Remembering SBD de Silva: A Scholar in Every Fibre

Krisantha Sri Bhaggiyadatta, in Sunday Island, 16 June 2019, where the title reads “One Thing Leads to Another – Memories of a Great Guru”

SBD de Silva, at 92, acted like he would live forever. To the very end, he kept drafting in almost imperceptible scribble – with pen or pencil, whatever being handy, glasses falling off his nose, peering over some text or daily/weekly newspaper – filling an A4 until no blank space was left, and then, so as not to break his concentration or the sentence, without looking, reach for another blank…

Like Scheherazade of the 1001 Nights who had to keep narrating to save her life until each dawn, so did SB, by day and by night, keep writing as if fresh insights, expressed in perfect words, would make him immortal. Yet, ambushed he was by impermanence. But such dedication to his craft and to the country was sheer dream to witness, let alone to hope to emulate, yet must be upheld as a beacon of scholarship for future generations.

 SBD de Silva (1926-2018) at a diplomatic reception in the 1950s. His classic, The Political Economy of Underdevelopment, tracks our own economic history midst that of the world.

It’s one year since SBD de Silva made the transition In this year since SB transited to ash and smoke, his spirit lives on in those who learned from him – to analyze the bourgeois media, their economists, to go beyond them…

“The purpose of studying economics is not to acquire a set of readymade answers to economic questions, but to learn how to avoid being deceived by economists.” – Joan Robinson

To learn economics, study the economists first, SB always reminded. Do they wish to prolong underdevelopment dragging us deeper to an even more untenable repressive system? – or transform the economy to fully enrich the masses?  To learn economics, SB recommended, “Take a walk along the pavement, and see what’s being sold and always ask where things are made.” This was SB’s simple repeated question, while sensible countries around us are forging ahead industrially: “Why do we not manufacture even a pin?”

A pin is of course a famous point in political economy. Making a pin was famously described by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations, to illustrate how through the division of labour, England overtook Germany in productivity.

A pin also symbolizes the sheer idiocy of calling our ‘garment’ sector here an ‘industry’, let alone an ‘export industry’. We make not pin, needle, thread or textile – much of the capital goes out to pay for these before even coming in. SB thus pinpointed the need to define words clearly: what we called ‘industry’, is in fact pre-industrial, simple assembly and manufacture. Who we call ‘entrepreneurs’ just because they make money, are their opposite – ‘rentiers’, who don’t enlarge the economy but grab larger slices of existing wealth, making money from money as they sleep, like landlords.

Those who do say we need industrialization, say it’s needed to resolve balance-of-payments crises, or for foreign exchange. But forex can be gotten by pimping young women and men to tourists or other countries out west; by gambling, prostitution, heroin (as luxury cars on roads visibly attest to).

Modern industry, SB concluded, is not a salve but a holistic political, economic and military strategy. Industrialization has its own logic, and is measured not in forex but in inward investment, the spread of technology, skills, the division of labour.

Every morning SB surveyed the steady output of those economists seen daily in the business columns of newspapers and media – (…fill in the blanks…we need not name them!)

SB would note how so eerily they echoed each other – a choir singing karaoke off a teleprompter, parroting shibboleths handed down from the US Treasury, via the World Bank (IBRD), International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Trade Organization (WTO), etc.

Their sermons prattle: ‘Privatize State Corporations! Deregulate! Eliminate Welfare (but not for the rich)! Oppose capital controls, import-substitution, industrialization, tariffs, etc! Yearn for FDI! Complain about balance of payments (but don’t call for banning imports)! Denounce ‘lazy’ workers, strikes, demonstrations! Play the EPF on the stock market! Cite false indices like GDP, etc., etc., ad-nauseam.

Most of our economists, SB said, write un-analytical descriptive jargon: “lotus-eaters” in craven subservience to private banks or capitalists they serve, praying for appointment to some UN or World-Bank thinktank (or related US pension plan), where colonized intellectuals valet-park their superannuated sphincters. Their work contains “not a single retrievable or viable idea that could be utilized, publishing classroom stuff with the usual hack scholarship”.

These economists repeat the idiocies of white exploiters: proclaiming the English endowed us a “prosperous plantation economy”, with sterling balances; they hide “We inherited the most impoverished peasantry in Asia! The country’s most exploited have worked on plantations – they have lived by one repetitive movement of the hand for over 150 years!”

SB was thus distinctive. A senior scholar, part of the first generation of “post-independence” economists, he remained fastidious in his craft to the end. He was hounded out as a “suspected communist” from the Central Bank. The CB, he noted, “has always opposed the independence of the country”), recounting many enlightening anecdotes about economists and their conceits.

Former Central-Bank deputy-head WA Wijewardene (a columnist usually waxing on how inadequately inured we are to “rule of law” and other World-Bank bollocks) once compared the state of the economy to a car driven faster than the engine can handle. But this is not true, SB observed: “We’re being driven into a blind alley. They say we lost our way – but just where were they trying to go?”

The many SL Economists Association’s conferences appeared to SB like the proverbial blind brahmins branding a behemoth. They praise Singapore for rule of law (while hiding Mahendran), want state corporations sold (though 20 years ago Singapore’s government-linked corporations accounted for 60% of GDP). As to curtailing samurdhi, SB would recall, charity is “the penance the rich pay for NOT developing the economy”.

SB also criticized the superficial and diversionary (romantic, utopian, anarchic, nihilistic, petit-bourgeois, feudal, conservative, religious) analyses of the oppositions and ‘Left’. He lamented their ignorance of what was lacking in attempts so far to transform the economy.

Quitting the University of Peradeniya in disgust, SB early foretold our intellectuals selling out: “Research in the social sciences in underdeveloped countries has, of late, metamorphosed into a variety of big business. Institutes and research agencies flourish in rich profusion, with virtually a business interest in staging seminars, symposia and workshops and in sponsoring publications. In contrast, concerned activity committed to exposing the real roots of social disarray is, remarkably, absent.” (PEU)

Yet SB kept surveying and writing, not to make himself known, but, as he said, “To know!” – “We know so little about the country, about ourselves.” New knowledge was what he sought. There is no real economic history of the country. Many non-economic histories – narrowly social and cultural – are written and widely promoted, about our undergarments and foibles. Very few x-ray the body to examine skeleton and organs to determine the clots preventing us from going where we should go.

SB’s style was not of the permanent dictum. He would look for the contradictions. The exceptions that proved the rule. He would be the first to admit if he was wrong, though not without a fight. For as he noted in his book, science advances through contention and debate!

So it came to be that SBD de Silva is one of the few people on this earth who rejected his own PhD thesis! Oxford had offered to publish it immediately, but he held them off, to the point where the exasperated publisher cried, “But in this world, there’s nothing that’s perfect…” In an imperfect world, with imperfect materials, perfect is what SB aspired to. His book was eventually published, almost 10 years later – his renowned offering to the world: The Political Economy of Underdevelopment (PEU, Routledge, 1982), which refuted his PhD! He realized the plantation sector, with its non-resident investors, was not modern nor capitalist at all, dependent on trapped unfree plantation labour, with no positive effect on the peasantry.

With origins in the enslaved plantations of the Americas, in sugar and cotton, it ensured we had no class dedicated to capital accumulation (skills, science, technology). Within the genocidal white-settler colonies (US, Canada, etc.), however, their permanently domiciled investors invested in ‘staple base dynamism’, mechanizing wheat into bread and cake, milk into cheese, etc. For with industrialization, “One thing leads to another…”, he’d say.

SB linked the high price of workers here to seasonal work in rice cultivation, tourism, fisheries, etc., and the need to use industry (like Japan did) to fill those work schedule gaps. He said, if the country was turned into a hotel or plantation, then no need for schools or universities! He once quipped, if that tsunami had struck Colombo instead, the country would have developed overnight! – Colombo being a parasite on the country, with the rural market still hostage to imports.

Back in 1956, the Ministry of Industries stated, “The creation of a Home Market for our industry is the pivot on which the future industrialization of our country rests. In Ceylon’s context the Home Market essentially means the Peasant Market… [W]e must substantially raise the living standards of the mass of the peasants so that they will be able to buy the goods produced by our industry.” How such wishes were sabotaged is a story yet to be told.

Perhaps, perfect SBD de Silva was to a fault. After PEU there would be no other publication, outside of a few essays in sundry journals. SB sometimes called us daily saying: “I’m just scribbling…trying to draft a sentence. I need to consult you. ]It’s tough, we know so little. So much we don’t know. One answer leads to 10 other questions…”

“One thing leads to another” – would be a fine title for a biography of one of our greatest unsung economists.

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One response to “Remembering SBD de Silva: A Scholar in Every Fibre

  1. Hugh

    SBD was ever the cynic. He once told a high powered committee looking into suggestions for solving graduate employment by providing subsidised employment in the private sector,”why bother with all that, just send them a monthly cheque, and they will be happy !!!”

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