Sri Lanka and the next international civil war

Friday, 18 August 2023 00:29 –      – 109

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The great historian Arno Mayer in his book, ‘The Dynamics of Counterrevolution in Europe, 1870-1956’, argued that during times of instability, foreign policy becomes an extension of domestic politics. In distilling his analysis into this maxim, Mayer brought up to date the tradition from Marx and Engels to Lenin and Luxemburg, in determining the progressive or reactionary significance of politics within a given country from the vantage point of its international manoeuvring. But as Mayer himself admitted, his focus was on Europe, especially, in the period of tremendous destruction from 1914 to 1945.

From the perspective of Sri Lanka’s crisis today, the country is situated in an international context no longer limited to the West but one that encompasses the entire globe. Nevertheless, the need to identify the main trends in progressive and reactionary politics in a period of global unravelling remains as urgent as ever.

Revolution and Counterrevolution

For Mayer, revolution and counterrevolution are two sides of the same coin. The purpose of his book, he argued, was to bring up to date our understanding of counterrevolution. He argued that much had been published on the development of the great models of revolution—English, American, French, and Russian—but far less on counterrevolution. Mayer, who fled Europe under the Nazis, was convinced that counterrevolution required at least as much attention as revolution, given its potential impact on people’s lives. But to analyse counterrevolution, he had to distinguish it from the existing attitudes of the conservatives and reactionaries. To him, counterrevolution was more radical in style, if not in substance. In adopting tactics and strategies from its revolutionary left opponents, including extra-parliamentary mobilisation through paramilitaries, counterrevolution exceeded the boundaries of the traditional order that it supposedly sought to restore.

One could debate on the overall fit of Mayer’s characterisation, including the fact that interwar fascism in Europe, for example, was very much about transcending the past rather than simply returning to it. Perceive the work of early 20th century Italian futurists sympathetic to fascism. But the core idea that the existing social hierarchy can only be defended through a radicalisation of the Right’s political project remains pertinent. Are we witnessing something similar in Sri Lanka? Notwithstanding the uprising that occurred last year, the current Government led by Ranil Wickremesinghe is very much in the driver’s seat. The broad agenda it proposes involves an extraordinary set of changes that would transform relations between the state and society to a degree unprecedented since the liberalisation process of 1978. Its focus, in line with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) targets, has been shock policies before moving onto regressive reforms passed through an illegitimate parliament on land and labour law, in addition to privatisation. The latter could even impact Sri Lanka’s core welfare institutions, such as healthcare and education.

Changing context

It is significant that this dynamic of restoration-as-revolution also occurs in a very different global order, one that in fact appears to represent the ‘terminal crisis’ of US hegemony, which the Marxist sociologist Giovanni Arrighi anticipated. Moreover, when JR Jayewardene took power and imposed liberalisation in 1978, he did so through the consolidation of an authoritarian populist bloc. Of course, he adopted quasi-dictatorial tactics, such as the 1982 referendum to postpone parliamentary elections. But he also relied on a bloc of social forces that could secure for his Government a degree of legitimacy. Similarly, Mayer argues that in its classical form, the counterrevolutionary project relies on an elite-led “cartel of anxiety.” This includes both backward layers of society that the modernisation process has disrupted along with forward layers, such as, monopoly capitalists that stand to benefit from specific forms of government intervention, such as, tariffs and subsidies.

In Sri Lanka, in the absence of elections  however, it is difficult to obtain a similar sense of the social bloc that may be coalescing behind the Government led by Wickremesinghe. It is possible, of course, that enough of the middle class has been bought off with the fruits of ‘stability’, so that the same resistance witnessed last year is untenable.  Likewise, Mayer notes governments retain a tremendous monopoly in the ‘legitimate’ use of force. As he put it, “This gives them immeasurable advantages in the timing and tactics of prevention, containment, and punishment of any insurgents they may seek to curb” (p.46).

Nevertheless, in the long run, any regime requires what Antonio Gramsci described as a hegemonic bloc. It is unclear what, if any, the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa Government has managed to assemble. Recent polling numbers released by the Institute for Health Policy, for example, appear to demonstrate a very thin social base. Barring unforeseen struggles, it is likely we would only see the full picture at the next electoral juncture.

Polarisation towards international civil war

In this uncertain context, it helps to return to the point that Mayer made: a country’s position in the global order reflects its politics based on its alignment in the ‘international civil war.’ For Mayer, the European civil war was a product of conflict between systemic alternatives, including fascism and communism. But there is no clear-cut ideological distinction among today’s hegemonic powers. Both the US and China, of course, would like to portray the alleged New Cold War or multipolarity in terms of a difference in ideological principles. The reality however is that the underpinnings of global capitalism continue to rely on the distinction between core and periphery created through the process of underdevelopment, further accentuated by contemporary processes of financialisation. It is arguable for example, that major creditor countries, regardless of their bloc, currently offer any kind of coherent alternative to countries such as Sri Lanka experiencing debt distress.

The absence of an explicit international civil war, however, does not mean that new forms of ideological polarisation cutting across national and international contexts cannot develop. Could Sri Lanka become a test case for the ailing Bretton Woods Institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank, by representing the next phase in a set of experiments with austerity that will be applied to other poor countries? The additional challenge with this formulation is that in the context of the Bretton Woods Institutions, the question of coordination between competing hegemonic powers remains. There are significant political and economic divergences between the US and China, though these are not yet manifest in distinctive ideological models that other countries can adopt.

Sri Lanka as a test case for counterrevolution

Rather than take our cue from developments within core countries, we could shift perspective to anticipate new forms of polarisation on a different geopolitical level. Specifically, there is a strong possibility that the next phase of conflict will be determined by the choices made within the very countries experiencing the crisis, thus contributing to the eventual consolidation of competing alternatives at the level of the world-system in its entirety. This switch in focus means we must take serious note of the potential model of counterrevolution for which the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa Government is paving the way.

In the same manner that the outbreak of revolution can redefine a country’s ideological position within the international order, we must understand what it means for the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa Government to try and establish Sri Lanka as a potential bulwark in a global counter revolutionary alliance. While much of the focus of international relations commentary is on whether Sri Lanka as a small country can navigate between the big powers, Mayer’s work offers us a more useful critical approach. By highlighting the role of domestic political alignments insofar as they are refracted through international alliances, he puts the emphasis back on the ongoing ideological struggle between the Left and the Right.

If that is the case, then the IMF and World Bank intervention in Sri Lanka must be understood against a wider attempt to contain domestic dissent in a way that is a harbinger of renewed international civil war. Such austerity and the related exacerbation of inequality may not be currently pitched at the highest level of conflict between the US and China. But they are no less significant in understanding the tendency towards either the radicalisation or repression of those popular forces that are now fighting back, directly or indirectly, against the increasingly authoritarian tendency of financialised dispossession.

As of now, such movements have at best found tenuous and highly reversible footholds in countries from Chile to Colombia. Or they have been crushed in places from Sudan to Hong Kong. To understand the nature of global reaction and potential strengthening of counterrevolutionary dynamics in Sri Lanka, it is imperative to situate the country’s domestic polarisation in this unravelling, highly charged, and potentially explosive international context.

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