Author Topic: A nationalist agenda  (Read 337 times)


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A nationalist agenda
« on: June 24, 2018, 02:03:23 PM »

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Building a nation?

Duterte speaks the truth about U.S. colonialism, but not the whole truth. He speaks truly about U.S. colonialism and “the Philippines,” but he is not openly truthful about “the Philippines,” ignoring or glossing over important class, geographic and ethno-linguistic cleavages that lie beneath its politics of patrimonial elitism.

One reason for the latter is, as we have seen, that he and his family are from that class itself. But this cannot be all there is to it, for his predecessors (even his immediate predecessor President Benigno Aquino III, who himself attempted, as Duterte is now, to negotiate a peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front) steered very clear of any overt criticism of the United States’ historical and continuing role in shaping Philippine politics. It is not only the elite: nowhere in the world does the United States enjoy as high popular support as in the Philippines.

Why has he broken with this convention?

The fundamental reason would seem to be the conviction that the Philippine state cannot purge itself of systematic traditions of patrimonial corruption unless it does so from the foundations of a perceived and universally shared Philippine national identity. And such a shared identity, in a land of many identities, demands a single, us-versus-them, narrative foundation of the kind his simplified history of U.S. colonialism implies.

In this context his drawing of outraged Philippine attention to the U.S. massacre of the Moro people at the battle of Bud Dajo is a key move. First, in acknowledging grievances (though only by generalizing them as not only Moro, but Filipino), and second, through this generalizing, in reframing the official national mythology. For the Moro people, it is a rare public recognition of historical grievances by a Philippine president. For the leftist movement, it is an acknowledgement of their historical narrative: that the plight of the Filipino poor is due to the domination of a neo-colonial comprador bourgeoisie beholden to and kept in power by American interests.

“Nation-building” is so common a trope in public parlance in the Philippines that it is almost meaningless. It has also proved elusive, not the least because of the difficulty of weaving a common narrative in such a diverse political community riven with so many fault lines of language, culture, ethnicity, geography, and class. But it is, we suggest, entirely plausible that this is what Duterte’s actions amount to, even if it is impossible to be sure with what clarity, if any, he understands that this is what they do.

Consider too that Philippine political scientists often talk about mayors as a special breed of politician: down-to-earth, aware of limitations, and pragmatic. With over two successful decades in municipal politics, these are the traits Duterte’s behavior manifests. Drugs are a problem in the Philippines. What is the most direct way of dealing with it? Kill drug pushers and users. Is it feasible? Yes. Let us do it. China is encroaching on Philippine maritime territory. Is it possible to repel China? No. Let us deal with China, then. The insurgencies are a fundamental challenge to the state and a major loss of treasure and life. Can they be defeated? No. Let us negotiate peace with them. All these are part of what add up to an effective nation-building project, perhaps not planned, but playing out so. The insurgencies are the capstone of this. President Aquino had tried to stir up nationalism against China and not without success, but it was not an issue the Moro people or the rural poor were interested in getting behind. He succeeded in signing a peace agreement with the MILF but that was sabotaged in the legislature, by among others, Senators Alan Peter Cayetano and Bongbong Marcos, Duterte’s running mate and ally.

His obsession with drugs and more broadly (petty) criminality might be based on personal conviction but it struck a chord. He was able to thematize it and create a platform that apparently all socioeconomic classes can share. By changing the national narrative as he appears to be doing, he might be able to bring those two other key segments, which have never really fit in: the Muslims of Mindanao and the revolutionary left.

However, much that great scholar of Southeast Asian nationalism, Benedict Anderson, would have disapproved of his penchant for brutal methods, it may be that Duterte sees himself (if only through a glass dimly) as, in his strongman way, constructing “an imagined political community,” a Philippine nationalism “imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.”

Certainly this would explain his difference-denying account of Philippine political history, and his determination to set that story against the colonial sovereign authority of the United States, just as it fits with his us (good filipinos) versus them (drug dealers) narrative, and his assertion of Philippine autonomy in foreign affairs.

Whether this is a good way to build a nation is another question.