In August I had an Op-Ed published in the NYTimes. I think it was edited to death, and now that 30+ days have passed, I thought I'd bring out the ghost. This is the original article as written.
Seeing news coverage of Sri Lanka is like showing up at your own funeral, with everybody speculating on how you died. Tucker Carlson says the Green New Deal killed us. The western and Indian media blame China. Everybody blames the Rajapaksas and their obviously dictatorial mustaches.
Most of these explanations are nonsense, some are outright propaganda, and some are true but inadequate. As a ghost whose privileged life in Sri Lanka is over, let me tell you my story, how it connects to my country’s story, and how it connects back to America and the world. I hope it haunts you.
A Sri Lankan
Since you cannot immediately understand the last three years of chaos and wanton idiocy that triggered this, or the four decades of neoliberalism that started it, or the four centuries of colonialism that never ended, let me start with something simple. The experience of one Sri Lankan.
I had a car once, but it’s a giant paperweight now. My kids ask if they can play inside it, that’s all it’s good for. The country has literally run out of gas, queues snake around petrol sheds for kilometers. My friend Nigel waited for three days and he said it just breaks your spirit, simmering in your own sweat and humiliation. Personally, I just gave up. I take the bus or bicycle now, sometimes borrowing the electric car from my in-laws. Most of the economy has stopped moving at all. School-runs, taxi businesses, livelihoods, even hospital runs, they often just don’t happen.
I used to have savings and we used to buy things, but now our rupees have been inflated into oblivion and things are unavailable. Now if we feel like something might run out we buy it immediately. Products can disappear or double in price overnight, like bicycles. Bicycle locks are completely unavailable, which at least levels the playing field. Food is the worst, because you have to keep buying it, and it keeps getting more expensive. Every week brings a new class of beggars to my door, and I shudder to think of the people who are too proud to beg. They hunger in silence.
This rank suffering and injustice has led to massive street protests going on for months, including crowds occupying government buildings. That was the fun part. Parents brought their kids, couples went on dates, it was spontaneously organized and beautiful. I saw a crowd singing in the President’s House, drumming on tables, a mother dancing with her toddler. People swam in the pool until it obviously needed to be chlorinated. I walked around a hall with plaques commemorating British colonizers, seamlessly transitioning into the names of Presidents. I thought of the end of Animal Farm, where the pigs sat in the farmhouse and became as brutal as men. I wondered if things had ever really changed at all.
My wife and I rode our bicycles to the Prime Minister’s Office. A man was playing the piano, people gathered all around. A shirtless man draped in a Sri Lankan flag was sleeping on the couch while four men played carrom. A child was doing cartwheels on the lawn where a community kitchen was serving food to anyone. It was a beautiful sight to see in a space where elites had nipped on canapes before, surrounded by armed guards. It felt right for the first time in a long time, but like any revolution, it all got counter-revolutioned almost immediately.
The Sri Lankan people overthrew one ruling family (the Rajapaksas) only to have another one take over. The new President Ranil Wickremesinghe is widely despised, a leftover from another ruling family that has held power even longer than the Rajapaksas. Ranil was completely voted out of Parliament last election, but in a plot twist that puts House Of Cards to shame, he somehow schemed his way into a bonus seat, to the Prime Ministership, to the Acting Presidency, to the Presidency. All after losing his election. Now he’s deployed the military to violently clear the peoples’ protest village I used to visit with my children. To him chaos was just a ladder, to be kicked down on the people’s heads once he clambered up to power.
What had felt like democracy on the streets has become rank oligarchy in the seats of Parliament. 225 MPs chose the President of 22 million people, a total farce. Ranil ‘won’ an election with 134 votes, many of them obviously bought. Nearly 80 of these MPs recently had their houses burnt down, in a very public show of ‘no confidence’ and Ranil promised to rebuild them. These rogues can’t even walk amongst the people without getting slippered, but they still rule over us all. A man that we voted out is our President. It’s all ‘constitutional’, which makes people lose faith in the whole liberal democratic system. I have, and I know I’m not the only one.
To understand how my country got here, you have to understand where we came from. Not just the last few years and the last family, but the last few centuries and all the scheming families and colonizers that got us here. Sri Lanka was passed from the Portuguese to the Dutch to the British for 400 years. We provided cheap natural resources and labor and imported expensive finished goods. It’s the basic plantation model, do all the work and rip up your own land, but somehow end up in debt to the company store. This isn’t distant history. It’s the root of the dollar collapse now.
Sri Lanka still exports cheap natural resources (like tea) and cheap labor (like passport slaves to the Middle East). We still rub the feet of white tourists in the same colonial bungalows. Sri Lanka still imports expensive finished goods and goes into debt to do it. We went from the Dutch East India Company to BlackRock like going from pocket to pocket. It’s the same business model. Always has been.
Just look at the numbers. “As of 2021, a staggering 81% of Sri Lanka’s foreign debt was owned by US and European financial institutions, as well as Western allies Japan and India,” (Multipolarista). Western media points at China, but eight fingers are pointing backwards. Just follow the money. Only around 10% of Sri Lanka’s debt is to China, and that’s for infrastructure. Sri Lanka is in a western debt trap, not a Chinese one. The IMF (always headed by a European) never gets us out, they just prop us up so the lenders can bleed us some more. They’ve been here 16 times before.
The problem is that Sri Lanka never industrialized like East Asia. We never had a socialist or communist revolution, anything to assert independence. We didn’t seize control of production, we just borrowed for consumption. We just copied over the same colonial institutions, put in the same feudal elites, and hoped for different results. And of course it didn’t happen. We just ended up in another debt trap denominated in the latest imperial currency, importing more than we exported and not even growing enough food. This wasn’t some obscure failing of monetary policy, it was the same colonial calculation, producing the same negative result.
Sri Lanka’s bankruptcy had been coming gradually for decades then—with the idiocy of Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the trauma of COVID-19—it came all at once. There’s been enough written about that, and most of it’s true. But it’s inadequate. Sri Lanka’s collapse was a long time coming, and it’s part of a bigger collapse that will not stay contained to our shores.
It’s tempting to look at Sri Lanka and then look away. To think that it has nothing to do with you, just a distant country run by distant fools. Everybody’s gossiping at our funeral, but jokes on you. We may be going bankrupt, but you’re the bank. It affects you too.
Sri Lanka’s own debt is tiny—only about $50 billion—but we’re just the first country to default. We’re the canary in the petrodollar mine. More and more poor countries will simply crash out of the petrodollar system. Russia has been kicked out, China is hedging its bets, and even India has been threatened. At some point America’s going to sanction itself into a corner. The dollar system that funds America’s own debt-fueled lifestyle looks stable for now, but as Hemingway said, bankruptcy happens two ways. “Gradually, then suddenly.” You can see the gradual part happening now.
Sri Lanka is settling credit lines in Indian Rupees now. India is buying energy in Russian Rubles and selling it back to us. Saudi Arabia is selling oil in Yuan. Everybody’s eyeing the exits, and at some point it becomes a run. If the USD tribute system breaks down, America becomes just another country, and one with even worse debts than Sri Lanka. That’s why Sri Lanka’s story isn’t some distant catastrophe that you can turn the page on. It’s your future, and I’ve seen it before.
Sri Lankans have seen many incarnations of the same White Empire come and go, rising and crashing on our shores. First the Portuguese, then the Dutch, then the British, and now the Americans. We used their currencies, gave our lives and land, went into fraudulent debt to them, then saw the whole thing implode. Each empire overextended itself with bloodlust and debt and collapsed under its own weight. Only a fool would say when this will happen to the American Empire, but only a greater fool would say never. It’s inevitable. It’s samsara.
The cycle has unfortunately come for me already. Life as I knew it is over. I’m just a ghost attending the media funeral for my country, scribbling messages in blood on the walls. In the long run there’s no such thing as countries even, it’s a meaningless distinction. Neither biology nor economics nor climate pays our borders any mind. We’re all connected, as COVID-19 should have shown us. Ask the million ghosts wandering around America.
If you sit in judgment of Sri Lanka you’re really missing the point. Don’t you use dollars and petrol and liberal democracy too? Aren’t they feeling shaky to you? As Warren Buffet said “when the tide is out you see who’s swimming naked.” Sri Lanka was certainly swimming naked, but as any Sri Lankan can tell you, if the tide suddenly rushes out, run. A money-print swimsuit might cover America’s nakedness for now, but it won’t protect you from the global tsunami that’s already begun. As someone who’s already been swept away, let me warn you as only a ghost can do.