Towards a cultural critique of Sri Lankan politics – Part 2

The best exemplars of unity in the political sphere have of course been the Western countries. It might be even true to say that they have had something like an obsession about unity.

Read the part one of this series 

by Izeth Hussain

( January 27, 2017, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) It does not seem difficult to understand how cultural factors could come to determine economic aptitudes. The characteristics that lead to high levels of economic achievement can be established more or less along the following lines: application and hard work rather than a laid-back indolence; thrift and investment for the future rather than a self-indulgent hedonism; a focus on making money after the manner of George Soros rather than on scientific enquiry after the manner of Einstein; not to have too many ethical scruples about making your rivals come a cropper, and so on. It is not difficult to relate those characteristics – except maybe for the last one – to the tenets of Calvin and Confucius.

The next question that has to be addressed is this: What are the cultural factors that determine political aptitudes? I must clarify at this point that what I have in mind is not the impact of culture on politics as a whole but more narrowly on political aptitudes. I would first ask what drives politicians to become politicians. I believe that there are basically four drives: the drive for social prominence, for riches, for power over others, and to serve the public interest. Let me comment on each of these drives. Lewis Namier’s great study of English politics in the eighteenth century began with the declaration that enquiries had revealed that the most important reason why most Englishmen went into Parliament was “to cut a figure”, to become socially prominent. The drive for riches has to be expected under modernity which places a high value on affluence. Unlike the innocuous drive to “cut a figure” the drive for riches can of course lead to corruption on a colossal scale, as in Sri Lanka. The drive to exercise power over others is a perennial one and is beyond dispute certainly the most dangerous of all the political drives – the main reason why many intelligent humans all over the world believe that politicians and others wielding power ought to be frequently executed. As for the fourth drive – the drive to serve the public interest – many readers might say that I am being rather naïve because there is no such drive except among a very few wielders of power, and among them only to a very marginal extent, so that that drive is hardly worth mentioning at all. That is an overly cynical view. Anyway it is on that drive that political aptitude, as distinct from economic and other aptitudes, has to be judged. Basically the politician has to be able to persuade people that though he may want prominence, wealth, and to kick people about, he can be trusted to serve the public interest at least to some extent. (At this point a further clarification is required: by public interest I mean here of course group interests because in Sri Lanka there is no public, no nation, only ethnic and other groups).

The reader will have noticed that the characteristics that I have mentioned in the two preceding paragraphs as requisite for good economic and political performance are rather unamiable ones, because they are self-regarding ones. The wealthy and the politically powerful tend to be rather unpleasant fellows because they are selfish fellows, in general though not always. Consequently, all over South East Asia the Chinese are heartily disliked. They are selfish, true, but their selfishness has conduced to the public good in a huge way, as shown by the fact that the generality of the people in the South East Asian countries are much better off than in the South Asian ones. How has their private vice conduced to the public good?

Adam Smith in his great eighteenth century classic The Wealth of Nations addressed this enigma and came up with the answer that it was “the hidden hand” that transformed private vice into public good. He postulated an automatic self-correcting process in the market that was installed at the very heart of laissez-faire capitalism. But the recent upsurge of populism in the US and other Western countries shows that Smith was surely wrong: the hidden hand is so well-hidden that it is in effect absent and it has become evident that the evils of capitalism can be corrected not through the market but only through an interventionist state. We are witnessing the failure of neo-liberal economics. In what way has it failed? I don’t think that it can be doubted that the majority of Americans have benefited from the market-oriented neo-liberal economics that has reigned in the US since the time of Reagan. Otherwise we cannot explain why Hilary Clinton got three million more of the popular vote – a very considerable majority indeed – than Trump did. All the same, a very considerable proportion of Americans have been left behind in the rat race of liberal economics. Otherwise we cannot explain the very powerful populist thrust that propelled Trump into power. We come now to a crucially important question: How are we to explain the fact that the majority of the Americans who have done well under the prevailing economic dispensation cannot ignore the economic misery of the minority of the Americans who have been left behind in the rat race of liberal economics? I can think of only one answer. Despite all the divisions, the very serious divisions, that have to be expected in so complex a society as that of America, there is a strong sense of an underlying unity among the American people as a whole.

I believe that it is the sense of unity that is the most important factor behind the success of a country in both the economic and the political spheres. Consider first the East Asian countries whose economic performance has been outstanding – China, the Taiwan and Hong Kong parts of China, South Korea, and Japan. They have predominantly Confucian cultures and also they are ethnically far more homogeneous than most other countries. China has the Tibet problem and its Muslim minorities may be restive, but ninety five per cent of China’s population consists of the Han Chinese. Besides, there are evidently features in the Confucian culture that promote group solidarity. It is known that the Chinese in South East Asia have a greater sense of group solidarity than the other successful immigrants in that area, the Indians, and accordingly the Chinese economic performance outshines that of the Indians. Very probably other ethnic groups that shine in economic performance, such as the Marwari and the Borahs, will exhibit the same predominant characteristics as the Chinese: a concentration on making money and group solidarity. So, individuals who shine in making money could pursue their selfish ends but benefit their groups all the same. A hidden hand could come into operation. It is not the market, as Adam Smith thought, but the sense of unity.

The best exemplars of unity in the political sphere have of course been the Western countries. It might be even true to say that they have had something like an obsession about unity. Their sense of unity has been at its greatest after the establishment of the nation state, a form of the state that has enabled a greater sense of unity than any other. Western achievements since the sixteenth century and Western domination over the rest of the globe owe much to the sense of unity within the Western states. Most of them are now multicultural and multiethnic as a result of immigration after 1945, and what is most impressive is their determination to forge a new unity out of their new heterogeneity. In the rest of the globe the countries with the highest sense of unity seem to be the East Asian ones. Their politics show in general a high degree of stability, and their economic and other achievement levels are very high. Is that accidental?

 (To be continued)




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