COMMENTARY: The Need for a Dictator as a Need for Change

“Change starts from within” is an oft-quoted hackneyed aphorism that can be leveled by the self-righteous against others, or to be specific, a ready mechanism to shift blame away from a system to the individuals underneath it. Not that we are mere robots of a system but we are the ones creating the system that controls us, and for this reason, such a one-sided claim to a truth is an insufficient recommendation for citizens trapped in a system that is in dire need for change. No! Social change does not start from within because we cannot start the “change” we are striving for without a credible opportunity for change emanating from the system and the activity of others.

In a democratizing state such as the Philippines, the continued prominence of this dictum especially within the middle-class signifies the utter individualism that cannot satisfy the social necessities of both liberty and democracy; an individualism that is not only insufficient but can be detrimental, serving as a slippery slope towards a withdrawal from collective action.

For the mass of disempowered citizens, the only opportunity available is electoral participation, and given that this mechanism lies in the context of a basket of sustained social problems, the struggle for civic empowerment is conflated with the search for a strong leader. That is, instead of being encouraged to control the policy process, Filipino citizens are regularly enticed to vote; an act marketed for the longest time as one’s supposedly invaluable contribution to social change.

Moreover, from a historical perspective the image of a political strongman is deeply embedded in our society. From Andres Bonifacio as the Supremo, to Antonio Luna as the Fiery General, and Manuel Quezon and Ferdinand Marcos as presidents with explicit tendencies to centralize power (more so for the latter), the image of a strong man remains as bastions of an unfulfilled longing for leaders with clear civic virtues and the will to power.

Even our pre-Hispanic roots and the pre-1896 revolts can demonstrate the depth of our fascination with the political strong man, while the recently concluded election can attest to the survival of this socio-psychological tendency. We are still, from a general perspective, a nation that values individual effort more than collective action, the former being translated into political affairs while the latter is reduced to coping mechanisms (pakikipagkapwa’t pakikipagtulungan) that are invaluable to charitable efforts but not to collective political efforts.

Moreover, the political manifestation of the latter through the ideal of “magkaisa” is usually, except for the Philippine Left, reduced to a person or the strong man who can serve as a unifying force or the recipient of “pagkakaisa”. In other words, collective political effort in the Philippines, epitomized by electoral volunteerism, is usually meant to support the endeavor of an individual politician. It may be a mass movement or a popular political party, but if a collective does not gain an identity that is autonomous from an individual (i.e. from its leader/s) it is not democratic as was exemplified by the mass movements that supported the rise of dictators like Juan Peron of Argentina and Benito Mussolini of Italy.

Tied to both a culture obsessed with individuals ranging from idols to messianic figures and fictional heroes, and a history revolving around the search, emergence, and fall of political strong men, the recent vote for Rodrigo Duterte as the macho and crime-busting autocrat is not only a pinnacle of our social obsession with individuals but also a protest against the liberal sense of individualism in the context of an incumbent oligarchy.

Simply put, people with deep anger against “trapos” but at the same time too disempowered and burdened by daily hardships to conduct and sustain collective action against their perceived enemies saw in Duterte an individual who can bring change. The slogan “Change is coming!” is tied more to the person of Rodrigo Duterte than to the collective power of his supporters.

His victory is due to a convergence of a socio-psychological tendency towards the power of individuals and the limited opportunity for political change made available through elections; a convergence facilitated by an urgent need to contest an entrenched oligarchy that is perceived as the villain to the hero embodied by Duterte.

Simply put, against an oligarchy that is viewed by many as a collection of barely distinguishable embodiments of parasitic mediocrity, corruption and social “changelessness”, the voters of Duterte wanted a sense of change that concentrates rather than decentralizes power. His victory, in conclusion, is an expression of a need for change in the context of an entrenched oligarchy and civic disempowerment that caused mass social frustration that many saw as resolvable only by supporting undemocratic solutions to lingering social problems.