On the ‘radicalization’ of Philippine politics: A preliminary response

Screengrab from video where a cockroach lands on Duterte in the middle of his speech.
Now, what Duterte is essentially doing is to favor one oligarch over another. And this is no different to what Ferdinand Marcos did during his dictatorial regime, when he simply favored one faction of crony oligarchs over another faction of non-crony oligarchs.


A number of Filipino philosophers/thinkers have extensively written on Rodrigo Duterte and his regime of power. Many scholars have argued and exposed the authoritarian if not fascist nature of his rule. However, a few, at least in the discipline of Filipino philosophy, have rather provided an opposing if not a controversial reading of Duterte. For example, one scholar dared his readers to muse on the supposed “morality” of the drug-related killings of the regime. Another passionately asserted the “radical nature” of Duterte’s politics. The former was propounded by my mentor the late Romualdo Abulad, SVD, the latter by my friend Christopher Ryan Maboloc. Although often received with a grain of salt, the latter reading of Duterte by Maboloc has again gained new traction as it was made the subject of a plenary lecture of a philosophy conference held just last month. As I have already articulated an academic reply to the ideas of my mentor published elsewhere, this short essay is devoted as a preliminary attempt to construct a critical response to Maboloc’s reading of Duterte’s politics. There is much to say about Maboloc’s ideas, but the space of a short commentary limits my response to what I believe are the core components of his thoughts.

Maboloc has published a number of academic works concerning his reading of Duterte’s radical politics. In these articles, Maboloc not only showed how apparently radical and anti-establishment Duterte’s brand of politics is, but also how Duterte’s critics have supposedly misread his policies. Maboloc’s writings are a defense of Duterte and a critique against critics at the same time. There can be no better way in defending than by attacking as well.

At the core of Maboloc’s defense of Duterte’s politics are the assertions that, on the one hand, his brand of politics re-situates the Mindanao agenda, and, on the other, his methodology is radically anti-establishment. First, Maboloc believed that Duterte’s politics is “a radical revolution that is rooted in the language of dissent of the Bisaya.” This reading is based on what Maboloc called as the politics of exclusion, where people from the Philippine south are supposedly marginalized or excluded from the development agenda of “imperial Manila.” This politics of exclusion, rooted in a long colonial history, has supposedly provided the structures of oppression and discrimination against the people of the Philippine south, especially the people of Mindanao. As Maboloc explained, the colonizers “instituted an elitist democratic system that endangered a deep social divide that has made the people of Mindanao feel betrayed by the capital.”

Second, Maboloc also expressed that Duterte’s political methodology is one that challenges the established order, particularly the oligarchic order. He claimed that “on another front, Duterte is also waging war against the country’s oligarchs.” Citing instances when Duterte “challenged prominent individuals” and “forced big time tax evaders” to settle their tax obligations to the country,Maboloc maintained that Duterte delivers his promises in dismantling oligarchy.

I believe that these two important components of Maboloc’s construction of (Duterte’s) radical politics are respectively based on identity and crony politics. Identity politics pushes political agenda that are based on the particular and oftentimes dividing identities of a group of people (for example, their race, social background, class, or other identifying factors). An example of how Maboloc (tacitly) employed such a politics is when he charged that “it has always been the Tagalogs who make the major decisions, thereby subjugating the ‘kabubut-on’ or ‘will’ of the Bisaya.” Here, Maboloc not only distinguished between two different identities – since identity politics is the politics of difference – but also opposed one from the other. One can see here the tendency of how identity politics divides rather than unites subjectivities. While Maboloc was partially correct in identifying how the “have-nots” have been forced out into the margins, he ultimately ended up with a wrong conclusion by identifying the “have-nots” solely with the Bisaya.

I would rather read the notion of the “have-nots” from its original Marxist interpretation, which meant a class of people dispossessed with the means of production. They are the Filipino people who, through long colonial and neocolonial subjugation, have been robbed off their lands, resources, and capacities to accumulate small capital. Surely, these “have-nots” include the people living in urban poor slums in the “imperial Manila,” the underpaid, contractualized, and overworked working class in the industrial centers of Southern Tagalog, and the landless peasants of Central Luzon. Of course, these also include the Lumad people of Mindanao who through what the sociologist Arnold Alamon described as the “Wars of Extinction” have been literally wiped out away from their lands in favor of big and foreign capital in collusion with their comprador and landlord Filipino partners, that is, the “haves.” This Marxist reading escapes the identitarian reading of Maboloc yet is more substantial in giving sense to the “haves” and “have-nots” distinction he employed. In failing to consider how the problem of dispossession extends to include not only the people of Mindanao but also of Luzon, Maboloc’s rhetoric obscures the real fundamental problem of Philippine society: capital (and its ownership and control). Capital not in its geographical but in its political-economic sense.

The identity politics discussed above connects with crony politics. To express in an inverse manner what I just stated above, the problem of capitalist possession extends to include not only the elites of Luzon but also of Mindanao. Now, what Duterte is essentially doing is to favor one oligarch over another. And this is no different to what Ferdinand Marcos did during his dictatorial regime, when he simply favored one faction of crony oligarchs over another faction of non-crony oligarchs. This, for example, was expounded by the political scientist Paul Hutchcroft. Undeniably, Duterte himself admitted to being “helpful” with “helpful friends.” Furthermore, he continues to be helpful and to give concessions not only to friendly but also to unfriendly oligarchs. This is the case, for example, when Duterte signed into law the CREATE Bill, which lowers corporate income tax from 30 percent to 25 percent. Likewise, he perpetuates the anti-worker and notorious contractualization schemes of work. Lastly, from a macroeconomic perspective, he simply continues the neoliberal policies initiated and maintained by his predecessors. This invites us to reflect of just how Duterte’s pro-neoliberal capitalist agenda is clothed under anti-capitalist garments, a rhetoric not so unusual among fascists of the past (remember the Nazi’s rhetoric against the “rich exploiting Jew”).

It escaped Maboloc’s analysis that the cause of misery of the Filipino people – not only the Bisaya – is the continued economic and political rule of the “haves” – regardless of their cultural identity – to the detriment of the “have-nots” – still regardless of their cultural identity. It is not so much the identity as the access to economic power and its consequent political power that determine a subjectivity’s hegemonic character. And such a hegemony spares no particular identity. For example, the miserable conditions of the Lumad in Mindanao are largely due to the landlord and comprador elites of the same region who are in collusion with foreign capitalists owning large plantation, logging, and mining industries. They pollute and destroy the Lumad people’s ancestral lands in their unhampered pursuit of capital. But one should not see this as a mere contradiction within and between the peoples of Mindanao. Rather, it should be seen fundamentally as a case where class rule exterminates with impunity a subjugated class, despite their supposed identity. While Maboloc sees through the supposed lens of (identitarian) contradiction, his perspective rendered him incapable of seeing the real and more fundamental (class) contradiction between the “haves” and the “have-nots” in their relation to capital.

Radical politics can only be rooted in the overcoming of the politics of class rule. And Duterte has not even moved an inch to even think of such a radical agenda. On the contrary, he has provided the economic and political conditions for the unhampered economic and political flourishing of not only his preferred faction of the ruling class but the ruling class of compradors and landlords themselves. There is no radicalization of Philippine politics today. There is only the repetition of the old and the same. (https://www.bulatlat.com)

* The author is an assistant professor of philosophy of the University of the Philippines Cebu. He is the current vice-president for the Visayas of the Philosophical Association of the Visayas and Mindanao (PHAVISMINDA). He is also the current president of the All UP Academic Employees Union (AUPAEU) Cebu Chapter. He has written and published works on Alain Badiou’s emancipatory politics, neoliberalism, and the GRP-NDFP peace talks.

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