Duterte: the Politics of the Superego

By now, everyone is already familiar with Jessica Zafra’s article, highlighting Rodrigo Duterte as the expression of the Filipino political Id, the unbridled agency of pleasure-satisfaction, loved by the masses, acting as the return of the repressed, set against the all too decent yet incompetent agents of the status quo. Perhaps, Zafra is arriving at a hasty conclusion, utilizing a simple Freudian analysis. What is problematic in such simplistic analysis is that it would fundamentally miss the point in psychoanalysis , where the id and the superego converge and are not separate.

Applied phylogenetically, the id-superego convergence is not simply the mundane synthesis of a ruthless imperative towards the achievement of a goal; rather, the id-superego intersection is the expression of the superego’s function, confronting its real object: the attainment of pleasure (and not merely the blind obedience to the law that keeps the id in check).

The Obscene Underside of Bureaucratized State

The cliques of the liberal party see themselves as the epitome of decency, rationalization, and intelligent politics. The often cited “intelligent vote” is one thing they want to propagandize themselves to appeal to those who want to be part of the intelligent vote and the university discourse (no wonder in the local university where Habermasian theory is dominant, the Liberal Party is strong, given this self-styled image of decency). To market oneself as the sole voice of intelligence in an already irrational electoral season contributes to the illusion, they seek to establish.

One is too familiar with how even in the mirage of decency and rationality, what is underneath it is the complacency to the bureaucratized state system. The cliques of the LP and UNA only play the opposition and administration card when elections are coming; outside it, these politicians would attend each other’s parties and private events. Hence, conflict between political parties is simply a mirage to cover up the bureaucrat system that operates our political and state system. Bureaucracy and decency diverge at the crucial point, where the spectacle of democracy is to be played out into the public sphere. It is entirely a performative and spectacular show that creates the image of rational choice within the democratic process. At this point, even Habermasian normativity are simply notes on the script with no actual political significance than to maintain good images.

The candidacy of Rodrigo Duterte however challenges the preconceived decency that operates in our political arena; a personality with no censure, insensitive to political correctness, and whose political platforms appeared to those who think they are intelligent as impossible. However, despite the irrationality and the insensitive remarks concerning women, the LGBT, rape, etc., he continues to gain widespread support from the masses who are fed up with the administration. The immediate Freudian presupposition emerges as the id-fication of the political. However, I think such simplistic theorization misses the point. At best, what we fundamentally encounter is the inherent transgression of rational liberal state democracy and its attempt to be universal. The attempt to suppress Duterte’s presidency will simply account to the inherent dictatorship of liberalism itself i.e. in suppressing its own by-products. Like an evil twin it has not tamed, it cannot contain the upsurge of what was initially repressed. The emergence of Duterte’s campaign is not a threat to democracy it is democracy itself that is in crises in the first place. The obsession with a politically clean, participative, and decent government has generated a generation of cynics among the masses and a culture of padrinos among the ruling class.

One can clearly see the class structure emerging from the argument of decency. It is not merely the imperative to decency, but an imperative to imitate and adopt a bourgeois form of decency, following liberal values yet at the same time adopt a patriarchal and feudal system in governing the country, acting as compradors to global capital. Duterte comes not as the breakthrough in the dualist deadlock (between decency and irrationality), but the full incarnation of both aspects. The inherent transgression emerges as someone who can play a double face against the symbolic edifice of the political; somone who is the living and walking contradiction of the structure, facing its own contradictions.

Wo es war, soll Duterte werden

Duterte is not simply the embodiment of irrational Filipino politics; but the candidate to demonstrate the internal crises of liberal state democracy, enculturated by the Filipino bourgeoisie, attempting to repress class conflicts through the spectacular utilization of the political drama. The acceptance of his womanizing ways and tasteless jokes is not an expression of irrational voter’s sentiment over intelligent ones, but an expression of pragmatism, admitting that “yes, he is insensitive but he can get stuff done,” is this not the expression of the superego imperative that one can endure the most painful of obstacles for the future attainment of something? The choice is not between rational democracy under the liberal party and irrational quasi-fascist dictatorship under Duterte (and BBM), but between a clique that does not admit its symptom over someone who has a clear identification with it.

Of course, I am not defending Duterte nor his actions, but what is crucial at this point is to consider how much of our fetishes have political implications and how far we can go just to realize them. We see this tendency in Louise Kaplan’s “fetishism strategy”, where the initial strategy begins with the transformation of something enigmatic and immaterial to something tangible as a defense mechanism against the enigmatic and indecipherable real, necessitating the shift to the symbolic (Kaplan 2006, 5). The Other four, she mentions, are simply variations of the first, creating a complex form of signifying chains, culminating at the death drive as the complete exploitation of the concretized object, replacing the original one (Kaplan 2006, 8). For Kaplan, this is the culmination of fetishism strategy. Applied to our present situation, this implies that Duterte is simply an incarnation of a political fetish i.e. of someone who can get shit done. What Kaplan’s theory does not see is that it entails merely the relegation of political figures as the big other, expressing our desire through them.

Political figures are less than expressions of the big other; but are on the contrary the very products of the big other, the subject supposed to believe (and blamed oftentimes), while we can remain within a cynical attitude with our really existing democracies. The first strategy of fetishism is itself the expression of an initial repression of the gap between the symbolic and the real. This Zizekian theorization establishes that the big other simply represses the gap through the objet petit a. In our experience, the act of repressing the gap is when we affirm the present alternative for us is either a decent government or an irrational one, further repressed to obey the big other in voting for the worse one. The superego and id converge in our choice to undergo legal and bureaucratic pain. Hence, the suitable answer oftentimes is not to choose, just to break the logic of choice and alternatives and the ideology that pervades in both alternatives.

With Duterte, one gets the obscene underside of our democratic process and actually not its savior. With his candidacy, the repressed character of our bureaucrat government emerges as the embodiment of what the establishment wants to tolerate but at the same time keep a populist relation with the public sphere. The public goes into full contact with its own fetishes, with the possibility of its fulfillment; the psychoanalytic lesson here is that when this desire is realized, the experience is a complete nightmare.


Reference Cited

Kaplan, Louise. Cultures of Fetishism. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2006.


Duterte: the Politics of the Superego

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