Is a ‘self-sufficient’, minimal-imports, ruralised ‘National Economy’ actually a siege economy meant to withstand international isolation, be resistant to future
international sanctions—and are citizens’ consumption patterns to be deliberately re-programmed for permanent scarcity? – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara
The COVID-19 coronavirus is a mutation of all hitherto known coronaviruses. It poses the greatest threat to those who are older; those who have lasted longest. Similarly, in the realm of ideas and ideology, many long-standing negative ideas in sections of Sri Lankan society seem to be mutating into something new and more virulently dangerous.
This mutating ideological coronavirus in Sri Lanka threatens our oldest political survivor: Democracy, that has struck deep roots and lasted on our island through a World War, civil wars, revolutions and counterrevolutions, assassinations, terrorism and foreign intervention, from 1931, the year of the exercise of universal adult suffrage a mere four years after its introduction in Britain.
Let us start with the least obviously deadly of the virus of ideas and ideology in circulation, the policy of strictly curbing imports on the officially stated grounds that local agriculture and industry must be encouraged. In the contemporary social context, local demand, however shrunken by the fall in purchasing power due to the corona crisis, cannot be met by strictly domestic production and supply of goods effected by a policy guillotine on imports.
Local production must be strengthened and expanded at an accelerated pace, not only because it is intrinsically positive to have a more balanced economy but because it is imperative in the current context of a global pandemic. But local production be it agrarian or industrial, requires imported inputs, while a middle-class society in an MDG country, cannot sustain itself without imported consumer goods including essentials. The 5% growth rate that we sustained throughout the wars years was possible only because of the resilience and dynamism of the Open Economy.
Why this tectonic shift? There could be one of two reasons, or both. The first is there’s a looming foreign exchange crunch. If this is the reason, just say it, instead of hailing the virtues of boosting local production through an imports quasi-lockdown.
Why not convene a virtual Emergency Economic Roundtable of Experts, imperatively including the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), which could produce policy alternatives, a roadmap for economic crisis management and a blueprint for a rational alternative economic strategy/model? Why not bring together stellar economists, the corporate sector, state economic managers, trade unions and leaders of all political parties for a virtual Emergency Economic Summit?
Ideological, not logical
The second reason, which does not negate the first, is the hegemony of wrong ideas. The new policy will slit the throat of the goose that laid the golden eggs, the Open Economy of 1977.
While the SLFP was an early critic, both the SLFP and the former Economics Ministers now in the SLPP have long since converted to a variant of the Open Economy, entailing a different policy mix. It is only the Sinhala Alt-Right that has consistently been against the Open Economy since 1977. Around 1990 the Sinhala ultranationalists propounded the slogan and model of a “Jathika Arthikaya” (Dr. Gunadasa Amarasekara’s coinage), a “National Economy”, a return to the closed economic policy of pre-1977 but with an ultraconservative, fundamentalist twist. It is in the service of this ideology that the student unions of the radical Right (with “Nalin Sir” as guru) launched a coercive campaign in the early 1990s against Fanta and Coca Cola on campuses.
As Dr. Newton Gunasinghe noted in his ‘Open economy and its impact on ethnic relations in Sri Lanka,’ (Lanka Guardian 15 November 1983) the Sinhala middle bourgeoisie felt that with its controlling interest in the State through arithmetical-electoral preponderance, a State-run ‘closed economy’ was more advantageous vis-a-vis their ethnic minority economic competitors than the relatively level playing field of the Open Economy. Minister of Industries, militant Sinhala ultranationalist Cyril Mathew, was an ideologue of this perspective.
The Government has now embarked whether it knows it or not, on the path of de-linking and de-globalisation, while rational thinking among world leaders, including Putin and Xi Jinping, is for the retention of globalisation but with a shift to multilateralism and multipolarity. Russia, China and India have been critical of the unilateral nationalist ideological ‘turn’ away from globalisation. The banner of globalisation dropped by Trump has been picked up by China’s Xi.
Participating at the invitation of Prof. Sergei Karaganov (dubbed “Russia’s Kissinger”), in Moscow last November at the International Conference on “Globalisation in Asia” at the elite Higher School of Economics (HSE) I argued that the problem is not globalisation per se, but the specific form of globalisation which is neoliberal and unipolar, urging that the false choices of “globalisation or no globalisation?”, “globalisation or de-globalisation?” should be reframed as “what kind of globalisation and who benefits from it?” and a model envisioned that is not an alternative TO globalisation but an alternative model OF globalisation. (https://russiancouncil.ru/en/analytics-and-comments/analytics/the-intellectual-vector-where-russian-interventionism-is-imperative/)
A policy of import controls/import substitution/austerity as ‘shock therapy’ would lead to scarcities, disgruntlement at unshared sacrifice, protest resulting in violent and possibly lethal crackdowns, and erosion of electoral popularity. So, what’s the game-plan?
Garrison state, siege economy
Is a ‘self-sufficient’, minimal-imports, ruralised ‘National Economy’ actually a siege economy meant to withstand international isolation, be resistant to future international sanctions—and are citizens’ consumption patterns to be deliberately re-programmed for permanent scarcity?
Every macroeconomic policy regime has its inherent logic. The agro-based ‘siege economy’ model inevitably triggers a search for agrarian ‘Lebensraum’, which would be quite in order if it doesn’t take the shape of an expansionist, annexationist ‘settler-colonial’ model as was sought in the 1980s as geostrategic and demographic accompaniment of the Mahaweli scheme. That model resurfaced in 2008-9 as example and experience of foreign patrons during deliberations in the last stage of the war regarding postwar security order planning. Those blueprints could be implemented.
World history proves that a closed ‘national economy’, delinked from the world economy and leaning towards state monopoly, exercises a gravitational pull towards totalitarianism. However, an ethno/religio-centric garrison state is unsustainable in a negative external climate, on a small island with a pluri-ethnic populace on the doorstep of a regional superpower which houses one of those ethnicities in numbers four times the size of this island’s population.
By “garrison state” I am not referring to the deployment of the military including those at the highest command levels, in the anti-corona campaign. Our military constitutes the most powerful instrument we have and we must throw everything our country possesses into the campaign. The ‘counter-terrorist’ intelligence-led nature of the anti-corona campaign is necessary to track and sequester the carriers of this viral bomb.
I have no issue with the appointment of retired military officers because with or without the corona crisis we have to use their training and command experience to re-set and re-energise a sluggish State machine, though I am quite uncomfortable with ex-military governors for Provinces – the optics are all wrong — and smart retired officers heading or co-chairing State institutions pertaining to specialised policy fields that it takes years of education and experience to achieve expertise in.
Putin it on
There are excellent, exemplary public policy interventions by the GMOA which acts as a watchdog, tracks the global pandemic, absorbs the experiences and applies them to the local situation, makes proposals and keeps the public informed. Six top Professors of Medicine have made pinpoint recommendations. Both groups apply the universal objective scientific method which knows no national/ethnic/religious boundaries or biases.
Meanwhile the usual suspects post articles in Sinhala and English with titles such as ‘The Democracy Trap’ and FB slides which say ‘No to Elections! 9 Maj-Generals for the 9 Provinces! 25 Brigadiers for the 25 Districts! Like this if you agree!’
An SLPP ideologue, the ‘Yuthukama’ chief, posts a video denouncing the call for the reconvening of Parliament on the grounds that the legislature is “stale” in that it doesn’t represent the outcome of the Presidential election, unaware that the US House of Representatives doesn’t mirror the outcome of the US Presidential Election either, but convened under bitter Trump opponent Nancy Pelosi and passed an 8.3 billion Emergency Corona Response Bill.
An SLPP academic urges the instant implementation of the Grama Rajya concept embraced by the party, ignoring its founding purpose in West Bengal under Marxist Chief Minister Jyoti Basu as sub-unit devolution for grassroots participatory development, organically within the womb of a quasi-federal linguistic state.
Nationalist columnists defend the Ratnayake release (which should have been either a commutation of the death sentence, or part of a blanket amnesty covering both sides) while scornfully dismissing the unanimous judgement of a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court chaired by the Chief Justice in an attempted rebuttal which categorises as “circumstantial evidence” that which the highest Court deemed after deliberation as having passed the litmus test of “reasonable doubt”—while also redacting the fact that the accused who was convicted of the murderous atrocity, had confessed to the Military Police in 2000.
Just the other day, a person proximate to the power-elite posted on her FB, the cover of Mein Kampf illustrated with a glossy photograph of its monstrous author, and prefaced it with an empathetic narrative highlighting Adolf Hitler’s “nationalist” credentials and “love of his country”. There was no mention of the paranoia, xenophobia and agenda of exterminism of Jews and Slavs already prefigured in Mein Kampf, nor the Nazi Fascism, concentration camps and gas chambers of history’s most notorious genocidal maniac and symbol of pure, unbridled, political evil. The FB post was a shock and disappointment, but no surprise.
Apart from reflexive moral horror and outrage, what flashed through my mind were the remarks of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Colombo on 14 January 2020 in the presence of Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena : “…We are grateful to our Sri Lankan friends for their traditional support of Russian initiatives at the UN General Assembly on the unacceptability of glorification of Nazism…We agreed to coordinate our positions on the events to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Victory in WWII at the United Nations.” (MFA/Russian Federation website)
You can’t pose as a Putin fan, flirt with Putin’s Russia as an ideal, fantasise that you are supporting a Putin equivalent, fake it as if embracing the Putinist model, and yet have a soft corner for Adolf Hitler, still less have him as a political pin-up even in the closet. It is an ineluctable choice between modern, Realist, rational state-patriotism and xenophobic racist Fascism.
Coding, not hard drive
My problem is not with the ‘hard drive’ i.e., the State and/or the armed forces, the political leadership of President GR, Prime Minister MR, trouble-shooter BR, the Cabinet, the ruling Front. It is with the ‘software’, the ‘coding’: the dominant doctrine, discourse and direction.
The COVID-19 disaster is no less than a crisis of humanity. The best available brains in all sectors must be networked, nationally and internationally, to manage, combat and overcome it. Insularity and involution obstruct. The mentality of political ‘self-reliance’ and the ‘self-sufficiency’ of its constituency even in this unprecedentedly exceptional and extreme situation, is manifested in a unilateralist-restrictive model of rule which refuses to reconvene Parliament and obtain broadest possible national consensus, drawing in all political and social stakeholders into the structures, mechanisms and processes of feedback-policy formulation-implementation-crisis management.
The keyword “Viyathun” i.e. the “learned” or “experts”, is warped by a dual distortion: pro-regime professionals/experts pronounce influentially on sensitive matters outside their fields of educational attainment such as complex political, foreign policy/diplomatic, legal-constitutional and ethnic/religious issues, while the tag ‘professionals/experts’ is reserved for those of ultranationalist persuasion rather than those who are nationally and internationally recognised as the best Sri Lankans in their fields.
Tyranny by design or default?
Connect the dots, see the pattern. What if there is a Constitutional deadlock or vacuum created inadvertently or deliberately by a refusal either to seek advice from the Supreme Court and/or reconvene Parliament, revoke the dissolution and obtain broad consensus for elections in September?
There are extremists who wish to leverage the COVID-19 crisis to install the Alt-Right totalitarian model of their fancy, with a Presidency that is not merely pre-eminent but supreme and absolute, ruling by edict.
The nexus of the ultranationalists with a generation of the armed forces dates back to 2001-2003, when the military had been orphaned and rendered vulnerable by Wickremesinghe’s policy of appeasement (our Chamberlain-Petain experience) of Prabhakaran and the Tigers. That military generation which was humiliated by Wickremesinghe’s CFA, went on to win the war, and many are retired but crucially influential. If the ultranationalist constituency has its way, our most valuable strategic asset and instrument of last resort, the Armed Forces, will find themselves locked in a “civilian-military junta” (a Latin American category) overstretched by running a country and its citizens instead of defending both, something they weren’t trained to do.
Especially after the unilateral UNHRC pullout and the Ratnayake pardon, if the country abandons the democratic path it will lose international legitimacy and be an easy target of universal jurisdiction and unilateral sanctions, which will compound the hardships of economic austerity through delinking/de-globalisation.
No military has ever sustainably succeeded in so complex a task in so unfavourable a context, and even under far fewer forbidding circumstances, in country after country militaries have had to retreat into the barracks, having lost legitimacy, popularity and status and been scapegoated for multiple failures including economic collapse resulting from international isolation.
Having successfully defended our military at the UNHRC Geneva during the last war and chiefly in 2009, I’d rather not see our Armed Forces misled by the ultranationalists, falling into a politico-economic quagmire, unable to extricate itself and make it to the exit ramps, and thus meeting their nemesis—as did the Serbian military.
Incredibly, a constitutional-liberal lawyer and northern (ex) parliamentarian of the Opposition argued in a leading newspaper this week for an apparently open-ended postponement of elections beyond 1 September, with a nod and a wink at a constitutional amendment (without a referendum in a matter of the franchise?), thereby opening a window for a replay of Referendum 1982 without the Referendum but with all the horrors in its wake starting with July ’83. When electoral pressure valves shut, racism runs riot.
Apart from a Victor Orban (Hungary) outcome of indefinite rule by decree, or tyranny by design or default, postponement of elections beyond September would remove any electoral incentive for the administration to do its utmost to curb COVID-19 expeditiously—and provide precisely the opposite incentive for cynical exploitation.
Remember contemporary history. The German people never entertained narcissistic or masochistic notions of return to the decadent liberalism of the Weimar Republic, the megalomaniacal totalitarianism of the Third Reich, or the grey conformism of walled-in GDR. Nor will the Lankan people return to or remain in dead-ends. However long, dark, irrational and perilous a political experiment we shall be submitted to as a byproduct and under cover of the corona crisis, it will prove but a painful interregnum and tunnel of transition to the light of Democracy and Reason.
(Dr. Jayatilleka was Chairperson of the ILO Governing Body, 2007-2008.)