Sri Lanka: Global challenges and proto-fascism

, by GUNAWARDENA Devaka

Following Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s announcement as a presidential candidate, many have compared him with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The analogy is instructive because, like Modi, Gotabaya packages development as a nationalist project.

Modi, for example, recently revoked Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy. He claims that he wants to develop the region. Legal dispossession, however, has justified an ongoing crackdown. Similarly, during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s tenure as President, developing the north was his response to those critical of militarisation.

Unlike 2009, however, in 2019 the liberal international order is under attack. Now more than ever, we can’t look for saviours from outside. What is the context of the rise of right-wing populism around the region and the world?

Systemic breakdown

The shift is most visible in US President Donald Trump’s trade war with China. Trump has an intuitive sense that hegemons do not rule forever in the capitalist system. The US’s transition from a multilateral system in which it exercised its power through control of global institutions, to a go-it-alone attitude that involves negotiating bilateral agreements, is an expression of systemic breakdown.

The US binged on debt and bought its wares from China, powering the workshop of the world. When it ran into trouble during the Great Recession, as historian Adam Tooze points out, the global economy depended on Chinese stimulus. The relationship between the power blocs, however, is under pressure.

Deglobalisation reconfigures supply chains. New trends in automation and technology make reshoring a possibility. The world races to find alternative energy sources in the face of climate crisis. In the meantime, new conflicts engendered by climate change compound the centuries-long process of underdevelopment that imperialism has imposed on poor countries. This results in many people migrating to rich countries, seeking a better life.

Social bases of proto-fascist ideology

The xenophobic response in Western countries, rooted in settler colonial ideology, is reinforced by the post-9/11 framing of terrorism as a ‘Muslim problem’. Strengthening Fortress Europe and the chant to ‘build the wall’ are ways in which right-wing demagogues capitalise on people’s frustration with a system that has not benefited the many. Wages have stagnated over decades while the rich got richer.

Moreover, the establishment is viewed as a bulwark of liberal multiculturalism. The new right-wing populists attack the public sector in favour of a vindictive capitalism that protects the investments of the few who have made it. They try to convince working class whites especially that they must exclude others to defend what they are in the process of losing. The social base of white supremacy, however, is staunchly (upper) middle class.

Gotabaya doesn’t have a solution to the structural problem of Sri Lanka’s dependency. Instead, he proposes regime stability for investors. He and his supporters attack the current Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe for signing the country away. They are as desperate, however, to attract foreign capital. The “urban professional classes, retired military actors, and nationalist bureaucratic elements,” as Ahilan Kadirgamar put it in his column in the Daily Mirror, identify with the mercantilist, competitive ideology of the proto-fascist base in the Western countries. That means advertising Sri Lanka as a paradise secured by a strongman

In contrast, Gotabaya appeals to an aspiring class that has not yet achieved all that it believes it can. Drawing the bridges up won’t work for Sri Lanka. Still, he proposes a similar, muscular nationalism to compete on the global stage. This aggressive masculine bravado ignores Sri Lanka’s dependence in a system that has kicked away the ladder for poor countries, to use economist Ha-Joon Chang’s phrase. Powerful global institutions condemn state intervention, including industrial policy, as unfair competitive practice. Free trade agreements impose punishing rules to access markets. Such trade agreements are the outer ditches of industrial fortresses.

Gotabaya doesn’t have a solution to the structural problem of Sri Lanka’s dependency. Instead, he proposes regime stability for investors. He and his supporters attack the current Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe for signing the country away. They are as desperate, however, to attract foreign capital. The “urban professional classes, retired military actors, and nationalist bureaucratic elements,” as Ahilan Kadirgamar put it in his column in the Daily Mirror, identify with the mercantilist, competitive ideology of the proto-fascist base in the Western countries. That means advertising Sri Lanka as a paradise secured by a strongman.

Confronting reaction

What is the alternative? It’s clear from the Labour Party’s responses in the UK and Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign in the US that there are other ways of framing the masses’ problems: from austerity linked to deep cuts to social welfare, to runaway inequality embodied by the super-rich. These political groups and campaigns have drawn attention to new proposals such as the Green Industrial Revolution and the Green New Deal, which would fund massive investment in public infrastructure. In addition, they propose taxing the richest one percent to fund universal services, such as health care and education.

The problem in Sri Lanka is that progressives often lack the same vision. Liberal civil society appeals to an international order that is quickly disappearing; one built in fact on brutal imperialist intervention masquerading as humanitarianism. For the parliamentary left, the aftermath of revolutionary defeat around the world has meant focusing on “corruption,” attempting to win over politically ambivalent middle-class constituencies, and, in general, downplaying concerns about redistribution. Gotabaya, however, won’t be defeated with paeans to civility or social initiatives that don’t challenge market pressures on ordinary people’s households.

Instead, he can be defeated only by a progressive movement that recognises the immediate dangers of a world undergoing profound transformation. This movement must speak to a wide constituency of people who have been dispossessed, exploited, ignored, and marginalised. Only then can we inspire voters to turn up at the polls. The current crop of right-wing demagogues realise that winning is as much about mobilising their own narrow section of the population as it is suppressing voters from other groups. To defeat the proto-fascism that feeds on disenchantment with nominally participatory institutions—and, consequently, to begin the long process of revitalising democratic engagement—we must think big. That means offering people a stake in a renewed left movement. We need massive public investment in green infrastructure and the redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor by expanding universal services. Imagining this horizon of possibilities is critical. It keeps the immediate priority to vote for whichever mainstream candidate is most capable of defeating Gotabaya in perspective.


Devaka Gunawardena

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