Duterte, Marcos and Our Secret Longing for Dictatorship

fm martial law introPhoto from gov.ph

Throughout history, there have been many justifications for authoritarian rule.

The oldest recorded work of political philosophy, Plato’s The Republic, is also the oldest recorded argument for authoritarian leadership. There, Plato argued that people are born with different defining characteristics, and nature has endowed some people with the potential for leadership. Society, in nurturing and organizing people based on their abilities, will crown one among the elite class of “guardians,” a philosopher-king: a person who will have political authority based on knowledge and wisdom.

Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince, the first modern work of political science, also justified absolute authority conferred to an individual. Postulating that the end of politics is to maintain power and that in the practice of statecraft, the end justifies the means, meaning certain acts which may be deemed immoral are to be held permissible when done by the nation’s political leader.

Finally, in his seminal work, Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes justified the establishment of a strong central government necessary to tame the self-interested, violent nature of human beings. In establishing this government, which Hobbes called the Sovereign, people must consent to surrendering some of their rights to ensure their survival. In doing so, they enter into a social contract with each other, affirming the ability of the Sovereign entity to do whatever it takes to ensure security and order, even if it means taking the life of its citizens.

While these works were written ages ago, most of these ideas resonate today. In the Philippines, it is most apparent in the debates surrounding the flaws and the so-called merits of Marcos’s dictatorship, as well as the validity of Davao City Mayor Rodrigo’s manifestations of ruthlessness against criminal elements and groups opposing his leadership. There are some who see authoritarian tendencies to be strengths; others see them as incompatible values with our democratic republican state.

But regardless of one’s side in such matters, I believe it is useful to analyze why some people still long for dictators. To dismiss supporters of authoritarian rule as mere ignorance is reductive; it also fails to account for the fact that some academic and public intellectuals hold that the Marcos regime and even Duterte’s leadership style are not only permissible but also necessary. If not mere ignorance, and disregarding the possibility of moral indifference, then what accounts for such sentiments?

What we as individuals think of society and how to make it better is in itself a product of our relationship with society and the realities within it. After the loss of Athens in the Peloponnesian War, Athenian democracy was under fire from its aristocrats who advocated oligarchy. Italy in the time of Machiavelli was threatened externally by power struggles among influential leaders and internally by divisions among national elites. Political unrest was also present in Hobbes’s England, where the English Parliament and its supporters were on a violent campaign against King Charles I and the Royalists (including Hobbes himself.)

Two general themes may be derived from the social context surrounding the pro-authoritarian works of Plato, Machiavelli, and Hobbes. Primarily, these were reflections written during or after a time of significant conflict and violence. Secondly, the increased involvement of elite groups, supposedly in response to societal problems, has failed to deliver lasting changes. These had effects on the philosophers’ views on the failures of democracy and how to possibly stabilize society with the help of a dictator. And these are certainly true in Philippine society today.

At present, the Philippines has no shortage of conflict and unrest. Insurgency, tribal tensions and warlordism across the country, especially in Mindanao, the Communist protracted war in rural areas, as well as state-enforced violence against marginalized indigenous peoples, have persisted in spite of the “restoration” of democracy after Marcos. While these problems have predated and have persisted throughout the Marcos dictatorship, the fact that it still exists in our supposedly-functioning democratic society is even more disturbing. The failure of democratic processes like deliberation and dialogue in ending conflict, such as in the case of the failed Bangsamoro Basic Law or the insufficiency of legal remedies to keep China from occupying contested territories are sources of frustration for some. Such may have led to disillusionment, specifically from those who suffer directly from the continued unrest.

Similarly, the Filipino elite who took over the reins after Marcos was sacked have failed to distinguish itself from Marcos’s cronies and allies. Corruption is shown to be existent, whichever form of government was in place. Enforced disappearances and political imprisonment of political activists have also remained to be prevalent, especially in the government immediately following the dictatorship. With the loss of key industries, public service and natural sectors to big corporations both local and multinational, the Filipino people have continued to languish with poverty, unemployment and disenfranchisement.

From these parallels between today and the times of old when tyrants and kings were deemed appropriate, one thing is clear. The bias towards dictatorships may be accounted for not just by ignorance, but more importantly, frustration. Democracy, as peddled by the political and economic elite, has failed to end conflict and has failed to lift the public significantly from the most fundamental social issues.

At least, perhaps, dictatorships are honest. They do not hold up platitudes of prosperity and peace through respecting rights and liberties while disregarding them completely in practice. Rather, dictatorships embody the most basic and ancient ideas of the State: that it should be headed by strong ‘natural’ leaders who should preserve peace and order through domination and violence and that it should pursue these whatever means it deems necessary.

Those who believe that democracy is the only road to social justice must be the first to be aware of why dictatorship is so appealing. It is true that we cannot forget the cost of authoritarianism. But rather than getting up on our high democratic horse whenever people express support for past and future tyrants, a more appropriate response is first to recognize that what we have now is far from genuine democracy. The battle for democracy is not won by removing dictators in power, but by putting people in their place. The prevailing status quo which is closer to an oligarchy run by a few elite families with their interests is just a phase we have to transcend by moving forward towards more democracy, not by moving back to an era of tyrants.


Arvin Buenaagua is an alumnus of the University of the Philippines, Diliman.