The Contending Claims of the New World

By Uditha Devapriya | Published: 2:00 AM Sep 23 2021
Columns The Contending Claims of the New World

By Uditha Devapriya 

Following the end of the Cold War, two texts appeared which were to have a profound impact on the course of political debates in the new millennium. These were Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man and Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. What is fascinating about these books, then as now, is not so much the differences in their conceptions of history as the similarities between them. It would be naive to ascribe to them the same philosophy, for the authors did not occupy the same political page. 

Yet, at a certain point, the themes running through them converged. In any case, they addressed a common concern: what would the new world order after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union be like? Running into several reprints since their publication, these books continue to enjoy an enormous reputation. It is easy to argue here that Huntington’s was the more prophetic of the two, given his predictions about the resurgence of nationalism, but no less true has been Fukuyama’s conclusion that, in the absence of any alternative, liberal democracy will continue to be held as the ideal to aspire to. 

Not even China’s rise, Russia’s belligerence, and radical Islam’s resurgence – to mention just three of five ‘profound transformations’ that Jessica Matthews in a New York Review of Books essay notes as having changed the course of US foreign policy since the end of the Cold War – has dented the almost Panglossian faith in a liberal international order. Even in the breach, it remains adhered to. As with all political theorists, Fukuyama and Huntington remain both read and misread. 

While Giddensian Third Way centrists, whose local branch was until recently Mangala Samaraweera’s Radical Centre, summon Fukuyama when championing alternatives to nationalist politics. Jathika Chintanaya ideologues such as Gunadasa Amarasekara cite Huntington in their polemics against Western civilisation. It is no small irony that neither writer would have wanted their texts to be read this way. Yet, it is a testament to the longstanding appeal of their work, and the conclusions we can reach from them, that both radical centrists and Sinhala nationalists bring them and their authors up in one intellectual debate after another. 

Local Giddensian centrists 

In hindsight, however, one must admit that the local chapters of the Fukuyama-Huntington debate were gravely mistaken in their views. Giddensian centrists who found their champion in the Chandrika Kumaratunga administration thought that liberal democracy was the way to go. Pinning their hopes on neoliberal prescriptions of privatisation and fiscal consolidation, they genuinely believed that opening up the economy would democratise politics. Their equation of Fukuyama’s triumph of the liberal democratic will with free market economics was, in one sense, inevitable: hardly anyone thought that other political and economic systems would prevail. 

Not even the Left in Sri Lanka escaped this conclusion: in an interview with State Media, for instance, Hector Abhayavardhana admitted that there was no alternative to the IMF. Charting a trajectory of liberal politics in Sri Lanka is a task I am illfitted to do and will not attempt. Yet, from what I can gather, I can only conclude that liberals and radical centrists never got beyond their postCold War hangover. To put it charitably, they never woke up. While the liberal West they idealised morphed into a pitiable caricature of its ideal, whereby Governments got stronger and the military-industrial complex gained in size and strength, especially after 9/11, they continued to propound visions of minimal states and small armies. 

Reforms sans popular support 

Rebelling against no less than common sense and the conventional wisdom, these Centrists advocated reforms which, sans popular support, could only ring out the death knell of liberal reformists, such as the abolition of the Executive Presidency. The line taken up by the SJB after 2020, free of the market fundamentalism and utopian liberalism of the UNP before it, shows clearly how history proved Colombo’s Giddensians wrong, again. In that sense, the flaw in Mangala Samaraweera’s vision, noble as it may have been, was its failure to discern the paradox on which he operated. 

As with all Third Way Centrists, he framed his reformist ideals in opposition to not just rightwing nationalism, but also socialist politics. There is no other reason why, decades after emerging as a critic of J. R. Jayewardene’s regime, he could openly celebrate that regime’s incredible economic advances. Then again, such turnarounds are hardly astonishing. As Kusum Wijetilleke noted in a prescient piece on the Radical Centre, the experience of most Third Way ideologues is that, in vying for a middle position between nationalist and radical polarities, they capitulate to the neoliberal Right. 

Its inability to discern the link between market fundamentalism and social ruptures – epitomised by IMF programmes and food riots in Third World societies – has hence become its biggest failing, notwithstanding its adherence to a multicultural and democratic order. Even its commitment to the latter remains a tenuous legacy, since such an order is, in my view, a super-structural ideal that is meaningless without a socially equitable economic base: the sort that can only be achieved by a socialist programme, which Samaraweera once derisively termed ‘oudated.’ This paradox, in fact, is what characterises most nostalgic and revisionist accounts of the J. R. Jayewardene administration: free market advocates hail its classical liberal reforms and the opening up of the economy while ignoring the enormous costs, in terms of crackdowns on trade unions, the Left, and Tamil politics, they entailed. 

That economists, commentators, and MPs can defend that Government on the basis that it could not reap the full dividends of its economic reforms because of political tensions, without acknowledging that those tensions were a product of economic reforms, is a sign of our political literacy and intellectual obduracy. Yet, misconceived as their assumptions may have been, Sri Lanka’s Third Way centrists occupied only one side of the debate. They were no more wrong in their belief in the triumph of their ideals than their nationalist counterparts were in that of theirs. Indeed, if Sri Lanka’s Radical Centrists misapprehended Fukuyama’s prognostications about the fate of liberal democracy, Sinhala ultranationalists did the same with Huntington’s thesis of civilisational conflict. 

Western ideals censured but logic accepted 

Here we come to a paradox of another sort. Jathika Chintanaya ideologues, while critiquing Western society, did not see anything offputting about accepting neoconservative notions of competing nationalisms. What is fascinating there is not that they went ahead with a selective reading of politics – in which all Western ideals were deplored, but the underlying logic accepted – but that they gave way into the same Cartesian frames they had considered their civilisation – our civilisation – superior to. 

This speaks a lot about their dependence on Western frames of reference, regardless of their pretensions to the contrary. The failure of the Jathika Chintanaya project goes deeper than this, though. In making race their ultimate criterion of value, its ideologues sidestepped certain considerations that any political programme based on ethnic nationalism should have accounted for. Put simply, if Colombo’s Third Way neoliberal centrists considered ethnicity too passé to include in their manifestos, Huntingtonian nationalists considered it too fixed and eternal to ignore. 

But as various scholars, key among them R. A. L. H. Gunawardana and Senake Bandaranayake, have argued and debated, categories of race and religion were until recently notoriously fluid concepts. Gunawardana’s point that Sinhala nationalism evolved to what is has become today under conditions of colonialism continues to stand, but Sinhala and Tamil nationalists persist in attributing a sense of timeless solidity to such constructs. In this they have managed to invert Marx’s classic dictum: for them, it is the social consciousness of a people that determines their social being. 

What are we to conclude from these? In the post-1977 conjuncture, both Sinhala nationalism and Radical Centrism came to be informed by the same circumstances, the end of the Cold War. While Third Way neoliberals saw in Fukuyama’s end of history the triumph of neoclassical economics, Sinhala nationalists saw Huntington’s thesis as a vindication of their assertions of civilisational superiority. It goes without saying that both were wrong. However, inasmuch as both were wrong, I would venture to contend that the neoliberals were more wrong than the neoconservatives, for the simple reason that Francis Fukuyama’s predictions about the new world order were more restrained than the meanings given to it by advocates of free markets. The clash of civilisations thesis, by contrast, contained a semblance of the meaning ascribed to it by Sinhala nationalists at the turn of the century. 

Viable alternative 

Yet, even here, the latter were misconceived, for they perceived in Huntington’s civilisational paradigm a viable alternative to the ideological paradigms of the Cold War. As H. L. Seneviratne has noted, however, even his idea of cultural conflict was situated in an ideological framework. Seneviratne’s prediction that Huntington’s thesis would become obsolete does not seem to have been borne out by the march of time, but the fall of and retreat from Kabul shows that the hour of the neoconservatives, who brayed narcistically about the superiority of their civilisation, has come and gone. 

That Sinhala nationalists do not seem to have grasped this confirms Dayan Jayatilleka’s observation that they operate as though George W. Bush never left office. We must be grateful to Marxist scholars who showed that a country’s cultural history refracts and reflects the material base of its society, and is not, contrary to what nationalists believe, a timeless construct which depends on the meanings of abstractions such as race. In this, as in Radical Centrist readings of Fukuyama’s End of History, we discern a misapprehension of the trajectories of the world after the Cold War. It would hence seem that Sinhala ultra-nationalists remain as outdated, and out of place, as their Giddensian counterparts. 

The writer can be reached at [email protected]

By Uditha Devapriya | Published: 2:00 AM Sep 23 2021

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