspond to the essence of man.

“These fancies are the kernel of {post-modernist} philosophy. This publication (German Ideology) aims to uncloak these sheep and debunk their philosophic struggle with the shadows of reality. Once upon a time a valiant fellow had the idea that men drowned in water only because they were possessed with the idea of gravity. If they were to knock this notion out of their heads, they would be sublimely proof against any danger from water. His whole life he fought against the illusion of gravity. This valiant fellow was a {post-modernist}”.

To get back to the real world, the term over-determination is quite easy to explain, at least in the way I use it. In certain periods, in certain countries (Libya, Lanka, Ukraine), or regions (Euro Zone, Middle East) or territories (Northern Province) there is a particular factor that penetrates and overrides everything else. During the civil-war period it could be said that the ‘ethnic-instance’ or ethnic issue permeated everything; politics, state, employment, education, religious institutions, social interactions, and sometimes even families. It had a deciding or determining effect on just about everything such as elections, state power relations, who a company hired, even who you invited for dinner. Hence it is appropriate to say that the social whole in Lanka for several decades up to 2009 was over-determined by the ethnic-instance.

After the war

It receded in importance after the war; the Tamils cowered in fear and hardly spoke up, security was not a major concern, the economy seemed to be picking up and advanced in interest, everything no longer depended on ethnicity. Though the possibility of human rights investigation was dimly visible on the far horizon and though the need to accommodate the Tamils in some way was perceived, the minority issue no longer hugged the forefront. It is correct to say that Lankan society and polity in the years after the war was not over-determined by a crisis in ethnicity. Something else came to the forefront; something else became the over-determining aspect of Lankan polity. To keep it simple I will say that the State became the over-determining element of Lankan polity after 2009.

How did the state eclipse the ethnic conflict as the principal element in determining Lanka’s political actuality? What most agitated the political mind for some years after 2009 was abuse of state power, breakdown of law and order, subjugation of the judiciary to the executive, rampant mega scale corruption and drug smuggling by syndicates associated with the upper echelons of the regime. These are all cosy in the lap of the government, the regime and the state. Concentration of power in the Executive Presidency, especially when the President was no Abraham Lincoln or Nelson Mandela, exacerbated the abuse of power. Though most of these issues had been around for a while they did not rise to centre-stage as long as the war was in progress. In a word, after the war, the over-determining contradiction in Lanka was in the sphere of the State.

A duopoly of over-determinants

The scenario in which socio-political reality in the country was over-determined by the question of the state (and the conduct of the regime and its higher adherents) retained its monopoly status for about four or five years. By monopoly status I mean that this was the most important domain (overshadowing the economic matters, ethno-religious issues, social concerns like education and healthcare and foreign policy) for some years. However in the last six to nine months there has been a significant shift; ethno-religious concerns have once again risen to prominence and share space with the abuses of state power as twin primary or over-determining issues in Lankan polity. The importance of the crisis in state power has not declined or gone out of focus; it has been joined by another critical issue. The remainder of this short essay will discuss how ethnic (now ethno-religious) concerns rose to the forefront once again and how and why the state power conundrum has not receded in importance.

Superficially it is reasonable to allege that the re-rise of ethnic confrontation is a self-inflicted injury of the Rajapakse regime. Scratching below the surface it is also a consequence of the essential nature of this regime and the alliances that compose the government. The government was stupid; given the nature of its national support base and the ideology on which it knowingly rides, it had no choice but to be stupid – that’s the truth in a nutshell. The most glaring example of that stupidity is the crushing defeat it inflicted on itself at the UNHRC in March 2014. Could it have agreed to an independent international inquiry or a local one with foreign moderation? Logically it could and should have; but had it done so the JHU, Wimal, BBS, RB types and perhaps even the JVP would have enjoyed a field day setting the town on fire and vaporising Rajapakse’s Sinhala-Buddhist bottom. They would have roused not just the extremists but the broader Sinhala-Buddhist population which would, rightly, have felt betrayed precisely because Rajapakse himself (and some Sinhala leaders before him, JR for one) who had fed them racism all the while. The Rajapakses were therefore foist with their own petard.

The UNHRC counter was swift and sharp; an international investigation was established and it seems it means business. A worst case scenario could be harsh findings against the Lankan state and military. Rajapakse panicked; Rajapakse retreated and did the unthinkable; the regime sought to buy time; it extended the terms of reference of the Paranawithana Commission to include, inter alia, the hitherto unthinkable consideration that the state and the military may be guilty of human rights violations and war crimes. The outrage among UPFA constituent chauvinist parties is palpable though whether any of them will forego their ministerial perks is moot! The Sinhalese people at large are bored; the Tamils say “Oh just another gimmick; remember Justice Baghawati and his expert advisors?” Nevertheless there is a commotion within the UPFA and the national question rose in prominence again; Rajapkse just has lost his touch; he is missing out on how to let sleeping dogs lie. Three other developments have sharpened his ethnic travails. The big one is Aluthgama and the fury of the violated Muslim community. I don’t need to add to the flood in the media but to say that attempts to castigate “bad monks” as though President and Defence Secretary bear no responsibility for the rise of the baddies does not fool me. Then there are the Muslim countries who read the President the riot-act and that I think was what got the regime into a funk.

The second self-inflicted wound was the reappointment of G.A. Chandrasiri as Northern Province Governor going back on promises he had previously made to Chief Minister Wigneswaran. After the NPC election Wigneswaran exposed the incapacity of the system to meet simple needs. The worst is the parallel administration run by Rajapakse through the Governor. He confronts and blunts the Chief Minister head-on; this is the loud and explicit message of Chandrasiri’s reappointment. Taming the Tamils, slowly awakening from the nightmare of defeat, is his goal. Tamils are still in no mood to come on the streets or to support the “disappeared”. The directly affected express themselves but the community as a whole is somnolent. But Rajapakse is determined to nip potential opposition in the bud and Chandrasiri will be his point man; Chandrasiri is a political plant. With this move Rajapakse has lost the Tamils and the TNA. Thirdly Modi seems not to be coddling Rajapakse though visiting BJP big-shot Sumbarmanium Swamy sought the console the President. Swamy is strongly anti-LTTE but unfortunately he is also known to be an uncritical accompanist in Colombo’s orchestra. Who will prevail in India Modi spurred on by Jayalalitha or Swamy? At first sight one would say the former two, but let us wait and see.

A final comment about why the crisis in State Power will share the limelight with the ethno-religious dimension is in order. The instability in government, infighting at the top level (Basil, Gotha or Maithripala?), the impossibility of protecting high-level drug barons, infighting in government about how to deal with the Muslim and the Tamil issues, and above the fear and uncertainty about pending elections create a big problem in state power. If the challenge of a Single Issue candidate determined to wipe out the Executive Presidency and backed by the UNP, TNA, General Fonseka, the JVP, Chandrika and Chief Justice Bandaranayake (the dream ticket) materializes that will spell the epitaph of this regime. Therefore it is to be expected that the crisis in State Power will not be eclipsed.

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Latest comments

  • 1

    Well analyzing kumar and good academic effort…

    • 0

      CBK and Shiranee Bandaranaiyake are the DREAM TICKET – President and Prime Minister – to abolish the EP.
      Let the campaign begin..
      Women have for the most part been slightly better leaders than the men in Sri Lanka.
      After the curse of the LTTE and the Jarapassa brothers a double woman ticket is what we need.

  • 1

    Hey Kumar, what’s your problem with post modernists?
    They are far better than all the dead and half dead leftists around town ..

  • 0

    Over-determined by the state!

    What rubbish.

    Kumar D is showing his age – his verbiage looks over- determined by senility now.

    And what is so great about this expression? how is it superior to something like “dominated” or others lesser mortals use?

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