February 10 verdict in historical context
Posted on February 28th, 2018

As has been observed by many, the electorate recorded a wholesale abandonment of the false promise of yahapalanaya at the February 10 local government elections. The collective in power however, has refused to concede the irrefutable repudiation of the 2015 fraud by the public as an indictment of their dishonesty. Continuing attempts by motormouths like Rajitha Senaratne to attribute their rejection by the electorate to the failure to jail the Rajapaksa family shows an unwillingness to accept the reality that the so-called ‘national government’ has been roundly condemned by the vast majority of people in the country.

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The public’s rejection of countless promises of future prosperity made by the prime minister during campaigning resonates the scornfully sarcastic perspective on American politicians provided by the American journalist Henry Louis Mencken in the Baltimore Evening Sun newspaper during the 1920s and 1930s: in one of the most cited articles of Mencken, published 98 years previously on 9 February 1920, titled A Carnival of Buncombe, Mencken posed the rhetorical questions: ‘Has the art of politics no apparent utility? Does it appear to be unqualifiedly ratty, raffish, sordid, obscene, and low down, and its salient virtuosi a gang of unmitigated scoundrels?’ (‘Buncombe’ incidentally is a form of the more widely known American English word ‘bunkum’ which denotes insincere promises made by politicians prior to elections).

It appears that through the February 10 vote, the Sri Lankan public branded those representing American style bogus democracy — transplanted in Sri Lanka in 2015 by American neocons together with their new regional sheriff India —a gang of ‘unmitigated scoundrels’ of the type described by Mencken. The post-2015 track record of unprecedented levels of corruption, mismanagement and lies of the group certainly justifies the label.

The poll result clearly shows that the SLFP membership at the grassroots has largely ‘written off’ the Sirisena wing, together with the party secretary handpicked by him. As far as they are concerned, Sirisena’s connivance with the UNP in the 2014 events was a treacherous and opportunistic act that weakened the SLFP. As to the UNP, they seem to be still failing to ‘take home’ the electoral message that has been conveyed repeatedly through 30 elections over two decades that a party led by their leader is not marketable material in today’s Sri Lanka.

Ironically, the president’s flaccid response to the electoral decapitation is displaying the levels of incompetence that has characterised the past three years of lame-administration by a group of people without the necessary commitment to solve problems or the requisite management skills. The president’s attempt to answer the public rejection through the non-solution of redistributing the spoils of 2015 power grab — ministerial posts with extensive perks — has elicited the resistance and rebellion that had to be expected: yahapalana ministers never appeared to be in politics for national service, but for what they could ‘milk’ from the public purse and steal in other ways.

The hopeless and desperate national calamity the country is in calls for an analysis of the 2015 disaster — its main actors and events — in the context of historical records of similar circumstances. Similarities between Julius Caesar and Mahinda Rajapaksa as popular political players and between those behind the 2015 yahapalana plot and Caesar’s assassination, based on William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, have been drawn previously in these columns (The Sri Lankan regime change – a Caesarian analogy, The Island, November 24, 2015). The historical narrative of the political context of ancient Rome, which goes beyond what is portrayed in Shakespeare’s play, points to even more striking parallels with the events in Sri Lanka.

The need to peep into Roman history beyond what could be gleaned from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar arises from the fact that Shakespeare, despite being the consummate explorer of the depths of human emotions and behaviour in a manner that transcends time, was not a historian.

Though Shakespeare wrote Julius Caesar against the background of a long-running power struggle between the monarchy, aristocracy and the house of commons in Elizabethan England in the 16th century, his treatment of issues in shaping the dramatic narrative in Julius Caesar has centred around exploring the connections between rhetoric — a much-valued skill in Renaissance England — and power and conspiracy.In that context, Shakespeare’s portrayal of Caesar has been limited to a great Roman general recently returned to Rome in triumph after a successful military campaign in Gaul, rejoicing over the populace’s increasing idolisation of his image to the extent of being carried away with notions of his own invincibility. Unfortunately, this particular portrayal of Caesar distracts from the important role he played in the overall political context of the last century of the Roman Republic, earning the wrath of the Senate and being assassinated by them.

The real Caesar in Roman politics

An analysis of the history of the Roman Republic in its last stages demonstrates that Caesar was a leader who represented the downtrodden in a long-running power struggle between the Senate, the body that represented the rich aristocracy — referred to as patricians — and the Tribunes that represented the peasantry — referred to as the plebeians. This class conflict was heightened by the acute economic disparities generated by the military and economic successes of the republic in the first 300 years, making the rich richer and the poor poorer.

The last 200 years of the Roman Republic was marked by increasing efforts of the poor to correct the power imbalance, and ebbs and flows of fortunes of the adversaries: the plebeians scored an important temporary victory instituted by the two Gracchus brothers (Gracchi Reforms) of 133 and 121 BC, later reversed by the counterrevolution of Dictator Sulla in 83 BC, again restored by Gaeus Pompey Magnus in 71BC. Caesar can be considered the last leader of the Roman Republic who attempted to correct the power imbalance and address the social issues that affected the poor. His assassination was the culmination of a sinister plot by his politically corrupt opponents. This history has strong parallels with the role Mahinda Rajapaksa played in Sri Lanka between 2004 and 2015 and the composition of forces and the manner of operation of the forces that were hell bent on politically assassinating him.

The beginnings of the class struggle in the Roman Republic go back to the overthrow of Etruscan invaders and its establishment in 509 BC. The overthrow of the colonial rule was quickly followed by a power grab by the patricians represented by the Roman Senate that had functioned historically as a 300-member advisory body for the Roman kings. Though the plebeians were supposed to have won sovereignty, it was in theory only. In practice, the Senate had usurped the revolution to gain enormous power through the control of appointments for key government positions. They had reserved the powers of the senate to elect two consuls for one-year terms. Each consul was empowered to veto the actions of the other. When unity of command was necessary at times of military activity, a dictator was appointed in place of the consuls, for periods not longer than six months. Aristocrats also retained the exclusive rights to annually elect positions of magistrates, concerned with all aspects of government, not merely the law. In reality, the Republic became a hereditary oligarchy in the hands of the wealthy patrician families who ran the all-powerful Senate with no genuine voice for the plebeians, women, or slaves. Inevitably, the situation ignited a power struggle between the patricians and the plebeians.

The enormous disparities in the distribution of wealth that resulted from Rome’s imperial growth in the first 200 years served to heighten the class conflict. In a predominantly tribal Europe where tribes in Germany, Britain, and France were preoccupied with fighting among themselves, Rome under the pretensions of being a ‘free republic’ went on to become the centre of the most powerful empire in the world by the third century BC. An unprecedented scale of wealth flew into Rome following the conquest of Carthage and Spain and annexation of Greece, making the Roman senatorial elite extremely rich.

At the same time, Roman citizens were being dispatched on foreign military service on long stints throwing their farms into disrepair. Soldiers returning from the battlefield often had to sell their farms to pay their debts, and the aristocracy bought the farms at discounted prices, making the original owners tenant farmers. The conquests had also brought a great surplus of inexpensive slave labour to Rome, enabling the land owning aristocrats to reduce costs of production. Deprived of land, employment opportunities and markets for their produce, the masses of unemployed plebeians began to flood into Rome, followed by clamour for redressing the social ills affecting the poor.

The masses managed to establish a college of ten ‘Tribunes’ of elected plebs to act as a check on the authority of the senate and the annual magistrates, holding the power to intervene on behalf of the plebeians, and veto unfavourable legislation. The patricians, refusing to cede any power were resorting to foul and violent means to undermine plebeian efforts to redress. When Tiberius Gracchus, the first great reformer elected Plebeian Tribune in 133 BC attempted to enact a law to distribute some of the public land amongst landless veterans, the aristocrats paid a corrupt Tribune named Marcus Octavius to veto the legislation at the Plebeian Council. Tiberius’ attempts to impeach Octavius on charges of corruption were thwarted by murdering him when he stood for re-election to the Tribunate.

Tiberius’ brother Gaius was elected Plebeian Tribune a decade later in 123 BC. Gaius Gracchus, determined to weaken the senate and to strengthen the democratic forces, enacted a law to replace senators on the jury courts with apolitical businessmen of the upper classes and introduced a grain law which greatly disadvantaged the provincial governors, most of whom were senators. Gaius outlawed the judicial commissions, and declared the ‘Final decree of the Senate’ to be unconstitutional. He, too, was defeated and then murdered after he stood for re-election to a third term in 121 BC. The Gracchi reforms obtained at the cost of lives of the two brothers altered the power equation in favour of a degree of political parity for plebeians with the aristocratic patrician class.

A counter revolution aimed at reversing the weakening effects of Gracchi reforms on the senate was launched by Lucius Cornelius Sulla, a member of the aristocratic (optimates) party elected Consul in 88 BC. He introduced a law that required senate approval before any bill could be submitted to the Plebeian Council. After a brief period of power of the plebeians led by Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Cinna (Julius Caesar’s father-in-law), Sulla recaptured the city of Rome in 83 BC, installed himself dictator, and started reversing the Gracchi reforms of the Tribunes in earnest: he removed the power of the Tribunate to initiate legislation and to veto acts of the senate. Tribunes were prohibited from standing for re-election or ever holding any other office. Sulla then weakened the magisterial offices by increasing the number of elected magistrates and required they be given automatic membership in the senate. These two reforms were enacted primarily to allow Sulla to increase the size of the senate from 300 to 600 members. He transferred the control of the courts from the knights, who had held control since the Gracchi reforms, to the senators, further increasing the importance of the senate as the principal organ of government.

These non-constitutional and immoral changes made the Tribunes and thus the People of Rome powerless until 71 BC when Gaeus Pompey Magnus and Marcus Licinius Crassus, elect to the Consulship with the agreement of the popular party dismantled most of Sulla’s constitution.

Caesar deals the final blow to the Senate

Having been born in 100 BC, Caesar had grown up in a chaotic and dysfunctional Roman Republic. The central government had become powerless and the provinces had come under the absolute control of their governors. Political corruption maintained by a corrupt aristocracy had spiralled out of control, making them quite rich and rest of the republic poor.

Between his crossing of the Rubicon River in 49 BC, and his assassination in 44 BC, Julius Caesar introduced laws to improve the condition of the poor, redistributing land and reducing unemployment. Essentially, he completed the reforms the Gracchi brothers had begun. Caesar established a new constitution intended to suppress all armed resistance in the provinces and to create a strong central government in Rome by increasing his own authority and by decreasing the authority of other political institutions. Caesar put a more diverse group of people in government and the Senate. Probably, the most remarkable service Caesar rendered was ending the repugnant Roman constitutional theory that stood against a representative of the people ceasing to be one when he acts against the wishes of the people. By reversing this law, Caesar removed constitutional restraints on the popular will, putting the state under the absolute control of a popular majority. Caesar made the Roman Senate a mere ceremonial body of corrupt, wealthy men with no power to rule. So, they murdered him!

In aftermath of the death of Caesar, as recorded by Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (Suetonius), Marc Anthony (Consul) outmanoeuvred the assassins, forcing Brutus and Cassius to leave Rome, triggering a battle between Marc and Augustus for power within the Second Triumvirate made up of Augustus Caesar, Marc Anthony and Lepidus, assuaged by Marc leaving for Egypt with Cleopatra and Augustus to the East. Finally, Brutus’ assassin faction was defeated by the united armies of Octavian and Marc Anthony at the Battle of Phillipe in 42 BC, leading to Brutus and Cassius committing suicide. Internal strife continued with Augustus Octavian and Marc Antony vying for hegemony until Antony was defeated at the battle of Actium in 31 BC establishing himself on the throne as Augustus Caesar and emperor of Rome. He eliminated the remaining powers of the senate. As to the fate of other assassins, Augustus is supposed to have killed around 40 who were involved in the conspiracy, including Cicero. The other senators who were part of the conspiracy are supposed to have committed suicide.

Relevance to Sri Lanka

It is presumed that an attentive reading of the foregoing would make the similarities between ancient Rome and 2015 Sri Lanka from a class struggle perspective is obvious to the reader. An essential feature of similarity goes to the aristocrats’ use of corrupt operatives from the opposite camp to achieve their objectives. They achieved such influence corruptly by financing election campaigns for key positions with ‘dark money’. The aforementioned Octavius, who sabotaged the progressive legislation of Tiberius Gracchus in the Tribunate, is a case in point. The aristocrats’ cynical use of power involved providing legal protection to such class-traitors, until Julius Caesar removed the particular provisions from the constitution.

Also oddly pertinent in a contemporary context is the tendency of politicians to assume that the public shares their desires, as the conspirators wrongly assume they will be hailed as heroes for having brought down a leader on false premises such as ambitions of dictatorship on the part of charismatic leaders. The conspirators including his good friend Brutus and Cassius feigned their concern that Caesar may aspire to dictatorship over the Roman republic, Caesar, on the other hand, had already (according to Roman history) been made dictator but refused a king’s crown. Brutus corruptly rationalises the conspiracy by describing keeping Rome free as ‘the virtue of our enterprise’. The February 10 results send that the Sri Lanka population has realised that they were led up the garden with such charges against Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Perhaps, the most unsettling theme in Julius Caesar, seen through the prism of today’s politics in Sri Lanka, is the danger that threatens when the public perceives a void of power at the seat of government. The government’s attempt to fill the grave administration deficit by electing close to 9,000 new councillors has given rise to the farcical situation of many Pradeshiya Sabha areas of the Matara District for example, with more the council members than council workers. The Colombo Municipal Council with 119 members is tipped to have its meetings at a BMICH hall.

From the perspective of the public who are at the receiving end of such foolery and incompetence could only find some solace probably in another Shakespeare play, Othello where the Duke is saying to the invented character Brabantio, the father of Desdemona: ‘The robbed that smiles steals something from the thief’.

Whether they would at least be able to feign a smile is a grave concern.

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