BEING the first to write a book about a phenomenon has both benefits and risks. Besides having the bragging rights of being the first, you also get to frame the conversation about that phenomenon. However, the temptation to be first can compromise rigor. And that’s what I think happened in The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt against Elite Democracy, the new monograph by my fellow international relations scholar Richard Heydarian.
This column will be two parts. The first will focus on how the author generally frames the rise of Duterte, while the second will zero in on Chapter 3, “Subaltern Realism: Duterte’s Art of The Deal,” which deals with Duterte’s foreign policy.
The frame Heydarian used to interpret the rise of Duterte is how he wants his audience to think of the Old Man’s presidency: the shadow of Mussolini.
In the first chapter, Heydarian summoned a big name in political philosophy: the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. He narrated Gramsci’s reflections on the political turmoil happening in Italy between World War 1 and Word War 2 that led to the rise of fascism.
Closing that narration, Heydarian said:
“Almost exactly a century [ago], Gramsci’s portrayal of his home country eerily resembles the zeitgeist among many troubled emerging as well as mature democracies in the opening decades of the twenty-first century. Throughout the world, recent years have seen the liberal elite suffering one electoral setback after the other, as demagogues and strongman populists dislodge the establishment in favor of a new brand of politics, which seems both familiar and new.”
The book ends by restating that passage:
“The Southeast Asian country, like Gramsci’s Italy, is caught in an interregnum, struggling to anchor itself somewhere between strongman populism, autocratic nostalgia, and democratic resistance—with no clear resolution on the horizon. The Philippines has entered a twilight zone.”
I can see what Heydarian is trying to do. Like his mentor, former Akbayan representative Walden Bello, Heydarian wants to draw a parallelism between the rise of fascism in Italy before World War 2 and the rise of Duterte.
Yet, as any analyst who uses the comparative method knows, in order to successfully perform a comparative analysis one must first identify critical antecedents.
Fascism is an anti-liberal ideology which puts State interests totally above individual interests. As the founder of Italian fascist movement, Benito Mussolini wrote in The Doctrine of Fascism: “Liberalism denied the State in the name of the individual; Fascism reasserts the rights of the State as expressing the real essence of the individual.”
Opposed to capitalism, fascism wanted the state to exert control over industry, like the socialists. But fascism is a ultra-nationalistic, it is against the internationalism of communists.
Filipinos who rallied behind Duterte aren’t against the liberal notion of the individual but against the Liberal Party. The party bearing the name “liberal” and the liberal political ideology aren’t one and the same. Ideologically, the rise of fascism in Italy was a reaction to the excesses of liberalism as a political ideology. While the rise of Duterte was propelled by the disgust of Filipino not with liberalism itself but with the incompetence and corruption of the ruling Liberal Party.
Furthermore, one of the critical factors for the rise of fascism in Italy was the urge to revive the glorious imperial past of Italy rooted in the Roman Empire. To do that, one must have a strong centralized state. This was brought about by the humiliation that Italy experienced in Versailles as the spoils of World War 1 were being divided among the victors.
During the war, Italy had joined the forces of the Triple Entente (Russia, UK and France) against its former allies in the Triple Alliance. But when the Triple Entente won, Italy’s demands were ignored during the negotiation of the Treaty of Versailles. The interests of the British Empire collided with Italy’s colonial interests in Africa.
The British representative in the League of Nations wanted sanctions to be imposed against Italy for its colonial war in East Africa. Italy’s fascist press pointed out British hypocrisy and mobilized nationalist sentiments to support the civilizing mission of Italy in East Africa.
As historian Robert Mallett noted in Mussolini and the Origins of the Second World War, 1933-1940:”Italy, a land that had given so much to the cause of world civilization, was being prevented from extending its civilizing mission to a backward and barbaric African state that still permitted the practice of slavery in the mid-twentieth century.”
Fascism’s ideological critique of liberalism’s notion of the individual and the geopolitical drivers of a stronger, centralized state aren’t present in the rise of Duterte. Thus, contrary to Heydarian’s framing, the zeitgeist that led to the rise of fascism during Gramsci’s time is hardly the same as the zeitgeist that led to the rise of Duterte.
Furthermore, Heydarian left out a context which could have better framed Duterte’s ascent: Mindanao’s history. Duterte’s political maneuvers, rhetoric and even his insistence on independence from Western interference are more understandable if one would only spend time to study the formative factors in the political subjectivity of a Mindanaoan.
And this reflects a sad reality: Just like how Imperial Manila’s politicians neglected the development of Mindanao for so many years, the historical development of the political subjectivity of a Mindanaoan is ignored by a lot of scholars in understanding Duterte.