WHEN MARGINALIZED RATIONALITIES REAR ITS UGLY HEAD: THE MASSES AS HYPEROBJECTS

I.

Agustin Rodriguez wrote, back in 2009, that representing the marginalized will remain problematic as long as we do not recognize that they operate on a different rationality, a reality starkly different from our dominant modes of representing social reality (especially its noticeably Western and cosmopolitan modes of representation). The context behind his observation was the aftermath of the second EDSA People Power Revolution of 2001 which caused the downfall of President Joseph Ejercito “Erap” Estrada, a president who ran on a clear populist platform, claiming his close affinity and genuine concern for the masses.[1] The downfall of President Estrada saw a wave of reactionary protests by supporters of the deposed president who, by then, was facing multiple cases of graft and corruption. Supporters flocked to Erap’s residence to stage a vigil for the deposed president and denounce the prosecution as a vindictive act of selective justice imposed by the political elite against the ally of the masses. This political drama reached its climax when the supporters of the deposed president tried to stage their own EDSA People Power Revolution (mockingly referred to as “EDSA Tres”) and their own storming of Malacañan palace, an event marked by violence when police and security forces fired on the demonstrators. For Rodriguez, the reactionary demonstration at the aftermath of the second EDSA Revolution were attempts by the marginalized to express itself according to its own terms and assert its autonomy from an elite-led dominant mode of social representation.

The political language of the time was filled with appeals to the “masses”. President Estrada is an ally and defender of the masses (despite being part of the social elite and that the only semblance of Erap being a defender of the masses was of him portraying poor people in action movies); his political supporters call themselves the “Puwersa ng Masa” (Power of the People); EDSA Tres was the “EDSA Revolution of the masses”, led by the masses for the masses. The popular appeal of Erap’s presidency owed itself to the populist appropriation of leftist rhetoric. This historical malady became significant because of the reaction from the political mainstream: liberals and social democrats event the communist left denounced the demonstrations and disowned its participants.[2] For Rodriguez, the disparity between the masses who supported Erap and the reactions of the political mainstream prove that the masses by itself have their own modes of thinking—one that is characterized by its repressed outrage against the political system and a distinctively rural conservatism where social relations are built by system of mutual reciprocity and patriarchal and filial patronage. This is a mass totally different from the organized sector of workers, farmers, and urban poor who are part of the progressive and leftist sectors of Filipino politics. I leave it to sociologists and anthropologists to better described the specific details of the ethnic character of the “masses”. My primary concern lies on Rodriguez specific point: the masses, as the wholly Other of our political discourse, operate on a rationality (which in Lacanian terms can be read as a distinct symbolic system) that is different from the one that forms the set of representations of our democratic institutions. This resulted in the masses seeing the state as an intrusive entity that oppresses its daily life with concepts that it could not understand much less participate in.[3]

Between the state and the marginalized masses is an irreconcilable gap, wherein a minimal correlation can only be established by a fragile discursive action based on mutual respect and recognition that the Other could never be fully assimilated within the dominant system. Rodriguez is clearly aware of the place of his theory’s enunciation i.e. as a university discourse trying to produce a discourse of the unknowable and inconsistent entity that stands in clear contrast to dominant forms of political representation. For that reason, he is content with a simple ethical solution that maintains the otherness of the other (that it cannot be totalized) as a political constant.

I find this both problematic and radical at the same time. Rodriguez’s theory of the masses is problematic primarily because it sees the masses as a “hyperobject”. Speculative realists define hyperobjects as objects whose magnitude and properties always exceed human cognition and its structuring abilities (Timothy Morton); objects, therefore, have their own realities and sets of relations acting independently of cognitive and epistemological structures (Graham Harman). The same can be said of the marginalized masses: “a marginalized majority comprehends the world through the optics of its various rationalities.”[4] The masses possess their own cognitive mapping and, thus, have their own object-world, containing its own inside and outside.[5] This implies that we do not merely have multiplicities of rationalities, but multiplicities of technically irreconcilable realities in perpetual contradiction with each other.

Thus, when Rodriguez writes of the state, bureaucracy, and government mechanisms as being alien to the marginalized, he makes a disavowed admission of the contradiction between the marginalized and the democratic institutions that represent them. This is where we can find the radical aspect of Rodriguez’s position. He describes an uncomfortable political reality: we can no longer speak of the masses as the political agent capable of knowing its objective conditions and who can, based on such knowledge, properly express its demands and aspirations. Unfortunately, the masses exhibit a kind of masochistic jouissance that Jean-Francois Lyotard found in the English unemployed. “They enjoyed it, enjoyed the mad destruction of their organic body which was indeed imposed upon them, they enjoyed the decomposition of their personal identity, the identity that the peasant tradition had constructed for them, enjoyed the dissolution of their families and villages, and enjoyed the new monstrous anonymity of the suburbs and the pubs in morning and evening.”[6] Income inequality, precarious labor conditions, and the lack of robust systems of public services have made poverty an inescapable reality for the masses especially in the city and the provinces (intensified by feudal land ownership and primitive accumulation); faced with this grim reality the masses, limited by their cognitive mapping based on popular religiosity, traditional values, and filial patronage, see their condition as a vicious circle of temporary pleasures and constant poverty, a reality enforced by an unwavering faith in spiritual reward or with a fatal nihilism that builds up their repressed outrage against the system finding its expression in anti-social resentment.

For the above reasons, we can no longer ascribe to the masses the privileged political agency of insurrectionary and millenarian justice. The theoretical twist of the 21st century is that the much maligned populist wave gained its political legitimacy from the masses.

II.

            Poverty does not make the masses unaware of the objective conditions of their place in the capitalist economy; on the contrary, they fully know and experience the objective conditions of their situation, but they nonetheless see it as inevitable and unchanging reality that can only be altered by a power beyond themselves.

Thus what we lack is a proper conception of subjectivity. It could not be ascribed to the masses in its present condition, but in what it can be in the face of present political situations. A theory of subjectivity rejects any notion of political spontaneity from the margins. There is more to political agency that the act of intervention into the present state of things, it is a process by which agents, as a community, formulate and assert a conceptual structure for itself, one that it builds in clear contradiction from its present state.

Subjectivity as a technique of conceptual production holds that any act or a program for action, always emerges from the struggle of a community of subjects to build a conceptual notion for itself. Hence, neither an event nor the logic of the non-all can guarantee a subjective position; it is in the difficult struggle to define and maintain a communal stable conceptual notion that they become subjects. Consider the struggle of the urban poor led by members of Kadamay advocating for public housing, the struggle of the organized workers combatting precarious labor, unsafe work conditions, and low wages, or the struggle of the disenfranchised farmers demanding agrarian reform and access to agricultural technology; these struggles are not simply defined by the events that turn them to political subjects or by the mere discovery of their place as part of no part of the neoliberal economy. Their act of struggle by which the transcendental unity of capitalist ideology is destabilized, is formed by their struggle to conceptualize themselves in relation to the changes and conditions of political reality. Moments of failure and small success become points of struggle for subjects to examine and strengthen the conceptual notions of their communal identity.

Subjectivity as the constant struggle of a community to create and perceive themselves as conceptual artefacts demands more political hard work and competency among political agents. But isn’t the hard work and constant militancy the essence of emancipatory politics?

[1] This political rhetoric worked in 1998 when, during the administration of Fidel Ramos, a policy of privatization of public utilities (like water distribution, power generation and distribution) and economic deregulation led to the enrichment of the both the entrenched oligarchy and the new oligarchs (who emerged wealthy and politically absolved after the Marcos dictatorship) at the expense of the urban poor who face precarious employment and stagnant wages, made worst by weak public services.

[2] Agustin Martin Rodriguez, Governing the Other: Exploring the Discourse of Democracy in a Multiverse of Reason (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila Press, 2009), p. 200.

[3] Rodriguez 2009, 11.

[4] Rodriguez 2009, 42.

[5] Francis Wolff, Dire le Monde, pp. 11-12 quoted from Quentin Meillasoux, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), p. 6.

[6] Jean-Francois Lyotard, Libidinal Economy, trans. Iain Hamilton-Grant (London: Athlone, 1993), p. 214.

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WHEN MARGINALIZED RATIONALITIES REAR ITS UGLY HEAD: THE MASSES AS HYPEROBJECTS

Filipino Nationalism(s) Under Dutertismo: An Urgent Warning

Those who read this blog know perfectly well that I have written and will continue to write essays on the concept of Dutertismo. Since the concept itself is problematic, defies strict definitions, and difficult to pin down on the left-right political spectrum, my position has been to assert that Dutertismo embodies the class tensions in Filipino society, ranging from cooperation among different elements of the classes, complete apathy sustained by postmodern capitalist ideals, and open class struggle goaded by the inherent contradictions generated by the late capitalist mode of production (from outsourced production to extraction of intellectual work through the digital service sector). Class tensions in Filipino society are either openly antagonistic or non-antagonistic. I hold that the former is repressed and the latter is sustained by different ideological discourses and processes that fill the void that obfuscates class struggles and expresses it in different forms. Such form is expressed in different concepts: ruralism (which is synonymous to traditionalism), nationalisms, and liberalism. All three are responses to the postcolonial situation and attempts to define the contours of Filipino identity in response to globalization and the syncretism of culture that marked Filipino consumerism and everyday life. Moreover, all three are reactive in the pure Nietzschean sense of the term that sought to express the resentment of many at the face of its own failures as a nation that embodies the agenda of the masses.

Ruralism is an idea formed by a nostalgia. City life, especially in Metro Manila where everything seems to be out of joint, creates a nostalgia for the good old times where food is a matter of going to the local market or asking people what they have to share. Ruralism is a nostalgia in response to the perceived decadence of urban life. When confronted with the apathy between neighbors in a gated subdivision, one dreams of a time when neighbors are close by and intimately known. One dreams and desires what one does not have or have lost; ruralism, however, is not a desire for something we have lost, but something we do not possess in the first place. Hence, ruralism is a reactive term inasmuch as it supplied us an ideal that is neither past nor future. It occurs only as a an exercise of thought, a fatal abstraction from attempts at subtraction from the currently perceived decadence of urban life. When urban life becomes too alienating, when the very idea of community is an amalgamation of houses and nothing more, we strive for something that was in the past, untainted by the demands of city life. As a reactive concept, ruralism thrives on the dichotomy between the urban and the rural, where the urban is an actual material reality and the rural a name for a loss that was never there, standing only as a placeholder for what the urban is not. It is an expression emerging from a melancholy.

I see ruralism as an expression of alienation. The demands of capitalist production are embodied by the city; consumerism is a temporary respite from the demands of capital that contains a double demand: spend and consume to relax, but work in the next day and pay for your credit bills and so on. City life is a matter of dealing with abstract and bureaucratic life, organized by strict time frames and production quotas to achieve. Even with the emergence and proliferation of the digital information industry, the mode of production simply moves to a more abstract level that cannot be simply molded to the Marxist labor theory of value, since intellectual labor fully exploits creativity through precarization. To sustain this dynamic, late capitalism is marked by its capability to morph and adjust to the cultural demands of its nodes.

The duality of Western postmodern capitalism and Asian-values capitalism revolves around two distinctly polar tendencies: the permissive Western capitalist dynamic and the traditional and highly exploitative capitalism with Asian values embodied by the state of Singapore and China. Clearly, Filipino capitalism does not fall exclusively to either tendency. Hence, I will go so far as to argue that Filipino capitalism is an Asian values capitalism sustained by the illusion of abiding by a Western spirit of capitalism (a similar ideal was prevalent in the Sonno joi movement during the Japanese Bakumatsu  period where in order to maintain Japanese tradition and Western development rallied under the slogan: “Japanese Spirit, Western technology”). By the “illusion of abiding by a Western spirit of capitalism”, it implies that our economy is fully open to the agendas of the globalized system of capitalist production. The effort of all post-1986 governments has been to force the country’s participation in the global market, allowing as much liberties to global transnational companies to exert their demands upon the Filipino economy. Such a globalizing project is rife with contradictions and it entails the precarization of different labor sectors to provide ample opportunities for transnational companies to maintain its foothold. Hence, as an Asian values capitalism, the effort to remain within the global capitalist network is to assert traditional values, expressed a national identity. It is not surprising that the effort to liberalize the economy is also accompanied by highly conservative Catholic and Protestant law makers who argue for open economies on the left and strict moral family codes on the right. Communism is the name for the disturbance in the national body.

Days before Ferdinand Marcos declared Martial Law, he underwent a so-called “spiritual exercises”. In his diary entry of 29 March 1972, he writes “The permissiveness of society must be balanced by authoritativeness. The two poles must be given weight and equal importance…And the permissiveness of our society has spawned the many evils that will wreck our Republic. It must now be balanced with authoritativeness and that is martial law. However, I put as a condition the occurrence of massive terrorism which would alarm the people as well as the authorities.” (cited from Manuel Quezon, III, “Martial Law and Parental Guilt” available here ). What then is the permissiveness he sought to counteract? In 1972, it collectively meant “Communism” under which long-haired hippies, drug addicts, rebellious students, and Voltes V belong. Hence, speaking at a national conference on the children and the youth, Marcos wrote: “This requires a national effort. This requires the effort of everyone whether in government or outside government. There will be a great need for the resources and services of agencies and organizations outside the government. There will be a need to mobilize free and voluntary services dedicated to the welfare and development of the youth. Unfortunately, many of the parents must answer for some, if not many, of the ills of our society. Many of our parents think that after they have sent the children to school their responsibility is finished. This is not true and many regrettable mistakes in our society are due to the fact that the parents have failed in many instances in performing their role in society. And yet we blame the young. We keep on blaming the young. When we speak of drug addiction and we speak of the waywardness of the young, we have an inclination and a tendency to point to them and say, they belong to this drug-addicted generation. Perhaps, we should look inward and into ourselves and ask ourselves how far have we as parents fallen on our job. I speak as a parent. As President I am a busy man. I sometimes work up to 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning and yet, I have a feeling that notwithstanding the fact that we may be very busy there are certain obligations you and I cannot shy away from and they have to do with the care of our children. When my children were here, even if I was very tired or very occupied, I always tried to see them before they went to bed. When they were working on their lessons or when they were whiling away their time I tried to talk to them even for just a few minutes. I am certain that many of those who are drug addicts among our children will say, will tell us, that it was because we the older generation didn’t care enough that they turned out that way.” (Ibid) Communism was the name of an external conflict, an invader accompanied by the rabid permissiveness of radicals, posed against the values of the nation embodied in the family. Drug addiction, rebellion, and radicalism can be resisted by the simple time a parent can give to his children, properly honing them to the values of the nation.

However, it should be clear that Marcos’ nationalism accommodated itself to outbursts of nationalisms. Back then, the Marcos dictatorship is a nationalist reaction with a populist appeal; today, the nostalgia for the Martial law years reverberates in the outbursts of nationalisms that decry the decadence of contemporary cosmopolitan life. Disobedience to authority, rebelliousness, apathy, consumerism and so on are highlighted as repulsive values of the urban life. To counteract this, nationalism(s) revolve around the mystification of the past of rural Filipinos who cooperated with their leaders for the betterment of society, regardless of political color. In this case, market society offers a level playing ground upon which traditional values must inform the relations between people while at the same maintaining a highly permissive workplace. Hence, one can complain about work and at the same time obey with commitment. The organic unity of society is sustained by perceivable enemies: drug addicts, drug pushers, rebellious students, decadent bourgeois thinking and so on are seen as external bodies that disturb the harmonious flow of the organic body, the removal of which guarantees the continued healthy lifestyle.

Confronted with latent and all-out outbursts of nationalisms, liberalism sought to a middle ground. Provide a Filipino democracy founded on good values of cooperation and kindness. One can live a highly opulent and occidental lifestyle, but contribute to charity and make acts of philanthropy. Liberalize the economy to such an extent that the oligarchy becomes more wealthy, but make time for progressive programs. A totally ridiculous example of this can be seen in how SM justifies its prolific building of malls; in an advertisement, a clip of a storm hit town was shown in all its brutality. After which, the ad goes to successive pictures of a SM mall and its built-in flood control structure, accompanied by interviews from locals thanking SM malls for the project. This is Filipino capitalism at its most elementary: unfettered free market sustained by nationalistic tendencies and traditional morality. Liberalism panders on both tendencies, attempting a balancing act between allowing nationalistic outbursts or promoting an economy for global capital.

Dutertismo and the recently termed “Dutertenomics” (which echoes Reaganomics) shows that liberalism is waning at its own weight unable to control the contradictions inherent to the economy, politics, and society. Here, nationalisms are directly accommodated and named as a form of nationalism (or Duterte’s use of the word “Filipino”).  At the same time, here the law is taken to its full inherent transgression, providing the police and the army a free reign to inflict their policies under the guidance of the enforcement of the law. In the political arena, dissent is seen as a violation of national stability; destabilization emerges with disobedience and rebellious attitude.

Dutertismo now stands as a politics for the lost ideal. Nationalisms aim at trying to assert the lost ideal as a political category. The debate between supporters and detractors of Martial law were reduced to a matter of regional affiliation. Nationalistic tendencies played on either side as one stand for national stability and close ties to cultural roots and the other for the protection of civil liberties against the encroachment of a new authoritarianism. What the debate on the notion of nationalisms tell us is the untenability of  a post-colonial politics that relies on unraveling marginalized rationalities that seek to inform dominant rationalities, seen to be more dynamic and tolerant of cultural difference.

The way out of this deadlock is to assert a politics of universality. In this case, there is no authentic regional ethnic roots to fight for whether Taglog, Visayan, or Mindanaoan.  No true regional culture to stay true to. Of course, this does not mean an abolition of culture and the imposition of universal values by force. A politics of universality is a politics of universal struggle. Such a politics was apparent in the Lumad crises, different tribes from the North to the South converged in Manila not to celebrate their being a tribe, but to fight for the simple right of land and a dignified sense of self-sufficiency. In a joint statement, their leaders denounced transnational companies that played on tribal antagonisms to further its exploitation of the land. They were not content with simple ethnic recognition as such. This is universalism at its finest.

 

Filipino Nationalism(s) Under Dutertismo: An Urgent Warning

When the Not-All Speaks: On Kadamay and Liberal Philanthropism

I had two distinct experiences with Gawad Kalinga and their brand of granting free housing to the urban poor. In the first instance, I was able to participate in a GK integration program for the recipients of housing in a former squatter’s area in Parañaque which was improved through GK funding and programs. Aside from the usual feeding program for the children, the highlight of the program was a series of talks led by Catholic groups. The talks centered on traditional family roles and their importance in a peaceful family and community. The roles of the father and the mother are emphasized in the most Catholic way possible; the father works and the wife attends to the matters of the house. In addition, sexual ethics are discussed through a series of obscene analogies: men are like firecrackers; if you don’t light a firecracker up, they tend to explode almost immediately; women, on the other hand, are compared to an electric iron which needs to be plugged in to heat up (it sounds more obscene in Tagalog: kailangang isaksak bago uminit, isaksak which either means to plug in something, to stab someone, or the act of penetration in sexual intercourse). These values are taught to the recipients of housing with the intention of making them prim and proper citizens, dissuading them from leaving their new houses and put them for rent and squat elsewhere. In the second instance, we took a more hands-on approach, helping other GK volunteers in constructing the houses; we did everything from carrying sacks of cement to mixing cement and so on.

There is nothing special in this instance aside from the fact that participating in a GK volunteer activity is always a venue for other parts of society to do good deeds. Participation has some sort of cultic appeal to it. The volunteers, donning specially made volunteer t-shirts, designer denim pants, and original rubber shoes, come to the sites with the expectation of being welcomed by a throng of poor people cooperating with them in building a better community. This is embodied in the typical appearance of a GK village: dolled up single detached houses with neon or bright pastel colors on the outside, unpainted walls on the inside, and each house looking the same with a few plants to adorn the house and the community perimeters. GK promotional material always painted these communities as an evolution from the dense and unorganized communities formed by squatters to the proper communities with a sustainable sense of communal identity.

Gawad Kalinga (despite its growth as a religious to a more secular group) is the typical response to urban poverty. The rising number of squatter communities in places near business districts and urban peripheries posed a challenge to both government and private sector. Real estate investment has been focused on the development of more gated communities and high-rise condominiums, appealing to both high income executives and middle class yuppies who can afford government loan programs to procure affordable housing units provided by private real estate companies. Hence, all the development of subdivisions and condominiums in Southern Metro Manila and the Southern Tagalog cater to those people who are employed in regular desk jobs or for the burgeoning class of small time digital entrepreneurs.

Clearly, the people who are employed in casual, contractual, and manual labor do not have a place in this system. Since contractual labor (or outsourced laborers) does not oblige companies to grant securities for its employees, the rampant employment of casual labor in the city made it impossible to have a sustainable financial capability to be able to eat three times a day, let alone afford government loans for housing. Furthermore, past attempts at relocating the urban poor to mass government housing has constantly failed, being far from sources of income. “Why would I live in a subdivision, if I’ll starve just to pay the bills. I’m a squatter, but it’s quite clean in our area” said one squatter I encountered. To understand the mind of a squatter is to understand the constant state of emergency these people experience, having to live with no stable income or stable means of employment.

Kadamay comes as a whiff of fresh air into the dynamic of urban poor politics. Typical liberal attitudes regarding the urban poor is condescending. Liberal politics restricted their political organizing around NGOs and Local Government actions, made to be dependent on either more blessed members of society or to scraps of welfare doled out by local government politicians at crucial times of elections, even the author of Governing the Other necessitates that a proper democratic approach to the poor is to understand their rationality and have it represented by civil society groups that best suit their ways of thinking. In short, liberals only see them as recipients, victims of circumstance, victimized by their own lack of education and economic capabilities. The bourgeoisie, therefore, see themselves in the role of intervening in this order and granting all sorts of humanitarian aid to these people. Such attitude stops at the religious concern for the victim; the victim has to remain one in order to be helped, he has no right to self organization.

Kadamay’s occupation of stagnant housing projects in Pandi, Bulacan breaks this system of victimization. One should only hear Senator Antonio Trillanes’ remarks on Kadamay as a haven for communists and members of the New People’s Army, citing its security threat or Sen. Tito Sotto’s demand for reconsidering the President’s decision for giving them the houses, citing it as a beginning of a terrible legal precedent for other occupation of stagnant government housing. Such remarks show how Kadamay’s actions attempt to break the vicious circle of liberal philantropism that acted as a stopgap to the country’s lack of welfare programs. Hence, what they did is highly traumatic; the once group of people that are seen both as rabble and recipient of bourgeois kindness organized and took what they think is proper for them i.e.  the simple dignity of being able to live securely.

The ideological consequences of Kadamay’s occuption is overreaching. In an administration bombarded with the criticism of its violent drug campaign, one can hear everyday the clamors to stop Extrajudicial Killings of suspected drug addicts and pushers and a call for due process in the prosecution of drug suspects. Ironically, the same people who deplored and denounced the administration’s violent drug war in favor of legal due process also favor the planned violent dispersal of Kadamay members in favor of due process in the granting of housing projects. Hence, one should rephrase Max Horkheimer’s famous quote “whoever does not support Kadamay in its occupation of stagnant housing projects, should also remain silent about the violence of the war on drugs.” In issues like this, the mettle of the so-called millennial political renaissance is tested beyond the confines of its condemnation of other issues that it saw easy to address.

When the Not-All Speaks: On Kadamay and Liberal Philanthropism

Dutertismo and Neo-Phrenology

Whenever President Rodrigo Duterte justified the war on drugs as a violent offensive against drug addicts and drug pushers, one cannot fail to notice the following argument: based on the observation and studies of scientists and psychologists, constant drug use and addiction damages the brain and decreases its size, wherein any form of rehabilitation becomes impossible.” The argument is solidly based on an assertion that the size of the brain, greatly affected by drug addiction, is the sole evidence for the impossibility of rehabilitation and re-integration into normal society. What we get here is an attempt to provide justification through some form of quasi-phrenology, a neo-phrenology, albeit based on the size and shape of the brain to determine the attitude of a human being.

Phrenology returns as a justification for the distinction between normal and the abnormal, the decent and the indecent, marking the human being with an inevitable physical quality that determined his place in society. Duterte’s neo-phrenology shows the core of Dutertismo as a category of political exclusivity, forming the backdrop of the politics of the drug war and not simply a moral issue. Through the reduction of the addict to the less than human entity with a reduced brain size, what enters to politics is a determination via the formation of a biological category. In this case, the addict loses its humanity through the loss of possession of a brain, short of the normative category for being human. Between the normal and the reduced brain sizes lies the difference between two pre-determined roles. The decent human being is everyone who is not an addict; humanity under Dutertismo is seen from a fundamental point of exclusion. Through the determination of the addict as a category of exclusion, acting as the obstacle for the process of a law-abiding society built on discipline, we encounter the obscene underside of Dutertismo’s project of universality.

Duterte prides himself as a friend to the left and the right that any politics as such is to see that “we are all Filipinos.” Such universal distinction only applies to those who are determined as outside the category of exclusion. The present administration’s attacjment to the law is that of a pure fetishistic disavowal. They know precisely well that the law demands due process, but nonetheless the requirement is lifted so that those who follow it to the letter can enjoy the freedoms it guarantees. Duterte’s “Filipino” is not its citizens, but the other to whom he designates his absolute belief in believing more than he believes in himself. The relegation of confidence and loyalty to the other that believes more than I believe forms the justification for impunity and justification of all forms of police violence and legal excesses.

To say that Duterte is the embodiment of the loss of the rule of law completely misses the point. His administration is the law’s obscene underside that any drive to the universal category of citizenry and the normativity of the law is founded on a prior category of exception. Under the present administration, the addict is the homo sacer at its finest, even worse he isn’t even human nor a sacrificial lamb for the satisfaction of the (legal and national) gods. Through this exception the administration sees itself justified: what it murders are not even human nor will be considered human, but an obstacle that needed to be plucked out in order for the organic unity to be whole. The repression of struggle (as class struggle or the creation of dividing lines) is built around this exception so that organic and holistic unity can be achieved. Fascism in all its brutality will not come with the hatred for a race, but in the mythology of the pseduo-universality of the citizenry. The ideas of the enlightenment are turned on its head.

Dutertismo and Neo-Phrenology

The Return of the Totalitarian Repressed

            Perhaps, the general symptom of to-day’s political milieu is the emergence of highly divisive polarized political situations. The rise of populist politicians under questionable policies has plagued not only the Philippines but also different parts of the world. However, the recent events leading to the Supreme Court decision to bury Ferdinand Marcos under a hero’s grave demands that we look at it not as an isolated case of historical amnesia but as an overall symptom of our incapability and resistance to admit the inherent contradictions within our post-1986 liberal democracy. At the same time, compromises made under the banner of national unity have divided us more than it has actually united different sectors of society.

 

The Failure of the Post-1986 Liberal Democracy: A Manichaeism

Ken Fuller described in The Lost Vision that despite the promises of reform after the Marcos dictatorship, the Aquino administration bearing the constraints of the large debt left by the previous administration and the demand by different sectors to expedite the recovery of the country’s economy, conceded to the neoliberal policies that its predecessors have applied under the brutal hand of the dictatorship. The Cory administration did not shy away at the number of extra judicial killings, suppression of dissent, and concessions to neoliberal policies and economics. The forced choice borne upon the young democracy of the 1987 constitution paved the way for a wide neoliberal deregulation of the economy.

What it basically introduced or reintroduced is the same brand of cronyism with different names and a different sponsor and protector. The oligarchy continued to reap the benefits of neoliberal deregulation, while those who are affected remained in the same poverty-stricken condition as before. Liberal democracy in this case only allowed the formal freedoms guaranteed by the fundamental rights of man, but it did not allow the resistance to the economic dogmatism that the country will be an obedient child to the market, following its oscillations and trends of speculation.

Aside from the continuity of the Marcos neoliberalism—a neoliberalism a la Pinochet—replaced by an Aquino neoliberalism—neoliberalism with a human and motherly face—, the post-1986 liberalism played one dangerous political tactic: the demonization of the Marcos regime. By positing the dictatorship as the face of pure political evil, the Aquino administration have reduced the 1986 EDSA revolution as a battle between the forces of good and evil and that the unified effort to depose Marcos was the triumph of good versus evil led by an agent of change who singlehandedly led us to freedom and gifted us the present democratic constitution. The 1987 constitution became the Holy Scripture and the Aquino family the Holy family to whom we have the utang na loob for our present democracy.

The Manichaean discourse failed miserably as the incompetence of the subsequent administrations proves that the promised democracy did not actually work for the rest of the poverty afflicted people. The obscene effect is not the legitimization of our present liberal democracy, but the nostalgia of the way things were, a return to the old order of things.

 

Nostalgia: Where Authoritarianism Breeds

Authoritarianism is not born out of the non-existence of liberal democracy, but of its fundamental failure to surpass the bureaucratic regime where consensus is constructed among a few members of an elite cadre of policy makers. Furthermore, liberal democracy tried to dispel political passions by placing it within the legal boundaries of the state and the communicative acts that follow from it. What is so radically different in our local liberal democracy is the perpetual authority of the illustrado class, the same dynasties have ruled the country with little to no benefit of the citizens.

As liberal democracy projects are bound to fail as it engages in a Manichaean struggle against the forces of evil, the plan backfires and people, disillusioned with to-day’s political status, turn to the past, looking for a pristine moment that has to be restored. The logic therefore of totalitarianism i.e. right-wing conservative fascism, is the establishment of a mythopoeic conception of the past that in the progression of history and the inevitable changes that will occur, something must be kept in permanent place that must never change, positing an external obstacle that constantly watches the progress of events, prohibiting the renaissance of the golden age. Nostalgia is the emotion that arises out of the authoritarian vision; a justification for everything can be constructed out of one’s romantic relation with the past. The agents and ideologues of fascism thrive in constructing their public discourse on the exemplification of the past and the assertion of an internal unity of society. One should be reminded that the word fascism was derived from fasces, the symbol of power that binds together all of the castes of society and upheld by the legal authorities. Fascism, given such etymology, is far less than the cooptation of revolutionary consciousness, but the combination of cooptation and the re-legitimization of old social relations that was supposed to have been suppressed by liberalism. While the contemporary right-wing populist is against liberals and the values of liberalism, he can only achieve his aims through the mechanisms of liberal democracy, pandering on its logic, system of suffrage, and construction of public opinion. The greatest of fascists, Hitler and Mussolini, did not engage in insurrectionary revolution, but were voted into power through national parliamentary elections. They were presidents in every legal sense of the term, but whose campaign runs under the unity of the people to heal the wounds of the past (in the case of Nazi Germany, to unite the Germans against the wounds of the Versailles treaty and world Jewry).

 

Unity under Dutertismo

We can read President Duterte’s speeches on different occasions in the same manner. When asked by a journalist what he will do after the violent dispersion at the US embassy. Duterte remarked “I’ll call the police and the activists together…there is no left and right. We are all Filipinos.” What is wrong with this remark? Duterte showed not the attitude of a stereotypical authoritarian leader, but the stereotypical liberal who abhors the polarized political situation and demands the unity of the citizens. But, unity for what purpose or goal? Behind the appearance of a liberal lies the fascist core, echoing Marx’s jibe against the party of order in Eighteenth Brumaire of Luis Napoleon, liberals act like liberals, but profess fascist ideology among themselves. Authentic fascism in our current time is not entirely the madness of the extremists or the obnoxious presence of trolls on the internet to silence dissenting opinion, but the voice of people who call for unity simply by the sheer mythology of the nation and the perceived obsolescence of old ways of resistance and partisan politics. We should not see authoritarian leaders as the people who are greedy for power, ready to devour the country with its vitriolic speeches. Rather, they are people who see themselves as part of a wide project of restoring a country to its pristine condition. Marcos did not declare martial law and cracked down on communists and activists simply because who was against communism; rather, he saw himself as part of a greater mission to preserve order and unity. The declaration of Martial law was conjured within Marcos’ spiritual exercises asking God for a sign and rid the country of the un-orderly influences and permissiveness.

The difference between the leftist and a believer in right-wing demagoguery is not between passionate revolutionary and the traditionalist or the vulgar populist and the rational liberal; the fundamental difference lies in how both the left and the right deal with struggle. The left sees contradiction everywhere; the most fundamental relationship between things is not the unity of opposites, but that the struggle of opposites is absolute and in constant opposition.[1] The rightist on the other hand sees conflict and opposition within the current political situation, but what must occur at the end of it is not to fight a constant internal struggle and study the class contradictions in society, but that behind the conflict lies an identity that will unite all walks of life. Hence, the struggle of the left and the right is not between the multitudes versus the universal rationality of the right. What we have is the struggle between two universalities. The universality of the right is that of the unity of all social hierarchies, of everything has its proper place, repressing the struggle of opposites for the sake of what is supposed to bind us together as a nation.

 

[1] Mao Tsetung, “On Contradiction,” in Selected Readings from the Works of Mao Tsetung (Peking: Foreign Language Press, 1971), pp. 124-125.

The Return of the Totalitarian Repressed

Of Independent Cinema: Notes on a Critique

Any curious movie goer would eventually have encountered the rise of Filipino Independent cinema industry as a total opposite of mainstream film and whatever it stood for as a mass produced cultural product, meant simply as entertainment with minimal thought provoking elements. Perhaps, the symptomatic evidence of independent cinema’s separation with mainstream cinema can be seen in the work of Brillante Mendoza. While the cinematic tropes and choice of topics that Mendoza chooses dwell on the reality of poverty, one should examine the technical and narrative elements that he chooses to portray poverty. Take for example Lola (Grandmother) which is set in a perpetually flooded community where the characters engage either in legal or illegal underground economies but always end up successfully or unsuccessfully dealing with the struggle of being on the margins of government bureaucracy; these tropes that are apparently the mainstay of Mendoza’s films are presented in a social realist way, progressing in a quasi-documentary manner following the characters in different moments of daily struggle. Given the choice of ways to deal with the source material, Mendoza’s films can be described as following a social realist stance, of describing poverty as it is in its crudeness and the incapability of state mechanisms to curb poverty in an effective way.

However, despite the director’s sensibilities in dealing with poverty as a subject matter, presenting it as the other that requires our immediate authentic response, it is precisely this goal that keeps Mendoza’s films as the very symptom of neoliberalism. By creating the image of the poor as engaging mainly in the underground economy, earning their daily bread by placing themselves at the niches of the status quo, the immediate response is that of providing them an inclusive market space where everyone can properly engage in entrepreneurial ventures. Take for example the NGO Gawad Kalinga, the organization that provides free housing for the urban poor, they organize communities around the original site of the original urban poor communities where uniform single floor houses are constructed (funded by different philanthropic organizations). The condition granted by GK was that the poor who were given free housing are not allowed to rent the refurbished houses and that each family had to undergo a strict catechism in (Filipino) Catholic family values where the authority of the father is emphasized and the determined role of the other members of the family is indicated. While meant as a disciplinary integration to prevent the poor from ripping off their donors, the re-imposition of traditional Catholic values keeps them from the creation of an entirely new coordinates of communal life, remaining only at the level of paragons of Filipino Catholicism. Returning to Mendoza’s films, is not the conservative GK organization the implication of Mendoza’s supposed social realism that an authentic response to poverty is to further bourgeois philanthropy?

Social realist cinema is close to communism as it formed the dogma that dominated Soviet and Chinese film theory. However, the technique of quasi-documentary was inspired by Italian neorealism where real life traumas caused by the war are dealt as everyday problems. The fundamental difference between social realism and neorealism lies not eventually at the technicalities or the choice of topic, but in the way both cinematic movements deal with the source material. Neorealism championed the virtues of individuals in the struggle to make ends meet as historical events played in the background (considering how Rossellini’s neorealist films happen ex post facto of a historical event e.g. World War II). Soviet realist films, on the other hand, explore the role of individual human beings in the making of history (as in Sergei Eisenstein’s films) as they deal with different historical conditions and contradictions. Perhaps, the quintessential realist here is Dziga Vertov whose films do not proceed in a quasi-documentary narrative but removes the narrative element altogether to present Soviet society as a totally different world, a utopia to be but still operated by men. Everyday life in the Soviet Union, for Vertov, is presented like a machine, functioning properly and at the same time the camera is presented merely as a gaze unto the objects of its lens (as seen from his Man with a Movie Camera, where the camera bows to the screen as if to end its visual performance).

Are we then looking for Vertovs and Eisensteins of our time? Definetly not, but the allure of cinema passes as a gaze into objects, an arrangement of what people think, should be, must be and will be, a picture of our current ideological condition. While I do not glance at mainstream cinema as junk food for the sole purpose of entertainment, the entirety of cinema must examined as the symptom of our time. At this point, Edel Garcellano puts it better in his review of Bernardo Bertolucci’s Novecento: the problem is not so much the lack of great technical masterpiece or of epic storylines (two of which can be seen in the delivery of Novecento), but of showing the underlying contradiction that occur within the universe of the film.[1] As such that when Garcellano in the previous essay indicated, both the source material and the technicalities of the film converge to form the cinematic text; however, it is not entirely the technical or the narrative aspect that truly makes the film a liberating art form. “Artistic unity must correlate with historical logic and dialectics.”[2]

We can thus divide the cinematic tendency of our time into two: phenomenological and dialectical. Brillante Mendoza’s films belong to the phenomenological tendency, remaining solely at the level of experiencing (pag-danas) what shows itself in the public as poverty (corresponding to the existentialist notion of “showing what shows itself” and our experience thereof that breaks conceptual trappings). At the side of dialectics is Lav Diaz and his insanely long films such as The Evolution of the Filipino Family and From what was Before that do not deal with what shows itself as poverty but brutally traumatizes the viewer with long shots and still shots showing not what occurs but how the characters create history, culmination in the film Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery as a dialectics of the Revolution of 1898 by dealing with its traumatic corre: the search for the corpse of Andres Bonifacio i.e. the search for the proletarian core of the revolution repressed by bourgeois compromises with colonial powers. What Diaz does is not the typical mastery of technical or narrative emplotment of his pictures, but includes the structure by which the universe of the narrative circulates. Hence, despite the length of Diaz’s films, they are the presentation of deeply ingrained contradictions within society, manifesting in various ways. Take for example the class struggle in Norte: End of History, two main characters are two variations on the character of Dostoyevsky’s Raskolinikov; Fabian, a law student embodying the guilty Raskolinikov, belonging to the upper class, tries to save Joaquin, the patsy Raskolinikov belonging to the working class, by reopening the case of the murder of loan shark Magda and her daughter without implicating himself results in the outburst of sanity. Incapable to place himself again in the (traditional) symbolic register of everyday life, he commits symbolic suicide by raping his own sister. Here, one should reject the new age interpretation, given by the producers of the film (astral travel and so on) and instead see Fabian and Joaquin’s characters as subjects that deal with the symbolic register and the flight thereof. In Fabian, we have the outburst and eventually symbolic suicide and death where the scene culminates in Fabian riding a boat, a clear allusion to the Charon. Joaquin does not find reconciliation with the system but fully begins to transverse the fantasy by dreaming that imprisonment itself became a condition of freedom (as seen in the final scene where he floats in midair, presumably dreaming).

While Diaz’s films dealt with poverty and injustice as source materials for his films. He does not end with the characters reconciling with the inevitability of their plight or the enjoyment despite the ordeal. Thus, he posits that the dialectical structure of social life and the irreconcilable nature of the elements within this dialectic, presented as the failure of the subjects to experience what is as the sole way of fully experiencing the structures as such (i.e. as a traumatic kernel that cannot be symbolized).

Given this difference, returning to Mendoza’s films and perhaps the tendency of most Filipino independent cinema, their approach to the narrative, technical and structural elements present only “what is” as a homogeneous and united entity i.e. as merely showing itself that needs experiencing and so on. It caters to the aesthetic of bourgeois tastes whose place needs to be situated within a fetishistic construction of social life and urban dwelling, offering itself to philanthropic acts, replacing emancipatory politics. Genuine exposition of superstructure and structural elements are replaced by the surplus jouissance of participating in the aesthetics of squalor that in the consumption of its cultural products lies the sole fulfillment of our socio-political duty that is to only know.

 

[1] Edel Garcellano, First Person Plural: Essays, pp. 110-111.

[2] Ibid., 105.

Of Independent Cinema: Notes on a Critique

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

The Politics of Inherent Transgression

We know proceed to the final point in determining the contours of our present political situation and the hype it has been causing all these times. For the enlightened liberal, a question often hangs in his mind: who are we to blame for the disintegration of our politics into this heap of irrationality and reduction to a mere spectacle of popular support. It is easy for the liberal to blame the poor, the ones who eat away at government welfare, waiting for doleouts, while honest working people have to pay taxes. In this case, the poor is often conceived as the ones who receives all the blame for the difficulties of the country; but at the same time, they are the ones who must occupy the object of our duty to charity.

In our present post-religious milieu (in which religion is only a means for one’s well-being and good vibes), the duty to do charity is already packaged in our consumerist ethos. Zizek always emphasized this aspect in which the commodity already included the fulfillment of one’s duty in giving to the poor, so that one can in turn blame them, if everything does not work. The poor in the character of the squatter, the drug addict, the petty criminal, etc. are seen as the primary problems of society, seeking to corrupt the healthy body of the social body. The response, in this case, is the emergence of someone who believes fully in the symptom of our times, someone who fully takes on the public’s disappointments. Perhaps, this picture is inadequate in describing our present political situation. We are fully aware of the effects of a mismanaged economy upon our political structure and any administration will attempt to save its own image for the sake of maintaining them and at the same time to secure a clam political climate, appeasing the passions of the people. The elections are a better way to appease the passions, sublimating them into something tolerable through the performance of a political play of images. This “play of images” can only be understood in the way bourgeois politics is a politics of inherent transgression, developed through the years of political instability, sustained by academic attachment to a national identity, corrupted by colonialism, the search for a rational state, manned by the educated bourgeoisie capable of public discourse and the compromise with neoliberal global capitalism. The hopes and dreams for a vibrant democracy form the symbolic order, covering the traumatic kernel of our politics through an assertion of the pure social subject (the diligent, working, taxpaying, family centered worker), presupposed by our liberal discourse as prepared to take the ultimate sacrifice in working for the benefit of the family, tradition, and country. The image of the conservative (almost middle class) working man acts as the cover for the traumatic gap from which class struggle emerges.

So far, our own political environment plays on this political spectacle where decency and clean politics are invoked to convince the political agents of the worth of representing them in government. The problem comes from the assertion of decency and the multi-cultural facet of their political machinery. All candidates play along with the omnipotent capacity of the working class to endure the hardships for the sake of the nation, requiring them to cooperate and blamed for the failure as such.

The liberal, on the other hand, responds valiantly to this proposition and affirm the capability and capacity of our present structure to generate a social revolution without going over to its horrible prerequisites (the organization, education of the masses, analyses of material conditions and so on) and instead we relegate the capacity for social transformation in the sheer capacity of someone else, a subject supposed to know. However, Zizek warns us that

The crucial mistake to be avoided here is the notion that this displaced belief is nothing but a reified form of a direct belief, in which case the task of the phenomenological reconstitution of the genesis of reification would be to demonstrate how the original belief was transposed to another (Zizek 1998, 4).

Therefore, we are not dealing here with the leader as the collective expression of our political aspirations; rather, our democratic process depends on the displacement as such. Again, to develop the line of thinking in the second essay, here we encounter the problematic of Mouffe’s struggle for hegemony. Although the Laclau-Mouffe strategy attempts to return politics to its core in the struggle for state power, the latent unexplored consequence here is the lack of the displacement of belief in the cause, as if passion is merely enough in guaranteeing its vibrancy. Our drunkenness for passion will always give way to the sober displacement of political belief, saying to ourselves that we’re already done with our political duty; let us now relegate it to the system to enact what we believe. Such is the horrible outcome of Mouffe’s dependence on passion as the drive for political movements.

The inherent transgression at work in our bourgeois politics emerges from the thrust to maintain the images of a political process and at the same time keep the oligarchical powers intact. Whenever we speak of the spectacle, it is not the direct manipulation of political discourse and the play of images to generate popular support and legitimize the bourgeois political order; but, it is inherent to bourgeois politics as such. We encounter the fundamental lesson that Marx already stressed that the elections are a way by which we choose the leaders to exploit us through the bourgeois controlled elections. To rescue the very ideals of democracy is the emergence of a new political theory that does not begin from any pre-conceived notion and fantasy about the citizen who is prepared to engage in deliberation with anyone and against anyone. Rather, emancipatory politics begins with the resistance to categorization and instead goes into the malevolent sections of the symbolic to unravel the structure divided by class struggle and repressed by bourgeois ideology. To-day’s liberal ideology regulates daily life and everyday political relations, determining what we can say and what counts as politically relevant, cutting through various territories of socio-political relationships. Hence, the relevance of the National Democratic Front’s slogan that the any country whatsoever suffers from the triple entente of Imperialism, feudalism, and bureaucrat capitalism is its capacity to transgress the coordinates of bourgeois liberal politics, unable it is to co-opt this slogan through the open exchange of discourses.

We must break down the territories of the political, set-up by neoliberalism to separate various sectors of socio-political life in its attempt to bureaucratize our everyday activities through the separation of private and public spheres, subjecting us to the mindless activities of everyday labor (and integrated through the quasi-religious activities to ensure our submission). To overturn liberalism is a return to the omnipresence of the political as the constant struggle set against neoliberalism.

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