Once upon a time — during our most recent collapse last year — Sri Lanka’s rich sacrificed along with the poor. I am rich and we sweated without AC or even fans. We took public transport and even bicycles. We planted food ourselves. The country suffered, but the suffering was shared. Now, that the ‘crisis’ has passed, that shared sacrifice is gone. Now the poor are and especially children are sacrificed for a problem they didn’t cause.
In the old stories, when the gods were angry, the princess Vihara Maha Devi sacrificed herself to the angry seas. In modern times, however, we sacrifice the poor and children to appease not the gods, but foreign bondholders. To satisfy not local gods but international greed.
Today the unelected President of Sri Lanka— selected by a den of thieves instead — has made electricity unaffordable for the poor, is doing the same with water, has robbed the pensions of the worker, and is heaping taxes on everyone. There is no concept of fair sacrifice — ie asking rich foreign bondholders to accept losses and Sri Lanka’s rich comprador class to pay first. Instead the people who did least to cause Sri Lanka’s crisis are made to pay the dearest. Including, most heartbreaking, the huge numbers of children that do not get enough to eat now, and whose future is being sold off in front of them.
This is no way out of a depression, as white people have known since their great one. You have to invest your way out of trouble, starting with feeding your children, educating them, providing sustainable energy, public transport, jobs (especially public service jobs), taking control of your natural resources, and securing your country against predators (in this day, foreign capitalists). Is Sri Lanka doing any of this? Not at all. We’re under the foreign administration of the precise people that got us into this mess, we’re under a Ranil/Rajapaksa government (the ones who took out all the debt), under IMF instruction (the ones who told us to take out all this debt, 16 times before). Historically, it was our ruling elites that sold us out to colonizers, it wasn’t force of arms. And it’s happening all over again.
Sri Lanka under this illegitimate, despised government is not investing in anything more sustainable than taking out more debt and selling off whatever foreigners want. In exchange we get even more debt and another shot of fuel to keep us going, like a dealer propping up a hopeless addict to keep them buying more, while their family goes hungry at home. The same people who got us into this mess are doing the same things, quite predictably. The fact is that this government has no legitimacy to make such big changes at all. If this was a real democracy the people would be consulted with an election, but the liberal democracy we foolishly copied from our colonizers is of course a farce. Our Parliament is a den of thieves, selling out the country for petty privileges. As I said, colonialism all over again. It never really stopped.
In a brief, hopeful, and ultimately corrupted moment, protestors managed to overthrow a President. However, like a hydra, Sri Lanka’s corrupt elite just grew another head which does even worse. Now student leaders — the same people who got Ranil Wickremesinghe his job — are arrested and persecuted while the rogues in Parliament who caused this crisis are given license to steal even more. Ranil of course was voted out of his Parliament seat by the people, but now he has what he always wanted. The Presidency his uncle used to break trade unions, spark years of civil war, and doom the country to underdevelopment under the guise of ‘opening up’. Now at a dramatically different historical time, the nephew in the Uncle Nephew Party (the UNP) has destroyed the party and is proceeding to destroy the country. At the time that Asia is rising, we have hitched our wagon to the latest iteration of White Empire, now headed in America and administered (as the British Empire was) by Indians.
At this moment of seemingly helpless desperation, I think of Harry Kessler’s diaries before the fall of the Weimar Republic, before Germany completely destroyed itself. In May 1925 he wrote:
All the philistines are delighted about Hindenburg. He is the god of all those who long for a return to philistinism and the glorious time when it was only necessary to make money and accompany a decent digestion with a pious upward glance. They are waiting for Hindenburg to ‘consolidate’ conditions, meaning adjustment to Philistine standards. Farewell progress, farewell vision of a new world which was to be humanity’s conscience money for the criminal war. At long last, until the day the butcher arrives and demands his toll, it is going to be possible once more to live cosily as a stuffed sheep or gorged goose.
So it is with Ranil Wickremsinghe, our Hindenburg, taking the country down like a lead zeppelin. I think of the brief moments of shared sacrifice during Sri Lanka’s crisis last year and I look at us now. Who is sacrificing? The rich are having their birthday parties at hotels, funding their foreign educations, filling up their gas-guzzling vehicles, and pretending like this can go on without any changes that inconvenience them at all. I know because I am rich, and this is what my class is doing. And the philistines are happy to see profitable state institutions sold off to foreigners, public universities threatened, and to hear a President say that the poor and working classes should just move out of Colombo to make room for ‘investors’ (ie the rich and foreigners). We are at that point that Kessler presciently bemoaned in Germany, when he said, “At long last, until the day the butcher arrives and demands his toll, it is going to be possible once more to live cosily as a stuffed sheep or gorged goose.”
I used to wonder how Sri Lanka was colonized so easily, but I see it now. A few rich families got liquor licenses and imported goods and for that they sold out the rest of the country. It’s happening all over again, this time on our watch. I weep for my beloved country and especially our hungry children. We are sacrificing their present and their future, so a despised old man can cosplay as President and his merry men can loot and kill for a few more years, before the debt trap clangs shut again.
They have fancy economic terms for what’s happening to us, but it’s no different from a loan shark ‘collecting’ from any poor family. They take control of the land, sell off the milk cows (productive assets), eat the seed corn, and let the children at home starve. The IMF comes in like they’re ‘helping’ countries but all they do is enforce a system which, as David Graeber said, takes all the risk away from foreign speculators and puts it on poor people and children. As he wrote in his magesterial book Debt:
“Imagine there was some law that said they were guaranteed to get their money back no matter what happens, even if that meant, I don’t know, selling my daughter into slavery or harvesting my organs or something. Well, in that case, why not? Why bother waiting for someone to walk in who has a viable plan to set up a laundromat or some such? Basically, that’s the situation the IMF created on a global level — which is how you could have all those banks willing to fork over billions of dollars to a bunch of obvious crooks in the first place.”
His point is that some loans simply shouldn’t be paid, that investors are expected to take risk, but that the IMF obliterates this necessary condition of a ‘free’ market wherever it goes. And so here we are, with the same obvious crooks still running the place, getting the same bad advice to underdevelop the country for the 17th time, and expecting different results. This is one definition of insanity, but they call it stability. Go figure. The result is that we sell off national organs, send our men and women off to sometimes outright slavery abroad, while our children go hungry. Is this a way out of our local crisis or the polycrisis the whole world is suffering? No. It’s just a delaying tactic so the corrupt elites can loot some more, living like a fatted goose until the butcher takes his due.
The truth is that we should take our whole unelected President and despised Parliament and shove them off to sea, instead of the poor and innocent children made to pay the price now and with their futures. But here we are. The ‘once upon a time’ where Sri Lanka’s rich and poor suffered together is an almost forgotten fairy tale. The idea of elites sacrificing anything is as far distant as Vihara Maha Devi. The island cries out for salvation, for the sacrifice of this generation to land somewhere, and to give birth to hope on this island once more.