By Uditha Devapriya –
By now we know the government’s prescription for the economic crisis is greater austerity. The regime has rejected welfare measures or state intervention, and is heavily promoting the neoliberal agenda of privatisation, deregulation, and tax hikes. While economic think-tanks in Colombo have effectively welcomed these proposals, trade unions and Left activists bitterly oppose them. Yet the situation is not comparable to what it was a year ago: the middle-classes that cheered Left outfits at the Gotagogama protests have now chosen to ignore them, even as the State rounds them up and arrests them.
It is against these tensions that the Dulles Alahapperuma faction of the SLPP, which includes nationalist stalwarts previously associated with the Rajapaksas, like Wimal Weerawansa and Gevindu Cumaratunga, has teamed up with the SLFP and sections of the Old Left, including the LSSP, the Democratic Left Front, and the Communist Party. Ostensibly opposed to the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa regime, these formations have, while not expressing support for Left groups agitating against the present government, distanced themselves from the SLPP-UNP combination and by extension its economic agenda.
There is little doubt that the latter agenda will provoke a backlash or a response, of some form and magnitude. Yet, as Devaka Gunawardena points out in a thoughtful piece in Polity Magazine, “[d]etermining the progressive or reactionary character of that response… is key.” Gunawardena, a research scholar based in the US, argues that the situation today is comparable to the John Kotelawala UNP regime of 1953-1956, which itself came to power in the aftermath of the Hartal and was defeated by an array of Sinhala nationalist forces led by the SLFP. The analogy is clear: the regime felled by the Left in 1953 is similar to the deposed Rajapaksa government and the regime that followed it is similar to the present government. The question here is, who or what will lead the opposition to the latter.
Gunawardena argues against letting the oppositional space be dominated by the ex-SLPP, SLFP, and Old Left. This would obviously include the Uttara Lanka Sabhawa. His rationale is, simply, that these groups, particularly the right-wing elements in them, once associated and hobnobbed with the Rajapaksa regime, and hence cannot be trusted to come up with a truly radical alternative to the present regime’s neoliberal agenda. Their programme, he points out, is anchored in an “expanded role” for Statist elements, including the military, as well as virulent opposition to the privatisation of State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) and to Free Trade Agreements (FTAs). It is, in essence, dirigiste in outlook and conception.
It should be noted here that Gunawardena is right in his observation that dirigisme is not necessarily a socialist imperative. In an article published in New Politics (“Remembering Dependency Theory: A Marxist-Humanist Review”), Edward Tapa lays down a convincing critique of Marxists and socialists who idealised industrialisation, and state intervention, and on that basis formed alliances with petty bourgeois (small capitalist) parties in the hopes of fermenting a revolution in their countries. While not necessarily agreeing with Tapas’s view or implication that a preoccupation with such strategies led the Left in the Global South –in countries like ours, that is – to neglect the all-important issue of class struggle, I agree with his view that industrialisation as pursued in such countries immediately prior to the period of neoliberal globalisation did not achieve the desired outcomes.
I also concede that ULS and dissenting SLPP faction, as well as the Old Left, have framed their economic policy in terms of a more interventionist State, though this is not the end-all and be-all of their programme. Such a State would, in some respects, be an improvement over the UNP-SLPP’s proposal for its retrenchment and divestment. In others, it would be grossly inadequate. The likes of Gunawardena object particularly to the inclusion of Sinhala nationalist parties, outfits which, in their view, are in favour of the same policies and share the same ideology as the parties they now claim to oppose. In this respect, he contends that the Nationalist Right’s framing of the need for industrialisation, which the Old Left has taken up as well, must be scrutinised, critiqued, and if necessary, rejected.
All this dovetails with the question of whether industrialisation in itself constitutes a viable departure from and alternative to the present government’s neoliberal agenda. Marxist academics attach importance to what Gunawardena calls “proposals for economic recovery that hinge on mass mobilisation.” By contrast, the parties he associates with the Nationalist Right, including the Freedom People’s Alliance (FPA), favour an interventionist State moored in “appeals to nationalism and an exclusivist definition of community.”
My response to this is that industrialisation per se, as a Left or Nationalist Right construct, requires the kind of dirigiste State being promoted by these and other formations, including formations on the right and the centre-right. In that sense, the real question, for me, is not whether the Nationalist Right’s proposals for nationalisation and industrialisation constitute a radical alternative to the SLPP-UNP’s agenda, but whether, from a socialist and Marxist perspective, the Nationalist Right’s articulation of such proposals automatically disqualifies the latter as an alternative to that agenda. I would contend it does not.
I posit two reasons for this. The first reason is that the mainstream Opposition, the Samagi Jana Balavegaya, includes a not insignificant segment which is basically in agreement with the government’s neoliberal policies. This segment houses a number of MPs who owe their political career to Ranil Wickremesinghe, even though Wickremesinghe’s archnemesis is their leader. Against this backdrop, the New Left, led by the JVP-NPP and FSP, is sending mixed signals about their stance on the government’s neoliberal programme. On the one hand, the JVP-NPP has made contradictory statements over issues like private education and the IMF, some of which I have already noted. On the other hand, the more consistent FSP is experimenting with coalitions with other parties, including the SJB.
What does this mean, in terms of political strategy? It means that the centre-right and the centre-left is facing an existential crisis, perhaps the biggest such crisis in decades. Both these formations lack, as I mentioned last week, the proverbial fire in the belly. The SJB, specifically its anti-Ranilist and pro-Premadasa wing, has the potential to move to the left if not centre-left, while the New Left, especially the JVP-NPP has the potential to dominate discussions over the issues the National Right has taken over. Viewing industrialisation and state intervention as right-wing policies without incorporating them into a left-wing policy platform helps no one, least of all the JVP-NPP dominated New Left which now accuses the Nationalist Right of playing a duplicitous game vis-à-vis the SLPP and UNP.
The second reason is that the radical politics espoused by the New Left and certain Marxist academics and activists requires a total and continuous campaign of mass resistance. This would obviously call for trade union mobilisation. Now, Sri Lanka does not lack strong and activist trade unions. However, unions have seen a decline in membership since the 1980s, so much so that union density in the country is barely 10% today.
Moreover, barring sectors like textiles, private sector workers lack union representation. The public sector does not lack representation, but any union agitation involving public sector workers would pit the latter, not against the capitalist framework opposed by the Left, but against middle-class taxpayers who claim they are contributing to government coffers and, even when battered by neoliberal reforms, are virulently opposed to strikes and walkouts. There is clearly no room here for a repeat of the 1953 Hartal.
What I am suggesting here is that the Left simply lacks the base on which it can oppose, let alone overthrow, the regime’s neoliberal agenda through mass resistance and mobilisation alone. Such strategies can and will lead to the overthrow of individual regimes, but as last year’s protests showed, it can only end with the replacement of one authoritarian regime by another. I would certainly concede that the Nationalist Right needs to be opposed from an anti-imperialist standpoint. But any rejection of the policies they propose – policies such as the nationalisation of strategic sectors – would lead to the Nationalist Right dominating if not monopolising discussions over those proposals. That should be avoided.
To prevent this from happening, the New Left needs to focus on industrialisation as much as it is focusing, at present, on social welfarist or mass resistance programmes. This is not just because Sri Lanka’s crisis is heavily rooted in a lack of manufacturing and a dependence on imports: a point noted by economists and scholars like Jayati Ghosh and Prabhat Patnaik. It is also because the New Left in Sri Lanka can gain more firepower and moral strength from focusing on such policies. By doing so, it will be able to take back discussions on them from the same Nationalist Right it now opposes, thereby winning the debate.
*The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at email@example.com