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Where’s Duterte From and Where’s He Going To?

Photo by Bold Content | CC by 2.0

History may have come to an embarrassing end in the centres of the Empire but not in it’s remote regions. As the great Egyptian analyst Samir Amin points out in a recent Monthly Review essay: it is in the periphery of the global system where the great political and social storms occur.

Why? Because history is still fluid there. The battle for and against the transformation of the system still resonates there. Whereas the stagnant centres of the system are dealing with the pathetic aftermath of modernity – on the edges: modernity is still being born and still being strangled.

In other words, the weakest links in the global chain of capitalism best reveal what the hell is going on. And what’s going to happen next. Therefore if you want to gauge the system forget about New York or London or Paris and head to places like the Philippines.

Before Rodrigo Duterte was elected Filipino President last year no one gave a damn about the country. It was just assumed to be an American puppet. Another one that is full of poverty. But overnight this perception changed. A significant political storm emerged from within the Filipino archipelago that forced the world to adjust its vision.

Within days of Duterte’s election the Empire was forced on the back foot, as he insisted on Filipino sovereignty. Ironically he did this by acknowledging China’s position in the South China Sea. Refusing to take the American bait (war on China) the new President of the Philippines quickly defused one of the world’s most dangerous confrontations.

For this diplomacy alone, Duterte deserved the Nobel Peace Prize. However the Empire and even some Filipino progressives, like Walden Bello, were frustrated by this outbreak of peace in the South China Sea.

For committing “the crime of peace” on the international stage Duterte became a figure of hate for liberal imperialists everywhere. And on cue, liberals suddenly cared about life in the Philippines. From being an ignored entity before the advent of Duterte – Filipino life became front page news in New York, London and Paris. Liberal cynicism went into overdrive and felt the need, for geopolitical reasons, to demonise yet another Third World leader.

Whereas “before Duterte”, tens of thousands or even millions of Filipino lives were lost every year due to poverty, with no liberal word of protest. Now, “during Duterte” every life lost in the Philippines, or so it seems – according to the Western media – is Duterte’s fault.

Duterte’s election wiped out in one blow one hundred years of American style politics in the Philippines. Both the extremely liberal pro-business consensus that dominates Manila today and the anti-communist Yankee obsessed dictatorship that dominated Manila yesterday were overthrown (for the moment, anyway) by the politics of a provincial city: Davao – Duterte’s hometown. A place he governed for decades.

Davao – a humble third rate urban sprawl on the large island of Mindanao – transformed overnight the politics not only of the Philippines but also of Asia. An ordinary city with ordinary people broke the mould.

So what’s so special about Davao? Compared to Manila there are no skyscrapers in Davao. Life is lived at ground level. And that’s the key. There’s no bubble architecture spawning a metaphysical oligarchy. It’s a tropical port grinding out a living that leaves most of its people behind. There’s no easy escape route from social reality.

Ground level not only refers to the skyline but also to the historical line. Davao, whether it likes it or not, has its face in the dirt of history. It is distant from power. However it’s nose is right up against real Filipino time. Distance from the Manila metropolis gives it realism.

In the 1980s the communists were fighting in the streets of Davao. The capitalists won. And now the communists (The New People’s Army) are up in the mountains and armed private security guards protect every business in the city.

And just up the road on the western side of Mindanao, a Moro National Liberation Front is a key player in an autonomous Muslim region. And within that region a proxy imperial army (ISIS) has just torn apart the city of Marawi.

Communism, Capitalism, Catholicism, Imperialism and Islam crisscross Davao and it’s hinterland. Multiple “Nationalisms” overlap (Filipino, Muslim and Protestant – the born again Christians behave like a new “nation”). And policing all of this ideological volcano is a recently installed (in Mindanao only) martial law.

The prime mover beneath this political hotspot is plunder. Peripheral capitalism is all about raping real resources for the benefit of the global centres. And it is the resistance to this and the maintenance of this which generates the above ideologies in one way or the other.

Plantations and slums line the broken road between Davao and General Santos (the most southerly city in the Philippines). Bananas, Pineapples, rubber and Sugar Cane are the priority. And people the fodder. Even the sea must give a pound of it’s flesh: yellow fin tuna.

In fact, the general living conditions and economy of Davao and Mindanao resemble, for example, the Chiapas in southern Mexico. Mining companies and agribusiness conquer and the natives scatter along the roadside.

In 2015 it was believed that 12% of Mindanao (500,000 hectares) was covered in “for export” plantations.

And according to Wikileaks, the US embassy in Manila, a few years ago, “described Mindanao in particular as “a treasure trove” of mineral resources, including gold, copper, nickel, manganese, chromite, silver, lead, zinc, and iron ore. According to data from the GRP Mines and Geosciences Bureau, up to 70 per cent of the Philippines’ mineral resources may be in Mindanao”.

Duterte, of course, isn’t Subcommandante Marcos (spokesman of the Zapatistas – the rebels of the Chiapas) but he does represent a political challenge to the liberal forces that viciously exploit Mindanao and the Philippines.

He echoes the streets and slums of Davao and Mindanao, the same way Subcommandante Marcos echoes the jungles of the Chiapas. The unconventional Duterte must be taken seriously – just as the unconventional Mexican in the balaclava must be taken seriously.

And – considering the other unconventional extreme – Duterte isn’t Donald Trump. There’s no comparison. Whereas Trump hails from the reality TV of the First World, Duterte is embedded in the social reality of the Third World. Both may embrace “law and order”. But Trump’s “walls and wars” bear no resemblance to reality. Duterte’s diatribes, on the other hand, do.

The people living at ground level in the Philippines understand Duterte. The same way the people living at ground level in Venezuela understood Hugo Chavez. Duterte is not a “21st Century socialist” but his presence subverts, for the better, the political consensus that dominated the end of the 20th century and spilled over into this 21st.

The point is that the conservative way is unraveling on the obscure edge of the world. And this energy can feedback into the global centres. On the global periphery “the shock of the new” is still wanted. Even if it’s vulgar. Especially if it’s vulgar.

And you can’t get as vulgar as Duterte’s current critique of the “human rights” crowd. He asks if their obsession with children is a sign of pedophilia? If we can get around the bizarreness of this question: Duterte has a point.

Not wanting to challenge the structure of social and political life – the “human rights” fanatics end up exploiting the vulnerability of children so as to emotionally blackmail their audience. It’s a classic NGO trick that is used to sell the NGO product: bourgeois mendacity.

The question though is wether Duterte wants to challenge the structure of social and political life in the Philippines? Is he using, for example, the issue of drugs the same way the “humanitarians” are using children? Is he dodging the deep problems of the Philippines by focusing on secondary issues?

Duterte says the aim of his infamous “war on drugs” is to eradicate a serious national drug problem and as a consequence promote economic investment and growth. The barbaric ownership of the Philippines, however, is left alone amidst all this war talk.

The problem is that the few families and foreigners that own the Philippines can easily consume whatever economic growth there is in the archipelago (around 6% – if you believe the IMF – the IMF also says that the Filipino unemployment rate is around 5% – and if you believe that – you’ll believe anything). If trickle down economics is a myth in the first world – it is pure fantasy in the third.

Duterte, though, carries on with what is – in the context of Filipino poverty -a shockingly brutal economic regime. Allowing neoliberalism (the free market) to run amok among a people that can’t walk in the global economy is the ultimate crime (not drugs). And Duterte perpetuates it.

So where’s he going? He has upset the local and international bosses. But they continue to plunder the Philippines with impunity.

Duterte walks a tightrope above a sea of contradictions. He’s exposing liberal economics to post-liberal politics. He represents the vulgar classes (us) – yet he still follows economic elites. He courts communists (the homegrown rebels) and fascists (the US trained military). He wants sovereignty in the age of globalisation. He’s a sign of our fractured times.

He’s nonetheless positive because he points towards a popular dynamic that’s anathema to polite political society everywhere – the liberal part of society that wants to kill history and the people who feed it’s progressive spirit (the wretched of the earth).

The dynamic in question, however, is independent of Duterte. It’s the Filipino people. The ones living on the side of the street. And outside the plantation gates. The ones who travel the world in search of work. That which is responsible for “DU30” isn’t Duterte’s own crude political skills but the crude political realism of the Filipino people. They voted him in. And they’ll decide the next step. And the constitutional way isn’t necessarily their way.

In and around Davao the people on the periphery of the periphery brood and bide their time. In their shacks they observe their shackles. They’re the majority. And they form a vast human reservoir that can flood and subvert “normal politics” whenever they choose.

Communism was once their alternative. Now it’s Duterte. As he exposes his limits,  the people will act. People Power after all was born in the Philippines (1986). The important thing to note, however, is that the liberal levees have been breached. And where the Filipinos go we shall follow.

More articles by:

Aidan O’Brien lives in Dublin, Ireland.

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