Realpolitik vs. ethical politics

There is an approach to politics that equates power with the ability to impose one’s will on others through the effective marshaling of strategic forces under one’s control.  In foreign affairs, it is called realpolitik.  Modern politics is often conceived in these terms.  It is politics without values.

The study of politics in stable societies debunks this view.  If there is to be cooperation in society rather than perpetual conflict, says the German social theorist Jurgen Habermas, politics as a practical activity has to make room for values.  The same applies to the legal system of any society.  Laws cannot be treated only as commands backed up by punitive power.  They also have to be seen as embodying reason — God’s or the community’s.  This ingredient spells the difference between mere legality and moral validity.

The more desperate Gloria Macapagal Arroyo becomes, the more she resorts to ruthless realpolitik to keep the presidency.  Here the preferred methods are those of remuneration and intimidation.  She does not hesitate to buy the loyalty of individuals, or prey upon the vulnerability of those who oppose her.  She alternately begs, cajoles, rewards, and threatens people to obtain support.  She seizes every opportunity to form the most fleeting coalition in order to secure a tactical advantage. And she lies without compunction.  To her, people are nothing but expendable instruments of power.  Politicians like her are among history’s most dangerous leaders.

Marcos and Estrada would seem like weaklings beside Ms Arroyo. The late dictator had a chance to order the bombing of the gathered throng at Edsa, but he hesitated and held back.  At that fatal moment, he must have felt rationally accountable.  If he had stayed on as president, he would surely have had to sit on a throne of bayonets to enforce his rule.

Joseph Estrada could have used the enormous powers of his office to block the impeachment process at every stage.  The majority of the legislators in both chambers of Congress were on his side.  Instead of leaving Malacanang, he could have insisted that the impeachment tribunal be reconvened after the walkout of the prosecutors.  He could have invoked the rule of law to disperse the crowds in the streets. Instead of allowing himself to be led out of his house by an arresting team to be mugshot and fingerprinted like a common criminal, he could have called upon his angry supporters to defend their president.  He was, after all, a validly elected president. He did none of these, because despite his many faults and lack of formal training, Estrada was in awe of the law.

Gloria Macapagal Arroyo stands in awe of nothing and no one.  Not the people, not the Constitution, not the judgment of history, maybe not even God – or she would not glibly use his name at every turn to validate her right to the presidency.  Some may call her clever for knowing how to use her powers to fight those who question her continued stay in office.  I believe she is not clever; she is just reckless.  By using the law and all its institutions to shield her from any challenge to her legitimacy, she incites people to disrespect the law and the nation’s fragile institutions.  But more than this, every day she remains in office, she pushes the nation to the edge of violence from which it may not recover.

There is no reason, why any society cannot find itself mired in this type of politics for a long time.  Cynicism erodes ideals and strips politics of its normative content.  Leaders are routinely permitted to do as they please because their continued rule happens to be beneficial to the narrow interests of the powerful few.  Before anyone realizes what is happening, they become monsters that cannot be restrained by anyone.  Hitler is a classic example.  He tapped into the deepest fears of Germany’s middle classes and the prevailing disenchantment with politicians in order to weave a mad regime that exterminated millions of people and invaded neighboring countries.

Ms Arroyo’s madness is not yet of this scale, but she is beginning to manifest the same symptoms.  She seeks to free herself from any accountability by painting all who would check and oppose her as destabilizers or powergrabbers.  She exploits the cynicism of the public about all politicians in order to strip the latter of any moral right to criticize her.  She describes politics in our society as so “degenerated” that everyone who participates in it becomes contaminated in order to excuse her own use of corrupt and expedient means to retain power.  She tears at the last fabric that holds our people’s “lifeworld” together and puts everything at risk all in the name of power politics.

No nation that allows itself to be governed by such barefaced cynicism can hope to accomplish big things.  It will be pulled apart by the clash of personal agenda.  It will destroy itself and pave the way for the rule of tyrants.

There is no way out of this, says Habermas, other than by returning to the basic ways of deliberative democracy.  By revitalizing popular participation, instead of shortcircuiting it, we may be able to achieve consensus on what constitutes the common good.  All our past elections have been merely exercises in the counting of individual preferences.  The point is to use them as occasions for their fusion into a collective vision.

Comments to <>