Theater of Cruelty

A patriarchal avenger and savior

The Sovereign Trickster. Death and Laughter in the Age of Duterte
THE PHILIPPINES / After six years of a political death campaign and up to 30 extrajudicial killings, the Philippines went to the polls in May. The inexplicable thing is that the Filipinos have chosen to let the Marcos era be resumed in version 000. President WW's daughter was elected to take up the post of vice-president in a race with former dictator Marcos' son.


That there is still something to laugh about in the Philippines, where a so-called war on drugs for six years has created fear and permanent uncertainty in the population, can be difficult to understand. Nevertheless, outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte – who constantly cracks grotesque jokes about killings and abuses – was apparently as popular when he left as he was when he came to power. With his rambling tirades, which usually build up to a sexually charged climax, he constantly garners laughter and excitement from broad sections of the population. Also among the country's poorest and most vulnerable, who live with the constant threat of sudden violent death at the hands of the politically sanctioned patrols, which based on arbitrary lists of alleged drug-involved people carry out systematic liquidations.

How the Philippines has been brought into this bizarre situation, which led to the Marcos family being able to return to the presidential palace on the 50th anniversary of the introduction of martial law, examines historian Vicente Rafael in his new book The Sovereign Trickster. Death and Laughter in the Age of Duterte. It was published before the Philippines went to presidential elections on 9 May this year, and thus cannot say anything directly about why the population chose Ferdinand Marcos Jr. as their next president. – also known as Bongbong – there is the son of the former dictator of the same name. Bongbong's vice president will be the outgoing president's daughter Sara Duterte (mayor of Davao, local experimentarium for the now national politics of death). It was far down to the candidates who went to the polls on a radical break with the politics of the past six years, such as outgoing vice-president Leni Robredo or Walden Bello and Leody Guzman, who have a background in the country's social movements.

The tradition of using paramilitary groups and private armies to keep the population and its rebellious streak under control has persisted.

On the other hand, it is The Sovereign Trickster both a gifted analysis of how President Rodrigo Duterte has ruled through fear and grotesque jokes. It is also an introduction to the historical background of the Philippines' deep democratic problems. Rafael has set out to investigate the conditions for Duterte's success in "making death a weapon in the control of life" and how his authoritarian world of imagination is both nourished by and disrupts community and intimacy, especially among poor groups. And not least what role his strategic use of obscenities plays in his style of government.


A historic scratch

"Seen in a post-Marcos context, where counter-insurgency and neoliberalism meet, the formal qualities of his discourse can be a decisive key to understanding the brutal logic and deadly effects of his governance", writes Rafael. He then embarks on a historical sketch of the colonial and post-colonial development of the Philippines' special variant of democracy, before going into a concrete analysis of the outgoing president's mental universe and its consequences in the material world.

The historical ride begins with the Spanish colonial power's installation of electoral acts as an instrument to ensure the cooperation of local elites by guaranteeing the maintenance of existing social hierarchies and the privileges of the landowning class. The tradition of using paramilitary groups and private armies to keep the population and its rebellious streak under control was founded here, and has continued ever since in various forms.

The colonial and post-colonial development of the Philippines' special variant of democracy.

When the United States took over the colony of the Philippines from Spain at the turn of the 20th century, a large-scale effort was set in motion to educate the population, and in 1938 women were given the right to vote. The goal was the democratization of society, but even though the almost universal right to vote gave the poor political power in theory, this demographic majority remained socially and economically marginalized.

Political campaign strategies

The local elites understood how to take advantage of the situation by changing the political campaign strategies on three points in particular, according to Rafael. First, by transforming them from a discreet affair into a public spectacle. From the 1950s, presidential candidates began to go on tour around the country, where they made sure to be seen in situations that portrayed them as 'down with the people': planting rice together with poor farmers; eat with your hands; perform song and dance alongside popular cultural icons. Secondly, by making vote buying a central strategy. At the same time, this meant that enormous sums had to be raised in order to be able to stand at all. And thirdly, by intensifying the use of violence and threats, both against the population during the election itself and against political rivals and critics, who were quickly liquidated.

Rodrigo Duterte

Ferdinand Marcos also used these strategies to win the presidential election in 1965. He then retained power – and put democracy out of action – by imposing martial law and government by decree from 1972 until he was overthrown in a popular uprising led by liberal forces among the landowning elites in 1986.

The apparent restoration of liberal democracy, which followed, did not deal with the concrete legacy of the Marcos regime – there was never, for example, a court case with the state and paramilitary apparatus of violence, which had terrorized the population – or with the social and economic hierarchies from the colonial era. Instead, these social structures were supplemented with neoliberal reforms, which further precarized the poor majority of the population, whose consolation prize was ideological promises about the possibility of personal success through individual sacrifice.

It was these historical experiences that allowed Duterte to emerge on the scene as a patriarchal avenger and savior. By discursively diverting attention from the country's deep structural problems and instead portraying the struggle for an economically, socially and politically just society as a struggle between worthy and unworthy citizens, he gained support for his surreal politics of death.

The president's discursive joke universe

In a certain sense, Rafael's lines of connection between the current political situation and the historical conditions for Duterte's governance are more interesting than the analysis of the president's discursive universe of jokes as a tool to keep the population spellbound. It's not Rafael's fault, but this reviewer's saturation point is quickly reached when it comes to Duterte's symbolic phallus and concrete penis. Nevertheless, Rafael has in a distinguished way given us a meaningful framework to understand the immediately incomprehensible centrifugal force in Durterte's obscene universe of death. A framework of understanding, which indirectly also contributes to explaining the inexplicable: That the Filipinos have chosen to let the Marcos era be resumed in version 2.0.

Nina Trige Andersen
Nina Trige Andersen
Trige Andersen is a freelance journalist and historian.

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