Aborted Modernity and the Fate of Liberalism

23 September 2013 04:13 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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The countries in the developing world have moved on over the last hundred years or so, but not necessarily in the direction of western modernity. The countries that were under western colonial rule were exposed to new ideas that came in the form of political ideologies,  new forms of social organisation and new perspectives for the future, etc.

The idea of the modern nation -state is one that would provide a collective organisational framework within which diverse primordial groups could find a way to relate to each other, share a common space together and look forward to a common future. As the citizens of a single state, people were supposed to enjoy equal rights, including the democratic right of political participation.

The impact of western modernity in different parts of the world has been uneven to say the least.  The reasons for this are varied and complex and cannot be discussed in a short essay of the present sort. Nevertheless, it is necessary to mention here that there were varying degrees of resistance and acceptance of external influences depending on a range of endogenous and exogenous circumstances.



The sustenance of the nation state and modern forms of social organisation in the non-western world has been largely dependent on the extent to which the local population merged into an inclusive and unified citizenry, willing to participate in collective action on the basis of a shared normative framework and a common set of social, economic and political institutions.

" Today the most pressing and urgent task before humanity is not so much to chose from an old menu of ideologies but to define the minimum conditions that would ensure that society does not become regressive and degenerate to an extent that their collective existence and well being are endangered. "
The experience of many countries around the world shows that they have not been able to provide the minimum conditions required for the state to maintain public order to ensure peaceful and harmonious co-existence of different segments of the population. Internal conflicts have raged over extended periods of time, not just threatening the future prospects and well being of the   people but undermining even the basic material conditions required for the sustenance of life at present. Institutions that were established to facilitate the improvement of social and economic conditions on an equitable and just basis have been subverted by sectarian interests, compelling many citizens to leave their places of origin in search of more desirable destinations elsewhere.

Capitalism of both mercantile and industrial varieties in conjunction with colonialism played the most important catalytic role in the spread of modernity in many parts of the non-western world. Capitalism itself underwent a significant transformation in the west partly due to its own internal contradictions, and partly due to new ideas that evolved as a response to the Marxist critique of capitalism. Social democracy has been one of these ideas that provided the basis for the emergence of the welfare state in many European countries.

Socialism became a powerful idea in some countries and led to social revolutions paving the way for the establishment of socialist states in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. Free market capitalism found its most pronounced expression in the United States of America. However, the ideological camps have not remained as water-tight compartments over time and there is no country that fits exactly into any particular conceptual categorisation any more. The most recent expansion of global capitalism under neo-liberal reforms over the last three to four decades has blurred the boundaries even more.

Today the most pressing and urgent task before humanity is not so much to chose from an old menu of ideologies but to define the minimum conditions that would ensure that society does not become regressive and degenerate to an extent that their collective existence and well-being are endangered. It is in this sense that liberal values have become indispensable, at least in the short run, in order to ensure that basic values and norms are not discarded to create space for sectarian interests and individual greed to take root at the expense of wider public interest. If not checked, the latter would undoubtedly undermine the normative framework and vital institutions that have served the collective interests of the wider population.  

" The members of this class belonging to the dominant ethno-nationalist community are aware that their social influence and material interests are likely to be endangered under a more cosmopolitan, liberally oriented political environment "
The developments in Sri Lanka in recent years point to the fact that the country is clearly faced with the above dilemma today. The issues discussed in this short essay are very much part of the social and political reality of the country. In the absence of a sizable, liberally minded middle class, an amorphous but ethno-linguistically segmented lower middle class dependent on state power has filled the ideological void. The members of this class belonging to the dominant ethno-nationalist community are aware that their social influence and material interests are likely to be endangered under a more cosmopolitan, liberally oriented political environment. Given the fact that the divisions within the lower middle class are continually reproduced by the dominant institutions of society such as the education system, the members of this class tend to perceive the competition for resources as a zero sum game.

Hence their blatant disregard for universal values and norms that usually provide the normative basis for a liberal state and public institutions that are supposed to treat citizens in an equitable manner.   

There is no doubt that the persisting unequal distribution of resources and opportunities, both globally and nationally is a major factor that undermines equity and social justice. It is therefore almost natural for relatively more disadvantaged groups to perceive political power as an alternative path to material prosperity and social influence.

So, it is not difficult to understand the behaviour of the members of the lower middle classes mentioned above. What is significant here is the divisive nature of their political engagement in a plural society. Moreover, their disrespect for long established institutional norms threatens to undermine the institutional fabric of society on which further social, economic and cultural developments in the country depend. So, the changes in the social and political environment in recent years needs to be viewed in terms of their implications for future social and political stability as well as prospects for economic development in the country.      
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