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.”