Politics and Governance

Theory and Practice of Democracy in Sri Lanka

This is one of the subjects that has in recent years put me in constant confusion. To situate my confused status in its context, let me begin with a personal note. In the 1960s when I began my political praxis, I had very clear and precise a position on the subject of democracy. I observed the presence of certain democratic values, forms and institutions in Sri Lanka and while recognizing their importance especially for left politics, I branded this democracy as a bourgeois democracy giving primacy to the adjective rather than to the noun. My firm perception was that in order to make democracy complete and perfect, the capitalistic mode of production that imposed many constraints on democracy had to be abolished and society should be restructured on a new democratic and just foundation. Within my theoretical perspective, the same logic can be applied to the issue of justice. While I was working on this premise, I didn’t see any gaps or contradictions in my theoretical perspective or practice. All questions were nicely resolved. This perspective also posited that the perfection of democracy required a transitional phase in which a new state form called the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat supported by peasantry would rule. Although this form of the state is not fully democratic, it would represent the majority of the population.

However, in the mid 1980s, I realized that this simple or rather simplified trajectory for democracy would not work. I posited that its completeness is the cause of its emptiness. What is an alternative? How could we develop a new democratic praxis? I was thrown away from the single simple light to multiple forms of darkness out of which I have not yet been able to come out. Thus, I will attempt to portray the nature of the confusion into which I have been thrown. I hope that this depiction would throw some light on the subject of the theory and practice of democracy.

I delineate three main tendencies (T1, T2, and T3) in relation to democratic theory and practice in Sri Lanka. In my opinion, the threshold moment was the first JVP uprising in 1971. The three tendencies I will depict shortly surfaced in the immediate aftermath of the JVP uprising. Let me deal with them briefly.

T1: the emergence of liberalism as the ‘definer’ of democratic theory and practice in Sri Lanka: I would claim that liberalism as a political ideology was established in Sri Lanka in the mid-1970s. The notion of ‘individual’ and liberalism’s emphasis on the individual against the group or collectives have its positive implication in a spatio-temporal context in which individual rights were regarded as subservient to the rights of the collectives. However, the kind of liberalism that has been established here gave primacy to some rights, like the right of expression and the right for private property, while restraining other important rights, like the right to life, the right to information and multiple socio-economic rights. Neo-liberal ideas that surfaced as a universalizing tendency since the late 1980s globally have transgressed these negative elements and the dominance of neo-liberal economic policies led to a closure of economic options giving rise to what is called TINA (there is no alternative) syndrome. Neo-liberalism has delimited not only available economic options but also restricted the role of elected governments by empowering non-elected forms of organizations. Could not one argue that the absence of a critique of the neo-liberal project and its consequences, the lawful state and procedural norms will be too weak to curb neo-liberal and power-bureaucracy? Is it not imperative to transcend these constraints in the struggle for democracy and justice?

T2: An increasing presence of non-governmental organizations:  This was also a novel feature that emerged after the defeat of the JVP uprising in 1971. These organizations raised the issue of human and democratic rights of the JVP members at the legal proceedings against them outside the normal judicial institutions. In the late 1970s, they stood for the rights of the numerically small national collectives. How did they evolve since the 1990s? There seems to be a paradigm shift in the nature and functions of these organizations, as many of them have become appendage of the neo-liberalist project. Neo-liberalism deploys new technologies of domination and is in a constant attempt to decolonize civil society organizations and social movements through money and power. The decolonization of the lifeworld as Jurgen Habermas aptly described it is almost completed. This is evident when we compare early NGOs like the Human Rights Center led by Sooriya Wickramasinghe and Desmond Fernando with new organizations like the Center for Policy Alternatives. In the field of peace-building, the role of MERJE was qualitatively different from that of new organizations with similar objectives, like the Foundation for Co-Existence and the National Peace Council.

T3: Primacy of ethnic/national question in democratic discourse: Democracy and justice discourse in Sri Lanka during the early years was dominated by the issue of redistribution. We have witnessed the emergence of the issue of difference and the associated need of recognition since the late and early 1980s. Once again this can be depicted as a positive addition to the democratic discourse in Sri Lanka. However, as it happened in many parts of the world, the issue of difference and recognition are highlighted in order to replace the issue of redistribution. So recognition claims tend to predominate. In my opinion, as a result of T3, there has been a lopsided growth in the Sri Lankan democratic discourse and practice. More precisely, the Sri Lankan democratic discourse has failed to integrate three fundamental issues, namely, redistribution, recognition and representation, in holistic framework. While those who emphasize redistribution marginalize the issue of recognition, those who highlight recognition neglect almost totally the issue of redistribution.

The flaws of democratic theory and practice in Sri Lanka have strengthened the chauvinist obscurantist forces, and these forces have gained the monopoly of the use of anti-imperialist and socialist rhetoric. The current regime in Sri Lanka has been using all the rhetoric for its advantage and in order to continue and magnify its anti-democratic practices. How does one salvage democratic theory and practice? Can the current crisis in democracy be reduced to a crisis of philosophy? These are the issues we have to grapple with in our collective effort to come out of the current impasse.

Does it mean that past records have proved that my original position still holds?  The answer is both Yes and No. Yes; in order to perfect democracy, a substantial change in the economic structure and the way in which income and wealth are distributed is imperative. I have to add here that democracy cannot be perfected within the framework of the nation-state, its specific concrete form notwithstanding. Hence, democratic theory and practice not embodying a strategy towards weakening capital logic and power logic would be basically flawed. So personally I moved through two metamorphoses. The first metamorphosis is the move from the Marxist-Leninist position which is a static position, to the Anarcho-Marxist position. The second transformation is from a revolutionary to a reformist position.

Before I conclude, let me elaborate on the second metamorphosis. Here, we may bring back Lenin, not as a revolutionary, but as a reformist; the Lenin of the post-October New Economic Policy period. Social activists working in the third world context, as I have argued above, have to face two main evils, namely, (1) neo-liberalism and (2) national chauvinism. They have to organize their work on the basis of an assumption that there are ‘constants’ that cannot be changed in the immediate future. Two main ‘constants’ are: (1) the presence of the globalized system dominated by finance capital through the London and New York financial markets (Tokyo and Frankfurt to a lesser extent); and (2) the continuous presence of the nation-state system. So how should democratic activists develop their strategies and action programs? Here, I would like to highlight the distinction identified by Amartya Sen in his latest work on justice. He has identified two traditions, (1) the transcendental institutionalist tradition of Hobbs, Kant, John Rawls, Habermas etc and (2) the comparative tradition of Adam Smith, Karl Marx and others. He suggests that the first tradition is not of much assistance in improving justice and eliminating or alleviating injustice. The comparative framework aims at improving justice through a number of ameliorative measures. I believe that Sen’s idea on justice may be applied to democracy as well. Democratic transformation would be constantly opposed by multiple forces that would wish to conserve and defend the status quo. They would also try to overcome some of its contradictions within the boundaries of the present system. They have been quite successful not only because of the radical measures the system is equipped with, but also as a result of the defects and gaps of the progressive discourse. However, as Antonio Gramsci argues, this “incessant and persistent efforts of the [dominant classes and elites] form the terrain of the conjunctural, and it is upon this terrain that opposition organizes.”

Text of the talk given at ICES, Kandy October 20, 2009.