By Kumar David –
“No one seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it” – George Orwell
“The former government harboured an intense resentment towards the army, which preserved Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and integrity at great sacrifice. They tried to poison the minds of the people by trying to portray the army as unsavoury elements, who rob, kill and plunder. However the masses have always stood by the country’s armed forces and hailed them as heroes who did their duty by their motherland” – Mahinda Rajapaksa: Sunday Island 22 Dec 2019
What Mahinda Rajapaksa says here encodes an essential element of GR-MR thinking. But not enough attention has been paid by political analysts to the linkage of three, not two, factors; Sinhala-Buddhist nativism, institutionalised militarism and third populism. MR’s comments underline the nativism-militarism nexus. It is integration of the third element that is usually absent in appraisals of authoritarian and fascist regimes around the world; that is the link between populism and both nativism and authoritarianism.
Populism in the West is the consequence of shifts in the global distribution of power; it is a reaction to the loss of power by a once hegemonic West; immigrants are most easily blamed. In the less developed world the enemy within (Muslims in India, minorities in Lanka) is the villains. Economist Mancur Olsen makes the point that a “roving bandit” only has an incentive to rob whilst a “stationary bandit”, an autocrat, encourages economic popularity as he expects to remain in power long enough to benefit. The quintessential authoritarian Olsen says, focuses on state security and profit protection – enter Gota. What’s the difference from Lee Kwan Yue you may ask? Enormous I will reply. Lee was incorruptible, ruthless in hostility to communalism and firm in commitment to the primacy of civilian power; three qualities that were the saving grace of Singapore. Gotabaya Rajapaksa is beholden to racist monks, he is the champion of the military and how can he clean out a decade of Rajapaksa-clan Augean Stables?
A useful corrective to the deficiency in the study the authoritarianism-populism nexus is Hitler’s Beneficiaries: How the Nazis Bought the German People a book by Götz Aly, translated by Jefferson Chase; Verso, 2007. I do not have the book but an old friend who carries a knuckle-duster in his pocket and keeps me awake at night with harsh appraisals my column, sent a review of the book by John Connelly in the London Review of Books of 27 August 2009. I quote extensively from the review.
“Aly asks at the outset: ‘What drove ordinary Germans to tolerate and commit historically unprecedented crimes against humanity, in particular the murder of millions of European Jews?’ His answer is that ordinary Germans co-operated in genocide because they benefited from it in material terms. According to Aly, the Nazi dictatorship was built not on terror but on a mutual calculation of interest between leaders and people. This claim entails a further shift in our understanding of the regime: not only did it serve the welfare of the common people, but if there was fear, it was the fear the regime felt of the people, not the other way around. Top Nazi leaders worried that their regime would be toppled by popular unrest if the people’s mood soured: their ‘satisfaction’ had to be ‘purchased’ every day. Aly alleges that in 1943, Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, who carefully monitored the popular mood, called for urgent measures to prevent the German populace from rising up against the regime”.
“The most memorable examples concern the activities of German soldiers outside Germany. When they occupied other countries, Germans in uniform fanned out into the local economies and helped themselves to everything not nailed down, sending huge quantities of loot back to their families. One of them was the writer Heinrich Böll, whose letters home were published in 2001. As cited by Aly, Böll’s six years in the Wehrmacht appear to have been one long shopping spree. Because of special rates of exchange, he was able to buy merchandise from every corner of the Continent. In 1939 he was posting packages of coffee from Rotterdam, and the following year butter, soap, engravings, cosmetics, onions, eggs, women’s shoes and nail scissors from France. His parents became accessories by smuggling currency to their son inside books and cakes. In 1943 he was transferred to the Crimea and sent home butter, before suffering a fortuitous head wound. While recovering in the Ukraine, Böll frequented the local bazaar, from which he sent home chocolate and soap. Aly invites us to multiply Böll’s case by a million.
A more insidious form of looting took place behind the scenes. Aly is the first historian to study systematically what happened to Jewish possessions in Occupied Europe. Using recently opened archival collections he describes in exhaustive detail the arrangements made by officials in the German finance ministry to transfer stolen Jewish wealth into the state budget.”
Aly’s then explores the link between populism and German nationalism; Germany’s rata jayhika abhimane. German nationalism at this time was a commitment to a belief in the Volk, the people. We detect in MR’s statement a clever conjoining of nationalism as faith in the military (the great army of the people) with authoritarian militarism which is GR’s presidential project.
“So why did the complaining women in Berlin, the bombed-out in Cologne, or millions of other disgruntled Germans fail to rise up against the regime? . . . Ali suggests a simple answer: because it never occurred to them. Loyalty to Germany transcended any momentary doubts. Late in the war people lost their lives for doubting that Germany would win, even when defeat was certain. But were these martyrs or otherwise loyal members of the Volk who momentarily forgot to be cautious? Until very recently professional historians in Germany disparaged the notion of Volksgemeinschaft, or a ‘people’s community’, arguing it was no more than a propagandistic fiction serving no real interest”.
To repeat myself for the umpteenth time, stable authoritarianism will need reorganisation of the state. This will not resemble the exhaustive assimilation of institutions by the Nazis or the powerful party committees functioning side by side with formal management in Soviet-times or in present day China. Nevertheless, when GR-MR begin subversive redesign of institutional structures to blend into control of strategy it will be deadly. It is the potential longevity of a Rajapaksa-clan-regime that puts this option on the table. Trump’s attempt to bring the Departments (Ministries) of State, Defence and Justice to their knees boomeranged. There was rebellion in the impeachment hearings by senior officials. The separation of powers is deeply entrenched in the US system; Sri Lanka’s weakly anchored institutions are liable to manipulation and mechanisms of checks-and-balances are pathetic.
Pradeep Ramanayake says in World Socialist Website (11 December) “Gotabaya Rajapaksa has made significant appointments of former military officers to bolster his already extensive powers and give the armed forces greater control. Most important is selection of Kamal Gunaratne, already defence secretary, as Chairman of the Telecommunication Regulatory Commission which has power over internet and social media, licensing of radio and TV and investigating complaints against media platforms. Rather than appoint a defence minister Gota has brought defence ministry functions and law-and-order under control of an unelected bureaucrat— the defence secretary. This breaches the constitution which bars the president from holding ministerial positions”.
One last abbreviated quote from Lankaenews of 10 Dec: “Rajapaksa take over Attorney General’s Department: Three strange posts: The AG’s Department added three new posts as the Rajapaksa cases are being prosecuted. At-at-Law Nishara Jayaratne has been assigned to the Presidential Secretariat as Additional Secretary. Induni Punchihewa has likewise been assigned to the Prime Minister’s Office as Additional Secretary. In addition, another strange position has been assigned to the AG’s Dept. A close Gota associate, Sumathi Dharmawardena (SD), has been appointed Additional Solicitor General (Administrative) and is now acting AG. SD ran a private security service with the support of Gota; much of the work was done by army deserters. Previous Presidents and PMs have not held such strange positions in the AG’s Department. If new positions are introduced they should be approved by the Public Service Commission”.
Populism is both the product of the inability of bourgeois-democratic liberalism to create a nation state and a backlash against globalisation. Its relationship with authoritarianism has in most instances not been as well documented as in Götz Aly’s book. A further ubiquitous turn to populism in Sri Lanka will accompany the run-up to parliamentary elections next year. As Gota fans cheerily tell me: “We will do everything necessary to get a two-thirds majority. We will reduce prices all round and give all types of wage and welfare concessions. Of course after the elections we will have the opportunity to rebuild the economy systematically”. Thus the election campaign will signal a spending bonanza which the masses will welcome. Populism will be used as Mussolini, the Nazi’s and Peron did to underpin authoritarianism. And there’s bugger all anybody can do about it!
NOTE: You will be pleased that I close this final 2019 column with good news for you dear reader. No longer will you need to suffer me every week; Editor willing I plan to inflict a column on you only once a fortnight. That is 5 and 19 January 2020, then 2 February and so on. This will give me time to research and reflect more wisely and reduce the volume of garbage that I impose on you. So relax and enjoy the Sundays in-between free of me.