Photo courtesy of The Federal

All social science research is done for someone and some purpose. There is no politically neutral social science. The political agenda behind this article is my concern about the fate of the underprivileged in Sri Lanka. In post-colonial Sri Lanka, we have seen violence and state repression because of these issues. Resulting social costs have been enormous. No amount of essentialist categorisation of Sri Lanka as a democracy or it is a welfare state can hide this. We only have a superficial picture of the social costs of this violence. It is the task of future researchers to go deeper into this in future.

Two main reasons for this violence are issues around social justice within capitalist transition and failure of strategies to manage relations between state and the minorities or lack of pluralism in the state formation process. If we don’t find answers to these we might see violence in the future either from non-state actors or the state. When a state has to deal with state-society relation through coercion it is a sign of a weak state.

I also want to emphasise the need to tackle both social justice and pluralism for a better Sri Lanka. In this regard my best personal experience has been working with the hill country Tamils. There was no way one could separate ethnicity and class at an analytical or political level when working with this population. It is necessary to apply this approach to the whole of Sri Lanka.

Most advocacy work has some type of future vision for society. In many strategies of advocacy this vision turns into one big answer to the problems in society. This can easily become a cause and a utopia. This type of thinking is found in religions. Some political movements change social science into this form of thinking. Social scientists who base their thinking on one big answer to all problems belong to this category.

I don’t see a focus on the two issues of social justice and pluralism as a search for one big answer to Sri Lanka’s problems. They are just two issues that I am concerned with. My approach is to begin with a historical understanding of these issues. This analysis tells you what has happened and why in relation to these questions. The next point is to accept that we don’t choose the historical context within which we have to do advocacy work. But a historical understanding gives us an insight into key issues that need to be addressed and political space that is available in the current historical context. I will focus on the fundamental ideological issues that we need to address. Ideological struggles play an important role in our quest for a better society.

The politics of capitalist transition and social justice

Capitalist transition is a historical process that involves changing institutions or the rules of the game so that markets become the primary mechanism for resource allocation. These changes must be legitimised at an ideological level. When institutions to establish markets are successful, they become ideas that seem to be natural and common sense – creating a hegemony. The establishment of the hegemony of markets is not a technocratic process but a political process. Conflicts and struggles are always a part of this. This is true of developed capitalist countries at present.

The process of capitalist transition takes place in a particular society with its own history. This means that capitalism is not some sort of a model. It is shaped by political struggles and historical processes in a particular context. This historical process varies from country to country. For example, the evolution of social policies within capitalist transition differed significantly among developed capitalist countries.

Within the history of capitalist transition in Sri Lanka, the late colonial period saw the beginning of a serious discussion on social policies. Many factors contributed to this. But the important thing is to recognise the range of ideas underlining these policies. This included ensuring a minimum level of food security, state responsibility in education and health, protecting the smallholder peasantry and ensuring minimum levels of protection for the working class. An ideology of distributive justice underlined all these. I am not arguing that all these achieved the intended results but merely to point out variety of ideas that informed policy debates.

These ideas underwent a significant change with the advent of the neo-liberal period of capitalist transition, which began after regime change in 1977. From this point, notions of protecting the vulnerable, safety nets and poverty alleviation began to dominate. The basis of this ideology is economic growth and trickle down. Economic growth is elevated to a fundamental condition that needs to be achieved to have a better society. For many economists it is almost like a religious belief. Even a cursory glance at developed capitalist countries where some economic growth has taken place show the fallacy of this idea. The ideological hold of the notion of poverty alleviation seems to be the most detrimental, and it is time to question this.

Efforts to promote social justice at present need take into account the socio-economic impact of more than four decades of more liberal capitalism. With the deepening of capitalist relations of production there have been major changes in the agrarian sector. The share of agriculture in the economy has significantly declined. In 1977, 30.7 per cent of the national output was from agriculture. By 2022 it had declined to 8.7 per cent. There has been a gradual deterioration in the viability of smallholder paddy. The 2019 Household Income and Expenditure Survey shows that only 8.6 per cent of income in the rural sector was from agriculture.

The other side of this rural transformation is the growth of a population depending on wages. The growing working class is found in many socio-economic formations – organised, informal, sub-contractors, etc. A significant section of this labour are women. Some sections of the working class sell their labour in other countries. While the working class has grown, institutions that protect their rights and working conditions don’t operate in many sectors. What existed in the past has been gradually dismantled. The overall outcome has been the growth of a highly unequal society. Data from the Household Income and Expenditure Survey conducted by the Department of Census and Statistics shows that in 2019 while the richest 20 per cent of the population acquired 51.4 per cent of national income, the poorest 20 per cent had only 4.6 per cent. These numbers are only beginning of the discussion of inequality. It had a wide ranging impact on societal and political processes.

It is in this context of the social impact of more than four decades of liberal capitalism and three decades of armed conflict, the state’s inability to fulfil the demands of global financial capital led to an economic crisis with massive social repercussions. The policies undertaken now with the support of the IMF are bound to make the conditions of the underprivileged even worse.

Given this context, the most important first step is to question the ideological hegemony of the notion of poverty alleviation. Then it is necessary to identify the needs of the underprivileged earning a living in diverse socio-economic formations. In doing this we need to remember the special needs of certain groups such as women and those affected by war. A survey of these diverse socio-economic formations will reveal various needs. A closer look at them can help to identify strategic needs and the elements of a new social policy. One final word about the current pre-occupation with fiscal balance. For economists this is a means of reaching their nirvana of economic growth. But those concerned with social justice should not confine their thinking within these political objectives. Yes, we need a state to have adequate resources. But what type of state should this be? How should this state managing state-society relations?  What happens to the interests of the underprivileged in this process?

State formation and pluralism

The conventional approach to studying a state is to treat it as a concrete, self-contained entity that has attained a final status. The legal notion of sovereignty strengthens this idea. The spatial unit covered by the state is securitised, and it is called national security. This spatial unit is objectified in maps, and borders are drawn to demarcate it. Within human history this notion became hegemonic in the world only after the Second World War.

In contrast, I look at states as the product of historical processes, like any other social phenomena. State formation involves developing mechanisms to control territory and to manage state-society relations. This takes place in a specific historical context where certain state-society relations become more strategic for the state formation process. These strategic state-society relations can be maintained either through coercion or consent. The notion of security cannot be reduced to the security of the state. Focusing only on the security of the state can undermine the security of groups or individuals in society. Therefore, security has different dimensions, and must be studied at different levels.

Just like the historical processes of capitalist transition, state formation processes are currently taking place within all states of the world. Some of them have generated violence and even war between states. Global migration has added a new dimension to this state formation process. For example, it has posed questions to the dominant identity of those states in countries receiving migrants.

In the case of Sri Lankan state formation there was a significant development during the period of British colonialism. The model of the centralised state that prevailed in Europe was transferred to the geographic space called Sri Lanka. Geographic space was reorganised, and spatial units named using the directions of a compass. This centralised state was supposed to develop a single national identity transcending ethnic identities. This never happened. What happened was the Sinhala Buddhist majority captured the centralised state constructed by the British. This is seen in various dimensions of the state – its institutional structure, the identity of the state reflected in various aspects, and public policies. These developments went against the plural character of the Sri Lankan society, both in terms of ethnicity and religion. The failure of relations between the state and minority ethnic groups has been a major source of violence in the post-colonial history of state formation of Sri Lanka.

In 2009 the territory of the centralised Sinhala Buddhist state was consolidated with the defeat of the LTTE. With many Tamils becoming victims of the military operations, another layer of grievances has been added to what existed before. In the post-war period other minorities, especially Muslims, have become victims of Sinhala Buddhist extremism. But there have been very few developments to reform the state that reflects the plural character of the society. Instead, a notion of reconciliation has begun to dominate the ideological debate.

Reconciliation focuses on society rather than the nature of the state and state-society relations. Arguing that Sri Lankan’s conflict is a conflict in society is to continue the discourse of “communalism” that started with the establishment of the centralised state under British colonialism. As mentioned above, along with institutions of the state Sri Lanka was supposed to develop a national identity. This meant transcending what were called “communal identities” which were supposed to be backward. When this did not happen, rather than critically analysing the nature of the state, processes in society were blamed. The notion of “civic conflict” has the same ideological basis.

Although there is an element of prejudice and animosity between identity groups in Sri Lanka society, they exist in the context of a centralised Sinhala Buddhist state. To ignore this, as it is happening with the ideology of reconciliation, is to ignore the need for fundamental state reform focusing on its structure, identity and public policies to suit a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society. What we need is not a nation-state with a unified identity, but a state that has space for multiple identities. This has to go in parallel to work in society. But at present, as in the case of poverty alleviation, challenging reconciliation at ideological level seems to be important.