Policy slogans such as attracting more foreign investment can’t solve the crisis that manifests politically in the choice between a weak democratic candidate and a hard authoritarian candidate, or Sajith versus Gotabaya
By Devaka Gunawardena
What can the left offer people in the upcoming election? In addition to contributing to analysis, we must describe concretely the vision of society that we are fighting for, regardless of who wins. Having this perspective will shape our approach to future challenges under the rule of either of the two main contenders, Gotabaya Rajapaksa or Sajith Premadasa.
In the event of a Gotabaya victory, the immediate response will be to try and defend liberal democratic norms. Even if Sajith wins and the left buys itself more time to organise, however, the same crisis that created space for chauvinist forces will exist.
Yet, as we can see in Western countries, the neoliberal centrist establishment is hollowed out and incapable of effectively pushing back against authoritarian politics. This politics offers hospitable terrain for extremist actors such as the far right and even fascist forces.
Left populists in other countries have argued that reversing the authoritarian turn requires an expansive vision that breaks with the neoliberal order. Their argument makes visible the linkage between political and economic reform any successful movement must make, regardless of its ideology. If we look back in the case of Sri Lanka, for example, the UNP used the neoliberal Open Economy policy of 1977 to justify the establishment of the Executive Presidency to effectively implement its plan.
During the Presidential Election of 2015, the Rajapaksa clan became a concentrated target for popular anger toward the abuse of power. But the political agenda of diverse actors in opposition was vaguely defined. Many embraced anticorruption discourse and a narrow, legalistic definition of constitutional reform. A democratic agenda for constitutional reform can only be achieved, however, by understanding the broad social purpose for which it is designed. We must explain why a more democratic system of governance would be required, for example, to devolve decisions regarding public investment.
To offer people something more—a way of framing the upcoming election not just in terms of dangers but also possibilities—the left must take the risk, even in a moment fraught with peril, to sketch what a future society could look like if organised according to new principles. What the rest of this article offers is a sketch of a transition in Sri Lanka.
Narrow electoral calculations force us to recognise the hard authoritarian threat. Writing, however, is also an exercise in political imagination. In addition to identifying the electoral stakes, it helps us concretely envision what we could potentially achieve if we build a collective movement for egalitarian change.
Social priorities for investment
If we look at what most people spend money on, we see that basic needs that should be covered by public services remain significant costs for households earning less than Rs. 100,000 a month. Analysing data from the 2016 Household Income and Expenditure Survey, we see that the bottom 90% of Sri Lankan households on average spend nearly 15% on healthcare and education alone.
Although healthcare and education are technically offered as free services, quality has gone way down. In the health sector, private sector hospitals and insurance schemes predominate because of the need to cover more advanced and complex operations. More importantly perhaps, State hospitals are underfunded. Medical care, however, will require greater investment, especially as the population grows older.
In terms of education, Sri Lanka used to maintain world-class standards. Now, however, graduates aspire to enrol in extension courses of foreign universities. The lucky few migrate abroad. The crisis is severe even before students enter university. Parents are forced to shoulder the costs of tuition classes because Government schools are inadequate.
Moreover, after graduation, there are no job guarantees. What’s the purpose, then, of schooling? Simply put, education must be decoupled from skills—in a narrow, vocational sense—and reconsidered as a process that enables the citizenry to engage in decision-making at advanced levels. That means debating the social priorities of investment.
Spending more on health and education would decommodify these needs, take them out of the market, and ease people’s stress and anxiety. To do so would require drastically increasing (and enforcing) direct taxes on the rich, which would also level inequality. The State’s revenue would ultimately be limited, however, by Sri Lanka’s overall economic development. We must redefine what kind of investment is required to achieve development, especially in green infrastructure.
What if we invested, for example, in more public transport? This approach would create a market for goods and services procured by the state, including the possibility of worker-owned cooperatives. It would enable the state to set labour and environmental standards for contractors, while incentivising private investment. In addition, we could turn Wages Boards into sectoral bargaining institutions, along with making it easier to unionise in the workplace.
We could imagine a nationalised ride sharing platform, a light rail network in Colombo, and the upgrading of public transport across the entire country. Passenger transport could be combined with cargo. Public facilities for the warehousing and retailing of agro products, including for export abroad, could be built. We could bring farmers, estate workers, and other rural constituencies into the political debate by demanding an efficient network of transportation that cuts out the middlemen while providing unionised green jobs for logistics workers.
The energy to power this system could come from micro grids expanded with even more public investment. Establishing decentralised renewable energy could enable District Councils to take on more tasks. This would strengthen their capacity under the direction of Provincial Councils that address the development needs of their respective provinces.
The latest UN Committee on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) report on a global Green New Deal, for example, describes an alternative path for countries in the global South. The report mentions that those countries which have not yet sunk capital into developing inefficient energy infrastructure could potentially convert to alternatives faster.
The above processes would require confronting perhaps the most powerful force currently driving the Sri Lankan economy: real estate speculation. If government planners are serious about implementing the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, for example, it’s time to ban construction of new luxury apartments, or at least require that a significant proportion of housing stock be allocated for lower income families.
We could also demand subsidies for climate-proof housing across the island. Finally, a financial transaction tax, capital gains tax, and other wealth taxes could limit speculative activity, in addition to helping cover public expenditures.
A vision that can win
What the above reforms would entail is a mix of public and private investment. More importantly, they represent a public framework for private investment. Investors on their own do not set the right priorities for our society, or for our economy for that matter. They look for the most profitable activity that requires the least amount of risk. That’s why policy slogans such as attracting more foreign investment can’t solve the crisis that manifests politically in the choice between a weak democratic candidate and a hard authoritarian candidate, or Sajith versus Gotabaya. The calculus only changes when capitalists are forced to operate under different circumstances. That means increasing the leverage of actors, such as workers, who can prevent the rich from pushing economic burdens onto the poor. For too long, unfortunately, most Sri Lankans have not enjoyed this advantage. They have experienced their lack of effective bargaining power in the stagnation of their living standards, while other parts of the country, especially the affluent sections of Colombo, obtain high-profile investment.
Nevertheless, on another level, the business community also operates according to a different rationality, within a set of social parameters. Business people recognise that they will face consequences if the economy, state and society enter a full-blown crisis. As many can see, in Sri Lanka and beyond, the current system is not sustainable. It’s producing increasingly authoritarian political responses.
While some elites may claim that they want a leader who can impose “discipline,” they may not equally appreciate the proto-fascist forces such a figure could—and likely would—unleash. In the meantime, neoliberal policy makers and think tanks will offer the same solutions. But the deadening of our imagination and the retreat into clichés shows that even their rhetoric hardly convinces the decision-makers, much less the voters who will decide the next president.
In addition to exposing the potential dangers of proto-fascism then, we must sketch an alternative for the candidate that is most capable of defeating reaction this election. While Sajith’s success or failure hinges on structural factors—especially the diversity and enthusiasm of his party’s social bases—ideological work still has a role to play. Moreover, the way in which we can prevent hard authoritarianism from rearing its head again in the long-term, even if it is defeated in the immediate short-term, is based on the extent to which we adopt a new platform.
Finally, rethinking the boundaries of what’s politically possible can remind us why the changes so many other progressives would like to see can only be achieved as part of a strong left-led coalition. Leading from the left means approaching the democratisation of the relationship between state and society from the perspective of democratising the economy. That includes dispensing with the cheap technocratic rhetoric that has so far defined the presidential candidates’ campaigns. Instead, leadership demands that we take the risk of imagining and fighting for a different order.