wide image of crowds with Sri Lankan flags on the steps of the country's presidential palace, on July 9, 2022

Indi Samarajiva’s dispatches from Sri Lanka

Helena Cobban Anti-imperialism, Blog, Colonialism, Global Balance, Mass movements

Back in March, two of the sessions in the 8-webinar series that Richard Falk and I co-hosted on the Ukraine crisis dealt with its international dimensions. In the 7th session, the writer and thinker Indi Samarajiva was our guest, with us from his home in Colombo, Sri Lanka, along with US antiwar activist Phyllis Bennis. That session got rave reviews!

Sri Lanka has gone through a lot since then. So let’s catch up with what Indi has been writing (and video-producing) about the crisis the country has been going through– one which Indi convincingly presents as symptomatic of the fate of most or all of the Global South in the era of late capitalism.

Indi publishes his work both on his Medium account and at his own writing site Indi.ca. If you want to see the full body of his work, and to support its continuation, I urge you to subscribe to his feeds on one or both of those platforms. Currently, I think that more of his near-daily essays are being posted on Medium, and a bit more speedily there than at Indi.ca.

You can see a round-up of some of Indi’s writings earlier in the year, here.

So now, let’s take a quick chronological tour of what he has written over the past, very eventful month– before, during, and after the overthrow of the previous president by a broad popular protest movement, on July 9. (The sub-titles below all click through to the entire text of that post, on Medium.)

June 23: Economists are Calling for Human Sacrifice Now

Indi sets the scene thus:

Obama’s Treasury Secretary Larry Summers recently said, “We need five years of unemployment above 5% to contain inflation… or one year of 10% unemployment.”

In response, here’s Brad Pitt in The Big Short: “You know what I hate about fucking banking it reduces people to numbers. Here’s a number. Every 1% unemployment goes up 40,000 people die. Did you know that?”

Summers is saying America needs to kill 1 million people over five years or 400,000 people immediately, not sure how his math works out. Honestly, I wouldn’t even call it math. It’s just a high priest of the state religion the empire calls economics, calling for more human sacrifice.

June 26: How Capitalism Has Collapsed In My Sri Lanka: And how it’s coming for you

This post provides snapshots, both verbal and visual, of the economic collapse in and around Colombo. (Most of the photos here are credited to Abdul-Halik Azeez.) This short essay ends with this:

The sad fact about capitalism is that as much as it obviously sucked, most of us never wanted to end it, we just wanted to move up within it. This was the promise of international ‘development’, that if we slaved away long enough we could live like the masters. This was of course impossible and commies told us so, but we didn’t listen. We didn’t want to. And now we’re living proof. The end of capitalism is nigh and the wages of sin is death.

The truth is that the asteroid hit the moment the white man hit black gold. They rode a shock wave of destruction around the globe and called it growth, but it was cancerous. It has taken about 400 years, but the debris is finally choking up the atmosphere and the extinction-level event is coming on strong. Plants, animals, and entire countries are starting to keel over. The poorest first.

June 27: Sri Lanka Has Literally Run Out Of Gas

This is a really important reflection on the effects of both the extreme fuel/forex crisis Sri Lanka has been experiencing and the effects of fossil-fuel dependence on the world’s ecology as whole.

Indi prefaces it with a beautiful photo of food that’s been prepared by an org called Community Meal Share, noting in the caption that, “I won’t post pictures of us looking fucked up,” which feels like some quietly powerful pushback against all the presenters of “disaster porn.”

In the text, Indi– who frequently describes himself as “a rich fuck”– writes about the disproportionate harm that “climate adaptation” inflicts on poor people. He concludes thus:

Sri Lanka is an involuntary test bed for what the necessary level of fossil fuel cuts would look like, and I can see that without equally dramatic investments in public transport, public energy, and even public good, it just won’t work. No population in their right mind would do this to themselves, as much sense as it makes for the species. Without climate communism to better allocate resources, climate adaptation is just suicide for working people.

I mean, look at us. Sri Lanka is what it looks like when a country completely stops using fossil fuels because of a collapse in capitalism. More capitalism is no way out. We need what I call climate communism. The allocation of increasingly scarce resources around the needs of human beings, not whatever gets investors off. Sri Lanka has run out of gas and the whole planet is running on fumes. We’ve got to turn around.

June 27: Global Famine Has Already Begun: ‘Food insecurity’ is just a fancy word for famine

This was one Indi’s most important and hard-hitting posts ever. It deserves a close read. He starts with– again– a photo provided by Community Meal Share, and with this text: “Pandemic is just a fancy word for plague, and ‘food insecurity’ is just a fancy word for famine. Over 10 million people have died in a global plague and tens of millions more have already begun dying in famines. It’s already here.”

He cites Mike Davis’s 2001 book, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World at some length:

He provides this great quote from Davis: “‘“Millions die” was ultimately a policy choice: to accomplish such decimations required (in Brecht’s sardonic phrase) “a brilliant way of organising famine.”’

He also gives us this powerful graph from S&P Global and JPMorgan:

Click on image to enlarge

Then, this:

In 1944 Karl Polyani said that ‘“The actual source of famines in the last fifty years… was the free marketing of grain combined with local failure of incomes.”’ Which is terribly like what’s happening today. Speculation on food has been raising pricing for years now.

The capitalist imagination is that this is all necessary to increase production, but that isn’t what happened. Capitalists are simply profiteering while production actually drops. These price hikes (and inflation itself) are being blamed on the Ukraine invasion and Russia but A) both started before and B) that’s largely propaganda.

What has triggered famine directly is America’s reaction to the Ukraine invasion. Sanctions are an act of war, and they have turned a local invasion into a global catastrophe.

As I said, this whole post is worth reading… Here’s how he concludes:

It doesn’t have to be this way, these are all choices, and the White Empire that choose to have a plague go on forever are now choosing war and famine. How many horsemen are even left? I don’t mean to sound apocalyptic but my world is apocalyptic and I’m telling you from a people that have already fallen, famine is spreading like a contagion, and no one will escape unscathed.

June 28: When Your Life Becomes News It’s Miserable

Here how this one starts:

I keep opening browser tabs like tabs of Xanax. I do it for sedation but I just end up more aggravated. Everything is shit, everywhere. Reading anything is like fiddling with a canker sore. Checking if the pain is still there. It is.

Later, this:

There’s no amount of browser windows I can escape through. Those windows just open to Palestine, or America, or Senegal, and they’re also screwed.

Part of the thrill of the news was the fact that you could learn about peril but that it wasn’t happening to you. A bit of the sublime, the feeling you get looking over a cliff but not falling over. Like rubber-necking past an accident. Or watching a cock-fight. This is what’s distilled into drama, which is generally watching people having a terrible time and finding that a pleasant way to spend a few hours. I remember watching Breaking Bad and having all of my problems pale in comparison. Now I watch TV and I’m like “shit, at least they have gas. That must be fun.”

He finishes with this:

Even reading me must seem futile at some point, but people are still doing it. >What are you learning here? How we’re fucked, in greater and greater precision? What does one do with this information? Not much, but God I have to keep writing and I guess you keep reading. It’s all the thrill of a murder mystery, except we’re the dead bodies. I can’t say I don’t enjoy it but, you know, mixed feelings. This is over 800 words and it’s a stream of consciousness anyways. Here it’s ending.

He does then append this very helpful pointer:

If you’d like to do something for Sri Lanka Dr. Ahilan Kadirgamar, who I know and vouch for, is extending his work with farming and fishing families to not only give them income but also produce the food we need. You can donate here.

I gave.

July 5: We’re History: As the curse goes, we live in interesting times

This is another reflection on the situation, written with Indi’s characteristically (and achingly) incisive skill. Sample graf:

History is all repeating, this time as farce. The 1918 pandemic, except we know better and just couldn’t bother. The pointless entanglements of World War I, now codified as NATO and completely for the benefit of arms dealers. The rise of fascism, just with worse fashion. The coming Greater Depression, which is incredibly depressing already. We hoped for flying cars and we got flying fucks. No one even cares. We’re just repeating the worst chapters of history because our ‘educated’ elites simply didn’t pay attention…

July 8: If It Ain’t Fixed, Break It: The neoliberal logic that destroys public life

This post is headed by a still from The Sopranos. The text starts like this:

The great neoliberal idea is “if it ain’t fixed, break it.” They starve public services of resources, and then complain that they’re performing poorly. They point out corruption, and propose just giving everything to the rich people doing the corrupting. It’s the perfect crime, really. They break a bunch of windows and say “look at what a dump this place is, sell it to me for cheap.”

The economic truth is that it is much more efficient to run the most important services—like health, education, and transport—publicly. It’s much cheaper and less wasteful, not to mention the right thing.

Then, lower down, this:

As a tragic example, look at my country, Sri Lanka. We followed the western model of privatized transport, building roads, highways, and importing cars and fuel. We ignored and even privatized the public transport that most people depended on. We didn’t even build sidewalks for the people that walked. We gave a ton of money to foreign car companies and oil companies and construction companies, all while starving our own public services.

Now the foreign loans have dried up and our society has come to a complete halt. There’s no fuel for cars at all. We’re depending on the public transport that we neglected for so many years now.

So now (drum roll), July 9…

July 9: My Experience Of Sri Lanka’s Powerful Protests

This is a wonderful description of the tour that Indi and his family made of downtown Colombo on July 9, the day that anti-government protesters took over the Presidential Palace. Read the whole thing. Also, enjoy the photos he took and the 2-minute video report he has at the end there.

Here are three stills from the video. Click on any one to see the whole thing.

Indi & his family started their downtown tour by visiting a friend in a highrise near the palace, where they watched the crowds arriving
He then went and joined the throng, including inside the palace, where people were delighted, happy, and nonviolent
July 11: Power To The People Beyond Parliament: Why Not? The experience of Sri Lanka’s interregnum, and thoughts on sortition

So a couple of days after the Presidential Palace, the protesters took over the Prime Minister’s residence, known as Temple Trees. Indi and his wife were there as well. They left the kids at home and biked there from their home.

His first reflection in this post was this:

I went to the President’s House, where I’m not allowed, which is strange. I thought he worked for me. This thing we call a democracy is really some bullshit anointing system for elites. Every few years they pretend to give a shit and then retreat behind castle walls, like kings and queens. The President’s House was actually the Queen’s House before. They just changed seats.

Later, this:

These are fleeting moments, these revolutionary interregnums. Soon enough there’s another reign, the people get chased out, and some other elite closes the door, kicks out the people, and takes his seat. But it’s a moment nonetheless. It shows how things could be done differently.

The argument is always that if you do away with the existing order, you end up with anarchy. But I’ve read about anarchy and it’s just organization from the bottom up, without coercion. We’re told that we need state violence, we need laws to cage us, we need elites to have these palaces and comforts, but do we? As Leo Tolstoy said, “But why should we suppose this? Why think that non-official people could not arrange their life themselves as well as government people arrange it, not for themselves, but for others?”

He’s been doing and reading a lot about political philosophy recently, and he deploys its concepts very expertly here. One of his favorite ideas is that of sortition— the principle by which, in a democracy, all the legislative and judicial posts are conferred through a lottery. One big advantage of this, in my view, is that it means that all citizens have a strong interest in their fellow citizens getting well educated! Indi describes others:

We might as well carry the spirit of the Sri Lankan Aragalaya (struggle) into actual governance and put random people in power. Honestly, how could it be worse. A Parliament selected by sortition would immediately have 51% women, young people, minorities, and most vitally the poor. The Parliament would be mostly poor people for the first time anywhere, not rich people pretending to give a shit about them. Why don’t we take power to the people literally? Why do we have any faith left in these genteel elites? They haven’t been gentle with us. They don’t deserve it.

I honestly think (and write) about sortition a lot, but I really thought about it as I wandered around the palaces of power, surrounded by my people, feeling quite safe and free. Why are we still so elitist that we think our people can only choose their betters? That these anointed rulers simply must live in comfort and surrounded by armed guards?

And once again, he gives us a 2-minute video. Click on the still to see it.

July 14: How Protest Is A Democratic Institution:And why we need to tear liberal democracy down

This is a much more philosophical piece of writing. In it, Indi pursues his interest in sortition even further, noting in particular how it worked in ancient Athens. He writes:

a protest is not a rebellion against democratic institutions. It is the re-emergence of a buried democratic institution, the one that’s supposed to be supreme over all. People somehow instinctively assemble in town squares to take power over what is rightfully theirs. Athenians understood this and made the People’s Assembly an institution, whereas our ruling elites try to make it illegal. But people power persists, especially in times of great turmoil. It is the true source of power, as much as elites try to bury it under elections.

Today we have a perverted idea that democracy is elections, but the Athenians only used elections for the Executive. The Legislature was selected by lot (randomly among the citizens), as was the Judiciary.

He quotes Aristotle at some length. Also, this from Caitlin Johnstone:

You may vote and debate freely on any issue which does not affect the functioning of the empire. When it comes to how money, weapons and resources move around the world, however, you suddenly find that your votes don’t matter and your position has no mainstream representation. They’ll let you argue until you’re blue in the face over whether or not you can have an abortion or whether minorities should have civil rights; they’ll even let you vote on it. But things like military expansionism and neoliberal globalization and deregulation are off limits.

The empire relies on false political dichotomies like Democrats vs Republicans to keep everyone fighting over issues which don’t affect the functioning of the empire so the machine can trudge onward uninterrupted by the local riff raff. That is the entire job of those parties.

His conclusion is this:

We have to look deeper at our democracies and really struggle to constitute them beyond a constitution. We have to fight for them, we have to question them and we have to quite honestly tear liberal democracy up and start over, from first principles. We’ve also got to get rid of this idea that there’s one perfect form of democracy for all and that white people found it and can bomb it into everyone. Democracy is a constant struggle, an Aragalaya in Sinhala. The struggle must go on.

July 15: How Sri Lanka Is Caught In A Western Debt Trap

This post is an excellent guide to the subject, one on which Indi has written quite a lot in the past.

He starts off with an excellent graphic, which puts the lie to the accusation frequently voiced in the west that Sri Lanka has somehow fallen into a Chinese debt trap:

Click on image to enlarge

He then looks in detail at an article titled “The End of Western Civilization” that radical economist Michael Hudson had published a couple of days earlier, exploring in detail the applicability of some of Hudson’s arguments to Sri Lanka.

He cites this great quote from Hudson:

President Biden and his State Department neoliberals accuse China and any other country seeking to maintain its economic independence and self-reliance of being “autocratic.” Their rhetorical sleight of hand juxtaposes democracy to autocracy. What they call “autocracy” is a government strong enough to prevent a Western-oriented financial oligarchy from indebting the population to itself — and then prying away its land and other property into its own hands and those of its American and other foreign backers.

The Orwellian Doublethink of calling oligarchies “democracies” is followed by defining a free market as one that is free for financial rent-seeking. U.S.-backed diplomacy has indebted countries, forcing them to sell control of their public infrastructure and turn their economy’s “commanding heights” into opportunities to extract monopoly rent.

Indi’s own comment is this:

this gets back to them accusing China of pulling Sri Lanka and other developing countries into a ‘debt trap’. And their media repeats the lie on a loop. Only around 10% of Sri Lanka’s debt is to China, and that’s for infrastructure. Even the boondoggle port in Hambantota was refinanced by China and we used that money to pay off interest on western loans. In Goebbels style, White Empire accuses their enemy of what they’re doing, and people fall for it. A lie repeated long enough becomes the truth.

And so here Sri Lanka is, drowning in a Western debt trap, while Western Civilization itself falls apart. Our colonial comprador elites keep trying to clamber up the butthole of Empire, but the thing is a zombie, vomiting out dollars and about to implode.

July 15: The Four White Lies That Led To COVID-Infinity

On July 15, Indi also told us that his daughter caught Covid:

it’s so sad. We think she’s OK, but why? We’ve fought this thing for years now and it’s impossible. The grandparents got it, the kids got it, we just lost.

What’s so infuriating is that it didn’t have to be this way.

July 18: Liberal Democracy Is Just Oligarchy With Good Branding

He is definitely back to political philosophy, starting thus:

Sri Lanka is about to ‘elect’ a President with just 225 people voting. These people are our MPs, who are so roundly despised that 80 recently had their houses burnt down. It’s a farce. Sri Lanka has gone full oligarchy, rule of the few over the many. I think it always was. This whole liberal democracy thing is bullshit.

Sri Lanka copied liberal democracy from the British who trace a line back to the Magna Carta. This is held up as some model of empowerment, but it was really a deal between barons and a king, it had fuck all to do with the people. And things haven’t changed that much.

Then later, this:

In modern parlance, oligarchy is a purely Russian word, while democracy is supposed to describe whoever White Empire (America) is happy with. But would you call any of these democracies ‘government of the poor’? Politicians are almost all wealthy, and the people that actually fund them are obscenely wealthy. They live in palaces, drive fancy vehicles, and hobnob in exclusive circles, only venturing out for the meaningless anointing festivals we call elections.

This is simply bullshit. The idea that everyone should just copy the governing system used by the most violent, enslaving, and greedy people on Earth got currency because they made currency, but now the Empire is falling and people are realizing that their governing system has no clothes. It’s not democracy at all. It’s oligarchy with good marketing.

At the end he tells us this:

I’ve completely lost faith in liberal democracy and I think you should to. We face untold challenges this century. We’ve got to think of something new.

July 20: We’re In A Big COVID Wave And Just Drowning

So now, Indi himself has caught Covid. To me, it felt like a gut-punch to read that, though he assured us his case is not too, too bad…

Thankfully, he has lost none of his (quite justified) anger against “Western” domination of the world system:

The western media has also done nothing but blame and attack China, distracting their citizens (and sadly much of the world) from what an actual pandemic-beating effort looks like. In the most evil case of sour grapes ever, they have actually gotten people to mock the very idea of Zero-COVID with the oft-repeated mantra of “at what cost?” Meanwhile, China’s economy is doing better than anybody’s, they’re dramatically less dead, and they must be honestly wondering WTF? This propaganda doesn’t even hurt China. It just gets Empire’s own citizens killed. It’s mind-boggling.

Also, this:

Our entire system of global power relations is such that people are powerless. Western democracies are completely corrupt, their media uses inane debate as a smokescreen, and the world drowns as long as they’re in power. We’re drowning in a flood of greed and idiocy, and it just keeps pouring down.

The result is not just COVID forever. It’s monkeypox forever. It’s heat waves forever. It’s famines forever. It’s instability forever. Human civilization evolved in a thin sliver of climate stability and colonizers rolled that all and smoked it in just a few hundred years. Now the bugs are crawling out of the woodwork, it’s getting hellishly hot, the waves are rising over the barricades, and I cannot shake this cough.

Please get better soon, Indi. We desperately need your voice.