On Fascism: is Duterte a Jacobin?
Fascism is often a word thrown out to denounce a potentially repressive regime. Aside from being the primary slogan against any repressive state and the right-wing ideology that sustains it, any form of totalitarian state from Stalinism to American establishment bureaucracy can be described as a fascist regime. However, for all the horrible outcomes and repressive character, why are neo-fascists and hardline right-wingers gaining ground in our present political landscape? Furthermore, their legitimacy is even cemented through popular elections, gaining power through legal means and not through any form of revolution.
Fascism emerges from a thorough examination of current conditions but its fundamental difference with leftist struggles is the simplicity of its solutions and the pragmatism of its political program. It has always been a conservative revolution to save the capitalist order (Žižek 1999, 138-139). It is a revolution that attempts to keep the current status of class antagonism in place and at the same time posit and external enemy that acts as a parasitic invader that disturbs the pristine nature of the nation. What this account fundamentally misses (since it remains entirely on the level of populism and mass appeal) is how the whole discourse on fascism itself is a mirage played by a small bureaucratic clique that is actually in power. Fascism at its purest is not defined by the brutality of its leaders but in the brutality supplemented by the pragmatism of its bureaucracy that actually defines the contours of a country’s operation. This particular picture of fascism is perfectly described in the political films of Costa-Gavras. In Section Speciale, Z, Etat de Siege and Missing, Costa-Gavras describes fascist (or military regimes) not as they are led by a single leader, driving the country by the sheer magnitude of his will; rather, in all of these films, we see the inner bureaucracy at work, determining all decisions and choosing which groups to suppress and so on. The common pattern of these films (aside from how each film is a metaphor for real events) is the absence of the leader who is supposed to lead everyone by the force of his political will. Costa-Gavras demystifies fascism and describes its aestheticization of politics simply as the attempt of the oligarchy to continue the legitimacy of its regime. The dictator is removed from his privileged position and relegated to the shadows, while the real determinants of its politics are made by the small circle of bureaucrats.
Hence, the logic of fascism is founded the naïve ontological dualism that what lies behind the appearance (of a leader atop triangle leading everyone below him) is the grim reality, what things really are. To understand fascism therefore is to go beyond the charisma of its leader’s cult of personality and turn one’s attention to the ersatz reality of the regime. To overcome the ontological dualism that lies in our previous description, we must see fascism as the culmination of bourgeois politics, playing with the popular dissatisfaction with the present, social, economic, and political condition, then positing them as the struggle between the purity of something against the invasion of another or as problems caused by the intrusion of something impure and pathological to the healthy body of the socius. The antagonism between the external pathology against the pristine body attempts to dispel the latent class antagonisms at work and at the same time establish categories of national identity that attempts to neutralize the boundaries between enemies, to see each other as part of one royal group of people against another.
One can feel the difficulty of classifying the impact of Duterte’s presidential campaign upon the political environment, since he has already classified himself as the sole progressive voice in the entire presidential elections. The problem arises not in his close disregard for political correctness or for is women’s rights problems or his positions about the liquidation of the social pathos, but in the way he characterizes bourgeois politics at its finest. Between a yellow liberal party clique and a PDP-Laban clique, there is no clear difference and that the incompetence of one would only be changed by the recklessness of the other. However, people think that Duterte is leading a genuine revolution, a complete turnaround from our present political conditions. Do we not see the similarities between 2010 and 2016, when the same enemy is called out as the no. 1 enemy of democracy in the guise of corruption and incompetence of the present administration? The subjects speak the same message, coming from two places of enunciation. This way, one can speak of totally the same thing with a predictable outcome, capitalizing on the cult of personality of the established candidate, garnering popular support as a way to externalize the collective passions to democratic ends.
Here lies the fascist consequence of agonistic politics and its attempted sublimation of political passions for democratic ends. In the last century, the left is seen as the passionate political sector that acts out of the pure desire to change the status quo, while the right is the agent of discipline, adherence to traditions, and nationalism. Such dichotomoy however is unusually absent in to-day’s political climate. Left-wingers and right-wingers would often be the most passionate political agents, collecting popular support, while bourgeois cliques (and the third way) pride themselves of embodying rationalist political discourse. Perhaps, our very use of the word discourse is inadequate, presupposing that each cadre has its own discourse that is then communicated to the public sphere. The reduction of political antagonism to mere exchange, opening, and deliberation of discourses only serves to cover the underlying class struggle that discourses try to extinguish. They are salient tolerations of the enemy, while at the same time not taking them seriously, reducing their claims to impractical claims, blind of real political work. In this way, bourgeois politics is able to remain at their positions of privilege and at the same time create an image of a vibrant democracy by manipulating the passions through the spectacle of agonism.
Is Duterte capable of changing the political climate, through an introduction of a radical change in political struggle? It prompts us to ask whether he is ready to pay the iron price to take the country to a thorough political transformation. It is crucial that we shed no illusions about such a popular candidate and see him or anyone as being capable to be Jacobin. The Jacobin is the agent of political transformation, lying outside bourgeois compromising tactics. While the bourgeois can play the hat of a pious republican or a faithful monarchist, the Jacobin at its purest is the dedicated republican, prepared to go through the self-consuming fire of the terror to enact the actualization of the revolution. Unlike the fascist dictator (who sees himself as the pinnacle of a aestheticization of the political), the Jacobin is the proto-Stalinist who sees the immanent failure of the Revolutionary movement as the condition of possibility for the success of the revolution. However, in the same way as the Stalinist, the Jacobin is prepared to pay the price by being the final victim of his own reign of terror. It is precisely this reason why I do not agree with Žižek’s criticism of Stalinism as the expression of failure of any emancipatory political project, a horrible outcome of a betrayal of the original project. What I find problematic in this statement is his own call for a lack of theory to understand Stalinism and Jacobinism and dispel any critique of totalitarianism as a justification of a liberal and bourgeois politics. I am prepared to take this latter step and describe Stalinism and Jacobinism as an attempt to get engage in constant struggle with itself, from which a genuine political process can emerge.
Our present electoral fiasco however does not fit any radical change in our political environment. Duterte’s explicit invocation of corruption and criminality as the fundamental cancer of our political realm simply posits an external enemy, without considering the structure that actually causes the pathos he explicitly mentions; friend and foe alike are simply parts of the symbolic realm that organizes the very way we do politics. Duterte’s revolution (as his supporters want to see it) is simply a way to maintain the actual class antagonism intact, while at the same time generate the illusion of a political agonistic spectacle. Duterte and the elections itself is a theatre for those in power to remain in power and entertain the masses with a candidate they can identify with just like an action star in a telenovella.
Zizek, Slavoj. Ticklish Subject: the Absent Centre of Political Ontology. London: Verso, 1998.