Towards a cultural critique of Sri Lankan politics

Who knows, the future may show that we Sri Lankans are a very able people who are capable of achieving the first rate but whose achievement levels have been kept down to the third rate by our tenth rate politicians. Joke – but it has been said that nothing is more serious than a joke.

by Izeth Hussain

 ( January 21, 2017, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) My title is meant to indicate that what is being initiated in this article is something of a very tentative order. It is meant to include not conclusions on a cultural critique of Sri Lankan politics but notes, suggestions, pointers “towards” it. I have in mind an exercise of an exploratory and heuristic order: to learn by posing questions and thereby going some distance towards the reaching of conclusions. The reason for this is that the impact of culture on politics is, as far as I am aware, largely uncharted territory. The situation is rather different with the impact of culture on the economy, which has been recognized and explored in a systematic way since the last century, though it has not been given the kind of cardinal importance that it deserves.

I have in mind in particular Max Weber’s path-breaking monograph The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, first published in 1904, which argued that Calvinism was peculiarly conducive to the growth of capitalism. A brief monograph of under two hundred pages, its thesis was much criticized in succeeding decades, but it has stood the test of time and is now firmly established as a classic of seminal importance. There followed later in Britain R.H. Tawney’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism which has also acquired classic status. So the thesis that the economy is shaped by cultural factors has a respectable ancestry going back to well over a century. I recall John Ruskin reporting in the nineteenth century his impression that the economic performance of the Protestant countries of Europe was notably better than that of the Catholic ones.

After the Second World War the notion of the Confucian work ethic came into vogue, mainly because of the theorizing of American academics such as Edwin Reischauer, a specialist scholar on Japan, and Sinologists such as John Fairbanks: the idea was that the Confucian culture was particularly conducive to excellent economic performance. I recall Reischauer predicting decades ago that when countries such as China and Vietnam got free of their Communist shackles they would surprise the world by their economic performance. Today there is nothing to cavil over about that prediction. The thesis of the cultural determinants of economic performance figured prominently in the writings of leading economists such as Sir Arthur Lewis, the West Indian who won the Nobel Prize for Economics, and Gunnar Myrdal in his Asian Drama. But it was given central importance, as far as I am aware, only by Peter Bauer, now Lord Bauer (the son of a Hungarian émigré bookie). I greatly relished his Dissent on Development and a subsequent volume of essays, exhilarating iconoclastic performances, precisely puncturing the pretences of third world power elites who wrecked their economies while blaming it all on the predatory West.

Let me now mention the essential facts about the economic performance of the countries with a predominantly Confucian culture. After 1945 Japan quickly rose from atomic ash to a dazzling economic summit. The performances of South Korea, and Taiwan and Hong Kong – the parts of China that were non-Communist – were also dazzling. There followed the success stories of the South East Asian countries – Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and now Vietnam. However there has also been an alternative theory that the economic performance of those countries was not due to their Confucian culture but to their close proximity – unlike the South Asian countries – to the Communist giant China and the other Communist countries, North Korea and North Vietnam. That was taken as signifying that those countries had either to perform or perish. It was a version of Toynbee’s challenge and response theory, and we must recall also that the domino theory, according to which if one country fell to Communism several others would follow like skittles, was part of orthodox Western political thinking for several decades.

It must be acknowledged that the challenge and response theory does seem plausible and perhaps was a factor in those success stories, but the evidence suggests that the Confucian cultural factor was far more potent. Of the South East Asian countries Vietnam has a wholly Confucian cultural background, and it is now regarded as an impressive economic performer. The two other Indo-Chinese countries, Laos and Kampuchea, have a Theravada Buddhist culture and we haven’t heard anything about their economic performance being particularly impressive. The other Theravada Buddhist country, Myanmar, has an economic record that is colossally unimpressive. The cases of the remaining South East Asian countries, namely Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines are particularly illuminating for my purpose: they show an obvious co-relation between economic performance and the proportion of Chinese in their populations. Singapore has a predominantly Chinese population and has put up a mind-boggling superlative economic performance. Malaysia with the next highest concentration of Chinese has an impressive economic record. But the record of Indonesia and the Philippines with less Chinese has not been particularly impressive.

The cultural factor as a determinant of economic performance has been under study among immigrant communities in the US. I recall books by Thomas Sowell on that subject that I read decades ago – there must be more sophisticated studies by now. Among European immigrants the Germans were far and away the most impressive performers while the Italians and the Irish were the least impressive. Among Asians the Chinese with their Confucian culture were the most impressive. Two facts emerged from the details given in those studies that are important for my purposes in this article. One is that the poor performers like the Italians and the Irish catch up eventually with the good performers and come to share in the achievement-oriented American culture. That means that cultural factors are not unchangeable like genes, and that would mean further that the poor performers of today are not condemned to perpetual inferiority. Another fact that seems to have emerged more recently is that the average Indian American earns twice as much as his average white American counterpart. That seems surprising as India’s economic performance had been poor over many decades. The inference is possible that cultural constraints had held back India’s economic performance. I don’t have the details but I have the impression, as do many others, that Sri Lankans who are mediocre achievers here shine brightly when they go abroad. Apparently there were cultural constraints that held back their achievement level here. Who knows, the future may show that we Sri Lankans are a very able people who are capable of achieving the first rate but whose achievement levels have been kept down to the third rate by our tenth rate politicians. Joke – but it has been said that nothing is more serious than a joke.



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