By Sumanasiri Liyanage –
My friends who have or previously had links with the Marxist left are greatly perturbed these days by the series of events that were unleashed in the recent past and that seem to have reached a climax with the impeachment motion against the Chief Justice. It is quite natural that these developments have put liberals off balance. Unfortunately, the left in Sri Lanka are at present in the same boat. What is resonated in their minds appears to be that ‘the whole system is collapsing’; ‘the system has begun to collapse’. This state of mind is clearly reflected not only in their writings and public statements but also in private conversations. Minister D E W Gunasekara, the General Secretary of the Sri Lanka Communist Party, told the Parliament that people in this country will lose faith and trust in the Parliament and the Judiciary if things are allowed to move in an uncontrollable direction. I share their reading of the situation, i.e, systems have begun to collapse; but I am not disturbed by the situation. On the contrary, I am quite happy over the fact that the system has begun to collapse. Is not this a situation we in the left have been waiting for? Did not we repeat time and again that this system was decayed, moribund and full of contradiction; therefore its internal dynamic would lead eventually to its collapse? Do we have tears to be shed for the system’s collapse? Let me pose a different question: Why are systems undergoing in the process of disintegration? In my opinion, systems needs to be changed and transformed because the ruling classes can no longer rule and govern by adopting and using old mechanism and methods. In fact, the change actually began in the mid-1970s. Hence, it has been a gradual process. However, the country’s existing system needs a radical shift if it wants to move to its next phase.
Periodizing the Second Republic
About 35 years ago, when the Second Republican Constitution was enacted, Dr N M Perera, my political mentor, informed us that this Constitution would finally create a situation in which different persons and different branches of the state instead of working in unison would clash vehemently with each other. What he envisioned has become true today. Looking at how it has worked, the Sri Lankan Executive Presidential system, in my opinion, can be divided into three phases, namely, (1) 1977- 1987: a system based on personal authority and respect; (2) 1988- 2012: a system based on offering bribes; (3) emerging system based on centralized, unified and openly authoritarian oligarchic power. The executive presidential system that was made to be based virtually on ‘bribes’ (financial and non-financial) to legislature, judiciary and subordinate part of the executive itself after the impeachment on President Premadasa has now proved that it cannot go on like this. System of bribes would encounter a crisis for two reasons. First, when the quantum of bribe is not adequate to be distributed among the ruling groups involved. Secondly, people who depends on bribe always in a non-satisfied state so that s/he seeks more. It seems that the system developed by President Premadasa and followed by President Chandrika Bandaranaike and President Mahinda Rajapaksa has now reached its crisis point. Hence, President Mahinda Rajapaksa has realized that it is imperative to make the system more unified, centralized and authoritarian. In other words, a system that depends more on sticks than carrots has become the need of the day. He was made aware that “Offering bribes” in the form of high posts in the government has become inadequate in taming the so-called independence of judiciary that lost its virginity long time ago. President seems to think that he should act quickly before he loses his two-thirds majority in the Parliament that seems to be imminent in the near future. It is in this context, we are witnessing the clash between the legislature and the executive on one side and the judiciary on the other. It may be extremely interesting to see the final outcome of this battle. Whatever the outcome, the trust that the people have on these institutions would be further weakened. It is quite clear that at the time of crisis, all these institutions are concerned more and more with the protection of their identity rather than the performance of their moral obligations.
Challenge of the Left
We live in an interesting time. As Marx and Engels said in a different context, in such a situation, “[a]ll that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and wo/man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his/ her real conditions of life, and his/ her relations with his kind”. Now let me come to my initial question. Why should left be disturbed by these events? I could identify three reasons why the left is so worried about the evolving situation. First, the leftists tend to believe with some justification that the presence of democratic institutions even with bourgeois bias would assist the campaign of the left against the system for far-reaching reforms. According to them, the institutions that are in crisis are bound with democratic norms so that the protection of the institutions is imperative to preserve those democratic norms. Of course there is a truth in this argument; but at the same time we have to keep in mind that the architecture of these institutions are designed in a such a way that those democratic norms are embedded in them to achieve an explicit instrumental purpose. While the ruling class is making a desperate attempt to discard democratic norms from the institutions, the left on the contrary should find ways to protect the democratic norms by developing a new institutional architecture. Secondly, the left appears to be worried of the fact that alternative systems to replace the old decadent systems have not yet evolved. So the current situation may lead to anarchy. Once again, this view is also based on misconception. People develop new and alternative systems when they are really active on the streets, factories, universities etc. Soviets in 1905 Russia or Commune in 1871 Paris were not pre-planned structures. People develop them through their own experience and to suit the need of the day. Thirdly, a large number of leftists are scared that they would lose what they have collected, financially and otherwise, in relatively crisis-free period. Hence, protecting existing systems go very well with their newly acquired vested interests either in the form of positions and/or wealth.
The development in the past year or two shows that new opportunities have open for the Sri Lankan left to remobilize its forces to confront the new challenges posed by the current conjuncture. Protests over land, water and police harassments are reported almost everyday in the media. These protests show that the system as it works today is incapable of meeting peoples’ demands and satisfying their aspirations. The support for the FUTA demand for the allocation of 6% of the GDP for education also signifies the macro level issues that need to be addressed. The collapse of the systems is an indication that the country needs systemic change in its polity, economy, society and culture. The new systems do not fall from the sky. Systems evolve and develop. Instead of disturbing and worrying about the system collapse, in my opinion, the left should come up with a clear alternative.
*The writer teaches Political Economy at the University of Peradeniya and is a co-coordinator of the Marx School, Colombo, Kandy and Negombo. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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