18 April, 2024


The Importance Of Not Being Centrist

By Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

Historically, the United National Party was a party of businessmen, traders, and rentiers. It underwent two shifts in its early phase: under the Senanayakes (1948-1977), and under JR Jayewardene (1977-1989). Under Ranasinghe Premadasa (1989-1993) it went through its third shift, enacting somewhat progressive economic measures while fortifying the State’s military and defence sectors. The measures which are most often invoked by commentators today are janasaviya, the Garment Factories, and the peoplisation of bus services, as well as the leasing of plantations to only local companies.

It was during this time, moreover, that the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), headed by economists and academics like Dr Howard Nicholas, began serious discussions about industrialisation. That such institutions have moved away from their mandates – as Ahilan Kadirgmar has clearly noted – tells us much about the policies that should have stayed after Premadasa’s assassination. It also tells us about the policy paradigms that came into effect and moved to the mainstream, throughout the Third World, in the mid-1990s: put simply, from their fealty to socialist planning and to industrialisation, Marxist and left-wing parties in Asia and Africa, including in South Asia, turned to the right.

These shifts must be seen in the context of their time. The collapse of the Soviet Union had drained socialist politics of credibility, especially in countries like India and Sri Lanka. The resurgence of the Right, initially in Indonesia, then in Chile, Sri Lanka, the US, and UK, had led to the destruction of entire national industries, the financialisation of entire economies, and the emasculation of entire working-class movements. These governments had enacted reforms that cripped trade unions, but empowered a middle bourgeoisie: this enabled the UNP to cling on to power, as the party found out in 1982 and 1989.

Left-wing parties, as well as parties which espoused a Third Way between capitalism and communism, took time to accommodate these developments. The neoliberal wave of the 1980s deprived the Marxist Left of its two most important foundations: national industries and trade unions. Its credos had been the ownership of the means of production and the equitable distribution of income and wealth. Lacking the wherewithal to commit to either, the Left slowly compromised on its ideals: in the mid-1980s, the Democratic Party in the US and the Labour Party in the UK thus embraced the tenets of Third Way Centrism. When the Right crumbled under the weight of its contradictions, and authoritarian governments in the Third World were toppled and defeated, it was these Centrists who took over.

It must be noted that Third Way Centrism would not have materialised without the collapse of the Soviet Union. The latter event made redundant the kind of anti-communist rhetoric that Republicans in the US and Conservatives in the UK had been deploying for decades. This made it possible for Centrists to come to power by appropriating the economic policies of the Right while retaining some socially progressive measures: in the UK, for instance, the Blair government continued Margaret Thatcher’s labour policies, while moving closer to the European Union and enforcing its employment clauses.

Yet these developments underlay a fatal contradiction, between the deindustrialisation of these economies, the financialization of their markets, and colossal job losses in former industrial zones, like Michigan in the US. Coupled with China’s entry into the World Trade Organization and its later phenomenal rise, these fed into xenophobic fears of being taken over by migrants and other economies. Meanwhile, Sri Lanka faced a renaissance in Third Way Centrist politics, symbolised by the election of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party under Chandrika Kumaratunga in 1994 – and, more fittingly, by the UNP’s shift from Ranasinghe Premadasa’s policies to his successor’s neoliberal outlook.

In other words, it was at the point of socialism’s global downfall that the Centrists took over. But the Centrists in Sri Lanka continued in power long after their colleagues in the West had been swamped by the nationalist opprobrium their policies had provoked. In the UK, the Labour Party lost power in 2010, while a (relatively) moderate Conservative Party ceded to a right-wing fringe in 2016. British politics has never recovered since. In the US, the disastrous financialization and deregulation of the economy, initiated by Ronald Reagan, encouraged by Bill Clinton, and pursued to a catastrophic climax by George W. Bush, led to the bailout of the corporate sector by Barack Obama and a reversion to the tenets of industrialisation by the Trump and, much more constructively, the Biden administrations.

Sri Lanka’s civil society justified Centrism by posing it against a rising wave of Sinhala nationalism. In other words, Sri Lanka’s liberal intelligentsia saw Third Way Centrism as an alternative to chauvinism: to them, it was not “socialism or barbarism”, but “centrism or barbarism.” Such Manichean distinctions failed to explain why nationalism could enter the political mainstream in countries like Sri Lanka. Yet civil society went on to deploy those distinctions against their nationalist opponents, even as Western governments realised that nationalism was a product of an economic system badly in need of repair.

The US has experienced the consequences of neglecting the economic dimensions of these issues. Most Americans did not vote for Trump, yet he assumed the presidency through a systemic anomaly. Trump came to power wooing dispossessed blue-collar workers. Not a few among them preferred Bernie Sanders. But they wanted Sanders, not Clinton: hence when the latter replaced the former as the Democratic candidate, they switched. Chastened by these lessons, the Biden administration abandoned financialization and is overseeing the reindustrialisation of the American economy. This policy, writes Cédric Durand in the New Left Review, “points to a structural break in the regulation of capitalism, the shockwaves of which will reverberate in the global political economy for years to come.”

Will Sri Lanka learn these lessons? Its government and civil society have locked horns with each other. Civil society sees the government as authoritarian, while the government sees civil society as an obstacle that should be cut off. Lost in all these confrontations are the debates that should matter, such as the industrialisation of the economy. The longer these issues are ignored, the more pronounced and dangerous their repercussions will be. Unless someone initiates a discussion, or even a conversation, the neglect of these issues will lead to resistance from both sides: from a civil society that venerates Centrism politically and is yet to renounce neoliberalism economically, and from a political system which has, for over half a century, embraced and fetishized neoliberal authoritarianism.

*The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Latest comments

  • 0

    centrism is the best.I am a centrist.I dont go for the extremes of communism and socialism or go into the capitalism.I like to extract what is good in both and leave out what is bad.Cherry picking.That way you enter somehwre in the center.So first we have to see what was good about communism and socialism.The people became educated.The people were healthy as health was given a priority.Women got educated enogh to realise their life was not only to wait at home and have children only but to have just one or 2 children and continue working.Take cuba for example which is same size as us and had the same population too.Now it has half our population and the life expectancy is 78.89 in 2020 whereas for sri lanka it is 77.14.If sri lankans had voted for pieter keuneman,the leader of the communist party then we would not have had a 25 year civil war.

    • 0

      He did not get rid of the communist system but made it to accomodate the incentive to work and also to be creative and entrepreniel.After that china just shot off and had 2 decades of double digit growth.Further reforms should have been done to continue that growth but tehe new leaders after Den Ping did not do that and china’s double digit growth ended.

      So the point of all this that i am saying in a nutshell is to cherrypick.If you do that youcan’t become a extremist but will fall into the category of a centrist.

    • 0

      “If sri lankans had voted for pieter keuneman,the leader of the communist party then we would not have had a 25 year civil war.”
      You think so?
      Check who in the Communist Party played the communal card against N Sanmugathasan in 1964. (Dr SA Wickremasinghe was a very decent man.)
      BTW, Sri Lankans had voted for Keuneman in Colombo Central for decades until 1977, as First MP on several occasions.

      • 0

        [BTW, Sri Lankans had voted for Keuneman in Colombo Central for decades until 1977, as First MP on several occasions.]

        for him personally there was a vote but for the communist party as a whole there was not.TH CP did not get the votes they deserved in a pooor country riddled with inequalities.That was a mistake by sri lankan voters who made many mistakes in voting including at the last one when 6.9 million voted for the man who put them into the current mess.Communismputs the correct foundaation and then we can build the house after that little by little getting rid of it.If you continue to hang onto 100 % communism after it has put a good foundation then the hous won’t be good though the foundation still will be good.You have to every 5 years after laying the foundation little by little dismantle communism .

        As for pieter using communal card don’ forget he wa also a member of the minority,a dutch burger so how could he play the communal card as you say.In fact people would have rejected him to lead sri alnka because he was not a sinhala bhuddhist.Our narrow minded people get what they deserve.

        • 2

          You talked about Keuneman as a potential saviour.
          I simply drew attention to some facts of life.
          His playing the communal card was all the worse especially because he was Burgher. So he did it for opportunistic reasons. Something that SA Wicks was too decent to even think of.
          Need I say more?

          • 0

            The Communist Party was very strong in Colombo Central because of the strong working class presence with many in CP affiliated unions. Keuneman was not much of a trade union activist.

Leave A Comment

Comments should not exceed 200 words. Embedding external links and writing in capital letters are discouraged. Commenting is automatically disabled after 5 days and approval may take up to 24 hours. Please read our Comments Policy for further details. Your email address will not be published.