"A philosophy or system of government that is marked by stringent social and economic control, a strong, centralized government usually headed by a dictator, and often a policy of belligerent nationalism."
That is a definition in the American Heritage Dictionary.
And all these sound terribly, horribly, familiar. These are definitions and descriptions of different forms of fascism.
How does a peaceful nation, where people went about their business without bothering anyone else, turn into a fascist state?
In to a country where there is no equality before law, where there is no rule of law even, where impunity reigns, where the state controls business, where the state is exalted above the individual and religious freedoms are curtailed?
Where an oligarchy rules? Where the state instead of being a tool put in place by the people to govern the nation and ensure their freedoms, becomes a self-serving entity that preys on the people themselves and takes away their freedoms?
Where economic freedoms, the freedom to trade with their fellows beyond the borders, to take their savings where they want is deemed a crime?
Where individual freedom, the freedom of speech, the right to bear different political ideas or political action, is likened to treachery or a conspiracy?Where the state has a 'sovereignty' above the individual freedoms and sovereignty of ordinary citizens? Where the ego of the rulers is passed off as sovereignty?
Fascism has long been associated with the likes of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler.
But it can exist in different forms, and may not be as extreme as that practised by Hitler.
The road to serfdom
One of the clearest explanations of how nations and peoples get stampeded into totalitarian rule - indeed where they actively demand it - where the citizen is reduced to a slave before the ruler, is found in the works of a Nobel prize winning economist.
Friedrich August von Hayek together with one of his mentors, Ludwig von Misses, are now very much in the limelight after US Federal Reserve's economic bubble burst.
They are among the foremost exponents of the school of Austrian economics, which tells the danger of state control of interest rates and the bubbles created by central banking, which has a monopoly in a medium of a country's exchange - money.
Hayek had headed the Austrian Institute for Business Cycle Research before joining the London School of Economics from where he was a lone voice challenging the inflationary state interventionism of John Maynard Keynes.
But what concerns Sri Lankans today is one his later works, written towards the tail end of the Second World War, called The Road to Serfdom.
Being an Austrian he saw what happened in Germany. He describes how socialism came to the fore in Germany during the late 19th century and early 20th century and how the state intervention failed to deliver, and how society, even intellectuals, basically cried out for a dictator.
Totalitarianism, fascism and the breakdown of the rule of law, he found, was an inevitable consequence of the failure of socialist state intervention.
But while recognizing that socialism failed, the leaders of fascist countries do not believe that restoring the economic freedoms and unleashing the power of the people or true democracy that comes from rule of law will bring prosperity back to the country.
Look at this description found in Wikipedia.
"In the economic sphere, many fascist leaders have claimed to support a "Third Way" in economic policy, which they believed superior to both the rampant individualism of unrestrained capitalism and the severe control of state socialism."
This change obviously comes from the decline of tax revenues, when the nationalized and once profitable enterprises start eating into general tax revenues under state mis-management, and the rulers suddenly realized it is a part of the problem.
Hayek wrote The Road to Serfdom when people in England were under a process based on money printing, of rationing, with gold convertibility suspended, but a system which was nevertheless winning a war against perhaps one of the worst fascist movements of our time, Nazism.
By this time the roots of the 'welfare state' were already laid in the US with President Roosevelt's exchange rate depreciation and money printing even before the war, when like in Sri Lanka now, a burst economic bubble and a broken banking system allowed the government to borrow and deficit spend seemingly without generating inflation or higher interest rates.
What Hayek saw was a British tendency to apply wartime processes to fight peace time economic problems, like the older 'planning boards' of pre-Nazi Germany. Some of these concepts have been immortalized in a remarkable set of cartoons in Look magazine called the 'Road to Serfdom in Cartoons'.
It would be a mistake to look myopically at recent developments in Sri Lanka and draw parallels. The parallels date back decades, not years or months, both in Sri Lanka and elsewhere.
Against the articulate Keynes, the Cambridge University and the allure of central bank powered government, neither Hayek, nor the London School of Economics was proof against. Britain, and other nations, nationalized and printed their way to currency depreciation and high inflation.
Ironically, Hayek only won a Nobel Prize in 1974 after the failure of Bretton Woods and paper money became entrenched in the world.
Sri Lanka created a central bank to print money in 1950 and progressively nationalized business. The 1970s saw the worst type of economic repression imaginable under a heavily planned state.
After 1977, some economic freedoms were restored, and there was a certain amount of economic progress. But political freedoms were systematically taken away, through a draconian constitution and a general willingness and a call for a 'strong leadership' that could implement 'better' economic policies.
Deficit spending and state interventionism increased. The state built hotels and airlines. Unlike in Singapore though, the rule of law collapsed.
Television was made a state monopoly, on top of newspapers that were nationalized during the previous administration, giving a systematic tool for the state to dish out propaganda.
To this day many people talk of a 'lost opportunity' the post-77 administration had of ramming through practical economic policies with a five-sixths majority.
Of course there was no such chance. Sri Lanka was just going through the motions of socialist disillusionment and was well on the way to even more arbitrary government, where even the constitution could be changed at will.
Hayek says a sign of extreme fascism is also to target a scapegoat minority to build support and unity for the national party in power.
A second definition of fascism also found in the Wiktionary says this:
"By vague analogy, any system of strong autocracy or oligarchy usually to the extent of bending and breaking the law, race-baiting and violence against largely unarmed populations."
In Germany the scapegoat minority were the Jews. Sri Lanka's rulers started making discriminatory laws against the Tamils a few years after independence, long before they took up arms against the state.
The Burghers also left the country soon after.
But it was not just the Tamils who took up arms against the state. The Sinhalese majority did it twice. The problem is therefore more complex.
The long slide
In 1977 after the United National Party's landslide victory, there was systematic violence against Sri Lanka Freedom Party officials. But the roots are not necessarily there as well, though the year was a definite turning point to the worse.
Political violence of all types stem from a basic intolerance and an inability to tolerate the idea that someone else has a right to a different political opinion and the right to support a political party of their choice.
The dangerous idea that it is 'wrong' to support a particular party of choice as opposed to disagreeing about policies, do not come from the bottom. Neither are these processes sudden.
Says Hayek of Germany: "…the process of the decline in Rule of Law has been going on steadily in Germany for sometime before Hitler came into power and that the policy, well advanced towards totalitarian planning had done a great deal of work which Hitler completed."
So it was not just the 1970s planned economy, or the nationalizations, but it all goes further back.
It dates back to the Sinhala only law at least but perhaps beyond. Because the same forces that were at work in Britain and the same economic thinking was at work here. Except that the problem here was made worse by communal aspects.
The Rule of Law is a concept and a belief in the population, especially the decision making elites in society, the media and intelligentsia as well as the common people about the fundamental right to equality of a human being.
It is not about constitutions per se but a conviction among the people and among those of the people who become leaders, about freedom, about liberty and about brotherhood which are then incorporated in a constitution.
For example the Soulbury constitution, which was externally imposed, had a section 29, which said that any law passed by the legislature (parliament) that restricted religious freedom or discriminated against any community, would be void.
Section 29 barred any laws from making persons of any community or religion subject to "disabilities or restrictions to which persons of other communities or religions are not made liable" or "confer on persons of any community or religion any privilege or advantage which is not conferred on persons of other communities or religions."
The Sinhala only law was passed despite this provision.
The basic principle behind a constitutional government is that it limits the powers of government, not increase it.
In Western Europe, constitutions evolved to limit the powers of the executive in particular (the monarch) and not to increase it so that the coercive powers of the state could be used to interfere in the economic and other freedoms of the people.
A constitutional government will give certain absolute guarantees to the people, subject to which only parliamentary majorities can be used to pass laws.
In the absence of such safeguards the parliament merely becomes a tool for the 'tyranny of the majority', whether in terms of political thought of a particular party, a religion, a community or race.
Parliamentary majorities can always be used to direct the coercive power of the state against a particular people or a group of peoples, in the absence of absolute guarantees of freedoms and equality or the absence of the broader concept called the Rule of Law.
The principle of the Rule of Law, and the sovereignty of the individual can be written down in the constitution (and reinforced through measures like the US bills of rights), or just accepted as a given by the people, like in Britain.
If the people do not understand the importance of it however, or do not feel a sense of outrage when it is violated, writing it down or changing the existing constitution will not help, as past experience has shown.
The fate of the 17th amendment to the constitution is an example.
Such countries therefore are not really democracies at all, but belong to a class of 'arbitrary government', where 'laws' are made at the whims and fancies of small interest groups, or a ruling oligarchy, almost overnight without white papers, or any discussion.
In Sri Lanka almost any action of the state, fair or foul, can now be legitimized by 'cabinet approval' or 'parliamentary approval.'
The Rule of Law
Hayek explains the Rule of Law in this way.
"Nothing distinguishes more clearly conditions in a free country from those in a country under arbitrary government than the observance in the former of the great principle known as the Rule of Law."
The most obvious sign of the Rule of Law is that laws apply to everybody equally, whether it is a politician or common man, the rich or poor.
"It may even be said that for the Rule of Law to be effective it is more important that there should be a rule applied always without exceptions, than what this rule is," says Hayek.
For example it does not matter whether people drive on the left or right, except that everyone should follow the rule.
The rule of law therefore applies without any economic distinction.
Though rules restrict freedoms to some extent, the laws are known before hand and are not changed in an ad hoc manner. In economic terms this allows people to act with some certainty.
Some laws which are intended to bring economic 'equality' can be seriously discriminatory and confer 'privileges' to certain peoples.
Hayek points out that the Rule of Law can produce economic inequality, but socialists and fascists have objected to laws that had no views on how well off particular people ought to be.
"The Rule of Law thus implies limits to the scope of legislation: it restricts it to the kind of general rules known as formal law and excludes legislation either directly aimed at particular people or at enabling anybody to use the coercive power of the state for the purposes of such discrimination.
"It means, not that everything is regulated by law, but, on the contrary that the coercive power of the state can be used only in cases defined in advance by the law and in such a way that it can be foreseen how it will be used."
Privilege and economic apartheid
In a planned state, whether fascist or socialist (some socialists may be well-intentioned and do not usually discriminate on religious or communal grounds), ad hoc laws that give legal privileges to certain sections of citizens can become common.
Laws that try to re-distribute incomes in particular can confer privileges on some sections of the population.
"There can be do doubt that planning necessarily involves deliberate discrimination between particular needs of different people, and allowing one man to do what another must be prevented from doing," says Hayek.
"It is the Rule of Law, in the sense of the rule of formal law, the absence of legal privileges of particular people designated by authority, which safeguards the equality before the law which is the opposite of arbitrary government."
In Sri Lanka, many laws that have made people slaves of the state and its agents have been passed, especially in economics, creating conditions of virtual apartheid.
One of the major discriminatory laws is the taxation of ordinary people and freeing politicians, agents of the state including officers of revenue departments themselves, from income tax on their salaries.
People in the state have been given various privileges. State agencies have been given various privileges including monopolies.
A recent bill said loss making state enterprises will be freed from paying past due taxes - a privilege not available to enterprises run and owned by ordinary citizens.
Now the people of Sri Lanka have been reduced to tax generating slaves living under high inflation for the benefit of the state and its agents, who also get salaries higher than inflation from taxes or yet more printed money.
It is no wonder that three times people have taken up arms against the government. The official practice, in every case, has been to call them terrorists.
While even the Rule of Law, which is the minimum expected from the government - any government - has not been given to the people, they have been fed a steady diet of inflation, exchange rate depreciation and arbitrary government.
When the institution of permanent secretaries was destroyed, blurring the distinction between the political leadership and strong institutions that dispensed the Rule of Law equally to all citizens, the process of arbitrary government was strengthened.
Slaves by choice
As can be seen, the problem is not the executive presidency itself. It is a people who have no concept of what a free society is, and a people who are not only willing but are crying out to be led by totalitarian rulers.
People find it difficult to believe that instead of more arbitrary government, if there is more liberty and a restoration of rule of law they can work hard and better themselves.
People are still working hard, but poverty is higher than unemployment because the state is too greedy, and the fruits their labours are taken away and given as privileges to a few.
Some people now seem to have realized that there is a problem with the rule of law. But they are still expecting the next leader in the 'other party' to solve the problem.
Sri Lanka badly needs a constitution of liberty. But it is doubtful whether any politicians now in office or in the opposition has any idea what it is, or are indeed willing to give the freedom back to the people.
Especially when many people do not want liberty and have no idea what they are missing. Some migrate to other countries without knowing why they are doing so.
People who want strong interventionist governments are ignoring the obvious fact that every dictatorship has failed in a few years, while almost all liberal democracies have left the others behind long ago.
This include the entire Western Europe, the entire North America, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. And now increasingly Eastern Europe and East Asia.
Hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans have migrated to those countries. Very few, if any are migrating to Venezuela, Burma, or China for that matter.
That people who are fed on a diet of socialism and failed interventionism for decades distrust liberty was understood not only by people like Hayek.
"The psyche of the broad masses is accessible only to what is strong and uncompromising.
"…[T]he masses of the people prefer the ruler to the suppliant and are filled with a stronger sense of mental security by a teaching that brooks no rival than by a teaching which offers them a liberal choice.
"They have very little idea of how to make such a choice and thus they are prone to feel that they have been abandoned.
"They feel very little shame at being terrorized intellectually and they are scarcely conscious of the fact that their freedom as human beings is impudently abused; and thus they have not the slightest suspicion of the intrinsic fallacy of the whole doctrine.
"They see only the ruthless force and brutality of its determined utterances, to which they always submit."
That was from Mein Kampf.
And he said this not of himself but of the Social Democrats.