Autocrats and the denigration of politics

On the surface, the unity theme that is at the heart of Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr.’s and Sarah Duterte’s respective presidential and vice presidential candidacies seems nothing more than a reference to the alliance of two powerful political clans—the Marcoses of the North and the Dutertes of the South. The “UniTeam” brand seeks to convey the message of electoral invincibility that is much sought after in a regionally fragmented society like ours.

But there is, I believe, a subtler message being communicated here. The call for unity is also an appeal to shun all discussion that divides, that “merely” criticizes or finds fault, or that encourages “endless” argumentation about what happened in the past.

Understood in these terms, the call is a soothing balm to people who have come to see politics in essentially negative terms—as dirty, divisive, deceptive, and unproductive. Think of the word “pamumulitika.” Contraposed against it, the semantics of unity sounds almost like an ethical and high-minded protest against politics itself. But what is politics if it does not divide? The function of politics in modern society is to enable the production of collectively binding decisions that people comply with because they accept them as lawful. The process of arriving at such decisions is never without disagreement—even when it is just a choice between what is good and what is better.

Now, think of the alternative to this. On the eve of the declaration of martial law in 1972, one of the topics being debated at the old Senate was the establishment of the Bataan Export Processing Zone in Mariveles. The issues raised by the senators included the questionable acquisition of land to be used by the zone, the suitability of the place itself for labor-intensive industrial production, the wisdom of suspending labor laws within the zone, etc. All these issues were deemed resolved after Marcos padlocked Congress and jailed opposition lawmakers like Aquino and Diokno. The BEPZ went on to operate as the country’s first official economic zone.

Quite a number of businessmen, academics, and middle-class Filipinos welcomed this change in the country’s decision-making process. To them, autocratic policymaking was simpler, for it dispensed with politics altogether. They had seen how routine disagreements between the executive and the legislative branches often resulted in gridlock that prevented the country from embarking on new paths to economic development.

This was exactly what Marcos’ concept of the “New Society” was about. It was meant to instill discipline among Filipinos, foster social harmony, and promote the country’s rapid economic development. The latter, in particular, was supposed to be accomplished through the deployment of technocrats and specialists in various fields, rather than through the time-consuming process of consultation with affected sectors and debate among politicians.

In this new configuration, the needs of society were to have primacy over individual rights. What those societal needs were, and who decided how they were to be met and at what cost, were questions that were not subject to public discussion, for, in the regime’s perception, these lay beyond the ken of ordinary citizens.

This type of thinking rides on the usual frustration and confusion people feel when they are confronted with a lot of information and a long menu of choices. What people tend to value more is the clarity of their emotions and the strength of their beliefs, rather than the facts to validate these. The call to end all debates and recriminations about the past is precisely the perfect anodyne for this sense of distress.

This is the logic behind Marcos Jr.’s cleverly crafted campaign. His unwillingness to debate, his refusal to defend or justify the record of the two autocrats from whom he draws support for his campaign, and his reluctance to go into specifics about his vision and plans for the country—these are the hallmarks of a would-be autocrat who cannot be interrogated.

We must not think that an autocrat always needs martial law to enforce his will. President Duterte has shown that there is more than one way to skin a cat. Marcos cloaked his autocracy in law, to the point of writing his own constitution to legitimize the lawmaking powers he had given himself. Mr. Duterte silenced the other power centers of Philippine society by preying upon the vulnerabilities of people. He publicly singled out the targets of his ire and deployed the coercive power of state institutions against them. And by ordering the police and the military to kill the identified enemies of the state while vowing to shield them against criminal liability, he made sure no one would challenge his rule.

This is how Vladimir Putin has ruled Russia for over 20 years. The police state that kept citizens in check during the period of the Soviet Union is not there anymore, officially. Today, there are elections, and Putin is an elected leader. But he rules Russia as a sole autocrat—he controls the oligarchs who run the economy, the strongmen who run its provincial governments, the courts, the media, the police, and the military. His is an autocracy without the excuse of an ideology.

Still, it would be a mistake to think that autocrats have no popular support. In many instances, they come to power, or prolong their hold on power, through elections. Voters worship them for the vision of national greatness and the recovery from national humiliation they promise, as well as for the unbending will by which they personify these.