Sometimes I read this blog to catch up with the persons that I have been. Sometimes I do not recognize my voice in what I have written. There are essays I wrote two or three or five years ago that still make me cry. There are one or two things I wish I had done differently. There are persons I can remember only in my words. There are certain sorrows I should not like to forget. My feelings in the morning are often different from my feelings before bed, generally I feel sadder upon waking, though I find that it is more convenient to weep at night. This morning I thought it would be best for me to live in seclusion and alone, but tonight I thought how wonderful it was to come home to a house lit with people. I like that I have a room which only I enter. I like the notes, tables, and diagrams taped to my walls. I like that no one can tell me what to do or how to live my life, even if that also means I am seldom asked how I really am, or if I have already eaten. I write because nobody asks, sometimes I prefer it this way and sometimes I do not. I am an excellent listener, but I am not a very good friend. I expend so much energy caring for myself that often I have little left with which to comfort other people. The company I keep is small. Noise in every form appalls me. I have to remind myself to be kind. Sometimes I feel like I have more thoughts in a day than some people have in a month. I wonder if I live too much inside my head. Some nights I am convinced that no one is going to love me, sometimes this alarms me and sometimes it does not. I know that I am getting older, but still I get reminders that this is so. I want a love built like a shelter, a favorite hiding place. I want a love I can sleep with beneath the covers of a book. I want a love I can hold by the hand and walk with for hours under the sun, rain, trees, and tears. I want a love that is constant and fervent and sure, not the kind that makes me feel like a dog begging for scraps at a table. Maybe I am not lovable, or maybe I have not met someone who would consider me enduringly so. There is someone I should want to forget. There is someone to whom I would like to say, Forget me, even if it seems the forgetting is done. I keep misremembering my age, I think it’s because I am unsatisfied with what I have accomplished. There are things I would like to change in the world. There are very many things I wish I could be better at, even if I like the person I am becoming now. If I should die tomorrow, I would like to say that I am at peace with how I have lived my life, though I find nothing admirable about it. I worry that perhaps I forgive myself too often. I know that I forget too easily, because I do not have any regrets.
Two weeks ago, I attended a forum organized by Kritika Kultura at the Ateneo titled “Doing Digong: Politics in the Wake of EDSA,” featuring Vicente Rafael, Carmel Abao, Walden Bello, Nicole Curato, and Richard Heydarian. Abao talked about the political spaces opened by the Digong regime, which she already discussed in her Rappler article “Engaging Duterte, Engaging Ourselves.” Bello emphasized the dangers of the seeming dissolution of both state and non-state opposition to Duterte’s proto-fascist moves, and said that given the tide of turncoatism by many political parties, and the tenuous (and currently seemingly supportive) relations between factions of the Left and Duterte, it is up to civil society to condemn the abuses of this regime, especially its human rights violations and irrational drug war. Heydarian interpreted Duterte’s political clout and popularity as feeding on the high-octane frustrations of the masses resulting from the expectations raised and unfulfilled by the Aquino regime, specifically with regard to the trickle-down effects of high economic growth. Curato, whose talk referencing Benjamin Moffitt I found the most interesting of the four, discussed populism as a leadership and rhetorical style (rather than ideology) in the context of the contemporary acute scarcity of attention and (thus) the regnancy of immediate affect fueled by “communicative hyperabundance” over deliberative reason.
According to Curato, the theatrical underpinning of Duterte’s political style (which may be characterized as “penal populism” or “authoritarian populism”)—the dramatic tensions and “plot twists” that characterized his campaign trajectory, his penchant for boorish behavior justified by his “authenticity,” sensational plans and pronouncements (e.g. wanting to be first in line in raping an Australian missionary, the corrupt mediamen that deserved assassination, ceasefire with the communists, reinstitution of the death penalty and lowering the age of culpability to nine years old, insults hurled against the Pope, the United Nations, the ambassador of the United States, and this list could go on and on and on), jesting, “gutter language,” his overall coarsening, even mockery/subversion of political discourse—served not only to create a public that clamored for such an “honest” and fearless maverick to run for the presidency, but also to manifest his visceral repudiation of the elite-dominated (“politically correct”) status quo and ballast his discourse of crisis. (On his discourse of crisis: When did a war against drugs and crime last become the foundation of a platform for national governance by a Philippine head of state?)
Central to maintaining Duterte’s power, she explained, is the continuous performance of spectacles of crisis, which justify the needs for a strongman to save the people from urgent, impending dangers in an unstable world, and for this strongman to be granted greater “emergency” powers. (One of my friends, for example, believes that Duterte’s drug war is actually a proxy war against imperialist China, that Duterte wants martial law so he can rouse the people to defend the county in the event of open war, and that it is in the interest of the U.S. to allow war to break out here so they can profit from military trade. Another friend who studies international relations says that this is not as far-fetched as it sounds, but I have trouble swallowing the assumption that killing thousands of one’s own citizens is tantamount to waging war against another country that has yet to exercise open military aggression.
While my internationally-minded friends are unsatisfied with these political scientists’ state-based analyses of the Duterte phenomenon, I myself am more interested in the pedagogical effect of relentless acts and spectacles of violence and what they mean for the culture of Philippine society, already fraught with impunity. I appreciated that the speakers helped reframe populism, which is often simply dismissed as a result of the anti-intellectualism of the masses, as the society’s failure in developing spaces and capacities for public reason and discourse, which underpin deliberative democracy.
I cannot help but read the discourse about Digong in relation to one of my fundamental concerns, which is how the intrusion of market values in cultural institutions that play instrumental roles in cultivating and engaging an informed, critical, and ethical public—schools, mass media, organized religion, civil society organizations, art and literature and the public spaces in which performances can take place and various discourses negotiated—has contributed much to political decay. This problem is not just with the commercialization of education or journalism or artistic production, but also the lack of engagement of so-called experts with the masses, the irrelevance or inaccessibility of much research and publication and creative work and the diminishing figure of the public intellectual, the dismissive/contemptuous attitude of the more privileged toward “uncivil society”—and how underlying all of these is that hydra of contemporary ills, neoliberalism.
Many a think-piece has been written about how the likes of Duterte and Trump, as well as such events as Brexit, are symptoms of the crisis of neoliberalism as “a programme of the methodical destruction of collectives” (Bourdieu). With the recession of the welfare state, the privatization of public goods and the marketization, commodification, and corporatization of traditionally non-market institutions like intimacy, education, and religion, stateless capital, financialization, stagnation of wages, rising debt, and uncertainty all around, people want the sense of security (rooted in traditional collectives) that we lost when we chose, or were born into (as in the case of us millennials thrown by GenX-ers into a post-Thatcher world), an era characterized by the illusory limitlessness of the freedom of self-determination, that, in a capitalist society, is realized in the power of individual consumer choice.
Recognizing the political economy that underlies the social aesthetic of Duterte (and noticing my obsessive ire over him, as on Facebook I’ve been posting about hardly anything but), a leftist friend encouraged me to shift analytic focus from the “Dutertards” who keep justifying the human rights abuses, especially against vulnerable classes, spurred by Duterte, or those aligned with the Left, who may keep mum for pragmatic reasons, and instead theorize the invisible transnational forces that shape and buffet his regime.
It may be interesting to think about Duterte as a symptom of the crises of neoliberalism and see how he plays out as a disruptive force to the status quo, in the same way that the Greek crisis led some to surmise that perhaps the end of capitalism was nigh. But here’s the rub: Does Duterte question the capitalist order? No. Does he aim to change the country’s macroeconomic policies and programs beyond tokenish concessions like anti-contractualization? No (cf. SONA). And now that he is our problem, a problem with great social costs, what do we do? I mean, beyond theorizing how he manifests the anxieties of the capitalist unconscious, watching him subvert legal frameworks and plunge the country back into martial law, tolerating the thousands murdered, maybe even seeing people we know and love get killed as he performs the crises of neoliberal democracy that has always sacrificed the poor in its projects of order-making and economic progress?
What is the cost of structural transformation? What ought to be its means? How much violence can we justify? These are basic moral problems that we cannot overlook.
I remember how Yanis Varoufakis, a self-avowed Marxist, fought to keep Greece within the EU and maintain the hegemony of European capitalism. He reasoned that tearing it down without yet building institutions and mainstreaming them from the ground level up to replace the entrenched capitalist system will only lead to starvation and bloody war for millions of people. He recognized the high social cost.
The materialist dialectic maintains that capitalism sows the seeds of its own destruction. But to destruction, I prefer the term obsolescence: capitalism will become obsolete when we have evolved institutions and strategies to render it unnecessary. It is a creative destruction. The problem is that the contemporary conditions of fragmentation, alienation, and precarity have made it supremely difficult for everyone to organize, much less achieve, the kind of grassroots transformation of individual subjectivity, public consciousness, and popular culture leading to mass revolt against capitalist hegemony.
I don’t think Duterte’s top-down approach is creative. I don’t think that he will deliver on the promises of substantive change that he rode on to electoral victory. I don’t think he even means what comes out of his big foul mouth, or actually takes, not just says he takes responsibility for the consequences of his reckless behavior (while vaunting his executive immunity). I think that what bolsters his broad-based support is what Paulo Freire (quoting Erich Fromm) in The Pedagogy of the Oppressed calls the “necrophily” of oppression:
Oppression—overwhelming control—is necrophilic; it is nourished by love of death, not life. … It attempts to control thinking and action, leads women and men to adjust to the world, and inhibits their creative power.
When their efforts to act responsibly are frustrated, when they find themselves unable to use their faculties, people suffer. … But the inability to act which causes people’s anguish also causes them to reject their impotence, by attempting
“. . . .to restore [their] capacity to act. But can [they], and how? One way is to submit to and identify with a person or group having power. By this symbolic participation in another person’s life, [men have] the illusion of acting, when in reality [they] only submit to and become a part of those who act.”
Populist manifestations perhaps best exemplify this type of behavior by the oppressed, who, by identifying with charismatic leaders, come to feel that they themselves are active and effective. The rebellion they express as they emerge in the historical process is motivated by that desire to act effectively. The dominant elites consider the remedy to be more domination and repression, carried out in the name of freedom, order, and social peace (that is, the peace of the elites). Thus they can condemn—logically, from their point of view—”the violence of a strike by workers and [can] call upon the state in the same breath to use violence in putting down the strike.”
That this spate of state-sanctioned violence is a culmination of the long brutalization of the mass of people should not keep us from condemning it. Criminality is not the root cause of social ills, but a symptom of entrenched social inequality. These class-based mass murders do nothing to address existing inequity. There is nothing new about laying waste to “disposable lives” with impunity, whether by starvation, exploitation, and disaster-exacerbated vulnerability and poverty; these killings are business as usual, except now they’re in the open, reported everyday, and taken by some people as a measure of good governance and political will.
Duterte could have focused on reddressing historic injustices (like the rampant killing and and dispossession of Lumads, the Bangsamoro problem and the much-bandied-about “imperial Manila”) and reforming and building social welfare institutions, for a society is only as healthy as the citizens that make it up. Uplifting the masses of the subaltern class by ensuring that their basic needs are met so they can participate in the political realm is a necessary condition of deliberative democracy, which may someday transition to socialism. But no, what he made the linchpin of his regime is a stupid and evil effort to raise a pile of dead bodies.
How do we measure the social costs of a people desensitized to murder, how do we quantify rage and grief? How many children will grow up seeking revenge, how many more crimes will be committed in spite of the law? Violence—in thought, speech, action—begets violence. It is deeply disturbing to realize how publicly tolerated, even celebrated, the killings are, to see how the glorification of brutality makes bloodthirsty brutes out of the blindered, the opportunistic, the self-righteous.
Hannah Arendt, in On Violence, wrote:
The very substance of violent action is ruled by the means-end category, whose chief characteristic, if applied to human affairs, has always been that the end is in danger of being overwhelmed by the means which it justifies and which are needed to reach it. Since the end of human action, as distinct from the end products of fabrication, can never be reliably predicted, the means used to achieve political goals are more often than not of greater relevance to the future world than the intended goals.
Do the ends justify the means? Can one ever be sure what the ends are, where the chain of causality ends? In this light, the nature and quality of the means must be as important as what is intended by them.
Still thinking about how to go on, I’ll end this post with Henri-Frédéric Amiel: “The test of every religious, political, or educational system, is the man which it forms. If a system injures the intelligence it is bad. If it injures the character it is vicious. If it injures the conscience it is criminal.”
“A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days … a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time”
– Annie Dillard
For the past few weeks I have been eating the same breakfast every morning: a sandwich made of two slices of wholewheat raisin bread, tomatoes, green olives, pesto, and cheese (sometimes cheddar, sometimes gouda, sometimes havarti, but cheese all the same), paired with coffee or cultured milk. It takes me about thirty minutes to make and toast the sandwich, pour coffee, eat at a leisurely pace while browsing my newsfeed for the latest social outrage, and clean up. So begins a series of rituals that bookend my day.
For the longest time, I kept a schedule, revised every couple of months, allocating each hour of the day to specific activities: waking, eating, bathing, dressing, traveling, exercising, working, reading, writing, unwinding. Living virtually on my own and having a flexible work schedule allowed me to exert great control over how I spent my time, and I aimed to pack each day with as much activity as I could bear, and to minimize interruptions (such as unplanned socialization) to my timetable. Having many goals, I liked knowing exactly what I was supposed to be working on at any given minute. (There was a time when my day began at three a.m. and ended a little after midnight. I don’t want to go back to those days.)
Now that I am a little older, and a little more settled into my habits and preferences (even as I still move from one rented room to another every year or so), I have ceased to keep a rigorous timetable, though I find that my days tend to fall into a steady rhythm, a regular pattern of practices cultivated over the years. I am actively a creature of habit, for habit is what regulates the tumult of my inner world, the excitability of my mind; it is what disciplines the heedlessness with which I am wont to move through time, so easily is my attention caught by whatever seems, at present, to deserve it. And these days, so many things seem to warrant attention.
My solution to the problem of the scarcity of my attention is to limit that which needs attending to. Recently I read Marie Kondo’s (in)famous book on the art of tidying, and promptly discarded, as instructed, clothes, papers, miscellany and memorabilia, even books. I moved on to cut down on unnecessary tasks and commitments, then I unfriended three scores of Facebook acquaintances and hid about as many contacts from my newsfeed.
One way to create space for desired complexity (of thought, of feeling, of being) is to simplify, as much as one can, the other aspects of one’s existence that are not essential to one’s identity: to wake and sleep at the same times, to dress the same way, to prepare the same meals day after day. To forgo activities beyond what decent living demands, like sweeping the floor and washing the dishes and earning one’s keep, that no longer incite growth or happiness. To be constant and ruthless in the process of curating the elements that make up one’s world–objects, places, people, memories, sensations–retaining not only what feels pleasant, but what evokes meaning, what inspires a sense of purpose, what actually contributes to the richness and dearness of life. Because every choice precludes other choices, and time spent on a fruitless endeavor, an unreasonable longing, is time one won’t get back.
Kathy Acker was wrong–one simply can’t want or have everything; else, things would cease to mean in the resulting chaos. And if wanting is suffering, then in the end, maybe the good life consists in not having all that one desires, but in one day being able to point to a house, a room, a bag, a box, or to nothing at all, and say, now this is all that I need.
That is one of the struggles of my everyday- and life-time: to whittle down activity and the anxiety that arises from the nagging sense that one is never doing enough, never moving fast enough. I feel like if I could only determine a time and place for everything–and forgive myself when my determination falls short, and to plan again–then there shouldn’t be any hurry.