Authoritarian Populism is the Danger Ahead

Ahilan Kadirgamar, in Daily Mirror, 6 July 2020, where the title runs “Regimes in Times of Crisis: Authoritarian Populism, Bonapartism and Fascism”

The crisis we face now is like a tectonic shift in the economy. Global production, the labour used for it, and the demand to realise it, are all in free fall. What will be the political consequences, and what kind of regimes will emerge out of such a deep crisis?
In Sri Lanka, as we approach a significant parliamentary election, my question is not about the character of the parties and the personalities of the candidates that may win or lose. The victory of the SLPP and its consolidation is a bygone fact; that battle was lost with the presidential election last November.

I am thinking about the kind of regime that may emerge after the election, and the possible routes of political consolidation shaped by the deepening crisis.  These are times to rethink political economic analysis. In recent decades, many analysed the relationship between the state, society and economy, as one of a neoliberal class project, where authoritarian state power was used to restructure society and economy towards the greater accumulation of wealth for capital, and in particular finance capital. Over the last decade, since the Global Economic Crisis of 2008, and with the global order unravelling, some scholars analysed the emergence of Authoritarian Populist regimes across the world that continued with the same neoliberal policies to the benefit of capital, but masked by populist discourse.


The great crisis that has emerged with the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed economies over the cliff, and the neo-liberal class project seems to have finally reached its limits.

Economic free fall

The changing predictions of the IMF itself reflects the dynamic of economic free fall; from their Global Economic Update in April, where they predicted global economic growth to be minus 3% (a contraction of 3%), has declined to minus 4.9% (a contraction of 4.9%) just two months later with their June update. These unprecedented levels of economic contraction may well be further revised downwards as reality further sinks in for the IMF.
In Sri Lanka, last week we saw the World Bank downgrade us from an upper middle income country to a lower middle income country (meaning our per capita income, which is our GDP divided by our population, is lower than the US$ 4,046 cut-off). While recognising the absurdity of such World Bank rankings, which for decades have meant nothing for the working people, the downgrade is nevertheless a sign that the neoliberal scheme of bubbling up finance and investing in infrastructure and real estate with massive levels of external debt as a way of increasing GDP growth in the short-term, has come to an end.
More significantly, in June, the UN office in Sri Lanka released a report titled, ‘Tackling the COVID-19 economic crisis in Sri Lanka: Providing universal, life cycle social protection transfers to protect lives and bolster economic recovery,’ which claims the contraction in the Sri Lankan economy in 2020 could be anywhere between 4.8% and 18.5%, much more severe than the World Bank’s prediction of 3% contraction. According to the UN report, this unprecedented economic contraction could result in average household incomes falling by 27%. Globally and in Sri Lanka, these are economically devastating times. What could be the political fallout? How will countries be ruled amidst such a deep seated crisis?

End of liberal times

Almost a decade ago, I argued that Sri Lanka, with the end of the protracted civil war, was going through a “second wave of neoliberalism” with the inflow of global capital and greater integration with the global economy. With global trade grinding to a halt and Sri Lanka, in particular, constrained by crippling balance of payments problems, the neoliberal project that began in 1978, and commonly known as the open economy reforms, have now run their course, and are likely to reach a dead end.
The question, however, is what would become of politics? Will the liberal face or façade of politics also come to an end? And, if so, what kind of political regime would replace it? After all, if

there is tremendous dispossession, there is bound to be considerable resistance from the people, and how will those in power handle such resistance? These are still open questions, but with leftist alternatives without much traction around theworld, I draw from two insightful Marxist theorists, Stuart Hall and Nicos Poulantzas, to understand the possible right wing routes of consolidation.

Louis Buonaparte in 1830……well before his 1848 rise to power

Stuart Hall, in a seminal essay in 1979, months before the election of Margret Thatcher and the eventual consolidation of neoliberalism in Britain, coined the concept of Authoritarian Populism:
“What we have to explain is a move toward ‘authoritarian populism’—an exceptional form of the capitalist state—which, unlike classical fascism, has retained most (though not all) of the formal representative institution in place, and which at the same time has been able to construct around itself an active popular consent. … It has entailed a striking weakening of democratic forms and initiatives, but not their suspension.” (The Great Moving Right Show, Marxism Today, 1979).

Drawing on Hall’s analysis four decades back, politics not only in Sri Lanka, but also in many other countries including India, Russia, Turkey, Brazil and the United States, to name a few, have been recently analysed as having turned towards Authoritarian Populism. But this shift has taken place with the weakening of democratic institutions, while sticking to a façade of liberal democracy with elections.

Populist politics cannot function in an economic vacuum. If neoliberal policies, and before that, import substitution policies, were the vehicles of populist politics in Sri Lanka, what kind of capitalist economic project can sustain such populist rule now? Sri Lanka’s pandemic triggered deep seated economic crisis of, not just declining foreign earnings, but also falling state revenues, have created a fiscal straight jacket, with little room for populist policies to placate any outrage of the population.
Yet with fear and panic of the pandemic, populations around the world are leaning towards authoritarian and militarised leadership, surrendering their political will, in the hope that a strongman leader will solve the crisis. However, as economies spiral down into a deeper crisis and people’s suffering increases, such faith in centralised political leadership could also crumble.

Bonapartism and Fascism

This is the backdrop to my interest in the political forms of the Bonapartist and Fascist regimes. Bonapartism draws on Karl Marx’s analysis of the two decade long rule of Louis Bonaparte, the elected president of France after the failure of the revolution of 1848, and who with the support of the military, state employees, sections of the capitalist class and even the peasantry, installed a dictatorship to preserve the status quo of class relations. Indeed, Bonapartist rule is characterised by different sections of society, from the business elite to the peasantry, interpolated under a centralised authoritarian leadership mobilising the repressive apparatuses of the state, but without major changes in class relations.
Fascism, on the other hand, as we know from the history of Nazi Germany, and for that matter Italy under Benito Mussolini and Spain under Francisco Franco, is bound to bring catastrophic changes in society including an attack on democratic freedoms and rights, along with major changes in class relations. Fascist solutions entail attacks on ethnic and religious minorities and intensified oppression along gender, caste and class lines. Furthermore, with fascist projects, economies are re-engineered, and production and economic growth accelerated, often through the appropriation of the wealth and resources of some sections of society labelled as the enemies within, and national labour mobilised without any rights towards a singular nationalist goal.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed economies over the cliff, and the neoliberal class project seems to have finally reached its limits”

Nicos Poulantzas, in an important essay months after the military coup in Greece in 1967, clarified the difference between Bonapartism and Fascism:
“By Bonapartist form we mean the political forms that correspond, at the level of the configuration of forces, to a balance between the political forces which are crossed through by the fundamental class contradiction. … There are here certain differences in relation to the fascist dictatorship. The latter, as Gramsci demonstrated in his texts on fascism, seems to correspond not to a simple balance of forces but to a ‘catastrophic’ one. … In the case of Bonapartist dictatorship, the state does not need a serious popular support to the extent a fascist one does, because its function is to serve in the long run the interests of the dominant class by playing upon the dynamic of the fundamental contradiction itself.” (The Political Forms of the Military Coup D’etat, Poreia, June 1967)
In other words, both Bonapartist and Fascist rule lead to dictatorship and the suspension of liberal democracy, whether it be the parliament, the judiciary, elections or other liberal institutions of governance. Furthermore, the dynamics of such political projects are propelled by the severe aggravation of political economic crisis. However, it is under a Fascist regime that significant changes to class relations, including horrible oppression of minorities and tremendous mobilisation of sections of the population instilled with violence take place. The turn towards both projects of dictatorship, without the veil of liberal democratic legitimacy, also come with great risks for the rulers. It becomes a point of no return with serious consequences for the existence of the concerned rulers themselves when such projects fail.
There is nothing inevitable in politics, and the political ground that has been laid over decades with nationalist politics as well as the last decade following the Global Economic Crisis of 2008, the political routes that are being carved out now by the Right and the resistance of the people in the future, can lead to any one of the three scenarios of Authoritarian Populism, Bonapartism or Fascism. Those of us committed to democracy should analyse and debate the possibilities, and more importantly, find ways of building spaces for democratic struggle amidst the bleak future


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