At a recent seminar on the Hartal of 1953 and its legacy there was engaging debate and discussion on several themes relevant to the political economy of post-war Sri Lanka. Furthermore, the discussion addressed alternative forms of political engagement, including the importance of environmental issues and the recent history of trade union actions.
With regard to neoliberalism participants raised the question of its relevance as an analytic category in Sri Lanka, particularly given neoliberalism’s emphasis on privatisation and deregulation. Some participants pointed out those characteristics of Sri Lanka’s development since the 1980s that seem to contradict the free market push. Examples included the massive foreign aided development of the Mahaweli scheme under the J R Jayawardena regime. It was argued that rather than neoliberalism, Sri Lanka fit better into a “Malaysian Model” of politics involving authoritarian government, anti-Western rhetoric and selective use of free market mechanisms.
Other participants qualified the difference between neoliberal ideology and its particular characteristics as it exists in different places and emphasised the category’s usefulness in raising larger questions. The framing of neoliberalism it was argued was critical for understanding dynamics of global economic crisis including the process of financialisation. Neoliberalism’s usefulness for theorising different levels and meanings of “crisis”—social, political, economic—in Sri Lanka was emphasised. Historically, Sri Lanka has been subject to low levels of financialisation—as one person noted, under the Kumaratunga regime only 200 enterprises out of 30,000 were listed on the stock exchange. However, another participant pointed out recent policies of requiring all financial firms to list themselves in the stock exchange and the dramatic expansion of debt for consumer purchases, especially in the post-war North, as facets of contemporary policies of neoliberal financialisation.
In addition to financial expansion, since the mid-2000s Sri Lanka has seen significant growth in military spending. Participants of the seminar discussed the overall trajectory of military involvement in society, especially the defence establishment’s dominant role in urban development and even economic activities such as agriculture. A few emphasised the military’s growing involvement in civilian activities as a sign of an impending militarised transformation. Others argued, however, that despite growing military involvement, the military’s functions and relations to the overall development of the Sri Lankan state and society differs from countries such as Pakistan and Egypt. The work of renowned political economist Hamza Alavi was cited along with his notion of an “overdeveloped state.” This concept traces the colonial history of certain states, where states were imposed by the colonial powers with an over emphasis on the repressive state apparatuses such as the military and police. In those countries, state institutions and their representatives had more power than the capitalist classes. The case of Pakistan contrasts with the parliamentary lineages of the Sri Lankan welfare state, which give a different overall impetus to changes in the mechanisms of military involvement in society.
Finally, participants took on the current regime’s promotion of “development” as a political strategy to quell dissent. Various people noted the impact of state spectacles of development on popular attitudes and political consciousness. Serena Tennekoon’s work in the 1980s on statist “rituals of development” that were performed during the initiation of the Mahaweli project was discussed. Some participants noted the connections with the current regime’s emphasis on mega infrastructure projects such as construction of the port at Hambantota. They emphasised the affective content of nationalism, meaning its ability to shape people’s emotions. Another participant, however, questioned the culturist emphasis on popular attitudes, arguing that the inchoate ways common people view development projects don’t matter. Rather, in order to improve everyday livelihoods, activism and organising work must research and identify the actual factors impinging on people’s social life in areas such as cost of living, trade union organising, state subsidies etc.
Toward this end, participants discussed the current possibilities for alternative forms of engagement. They discussed the role of the Federation of University Teachers’ Association (FUTA) strike action in 2012 including the effectiveness of its organisational hierarchy and its successes and failures. Several questioned whether FUTA was able to expand beyond its initial demands and raise larger questions about democratic participation. In terms of workers’ struggles, participants also discussed the turn to law among trade unions, which limits broader thinking about political struggles and alternatives to the current system.
Many participants were hopeful about the continuing role of alternative visions of society. Some participants discussed the role of producer cooperatives and farmers organisations in rural areas. They emphasised the need to battle a lop-sided emphasis on urbanisation, driven primarily by industries such as tourism. Proposals for food sovereignty along with the possibility of using environmentalist discourse to leverage political space in post-war Sri Lanka were also discussed. Historical examples included the opposition by social movements to the proposed privatisation of the Eppawala phosphate mine in the 1990s. Thus revisiting the history of the Hartal of 1953 was a useful entry point to rethink contours of crises as well as possible political economic alternatives in Sri Lanka.
This piece also appeared in the Economic Times 15 Sept 2013