Red Notes: Intellectual honesty is rare today

Global turmoil International tutelage and adherence in a time of crisis 

By Ahilan Kadirgamar (Daily Mirror)

A decade ago, Kethesh Loganathan, one of my mentors and comrades, wrote a column in this newspaper, until he was silenced by an LTTE assassin. Kethesh’s writings under his pen name Sathya strove to be committed to the truth, and such honesty is rare today. Intellectual honesty inevitably requires swimming against the current. In this fortnightly column, I will draw on the left tradition and political economic analysis that influenced Kethesh and many like him who have shaped my thinking.

Writing in this tradition necessarily engages the lives of ordinary people, and involves listening to rural protests and urban resistance. It is critical of the powerful, the wealthy, the rulers and the state. It opposes forms of oppression whether it is gender, caste, ethnicity or class. But the powerful classes and regimes that direct state power are part of a system that is both national and global. This global system, stitched together under the dominance of imperial powers, has historically gone through periods of chaos and anarchy as with the two world wars.

At a time when the international order is again unravelling, whom do we turn to address the challenges facing our economy and society more broadly? What are the avenues for reconstruction and economic development in such a time of crisis? How do we engage a constitutional political solution and the legacy of war-times destruction and abuses? Is there room to consider the concerns of people on the margins and write on the ways of the world from the periphery?

Theme Cartoon googled and added by TWImage result for intellectual cartoon

International Terrain

With the welcome democratic overthrow of the authoritarian Rajapaksa regime, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Government sought the path to reclaim a respected place in the international arena. That process, they claimed, involved strengthening relations with the West, a renewed commitment to international law and embracing the United Nations and its many institutions. This liberal standing in the world, the Government hoped, would bring in Western investment and open markets for its exports.

However, these international political and economic structures themselves seem to be falling apart.

The global economy has not recovered from the Great Recession of 2008. Brexit signalled last year the tremendous backlash against neoliberal globalisation and the rising tide of anti-immigrant and racist forces in Europe. With the election of Trump, the American mask has come off, and its naked exploitative interests are bound to undermine international treaties and laws, which for better or worse, maintained a certain global order and stability. Furthermore, even the emerging power China is in a deep economic crisis, as its debt driven construction boom has reached its limits

It is hard to hide the lunatic character of the leadership at the helm of the US and UK. If we were worried about Rajapaksa, the Western leaders are fast surpassing him in their populism and racism. Nevertheless, the facade continues with liberal respectability when officials from these very countries preach about international obligations and the virtues of the global economy.

If the political leadership in the West is too much to stomach, there is always the bureaucracy of the international organisations whether it be the UN, the IMF or the World Bank. The buck does not stop there, when these international agencies lose their legitimacy with repeated political and economic crises – as with the war in Iraq and the anarchic fallout in the Middle East or the global economic crisis of 2008 – there are the metropolitan academic centres for coaching, whether it be Harvard or Oxford. So, for countries like Sri Lanka, it is not a question of what advice is sort or given, rather how and through what institutions, the same imperial policies are pushed and received gratefully by our elite.

Economic Advice

The most far reaching international disciplining of Sri Lanka in recent years is the IMF Extended Fund Facility Agreement in June 2016. However, even as the IMF demanded liberalisation of capital markets to allow for the free flow of capital into Sri Lanka, that very month, three senior researchers of the IMF wrote an article titled, ‘Neoliberalism: Oversold?’, about the risks of such policies.

They argued that the chances of financial crises and inequality increased with such capital inflows. The IMF researchers were forced to question such policies after the IMF’s failed interventions in Europe, particularly in Greece.

But in practice, the IMF works with double standards, one for the West and another for the Global South. Furthermore, such financial flows are also encouraged by the Asian Development Bank, which provided a massive US$ 250 million loan to expand capital markets in Sri Lanka last year, and a week ago the Cabinet decided to top it up with a US$ 75 million loan from the World Bank.

Since January 2016, there is yet another advisor: Harvard’s Center for International Development (CID), invited by the Government and funded by the global financier George Soros. Professor Ricardo Hausmann and his CID team’s management has focused on diversifying Sri Lanka’s exports, but have had little to say about the falling demand for exports; nothing about the rise of protectionist regimes in the West nor about the global economic downturn. Not surprising since most mainstream economists had little to say about the global economy and its crisis conditions before the Great Recession of 2008. As Sri Lanka stumbles along on the knife edge of an economic crisis, the advice we receive pushes us towards a
deeper crisis.

Critique and Struggles

So, when it comes to the economy, the Government runs to the IMF, ADB and World Bank, and now to Harvard, even if these very actors have aggravated rather than solved problems around the world.

The meaningful possibilities of rebuilding our still rural economy is rejected with the fantasy of becoming a financial centre like Singapore. When it comes to refashioning our constitution or addressing the abuses with the war, we are fed models of Western constitutions or told to seek the support of the international human rights groups and transitional justice think tanks. Meanwhile we disregard the long deliberations on constitutional reform as with the “devolution debate” here and the work of movements for democratic rights such as the Movement for Inter-Racial Justice and Equality (MIRJE), a membership organisation that emerged in the late 1970s with the support of trade unions and local associations.

On the other end of the political pendulum, the Joint Opposition is equally bankrupt. They repeat their calls to protect sovereignty, forgetting it was under the Rajapaksa regime that the country started selling sovereign bonds! Many of the problematic economic projects today, from the Port City to increasing privatisation of health with SAITM were initiated by them. And the previous President, despite claiming to be the son of the soil, was tripping over himself attempting to get an audience at Oxford, which repeatedly came to naught. Hypocrisy aside, neither nativist xenophobia nor the entrenchment of the statist worldview are the answers to the problems. If we leave it to the lunatic fringe of nationalists in both the South and North, who seem to be the happiest of friends for their own survival, we will only end up deeper in the pit of polarised stagnation that has been the tragic history of our country.

With Sri Lanka at the crossroads in a time of global turmoil, it is high time we eschewed our colonial mind-set of looking for solutions in the West. Rather, we must learn from struggles in other countries like ours, against their neoliberal states enriching their elites and critiques of similar forms of Western tutelage. More importantly, we must listen carefully to the protests of our people for land and housing, for sustainable agriculture and fisheries, for free healthcare and education, and for permanent work and decent working conditions.

These notes I hope can begin to sketch the alternatives that ordinary people themselves are seeking through their courageous resistance. And that necessarily entails a critique of the international order, the state and the rising nationalist forces.

Critique and Struggles

So, when it comes to the economy, the Government runs to the IMF, ADB and World Bank, and now to Harvard, even if these very actors have aggravated rather than solved problems around the world.

The meaningful possibilities of rebuilding our still rural economy is rejected with the fantasy of becoming a financial centre like Singapore. When it comes to refashioning our constitution or addressing the abuses with the war, we are fed models of Western constitutions or told to seek the support of the international human rights groups and transitional justice think tanks. Meanwhile we disregard the long deliberations on constitutional reform as with the “devolution debate” here and the work of movements for democratic rights such as the Movement for Inter-Racial Justice and Equality (MIRJE), a membership organisation that emerged in the late 1970s with the support of trade unions and local associations.

On the other end of the political pendulum, the Joint Opposition is equally bankrupt. They repeat their calls to protect sovereignty, forgetting it was under the Rajapaksa regime that the country started selling sovereign bonds! Many of the problematic economic projects today, from the Port City to increasing privatisation of health with SAITM were initiated by them.

And the previous President, despite claiming to be the son of the soil, was tripping over himself attempting to get an audience at Oxford, which repeatedly came to naught. Hypocrisy aside, neither nativist xenophobia nor the entrenchment of the statist worldview are the answers to the problems. If we leave it to the lunatic fringe of nationalists in both the South and North, who seem to be the happiest of friends for their own survival, we will only end up deeper in the pit of polarised stagnation that has been the tragic history of our country.

With Sri Lanka at the crossroads in a time of global turmoil, it is high time we eschewed our colonial mind-set of looking for solutions in the West. Rather, we must learn from struggles in other countries like ours, against their neoliberal states enriching their elites and critiques of similar forms of Western tutelage. More importantly, we must listen carefully to the protests of our people for land and housing, for sustainable agriculture and fisheries, for free healthcare and education, and for permanent work and decent working conditions.

These notes I hope can begin to sketch the alternatives that ordinary people themselves are seeking through their courageous resistance. And that necessarily entails a critique of the international order, the state and the rising nationalist forces.

Advertisements