By Kumar David –
Trying to fit a theoretical model on Lanka’s emerging authoritarian project, I came up with rather a mouthful of a definition some weeks ago – Klepto-Nepotistic Corporatist Autocracy. The four key words sought to capture four features of the project, viz: its rootedness in corruption not only of siblings and extended family, but the whole political plutocracy; nepotism and ambition of a well knit family venture; its endeavour to commandeer all state finances and sway the private sector; and a political strategy to entrench soft dictatorship by constitutional manipulation. In an attempt to meld looting, nepotism, a Corporatist State, and a power grab into one terminological extravaganza my enthusiasm for compaction may have come into conflict with readers’ preference for clarity. I will make amends in this essay through a comparative discourse.
The discourse relies on three well known cases, each sharing some features but not always the same, with the Rajapakse project. As with all analogies circumstances are not identical, and though I should leave comparisons implicit for the reader to reflect upon I am unable to resist the temptation to spell things out. These prototypes matured and stabilised as distinct state forms; Benito Amilcare Mussolini held effective power from 1922 to 1943, Juan Domingo Peron was president of Argentina from 1946 to 1955 and briefly in 1973-74, and Ferdinand Marcos Philippine president from 1965 to 1986. They are theoretical models of sorts.
The Rajapakse state has not yet gelled and taking account of the setbacks it has suffered since August 2012 in the economic, political and international spheres, it never may – the regime is visibly in shaken. Nevertheless, since it shares features in common with one or another of the prototypes, I think it useful to throw our minds back to their storylines. There is no way I can tell the stories in full, rather I am selective, choosing what is most suitable for my purposes.
Corporatist, syndicalist fascism
The birthplace of fascism was Italy of the 1920s though it is customary to link fascism to Nazism because of its greater brutality and monstrosity. Mussolini’s version was a softer dictatorship – prison, not SS death squads for political opponents; racial prejudice for Slavs, not gas chambers for Jews. The word fascismo comes from the Latin fasces, a bundle of sticks tightly bound together with an axe in the middle, symbolising unity, power and totality (totalitarianism in the proper sense). The ideology of fascism, in its original Italian provenance is authoritarian unity, nationalism, populism, mass mobilisation, a mixed economy and racism less pronounced than Nazism. Palpably, the Rajapakse project has more affinity to Mussolini’s venture than to Nazism, in these as well as two other respects; syndicalism and corporatism.
In ordinary usage the term ‘to syndicate’ means, bring together, to unite, and Mussolini’s version was a class compact were social classes agreed to collaborate under the patron Il Duce (The Leader, a more benign figure than Mein Furher). Workers and employers entered compacts or agreements, as opposed to class conflict, and though the economy was capitalist the state played an important role whenever it was deemed necessary in the national interest. Syndicalism also ensured, unlike the Nazi case where all independent thought was crushed, that Mussolini nurtured Italian left and right wing intellectuals around him. Our siblings syndicate the petty-bourgeoisie in the informal economy, Sinhala-Buddhist extremists, and to a degree the subaltern classes. Nationalists and pseudo-left intellectuals dance, defend and praise the regime. Italian syndicalism was a worker-capitalist-middleclass compact. Rajapakse has lost the bourgeoisie and the elite, his base is extremist, but details notwithstanding, syndicalism is a common denominator.
Though Corporatism in its original usage referred to different groups (fishermen, farmers, traders) cooperating in their own societies, Italian fascism used it to denote state management of the economy through top-down totalitarian practices. Even in private companies the state intervened and mediated between classes. Today, Corporatism is used for oligarchic control, exploiting the nation’s wealth, as though it were a corporation in a private pocket. This is what Marcos manifested and has now taken firm root in Lanka in the Rajapakse period. Large investments, infrastructure projects, banks, airlines, and stock-exchange abound in the Rajapakse samagama. Not in classic Mussolini style, but altered to suit time and place, syndicalism and Corporatism have been ingested by the Rajapakse project to entrench soft-dictatorship, feted by Sinhala-Buddhist populism, which in turn is a dividend of war victory.
A Corporatist alliance with the working class
Peronism is the role model to which the Rajapakse regime least corresponds, both in class foundations and ideology. The great similarity is that international factors destabilised both. Peronism was a left-wing populist ideology, more radical than ludicrous Mahinda Chintenaye. Peron’s base, and the class his wildly popular first wife Evita appealed to, was the organised working class. As Labour Minister Peron enacted (not deserted) a workers’ charter which included many benefits including universal healthcare. The movements that brought him electoral victory were the trade unions. From 1946 to 1955 real wages rose by 30% and the share of national income reaching workers increased from 40% to 50%. The population at large benefited from social welfare that reached two-thirds of the population. Peron nationalised a slew of services; banks, transport, shipping and electricity. Argentina is a major grain exporting country and Peron established a state monopoly for of grain export. There is good reason for calling Peron’s party (Partido Justicialista, combining the words justice and social equality) a working class based Corporatist entity.
But why call Peron’s Argentina Corporatist? Because his economic programmes ran by decree not worker participation, and his rule was repressive. Thousands (including 1500 university teachers, and non-Peronist workers) were fired for opposing his rule and some were imprisoned. He was intolerant of both left and right wing opponents and controlled the media. His economic policies bore fruit in the first years of his regime from 1946 to 1949 but ran into inflation and balance of payments problems as imports skyrocketed above exports. Relations with America and Britain deteriorated as Peron steered towards a radical foreign policy. Beset by external problems, the hostility of the upper classes, and strikes, Person was overthrown in a pro-US military-civilian coup in 1955. Peronism, however, remains deep-rooted; Peronist candidates have won nearly all Presidential elections in Argentina despite frequent interruptions by coups. SLFP led alliances have gained a similar electoral foothold since 1994, but now an explicitly fascist, extra-parliamentary, Gothabahaya-BBS–JHU alliance is challenging this arrangement.
Ferdinand and Imelda loot the Philippines
Of my three examples the Rajapakse regime has the greatest affinity to Marcos, though in two significant ways they differ; using the state as an organ of economic Corporatism was not a Marcos feature, and secondly the international climate. Under powerful US influence the Marcos regime was integrated into the neo-liberal capitalist order, the economy was not pronouncedly statist hence there was limited scope for banditry via manipulation of the state sector. Ferdinand and Imelda are best known as quintessential kleptocrats looting the entire national economy directly. Estimates of the Marcos loot are in the region of $6 billion, a figure the UPFA, from top to bottom, will not match even if it remains in power for a generation. Of this, to the best of my knowledge, the only big slice recovered was $700 million the Swiss Government forced Swiss banks to repatriate to Manila. Furthermore, is not known whether the Marcos couple got their hands on any part of Yamashita’s Gold, stacked away in caves and tunnels deep in the Philippines.
The other similarity with Marcos is that killings, shootings, abductions, links to the underworld and lawlessness were very much a part of the regime’s culture. The impunity with which his agents shot Benito Aquino Jr on the tarmac at Manila airport on 21 August 1983 exceeds the brazenness of the Lasantha Wickrematunga assassination on 8 January 2009. Marcos was explicit in asserting his defiance of the law and his readiness to function in bandit style against personal and political opponents.
|“It is easier perhaps and more comfortable to look back to the solace of a familiar and mediocre past. But the times are too grave and the stakes too high for us to permit the customary concessions to traditional democratic processes”; Marcos in January 1973.||
Marcos faced a communist uprising and the incipient Moro Muslim rebellion in the southern island of Mindanao. In dealing with both the Philippine army displayed unalloyed brutality and banditry. In this respect the Marcos storyline differs from Mussolini (discounting WW2 and the rape of Abyssinia) and Peronism. The Moro war dragged on for four decades and was settled by Philippine President Aquino III and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front through negotiations in October 2012. There is now hope of a lasting peace; a stable political formula grating a high degree of autonomy to the Moro people is in place. It took the fall of a dictator and another twenty-five years of democracy to achieve this. Lanka, I hope, will get a move on a little faster.
A gigantic difference between Marcos’s and Rajapakse’s predicament is the international environment. The Philippines was within the US Pacific command space underpinned by a huge base at Subic Bay, and Manila was a trusted friend of Washington. The aid Washington provided, or channelled via multilateral agencies, in the Marcos period, has been estimated at $6 billion in money of the day (about $25 billion in 2013 money). With a giant standing shoulder to shoulder, Marcos could get away with murder, literally.
The Cold War is over, poor Rajapakse stands exposed to the slings and arrows of US and European hostility, Russia limps and China can offer no more that diplomatic vetoes and state-to-state project finance. The Colombo regime is frying; but am I saying it is going to be in cinders within a year or two? No, not so, it will limp on, perhaps to its parliamentary and presidential full terms (dissolution and resignations apart) but the Rajapakse authoritarian project and Corporatist programme is hobbled; it could even be abandoned. This Regime will never measure up as an exemplar, however grotesque, as did the three archetypes used in this comparative exercise. But the siblings will not easily give up their Klepto-Nepotistic Corporatist Authoritarian project though the domestic, international and economic stakes are stacked against them. Many battles lie ahead; the strengthening of Gothabahaya-BBS-JHU fascism, as a possible reaction to such setbacks, will spell the disintegration of the SLFP/UPFA as we know it now. The smart money, however, is betting that neither option will succeed.