By Kumar David –
Mussolini the prototype authoritarian did not take power in a coup: Populism, despotism and mass psychology
The authoritarian most pertinent to the Sri Lanka scene today is not Stalin or Hitler and interestingly not JR either, because none of these stood atop a gush of populism; it is Benito Mussolini; elected by the people, admired by an array of sycophants, darling of the army and eventually strung up from a lamppost in Milan. The commonality with Lanka is the psychological bond linking Mussolini and the people. In our case at this stage in our political conjuncture we need to carry in our minds not Gota alone but the Rajapaksas as a whole into the analysis, given the waning but continuing dominance of Mahinda in the mass mind and among parliamentarians. Initially Mussolini fused mass politics and street mobilisation while the military stood aside. It’s different in Lanka, the masses and the Brass have preference for Mahinda and Gota, respectively. (I do not wish to underestimate Gota’s popularity till the 20A effort backfires and rising inflation bites).
What stirred my interest in the Mussolini prototype was the republication in 2019 by Veroso Books of Teodor Adrono’s (1903-1969) influential 1950 book The Authoritarian Personality. In his Introduction Peter Gordon says: “It represents one of the most sophisticated attempts to explore the origins of fascism not merely as a political phenomenon, but as the manifestation of dispositions that lie at the very core of the modern psyche”. It has spiked international interest in the context of Trump and Modi and why I want to bring it to the attention of Lankan readers is its correspondence to a humble thesis I have been pushing for a few weeks. On 20 September, I said in Colombo Telegraph and highly regarded Indian website South Asia Analysis (http://www.southasiaanalysis.org/node/2682):
“Lanka is Rajapaksa country; the mass psyche resonates with ‘Rajapaksaism’ as Medieval Europe was inured to the Church. Deep Rajapaksasim was explicit in January 2015; it was to defeated Mahinda’s ranch that thousands flocked in pilgrimage, it was to him that they vowed fealty. There is a psychological manifold embracing the Rajapaksa ethos and the Sinhalese mass. Behaviourally it manifests as political consciousness (explicit support) and in voting patterns; in the subconscious it is a deeper bond such as we have seen in history at other times in other places. Most interesting is a subliminal slice of this embrace; a willingness to overlook and forgive, corruption, crime and crudeness. Analysts can wait to see how this pans out; political activists can’t. The need is to get down to work now, not after the ship of state starts sinking. It is the subliminal that will fracture first if there is turmoil in the economic domain”.
And on the 30 of August I lamented:
“Lanka is Rajapaksa country. This bond will not be easily severed or diluted. What is its genesis? Spiritually, both resonate in their modes of thought; passions of the same genre. Politically it is populism; for the mass corruption is OK if it is populist corruption. The bond will be strained by economic adversity but it remains to be seen whether hardship will drive the mass away from the Rajapaksa ethos. The oath has person-to-masses overtone as with Mussolini and Peron; forget the SLPP, it is burlesque. The third element is Sinhala nationalism, but not exultation in war victory alone. It is abhorrence of demands to bring the military to justice in the courts. The Rajapaksas will not do so, and this is the fourth factor. These factors all gel together”.
Adorno’s thesis about the Authoritarian Personality summarised in an introduction by Peter Gordon I find very nicely says about Mussolini what I am trying to say about the Rajapaksa phenomenon. A Gordon paragraph – after editing substantially for length – reads as follows.
“The ‘Authoritarian Personality’ challenges liberal assumptions by showing that the potential for fascism lies not at the periphery but at the heart of modern experience. Fascism is something deeper than a political form: it correlates to psychological patterns of domination and submission. It tends to conventionalism, rigidity and stereotypical thinking; it insists on a stark contrast between in-group and out-group and jealously patrols the boundaries between them. Fascism is the political manifestation of a pre-political disposition. The authoritarian personality does not always turn fascist; its politics may remain dormant, only to emerge under certain social conditions. This thesis offers an important corrective to those who prefer to see fascism as discontinuous with liberal-democratic political culture: fascism is not mysterious, and it is not something otherworldly or rare; it is the modern symptom of a psychopathology that is astonishingly widespread and threatens modern society from within”.
Adorno’s argument that Mussolini is the “symptom of a psychopathology that is astonishingly widespread and threatens modern society” and his view that fascism is “deeper than a political form (and) correlates with psychological patterns” corresponded unexpectedly to my argument that there is a psychological manifold embracing the Rajapaksa ethos and the masses and a behavioural bond that manifests itself in voting and I noted subconscious patterns of the same genre between these two and alsoa subliminal element. I was unaware of Adrono’s writings on this topic when I drafted these essays, so I was surprised by the similarity despite Mussolini’s consolidation of power (the infamous March on Rome was Oct 1922) and today’s polity in Lanka being separated by a century. I cannot say I am pleased by the notional parallelism because the message itself is so scary.
The hard part comes next. It is to think through the differences between the Mussolini story and unfolding events here. I see three points of divergence: (a) Power sharing in Lanka is more complicated and contested, (b) the different role of influence-bearers on whom the main actors (Mahinda, Gota and Basil) lean, and (c) a different international milieu. Excellent though the relationship between the Rajapaksa siblings is, nevertheless the three are not one person – not the Holy Trinity nor Brahma, Vishnu and Siva. Though Gota has improved his image he still does not stand as tall as Mahinda in Parliament and in the mass mind; his personality cannot replicatethat charisma. It may not matter much now because the sibling bond is strong though it did come under pressure when Parliament and public showed distaste for 20A. The opposition (JVP, SJB, Tamil and UNP) onslaught on, and after 20A is enacted, will shake the regime and put sibling relationships under stress. Will the MR-GR joint-Bonapartism satnd, or will an alternative Gota-KamalGunaratne (I use the name for military Brass and the Viyathmaga cronies together) authoritarianism prevail? The odds now seem evenly split (what a lousy pun). It was not like that with Il Duce’s; his authority in party (Partito Nazionale Fascista), military, state and Church was unquestioned.
Where Gota’s hand will be immeasurably strengthened is if for health or other reasons Mahinda steps aside. This is where (a) above merges into (b). The regime intends to fix the constitution via 20A so that in Mahinda’s absence Basil will be first choice for Prime Minister. Basil has neither charisma nor mass appeal but he is said to be clever. Gota will then have a smart second lieutenant at his call without needing to share the spotlight. A Siva-Vishnu alliance having eased out Brahma! But there is much chance and probability in these thoughts so it is not gainful to speculate further.
What about Muslims and Tamils on one side and Wimals, Gamanpilas, Vasudevas and Sarath Weerasekaras on the other? Il Duce’s had no noteworthy ethnic problems; and tensions between the rich North and the poor South did not become complex. Mussolini did crush the communists and the socialists; many were killed or imprisoned. King Victor Emmanuel III was a puppet in fascist hands. Overall, I am on safe ground in saying that fate has dealt a weaker hand to the Rajapaksas than the banquet that inter-war European calamity laid for the consolidation of Italian fascism. Italy not Nazi Germany, Franco’s Spain or any other, is the exemplar of Classical Fascism.
Finally, I will make a few comments on point (c). Brevity is the soul of wit. I am aware that long columns are a soporific; readers skim not read. (Those not wishing to dispense sleeping pills must keep below 1700 words). Mussolini was popular after he built the Auto Strada, drained the swamps and trains ran on time. The 1936 invasion of Ethiopia proved that there is nothing like an “external enemy” to tumefy nationalist passions. Italian fascism also drew strength from the Nazi tide but it was Hitler’s seizure of power in 1933 that enabled the so-called Axis Alliance in 1936. Fascist Italy had strong international supports till the outbreak of war but an authoritarian state in Sri Lanka at this time will face opprobrium in human rights circles and from Western liberals and even governments. China will not say anything negative and Hindutva Modi will be pleased so long as the Lankan regime stays manifestly anti-Muslim though Indian public opinion will frown. In a nutshell, a cash-strapped Sri Lanka will be on the weak international wicket if it turns authoritarian. This too will be a significant constraint on a hard-line authoritarian project but a domestic Vissa Eppa (Iruvathu Vendam or ‘No to 20’) mobilisation is more important. Democratic opposition in Sri Lanka must be adept at melding together a multi-class, politically plural, ethnically diverse and organisationally multifarious (trade unions, monks, civil society) alliance.