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A Democracy of Thieves and the Dialectics of Duterte

Sometime last February, a friend of mine took me to a forum in Cabanatuan City, of which the guest speaker turned out to be the hardline city mayor of Davao, Rodrigo Duterte. In addition to students, who packed a third of the Nueva Ecija Doctors Hospital gymnasium, representatives from across civil society joined what I later learned was the northern leg of the mayor’s nationwide consultation on federalism.

It had been apparent for some time that the mayor was a likely contender for the presidential race, but he had yet to show any clear indication of resolve. His caution made me think that he was still coming to grips with his sudden thrust into the national limelight. As of this writing, surveys conducted by Pulse Asia, Social Weather Stations (SWS), and IBON Foundation place him among the top three favorites for the presidency, after Senator Grace Poe and Vice President Jejomar Binay, in the coming elections.

Evidently, Duterte’s popularity stems primarily from his candor. He is known for his bold and enthusiastic articulations of extreme methods of justice, claimed to be his main apparatus in cowing crime and corruption in the streets and crannies of Davao City.

Will the mayor run for the 2016 presidency?

The question has been repeated so many times in different public forums. It occurred to me that this signified the sentiments of many in the country – weary and wanting, longing for the ultimate solution to a prolonged frustration. Duterte became the darling of a population itching to level the score with traditional politicians and to make an example out of their severed heads. These are the voters who have grown tired of the generic nonsense plaguing one election campaign after the other, of speeches churning out the words “Peace” and “Prosperity,” reducing the meaning of these two words into fish food for the democratic process, and clinging on the hypocrisy of the exploited term “representative government.”

All Duterte could give was a vague answer, but the audience took this uncertainty to be affirmative and seconds later, the gymnasium trembled in celebration. Young and old, student and employee, peddler and lawyer, able-bodied and paralytic, Muslim and Christian, all stood up in excitement and pledged an impassioned “oath of allegiance” in unison.

It resonated like the vibration of a revolution, but one far removed from the revolutions of the past that produced a defective system and disappointed many Filipinos. Duterte became the fed-up mass’ figurehead for the subversion of a corrupt order, the banner man leading the country out of its moral eclipse, though using neither the same moral authority of EDSA I nor the same political authority of EDSA II, but an approach that begets a transformation achievable through negative reinforcement.

A history of contradictions

One might think that this country is barely a generation away from the trauma of dictatorship to believe itself ready to embrace yet another strongman’s rule. But such is the unraveling of the times. History is governed by a relationship between action and reaction, often between or amongst opposites. The current situation indicates that in between this relationship was a space where the system failed to create a structure sturdy enough to support the democratic vestige it so heroically recovered back in 1986.

The escalation of today’s disillusionment extends to a loss of confidence in our laws. News about upper class criminals receiving “VIP” treatment in maximum security prisons have made our legal codes appear to be little more than badly-organized charades, subject to the whims of the high and powerful. The Constitution itself has the reputation of having so many loopholes that can be exploited by those who have the resources to see through these weaknesses.

If our so-called “democratic experiment” has not yet resulted in failure amidst the chaos, it is because the whole thing has degenerated into a myth. This experimentation is something we thought we tried but really did not.

EDSA I was supposed to be the line of demarcation between the then and now, but as it turned out, the present system merely perpetuated the excesses and corruption of the Marcos regime and diversified it into so many actors. Plunderers, nepotists, warlords, assassins, syndicates, oligarchs, and manipulative elites supplanted the central evil of 1965 and kept its legacy so well, except that today, they themselves have become democratic in sharing in the same cruelty.

Duterte was in a corner of the country, away from the center, when he stole the attention of the frustrated masses not long ago. His controversial method of law enforcement struck a chord among a people disillusioned with the Christian version of democracy. The people saw these methods as appropriate for a retrogressive system; methods that will bring about true, “concrete” change and pave the way for a whole new systemic order.

One may argue that the election of another strongman is retrogression in itself. On the surface, authoritarianism’s ascent to Malacañang looks like a paradox in a country where the slogan “Never Again” still resonates with a generation born amidst the punishing of memories of the last authoritarian regime.

To understand this contradiction, we need to examine the dialectics of the phenomenon. Along a dialectical progression, we will see that the necessity of an antidote to a system contaminated by the toxin of a previous system – the one it has negated – becomes imminent.

In other words, the ideology that descended from EDSA I was so feebly envisioned that the new republic eventually became a negation of EDSA I itself, having been hijacked by false liberals and reactionaries alike. At some point in the future, the magnitude of this madness would reach its tipping point and undergo another process of political reversal.

The dialectical Duterte

Chaotic as it is, this current episode occupies an interesting place in our history. Here we are approaching the turning point of a vital process of nature.

G. W. F. Hegel famously suggested that development flows in three phases of constant change, which he called the ‘Abstract-Negative-Concrete’ (later mislabeled the ‘Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis’ formula). Reacting to its vagueness and abstraction, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (themselves identified with the group, Young Hegelians), later picked it up and used it as the foundation of their materialistic interpretation of history and revolution. They gave Hegel’s dialectics its physical contour by explaining that the progression of society is a continuous transformation through the interaction and contradiction of classes – a natural tendency – to which they assigned the term “dialectical materialism.”

Engels’s most important contribution in the dialectical study of nature is posited in his three fundamental laws:

1) The law of the transformation of quantity into quality, and vice versa
2) The law of the interpenetration of opposites
3) The law of the negation of the negation

This three-fold process embraces the strongman phenomenon that has unfolded in the recent year in response to various scandals and anomalous revelations hounding government ranks.

First, the passage of quantity into quality indicates the significant effect of statistical changes on the general condition of the state. Society is replete with examples, the most basic of which is found in poverty surveys and satisfaction ratings. The more the people feel satisfied with the current state, the more stable it is. Rising discontent gradually reveals the bedrock of class struggle lying dormant under every state administration.

It is worth noting that according to surveys conducted by the Social Weather Stations (SWS), self-rated poverty in the Philippines before EDSA I rose from 55% in April 1983 to an enormous 74% in July 1985, a few months before the revolution began on the streets of the capital. The whopping spike cannot be dismissed as non-indicative of the country’s summer of discontent. The stifled calm in the wake of the martial law years did not help, as it haunted the Marcos regime with various accusations of corruption and human rights abuses.

SWS SurveySource: SWS Q4 2013 Social Weather Report (11-16 December 2013 Nat’l Survey)

This ‘silenced’ peace was the first contradiction among many. Even when martial law was already lifted in 1981, and by the time Ninoy Aquino was assassinated in 1983, popular opinion had snowballed against the status quo. The electoral fraud that followed the 1986 snap elections became the final folly that delivered the coup de grâce on Marcos’s ailing regime and saw the masses rising to unleash the modern power of popular revolt.

Such was the power of numbers. And though one can say that self-rated poverty has somehow eased owing to the post-revolutionary optimism after 1986, which ebbed quickly in the closing years of the Cory Aquino administration, the ghost of dissatisfaction resurfaced and hovered around the 57% mark between the Fidel Ramos and Noynoy Aquino administrations. Despite periodic lull, the country had never had an era of actual good feelings. Consequently and by coincidence, self-rated poverty ended up as similar to that during the years before the disintegration of the Marcos regime.

Statistics show that since the end of the last dictatorship, the Philippines has not inched away from discontentment among a majority. We might cite GDP growth as an indicator and refute the notion that the country has not prospered since (yes, our markets did grow after the Asian financial crisis of 1997, and from 2008 onwards has been perennially styled a rising tiger), but GDP assumes the wishful thinking that wealth is distributed equally among everyone, something far from the reality on the ground.

After EDSA I, the country donned a brand new suit of armor only to languish in the same vices; the decades-long terror of military coups and attempted uprisings notwithstanding. Right, freedom, and prosperity became an atavistic slogan striding in an open sea, each leg wide apart, struggling to survive the splitting distance between free democracy and dysfunctional politics.

Democracy is a system with claims to political legitimacy, but it is difficult to ascertain political legitimacy in an environment of patronage. In the years following Edsa I, the law became a contradiction to itself. Instead of protecting democracy and the rights of citizens, it turned out to be a protector of the powerful elements of society at the expense of the weak. Eventually, the democratic experiment has been seized to give way to democratic thievery.

And what are the possible consequences when this interpenetration of opposites takes center stage to allow for another phase in the historical process – that of negating the still defective government which negated its defective predecessor?

When patience runs out and political trust is lost, people find a way to achieve the most radical end. And the fact that Duterte came to the voters’ purview is proof that this radical desire is growing.

People have begun their search for a revolutionary alternative. This negation of the negation is the key part of the dialectic struggle. It does not mean that it reverts everything back to its previous condition, rather it seeks to refine the earlier condition by rejecting the impurities that brought about its downfall. There is no teleological final cause, only an ultimate effect that goes on and on.

Those favoring Duterte’s presidency negates the negating of 1986 by introducing the argument of nihilistic justice as the only path of revolt, albeit as yet without claims of a clear-cut program in its aftermath. Duterte’s emergence as an electoral favorite is prospective of this resetting of expectations and practices of politics. The oath of this movement is to replace the old regime with an all-new experiment embracing an all-new set of political values that will do away with a democracy of thieves.

Image taken from this site.

1 Comment

  1. Pingback: A Democracy of Thieves and the Dialectics of Duterte - Maximilien/Lopez


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