By Kumar David –
The global Alt-Right to Alt-Left spectrum is a landscape, not a linear progression: A heterodox theoretical model of Rajapaksa Populism
Neo-populism is a disturbing political upsurge of recent times. With some embarrassment (fathering ‘Single-Issue Common-Candidate’ was notoriety enough) I admit to being one of the first, and surely the first in Lanka to flag neo-populism as an ubiquitous new phenomenon of 21-C. But it is crucial to appreciate that it cannot be laid out as a linear progression from fascism at one end to left zealotry at the other, with jihadism, racism, enmity to immigrants, alienation of the 99% by the rich and powerful, and radical feminism, as intermediate markers. The pageant is not a line-show, it is a jumbled landscape where indeed there is a socio-economic spectrum. For example, unhealthy anti-immigrant nationalism (difficult to separate from racism) may in one place partner with worker’s misery, and in another place cultural hubris may be an outlet for frustration at a hopeless future. The left-right calibration overlaps and underlaps other dimensions in complicated ways.
Trump’s base embraces the traditional, industrial, white working class (Is Marx fulminating in his grave?); the inappropriately named Sweden Democrats have spawned in a country fabled for its tolerance, liberalism and welfarism; Marine Le Pen’s National Front is a French working-class party. And to go on, Britain’s Labour Party stands on two legs; radicalised educated youth who some would call middle-class, and the traditional working class now fraying towards xenophobic Brexit and anti-immigrant UKIP. What we have is not only left-right affinities but also attitudes to liberalism, nationalism, race, LGBT and free-markets, not rigidly determined by left-right colouration. However, none of these neo-pop concoctions are fascist in the proper sense as was the all-pulverising interwar fascism of Mussolini, Hitler and Franco. The social preconditions for a throw-back to classical fascism do not now exist. What does materialise on occasion is a military dictatorship a la Pinochet, compliments of the CIA.
The fraying of the European project is neo-populism ‘gift’ to unity. Liberal French President Emmanuel Macron, alt-right Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban who detests core liberal values, are totem poles dividing the EU canvas into domains. The differences pertain not only to an ideological miscellany but also map out different institutional paradigms for the future of Europe. Macron wants more Europe – closer unification and tighter EU-wide institutions, a Napoleonic vision. For Salvini it is “Make Italy Great Again!” He is determined to deport hundreds of thousands of refugees and will rather let boats sink and migrants drown than permit illicit vessels to berth. He supports Brexit and if he had his way will steer Italy to ‘Itxit’. Orban (Poland is close behind) is for a Christian state, doublespeak for anti-Muslim. The Sargentini Report on the basis of which ‘disciplinary action’ was imposed on Hungary (the first time in EU history) accused Orban’s Alt-Right regime of breaching the core liberal values of judicial independence, religious tolerance, press freedom and individual rights.
Liberal Europe fears that the Alt-Right is hell bent on an internal takeover of the EU project and plotting to turn Europe into an association of authoritarian states. On an institutional canvas the established structures of liberal internationalism are being dismantled in the West. Trump jettisoned the Paris Climate Accord, dumped NAFTA and TPP, threw NATO into confusion, plans to take the US out of the WTO, broke ranks on the Iran nuclear deal and makes mind boggling threats against the judges of the International Criminal Court. British populism’s Brexit is the first fracture of the EU. An incongruous right-left alliance of Italian populists is in the early stages of blowing the EU project into fragments. The point is that neo-populism is not only threatening domestic institutions, it is also tearing apart international institutional structures fashioned over half a century since the end of WW2.
Furthermore, think Trump in the long term after the cyclical economic upturn cools and the soda bottle fizz of tax cuts and trade wars turns sour. The present upturn in the US economy will be short lived; too much of a good thing, like drowning in whisky. Every (literally) knowledgeable commentator agrees that the debt crisis will implode. A fortnight ago I wrote in this column that the single most troubling disorder of capitalisms ward-full of ailments, the global debt-spiral, is spinning out of control. The next Minsky Moment will soon be upon us. Professor Martin Feldstein, President of the US National Bureau of Economic Research described today’s bleak scenario as “more akin to the depressions of the1870s or 1930s than anything experienced in the post-War era”.
I have hardly scratched the surface of global neo-populism nor have I mentioned Philippine mad hatter Durante, Brazil’s bring-back-the-Generals Bolsonaro, the Muslim-hating Hindutva RSS-BJP combine, and other such cave dwellers. A fuller coverage would require an essay in its own right. My motive today is to sketch a global overview to help locate Rajapaksa Populism. This does not imply predictions about elections yet to come, though the fire in the chest of Rajapaksa Populists is hubris that forthcoming elections are theirs to win.
Mahinda is a mass phenomenon; his party has no policy and no programme but it has a larger than life leader. You can ridicule it as cardboard, but so were famous and infamous ogres of the past. The bottom line is that the poropoya mass adores its leader. A plunge in electoral confidence in the government has encouraged it. But a bloated rallying point and a feeble government do not alone make for success. There have to be ideological, social and economic roots to boot.
With populism ideology and myth come first. All populisms are obsessed with some all-consuming tunnel vision storyline. In the case of Rajapaksa Populism (RP), the strands that intertwine and converge to a focus are; “the proposed separatist constitution”, “the betrayal of war-heroes”, “sacrilegious persecution and imprisonment of Buddhist monks” and “lurking terrorism in the North”. Intertwined they evoke a single vision; bigotry on which masses feed and politicians breed. Like immigration in Sweden, threats to Christian values in Hungary and Poland, Mexicans at the US border, all roads and tweets lead to a Rome. A tunnel vision of perceived threats to the Sinhala-Buddhist ethos is the life-giving elixir of Rajapaksa Populism, the emotional opium empowering it.
Where does RP fit on a Left-Right scale? The answer is not straightforward and readers of this column are not much interested in heavy doses of class analysis. In any case I have been at pains in the introduction to say that with modern neo-populism, superficially linear left-right placements are theoretically insufficient. Unhealthy racism, proclivity to despotism and scant regard for institutions (judiciary, press, police independence and parliament) locate Rajapaksa, Orban, Durante or Ortega (Nicaragua) in a multi-dimensional landscape each of its own.
Having said this, there is no denying that the UNP government is seen as rightist in economic orientation. The Ranil–Charitha–Malik–Eran–Harsha axis constitutes the apex of capitalist economic thought in Lanka. I do not say this to denigrate but as candid description. This apex carries the genes of its origin in the womb of JR neoliberalism. True the travails of globalisation, world capitalisms inability to invest abroad and the profound influence of China have brought behavioural changes in the UNP leadership, but the leopard retains its ideological spots. In the eyes of the adoring masses Rajapaksa is socialist, anti-imperialist and authentically nationalist; the government is capitalist and pro-Western. That Lanka’s elite and the UNP leaders communicate in English while the JO and Paksa clansmen, with few exceptions, struggle to do so, settles it emotionally.
Rajapaksa Populism is intrinsically hostile to internationalism and its institutions. The abhorrence of international (and domestic) human rights movements and institutions of course has another dimension; the fallout from the racist civil war. But apart from this, there is an instinctive insularity and animus to trade pacts with Singapore, India, even China. Furthermore, ignorance and cultural insularity, that is an overarching troglodyte syndrome, is populisms daily diet.
Yahapalana’s alleged genuflection to imperialism and Rajapaksa’s stalwart ant-imperialism is the fiction which the Dead-Left employs to hide its opportunism and humiliating absence of identity. There was a time when we thought Vasu would be NM’s heir, not intellectually but at least a proud bearer of the left torch in the public domain. Who would have in those days foreseen that he would shame as all kowtowing before a mere Mahinda Rajapaksa! However, the point here is not the incident, but that the incident it is symptomatic of the decline of the left in the face of a neo-populist tide.
What is to be done? This is not the time to wring one’s hands with mere verbal denunciations of neo-Populism and the Dead-Left. Censure must be for the purpose of preparing for well thought out and well-defined action. I have repeatedly called for left unity and an alliance with willing liberals if any can be found. Not much progress has been made, but there is no alternative. After the February debacle Ranil backed off from love-capitalism economics which failed to promote growth and locked the country into stasis. The government should play an active and interventionist role in creating conditions and building institutions that increase investment and economic activity for private-public partnerships (foreign), entrepreneurial ventures (capitalist) and state infrastructure. The UNP is pathologically unfit for this and Rajapaksa Populism has no conception, policy, plans or clue. In that context other lines of attack and mobilisation are needed. In the interim dealing with powers that be is unavoidable since politics is the art of the possible.