By W.A. Wijewardena –
Dr Gunadasa Amarasekera, scholar, writer, poet, novelist, social activist and many more, in a special contribution to Professor Buddhadasa Hewavitharana Felicitation Volume Two released last month, has tried to analyse the most recent history of Sri Lanka in the context of the onset of the process now known as globalisation and its philosophical master in the modern world – the free open market system – and pointed to his readers the salvation path that lies ahead of the country.
Amarasekera’s paper with a long title “For a Humanistic Ideology: The Impact of the Free Open Market System-Globalization on our Culture and the Sri Lankan Reaction to it” is rich with facts, ideas and arguments to prove his point. It is well written with clarity so as to drive his main message forcefully to the readers, another instance of displaying his well known scholarly and intellectual skills. Amarasekera has been a rebel throughout his scholarly career disagreeing with the established order of society and has earned a reputation in the contemporary intellectual world in the country for that. Given his reputation for coming up with rebellious ideas and the controversy surrounding the solution he has suggested for the enormous crisis which he claims the mankind is facing today, it is necessary to look at Amarasekera’s message more closely and, also debate in public, with a view to identifying its validity or otherwise.
Hence, today’s My View is confined to look at globalisation according to Dr Gunadasa Amarasekera.
In a nutshell, Amarasekera’s message is as follows: Sri Lanka has been subject to the forceful power of globalisation and free market economy system in the last three and a half decades or so. This force has destroyed the country’s rich cultural heritage of which the core has been founded on Sinhalese Buddhism. This has in fact generated disastrous results for the future of the country. The path which the country would have taken to avert this disaster would have been the revival of the nationalistic movement which the late Anagarika Dharmapala had started in 1930s when the country was still under the British rule. But this was not done even by the successive governments which had come to power on Dharmapala’s nationalistic platform. It is not too late for Sri Lanka to re-evaluate its goals and values and introduce sense to correct the chaotic situation which has gone too far now. The ‘sense’ that is required is nothing but redesigning Sri Lanka’s value system and goals based on in Amarasekera’s words “the core of our civilisational heritage which has escaped our minds so far, with disastrous results”.
The scholar who has not changed
To substantiate his message and build the case for it, Amarasekera has used three techniques. First, he has reproduced in verbatim a lecture he had delivered in 1987 on the occasion of the centenary celebrations of one of the leading colleges in the country, namely, Dharmaraja College in Kandy. In this lecture, he has reproduced a passage from his 1976 publication, Abuddassa Yugayak, which sets out the beginning of his intellectual probe into this subject. Amarasekera says that his views expressed in the lecture have not changed (and so, those in Abuddassa Yugayak too) and therefore it is pertinent to begin his paper in the Volume with a reproduction of the lecture. What it means is that Amarasekera has been harbouring this view in him for more than half a century now. Second, he has used the works of intellectuals in other parts of the world who too are sympathetic to his world view. Of many such intellectuals, he has chosen only three and quoted extensively from their published work to build up his argument that the current wave of globalisation and the Western economic model which promotes such globalisation are both theoretically and practically wrong. Third, he has used his own knowledge, gathered, nurtured and developed over a life time, to suggest the way forward solution for the country.
Amarasekera: Globalisation and free market are destroyers
In the Dharmaraja lecture which he claims to have delivered in 1987, just ten years after the country adopted free market economy system and allowing the globalisation forces to envelope the country with their dark clouds, he has found everything around him in the country to be abnormal. The country has been reduced to an economically dependent neo-colonial satellite. People have been glued, day in and day out, to an Idiot’s Box called television that has exerted immense influence on their thinking, living and behaving. Young generations have been addicted to both cricket and drugs creating an immeasurable social menace. Art, literature and drama have deteriorated to their lowest depths with pornography and low-taste art work replacing them. Sinhala language has been relegated to an unimportant position while English has been crowned once again. Men and women have changed their attire in favour of modern Western fashions so that the long hair and saris worn by women and national dress by men as advocated by Anagarika Dharmapala have begun to disappear. Though he delivered this lecture in 1987 just forty years after independence, he has frequently referred to a fifty year period after independence and during that period, the country has made a full circle and gone back to the colonial period. In essence, the free market economy and globalisation have destroyed the country’s rich cultural heritage and made it ‘more dependent and helpless’ just like it had been under the colonial rulers.
So, for Amarasekera, all the social, political, cultural and economic ills which Sri Lanka had in late 1980s had been due to the nasty work of two enemies, the free market economy system and globalisation.
Sri Lanka did not have a free market economy only during 1958-77
But, is Amarasekera correct when he ascribes that the influence of free market economy and globalisation on Sri Lanka is a recent development? The examination of Sri Lanka’s history since 6th century BCE to date reveals that the country was not influenced by these two forces in their full potential only for just two decades from 1958, the year in which strict exchange and import controls were introduced, to 1977, the year in which they were relaxed to some extent. Prior to 1958, except during the brief war period of 1940 to 1945, it was both free market economy and globalisation in their full swing that determined the destiny of the country according to emerging global developments.
Silk route: the old globalisation route
Ancient Lanka, on account of its being located on an important naval route linking the East with the West, was a country that upheld the virtues of free trade and permitted the liberal dissemination of new ideas, learning and philosophies of diverse nature. It permitted the free movement of people – ordinary, skilled and educated – to and fro. The silk route which linked China with Europe through Central Asia on land and via Lanka by sea did not carry only the economically valuable goods; two books written on the hazardous journey which the Chinese Monk Xuanzang undertook at the bidding of the Chinese Emperor in 7th century CE, along the silk route vividly describes the religious, cultural and technological knowledge transfer that took place between the East and the West. The first is the 2003 book by Sun Shuyun under the title of “Ten Thousand Miles Without a Cloud”; the second is the 2005 book by Mishi Saran under the title “Chasing the Monk’s Shadow”.
Ancient Lanka: a beneficiary of globalisation
Though there are many examples from the ancient history of Lanka about its exposure to globalisation and free market economy system, the present writer would like to mention only a few relating to the period of Parakramabahu, the Great, since that period is considered as the golden era of the country. According to the author of Chulavansa, this king who had been well versed in the art of statesmanship of Chanakya, popularly known as Kautilya of the Arthashastra fame, is credited to have established the first ever export processing zone called Antharanga Dhura, a civil service training school that taught, in addition to required numerous skills, many foreign languages, the first ever reported golden handshake scheme when he offered the option for impious bhikkus to leave the order voluntarily on the promise of a retirement pension and conducting international trade liberally with many other countries including modern Myanmar which he invaded because its king blocked the free trade by imposing a prohibitive tax on Lanka’s elephants. In the Ceylon University’s History of Ceylon, Professor Senerat Paranavitana quoting an Egyptian source has mentioned that Lanka had been receiving shiploads of alcohol from a place called Arak. The king had bought the entire stock thereby making him a monopolist and then resold the same to others at prices fixed by him. Coins belonging to many nations, Arabs, Romans, Chinese and Indians, had been found throughout the country pertaining to his period which suggests that trade would have flourished in the country with those nations. In essence, he had at that time performed the role which modern Singapore is performing today, entrepot trading under which goods produced in many countries had been stockpiled in Lanka and resold to traders who visited the country. Since Kautilya’s Arthashastra is essentially a treatise on free market economy with emphasis on state capitalism, it is reasonable to assume that King Parakramabahu the Great, being a follower of Chanakya, too would have followed the same economic principles.
So, globalisation did not hurt Sri Lanka in the past. Instead, it got religions, knowledge, art, literary traditions, technology, and above all what Amarasekera praises as Sinhalese Buddhism.
Unwitting Dismissal of postmodernism
Amarasekera has relied on two eminent philosophers of modern era for intellectual support. One is the Australian philosopher and Swinburne University academic Arran E Gare whom Amarasekera has wrongly referred to as Aaron Garre. He has extensively quoted from Gare’s 1995 book (again Amarasekera has mis-referenced it as has been published in 1987) titled “Postmodernism and the Environmental Crisis” to prove his point that the postmodernism culture and civilisation is a freak, cannot sustain itself and naturally prone to serious crisis. Postmodernism is nothing but a new tradition which tries to project itself different from the established order of society, culture and civilisation. Ironically, Amarasekera himself belongs to this postmodernism tradition with a Sinhalese orientation; all his literary works are a marked departure from the tradition that had been followed by earlier Sinhala writers. His novels have investigated very boldly the deep-rooted psycho-sexual and metaphysical aspects of human beings and his poetry, both in style and content, has been a dramatic departure from the long standing poetical style of Sinhala poets including those in ancient Lanka. Hence, by rejecting postmodernism, Amarasekera has unwittingly rejected all his literary works except perhaps his writings, as he has claimed, on political and social aspects of society.
Free market economy too has a heart
Arran Gare is not the final authority on the subjects on which he has written. He has dismissed, and Amarasekera has accepted without further probe, the free market economy system on the ground of lack of virtue, ethics and morality. But another philosopher with the misspelt name by Amarasekera called Aaron Garrett of Boston University has been a serious researcher of virtues and ethics that embody free market economy system. In a recent paper he published in the e-journal “the art of theory” under the title “Smith as Virtue Ethicist”, has agreed with writer Ryan Patrick Hanley that Adam Smith, father of modern economics, had been deeply aware of the ills of commercial society and therefore presented in the 6th Edition of Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments a normative virtue ethics code to ameliorate some of them (available at http://www.artoftheory.com/smith-as-virtue-ethicist-aaron-garrett/). According to Garrett, Smith has rejected the pure utility based human behaviour which Gare and Amarasekera both have rejected and instead introduced the virtue of beauty for human choice and decision making. Garrett has elaborated on this beauty virtue with the following example: “my desire to own an elaborate mechanical watch is motivated by its beautiful design, not just because it is a useful device with which to tell time”.
Globalisation needed to be “being” or “humanistic”
Amarasekera has used a logical prognosis by German Social Psychologist of the University of Michigan fame, Erich Fromm, to bring in Anagarika Dharmapala revival as the solution for Sri Lanka to escape from this seemingly obvious disaster. In his 1976 book “To Have or To Be?”, Fromm has argued that “having” is accumulating and possessing which leads to disappointment; instead, people should try to be “being” meaning that they should develop their inner selves. Why should they do that? Fromm says that after death, no one takes his material possessions with him but only the possessions inside his body. So, like many religions, Fromm advocates for a self-inspired individual rather than for a materially rich individual. In the medieval times, people had faith in God and abandoned everything for him. Today, it is the opposite extreme where they worship material gains and have abandoned God. According to Fromm, if the first one is thesis, the second one is antithesis. But both have led to chaos and a synthesis is needed. That synthesis, deriving from both – ancient God culture and modern science culture – is “being culture”.
To Amarasekera, this being culture has a humanistic approach and therefore forms the salvation path of Sri Lanka. However, one should know that in the being culture, as Fromm has argued, there are no differences among races, religions, ethnic groups, languages and nations. All belong to a single category called “human beings” and such a category is developed only when there are no barriers for people now imprisoned in different nations or religions or races or ethnic groups to mix up with others freely. Ironically, this is delivered not by halting globalisation but by permitting globalisation to reach every part of the globe without restraint or barriers.
The future belongs to rebellious youth
Whether one likes it or not, the modern technology dominated by the internet, Google, facebook, twitter, YouTube and many other social media have resurrected the “being culture” in people. Just consider the South Indian soup song “Why this kolaveri di”, directed, composed and performed by three youth in their early twenties, which became an instant hit throughout the globe. In Sri Lanka alone, there are more than six kolaveri adapted songs in Sinhalese posted by different people to YouTube. That process of getting world’s people together under the race of human beings is moving forward pretty fast and cannot be stopped.
This writer who is now on retirement firmly believes that the future belongs to these rebellious youth and not to him.
(Write is a former Deputy Governor – Central Bank of Sri Lanka and teaches Development Economics at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura. This article first appeared in Daily FT WAW – W.A. Wijewardena can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org )