Four heads of government and state — all elected and currently in power — are judged in essays penned by four noted writers from their own countries. Put together by Vijay Prashad, a Marxist intellectual, journalist, author and chief editor at LeftWord Books, a publishing house that focuses on the interests of working people and movements for social transformation, the main premise of Strongmen: Trump, Modi, Erdogan, Duterte is that capitalism has failed to help improve humanity. In fact, it has worsened its condition and made a tiny world population — 0.01 percent — staggeringly wealthy, so much so that inaccessible, complex global financial systems and institutions have been built to protect that wealth at the expense of exploiting the destitute further.
The consequent reaction — desperation and escalating anger among the helpless masses — is a major danger for the rich minority who controls the global resources. Therefore, in order to curb and divert the lurking threat posed by the ordinary people of the world, ruthless authoritarian or fascist ‘strongmen’ are solicited, deployed and provided tangible distractions such as terrorism, drug dealers and illegal immigrants. As a result of this collective strategy by the haves, the real issues of poverty, lack of resources and hopelessness of the billions is pushed aside.
This lean book discusses an important idea — a phenomenon that might be shaping our entire world — by sampling Donald Trump in the United States, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Narendra Modi in India and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. Editions of the book published internationally take note of one more leader; however, for reasons not explained, the Pakistani edition brought out by Folio Books, Lahore, excludes the fifth strongman: Vladimir Putin.
A polemical new book looks at the rise of the popularly elected dictator around the world
Each case is elaborated by an essayist from the respective country. Essentially, it is about how authoritarian elected leaders with a tyrannical streak and permissive approach towards the rule of law, are managing the ballot to consolidate their power for the said goal. The editorial input seems a kind of an attempt to revive the receding ideology of communism by highlighting growing global fascist leanings — the essays concentrate on the plight of the common people and workers under oppressive governments headed by these strongmen, who are in turn backed by the wealthy capitalists.
In scrutinising Trump in ‘A Fable’, Eve Ensler, award-winning playwright, activist and author of The Vagina Monologues, says that Trump is a deadly “virus” that has not only spread its tentacles through his native country, but also infected leaders of other countries: “One classic theory is that the thuggish man had become what no one had yet become in the time of late date consumption and greed. He had evolved or devolved (depending on your perspective) into what the psychologists later came to define as ‘genocidal narcissist’ — a person willing and able to destroy everyone and everything on the planet as long as it makes him feel momentarily better. That extreme and total endgame narcissism made the oafish man a perfect super host for the virus.” Ensler believes that the hope for surviving this virus lies in “solidarity, imagination and love.”
In ‘Vanity of the Tyrant’, Indian actor, poet and writer Danish Husain delves into Modi’s background — from his father to his early rise through the ranks and his “apprenticeship both in the fascistic Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and as a careful observer of Indian politics.” Husain also expands on the life and personality of V.D. Savarkar, “the architect of Hindutva (Hinduness), the ideology of RSS and BJP.”
Young Savarkar wrote Essentials of Hindutva (1923), and Hindutva: Who is a Hindu? (1928), expounding on his theory of territorial nationalism. Husain writes, “Unless a people’s beliefs, their religion and their myths do not align with their territorial nationalism, their loyalty to the nation is suspect. Muslims and Christians — [Savarkar] declared — had other territorial loyalties and were therefore not to be trusted.” He adds, “At the age of 12, he led a mob to vandalise a mosque. There is a thick line that unites Savarkar to Modi.”
Another ideologist of the RSS, B.S. Moonje (1872-1948), is, according to Husain, the “link between European fascism and the RSS.” Moonje visited the Fascist Academy of Physical Education in Italy in 1931 and RSS drills have their roots in that influence received in Rome. Modi entered the world of RSS when he was eight years old. Soon after his marriage at 13, he vanished for two years. Husain writes: “Deception is one part of the grammar of Modi’s politics. Another is the production of division and fear. These are the pieces of Modi’s strategy, what has enabled Modi to come to power.” Although this may seem more about others than Modi, their inclusion is relevant as they were the architects of the movement, mindset and party for which Modi stands.
‘A Normal Man’ is Turkish novelist Burhan Sonmez’s essay on Turkish president Erdogan. “Erdogan began his life as a conservative Islamist. Then he changed his status to being a moderate Islamist. Now he is on the march to becoming a new kind of Sultan. It has been a long march — taking charge of the traditional authoritarian systems in society and in the state, as well as creating new kinds of institutions in both state and society to consolidate his power.” Sonmez criticises Erdogan for his tyranny, ruthlessness in pursuit of power, for amassing family wealth, his muffling of detractors and the media, for switching his foreign alliances and increasing Turkey’s external debt from $129 billion 15 years ago to $432 billion in 2017, while eroding the ethical values of Turkish society. His university degree is also alleged to be doubtful.
In ‘Nada in the Heart of Bluster’, novelist and journalist Ninotchka Rosca writes that as president of the Philippines, Duterte’s “only salient accomplishment was to maintain himself and his family in power for 30 years in a city ranked first in the number of murder cases.” She adds that “Mr Duterte did say during the campaign that the drug problem would be his focus — and to solve it, he was prepared to kill three million Filipinos, even comparing himself to Adolf Hitler ... Barely a month into his [electoral] victory, 440 people had been murdered. The killings were theatrical, the presentation of bodies calculated for maximum shock and fear; the killed were wrapped in packing tape, their humanity obliterated; they were tossed down back streets, under the bridge, vacant lots, garbage dumps; and near them lay a crude hand-lettered sign saying, ‘Addict. Do not emulate.’” Duterte himself is alleged to have stabbed someone to death when he was only 16 or 17 and his compulsive use of profanities and “special animosity towards educated women in positions of power” is also elaborated.
Strongmen builds on the premise that while the rich are getting richer and fewer, the poor workers are getting poorer and swelling uncontrollably, thus resulting in more festering anger towards the rich. The purpose of the strongmen is to redirect that anger away from the rich and towards other groups among the poor. Prashad sums up: “It is this hatred of the migrant, the terrorist and the drug dealer — all seen equally as sociopaths — that evokes an acerbic form of nationalism, a nationalism that is not rooted in love of one’s fellows but in hatred of the outsider. Hatred masquerades as patriotism. The size of the national flags grows, the enthusiasm for the national anthem increases by decibels. Patriotism is reduced to hatred of the migrants, the terrorist and the drug dealer. It smells acrid — of anger and bitterness, of violence and frustration. The eyes of the workers and unemployed workers as well as sections of the middle class are turned away from their own problems; from low wages and the near starvation in their homes, from lack of educational opportunities and provisions for health care, to other problems, problems that are false, that are invented by the new monsters to turn them away from their real problems. But it is another thing to be patriotic against starvation and hopelessness. The monsters have taken the second kind of patriotism and thrown it into the fire, human beings ache to be decent. But that ache is smothered by desperation and resentment, by the diabolical new monsters.”
Colonisation gave birth to freedom fighters led by respected leaders in most countries. That phase was followed by dictators in many decolonised societies. Then came the trend of democracy or the socialist/communist era, which sided and sympathised with peoples’ basic needs and the idea of self-rule. That era of elected leaders seems to be making way for a new trend of ‘strongmen’ who are backed by popular vote, but unrestrained by the rule of law and moral justice.
Or so the writers — undoubtedly outstanding keen observers of their respective subjects — would have us believe. But they are admittedly partisan thinkers, which makes one wish a counter-balancing perspective had been included to help readers develop their own opinions.
The reviewer is a freelance writer and translator of Freedom of the Press: The War on Words (1977-1978)
Strongmen: Trump, Modi, Erdogan, Duterte
By Eve Ensler, Danish Husain, Burhan
Sonmez and Ninotchka Rosca
Edited by Vijay Prashad
Folio Books, Lahore
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 9th, 2018