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Why Philippine President Duterte is not a socialist

Herbert Docena and Gabriel Hetland | 30.06.2016 10:17 | Repression | Social Struggles | Workers' Movements | World

As new Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte prepares to assume office, a growing number of Filipinos seem to – or want to – believe his surprising claim that he will be the country’s first “socialist” President.

Since he won the elections last month, some leftists – as well as anti-communists – have even suggested that he is or could be “our Hugo Chávez,” the iconic former Venezuelan President who challenged his country’s oligarchs and empowered millions of ordinary Venezuelans by promoting a “socialism of the twenty-first century.”

This hope that Duterte is or could be our Chávez – some even say our Allende – must surely be an expression of many Filipinos’ yearning for radical change. It is a “sigh of the oppressed creature” that likely has its material basis in conditions similar to Venezuela’s.

Unfortunately, a brief review of Duterte’s early actions and of the Venezuelan experience indicate that Duterte is unlikely to wage the kind radical change many yearn for.

Right-wing populist in ‘socialist’s' clothing?

To begin with, Duterte himself has made it very clear that he does not intend to challenge what socialists consider to be the roots of oppression and inequality in society.

On the contrary, he has declared in no uncertain terms that he will “continue and maintain the current macroeconomic policies” of the outgoing administration: policies that, by prioritizing the interests of corporations above working peoples and nature, have largely benefited elites and certain sections of the middle class while hurting the majority and degrading the environment.

In fact, instead of rolling back neoliberalism, Duterte plans to take it even farther by doing what former administrations have wanted but failed to do: remove the remaining constitutional restriction on foreign investments once and for all.

In addition, he intends to push for federalism: a project that claims to give more power to the provinces but is actually meant to force them to compete with each other for investments by adopting the most business-friendly policies – i.e. the worst labor laws or the weakest environmental regulations – and to prevent the poorer provinces from sharing in the wealth generated in the more favored provinces.

Finally, Duterte seeks to reinforce neoliberalism by intensifying the repression of workers. Not only has he “joked” about killing workers who refuse to compromise with capitalists (while refraining from “joking” about punishing capitalists who refuse to compromise with workers), he has refused to include ending “contractualization” and increasing wages in his “10-Point Economic Program.”

Instead, he has announced plans to enforce a “war on drugs,” a liquor ban, and other measures that, while presented as measures to curb crime, are actually meant to discipline the poor and turn them into docile, productive workers. They will target the shirtless kanto boys drinking gin bulag in the street corner while sparing the executives in gray suits downing whisky over at the City of Dreams.

Perhaps all this explain why Goldman Sachs, Bloomberg and other business groups – normally the first to raise hell and threaten a capital strike whenever real socialists threaten to take office – have happily welcomed Duterte’s election.

In addition to reinforcing neoliberalism, Duterte has also made it clear that he does not intend to challenge patriarchy. Though he has voiced support for pro-women measures, he has famously “joked” about rape and has denigrated LGBTQIA+s, thus encouraging the very attitudes that render ineffective some of the very policies he claims to champion.

Duterte has also left no doubts on where he stands on the question of authoritarianism. Not only has he threatened to crush the opposition using Marcosian measures ‘if necessary,’ he has even vowed to bury the dictator in the country’s Libingan ng mga Bayani, thereby bolstering the Right’s claim that Marcos is a “hero.”

Finally, despite his supposed hostility towards the US, Duterte does not support abrogating the agreements that allow the US to maintain military basing in the Philippines.

Duterte’s words and plans contrast markedly with those of Chávez.

Unlike Duterte who, despite his much-vaunted membership in left groups in his youth, did not actually pursue a socially transformative agenda as mayor of Davao and only engaged in an instrumentalist, top-down “alliance” with one section of the left when he was in office, Chávez was already an active and committed militant already working closely with social movements to push for radical change even before coming to power.

Though the “Bolivarian Revolution” he subsequently led was far from perfect, he was a consistent critic of capitalism and imperialism, and he broke decisively with neoliberalism and promoted a form of radical social democracy when he was in office.

In addition, he opened up broader societal discussions relating to patriarchy, homophobia, and racism, all of which he explicitly condemned.

And despite constant charges that he was a dictator, Chávez, who overcame a military coup in 2002 through popular support, was elected and re-elected five times with growing support and turnout. All this occurred without fraud, and Jimmy Carter famously called Venezuela’s electoral system “the best in the world.”

Towards populist neoliberalism?

To be sure, Duterte is by no means just another run-of-the-mill neoliberal.

Indeed, unlike the outgoing Philippine President, for example, Duterte has appointed leftists to important cabinet posts (land reform, social welfare, and education), put a critic of mining in charge of the environment, has voiced support for ‘national industrialization,’ and has vowed to resume peace talks with the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP).

But all these “plus points” or contradictions do not necessarily make him less of a neoliberal. They only make him a different – because more populist – kind of neoliberal.

Thus, even as he has surrounded himself with leftists, Duterte has reserved the core of the state – i.e. the finance and economic planning departments—to a businessman whose family is deeply invested in mining and a mainstream economist who has already assured businessmen that he and others will work to “temper” the “enthusiasm” of left-leaning secretaries in the Duterte Cabinet.

Sharing Duterte’s commitment to neoliberal macroeconomic policies, these pro-capital secretaries – not the leftists – will ultimately control the most important levers of state power, deciding the level of government spending, the interest rate, and other policies that set iron limits to whatever reforms the leftists may try to pursue in office.

Consequently, no matter how “enthusiastic” the leftist Secretaries may be, they will only likely end up being tasked with absorbing the popular dissatisfaction that will likely result as Duterte – trying to do a Bonaparte by balancing the needs of business with the demands of his lower-class supporters – throws (possibly larger) crumbs to the poor while ultimately favoring capital on the most fundamental questions.

In short, they will likely only be asked to perform the same role that capital has happily allowed the left to perform in history: clean up after their mess – and then take the blame.

As for Duterte’s openness to a peace deal with the CPP, some concessions that may improve the well-being of oppressed groups in the countryside may potentially be “won” and must of course be welcomed.

But the over-all goal of such a deal – long sought by the more farsighted sections of the Filipino property-owning class – has also long been clear: to pacify the countryside so as to open it up for the deeper penetration of capital.

On this point, it is worth stressing that Duterte’s closest allies are deeply invested in extractive industries, his top campaign contributor owns vast plantations, and his core of supporters appear to be mainly relatively nouveau-riche property-owners from the periphery: those who went to the Holy Cross Academy of Digos rather than to Ateneo High, those who studied in San Beda or Adamson rather than UP Law or Wharton, those who chill at the Marco Polo instead of the Manila Pen – those, in short, who have so far been relatively shut out of Imperial Manila’s cacique-dominated inner circles and therefore seek a “revolution” in intra-elite relations.

All belong to that "marginalized" section of the ruling class that has been trying to get a larger share of the spoils by opening up the countryside to capital through neoliberal decentralization. None has a necessary interest in mitigating the contradictions of capitalist penetration in such a way as to favor the oppressed classes.

So Duterte may indeed push elites to make concessions to the oppressed – only for them to take those concessions back as they bring “development,” i.e. more enclosures, more dispossession, and more ecological degradation, to the countryside.

Chávez was different. Though he was by no means the paragon of socialist virtue, he did not simply seek to replace one elite faction with another or to establish a kind of neoliberalism with a "human face."

Despite various shortcomings – particularly an inability to reduce Venezuela’s extreme dependence on oil, and a tendency for his radical discourse to outpace state practices, partly due to limited capacity – Chávez promoted real socialist development measures that actually sought to challenge or disrupt the logic of capitalism. Examples include a thoroughgoing land reform, and the (re)nationalization of the oil, steel, telecommunications and electricity sectors.

Further, Chávez more than doubled state spending on healthcare and education and, in a contradictory way, pushed participatory democracy and tried to build the ‘popular power’ needed to overcome the limits a capitalist state imposes on attempts at radical change.

As a result, Venezuelan workers and other subordinate groups experienced vast improvements in access to healthcare, education, housing, and pensions. Poverty was cut in half between 2003 and 2008, with extreme poverty falling by 72%, so that by 2012 Venezuela had become Latin America’s most equitable country.

Alliance with ‘passive revolutionaries’?

Given what we know about Duterte and Chávez, then, there seems little reason to hope that Duterte and the elites around him can be pushed to fight for the kind of socialism that Chávez and the Venezuelans sought to build.

He and his friends may indeed be setting out to wage a “revolution” – but a revolution closer to what sociologists, building on the ideas of Antonio Gramsci, have conceptualized as a “passive revolution”: a revolution from above that uses leftist rhetoric, deploys leftist individuals, and even mobilizes the "masses" but to ultimately reinforce rather than challenge capitalism.

If this were the case, allying with Duterte – or selectively criticizing his policies while mobilizing people to defend his administration – may not necessarily be the more "mature" or more "sophisticated" strategy to achieve social justice.

For even if combined with constant admonitions to "stay vigilant," amplifying (or refusing to question) Duterte’s specious claim that he is the country’s first socialist President will only likely further de-mobilize and divide the popular classes as some internalize the view that they already have a “kasama” in the state and as the section of the left "in power" comes to have a stake (and material interests) in ensuring that that putative “kasama” also stays in power.

But with the popular classes de-mobilized and with the left more fragmented, the only political forces capable of pushing for radical transformation will also likely be paralyzed: exactly what Duterte and his faction needs for them to succeed in their “revolution” and thwart radical change.

This is not to say, of course, that Duterte should not be pushed to act like a real socialist. Indeed, his very claim to be a “comrade” opens up a possibility closed under previous Presidents: it allows social movements to escalate their popular mobilizations against contractualization, land-grabbing, etc. saying “If you are really a kasama, Mr President, how can you possibly order the police to disperse our protests? How can you possibly be in favor of anti-worker or anti-poor policies?”

Towards autonomous, independent Left

But to prevent Duterte and his friends from hijacking these popular mobilizations and instrumentalizing them in their struggle to revolutionize intra-elite relations, we can perhaps learn a thing or two from our Venezuelan compañeros who have withstood more than a decade of destabilization attempts.

Faced with unending efforts by the elites to divide them and mobilize the poor’s anger to stabilize the system, they stood their ground, vigilantly defended their autonomy, and escalated antagonistic mobilizations against US-backed Venezuelan elites seeking to oust socialists from power – while also simultaneously continuing to put pressure on those socialists in power.

Today, all those seeking to push the Bolivarian revolution forward are under siege as oil prices fall, as Chávez’s successor staggers under the problems of mismanagement, and as elites take advantage of their weakness to attempt to return to power.

But the Chavista dream – of building a genuinely democratic form of socialism marked by worker and community control over economic and political decision-making – lives on. Indeed, this aspiration may just be what Filipinos are actually expressing when they say that Duterte could be “our Chávez.”

Unfortunately, Duterte’s words and actions give us little reason to believe that he actually shares that dream. –

Herbert Docena is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley while Gabriel Hetland is an assistant professor of Latin American, Caribbean, and US Latino Studies at University at Albany, SUNY.

Herbert Docena and Gabriel Hetland