22 June, 2024


An American Maverick – England’s Absolute Monarchs

By Kumar David

Prof. Kumar David

Prof. Kumar David

Let’s take a break from the pandemonium of crossovers and filthy money-politics and enjoy the New Year. In any case I have had my final say when I argued for a “Principled Compromise” in Colombo Telegraph on New Year’s Day. The compromise was: OK back Sirisena and ensure he wins; but culturing a strong people’s movement and independent mass mobilisation demanding abolition of the Executive Presidency and no longer tolerating rotten rulers is the far more important long-term priority. I will leave it at that with no more interventions, including what follows below till after 8 January.

Today will be two yarns with odd symmetries to the present; one anecdotal, Teddy Roosevelt at the turn of the Twentieth Century; the other historical, reaching back to the century before the English Revolution. The Roosevelt story is charming. One of five great American Presidents alongside Washington, Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson and FDR; he was an accidental comet which appeared out of the blue but he did not renege on his pledges, unlike Maithripala Sirisena who did but seems headed for a big victory unless Rajapakse can cook up a pretext to call off elections.

In year 1900 Republican presidential nominee William McKinley chose New York Governor Theodore Roosevelt as running mate thanks to two quirks of fate. McKinely was running for his second term but his serving Vice-President Grant Hobart died of heart failure a year before and the slot was empty. The second reason, paradoxically, was Teddy’s tough stance against monopolies and big business. Mega-money wanted him out of NY State. The likes of J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller longed to see his back as no amount of cash or cajoling could budge his obstinacy to curb monopoly capital which ruled New York, read United States, those days. He believed that the people’s mandate belonged to the elected representatives, not big business. (Andrew Carnegie just after he sold Carnegie Steel to J. P. Morgan for $1.4 billion in 1901 was the richest man in the world, worth in equivalent money, more than the two richest billionaires of today combined).

Mahinda MatugamaThe Vice-Presidency was a lame duck sinecure like Secretary of the SLFP. So big capital pushed and seduced McKinley into taking Teddy Roosevelt as his mate and poured money into the campaign. With overcharged Teddy Roosevelt shunted to ribbon-cutting and kissing babies’ bottoms, finance capital thought it could rule. As expected McKinley won handsomely with 52% of the popular vote to rival Democrat William Jennings Bryan’s 46% and 292 Electoral College votes to 155.

This is where fate pulled faith’s dumb leg. (Were Rajapakse’s advisors loony soothsayers and X-Marxist ex-diplomats?). McKinley was assassinated by anarchist Leon Czolgosz in September 1901 before completing a year in office, to be succeeded by Roosevelt who went on to vigorously implement his anti-trust programme. He earned the soubriquet Trust-Buster for enforcing competition and breaking up monopolies in the railroad and oil industries. He increased regulation of businesses and insisted that citizens get a fair share of the economic cake. Concurrently or accidentally, it was in the two decades from the mid-1890s to the outbreak of WW1 that the US burgeoned into the world’s premier economic power. Big countries produce big people; small islands breed petty scumbags.

In 1904, Roosevelt won a landslide against Charles Fairbanks, but though there were no term limits at the time, honourable man that he was (barb intended), he refused to run for a third term in 1908. His achievements as a naturalist, explorer, hunter and writer would have won him fame quite apart from his role as a politician. The moral of the story is that fate moves in mysterious ways its wonders to perform; no deity in Thirupathi can change that! Homer says in Greek mythology there is only one power that even Zeus the King of the Gods cannot overturn – Fate!

In a paradox of Homeric proportions the Pakses are redundant because they won the war. Had war been ongoing, they would still be venerated as indispensable demigods and left free to plunder the public purse and terrorise Sinhala critic and Tamil foe alike. War over and an ungrateful public refuses to let the Pakses rob, abuse, strut like royalty and treat the law like a toad! Oh how unjust fate is to those who conspire to Mephistophelean trysts with her! Or consider Prabaharan’s 2005 oath gone awry – “I’ll give you Pakse to Rule! You give me a War to Exalt!” But for this pledge many Tamils would still be worshiping a Sun God and their politicians dancing to the fearful throbbing of his ukulele (yarl).

Town, Countryside and Absolute Monarch

The second story is more than an anecdote with an accidental parallel; it has substance. There is a theorem, which some people say comes from the late Newton Gunasinghe (NG), which goes like this: JR’s Open Economy impoverished the Northern Tamil farmer by exposing onions, chillies and cash crops to competitive imports. Unable to survive, Tamil youth turned to rebellion and the LTTE. I doubt if NG was quite so naive or theoretically corpuscular, but there is legitimacy to the view that tension was rising on one side between a ‘city’, encouraged by globalisation, reasserting itself (recovering from1956 setbacks), and on the other a hinterland unwilling to return to second place.

To link this to my theme, instead of drawing tedious point by point parallels let me do a thumbnail sketch of the rise of Absolute Monarchy in England in the Sixteenth Century, its role in the great scheme of things, and its eventual dissolution in the next Century in the English Revolution of 1641-42 and the beheading of Charles I by Parliament in January 1649.

The reign of the two great Tudor monarchs Henry VIII (1509-1547) and his daughter Elisabeth I (1558-1603) was a period of epochal shift in social, class, economic and state relations. There had been victorious kings (Edward III and Henry V), weak ones by the dozen, and supposedly lousy ones (Richard III, at least according to Shakespeare) but never before ones that mediated so profound a social transformation – unless you count the Norman Conquest of 1066. Absolutism was a Bonapartist period (before Bonaparte) when an almighty monarch held a balance between rapidly shifting economic, social and class actors. They wielded power in a fashion never before (or after) seen in England; all society relied on, supported, and paid for court and ruler. Fantastic changes dot the Sixteenth Century; feudalism died, the City of London its merchants and foreign expeditions rose to vast wealth and power, the monasteries were dissolved and monastic lands seized by the crown or sold, and great barons and noblemen diminished in clout. The monarch was no longer just the first nobleman among equals; all power was emanated from the Crown. An absolute and executive Raja-Rajah reigned supreme!

The simple fact is that a new world was being created by new forms of production and commerce, trade and navigation, and by dramatic changes in the countryside. The gentry (persons of some wealth and small land-holding employers, often younger sons of noblemen not entitled under primogeniture) were emerging in boroughs and towns, and strong yeomen farmers (independent, not serfs or tied to a nobleman) were putting down roots. The point I am making is this: Great class and social forces were making London a city of trade and nascent industry and they had money; on the other side in the country a new scheme of things was unfolding. Nobility and church were in decline – after the Reformation of the 1530s the king was head of the church in England. This was not so much a religious matter or a consequence of Henry’s concupiscence, but the rise of English nationalism.

It was this never before seen three way balancing (declining aristocracy, rising City, and new country gentry and yeomanry) that endowed Absolute Monarchy with power. Although the Commons was established independently of the Lords in 1341 it was feeble. Then in the Tudor period it evolved into the fulcrum of an alliance between, on the one hand of the burghers of London and seafaring cities, and on the other, the gentry and assertive classes in the countryside. In modern parlance we could call the gentry a country middle-class (I am tempted to say sanga-vedda-guru but this would be too much simplification). The Commons controlled the money supply which the monarch was ever in need of for upkeep of the Court, and to fight wars. Henry engaged in wasteful wars in France and Spain, Elizabeth in more lucrative ones; her privateers (think legendry Francis Drake) and sea-dogs plundered Spanish gold, traded rum in the Caribbean and enslaved Africans.

In the next Century the alliance between the City and the gentry evaporated; actually it ended because it had served its purpose; so had Absolute Monarchy. Parliament asserted its power under the influence of the City and industrial-commercial towns and disputed taxation with the Crown. The first Stuart, James I (1603-1625) passed the hours in relatively unobtrusive pleasantries but his son Charles I (1625-1649) claimed the divine right of kings and disdained Parliament where real power lay. He copped it! The rest is history; Cromwell, the New Model Army and finally 1688 and Constitutional Monarchy. A different world had been procreated.

Rajapakse: Absolute Monarch and Decapitated King

Mahinda Rajapakse was a momentary and caricatured monarch; for a hideous blink of an eye he strutted on the domestic stage a Henry VIII look-alike. But his reign also personified a restoration of social balances disrupted by the untrammelled Open Economy; this analogy though caricature is not ridiculous. The reaction to JR’s Open Economy was anger in the countryside which lost out to the city and to global capitalism. Premadasa tried to restore some equilibrium but did not last; DB was genuinely deaf and blind; Chandrika was neither here or there. Three decades of war, Sinhala loathing of Prabaharan and Sinhala ‘patriotic’ dread of internationalism, together threw a spanner in the works and mediated a veritable shift in political ideology and to a lesser extent a shift in class balances in southern society.

Mahinda was a new Bonaparte fit for the circumstances. Whereas JR’s was a snotty-class constitutional Bonapartism which pushed through the Open Economy, Rajapakse’s was a lumpen pilfering Bonapartism, but one which nevertheless fought the civil war effectively and reenergised Sinhala nationalism which was much needed for that purpose. This task has now ended; so has the need for this regime: the door through which it pilfered and strutted has closed. The alternative is a con-artist who within four weeks somersaulted on a vow to abolish the Executive Presidency! Four days from today poor Lanka will choose between the vile and the unreliable.

The relevance of these yarns, apart from all-you-need-to-know, back-of-an-envelope skits on great historical events, is that they invite a little holiday reflection with tiny stings in the tail. With that it is adios in a lighter vein and a bright and bearable 2015.

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Latest comments

  • 0

    A perfectly crafted analysis by Prof, KD which gives a mirror image perspective in a historical context, of the dialectics of the political process that the island has and is undergoing from the 1970’s to date.

  • 0

    Yes, Yes, Yes! Once upon a time, one day in a long-ago May, my eyes were dazzled when Mahinda as King rode victorious with bright kurakkan satakaya, and people prostrating themselves and shouting hosannas.

    But you know Professor, time passes, and memories fade.

    Recently, the first time I saw two little children sing ‘rate appachchi’ I looked startled at the object of their desire, and all I saw was a jaded man in a faded satakaya, and I gasped ‘what a fucker!’.

    Nothing is permanent.

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