Somewhere in the middle of the last century, Marxist scholars, disillusioned by the sanguine hopes they had placed on the public, began writing negatively of the working class. This grim assessment of the proletariat and the peasantry was the basis for some of the monumental works of post-Nazi Germany social theory: Richard Hofstadter’s thesis that the masses were anti-intellectual, C. Wright Mill’s thesis that they were bureaucratic, and, perhaps the most grim and important of them all, Hannah Arendt’s thesis that they were unwitting supporters of totalitarianism. To argue that these writers and their books formed the bedrock of how the West continues to look at the working class, not just in their part of the world, but also our part of the world, would be an understatement. If there was no Hitler, no Mussolini, plainly put, there would have been no Hannah Arendt and no Origins of Totalitarianism. But to suggest that these theories work out well for the peasantry and the proletariat for this part of the world is, I think, rather self-deluding.
"The East, particularly in countries like Sri Lanka, has years and decades of colonialism and exploitation at the hands of the West
We have been cheated again and again by a specific class of politicians"
My friend Michael Patrick O’Leary once quipped that “the road to hell is paved with false analogies”, paraphrasing that saying about it being paved with good intentions. This is true of the way we view demagogues in the East on the basis of how they are viewed in the West. Sri Lanka is no exception to this; time after time, we have been told, explicitly of course, that demagoguery is the last refuge of the scoundrel, much like nationalism and patriotism, and that the demagogue frequently resorts to false promises so as to bring in more votes. This one way transfer, as I’d like to call it, belittles the people who have been promised various things and promotes the vested interests that tend to gather around the demagogue after s/he wins an election. Given this, what’s wrong with considering those voters as the covert supporters of totalitarianism they were touted as by Arendt et al?
Simply this: the East, particularly in countries like Sri Lanka, has years and decades of colonialism and exploitation at the hands of the West which the West does not have. In the West demagoguery is negative, so negative that even when it does occur (as in the case of Trump’s America) or almost occurs (as in the case of Le Pen’s France), the checks and balances offsetting the externalities of that kind of demagoguery prove to be useful. But that’s because these countries have enough and more of what we had, and what we don’t: resources. If we’re desperate for totalitarians, if we seem to be covert sympathisers of dictators, and if we appear to be “sleeping with the fishes” (to borrow another phrase) by voting against our own interests in the form of neo-fascist leaders, it’s not because we don’t know the meaning of democracy, or totalitarianism, or leadership, but rather because we’re tired of leaders who privilege the ideological over the economic. We want democracy, we want ethic harmony, but we also want food on the table. And for an awful lot of people in this side of the planet, getting that food on that table is pretty hard.
So if we the people are not “We, the People” of the American Constitution, it’s simply because we have been cheated again and again by a specific class of politicians who dither on the issues they promise to resolve once they come to power. We saw this in 1978 and we saw this in 1994 and we are seeing this now. The reason why we did not see this in 2005 was because the leader elected then, democratically, remained the only leader who did well on the one issue he promised to resolve. But as time went by, the war proved to be too much of an asset, a national treasure in fact, to bandy about for the sake of self-perpetuation. There needed to be another set of issues, mainly economic, which the Rajapaksa administration could show as being resolved by them. A bubble economy of consumption came up after 2010 owing to their need to show the people that we were more of a nation of development democracy than one of democracy development. The mandate in 2010 was for that sort of polity. The sort that was doomed to burst some day. That’s another story though.
What is often forgotten is that the fear of the masses the West has sustained was largely an offshoot, not of the complicity of ordinary Germans in the Third Reich, but of the culture of distrust the intellectual centre created when it came to the relationship between the State and its subjects. Western liberal democracy was hardly liberal or democratic in the early days. It was the joint outcome of years and decades and centuries of sustained exploitation of slaves and the working class. John Locke’s contentions about liberalism are at odds with his view of the sanctity of property because liberalism, which privileged the individual, needed at the same time a strong, authoritarian State. The State oversaw the exploitation of those subjects who continue to be erased out of the liberal narratives which are spawned by the successors of Locke and Mills and Bentham today. When liberalism was nonexistent in the early days of conflicts over land, the State needed a higher figure in the form of an unseen deity (Hobbes’s Leviathan). When Europe underwent the Reformation and turned towards rationalism, property became the new God, and the object of the State was to counter any act against the ownership of land.
But private property has been, throughout much of history, the source of the West’s exploitation of colonies and slaves. It has also, ironically, been the source of those liberal narratives I have alluded to. Land is simultaneously a harbinger of totalitarianism (for the masses) and of democracy (for the elite). Arendt’s suspicions of the general public, the people, were the suspicions of the Founding Fathers of the United States too. In that sense, the post-Nazi Germany universe merely compounded this culture of suspicion and distrust, creeping into the many organisations created (ostensibly) to preserve world peace or export democracy. The West has, given this, always preferred the individual to the collective, and it has historically believed in at least nominal democracy development over development democracy in our part of the world because it believes that what works for them will somehow work for us. That is not the case, and the West, even after Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, has obviously not corrected this vicious misconception.
"A bubble economy of consumption came up after 2010
Western liberal democracy was hardly liberal or democratic in the early days
Sri Lanka’s polity, come 2020, will thus be in shambles"
Sri Lanka’s polity, come 2020, will thus be in shambles. Development democracy and democracy development are and have always been ill-fitted for each other here. Those who hedged their bets on the new administration after 2015, tragically, thought that the masses could be swayed on the basis of its allegiance to the tenets of good governance and sanhindiyawa. But the problem with this project was that you cannot focus on good governance without a strong bulwark. Mahinda Rajapaksa and his cohorts committed the opposite mistake: they delivered the goods, but failed to secure those goods for the longer term, and that by cracking down on dissent at every step of the way. Once these goods were taken over by their successors, of the yahapalana administration, they were doomed to rot, because for them to flourish, they needed to be preserved by a strong, at times even authoritarian centre.
This authoritarian centre is precisely what is lacking in the new government, and it is the demand for that centre which compelled the majority, even those who had supported Maithripala Sirisena previously, to oust him from power at the grassroots level last February. The demand in 2015 had been for change: unyielding, unconditional. That demand continues, but now it is for a reversal: a 360-turnaround to the authoritarian, centrist, anti-peripheral development democracy of 2014 and before.
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