‘Every Picture Tells a Story’ was the title of the best Rod Stewart album. The landmark Viyath Maga event at the Shangri-La Hotel opened with the image in the very first slide, which showed Gotabaya Rajapaksa with only one other person in the frame, leaning over the shoulder of the seated GR. That was Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekara (Retd.), a notorious hawk, aggressively anti-13A agitator and Sinhala-Buddhist ultra-nationalist, rejected by the Sinhala voters of Digamadulla in the Eastern Province in favour of the non-racist progressive from the JO, Wimalaweera Dissanayake (who, it was revealed in Parliament, criticized Weerasekara’s demagoguery in Ampara during the local government election campaign). If he were in the US military, Weerasekara’s Washington nickname would be “Mad Dog.” So what’s the Viyath Maga extravaganza’s opening photo-image emblematic of? What does it reveal and symbolize? What narrative does it illustrate?
It is not, as a senior professor pontificated recently, that the next election may see a choice between a “weak democracy” and a “hard authoritarianism,” but rather, what kind of “hard authoritarianism” it is likely to be and why. This is not hair-splitting. Between one variety of hard authoritarianism and another, lies not a distinction, but a world of difference. Southeast Asia experienced “hard authoritarianism” through decades of its modern history, as did Sri Lanka in the decade of the 1980s, with 60,000 workers sacked, a fraudulent and coercive referendum which postponed the Parliamentary elections and shut down the peaceful Parliamentary path of change. Is that our post-2019 prospect?
Ours will be a darker dispensation than mere “hard authoritarianism.” It will be far more ‘totalitarian’ than ‘authoritarian’:a ‘reich’
The “hard authoritarianism” label omits a very important concept and factor, which we have known about since the ancient Greeks, namely that of ‘ethos.’ It is the factor of ethos that determines the most relevant distinction between regime types and indeed, regimes. In a revised, updated version, French political thought draws attention to the factor of mentalité, meaning ‘mentality.’
Western political scientists, with whom I would decidedly disagree in favour of a more universal political science with an Eurasian emphasis, would unhesitatingly describe Putin’s Russia, Xi Jin Ping’s China and probably Erdogan’s Turkey as ‘hard authoritarian.’ Be that as it may, there would be a qualitative difference between Putin’s Russia (and Russia’s Putin) and a Sinhala alt-right regime -- so different as to make nonsense of a common classification.
However, one may define the Russian and Chinese models, their dominant ethos is composed of the troika of rationality, realism and statism. Evidence and example are provided by the State structure and Constitutional models of both Russia and China, which provide for regional autonomy for ethnic nationalities and minorities. Given the discourse of the Hitler controversy, the solidarity for Ven. Gnanasara Thera, and the acute antipathy to ethnic power-sharing, a Sri Lankan alt-right regime will not be governed by realism and rationality.
The “hard authoritarianism” label is blind to a key question of political sociology: the social element or combination of social elements driving the ideology and consciousness of the Sinhala alt-right bloc. The key factor is the role of the clergy/ex-military interface, the dominant ideology, mentality and dynamics within the clergy, and its dominance within the alt-right bloc as well as its seepage into the fringes and flanks of the opposition.
A “hard authoritarianism” with a left-wing, conventional right-wing or centrist ideology operates within the larger spheres of reason and realism, and is therefore a very different animal from a hard authoritarianism governed by an alt-right ideology and mentality. In many cases, the alt-right is a religious right, as we know from the case of the rise of Evangelism on the Republican Right and its morphing with the Tea Party Movement, and now the hybrid, Christian Evangelical Zionism.
What is rising in Sri Lanka is just such a religious alt-right, with the distinctive markers that define its core constituency and its social consciousness. That constituency and collective consciousness are very different from the populist base of Mahinda Rajapaksa and the JO, but is piggy-backing on it. That constituency and consciousness are also very different from the UNP constituency of the Jayewardene regime throughout its “hard authoritarian” decade.
Neoliberal economics and the SLFP’s abdication of the role of the centrist opposition opened a vacuum which is being filled by the confluence of four streams of social and ideological opinion: (1) The hawkish ex-military brass infuse a deep-state ideology of a National Security State. (2) The Sinhala expatriates, attracted by the rise of the alt-right in their Western societies of domicile, transmit this ideology through newly-established networks (e.g. GSLF) into Sri Lankan politics. (3) Business, managerial, professional and academic counter-elites play the patriotic Sinhala-Buddhist card to advocate a model which would bring them preferential advantage. (4) The Buddhist clergy displays a greatly-enhanced assertiveness and seeks a political veto, while within the clergy, the initiative has shifted to the most militant elements and caucuses. It is the specific nature, ideology and consciousness of the ethno-religious alt-right in Sri Lanka that will determine the ethos of any regime it propels into office and dominates ideologically. That alt-right social consciousness will crucially shape the agenda of the government. The political behaviour and social policies of such an administration will be of such hegemonistic unilateralism, social and cultural dominance and prescription of the private, as we have never experienced.
It is important not to overlook the determining (or ‘over-determining’) effect any of the three following factors and most decidedly of a fusion of all three: (I) The character and consciousness of the core constituency of a political leader, movement and regime. (II) The role of organised religion and the clergy in society. (III) The character of civil-military relations. A political leadership whose core constituency is the religious alt–right and the most hawkish ex-military element; a growing religiosity in society and a growing dominance of the most obscurantist militant current within the clergy; a tectonic shift in civil–military relations in the direction of dominance by the latter, when put together, will constitute a regime that can only be superficially captured by the description “hard authoritarian” and whose theocratic-militarist character will make far deeper inroads into cultural and personal freedom and private space than in almost any contemporary authoritarian regime, however ‘hard.’
There will be no ‘modernization/democracy’ trade-off. There can be no economic modernization without social modernity, and there can be no social modernization without a modern social consciousness, none of which can be achieved through a regime dominated by a social ideology and collective consciousness of an archaic nature. The embryonic, emerging Sri Lankan scenario is of a regime type approximating that of Pakistan under Zia-ul-Haq, with its alliance between the military and the militant mullahs, as well as that of Myanmar, with its axis of the military, the militant monks and Wirathu’s ‘weaponised’ ethno-Buddhism. Ours will be a darker dispensation than mere “hard authoritarianism.” It will be far more ‘totalitarian’ than ‘authoritarian’:a ‘reich.’
Where Wijeweera, my old foe, would have read the writing on the wall, sounded the alarm and mobilised publicly and massively, the JVP and FSP are silent. Adopting an ostrich posture, they appear foredoomed.
Cosmopolitan civil society liberals are pathetic. When one expected a hundred liberal voices to sign a petition denouncing the “Hitler/military rule” reference, they signed up to denounce my nomination as ambassador to Russia instead! This NGO underworld is the least credible and most discredited element in our society.
Nazism triumphed because the anti-fascist vote was divided in 1933. The local alt-right (with its ‘National Socialist’ allies and nativist neo-Nazi inflections) will triumph if; (a) it captures the candidacy and (b) its electoral opponent is a neoliberal-elitist cosmopolitan rather than a youthful populist patriot and pluralist-democrat with an inherited vote-base, who can claw back the Sinhala vote.