By Uditha Devapriya –
Historically, the United National Party was a party of businessmen, traders, and rentiers. It underwent two shifts in its early phase: under the Senanayakes (1948-1977), and under JR Jayewardene (1977-1989). Under Ranasinghe Premadasa (1989-1993) it went through its third shift, enacting somewhat progressive economic measures while fortifying the State’s military and defence sectors. The measures which are most often invoked by commentators today are janasaviya, the Garment Factories, and the peoplisation of bus services, as well as the leasing of plantations to only local companies.
It was during this time, moreover, that the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), headed by economists and academics like Dr Howard Nicholas, began serious discussions about industrialisation. That such institutions have moved away from their mandates – as Ahilan Kadirgmar has clearly noted – tells us much about the policies that should have stayed after Premadasa’s assassination. It also tells us about the policy paradigms that came into effect and moved to the mainstream, throughout the Third World, in the mid-1990s: put simply, from their fealty to socialist planning and to industrialisation, Marxist and left-wing parties in Asia and Africa, including in South Asia, turned to the right.
These shifts must be seen in the context of their time. The collapse of the Soviet Union had drained socialist politics of credibility, especially in countries like India and Sri Lanka. The resurgence of the Right, initially in Indonesia, then in Chile, Sri Lanka, the US, and UK, had led to the destruction of entire national industries, the financialisation of entire economies, and the emasculation of entire working-class movements. These governments had enacted reforms that cripped trade unions, but empowered a middle bourgeoisie: this enabled the UNP to cling on to power, as the party found out in 1982 and 1989.
Left-wing parties, as well as parties which espoused a Third Way between capitalism and communism, took time to accommodate these developments. The neoliberal wave of the 1980s deprived the Marxist Left of its two most important foundations: national industries and trade unions. Its credos had been the ownership of the means of production and the equitable distribution of income and wealth. Lacking the wherewithal to commit to either, the Left slowly compromised on its ideals: in the mid-1980s, the Democratic Party in the US and the Labour Party in the UK thus embraced the tenets of Third Way Centrism. When the Right crumbled under the weight of its contradictions, and authoritarian governments in the Third World were toppled and defeated, it was these Centrists who took over.
It must be noted that Third Way Centrism would not have materialised without the collapse of the Soviet Union. The latter event made redundant the kind of anti-communist rhetoric that Republicans in the US and Conservatives in the UK had been deploying for decades. This made it possible for Centrists to come to power by appropriating the economic policies of the Right while retaining some socially progressive measures: in the UK, for instance, the Blair government continued Margaret Thatcher’s labour policies, while moving closer to the European Union and enforcing its employment clauses.
Yet these developments underlay a fatal contradiction, between the deindustrialisation of these economies, the financialization of their markets, and colossal job losses in former industrial zones, like Michigan in the US. Coupled with China’s entry into the World Trade Organization and its later phenomenal rise, these fed into xenophobic fears of being taken over by migrants and other economies. Meanwhile, Sri Lanka faced a renaissance in Third Way Centrist politics, symbolised by the election of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party under Chandrika Kumaratunga in 1994 – and, more fittingly, by the UNP’s shift from Ranasinghe Premadasa’s policies to his successor’s neoliberal outlook.
In other words, it was at the point of socialism’s global downfall that the Centrists took over. But the Centrists in Sri Lanka continued in power long after their colleagues in the West had been swamped by the nationalist opprobrium their policies had provoked. In the UK, the Labour Party lost power in 2010, while a (relatively) moderate Conservative Party ceded to a right-wing fringe in 2016. British politics has never recovered since. In the US, the disastrous financialization and deregulation of the economy, initiated by Ronald Reagan, encouraged by Bill Clinton, and pursued to a catastrophic climax by George W. Bush, led to the bailout of the corporate sector by Barack Obama and a reversion to the tenets of industrialisation by the Trump and, much more constructively, the Biden administrations.
Sri Lanka’s civil society justified Centrism by posing it against a rising wave of Sinhala nationalism. In other words, Sri Lanka’s liberal intelligentsia saw Third Way Centrism as an alternative to chauvinism: to them, it was not “socialism or barbarism”, but “centrism or barbarism.” Such Manichean distinctions failed to explain why nationalism could enter the political mainstream in countries like Sri Lanka. Yet civil society went on to deploy those distinctions against their nationalist opponents, even as Western governments realised that nationalism was a product of an economic system badly in need of repair.
The US has experienced the consequences of neglecting the economic dimensions of these issues. Most Americans did not vote for Trump, yet he assumed the presidency through a systemic anomaly. Trump came to power wooing dispossessed blue-collar workers. Not a few among them preferred Bernie Sanders. But they wanted Sanders, not Clinton: hence when the latter replaced the former as the Democratic candidate, they switched. Chastened by these lessons, the Biden administration abandoned financialization and is overseeing the reindustrialisation of the American economy. This policy, writes Cédric Durand in the New Left Review, “points to a structural break in the regulation of capitalism, the shockwaves of which will reverberate in the global political economy for years to come.”
Will Sri Lanka learn these lessons? Its government and civil society have locked horns with each other. Civil society sees the government as authoritarian, while the government sees civil society as an obstacle that should be cut off. Lost in all these confrontations are the debates that should matter, such as the industrialisation of the economy. The longer these issues are ignored, the more pronounced and dangerous their repercussions will be. Unless someone initiates a discussion, or even a conversation, the neglect of these issues will lead to resistance from both sides: from a civil society that venerates Centrism politically and is yet to renounce neoliberalism economically, and from a political system which has, for over half a century, embraced and fetishized neoliberal authoritarianism.
*The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org