People have been occupying the Presidential Secretariat for weeks now. I say people because that’s all it is. It’s not a political party, it’s not an organization, I wouldn’t even call it a movement. It’s just… people.
I went there today with the entire family because… I guess that’s what Sri Lankans are doing. We went with our young children and their grandparents, and the streets are full of families just like us. Infants strapped to fathers’ chests, toddlers sleeping in their mothers' arms, children holding grandparents’ hands, teenagers out on their own.
A Family Revolution
Political protests are almost always all dudes, but these protests are full of families. They’re full of women. They’re full of children. Of old people. As Kurt Cobain said, come as you are. Nobody actually said much, but things are so bad that people just spontaneously came. And they keep coming. Every day.
We came during the day once and people are just camped out on the lawn. People are living in tents across from the President’s Office, just to tell him to fuck off. They’ve set up libraries, food stalls, they have performances, speeches, they make art, they make signs, they’ve set up loos. The place even has a name, GotaGoGama, a play on the President’s name (Gota) and the word for village (gama). If you type the name on Google Maps it takes you to the right place.
An Anarchic Revolution
I’ve seen enough revolutions to know that they usually go screwy. The Empire Strikes Back, and the revolutionary spirit often gets distilled into a soporific hooch. The beauty of Sri Lanka’s protests is that they have no leadership, but that’s their problem too. Right now they’re a demonstration of the wonderful organizational power of anarchy, but historically these moments don’t last, I know.
But it is a moment.
Anarchy, if you read about it, is the opposite of what the word commonly means. As Noam Chomksy said, “Anarchy as a social philosophy has never meant “chaos” — in fact, anarchists have typically believed in a highly organized society, just one that’s organized democratically from below.”
Indeed, that’s sorta what’s happening on the Galle Face Green in Sri Lanka. No political party called for these protests, indeed, they disavowed them. No organization is organizing them. People are certainly doing politics and people are definitely organizing, but they remain just people, organizing democratically from below.
A Democratic Revolution
We’re used to a very corrupted form of democracy, just voting for our betters, while the rich actually run the show. Voting is really just a ritual that ceremonially gives the upper classes power, and we end up being ruled by rich men, as ever before. Most political protests are usually just unarmies of men threatening other men, holding pictures of their dude.
That’s why these protests are so different, because they look so different. Children are completely disenfranchised in modern democracy, but they’re all over the streets now. Women are everywhere, even at night. This has an interesting effect because the men are less awful. They’re often with their families, they can’t just be boors.
Westernized democracy is all about individuals, but these protests are actually all about families, which is the real unit of existence here, as it is all across the world. You don’t have to take my word for it, just go. Some people say you shouldn’t bring kids to these things, but I think these people don’t have kids. Where else are we going to put them? It’s actually entirely natural to take your kids with you places, and sometimes you just don’t have a choice at all.
Children are also quite capable of understanding stuff, especially the issues Sri Lanka is facing now. It’s their future too.
People are bringing their families because these protests are extraordinarily safe. People are really, really nice. We’re angry about the situation, but not at each other. Indeed, everyone’s in it together.
A Forgetful Revolution
I must note that this is galling for minorities and the poor who went through their own shit scorned and alone. Indeed, the mothers of the disappeared in the north have been protesting for over a thousand days, and they get buried in a wall of selfies from young people, who often just don’t know.
The fact is that all of these people—including Tamils who tried peaceful protest on this same green in the 1950s—were right, but for decades we let these people get beaten, pogromed, and militarily subdued. Students who have been protesting and trying revolution since the 1970s were right about the problem too, but we let them get murdered and now just regularly tear-gassed so we could get cars and consumer goods.
But now the cars have no fuel, medicine is becoming a precious good, and our lack of investment in public services is literally making the lights go out. Everyone saying this was shit for different reasons has been proven right by a shared reality that even children understand. And that’s why everyone is out on the streets right now. I digress here a bit, but I have to.
I guess I just mean that it is a strange and hopeful time in Sri Lanka. My money is still on things getting worse, but these nights on the street, they just feel good. It feels like revolution, but as we have seen countless times before, you can’t just want to turn the wheel. Without power it gets spun right back right quickly, leaving hopeful dreams crushed in a slurry of bones and blood.
A Star-Crossed Revolution
As Engels said in 1883, ruling by vibes is fundamentally unstable.
As we have seen in modern times, people's revolutions in Egypt or mass movements like BlackLivesMatters in America get co-opted right back into repression, or just co-opted into capitalism and politically ignored. While the anarchist organization of the GotaGoGama village is powerful, it’s just one patch of green. The political organization of the state is still running the country, and without taking it over, the revolution is ultimately screwed.
It’s not enough for one family to step down, other people have to step up, take over the state, and fight off counter-revolutions. That all takes some doing. I’m not saying it’s possible. I honestly don’t know what’s going on within these people's protests, which are everywhere. I’m just saying it’s not likely.
The more likely thing is that the other capitalist party takes over, continues fucking us over but more politely, and we never get the revolutionary change the moment demands. As Trotsky said,
“But our entire epoch and, above all, the present crisis imperiously command the proletariat: “Seize power!” If, however, the party of the working class, in spite of favorable conditions, reveals itself incapable of leading the proletariat to the seizure of power, the life of society will continue necessarily upon capitalist foundations — until a new crisis, a new war, perhaps until the complete disintegration of European civilization.”
Being a country still colonized by capitalism we’re in this same boat, just without an imperial currency to bail ourselves out. We’re all living through the complete disintegration of globalized ‘European civilization’ into an ultimate climate goo.
If ever there was a moment for takeover by the poor and the working class this would be it, but too many people want a band-aid over capitalism, not the amputation required. Including my compatriots here, hanging flags out their fossil-fuel-consuming cars that we’re currently rationing fuel for. It more seems like ‘the life of society will continue necessarily upon capitalist foundations,’ until the final shuddering climate crisis leaves us in even more undeniable ruins.
A Revolution Nonetheless
And yet this is, for the moment, what it is. It’s crazy because you can physically walk through part of the unconsciousness of a nation, and the whole nation in fact has a song. Everyone sings “kaputa ka ka ka!” which means crow, ka ka ka (the sound a crow makes). It’s an inside joke, from a shambolic interview the former Finance Minister made, but everyone gets it.
All around the island, people have figured out how to toot their horns in this rhythm. The sweeps sellers play it from their bicycle radios. Even my daughter has figured out how to blow it on the horns they now sell along the road. It is the song an entire nation is humming, and it’s a song of rebellion. And it came from no one really. It came from nowhere. It might as well have been carried by the true wardens of Colombo, the crows.
I guess it’s fitting that the song of a fragile revolution is an ode to the scavengers that somehow persist and make it through. I don’t know if that’s us or if we just get sucked into the Airbus engine again and sprayed all over the road. But for now, at least one street belongs to the people. Who knows where it leads.