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.


            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.


Romanticizing the Political Figure: On the Triptych Scene in Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927)

The Jacobin Moses

Gance’s Napoleon concludes with the young general’s departure for the Italian campaign. What makes this climactic part interesting is not the novel panoramic triptych that allows us to view the sight in panorama even before panoramic cameras were used in film making before, but in the way the panorama determines both the past and the future as an organic whole. What Gance does with the triptych is to portray Napoleon’s Italian campaign as the beginning of his storied career. The film builds up to this scene by establishing Napoleon’s prodigy: as a child, he was astute and intelligent, hampered only by his Corsican descent. As a young officer in the army, he had to endure the oscillations in the revolution as well as the incompetence of the generals in the new revolutionary army. Hence, after suppressing a Royalist counterrevolution, Napoleon, given command of the Army of Italy (by then one of the Armies protecting France from Austrian incursions from the South). Before departing for Italy, he enters into an empty convention hall, the young general reflects on his plans not just for the campaign, but for the future of the revolution itself. Staring at an empty hall, the ghosts of the former members of the Convention appeared. In the midst of the different ghostly figures, the main icons of the revolution appeared. The ghosts of Danton, Robespierre, Marat, Saint-Just, and Couthon appeared before him, depicted as larger than life figures, occupying the screen in a double exposure sequence. The ghostly figure of Danton asks him about his plans, demanding from him the continuation of the revolution and its expansion beyond the borders of the country. The figure of Robespierre demanded that a strong authoritarian system of government had to be constructed to protect the revolution from its internal and external enemies. Amidst this ghostly figures, Bonaparte promises a unified Europe under a single Republic, the liberation of all men from crowned heads, and a centralized system of government. All the ingredient of a benevolent dictatorship. What Gance develops in this scene is to contrast the Italian campaign as part of Bonaparte’s own exodus and descent into the unknown.

ghosts of the revolution
The Ghosts of the revolution appears over Bonaparte

The appearance of the figures of Danton and Robespierre shows how Gance understood the legacies of Danton and Robespierre as two complementary ideals. Danton was the figure of the Republic and its roots in the popular sentiments of the masses. Robespierre, on the other hand, was the stern dictator and a cold pragmatist, seeing the need for strong authority to hold the revolution together as a cohesive system of government that can protect the interests of all citizens and not just the interests of the middle class. Gance’s portrayal of these two figures divides the two tendencies and abolishes the antagonism between the two. The growth and expansion of Republican ideals and the need for a centralized system of authority are two inherently antagonistic ideas that address the external and internal contradictions within the revolution. However, Gance performs a vulgar dialectic. Bonaparte is the figure where the expansion of the revolution and its stability are possible.

Gance depicts the figures of the revolution as the sole authority of the revolution; they are the authors who generated new ideas to create the revolution, inspire the people, and hold them together. The revolution as a cataclysmic event owes itself to the ideas of individuals and their approaches to the republican aspiration. What the Thermidorean reaction brought was stagnation, depicted as a chaotic storm of people. The appearance of the “gods of the revolution” before Bonaparte legitimizes him as the authentic continuation of the struggles of the revolution.

Napleon, the Jacobin Moses

The speech he makes before the Army of Italy echoes the exodus narrative that Gance builds beforehand. The triptych scene depicts Bonaparte in the middle screen in a worm’s eye view, side by side with a shot of the army from a birds eye view. Both figures are framed as two parallel gazes of each other, creating a common fetish. Napoleon becomes the object of the gaze of the soldiers and the people are becomes the object of the gaze of the individual. Despite this relation’s inherent non-rapport, the rapport between the people and the the figure of the leader is mediated by the signifier by which the figure of the leader introduces to the dualism. In the case of Bonaparte, he makes a promise to the people: to lead them to the fertile plains of Piedmont and subjugate towns under their rule. This portrays that Bonaparte’s exodus into the the Italian campaign is their pilgrimage to the promised land and Bonaparte is their Jacobin Moses. The Grand Army is the Israel of the Egalitarian cause.

Romanticizing the Body of the Leader

Gance’s depiction of Napoleon relies on a fundamental Lacanian insight “desire is the desire of the Other”. The scene from the empty convention hall to the triptych portray Bonaparte as he sees his destiny in relation to the revolution’s expansion. The soldiers see Napoleon as the savior, the person that can deliver them to some form of dignified existence.

The important element in Gance’s depiction of Bonaparte is that he shows us not the desire itself, but the framing of desire as a formal system of relations. Bonaparte’s story is not a historical flick qua history as a narration. Its politics is not depicted through a set piece where lines in the books are spoken by actors. What Gance portrayed is not a Bonaparte that is simply a product of the politics of the revolution, but to portray a myth. Hence, we do not see a chronological retelling of important events in Bonaparte’s life, but of scenes that generate the myth.

Romanticizing the body of the leader entails that the story of an individual is a convergence of genius and the destiny set upon him by the high gods of the revolution. Life becomes an irony between determinism and the sheer force of the will. Destiny retroactively determines the contingent occurrences in an individual’s life and sees them as part of a singular narrative that leads solely to the destined point. Hence, the myth of the genius is generated: the precocious boy becomes suited for military campaign. The leader is a man with destiny inasmuch as he is a product of his own time and context.

The romanticization of the leader’s body is far from the idealist enforcement of the leader’s authority, but of a vulgar materialism that served as the obverse of a scholastic and theological realism, grounded on the divine. Its materialist expression is the central role of nature and of the human being as the foundation of values and systems of knowing. Hence, any populism is not built around the concept of an idea, but of an attempt to address concrete reality as part of a greater reality. The populist always seeks justification through a continuation of an ideal (the “spirit” of democracy or the revolution) set against a determined moment of stagnation. As a populist figure, Gance’s Bonaparte frames the general as the savior of the revolution, its genuine inheritor.



Romanticizing the Political Figure: On the Triptych Scene in Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927)

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

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)

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)