Colombo Telegraph

The “Post-Newtonian Political Equilibrium” in Post-War Sri Lanka

By Sumith Chaaminda –

Sumith Chaaminda

It is now clear that the anti-Tamil riots of July ’83 constitute one of the most important points in the recent history of Sri Lanka. A particular equilibrium within the Sri Lankan social formation has been irrevocably lost and a new equilibrium is yet to be achieved (Gunasinghe, 1996:204).

At the beginning of a new phase of the ethnic conflict after the July ’83 holocaust, Newton Gunasinghe predicted that the ethnic conflict was to over-determine Sri Lankan politics. His analysis remained an influential one among theoretical Marxists in the country for a long time, since it addressed one of the central problems of Leftist political debate; the complicated relationship between the ethnic conflict and the class struggle. His words eventually have become reality, in the sense that all mainstream political parties and groups found new strategic moves and alliances around an ethno-nationalist ideological frontier, in the two-and-a-half decades after his prediction. Gunasinghe

Riots May 1958 - A Tamil passenger was taken out of the vehicle and beaten up

identifies the post-1983 political conjuncture as a transformative moment, where the prevailing equilibrium in the Sri Lankan social formation had been lost and a new equilibrium was yet to be formed. His was not only a theoretical piece but also an intervention in a particular political conjuncture that made an important statement on future strategies of the Left politics.

As Qadri Ismail notes, Gunasinghe’s analysis has highlighted not only the political and historical but also the epistemological significance of the post-1983 political conjuncture (2005: xii). Being a Leftist activist and a Trade Union leader, Gunasinghe contributed to conceptualising a new vision that prioritised the struggle for a democratic solution for the ethnic conflict within the political agenda of the Left. He argued that “within the context of a heightened ethnic consciousness among the masses, the Left and the democratic forces are in a situation of theoretical disarray. One symptom of this disarray is the dominant tendency in the old Left to sweep the ethnic issue under the carpet, and to raise “safe” economic and class slogans” (Gunasinghe, 1996: 204). As Ismail points out, one of the main implications of this well-quoted article is “class contradictions were no longer the primary questions the Sri Lankan Left had to address in this changed conjuncture” (2005: xii).

This was the path that was taken by the old Left at least until the conclusion of the war in May 2009, presumably not because of Gunasinghe’s influence, but because of a series of other reasoning that stemmed from political pragmatism. However, at the end of the era of military confrontation of ethno-nationalist blocs, it is still important to read his analysis, made at a very crucial moment and at the outset of ethnic civil war. Reading his thesis of ethnic over-determination in the light of changed socio-political relations in the post-war context is still politically, as well as theoretically, valid. A most crucial question arising within the current conjuncture is whether we are in a situation where the emerging equilibrium glimpsed by Gunasinghe in 1984 has become history. I would argue, in this short article, that the over-determination of the ethnic antagonism thesis should be re-thought against the backdrop of significant changes in the political scenario, such as the total defeat of the LTTE, the consolidation of state power within the new ruling elite, the weakening of opposition against the ruling regime, the formation of new political alliances, the Opposition’s move to make a new frontier around non-ethnic issues like democracy, the economic burden on the underdog classes, and increasing corruption.

Newton Gunasinghe

In this kind of exercise, the first requirement would be defining concepts and explaining the theoretical perspective. Hence, the next section of this article focuses on interrogating the theoretical concept of over-determination. The article will critically review Gunasinghe’s different ways of using the concept. This will be followed by a discussion on how the concept can be modified, and its applicability in understanding post-1983 political relations in the country. Finally, the article will attempt to introduce future possibilities in Sri Lankan politics in terms of diverse factors of over-determination. The main emphasis of this whole analysis is that a pluralistic understanding of ethnic and other factors of over-determination is needed to conceptualise new developments which occurred in politico-military as well as politico-ideological levels at the end of thirty years’ ethnic civil war.

Rethinking Ethnic Over-Determination

Given the importance of Louis Althusser’s theory of structural Marxism in Gunasinghe’s project, and the fact that the central conceptual category of his essay comes directly from Althusser, it is reasonable to examine Gunasinghe’s way of using the Althusserian concept of over-determination. A closer examination of Gunasinghe’s essay reveals that it sounds less Althusserian than he claims it to be; “In both ethnic formations, class contradictions are overdetermined in the Althusserian sense, by the ethnic conflict. “Overdetermination” refers to a structure of dominance over the contradictions of a particular formation at a particular point of time (1996: 204-205).

However, I would argue that the Althusserian concept of over-determination is somewhat different from what Gunasinghe identifies as a structure of dominance, and that the former emphasises the multiplicity of contradictions and their conditions of existence. Althusser acknowledges that he has borrowed this concept from Freudian psychoanalysis, where it means that a single effect, say a dream, is determined by multiple causes or factors at once. It is important to bear in mind that, by this concept, both Freud and Althusser have tried to capture the multiplicity of factors / contradictions working together in determining a unitary effect. It does not merely imply that a dominant structure determines the other contradictions; rather, each and every contradiction and their circumstances and currents are actively working in over-determining the political or unconscious moment.

For Althusser, the orthodox Marxist understanding of history as a simple determination of forces and relations of production, which guarantees successive modes of production, is more Hegelian than Marxist, in the sense that it ignores the materialistic characteristic of dialectic, in terms of plurality of contradictions and over-determination. For Althusser, Marxist (materialist) dialectic differs from Hegelian (idealistic) dialectic not

At the beginning of a new phase of the ethnic conflict after the July ’83 holocaust, Newton Gunasinghe predicted that the ethnic conflict was to over-determine Sri Lankan politics

merely because the latter turns the former upside- down by applying the idealistic principle of dialectic on a different object, say, material life. On the contrary, when the dialectic becomes Marxist, it acquires a new structure as well. He explains this particular Marxist characteristic of dialectic through Lenin’s conceptualisation of revolutionaryRussiaas the weakest link of the imperialist chain. Socialist revolution was possible, for Lenin, in relatively undevelopedRussia, against a background where all the historical contradictions were accumulated and exacerbated. According to this new understanding, revolution is guaranteed by the accumulation of the largest sum of historical contradictions, and not necessarily by an abstract and simple contradiction between forces and relations of production, as Marxist orthodoxy maintained for a long time. However, to make revolution possible, these contradictions, their circumstances and currents should be “fused” or “merged” into a “ruptural unity”. Althusser introduces the concept of over-determination to explain this process:

In constituting this unity, they reconstitute and complete their basic animating unity, but at the same time they also bring out its nature: the “contradiction” is inseparable from the total structure of the social body in which it is found, inseparable from its formal conditions of existence, and even from the instances it governs; it is radically affected by them, determining, but also determined in one and the same movement, and determined by the various levels and instances of the social formation it animates; it might be called over-determined in its principle (1969: 100-101) (All emphasis is in the original).

Although Gunasinghe has made a significant contribution to “liberate” the Sri Lankan Left from a simple class determination thesis, it seems that, as his May Day After essay implies, he might have tried to replace class with ethnicity as the main determining factor in the new political conjuncture marked by the July holocaust. But, replacing one contradiction with another as the determinant factor would not work well with the Althusserian concept of over-determination. On the contrary, to make the dialectic Marxist, the structure of simple Hegelian dialectic itself should be changed by taking into account the multiplicity of contradictions in the given political conjuncture, and by conceptualising the concrete political moment resulting from the accumulation and exacerbation of those contradictions. Simply put, “determining class politics by ethnic contradiction” is nothing but a turning upside-down of the conventional Marxist thesis of “determining ethnic relations by class struggle”. The structure of the dialectic in both cases is the same, in the sense that both imply that one category determines the other. Gunasinghe’s analysis of the post-1983 political conjuncture is, I would argue, less Althusserian than claimed because it fails to go beyond the conventional Hegelian / Marxist idea of simple determination. The following quotation suggests how Gunasinghe uses the term over-determination to describe simple ethnic determination:

If the class contradictions in the Sri Lankan social formation today are overdetermined by the ethnic conflict, it logically follows that class struggle does not occur in a pure vacuum but in an “ether” which is constituted precisely of this conflict, which determines the intensity, tempo and pattern of class contradictions. Moreover, it exercises a determinant influence over class relations, conflict, as well as alliances (1996: 205).

For Althusser, the orthodox Marxist understanding of history as a simple determination of forces and relations of production, which guarantees successive modes of production, is more Hegelian than Marxis

Furthermore, when it comes to political strategy, Gunasinghe seems to be closer to the traditional Marxist assumption that, sooner or later, class struggle as the true contradiction will take its proper place, once ethnic conflict has lost its determining capacity. Here he is siding with the mainstream, old Marxist theoreticians and practitioners, who considered the ethnic conflict as an ideological deviation from the proper trajectory of history marked by the class struggle; “The worsening economic crisis enables the Left to raise the class issue with renewed vigour, raise the class consciousness of the working class and contribute towards the reduction of the affectivity of ethnic overdetermination on class conflict (Gunasinghe 207). Reading between the lines, one can detect the traditional Marxist anticipation of the non-over-determined form of class struggle. The missing point of this analysis is that class struggle, even when it is articulated by Marxist class consciousness, cannot but be an effect of over-determination; and in this sense, the “proper history” with class struggle as a necessary consequence of economic crisis would never come.

Over-view of Over-determination: 1983-2009

 As Gunasinghe has finely elaborated in his essay, political forces had been regrouping and re-dividing in an unimaginable manner at the particular political conjuncture in the early 1980s when, according to him, the previous political equilibrium was irrevocably lost. One of the significant characteristics of this process was that conventional and familiar political frontiers and distinctions were cut through by newly achieved political alliances and groupings. 

New alliances have been forged where none existed earlier, and old alliances which had withstood the strain of decades of political manoeuvre have been ruptured. “Conservative” and “Progressive”’ camps are internally divided on a possible solution to the ethnic issue, and groups at the opposite ends of the political spectrum have discovered similarities as far as the approach to this problem is concerned (Gunasinghe, 1996: 205).

This happened to be the dominant fashion in mainstream politics in the country, especially in the years following Gunasinghe’s unfortunate and premature death. Against the backdrop of the signing of the Indo-Lanka accord in 1987, a significant part of the Marxist Left aligned with the “political solution to the ethnic conflict” ideology, which was then championed by the Right-Wing UNP regime of J.R. Jayewardena, while other Leftist groups with the ideological and political leadership of the JVP initiated a struggle against so called separatist elements they identified in the Indo-Lanka accord. The confrontation between these two political blocs became violent when the Deshapremi Janatha Viyaparaya (Patriotic People’s Movement), a JVP offshoot, initiated an armed struggle in the name of the nation’s sovereignty, the unity of the country, and liberation from Indian imperialism.

This again paved the way for JVP-led radical Sinhalese nationalism to capitalise on economic issues, and to mobilise mass protest successfully, against both the terms “liberal” and “peace” in the UNP-led “liberal peace agenda”

As the above observations clearly indicate, there is no doubt that the ethnic conflict has played a central role in constructing political frontiers around ethno-nationalist identities, and in determining the strategic moves of concrete political agents at the time. However, when this political process is seen through the conceptual prism of over-determination, one can also reasonably claim that not only ethnic conflict but also many other contradictions (and their conditions of existence) were at work in over-determining this particular political conjuncture. Ethnic conflict itself has been influenced and fashioned by those contradictions. This is not actually something Gunasinghe was unaware of. Many of his other writings exemplify how he became a pioneer amongst theoretical Marxists in the late 1970s and 1980s, in transcending the dominant trend of simple class (or ethnic) reductionism. For instance, Gunasinghe authored many papers addressing diverse issues such as the open economy and its influence on ethnic relations, the role of Bhikkhus (Buddhist monks) in nationalist populism, the changing nature of caste, class and ethnic relations against the backdrop of economic liberalisation, and the transformation of class composition in the post-colonial state in 1956. It seems to me that, through these various writings and other engagements, he was successful in applying the first principle of Althusserian over-determination, namely the multiplicity of contradiction. However, he failed in applying the second principle; the accumulation and exacerbation of those contradictions into a ruptural unity.

For instance, it is not fair to explain the JVP’s second armed insurrection during 1987 and 1989 only as resulting from ethnic over-determination, without taking into account how anti-capitalism, radical elements of rural youth, anti-UNP populist sentiments, etc. were articulated with anti-Indian cum anti-power sharing ideologies in the so called Deshapremi (patriotic) discourse. Although Sinhalese nationalist elements acquired a central place within this discourse, we should not forget the fact that this armed insurrection was possible against a particular historic background, where mainstream Sinhalese opposition was weakened, mass protests against worsening economic situations were suppressed, the democratic channels of contestation of power were obstructed by a very powerful executive presidency, and emerging criticism against open market policies and their implications for socio-cultural relations were becoming more popular, especially among the Sinhalese intermediate classes. A popular political slogan which developed during this period Colombata Kiri Gamata Kekiri (“Milk forColombo, nothing for the village”; “milk” symbolically representing the availability of better facilities, infrastructure etc. in the cities), finely exemplified the significant non-ethnic articulations within this particular moment of over-determination.

The non-JVP Left parties prioritised peace over economic issues, and decided to support the UNF

However, during the last three decades, the non-JVP Leftist parties have been prioritising the ethnic conflict over economic and other issues, letting the JVP, JHU and the Sinhalese mainstream articulate those issues in ethno-nationalist terms. It seemed that, against the background of the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the twentieth century experience of international communism, the Sri Lankan Left found “safe ground” in the “political solution to the ethnic problem” ideology. It should also be kept in mind that, since the emergence of NGO civil society politics in the country in the early 1980s, new themes like conflict resolution and transformation, constitutionalism, peace studies, state reform, development studies, etc., were increasingly introduced and funded, and that this contributed to significant changes in Leftist political discourse, and weakened its commitment to political economy. Interestingly, the first generation of the NGO civil society inSri Lankaemerged from the Left! It seemed that, within the popular political discourse, the identity of the Left itself was redefined by the above- mentioned strategic and discursive changes.

The Left parties continued with this duel strategy of supporting a political solution to the ethnic conflict, and undermining the protest against economic problems faced by the people, as it was finely manifested in the Norwegian facilitated liberal peace process, under the leadership of UNF Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe during 2001 and 2004. The non-JVP Left parties prioritised peace over economic issues, and decided to support the UNF, even when the Government championed unpopular economic reforms tending towards privatisation, commoditisation of land, and tough labour regulations. Venugopal highlights this in his paper “The Politics of Sri Lanka’s Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna”:

In October 2003 and again in January 2004, when the UNF government (and hence the peace process) appeared in danger of collapsing under the weight of the JVP-led campaign, the main non-JVP Left parties met with prime minister Ranil Wickremasinghe and agreed to use their influence to defuse trade union pressure on the government in return for a postponement of the more controversial parts of the reform agenda such as privatisation and labour reforms (2008: 12).

This again paved the way for JVP-led radical Sinhalese nationalism to capitalise on economic issues, and to mobilise mass protest successfully, against both the terms “liberal” and “peace” in the UNP-led “liberal peace agenda”. Venugopal further argues that “the non-JVP Left was not strong enough to prevent the collapse of the peace process, but nevertheless laid themselves open to the charge of collaborating in the government’s unpopular reform agenda at a time of growing worker unrest” (Venugopal, 2008: 12). In the end, the ethnic over-determination thesis, which was theoretically established by Gunasinghe and practically implemented by the so-called old Left, lost its significance even among those who championed it, given that a large portion of the Sinhalese Left aligned with the Rajapakse regime.

Glimpsing the Future: Over-determination in the Post-War Context

I would suggest that, at the end of the thirty years’ ethnic civil war, by May 2009, the post-1983 political equilibrium conceptualised by Gunasinghe has also been lost, and that we are in a new historic moment, as Gunasinghe identified it in the early 1980s, in which a new equilibrium is yet to be achieved. One of the significant characteristics of the post-war political scenario is that, for the first time since the introduction of open economic policies, the ruling regime seems successfully to manage the tension between the anti-liberalisation claims articulated in ethno-nationalist ideologies by

At the end of the thirty years’ ethnic civil war, by May 2009, the post-1983 political equilibrium conceptualised by Gunasinghe has also been lost

leading intellectuals and activists, who have emerged mainly from intermediate classes and strata, and the interests of so-called comprador capitalist sectors, which are also aligned with the Rajapakse regime. The post-war ruling regime has become the first of its kind, simultaneously championing Sinhalese Buddhist ethno-nationalist populism and the neo-liberal reform agenda! Interestingly, within this new context, the JVP has emerged as the main Leftist party in the South that campaigns for the rights of the people in war affected areas, while the old Left parties, being allies of the Sinhalese dominant capitalist regime have largely been criticised for their betrayal of commitment to socialism, democracy and social justice. Certain new political groupings and alliances, which were unimaginable within the post-1983 political equilibrium, have emerged during the two years that followed the end of the war. For instance, the JVP, TNA and UNP supporting a common Presidential candidate was an improbable occurrence five years back, although it did happen soon after the conclusion of the war. Likewise, the UNP and the JVP were the main oppositional groups in the protest campaigns against the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, while the old Left supported this most undemocratic constitutional reform in a very cynical manner. However, it is also clear that, from these issue-based protest campaigns and temporary alliances – mostly aimed at elections – a sustainable political bloc has not yet emerged, because of the significant ideological differences among these oppositional parties. This implies that the new political equilibrium is yet to come, especially from the perspective of the opposition.

It is also clear that the end of the war has not given rise to any positive repercussions in terms of a political solution for the ethnic conflict. If the debate on a political solution and power-sharing had acquired the central space in the political discourse at least until 2004, it has largely been marginalised in the post-war conjuncture, not only by the ruling elite, but also by most of the oppositional groups. The debate seems to have been replaced by new terminologies of post-war resettlement, development, democratisation and / or authoritarianism. Ethnic, class and other forms of suppressions and exclusions have increased under the new hegemony, marked by authoritarian statism and developmentalism that go hand-in-hand with open-market policies, which are mostly favourable to new comprador sectors aligned with the ruling regime. Revisiting the concept of over-determination is desirable in conceptualising the emerging new political equilibrium in post-warSri Lanka, and in exploring new counter-hegemonic strategies for democratic reforms, equality and social justice.

Works Cited

Althusser, Louis. “Contradiction and Overdetermination.”  For Marx.London: Verso, 1969.

Gunasinghe, Newton. “May Day after July Holocaust.” Selected Essays. Eds. Sasanka Perera and Newton Gunasinghe.Colombo: Social Scientists’ Association, 1996. 204-205.

Ismail, Qadri.  Abiding by Sri Lanka: on Peace, Place and Postcoloniality.London:University ofMinnesota Press, 2005.

Venugopal, Rajesh. “The Politics of Sri Lanka’s Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP).  CRISE. Centre for Research on Inequality, Human Security and Ethnicity. Nov. 2008. Web.

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