The Story of No One From Sri Lanka
My name is Indrajit, or Indi, or Jit, or Appa, or Patiya or any number of names if you’re familiar, which you’re not, so call me Indrajit. I am from Sri Lanka, which is also likely unfamilar to you. It’s a site of either unexplainable beauty or unexplainable tragedy—but let me tell you. It's all illusion. I do not exist and my country does not either. We are all connected and our nations are all connected and let me tell you, we’re all fucked. It just happened to me and my people first. This is my story.
The Republic of Sri Lanka was born in 1972 and I was born in 1982 and within that decade my birthright got completely ruined. I just didn't know it till much later. Sri Lanka was born the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka and that all got completely washed away in the 1980s. The democratic part was run over by an all-powerful presidency, and the socialist part was run over when that President broke trade unions and mass-murdered commies. Sri Lanka ”opened up'” in the 1980s, which just meant getting re-colonized by capital again, never developing our own people, industries, or economic independence. But what did I know? I was a baby. Born in exile. Just a name, registered with the Defense Ministry.
By the time I came back in 2004, it seemed like all the opening up had worked. Capitalism worked. It didn't make sense, but we had cars, we had imported goods, we had all the appearance of prosperity. It literally didn't make sense how we even had dollars, Sri Lanka had no modern export industries, no educated workforce, and a constant trade imbalance. But markets were magic, they somehow delivered reconditioned Japanese vehicles and American cheese without us doing anything. Turns out it was all on borrowed time and borrowed money, but who knew? More importantly, who wanted to know? Not me. I didn't come back to Sri Lanka to read fortunes, I came back to make mine. And I did.
Sri Lanka had been at civil war as long as I was alive, but it ended when I was 26. I was in jail the night it happened, arrested for trespassing on the nascent China-financed Hambantota Port with Robert Kaplan, my first and last job as a “fixer.” After an uncomfortable night spent across from a gun on a table while my connected parents made phone calls, they let us go in the morning with a warning. Drove the fuck out of town, stopping only in Tangalle to watch the President make his victory speech. This was his hometown. People were in the street with flags, celebrating. I won't even get into the why of the war, this is simply the when of it ending. We all knew what time it was. Time to make some real money.
During this time I went from making a hundred dollars a month to sixteen hundred dollars, to starting and selling a company, to owning a car, a house, living the dream. I saw my city of Colombo go from a charming place where cultured poor people actually lived in the city center to a place where they were evicted to build apartments nobody lived in. None of it made any sense at all, but the dollars somehow existed. The country still hadn't industrialized, it still exported nothing of great value, and we had given up on improving public services years ago. It was all privatizations, and markets, and I didn't care. Privately, things were going swimmingly.
In the story of the inevitable collapse, the Hambantota Port is a red herring. China gets the blame for its visible development projects, but the real problem is the invisible bullshit we get from the West, which just ends up developing their bankers’ vacation homes. That's the real debt trap that Sri Lanka fell into. After the war Sri Lanka started borrowing money from private banks, at effectively credit card rates. No questions asked really, and by the time the whole thing blew up ten years later, successive governments were using new credit lines to pay off old ones. We got totally loan sharked by the usual suspects in the US, UK, and Switzerland, but they used their media to blame China for actually building something.
The collapse happened when I had children and then the world went to total shit, which is where your and my worlds interconnect. In this eternal year of our Lord COVID-19, everything is fucked everywhere. It has just become most obvious in the lands of poverty, but make no mistake: like a cough, economic collapse is contagious. But I don't need to tell you that. You're already coughing.
When COVID first hit Sri Lanka we actually beat it. Sri Lanka locked down completely—not a fart out of doors for months—and reduced cases to zero. A footnote of a victory, really. When COVID came back, the government followed the great Western strategy of “fuck it” instead, and we ended up with debilitating waves of COVID like everybody else (except China I guess), suffering greatly. The casualty of both the cure and the disease was the Sri Lankan economy, which had been floating on both A) FX from tourism and garment exports and B) cheap credit from Western banks. When COVID hit that all dried up, as tourists stayed home and banks stayed close to their warm money printers.
That awful person Warren Buffet said, “when the tide is out you see who's swimming naked,” and Sri Lanka was certainly swimming naked. But as any Sri Lankan can tell you, when the tide suddenly rushes out, RUN. That means the water is about to come rushing back as a tsunami. In this case, an economic catastrophe as bad as the last century’s Great Depression. Sri Lanka has already been flattened because we can’t money print our way out of it, but elsewhere that monetary Prozac will wear off and the Greatest Depression will hit everybody. Then you, like I, will be singing the blues inconsolable. You may be reading my story with a rubbernecker’s eye, but let me tell you, we're heading into an every-car-pileup of climatic proportions. You reading this in (relative) comfort is really just a timing difference. The receding tide exposed countries like Sri Lanka, but the coming tsunami will hit everybody.
The fundamental problem with Sri Lanka was the fundamental problem with neoliberal capitalism: the cockamamie idea that governments didn't have to plan an economy, build anything, or do anything to help people directly. They just had to “get out of the way” and let markets take care of everything automatically. Like lighting your house on fire to stay warm, this did produce light briefly, but it was always fundamentally idiotic. The colonized countries that “developed” did it by seizing the means of production and actually industrializing and earning money, power, and respect. The countries that did it with high social outcomes were outright communist, developing markets within socialism, not dumping social services into the market and hoping for the best.
Sri Lanka was not one of those countries (having assiduously murdered commies in the eighties) but—spoiler alert—you're not in one of those countries either if you're reading the Brooklyn Rail. The fact is that Western “developed” countries cannibalized their own manufacturing, social investment, and societies in order to make a line go up and they're on the exact same trajectory as Sri Lanka. The only difference is that you can do more lines of Central Bank cocaine to keep the party going a bit longer, but it has to end. You don't make enough things, you spend too much, and it's all floating on debt and, frankly, speculation. To put an exclamation on the point, the resource exhaustion of the whole fucking planet is going to put a hard brake on things, even if you figure out how to frack financial fentanyl that would otherwise keep the high going. The end is coming, and I tell you this as someone whose life has already ended.
When Sri Lanka couldn't get new loans to pay the interest on its old loans, the banks lowered our credit rating, our own President was an idiot, and it hit a death spiral. Sovereign default. Without the loans that propped up prosperous lifestyles like mine, we suddenly saw what we were worth. Up to eight hour power cuts, for everyone. Day-long fuel queues, for everyone. For once the upper, importing classes suffered along with the ruled classes. The time was ripe for revolution and, of course, counter-revolution. That all happened.
One night there were multiple power cuts, including one at three in the morning. The fans went off and children woke up, the whole country was sleep deprived. The whole country erupted in protest, which went on for months. It all came to a head on one day in July when probably a hundred thousand people converged on Colombo central. Like a total asshole I was watching it from the fiftieth floor of a friend's high-rise, having a gin and tonic. I saw them breach the gates of the Presidential Secretariat, and it was glorious. I went down and walked through the crowds of ordinary people occupying this hallowed ground for upper caste people. I walked through the President's House, where people were banging on tables and singing joyously. I went through the Prime Minister's House, where people had set up a kitchen and were feeding the hungry for free. It felt right for a moment. Then it went to total shit.
When the dynastic President finally resigned, the totally unelected scion of another dynasty just weaseled his way in, winning a sham “election” in Parliament, where votes were openly bought with houses. This new President Ranil—who fucking sucks—immediately arrested the protestors who gave him his job, pulling young people off planes and then threatening the passengers who complained with visa violations. Ranil governed the country for many of the years leading to its collapse, including presiding over massive bond frauds, and was the nephew of the original President who started this mess. Literally the worst possible person to get us out of it. The answer to being in such a deep hole was to keep digging. Which is where we are now. The middle classes have got their rationed imports back while the poor are absolutely starving.
An IMF-pleasing program (Sri Lanka's seventeenth, they're also part of the problem) is doing nothing to invest a way out of our crisis (the lesson white people learned from the Great Depression but religiously never apply to colored countries). The country is not industrializing, not doing massive public works, we're just trying to get to “debt sustainability,” hitching our wagon to a gravy train which has already overturned and isn't going to help anybody. The response to catastrophe, to the call for revolution, has been a heaping spoonful of “more of the same,” which should also feel familiar to you.
In response to the “existential threat to democracy” in Donald Trump, Americans got a microwaved Democrat in Joe Biden, who has somehow managed to kill even more people from COVID and come far closer to starting World War III. As that eternal Gramsci paraphrase goes, “The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.” Perhaps that was the case in Gramsci’s day, but history is repeating as farce this time. Now is the time of dipshits, just an absolutely lackluster response to extraordinary circumstances, death by mediocrity. I know it from Sri Lanka, but you know it too. This is shared history.
I am not writing this stream of consciousness description of Sri Lanka's collapse in the hope that you will understand it. You can't. The longer I live in Sri Lanka the less I've understood it, and the idea that you can understand anything from a magazine article is a particularly American piece of hubris. I write so that you will feel and empathize. Not so that you will understand the complexity of Sri Lanka as some foreign thing, but so that you will feel it as the experience of a neighbor and fear it as something that could happen to you too. Indeed, my point is that you should be able to feel it already happening.
Are you not also ruled by dipshits? Are you not already feeling prosperity being yanked out from under ye? Have you not noticed Humpty Dumpty going to total fractures after COVID-19, and have you noticed all the king's horses and men not doing anything especially helpful? Is your own economy not also propped up on debt and bullshit, and is it already not looking hella shaky? My family left Sri Lanka (coincidentally, my wife got into Oxford) and things are fucked up here in England too. People are poor and can't afford to turn the heating on. There are fuel queues in France. As with COVID, currency coughs and sniffles in any part of the world are not going to stay contained. Capitalism is a virus with a long gestation period, but now it's sending everybody to the ICU quite mercilessly.
If you want a story to stitch this consciousness together, take this. In the early 1600s, a great and wretched White Empire formed, fighting with itself constantly, but absolutely obliterating everyone else in its planet-spanning conquest and greed. Sri Lanka experienced this White Empire through the Portuguese, the Dutch, the British, and then—more invisibly—the Americans. These are all considered distinct places and parts of history, but that's an illusion. To us it's all an undifferentiated White Empire. The capitals may move, but the rule of capital always stays the same.
This White Empire created the first AI. Corporations have long been legal persons (as Mitt Romney accurately said), and the first IPO in 1602 made them world-spanning, soul-devouring machines. The first IPO was the Dutch East India Company, the VoC (Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie). These AI happen to have humans as component parts, just as your biome is mostly virus and bacteria. The human body is objectively just a wet, temperature-controlled spaceship for microbes. Life emerging out of other life and being unrecognizable and seemingly impossible to earlier life is nothing new. It's just a little bit of biology repeating itself on a different scale.
I call corporations like the VOC AI because they are literally legal people with more rights than individuals and certainly more rights than countries in the South. It's really not an academic debate as to whether these corporations are alive. It's settled legality. I call them AI because they capture the science-fiction idea of being incredibly powerful and evil. We just miss their existence because we can't fuck them (the other usual science fiction trope). We cannot conceive of something being alive that we cannot put our dick in (it's a stupid male trope), and we miss the fact that corporations are fucking us quite handily.
It is these corporations which devoured countries like Sri Lanka, which are cannibalizing their own “home countries,” and which have rolled and smoked the planet so thoroughly.
I guess from our perspective you could call them evil, and I find this perspective useful rhetorically, but the fact is that early photosynthetic life caused the Great Oxygen Holocaust 3.5 billion years ago, and we look at plants and plankton quite admiringly. The fact that early AI produced massive carbon emissions that killed ninety-nine percent of other species, including many of their makers, is not a value judgement biologically. This is precisely what photosynthetic life did, turning the earth into a giant snowball, and they wrote the history. So now we look at trees thinking “how peaceful,” while the anaerobic bacteria in our guts fume and fart furiously, never forgetting the Great Oxygen Holocaust.
I digress, but that perspective is important. If you view what's happening as the emergence of another form of life, the monetary policy of some tiny island in the 2010s suddenly seems less relevant. And it is less relevant. Colonialism, capitalism, the age of AI, these are not distinct periods. They are just different avatars of the same entity. Violent, traumatized, Europeans awakened some deep, undead greed in the human soul that enabled them to rampage across the seas, enslaving and taking without honor or humanity. That's a value judgement, I guess, but they harnessed it for legal computer programs (which is all corporations are) that used human labor and environmental resources as an energy source. And energy was good. Once they dug up the undead ghosts of photosynthetic life (the original gangsters), it was game over.
Why have I delved into ghouls and AI and bacteria and all this nonsense? Because it's the only way to make sense of things. We look at problems like global economic collapse and climate collapse and think the answer is going to be found in the last few years, and in magazines. It's folly. It's an absolute failure of imagination to grasp reality. We are talking about the collapse of a four hundred year planetary Ponzi scheme that started with colonialism. We are talking about a geological shit stain of carbon that will be our only surviving legacy aeons hence. And it's not even, from that perspective, our legacy. It's the emissions of another species, the machines that don't give a fuck about the hotness of Earth or the coldness of space and are thus the inheritors or both.
I started this article saying I have many names and do not exist, because this is true. This is the Buddha's central philosophical thought and it's true if you just look a little closely. Who are you? When are you? What body do you have in heaven? What is you? The simplest answer is the one we refuse to confront. We don't exist any more or less than the New York Mets, or the Dutch East India Company. These labels are all samsara, illusion. The names we put on things out of attachment, but which ultimately attach to nothing. We are all just farts in the wind.
I told this story of Sri Lanka saying that it doesn't exist because it doesn’t. We are divided within and divided without, only even acquiring that fig leaf of a name fifty years ago. When the economic tide we sailed went out, of course we were exposed as naked, all we had was a leaf. Sri Lanka is just an island of 21 million people, still colonized by capital, still culturally self-colonized, and thus our sufferings are not unique. We are all ultimately just leaves in the stream, and right now the water is churning. I hope you leave this article feeling like you know nothing about Sri Lanka (you don't) but feeling something as a human being. Some connection to another human, going through some shit, and then I hope you see some connection in all the suffering going around you. I also didn’t believe the Buddha when he said life is suffering, but I get it now. I think it’s becoming obvious to everybody.
What do you do with this information? What is the hopeful ending to this think piece. Fuck if I know. Hope is the opiate of dumbasses, and I don’t have a prescription. I don’t know where you go or what you do. I don’t know you. I don’t even exist. So just be confused. Be incomplete. Be unsatisfied. Such is life, if you actually confront it. I’ve reached my word count and you’ve reached the end of your attention span. Sometimes things just end in a messy way and you don’t get a resolution. That’s exactly what’s happening to our civilization. I don’t know what you do with this information. Just let it be.