Duterte: Three Essays on Populism, Fascism, and the Politics of Inherent Transgression (Part 1 of 3)


My previous take on Rodrigo Duterte engaged in a usual psychoanalytic reading of his impact on Philippine democracy, engaging with Jessica Zafra’s naïve description; she claimed that our current situation is an id-ified politics where certain candidates embody the irrational desires of the people, acting as the externalization of our disappointments as such. However, I am more inclined to think that our current situation is simply a variation of rationalist politics, where we simply encounter the inherent transgression of liberal state democracy. At best, what we encounter with Duterte is not irrationality as such, but the expression of pragmatic rationality that our politically correct liberals have been attempting to repress.

I would admit that in the growing literature about to-day’s electoral politics will prompt us to take a more unusual stance; I do not like this usual fear about the emergence of fascism as a form of bribery to justify the status quo and the competence of the administration. In this case, I admire the radical left’s denunciation of Duterte wherein we do not argue for the decency one the other. Hence, to further expand the horizon of the first Duterte essay, I would express it in three themes: populism, fascism and the politics of inherent transgression. With that particular form in mind, I argue that we can understand the traumatic situation of our present predicament.

Democracies in the third world are always in crises specifically because of the intellectual emergence of going back to the pre-colonial identity and built the national discourse from there as a rejection of Western colonial mentality. The problems of the orient kindled by Western discourse of domination, hijacking the natural development of any nation or creating the present ethnic crises that made any form of authentic democracy impossible. Can we then possibly describe Philippine democracy as simply in crises, kindled by colonial antagonism? Here, I think we should proceed in the same manner as the National Democrats; colonialism, imperialism, feudalism, and bureaucrat capitalism are still evident in the economic conditions of any developing country and imperialist agendas continue to play as one of the antagonist agent of a country’s struggle for independence.

In the case of our present electoral events the candidates are mostly moving within the coordinates of satisfying the imperialist masters in allowing the unfettered entrance of foreign businesses to privatize the country under the illusion of GDP growth. Resistance to this trend however can be multi-faceted and the contradictory attitudes of Duterte can be described as a move to renormalize the crisis under the guise of a big political drama.


On Populism: Kindling the Mass Base

Philippine politics is a highly complicated affair as seen from its inherent family and gratitude centered politics. The common man cannot be simply convinced by educational attainment, but to the sincerity one gives to the masses. In every election, a candidate becomes prominent by its capability to incur mass support and mass appeal not for good platforms but on the sheer charisma of his cult. The charisma of such a personality is not based on the capability of the person, but simply on his social relations he keeps with the people. This is however a simplistic description that panders on the masses, seeing them simply as reacting to popularity culture rather than in the engagement of a proper democracy. Populism or the popularity trough an invocation of popular sentiment, highlighting simple problems as national problems is not a political expression of irrationality. Rather, populism is simply the expression of a disgruntled populace, finding a way to overcome the failure of a genuine emancipatory project.

In our present situation, the emergence of populism can be described as a form of resistance to bourgeois domination of the political sphere and the prescription that the masses are simply duped into something. For that specific reason, the very idea that there is a rational and irrational vote is way for the bourgeoisie to maintain its upper position in determining the validity of its public use of reason. Populist politics emerge specifically at this point in the attempt to counteract the bourgeois argument by kindling the mass base. In pure Habermasian terms, the communicative act of the populist leader is a way to collect the general disgruntlement of the other parts of the public sphere against those who might want to restrict discourse to a select expert bureaucracy. The populist candidate is simply the “subject supposed to know” our present situation, belonging to the masses and oftentimes engage in their own politically incorrect ways; behind every mass populism however is the latent class struggle appeal of its movements. In the case of Duterte, it is establishment candidates versus someone with no political machinery. During the candidacy of Erap, it was someone from the poor against the bourgeois candidates. However, it might sound as if a genuine class struggle is played out, but one can see the false manipulation of the class struggle discourse. One pursues an external enemy in the guise of the establishment, the calloused ones to the poor, et cetera. In this situation, the enemy is concrete and abstract at the same time as long as he is posited by the populist and exploited as the central node of his policy making.

Do we see this trend in Duterte? Filipino democratic discourse and debates seldom play the struggle strategy, but the supporters are the ones who fundamentally engaged in positing an external enemy. The enemy however in this case is not a person (like GMA in 2010), but a symptom, embodied in the petty criminals who disrupt everyday life. The popularity of enacting summary executions on petty criminals, the hard-hand tactics against drug abusers and pushers, etc. are posited under the basic assumption that getting rid of them would make the country livable for honest and decent citizens, without worrying about the bureaucratic judicial system. The temptation to reduce this belief into mere receding into an id-fication of the public completely misses the point. The tragic aspect of populist discourses is the complete externalization of the symptom, while at the same time argue that the people are pristine, corrupted by some parasitic external supplement that corrupts the honest good people of the nation.

Here, post-colonial discourses and populism intersect at the obscene assertion of an external enemy or supplement that corrupted the present state of things. Both colonialism and the symptom are posited as coming from outside the symbolic arrangement and that the solution is for the emergence of a new social national discourse that is more inclusive to the cultural aspects of our nation in order to unify with consideration for those who are excluded by the external enemy. Furthermore, the intersection of anti-colonial/post-colonial discourse and populist politics has always been practiced in this country and other Asian countries. The whole edifice of Ferdinand Marcos’ politics is the “Filipinization” effort, to create a distinct Filipino nation and identity. This tactic was so popular that the old Filipino Communist Party (the PKP not to be mistaken for the PKP-MLM, the Maoist breakaway group formed by Jose Maria Sison) agreed to collaborate with the Marcos regime and in turn be tolerated by the government as a prize for its silence and complacency (a tolerance that can also be seen in how the PCF and de Gaulle’s government worked together in suppressing the 1968 strike and student uprising). Filipinization and the “Revolution from the Center” (a concept proposed by Marcos as a compromise against communism and oligarchy, believed to have begun with the declaration of Martial Law) are perfect expressions to arrive with a truly ethnic democracy while at the same time establish a bureaucratic (crony) clique that replaced the comprador and oligarchy class with another set of comprador and bourgeois apparatchiks.

Populism for all its attempts to directly deal with the problems of the masses is simply a cover-up, replacing actual democratic action with the spectacle of struggle between pure honest people and the external parasitic symptom. Here lies the point I want to make in my previous Duterte essay, we do not encounter irrational politics here. I think this is rational politics at its purest that arguments have to be accompanied by a form of passion to supplement its effectiveness. Hence, the obscene effect of Chantal Mouffe’s agonistics is its compromising tone to sublimate the passions to the realm of democratic discourse.


Duterte: Three Essays on Populism, Fascism, and the Politics of Inherent Transgression (Part 1 of 3)

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